Class of '12 already among best ever
Make room, 1983 and 2004; this year's rookie QBs are joining the conversation
omewhere in Andrew Luck's long-forgotten, Pop Warner past there might have been a miserable game like this: a four-giveaway performance that resulted in a five-touchdown defeat.
If Luck and this ascendant Indianapolis team can beat the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans at home over the next three weeks -- a fairly plausible scenario -- they will guarantee themselves a .500 record. Moreover, Luck would become the winningest rookie quarterback taken with the No. 1 overall pick, surpassing Cam Newton, Jim Plunkett and Drew Bledsoe, among others. And, if it doesn't work out, there are always the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16.
GREATEST QB CLASSES
Move over, 1983 and 2004; 2012 has already entered the conversation about the best quarterback class of all time.
Is it possible that this franchise started the 2011 season by losing its first 13 games? Luck, in this small but telling sample, is light years ahead of the legend he replaced, Peyton Manning, at the same point in his career.
And yet, he might not be the best quarterback in his draft.
In Sunday's 31-6 dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III completed an astounding 14 of 15 passes for 200 yards and four touchdowns. He was the first quarterback with four passing touchdowns and a completion percentage of 93 in a game since Steve Young 18 years ago.
Six quarterbacks from the Class of 2012 are currently starters, nearly one-fifth of the league's complement. After Luck and Griffin were taken with the first two picks, Ryan Tannehill went to the Miami Dolphins at No. 8, followed by Brandon Weeden (Cleveland Browns, No. 22), Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks, No. 75) and Nick Foles (Eagles, No. 88).
The first five listed all started in Week 1, the most rookie quarterbacks to do so in 62 years, and already have accumulated a wealth of experience with 10 starts each.
The two classes generally considered the best ever in terms of quarterbacks, 1983 and 2004, produced only two passers who managed to start at least 10 games the year they were drafted, John Elway and Ben Roethlisberger. Elway was the only one to start Week 1.
"The fact there's so many on the field and starting already," said Miami offensive coordinator Mike Sherman on Monday, "that seems extraordinary. They've all proven they can be franchise quarterbacks. Everybody has their good days and bad days, but I think everybody feels good about their guys."
And there is quality in that vast quantity. With six weeks left to play, the Class of 2012 is a single victory from the post-merger record for combined wins by rookie quarterbacks, set last year.
Which got us to thinking ... this being the Internet Age, the era of ever-shrinking attention spans and instant judgments: Would it be premature -- a little over halfway through their first seasons -- to wonder aloud if they are the finest quarterback class in NFL history?
Seriously, how could we fail to seize on such a tempting opportunity? So, here's a little pre-Thanksgiving appetizer to toy with before the turkey arrives.
We asked Bill Polian, whose teams reached six Super Bowls when he was the general manager, if it could be viewed as a three-way horse race.
"I would agree with that," said Polian, now an ESPN analyst. "In 1983 and 2004, those are some pretty good quarterbacks. This group -- Andrew Luck, RG3, Tannehill and Russell Wilson -- pretty special. Will they all pan out? The odds tell you no, but in the end they all have a chance. As I said at draft time, barring injury, it's an open-ended question."
Cleveland offensive coordinator Brad Childress, who is tutoring Weeden, acknowledged, "It's a fun debate."
Childress has been impressed with the rest of the class, too.
"I like our guy," he said, "But from what I've seen of the first two, they're no slouches. They jumped right in and took the bit. Russell Wilson has done some nice things.
"When it's all said and done, I think they've got a shot [at being the best class]. I don't see any reason why not."
Ernie Accorsi might be the best guy to make the close call between the quarterback classes of 1983 and 2004.
As the Baltimore Colts' general manager, he made the first pick in the 1983 draft, selecting Elway of Stanford. In 2004, then the New York Giants' general manager, he signed the first overall pick, Eli Manning of Ole Miss, after trading with San Diego to get him.
"Some judge by passer numbers, statistics, total won-lost records," Accorsi wrote in a recent email. "As a general manager, I draft a QB to win championships, not put up glittering statistics. Bobby Layne hardly threw a spiral. He won two titles. [Joe] Namath threw more interceptions than touchdowns. But he won one of the biggest games in history.
"I judge by championships. I learned under [Johnny] Unitas. That's all he cared about."
By this old-school, bottom-line metric, the Class of 2004 has the clear advantage. Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have won four Super Bowls in five tries (and four of the last seven). Four of the six members of the Class of 1983 got to the Super Bowl -- Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Tony Eason -- but only Elway managed to win, on two occasions. Overall, those quarterbacks compiled a 2-9 record in the ultimate game.
"Kelly was in four Super Bowls, only came close to winning one, but just didn't make the plays to win the game," Accorsi continued. "Marino was in one and got blown out. They had three great ones, but only one of them won."
Accorsi's good friend, Mel Kiper, begs to differ.
"If you do the math, it's 4-1 for the Class of 2004," Kiper, ESPN's chief draft analyst, wrote in an email. "But that doesn't mean that group is better.
"There were a lot of mediocre-to-good quarterbacks that won Super Bowls and nobody would ever say they were in an elite class just because they have a ring," Kiper wrote. "That group includes Jim McMahon, Mark Rypien, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson, just to name a few. They all were Super Bowl winning QBs who won't be in the Hall of Fame."
Indeed, the six quarterbacks selected in the first round of the '83 draft threw up a lot of those glittering statistics Accorsi doesn't care for. Elway and Marino are two of the most prolific passers in league history and, along with Kelly, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Todd Blackledge, Eason and Ken O'Brien were 1983's other first-round quarterbacks.
For the record, those 1983 guys were voted to 24 Pro Bowls and went 34-32 in playoff games. The 2004 quarterbacks, now in their ninth seasons, have been to a total of nine Pro Bowls and are 21-11 -- and counting -- in the postseason. In addition to Eli Manning and Roethlisberger, first-rounders Philip Rivers and J.P. Losman and third-rounder Matt Schaub round out the '04 class.
"It's a lively argument," Accorsi said. "If I was a general manager without a quarterback, I'd wish for one of those two classes, rare drafts. But with the jury out on 2004, it's too early to judge."
In a breathtakingly specific email, Kiper explained why he would favor Elway over Manning, Marino over Roethlisberger and Kelly over Rivers.
"For me, 1983 was a once-in-a-lifetime group," Kiper wrote. "Three Hall of Famers and two other guys who were pretty good. The 2004 class will have two Hall of Famers, Philip Rivers is a very good QB, as is Matt Schaub."
... as is Matt Schaub, the Houston Texans' quarterback. Which underlines the fluid nature of this discussion. While it is quite possible Manning and Roethlisberger may return to the Super Bowl, that opportunity also exists for Rivers -- and, particularly this year, Schaub.
Houston finds itself 9-1, tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the league's best record, and Schaub is suddenly looking like a MVP candidate. In Sunday's overtime win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, he completed 43 of 55 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns. The yardage tied the second-greatest total in NFL history.
Schaub -- who came to Houston in a 2007 trade with Atlanta -- could turn out to be the deal-maker for the Class of 2004.
Nectarines to kumquats
In this debate, unfortunately, there are no pure apples-to-apples comparisons.
"The difference between '83 and '04 and '12 is night and day -- apples and oranges," said Polian, who watched Kelly lead his Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls. "Back in the '80s, you didn't have free agency the way we do today. Rules on illegal contact had deteriorated to the point they were nonexistent.
"You just can't compare. It's like the dead-ball versus live-ball era in baseball. The thing is, these are all elite passers, the best of the best. Their teams were and are still built around them."
The dramatic rise in passer ratings underlines this trend. In 1983, the league-wide average was 73.1. In 2004 it was 80.9. Through 11 weeks this season, it is at 85.2.
Since the only data on the 2012 quarterbacks comes from their first 10 starts, let's compare the three groups on the narrow basis of those early returns, understanding that it's easier these days to accumulate offensive numbers. Also keep in mind that while the five impact quarterbacks of the current rookie class all started out of the box, most of their counterparts took awhile to crack the lineup. Kelly, for example, played two USFL seasons before joining the Bills in 1986. Half of the quarterback class of '83 failed to start a single game that year.
In this salary cap era, teams can no longer afford to sit top picks for a year or more.
Roethlisberger won his first 10 games with the Steelers, while Rivers and Marino were 8-2 in their first 10 starts. Although none of the Class of 2012 challenged those fast starts, the five principals have already started a total of 50 games as rookies -- far ahead of 1983 (23) and 2004 (21) rookie totals. Qualitatively, though, the quarterbacks of the 2004 class produced a combined record of 26-24 in their first 10 games, compared to 30-30 for 1983 and 22-28 for 2012.
Marino, who was drafted by a team that had reached the Super Bowl the year before, was remarkably efficient in his first 10 games with Miami, throwing 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. The rest of his class had a collective ratio of 45 TDs to 57 INTs. The men of 2004, as a group, were most impressive, with 53 TDs to 37 INTs. The Class of 2012 has a robust 56 TDs to 46 INTs, with Griffin (12/3) and Wilson (15/8) excelling.
Even playing for a 2-8 team, Weeden has a respectable 11/12 split. He is easily the most unlikely of this group to find himself playing in the NFL. Weeden, 29, spent four years as a pitcher for the Yankees, Dodgers and Royals' minor league organizations before enrolling at Oklahoma State.
Childress believes Weeden's maturity is an advantage. It is reflected in the remarkable numbers he's put up on the road.
Weeden has eight touchdowns versus three interceptions and a 87.6 passer rating away from Cleveland.
"He's a pretty even-keel guy, which is what you like in a quarterback, especially a young one," Childress said. "If there's anybody that can handle the pressure, it's a guy that stood on mound. I mean, that's your pitch they just hit over the fence. He's got that kind of makeup where he can shrug it off and keep on chugging.
"He'll keep firing it down the field and not go into his checkdowns."
Sherman learned everything he needed to know about Tannehill with his own eyes; he was his coach at Texas A&M from 2008 to '11.
Actually, Sherman played Tannehill at wide receiver for two-plus years before moving him to quarterback for his last 20 games. As the Dolphins' offensive coordinator and with his team holding the No. 8 overall pick, Sherman did extensive research on Luck and Griffin. But knowing they'd go quickly, he wasn't surprised Tannehill was the highest-graded quarterback left on their board.
"He has a great football IQ," Sherman said. "Here's a guy who was a pre-med major. He's off the charts intellectually, a heck of an athlete, has a good quick release and good quick twitch in his body that allows him to avoid rushers. He's also extremely competitive."
Of the 16 quarterbacks in those three classes, which had the most game-winning drives through 10 starts? Eason and Luck, with four each, followed by Roethlisberger (three), Marino, Rivers and Wilson (two each). Griffin and Weeden have one each.
Just a reminder that it's still early in the curve: Of the 11 viable quarterbacks from '83 and '04, Elway had the worst passer rating through his first 10 starts -- even worse than Losman and Blackledge, who never made the Hall of Fame but lives in, of all places, Canton, Ohio.
A roll of the dice
In his time, Sherman has been around a few good quarterbacks. He was 59-43 as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 2000 to '05. Every one of those games was started by future Hall of Famer Brett Favre.
He was the Texans' offensive coordinator in 2007 when the team traded for Schaub.
"A great quarterback makes those around him better," Sherman said. "These guys believe in themselves and, as a result, teammates believe in him. That's the question: Does the team play better because you're the leader?
"These  guys have the potential to be that guy."
Said Polian, "The first two are can't miss. Tannehill shows every reason we can believe he'll be a winning quarterback. Russell Wilson has some extraordinary qualities. Weeden is the asterisk here, but the odds say he can play at a high level for six, seven years.
"I've taken eight teams to championship games, and I can tell you to get there is an incredible accomplishment. As a general manager we built our team with one of these elite quarterbacks [Peyton Manning]. We'll take playing in the [conference] championship game and roll the dice from there.
Kiper's take: "Luck is special already and RG3 looks like a star in the making. Tannehill shows promise, as does Wilson. The jury is still out on Weeden. [Second-round pick Brock] Osweiler may be the heir apparent to Peyton in Denver and Foles figures to be the Eagles' regular starter in the not-too-distant future.
"Overall, this group will have a long way to go to match 1983. The possibility exists that this group could equal the accomplishments of the 2004 class, but a lot of things have to fall into place for that to happen."
Polian makes the point that intra-conference dynamic of each class colors the final results.
"Kelly and Marino played in the same division," Polian said. "Peyton Manning and [Tom] Brady played almost every season. It's hard to get there with those kind of quarterbacks on the other side. Tannehill and Luck will bump into each other. Russell Wilson and RG3, too. Nobody's always going to come out on top.
"The potential is always there with all of these guys when you talk about multiple SB wins. It's perfectly reasonable to think with these guys -- as was the case with the Class of '83 -- every one of those franchises has a chance to make it every year, once they put the pieces together."
Accorsi, meanwhile, refuses to be drawn into any discussion about the current rookies and their potential to rival the 1983 or 2004 classes.
"Oh," he said, "it's too early for that. Rookies, you can't judge them. Everybody wants to write the history of the world in one week.
"Things will be determined over time."
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