Joe Theismann’s journey from the halls of Notre Dame to the Redskins’ starting quarterback job took eight long years — a path that first diverted him through the Canadian Football League and, believe it or not, Washington’s special teams.
Robert Griffin III needed about eight seconds from the time the Redskins drafted him out of Baylor to officially become the man.
Theismann, who retired in 1985, was Washington’s last true franchise quarterback. Griffin, born in 1990, hopes to become its next.
Theismann represents the way things were in the NFL. Griffin, the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft in April, represents the way they are now — and will be for the foreseeable future.
Griffin, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, is one of five rookie quarterbacks set to start Week 1 of the NFL season, which begins Wednesday night. Ryan Tannehill is another, becoming the first rookie in Dolphins history to open a season under center.
In all, 11 of the league’s 32 teams will trot out a quarterback who has one year or less of NFL experience, a staggering youth movement that eschews decades of conventional wisdom. Nearly half the league will start a quarterback who is either a rookie or under the age of 25.
“It’s part of the evolution of football that we see on a constant basis,” said Theismann, who won a Super Bowl and played in another during his eight years as the Redskins’ quarterback. “You’re seeing guys in the NFL transition into wide-open offenses. That’s the college influence on the pros.”
Added Brian Hartline, a receiver for the Dolphins: “It’s such an instant-gratification league. Sometimes money speaks, and if you draft him early, it’s time to put him in.”
But are they ready?
Time will tell with this most recent crop — Griffin, Tannehill, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, all of whom top their team’s respective depth chart.
But recent history shows that quarterbacks not only can survive their rookie seasons, but they can thrive in them.
Four first-year starters have led their teams to the playoffs in the past four years, including Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, who reached the conference championship game as rookies.
Furthermore, the number of games started by a rookie quarterback has increased in each of the past five seasons, from 16 in 2007 to 61 a year ago.
“They’re ready,” said Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback who struggled until his fifth NFL season. “They come in and they’re just not intimidated.”
The stats bear that out. From 2002 through 2007, the average rating of first-year quarterbacks never cracked 70, which, like in middle school, is a failing grade.
In the four years since, it has been above 77 twice. By way of comparison, here is Theismann’s career quarterback rating: 77.4.
So why the improvement?
As Theismann mentioned, it’s because the traditional pro offense — two backs, two receivers and a tight end — has become virtually obsolete. NFL rules protecting quarterbacks and receivers virtually beg coaches to open it up, and they have obliged.
Fullbacks have gone the way of landlines, and tight ends have become more seam-busters than pass-protectors.