FOXBOROUGH — The more things change, the more they stay the same. Season after season, NFL teams holding the No. 1 overall draft position almost always pick a quarterback, confident that he’ll be able to turn around a struggling franchise.
Since 1998, quarterbacks have gone first in the draft 12 of 15 times. A few, such as Peyton Manning (’98), have dramatically changed a franchise’s fortunes. Others — Tim Couch (1999), JaMarcus Russell (2007) — never worked out, and are no longer in the league.
Drafting players, history has shown, is an inexact science at best, and an expensive gamble at worst. But quarterback, the most important position in football, always seems to attract far greater interest, from fans, media, even team owners. There’s something about a rookie quarterback that captivates the NFL.
Especially this season. Eleven quarterbacks were selected in this year’s draft, not an unusually high number. Six of them, however, are expected to start for their teams this week, including Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick of the Indianapolis Colts. Luck comes to Foxborough Sunday, leading the surprising 6-3 Colts against the Patriots in a 4:25 p.m. game at Gillette Stadium.
Luck is not alone. Robert Griffin III of the Redskins (No. 2 overall), Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins (No. 8), Brandon Weeden of the Browns (No. 22), and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks (No. 75) are slated to start. And Nick Foles of the Eagles (drafted 88th) may replace the injured Michael Vick. That’s nearly one-fifth of the league’s 32 teams using rookie quarterbacks.
Trend or anomaly?
“I think it’s a sign of this season,” said former quarterback Phil Simms, who spent 14 seasons in the NFL, all with the Giants, and won two Super Bowls. “I’m very surprised.
“I don’t look at the whole six of them and think this could go down in history as the greatest draft class ever of quarterbacks. There’s one [from 2004] with Eli [Manning], Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger that’s turned out pretty good. Then the big one in ’83, with all those big guys [John Elway, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Dan Marino].
“The success that some of the young quarterbacks are having? Most teams do whatever it takes to make sure that the quarterback has success. When in doubt, teams will draft one.”
Simms, who was a first-round draft pick in 1979, is a CBS analyst now, and will call Sunday’s Patriots-Colts game with Jim Nantz. In Simms’s opinion, the decision by so many teams to hand the keys to a rookie is multifaceted.
“When you draft them high, you’re going to play them, and it’s almost impossible to keep them off the field for many reasons: money, status, ego, and teams are looking for a fresh start,” Simms said.
“It doesn’t always mean they’re the best one at the time for the team, but the thing about playing a rookie quarterback, most of the time you’re looking forward, you’re not looking at, ‘What are we doing right now?’ ”
To illustrate Simms’s point, only Luck and Wilson are on teams with winning records. Of the five who have started games so far (Foles could be getting his first start Sunday in place of an injured Michael Vick), Griffin has the best rating (93.9, which ranks ninth in the league), Luck the most passing yards (2,631), and Wilson the most touchdowns (15).
There might be a learning curve for most rookie QBs, but this year’s class is proving to be competent and capable.
“I can’t speak for any of the other quarterbacks, but I’m glad I’m playing now,” said Luck. “It’s speeding up the learning process by a lot.
“I knew that every day was going to be a new learning experience. Every game, every trip, every practice was going to be a learning experience. Some have gone well, some have been sort of bumpy, if you will. But I’m trying to get better and continuing to improve.”
Gil Brandt has evaluated NFL talent since 1960, and was the Cowboys vice president of player personnel for 30 years. He has noticed a shift among quarterbacks entering the league for a number of years, something that he says has its roots at a much lower level.
“What’s happened is high school seven-on-seven. It’s become a huge deal here in the state of Texas, and I think it’s really done a lot to start the development of quarterbacks,” Brandt said. “Teams started winning state championships by passing the ball, and we went from a state that was 95 percent run to a state that is 75 percent pass.
“I also think the athlete we are getting now is so much better. The quality of player is so much better, the quality of coaching is so much better. We’re so much better at what we do, and so much better at a young age.”
Simms takes it a step further.
“All these quarterbacks when they’re drafted, there’s probably more that are capable of coming in and playing,” Simms said. “They get so much experience now in the college game, it puts them ahead of even NFL [backup] quarterbacks because they’ve been playing a lot.”
Teams that select rookie quarterbacks — especially so-called franchise ones, such as Luck, Griffin, and Cam Newton last year — are doing whatever it takes to surround them with the tools needed to be successful. It can come in the form of other draft picks or acquisitions geared toward helping the quarterback (skill players to throw to, offensive linemen to protect), and an offensive system that’s tailored to the player’s skill set.
Sometimes it works. Many times it doesn’t. But what a rookie quarterback always provides, without fail, is hope that better days are ahead. For Luck and the Colts, those days might have arrived earlier than anticipated.
“We realize that we’ve put ourselves in the position to hopefully do some good things, but we haven’t gotten to our end goal yet,” Luck said. “I wouldn’t define this season successful by any means.
“If someday I can play at a level that Peyton and Tom [Brady] play at, then that’d be a quarterback’s dream come true.”