Panthers QB Cam Newton passed for 374 yards yesterday against Chicago. And it says a lot about Newton's rookie season that those numbers feel kind of low. After all, the dude passed for four bills in his first two games. And he's not alone among rookie QBs running amok. Second rounder Andy Dalton led the Bengals to a win over the unbeaten Bills yesterday (throwing to another rookie phenom in AJ Green), nearly throwing for his second 300-yard game. Even Blaine Gabbert got a little frisky yesterday, and Yo Gabbert Gabbert is working with the NFL's version of the Clippers down in Jacksonville.
If the success of Newton and Dalton surprise you (and it's surprised me), you need to take a harder look at the three previous first round NFL draft classes. It used to be that drafting a QB in the first round had wildly unpredictable results. For every Peyton Manning you took, there was a Ryan Leaf. But take a look at the first round QBs from 2008 to 2010:
2008: Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco
2009: Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman
2010: Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow
Ryan led Atlanta to 13 wins last season and made his first Pro Bowl in 2011. Flacco has led the Ravens to the postseason every year he's been in the league. Stafford currently leads an undefeated Lions team. Sanchez, despite getting crushed last night, has led New York to two straight AFC title games and already holds the record for most playoff road wins for any QB in history. Freeman leads an up-and-coming Bucs team. Bradford, despite the Rams taking a step back in 2011, was named Rookie of the Year in 2010. The only bust in this entire group is Tebow, who isn't even that much of a bust because A) Most everyone agreed he was drafted too high, B) He performed admirably when pressed into duty last season, and C) He hasn't been given a chance at all by Denver this season. That's six of seven first round QB picks hitting the mark. That's crazy.
It seems that talent evaluators are getting better at figuring out college QBs. And, despite the fact that pro schemes have grown more complicated, rookie QBs have IMPROVED their performance since the old days, when you drafted a QB and then stuck him on the bench for ten years until he was old and bitter and mean. Thanks to college teams deploying the same kind of shotgun spread offenses that the pros use, and thanks to passer-friendly rules, we need to start thinking differently about our expectations for rookie quarterbacks. We need to stop assuming that they're little fawns who won't know what to do when they get thrown out there. Newton already looks like he's been in the league for ten years. Any team that keeps its rookie tethered to the bench for very long (looking your way, Vikings) is stuck in the old mentality. You're aren't giving up on your season by throwing a rookie QB in there. You're more likely SAVING it. And whoever ends up drafting Andrew Luck next year needs to be considered a potential playoff team in 2012, not three years down the line.
That's the reality of rookie QBs now. No team will ever again pull a Steve McNair and bench a QB for the first three years of his career. It's no longer necessary. The learning curve is gone. And the NFL, frankly, is better for it.