The 2012 NFL season will be remembered for many things, but one of the most interesting stories is the progression of the rookie quarterbacks.
This could be the year the book was rewritten on rookie expectations. The fearless five starters are still healthy and holding onto their jobs as we head into Week 7, an encouraging sign.
There has never been a season in the modern era (since 1950) where five rookie quarterbacks started in Week 1, but that was the case with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, and Russell Wilson.
Only Wilson — go figure, the only one who was a third-round pick — has led his team to a winning record (4-2), but he has the best defense and plays in the league's most run-heavy offense. Part of what makes this group stand out historically is the way they have been relied upon so heavily and quickly in their careers.
When you look at all rookie quarterbacks since 1960 through their first six games, these five from 2012 are among the most prolific ever.
While Cam Newton had a record 1,847 passing yards at this point last season, there are three 2012 rookies who rank 2-4. Wilson may lack the yards, but he is the only rookie quarterback since 1960 with eight touchdown passes through six games.
Each rookie is managing a very different situation this season, and some have enjoyed more help than others so far.
Andrew Luck, Colts (2-3)
The most impressive part about Luck is his ability to take everything the coaches give him and effectively run the offense like a veteran. It is easy to see why he was such a highly-respected prospect out of Stanford.
Luck has been excellent in two-minute drills and running the hurry-up offense. The Colts ran a team-record 89 offensive snaps in their 30-27 comeback win from a 21-3 deficit against Green Bay.
He is very effective out of the shotgun, has been incredible at avoiding sacks and scrambling for first downs on key third downs, and had a three-game stretch where he led the team to a go-ahead score in the final 60 seconds of each game.
Luck has already thrown for over 300 yards in three of the five games; one more would tie Peyton Manning’s rookie record. He had 280 yards at the Jets in Week 6, though it was his worst game of the season.
The Colts run a lot of vertical routes and the running backs have just nine catches on the season. Luck is getting almost no yards after the catch from his receivers, as everything has been tightly contested and tackles are being made right as the Colts catch passes. Reggie Wayne has been a huge help and he is having a great season for Luck, but the young receivers are struggling to get open.
Concerns going forward are that the coaches — that being interim coach Bruce Arians as Chuck Pagano battles leukemia — may be putting too much responsibility on Luck. He is on pace for 803 drop backs this season, which would easily be a NFL record.
Some more screens, more play action (easier plays) could help Luck, as right now the running game has not been great and the offense is too fixated on wide receivers.
Playing with such an inexperienced team, the two road games have been the toughest (at Chicago and the Jets), and Luck has been pressing in each after getting behind early. Compared to the other rookies, Luck has faced the toughest set of defenses.
There will of course continue to be growing pains, but the future looks bright in Indianapolis.
Robert Griffin III, Redskins (3-3)
The quarterback known as RGIII is off to a hot start in what could be a historic season. It began with that big performance in New Orleans to start the season: 19-of-26 for 320 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, and a 139.9 passer rating.
Of course the Saints look like hot garbage on defense this season, but it was one of the all-time debut games. Griffin has only been intercepted twice on 161 pass attempts this season. He may only have five passing touchdowns, but has already rushed for six.
Cam Newton received a lot of buzz for his dual-threat ability last season, but so far Griffin has been a more efficient passer and even more effective runner.
Through just six games Griffin has rushed 55 times for 379 yards (6.89 yards per carry). Only Bobby Douglass (475 yards in 1972) and Michael Vick (441 yards in 2006) have had more yards rushing by a quarterback through six games.
Griffin had a late game-winning drive against Tampa Bay that was very impressive.
Mike Shanahan is showing he could still coach quarterbacks when not stuck with someone else’s trash. The Redskins have really tailored an offense to take advantage of Griffin’s unique skill set, and he has been put in the best situation to succeed individually among the rookie quarterbacks.
Calling lots of screens and short passes allows Griffin to get the ball out quickly to playmakers and get in a rhythm. Check the difference in how each rookie quarterback is throwing passes behind the line of scrimmage and deep (21+ yards) and the amount of yards after catch (YAC) received.
Luck and Wilson have aired it out more, while Weeden and Griffin have often thrown short. Tannehill is in between the two.
The big concern with Griffin is his running style, size and injuries. He already suffered one concussion and could not finish the game. Washington’s backup plan also being a rookie (fourth-round pick Kirk Cousins) makes it even more important he avoids such big hits. He is more Michael Vick than he is Newton, though Griffin is more developed as a passer than both at this point.
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins (3-3)
When watching Hard Knocks on HBO, it did not seem Tannehill would have any weapons to throw to, but Brian Hartline has exploded with games of 111 and 253 yards this season.
The latter came in Arizona when Tannehill passed for 431 yards, which is one short of Newton’s rookie record set last year (432 yards).
It was a rough start for Tannehill to have to go to Houston in Week 1, and his three straight interceptions in the second quarter gave Miami no shot that day. Never mind that the Dolphins followed it up with a fumble and fourth straight giveaway. That was a 30-10 rout.
Tannehill has rarely been spectacular like some of the other rookies, but he has been solid and has a legitimate claim that he should have won his last four starts. Miami just had to make a game-winning field goal in overtime against the Jets, but Dan Carpenter missed. They had a 4th and 10 to stop Arizona, but Kevin Kolb converted for the touchdown.
Without those plays, Tannehill would be 4-1 with two comebacks and game-winning drives. Joe Philbin may only be a rookie coach, but he has an offensive background and has Tannehill and the Dolphins playing much better than expected at 3-3.
Brandon Weeden, Browns (1-5)
The Browns were the last team to register a win this season, but at least they ended their losing streak, and Weeden had his first comeback/game-winning drive on his 29th birthday.
It was easy to say Weeden stepped into the worst situation just because it is Cleveland, but he has good pieces on the offensive line and the team used premium draft picks on running back Trent Richardson and wide receiver Josh Gordon. Greg Little never makes any catch easy on himself, and Mohamed Massaquoi has continued to disappoint.
After that horrendous Week 1 debut versus Philadelphia (12-of-35 for 118 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT, 5.1 passer rating), it was not clear Weeden really belonged in this league, but there has been improvement ever since. His unusual age means he must develop faster than some of these other guys, but he is also not the same investment when being just the No. 22 pick.
Not to write Weeden off yet, but he seems much more system dependent than the rest of the rookies, and Pat Shurmur’s coaching staff (Brad Childress as offensive coordinator) may not be the long-term answer. Improvising on the fly, throwing under pressure, touch-passing, in all of these areas Weeden appears to be lagging behind in the 2012 class.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks (4-2)
While Weeden’s stock may have fallen because of his age, Wilson’s discrimination was more due to his height (5-11).
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
After such an impressive preseason, Wilson beat out Matt Flynn for the starting job and has lived up to the billing in the real games. His early career may be known best for Hail Mary passes — losing on two of them in college at Wisconsin and winning against Green Bay on the Golden Tate play — but a few more games like Sunday versus New England and those moments will be forgotten.
Wilson became the fourth rookie to take out the Bill Belichick-coached Patriots as he completed 16-of-27 passes for 293 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT and a 133.7 passer rating. Russell outplayed Tom Brady in the fourth quarter, throwing a 46-yard game-winning touchdown to Sidney Rice with 1:18 remaining in a 13-point comeback win.
Russell has had a chance late in four games this season, and converted twice in big fashion versus flagship teams like the Patriots and Packers. He will get another crack in prime time this Thursday in San Francisco in a battle for first place in the NFC West.
Though limited in his attempts, Wilson does already have eight touchdown passes and may be the best deep-ball passer in the 2012 class. Wilson is 10-of-22 on passes thrown more than 21 yards this season, and has five touchdowns.
Should Seattle start to open up the offense and give him more chances, Wilson could be a dark horse as the lone rookie quarterback to lead his team into the postseason this year.
Not bad for the little guy out of the third round.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
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