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.
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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.
In short, the NFL has become (Oregon) Duck-ified. Chip Kelly, Oregon’s coach, is an innovator who runs an up-tempo, spread offense that relies on quick passes and zone running.
“Coaches are demanding more and more from these quarterbacks at a high tempo,” said Jon Gruden, the Monday Night Football analyst and former coach.
“They are coming into the league much more accomplished in terms of throwing the football, recognizing defenses,” Gruden added. “And with this 20-hour-a-week schedule in college football, the quarterbacks have taken charge of their football teams in the offseason. They are running workouts.”
Charley Casserly, a general manager in the league for 16 years before becoming an analyst for the NFL Network, believes the youth movement began even earlier. The turning point came in 1993 with the advent of free agency, he contends.
That limited teams’ control of their players to just the first four years of their career (for the most part). That, in turn, amped up the pressure to get young players on the field fast.
“You don’t have the luxury of waiting around and seeing a guy develop,” Casserly said. “Free agency forces decisions to come faster, and forces quarterbacks to play sooner. It’s helped them become more successful earlier.”
Teams also tend to overvalue quarterbacks in the draft out of need, Casserly added — a criticism directed at the Dolphins after taking Tannehill eighth overall, even though he started just 19 games at quarterback in college.
Pushing players into the first round who might not otherwise belong there only fuels the cycle more. Given the financial investment, high draft picks are expected to play right away, regardless of position.
(Casserly also believes that the influx of young talent is sure to ebb at some point because of supply and demand. The market has been flooded of late, and if you already have a successful quarterback, you don’t need a new one.)
And although teams have in recent years gotten away with the gamble, history shows that the rushed grooming period has the potential of backfiring.
Just six of the 19 quarterbacks picked in the first three rounds between 2007 and 2010 are starting for the team that drafted them.
Count the Dolphins among those to have swung and missed. They picked three quarterbacks in the first three rounds between 2007 and 2009 — John Beck, Chad Henne and Pat White. Not one of them is still on the team.
But none of them was a blue-chip first-rounder, either. Tannehill is all those things, and will get an immediate chance to prove he was worthy of the commitment.
The Dolphins probably would have preferred starting David Garrard on Sunday in Houston and easing Tannehill along, but circumstance scrambled their timeline. Garrard needed knee surgery the second week of training camp and didn’t play the entire preseason.
When Tannehill showed he was just as good (if not better) than his remaining competition — Matt Moore — the decision to start the rookie was a fait accompli.
“Some of it’s instinct, some of it’s what you watch with your eyes over a long period of time,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “You just do what you think is in the best interest of the team.
“I’m guessing that’s probably what motivated just about every one of the [other] coaches to make whatever decision that they came to.”
And although there have been some notable exceptions (Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are two of them), rookie quarterbacks are still bound to struggle, said Rich Gannon, a retired quarterback who is now an analyst for CBS
“I think you have to be careful with what you saw last year that you don’t think every kid is going to have success,” Gannon said. “That’s probably more of the exception, not the rule.”
Some of it is because of inexperience.
And some of it is this: If you have been taken in the first 10 picks of the draft, chances are you’re not joining a particularly good team.
“I don’t care whether you’re a rookie or a 15-year vet,” Theismann said. “The quarterback is the single most dependent player on the field.
“If the line doesn’t block, running backs don’t run and wide receivers don’t get open, you can’t be successful in this league.”
That’s one thing that won’t change, regardless of the era.