Column: Fun times for NFL rookie quarterback crop
Andrew Luck's first working trip to New York didn't exactly go to plan, though some punishing defense by the Jets had a lot to do with that. All part of the learning curve for rookies, who sometimes have difficulty understanding that big second-half comebacks can't be pulled off every week in the NFL.
The leap from college was never going to be without some setbacks, even for a quarterback with Stanford smarts and a receiver like Reggie Wayne. In the Meadowlands on Sunday that wasn't nearly enough as Luck's rookie touchdown streak ended in a 35-9 romp by the Jets that showed the quarterback and the Indianapolis Colts are still a work in progress.
Dampening expectations in Indianapolis isn't such a bad idea because entire football teams can't be overhauled overnight. It was easy to forget in the wake of last week's thrilling comeback win over Green Bay that this was a team that was well on its way to a winless season last year before rallying to win two of its last three games.
Still, five games into his ascendant career, Luck has already shown that the Colts made the right — if extremely painful — decision to let Peyton Manning find work elsewhere. Barring injuries, Luck is going to be a very good quarterback for a very long time, which is not something that can be assumed for either of the top two quarterbacks for the Jets.
"I'm glad we play him this year and not two years from now," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "He's got all the talent in the world."
So does Robert Griffin III, who returned from a concussion Sunday to play for the Washington Redskins against the surprising Minnesota Vikings. Griffin might have learned a few things himself last week, especially about the career longevity of NFL quarterbacks who wait a half-second too long to go into a slide or get out of bounds.
Playing rookie quarterbacks isn't nearly as risky as it used to be. Rule changes have made the NFL more of a passing league, quarterbacks get more protection from officials, and the rookies themselves have been playing in passing leagues since they were in middle school.
Five of them lined up behind center Sunday, and four of them walked away winners. Luck had a rough day, throwing two interceptions and failing in his bid to become the first Colts rookie quarterback to throw touchdown passes in five straight games, but he was the only one to lose.
That included Griffin's impressive return against the Vikings, a week after suffering a mild concussion when he was hit while scrambling against Atlanta. Griffin might be the most fortunate of the five rookies because he landed on a team with a lot of talent, but he's winning with a team that has struggled mightily to win in recent years. And how many quarterbacks can claim a 76-yard touchdown run to seal a game, like Griffin did to finish off Minnesota?
Brandon Weeden wasn't too bad, either, bringing a sliver of hope to long suffering Cleveland fans who could be forgiven for losing hope. He's an old rookie, but not too old to celebrate his 29th birthday by leading the Browns to an upset win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the first win in 11 months for the hapless Browns.
Another quarterback drafted to save a franchise also delivered. Ryan Tannehill had a rookie moment with a backward pass that went out of bounds for a loss, but threw two touchdown passes and did just enough to make up for a miserable Miami running game in a win over the St. Louis Rams. Anyone who watched HBO's preseason training camp series "Hard Knocks" may have a hard time believing it, but the Dolphins are 3-3 and tied for the lead — albeit a four-way one — in the AFC East.
And would anyone expect Seattle rookie Russell Wilson to outplay Tom Brady in the fourth quarter in an upset win over New England?
The NFL has always been a young league, but the quarterback position keeps getting younger. Coaches once thought holding a quarterback out for a year to better learn the position was the only way to go, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one who thinks that way anymore.
To show how things have changed, it took 48 years for a quarterback to win The Associated Press offensive rookie of the year award when Ben Roethlisberger won it in 2004. Since then, four out of seven winners have been quarterbacks — a figure that will almost surely go up after this season.
Now, nearly a third of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL have less than two full years of experience, a startling statistic considering it is the most important position on the field.
Luck was the most celebrated of the group coming out of Stanford, and he still could end up being the best. But if you watched Griffin break off a long run when it was needed most or saw Wilson throw a 46-yard touchdown pass with 1:20 left to beat the Patriots, you know he's got competition.
That includes Tannehill, who wasn't as dramatic, but was remarkably mistake-free for a quarterback playing in his sixth NFL game.
"His growth from game to game has been critical and incredible," Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano said. "He has a very bright future."
The same could be said of the rest of the rookie crop, too.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg