When last we left them, our heroes were passing, running and winning football games. They were conquering the Normans, remembering to use their coupons on double-coupon day and telling hilarious yet meaningful stories at dinner parties. There was nothing last year's crop of first-time starting quarterbacks couldn't do. The 2012 season will go down as the season of Robert Griffin, III, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and (maybe) Ryan Tannehill. That historic group of players stepped into the most difficult job in pro sports -- one that often requires years to understand its nuances fully -- and not only survived, but excelled.
In this information age, there are seemingly millions of ways to rate quarterbacks. Football Outsiders uses a value-per-play method, and by that measure, the seven best quarterbacks in football last season were, in order, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Colin Kaepernick, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin. Andrew Luck came in 19th, and Ryan Tannehill 25th. To have three rookie quarterbacks -- who prior to the season had started a combined zero NFL games -- rank with Brady, Manning, Rodgers and Brees is unprecedented. It's just silly.
As good as they were, they weren't without warts:
- Luck threw a ton of interceptions and had a lower completion percentage than we might have liked (though both might have been scheme-related).
- Griffin appeared to be an injury risk and, judging by the fact that he suffered a serious injury, actually is.
- Tannehill was good for a rookie with so few starts in college, but his inexperience showed, and more than any of the others, he looked like a rookie.
- Wilson was a short, lower-round draft pick, and people generally are distrustful of short quarterbacks. Also, the farther you get from the first round, the more you have to continue producing, lest everyone think it was a fluke.
- Kaepernick was a run-first guy (even if he wasn't really) who couldn't beat out Alex Smith for a year and a half.
Unlike last September, we know what these guys can do now. The question facing all of them now is, can they confound their negative narratives and improve on their otherworldly 2012 seasons? Can Kaepernick do it again? Can Griffin stay healthy? Can Luck cut down on mistakes? Can Wilson keep getting better, even if he can't grow three inches? Does Tannehill even belong in this group? In short, they did it once, but can they do it again?
The short answer is, we don't know. One week of action isn't nearly enough to make any concrete statements about the future, but as it's all we've got, let's take look at how their performances matched up with their narratives.
Robert Griffin III
When the year ends, there may not have been two more hyped and anticipated moments this season than Chip Kelly's debut as Eagles head coach and Robert Griffin's return to the field. Kelly didn't disappoint, but Griffin … eh. We can all agree it would be dangerous to draw conclusions from a player's first week back after major knee surgery, but still, Griffin was noticeably rusty. He misfired on numerous passes, and as Mike Tanier noted yesterday, his mechanics looked off in the first half.
The second half, though, was something different. Griffin was, if not "RG3," then at least a good quarterback. He hit moving receivers. He didn't drop the football. He moved in the pocket. The knee clearly is still bothering him, at least mentally if not physically. He'll have to learn to trust it again, just as it appears his coaches will have to learn to trust him again.
In the end, Griffin ended up right back in the same box as before. He's an amazing talent, clearly skilled beyond most mortals, but his immortality doesn't extend to his knee. As his knee improves and he remembers how to play quarterback again -- something he hadn't done in nine months before Monday -- I like his chances to improve on last year's performance. If he can stay healthy.
If you plotted Griffin's career on a graph the lines would be jagged, up in the beginning of last season, then down, then back up for the winning streak, then down when he got hurt. Luck's graph would be a much steadier upward trajectory, and that continued this past Sunday. Luck was the 10th most valuable quarterback per play in Week 1, a feat made only slightly less impressive when you consider he was facing the Raiders at home. Still, you need only look at the highlights to see Luck's skills at work. There is a play where he's pressured, hugged by two Raiders as if they were his grandmothers, and somehow he slipped away to run for a 1st down. Those plays will always lead the highlights, and they should, but the plays that really make him great will be the ones where he takes the snap, steps up in the pocket, reads the play correctly, and then hits a tightly covered Reggie Wayne over the middle for 19 yards.
Luck had good games last season, too, but he made more mistakes than you'd like from a franchise quarterback. In Week 1, this year, he didn't make many mistakes. He took fewer risks, which is part of Indianapolis' new offensive scheme, but he managed the game and was successful far more than not, and he sprinkled in a few spectacular plays. How does that fit on his learning curve? Here, too, Week 1 is just a small step up from the last data point, and getting better is what it's all about for Andrew Luck.
So far, we've had a lousy-but-injured-and-improving quarterback, and a learning-to-not-make-mistakes quarterback. Neither qualifies as a WOW quarterback. Colin Kaepernick may or may not achieve such heights but his opening day qualified on its own. Kaepernick threw for over 400 yards against a Packers team that wasn't supposed to give up numbers that high. Unlike Griffin, Kaepernick was a constant threat to run, even if he ran relatively infrequently, and that certainly helps to keep defenses at bay. But the guy can throw, he can throw long, and he can throw with accuracy. He spent Week 1 continuing his 2012 performance, which for the 49ers is wonderful news. Can Kaepernick get better? I guess so, but I don't know how.
Last season, Wilson came out of the third round to lead the Seahawks to a playoff win on the road against Griffin's Redskins. He was poised, smart, fast and incredibly accurate. He's probably still all of those things, but last Sunday's game wasn't the best showcase. Wilson was facing the Panthers defense, and I know you're thinking "Panthers defense" is an oxymoron, but by the end of the year, you'll learn it isn't. This may have been the most difficult assignment of any of the players listed here, yet Wilson threw for over 300 yards and rushed for, okay, just seven, but still. Hard!
The verdict here is that Wilson had a very good but not great day, one that didn't show us anything we didn't already know. That's not a bad thing, because, like his peers, Russell Wilson is still learning and succeeding on the job.
You might think I'm including Ryan Tannehill here purely out of courtesy, but that's not so (hence, no Brandon Weeden). Tannehill is a talented, young quarterback who, through poor timing alone, will forever be associated with the better quarterbacks of his and other recent draft classes -- but that's not his fault. Tannehill has more development left than the other quarterbacks, but he showed in Week 1 that he belongs in this group, not so much because he was amazing, but because most of the others weren't.
The learning curve in the NFL is steep, and it doesn't stop after the first season. None of these quarterbacks is a finished product yet, despite the commercials and accolades. All spent Week 1 showing that despite amazing rookie seasons as starters, there's still a gap between who they are and who they want to be. Filling that gap will be the goal over the next 16 weeks. Also, if you've ever played defense at any level of organized football, Colin Kaepernick is officially terrifying.