Pete Carroll savors his reputation as a maverick who thinks out of the box. When Carroll speaks of defying conventional wisdom, as he did Tuesday during the announcement that Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson would start Friday night’s exhibition game at Kansas City, it’s obvious the coach regards the term as an oxymoron.
In The World According to Pete, there’s no wisdom in blindly adhering to the conventional. A favorite Carroll quote is from the late Jerry Garcia, who once said he didn’t want the Grateful Dead to be the best band at doing something. He wanted the Dead to be the only band doing something.
But if Wilson is identified as the Hawks’ first-team quarterback for the season opener, Carroll won’t be setting a trend so much as following one. The NFL, which for decades had been a league in which even the most heralded passers out of college were supposed to serve apprenticeships behind steadier but less gifted veterans, no longer relegates aspiring starting quarterbacks to the role of visor-wearing clipboard holders.
When the Miami Dolphins appointed Ryan Tannehill as their No. 1 quarterback Monday, the former Texas A&M wide receiver joined Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden as rookie quarterbacks whose future is now. Should Wilson flourish against the Chiefs’ first-team defense in Kansas City, it’s almost certain he’ll become the fifth rookie QB to earn a full-time gig this season.
In addition to those five rookie quarterbacks, five second-year quarterbacks figure to begin the season as starters: Cam Newton (Panthers), Andy Dalton (Bengals), Christian Ponder (Vikings), Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars) and former Huskies star Jake Locker (Titans).
To borrow a song title from The Who, another influential band that took the same Woodstock stage in 1969 as the Grateful Dead: The Kids Are Alright.
The kids weren’t all right to take snaps as starters in 1983, even though six rookie quarterbacks were thought to be elite. A draft associated with the first-round selections of John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Ken O’Brien, Todd Blackledge and Tony Eason produced one starter – Elway – in the season opener.
It didn’t go well for the overall No. 1 draft choice from Stanford. After compiling the sort of passing numbers Seahawks fans might associate with Gus Frerotte (1-for-8, for 14 yards and an interception), Broncos coach Dan Reeves took mercy and replaced Elway with Steve DeBerg, once coached by a man who said of this of him: “He plays just well enough to get you beat.”
A harsh assessment, but worthy when you consider the source: Bill Walsh.
Elway, who remains on the very short list of greatest quarterbacks in football history, didn’t stew when Reeves replaced him with a guy who played “just well enough to get you beat.” To the contrary, the Hall of Fame-bound rookie welcomed the demotion.
“It’s taken 5,000 tons of bricks off my back,” he said. “Sitting on the bench now, I’ve stopped memorizing the offense and started learning it.”
Of those six first-round draft choices in 1983, only Marino asserted himself as a rookie starter – and it took the legend almost half the season to climb past the pedestrian David Woodley on the Dolphins’ depth chart.
So what gives? How is it possible all these rookie quarterbacks will start the 2012 season, 29 years after the vaunted QB Class of 1983 began with five first-round draft choices slotted as understudies and a sixth yearning to breathe free on the bench?
• The lifestyle of the NFL-bound college quarterback has changed. In the old days, once the football season was done, these guys stayed around to bask in their BMOC status. The draft was a few months away, and training camp began a few months after that. No hurry, no worries. Unless they were desperate to earn credits toward a degree enabling them to graduate on time, they basked in the spring sunlight on those days they woke up in time to bask in the sunlight.
And now? When the college season concludes, the work toward the NFL draft begins. Quarterback prospects seek personal coaches, who supervise them at athletic-training facilities in Arizona and Florida. Quarterbacks might not be polished at their first NFL minicamp, but they’re in shape, physically and emotionally. They’re a long way from where they used to be.
• Rookies no longer are challenged to make the huge leap from elementary passing attacks in college to sophisticated passing attacks in the NFL. College quarterbacks are used to considering as many as five receivers on any given snap. They’re used to a sequence of choices that begin with Target A, but often result in an alternative pass to Target C or D or E.
I’m an alum, for instance, of a school of that belonged to a conference once known as the Big Eight. Anybody who threw more than 15 times a game in my Big Eight was known as a “gunslinger.” Well, the Big Eight morphed into the Big 12, the wishbone offense gave way to the spread, and when the NFL season kicks off the first full week of September, three rookie quarterbacks (Griffin, Tannehill and Weeden) will represent the Big 12.
• Contracts. The deal Luck signed with the Colts guarantees him $22.1 million over four years. In the improbable event Luck busts as a starting QB, he’ll still be owed $22.1 million. How does it make sense to pay $22.1 million to a healthy, potentially terrific quarterback, with the idea of keeping him on the sideline for a year or two?
As a third-round draft choice, the bar wasn’t set quite so high for Russell Wilson. Seahawks fans presumed he’d show up at camp, do his thing, but pretty much stay out of the way of free-agent veteran Matt Flynn. Then came two exhibition games that revealed Flynn as pretty good and Wilson as, uh, maybe much better than pretty good.
If Carroll ends up handing the Seahawks’ offense to a rookie, the coach stands to be blistered by critics whose deepest thoughts are steeped in 1983.
Nonsense. The game has changed, and the league has changed. The players have changed. Their contracts have changed. If he’s convinced a rookie has the chops of a starting quarterback, Pete Carroll will exude a wisdom best described by one word.