American Football: NFL’s season of the rookie quarterback
The regular campaign comes to a climax tomorrow and it has been notable for a trio of novices who have been hitting the endzone with unerring accuracy. Rupert Cornwell has been looking on in awe
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Saturday 29 December 2012
Superbowl XLVII is still more than a month away. Indeed, half of the dozen teams who feature in the play-offs will only be decided by tomorrow's beautifully set up final Sunday of the regular season. But as far as quarterbacks go – the position that defines teams and defines eras – one thing is already clear about the 2012 edition of the National Football League. This has been the year of the rookie.
Yes, there have been the usual ration of epic quarterback fiascos and rousing quarterback comebacks: the former embodied by the soap opera at the hapless New York Jets involving the struggling Mark Sanchez and the prayerful Tim Tebow, the latter by Peyton Manning's terrific season at the Denver Broncos.
Manning has a decent claim to be considered the greatest NFL player of the first decade of the millennium. But he missed the entire 2011 season, undergoing four separate rounds of neck surgery, including spinal fusion; he was already 35, elderly in quarterback terms (though not quite the Methuselah that was Brett Favre, who played his last game aged 41), and his doctors warned he might never play again.
Adding insult to injury, the Indianapolis Colts, the team he had graced for 14 seasons and turned into one of the league's perennial powers, discarded him last March, in the interests of rebuilding. But Manning signed up with Tebow's former team, the Denver Broncos, and proved wrong every critic who believed his throwing arm was gone.
Medical recovery was followed by trademark Manning on-field heroics – most notably in October when the Broncos overturned a 24-0 half-time deficit in San Diego to win 35-24, tying the NFL's record for a comeback victory on the road. With one game to go, Manning-led Denver have compiled a 12-3 record, virtually guaranteeing home-field advantage throughout the play-offs.
But the rebuilding in Indianapolis hasn't gone too badly either. In the Manning-less 2011 they finished a league-worst 2-14. In US pro sports however, being worst has one huge compensation: you get to choose first in the new players draft for the following year. In the 2012 draft the Colts picked Andrew Luck, who had already been hailed as the next great thing for his exploits in college football at Stanford.
For once, the hype was not misplaced. The Colts' turnaround was supposed to take years. Instead, Luck has led them back to the play-offs in his debut season. And last Sunday, against the Kansas City Chiefs, he broke Manning's NFL record for most passing yards by a rookie, throwing 205 to bring his total to 4,183. Seven times already this season he has executed game-winning fourth-quarter drives, tying another NFL record – and not just for rookies – which is co-shared by Peyton Manning among others. But Luck is but one of the novice quarterbacks who have set the NFL alight.
In 2011, the Washington Redskins may not have been quite as dire as the Colts. But in the last few years, one of America's most financially valuable sporting franchises (behind baseball's Yankees but second only to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL) had become close to a laughing stock. Not since 2007 had the Redskins even made the play-offs. So they too went for broke in the 2012 draft, surrendering top picks for years to come in order to land the player deemed certain to be the second overall choice, a quarterback prodigy from Baylor University in Texas named Robert Griffin III.
Forget Barack Obama. In four short months 'RGIII' has become the most feted individual in Washington. Almost single-handedly he has turned the long-listless Redskins into one of the NFL's most potent offensive teams. An early-season concussion put him briefly on the sidelines and, at the start of November, Washington stood at 3-6, seemingly out of play-off consideration.
Since then however, the team has reeled off six straight victories to lead the NFC East. A play-off spot is not yet guaranteed – but tomorrow brings a regular-season climax made in heaven: a home game with the Cowboys, Washington's ancestral rivals, with the division title and a post-season place on the line. A win (or even defeat with the right combination of results elsewhere), and Griffin will join Andrew Luck as a post-season quarterback rookie.
If he does, that will make three in all. The biggest NFL surprise of the year has not been in Indianapolis or Washington, but out on the West Coast, in Seattle. Russell Wilson, who played his college football at the University of Wisconsin, was a mere third-round draft pick for the Seahawks.
But Wilson quickly made the quarterback position his own, transforming the Seahawks into an offensive juggernaut that has scored 150 points in its last three games, including a 42-13 rout last Sunday of the San Francisco 49ers. That night, Wilson threw four touchdown passes, bringing his season total to 25, one short of the rookie record set by Peyton Manning back in 1998.
NFL titans, of course, are not forged by a single season. Quarterbacks flaming like meteors across the sky are nothing new; as Griffin's concussion shows, injuries can wreck a career. Nor, even without the crop of newcomers, is the league exactly short of quarterback excellence: witness the mature talents of the Manning brothers Peyton and Eli, of Tom Brady at the New England Patriots, of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, and of the Cowboys' Tony Romo, who will do battle with RGIII tomorrow.
Even so, the rookie class of 2012 has already proved itself something special. Some even compare it to the legendary crop of 1983 that featured Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly, all three rated among the greatest quarterbacks ever. And if Messrs Luck, Griffin and Wilson carry their brilliance into the post-season, then who knows?
Young pretenders: Rookies' stats
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts:
Pass completion: 325 of 599
Pass completion rate: 54.3%
Passing yards: 4,183
Yards per pass attempt: 6.98
Passing touchdowns: 21
Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins:
Pass completion: 249 of 375
Pass completion rate: 66.4%
Passing yards: 3,100
Yards per pass attempt: 8.27
Passing touchdowns: 20
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks:
Pass completion: 237 of 374
Pass completion rate: 63.4%
Passing yards: 2,868
Yards per pass attempt: 7.67
Passing touchdowns: 25
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