The 136 days between March 12, 2011 and July 25 of that same year were dark days in the world of football, on the simple basis that there was no football.
There isn’t much football that time of year anyway, but this was different. Players had been locked out of their own facilities. You’d find no news about free agency or which players looked good in training camp or who might beat out whom for starting spots.
There might not have been starting spots at all.
And then, on that blessed Monday, July 25, the lockout came to an end by what is known as the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The agreement didn’t just bring football back on our televisions. It unwittingly ushered in a new era of quarterbacking.
About two months later, a young man out of Auburn University named Cam Newton made his NFL debut. Any casual football fan had heard of Newton, one of the more polarizing players to come out of the draft in recent memory. He had won a national championship and Heisman Trophy before being taken first overall by the Carolina Panthers, making him the first player in NFL history to accomplish all three of the aforementioned feats.
In his first game, visiting the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 11, Newton set a new precedent for what rookie quarterbacks could achieve in the NFL. Though the Panthers would lose, 28-21, Newton threw for 422 yards and a pair of touchdowns while running for another. In doing so, he shattered Otto Graham’s 61-year-old record for yards thrown by a quarterback in a debut. Graham’s wasn’t the only record that fell at the hands of Newton that year. Newton would go on to become the first rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards. Steve Grogan’s 35-year-old mark for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season was laid to waste, too, as Newton used his legs for 14 additional scores. Those 14 touchdowns, by the way, came on the heels of 706 rushing yards, also a record for a rookie quarterback.
All the while, another rookie quarterback, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Andy Dalton, was setting records of his own, though with considerably less fanfare. He formed an immediate rapport with rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, and the two would hook up for more yards and receptions than any other rookie quarterback/rookie wide receiver combination in NFL history. And by season’s end, a third rookie quarterback, Blaine Gabbert out of Missouri, would become, at 22, the youngest quarterback to start 14 games, doing so for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
To be clear: The CBA did not make quarterbacks right out of college immediately precocious, able to step in under center and enjoy success after the first snap, though sometimes it may seem that way. What it did was make young quarterbacks cheaper and subsequently more expendable, enabling coaches and general managers to apply a “sink or swim” philosophy to rookie QBs.
Why spend exorbitant sums on journeymen when you could take a shot on a kid who could become the face of your franchise?
The top-five quarterbacks taken out of the draft were no longer guaranteed $50 million deals. Rookie contracts became limited to four-year deals, and if they were selected in the first round, teams could exercise a fifth-year option that would pay them the average salary of the top-10 players of their position.
So, when Newton was drafted by the Panthers and signed for $22 million, it came in stark contrast to Sam Bradford, who had been taken first overall by the St. Louis Rams just a year before for the princely sum of $78 million, the largest contract for a rookie.
What did Panthers coach Ron Rivera have to lose in starting Newton in his first year? Or Marvin Lewis with Dalton?
The cap hits would be so small compared to years past that it mattered little if they whiffed on a pick – as the Jaguars did with Gabbert – but the reward would be immense if they hit – as the Panthers did with Newton and Cincinnati with Dalton.
It should have come as little surprise, then, when a record five rookie quarterbacks debuted in 2012. On Sept. 9 of that year, Robert Griffin III started in Washington, Russell Wilson for Seattle, Ryan Tannehill for Miami, Andrew Luck for Indianapolis and Brandon Weeden for Cleveland. Though he didn’t start the season-opener, Nick Foles would become the starter in Philadelphia by season’s end.
“The fact there’s so many on the field and starting already,” said then-Miami offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. “That seems extraordinary. They’ve all proven they can be franchise quarterbacks.”
Only Griffin would come away with a win on that day, as the Redskins beat the New Orleans Saints on the road, but three of those teams – the Colts, Seahawks and Dolphins – found their franchise quarterbacks for unbelievably cheap figures while the other three have since reloaded with little cost.
Luck would become the winningest rookie quarterback in history. Wilson would lead Seattle to its first Super Bowl. While Tannehill hasn’t enjoyed the success of his two peers, the Dolphins have made it clear that he is their guy, inking him to a 6-year, $96 million contract extension in 2015. Meanwhile, the Eagles are in the process of grooming another rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz; the Redskins have committed to Kirk Cousins, who was taken in the same draft as Griffin; and the Browns have trotted out eight different players, young and old, under center, though nothing seems to be sticking.
Cleveland, however – and it always seems to be Cleveland – is the exception. Because while starting young quarterbacks isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, the success they are having is.
In 2015, the average age of an NFL starting quarterback was 29.3. In 2005, that number was 29.1. Thirty years prior to that, it was 29.5. But there is no denying the CBA was a watershed moment for rookie quarterbacks and teams seeking to discover the long-term solution to who would be calling plays under center.
In the five years prior to the CBA, rookie quarterbacks as a whole averaged 6,986 passing yards in their first seasons, with 32.2 touchdowns and 43 interceptions. In the five years after, they averaged 12,198 yards collectively, throwing 65.8 touchdowns to 53.6 interceptions.
This year, Week 1 saw 18 teams start a quarterback who had been drafted in 2011 or after, and that’s without the Vikings being able to start Teddy Bridgewater, who was drafted in the first round in 2014 and is out for the season.
In leading the Denver Broncos to a win over Newton’s Panthers, Trevor Siemian became the first quarterback in NFL history to start a game for the defending Super Bowl champs without ever having thrown an NFL pass. The funny thing about that is Siemian hadn’t even expected to play professional football. After graduating from Northwestern in 2015, he had lined up a commercial real estate job in Chicago before being the last quarterback taken in the draft.
After beating the Panthers he won again the next week, beating Luck and the Colts, 34-20.
“I saw a young man who looked like he’s been playing a long time, he’s mature beyond his years,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “I think he managed the game well, I think he made good decisions.”
He’s not the only one.
Dak Prescott, a rookie out of Mississippi State, is currently filling in for an injured Tony Romo in Dallas and, had it not been for a clock management blunder by receiver Terrence Williams, could be 2-0. Instead, Prescott is 1-1 with a win over Dallas’ most loathed rival, the Washington Redskins.
“I keep getting the same questions every time y’all talk about Dak, but Dak is an amazing football player,” wide receiver Dez Bryant said after Dallas beat the Redskins, 27-23. “I understand that you say he’s a rookie, but man-to-man he’s awesome.”
So is Wentz, the Eagles rookie who has impressed legions, including the quarterback he matched up with and beat in Week 2, Jay Cutler.
“I mean I had the luxury of being able to sit and watch Jake Plummer,” Cutler said prior to this past Monday night’s game. “I was on a really veteran team and I was able to sit for most of the season and kind of learn and kind of figure it out and then got thrown in there later on. To play right off the bat coming in, these guys that get drafted – they’re probably a little bit better prepared than we were 10, 12 years ago. They see more looks. The whole pre-draft process is so involved now, but you still have to go out there and strap it up and play and it’s not easy. It’s difficult.
“I think he’s in a good spot. I think (Eagles coach Doug Pederson) understands that position really well and you can’t lean on that guy that much early on. It has to be a team sport. You have to put him in position to be successful and you have to hope that your offense is going to grow together for two or three years, because changing coaches, changing offensive coordinators is hard on a young quarterback.”
They’re just making it look easy – all of them. Jimmy Garoppolo, drafted in 2014, is 2-0 as the interim starter for the Patriots. Luck has already broken Peyton Manning’s franchise record for passing yards in a season. On Oct. 25 of last year, Tannehill broke an NFL record for consecutive passes completed with 25. Blake Bortles, drafted by the Jaguars in 2014, has already broken franchise records for touchdowns (35), yards (4,428), completions (355) and attempts (606) in a season.
Derek Carr, taken by the Oakland Raiders out of Fresno State in 2014, threw 53 touchdowns in his first two seasons, which is second only to Dan Marino. Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston, drafted in 2015, became the first rookie quarterback in Bucs history to be named to the Pro Bowl. Marcus Mariota finished his first game with the Titans – a win over Winston’s Bucs – with a perfect passer rating, a record 4 touchdowns thrown in the first half, and more touchdowns in his first three games (8) than any quarterback in history.
On Monday mid-morning, ESPN reported Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown would be rendered inactive for the next week’s game after hurting his shoulder in a 25-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Who would be filling in?
Former USC star Cody Kessler.