We live in a golden age of quarterbacks where six active players have won a Super Bowl ring, which is rare in NFL history. However, three of them -- Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Eli Manning -- will be watching the playoffs from home this season.
Taking their places are second-year players Christian Ponder (Minnesota), Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco) and Andy Dalton (Cincinnati). This is actually not surprising since the 49ers and Bengals were both in the playoffs last year, albeit with Alex Smith in 2011.
Normally that would be the story right there, but we last saw that happen in 2000 (Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Shaun King). Instead the big story this postseason is about the three rookie quarterbacks continuing to make history.
For the first time ever, three rookie quarterbacks have led their team to the playoffs. Now we wait to see if any of them can earn the first Super Bowl trip ever for a rookie quarterback. It would be appropriate for this record-setting class.
Rewriting the rookie record books
Andrew Luck (11-5), Russell Wilson (11-5) and Robert Griffin III (9-6) have combined for 31 wins as starters this season. That total by these three alone shatters the previous record for any rookie quarterback class since 1950. All rookies combined for 23 wins in 2011.
This instant success comes a year after Seattle (7-9), Washington (5-11) and Indianapolis (2-14) all failed to have a winning record, let alone make the playoffs.
Only eight rookie quarterbacks have ever thrown at least 20 touchdown passes, and all three of 2012’s star-studded rookie group made the cut.
Beyond the traditional stats, we have seen excellence from these rookies in critical situations such as third down and leading their team back in the fourth quarter. The following is a comparison of third-down conversion rates for several of the big-name rookie quarterbacks in recent years. The “%Cmp1D” represents the percentage of third-down completions that resulted in a first down. Sacks and runs are included, while spikes and kneel downs are excluded.
Wilson’s hot finish caught him up to Luck by season’s end, while Griffin is still lacking relative to his peers. All three possess an impressive ability to scramble, as each had at least 12 first downs rushing (Luck had 13) on third down.
Good luck voting for the Offensive Rookie of the Year out of this group. In most years any of them would be the runaway winner.
Can a rookie quarterback win a Super Bowl?
It used to be that quarterbacks had to sit and learn for a few years before being groomed to take over one day. That philosophy is dead, and things have been trending away from it in recent years.
Not only are rookies more NFL-ready from the start, but they are taking on more responsibility from their team, and some have been delivering with huge dividends. It may be only a matter of time before we see a rookie in the Super Bowl, and when has there ever been a better chance than this season?
This year’s trio will become the 12th, 13th and 14th rookie quarterbacks to start in the playoffs since 1950. The first ever playoff meeting between rookie quarterbacks took place last year between Houston’s T.J. Yates and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton.
It will happen again on Sunday when Wilson’s Seahawks travel to play Griffin’s Redskins, ensuring us of another rookie playoff win this season.
The past has not fared too kindly to this group, as evident by their 7-11 record in the playoffs. However, we have seen four rookies reach an AFC or NFC Championship Game since 1999 (three since 2004), and they each came up just short of that Super Bowl appearance.
Let’s look at the chances each rookie has this season of playoff success.
Indianapolis Colts: Need a lot of Luck
It is no secret the Colts put more responsibility on Luck than perhaps any rookie quarterback -- or veteran for that matter -- in NFL history.
Luck’s 730 drop backs this season are the third most in NFL history. He runs the most vertical, wide receiver-centric passing game in the league, and the Colts offer little in the form of a running game or strong offensive line play.
But Luck broke the rookie passing records for a season (4,374 yards) and a game (433 yards vs. Miami). His seven game-winning drives not only smashed the rookie record, but tied the NFL’s regular season record, which was last done by Peyton Manning (2009).
Despite allowing 387 points, the most ever for a team with 11 wins, the Colts reached the playoffs with an 11-5 record, and Luck led the way with his veteran-like poise in clutch situations.
It was a fitting end to the regular season on Sunday when Luck completed a 70-yard touchdown, his longest pass of the season, on a 3rd-and-23 bullet in the fourth quarter to put away the Houston Texans.
The Colts have been overachieving all season for their cancer-stricken coach Chuck Pagano, and that kind of scrappy underdog role is going to have to carry them through the playoffs. They will need Luck’s ability to make crucial plays every step of the way, but the AFC is too top-heavy for the young Colts to make any serious noise this year.
But they have a lot to be proud of in Indianapolis again, and it starts with Luck.
Washington Redskins: Ride the wave
The 2011 Redskins’ claim to fame was sweeping the New York Giants during their Super Bowl season. But with a blockbuster trade to land Robert Griffin III in the draft, Mike Shanahan’s team changed the expectations right away in Washington.
Griffin’s Week 1 debut in New Orleans was record-breaking. He threw for 320 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers and a 139.9 passer rating. Griffin would maintain the most consistent level of high play among the rookie quarterbacks this season, even if his team did not always cooperate.
After a 3-6 start, the Redskins appeared buried, and ready for next season to come. But a winning streak started with Griffin throwing four touchdowns in back-to-back games, including a big performance on the Thanksgiving stage in Dallas.
Griffin has had plenty of help with stud rookie running back Alfred Morris (1,613 yards and 13 TDs) setting him up for the league’s most deadly play-action passing game. When Griffin injured his knee, rookie backup Kirk Cousins saved the day against Baltimore with a comeback win, then a win as a starter in Cleveland.
When Griffin returned, the Redskins had to win their final two games to clinch the NFC East, which they did in spite of their not fully healthy quarterback, who set the rookie quarterback record with 815 rushing yards.
But here the Redskins are, on a seven-game winning streak, with the highest-rated rookie passer in NFL history (102.4 passer rating). Despite rookies leading the offense in passing and rushing, the Redskins committed a league-low 14 giveaways. Griffin’s 1.3 interception percentage is another rookie record.
How far the Redskins go will largely depend on the health of Griffin, but they are home to start the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and the future finally looks bright again in Washington.
Seattle Seahawks: The best team gives Wilson the best chance
While the latest formula for rookie success has been a strong defense and a strong running game, the highly-publicized picks of Luck and Griffin reached the playoffs without that complete model.
But Russell Wilson, the third-round pick because he was barely tall enough for Space Mountain, is thriving on a team loaded with a great running game led by Marshawn Lynch, and the league’s No. 1 scoring defense and arguably best secondary.
Wilson also finished the season with a 100.0 passer rating, and he could thank the Redskins and Griffin for his second-half success. Clearly, the training wheels were on early in the season when Wilson was better known for throwing the "Fail Mary" to Golden Tate that sparked a ton of controversy.
But since the halfway point of the season, the Seahawks are 7-1, and Wilson has a passer rating of 120.3, which would start to challenge the single-season record. He completed an 8-0 season at home where Seattle had the best home scoring differential (+148) in the league.
Like Griffin, Wilson uses the play-action pass as much as any quarterback in the league. But by implementing read-option plays to take advantage of Wilson’s full physical abilities, his passing efficiency has soared, and he has started to use his legs to Griffin-level impact.
In just the last eight games Wilson rushed for 361 yards and four touchdowns, while throwing 16 touchdowns and two interceptions. His 26 touchdown passes tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record.
Seattle received a lot of buzz for the 150 points they scored in the three games played in Weeks 14-16. On a roll heading into the playoffs, the only problem is they likely will have to win three straight road games to reach the Super Bowl, missing out on the best home-field advantage in the league.
But if you had to pick one of these three teams to reach the Super Bowl, the smart pick is Wilson’s Seahawks. We will get to see him duel it out with Griffin this weekend in Washington.
No matter if they fail to get past the first or second round this season, the fact is three franchises that saw little on the horizon a year ago are now reenergized with the dream of a Super Bowl in their future.
For they have a quarterback once again, and each has plenty of room for growth.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.