They were the future who came ready to play straight from the box. No training. No learning. No need to study the complexities of professional football. It was 2012 and the NFL had its next big quarterback stars all fresh and fast and different. They wouldn’t have to adjust to the league, the league was going to adjust to them.
And so in the autumn of Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson the game was to be forever changed by quarterbacks who ran and threw and did things that no one else could. The professional game was not going to be a mystery to them because what they did would circumvent the pro game as it had been played for decades before their arrival.
Except the world didn’t change. The rest of the NFL acclimated to the next great quarterbacks and they didn’t react well to the correction. Now just three years later Griffin isn’t active for Washington’s games, Kaepernick (who was actually drafted in 2011 but came to prominence in 2012) has been benched by the 49ers and Pep Hamilton – Luck’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis – was fired this week as the Colts quarterback regresses. Even Wilson, whose statistics remain similar to what they have been throughout his career, has looked less dangerous with Seattle’s offensive line problems and injuries to the team’s running backs.
Two weeks ago, the NFL’s offensive players of the week were Kirk Cousins and Ryan Tannehill, two quarterbacks drafted in 2012 who were largely overlooked in the euphoria that surrounded Griffin, Kaepernick, Luck and Wilson. Cousins, in fact, was picked that year by Washington with the idea he would be Griffin’s longtime back-up. Instead he led the team to its biggest comeback victory ever on 25 October while Griffin watched from the sideline, and has just four interceptions in his last four starts as opposed to 13 interceptions in his previous 8 starts (although given his mixed performances this season, few would be ready to anoint Cousins as a Pro Bowler just yet).
“The game is chaos for quarterbacks,” says Jeff Christensen, a former NFL quarterback who has been Cousins’ longtime passing instructor. “There are so many great players that things go from great to chaos for a quarterback very quickly.”
A pass that might have seemed open suddenly isn’t. A chance to sprint around the line is gone before a quarterback realizes. The boys of 2012 might have taken the NFL by surprise but defense caught up quickly. Sometimes the best thing isn’t to be an instant star, running college gimmicks. Sometimes the best thing is to learn slowly, making mistakes as Tannehill did early or wait three seasons like Cousins, slowly gaining experience.
Today’s NFL does not like to wait on young quarterbacks. Owners want instant results. Fans won’t suffer 5-11 seasons. They want to feel like their team is moving forward. Nobody likes to draft a quarterback in the first round and then wait for him to grow. After Carolina and Cincinnati had instant success with Cam Newton and Andy Dalton a standard had been set for the rest of the league. Everyone else expected their top round draft pick quarterback to play and play well right from the start.
“If you give $19m to a guy before he even plays a game, and everyone is telling him how great he is, how can you take that kid coming out of college and say: ‘Here’s what you need to do today, you need to work on this this and this,’” Christensen says, adding that he isn’t speaking specifically about any player but rather the concept of anointing franchise quarterbacks before they play a game.
Because today’s defensive players are so much faster and smart, defenses adapt more quickly than ever to new threats. The only way a quarterback can get better, Christensen says, is to work. He must find new solutions and new techniques, learning – for instance – to release the ball faster to thwart pass rushes. If, as in the case of Griffin, the quarterback isn’t naturally a drop-back passer, those new solutions are harder to teach because the fundamentals aren’t natural.
None of this is the fault of the young quarterbacks of 2012. They arrived on the hopes of their new teams and did everything they were asked to do to win at that point. Their entitlement wasn’t their making. They weren’t going to reject a chance at instant stardom. The problem isn’t with them it’s with an NFL culture today that is about instant results and the coaches who urged them to run college-style offenses that didn’t have staying power against the size and speed of professional defenses. Everyone tried to circumvent the development process every quarterback needs to go through. The class of 2012 won right away but they didn’t grow. In the case of Griffin and Kaepernick they might be lost beyond the point of salvaging.
Running backs and pass rushers can come into the league and immediately be good. Quarterbacks need time. The game is too complex to understand after a few weeks of training camp. Christensen has always urged Cousins to push himself, to find new ways to challenge his game. At times Cousins has gotten into trouble by forcing passes between defenders, believing the throw is one he can complete.
How do you learn what is possible if you don’t take chances?
But turnovers can be death to a team in the NFL. That’s why it is important for teams to let their potential franchise quarterbacks struggle either in practice or during games in seasons that aren’t supposed to end in playoffs. And yet how many teams are willing to wait for their first-round quarterback to get better?
Nowadays a quarterback must thrive early or be gone. This is how someone like Griffin has gone from offensive rookie of the year to inactive for nearly every game in just three years. He learned how to be a star but he never learned how to be a quarterback. His replacement had the luxury of waiting.
Maybe the best thing to happen to Kirk Cousins was figuring out how to wait.