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This is a starting NFL quarterback in an NFL uniform. Welcome to 2012.

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were drafted as franchise saviors, and have been expected to start on opening day for months; more recently Brandon Weeden in Cleveland and Ryan Tannehill in Miami won starting jobs. Then, last night, Pete Carroll announced that Russell Wilson had beaten Matt Flynn in the Seahawks quarterback battle. Barring injury, we’ll see five rookie quarterbacks starting on opening day for the first time since 1950 (and likely ever). Before Wilson, we were already in record territory, as no more than three teams have ever started the season with rookie quarterbacks since 1950 (and likely ever). In 1969, Roger Staubach, Greg Cook and James Harris were week one starters for the Cowboys, Bengals and Bills. The year before, Greg Landry, Dewey Warren, and Dan Darragh started for the Lions… Bengals and Bills. And in the AFL’s inaugural season, three teams fielded rookie quarterbacks. But on average, less than one rookie quarterback has started a team’s opening game each season since the merger.

Last year, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton were opening day starters, and their success (along with the success of Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan) have undoubtedly made teams become more willing to start rookie quarterbacks. In fact, the youth movement goes beyond just this year’s class: in addition to Newton and Dalton, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, and Blaine Gabbert will be second-year quarterbacks starting in week one this season. That’s another record, breaking the seven such quarterbacks in 2000. Remember 1999, the Year of the Quarterback in the NFL Draft? Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, and Daunte Culpepper were all high first-round draft picks, and all were sophomore starters in 2000. Shaun King, fresh off a strong late-season run for Tampa Bay, joined the group in week 1 of the 2000, as did Jeff Garcia in San Francisco.

What’s the explanation? Luck, Griffin, and Newton were uber elite talents who were too good to sit. Wilson legitimately won the Seahawks job in training camp and preseason, a rare event in any era for a rookie quarterback. But the rest of the group — Weeden, Tannehill, Dalton, Gabbert, Ponder, and Locker — seem to signal a shift in NFL philosophy. The table below lists all quarterbacks drafted in the top 40 — but not in the top 5 — since 1970, and the first year in their career when they started for their team in week one:

2011TENJake Locker20122
2011JAXBlaine Gabbert20122
2011MINChristian Ponder20122
2011CINAndy Dalton20111
2011SFOColin Kaepernick--n/a
2010DENTim Tebow--n/a
2009TAMJosh Freeman20102
2008BALJoe Flacco20081
2007CLEBrady Quinn20093
2007PHIKevin Kolb20104
2007MIAJohn Beck--n/a
2006ARIMatt Leinart20072
2006DENJay Cutler20072
2005GNBAaron Rodgers20084
2005WASJason Campbell20073
2004PITBen Roethlisberger20052
2004BUFJ.P. Losman20052
2003JAXByron Leftwich20042
2003BALKyle Boller20031
2003CHIRex Grossman20042
2002WASPatrick Ramsey20032
2001SDGDrew Brees20022
2000NYJChad Pennington20045
1999MINDaunte Culpepper20002
1999CHICade McNown20002
1997SFOJim Druckenmiller--n/a
1994TAMTrent Dilfer19952
1992CINDavid Klingler19932
1992DENTommy Maddox200312
1992KANMatt Blundin--n/a
1991SEADan McGwire--n/a
1991RAITodd Marinovich--n/a
1991ATLBrett Favre19933
1991NYJBrowning Nagle19922
1990DETAndre Ware--n/a
1989KANMike Elkins--n/a
1987STLKelly Stouffer19926
1987ATLChris Miller19882
1987CHIJim Harbaugh19904
1986DETChuck Long19872
1985PHIRandall Cunningham19873
1984CINBoomer Esiason19863
1983KANTodd Blackledge19842
1983BUFJim Kelly19864
1983NWETony Eason19853
1983NYJKen O'Brien19853
1983MIADan Marino19842
1981GNBRich Campbell--n/a
1981STLNeil Lomax19822
1980OAKMarc Wilson19867
1980PITMark Malone19856
1980BUFGene Bradley--n/a
1979NYGPhil Simms19802
1979KANSteve Fuller19802
1978TAMDoug Williams19781
1977STLSteve Pisarkiewicz--n/a
1977MINTommy Kramer19793
1976NYJRichard Todd19772
1973CHIGary Huff19742
1973RAMRon Jaworski19764
1972GNBJerry Tagge19743
1972PHIJohn Reaves19787
1972ATLPat Sullivan--n/a
1970BUFDennis Shaw19712

There seem to be several factors at play that have made teams get younger at quarterback. One reason is that the younger levels of football have become significantly better at developing quarterbacks and making them ready for the pro game sooner than ever. Subjectively, it feels like teams are drafting for need more now than ever; as a result, the best quarterbacks tend to end up on the teams most likely to start one right away. And as NFL teams feel more pressure to win right away — or at least give their fans a glimmer of hope — injecting a young quarterback is a surefire way to earn goodwill and increase the length of one’s leash.

With Matt Barkley, Tyler Wilson, Logan Thomas, Landry Jones, Aaron Murray, Tyler Bray and Geno Smith as possible early drafts pick in 2013, NFL general managers will have no shortage of options if they want to go young at quarterback next season. Or maybe this is just an odd blip on the radar screen.

What do you think? Why are we seeing so many young quarterbacks starting in 2012, whereas for most of NFL history young quarterbacks were rarely asked to start?

  • Andrew

    Another reason we’re seeing for some of the younger starting QBs is that teams want to develop them. Miami, Tennessee and Cleveland (and possibly Washington and Seattle) know they won’t be that good this year, so they’re throwing young starting QBs in to get them some experience and prepare for when they (hopefully) will be contenders, regardless of whether or no they are the best QB on the roster. Added to the other factors, it’s the move that makes the most sense for several teams: prepare them for the future now. If they can get the rookie mistakes behind them now while your team is bad, they won’t submarine you when you finally get better.

  • Richie

    I think there are two main factors.

    1) More college teams are running pro-style and/or pass-oriented offenses than were doing so 10+ years ago. So perhaps there are just more QB’s that coaches feel are ready to start from day 1.

    2) I think due to recent success of guys like Flacco and Ryan, if teams don’t have an obvious good starter with upside, they figure they would just rather go with the rookie.

    I guess I thought of a 3rd thing. It might be a chicken-or-egg type of situation. Is it possible that teams are realizing that in order to compete in the NFL these days, they MUST have a good passing game. So if a team has known mediocre QB options (Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Moore, Rex Grossman, etc.), they figure they won’t be able to compete. So they go with the rookie, because it’s possible the rookie will be able to meet the passing needs. Or – has the NFL become a critical passing league BECAUSE more and more young QBs are given the reins?