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Rookie QBs shine while 2011 class mired in slump

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Hub Arkush
Publisher and editor

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By Hub Arkush

A study of quarterback play through the first half of the NFL season shows few surprises. Peyton Manning (108.6) is once again the highest-rated QB in the league, with Aaron Rodgers (107.4) a very close second, and Matt Ryan (103.0), Ben Roethlisberger (101.1) and Tom Brady (100.6) in hot pursuit.

Some might be surprised to find the 49ers’ Alex Smith (102.1) in the heat of the chase rather than Peyton’s little brother, Eli, whose numbers have taken a hit the past three weeks. And the fact that Drew Brees (95.8) is several lengths off the pace is surprising, and his completion percentage of just 61.1 is downright un–Brees like. Perhaps the one other blip in the natural order of NFL QB play is the subpar campaign Philip Rivers (86.5) is having, in large part due to the 10 picks he has thrown.

It does seem worth noting that the entire class of 2011 rookie QB phenoms seems mired in one big sophomore slump, and none greater than the ’11 offensive rookie of the year, Cam Newton. At 77.7, he is currently the 29th-rated passer in the NFL, completing just 57 percent of his passes, with only six TDs and eight interceptions, and his Panthers, whom he lead to a 6-10 finish last season, are just 2-6. Most notably, Newton is constantly dogged by critics of his attitude and body language and apparent lack of leadership.

In Tennessee, Jake Locker was playing fairly well, but he has been sidelined the past five weeks with a bum shoulder. Christian Ponder had a decent start but has really struggled as his Vikings have dropped their last two, and three of their last four. Blaine Gabbert has shown slight improvement in Jacksonville, but continues to run one of the worst offenses in the league, and his numbers — 78.4 passer rating, nine TDs, five INTs — are actually better than Newton’s. Andy Dalton has a very comparable passer rating to last year, but his Bengals are 3-5 and fading fast. He still has never led a win over an NFL team with a winning record and last week head coach Marvin Lewis publicly challenged him to be a better leader.

So, with all of that as the backdrop, what can we make so far of this year’s Fab Five — Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson? To date, all but Weeden have received very favorable reports and the Browns’ QB hasn’t been horrible for a rook in his first nine games. What is most interesting about this year’s group is that, unlike the 2011 rookies amongst whom only Dalton leads a competitive team, this year, Luck, Tannehill and Wilson all have their teams in the heat of the playoff chase, and in many respects it’s in large part because of their performances.

Many already have ceded the ’12 offensive rookie of the year award to RG3, who, like Newton last year, is putting up big individual numbers. His 93.9 passer rating has him 10th in the league. Pretty heady stuff for a rookie, and that doesn’t even allow for his 529 rushing yards, 6.5 yards per carry and six TDs on the ground. The one negative is the Redskins are 3-6, albeit with competitive losses to the Falcons and Giants, and they appear to be headed in the wrong direction. Still, if RG3 keeps up his own performance, he will be hard to beat for rookie honors.

Unless, of course, Luck continues trending the way he is right now. Luck’s numbers — 79.0 passer rating, 10 TDs, eight INTs and 5.5 yards per carry with three TDs on the ground — are good for a rookie but not exceptional. But the fact that he took over a 2-14 team in ’11 that cleaned house of some of its best veteran players, and the Colts have now won three in a row to climb to 5-3 and in the thick of the playoff chase, is pretty heady stuff. Particularly when you realize he is the unquestioned leader of his team, and his improvement is the driving force behind the winning streak. Don’t count him out of the rookie honors chase yet.

Tannehill and Wilson also have been very impressive, with the Dolphins at 4-4 and Seahawks at 5-4, although you have to note that Wilson is surrounded by a much better team than his four fellow rookie signalcallers.

All in all, while there’s still a long way to go this season — let alone in their NFL careers — it’s looking very likely that the heir apparents to Manning, Brady, Brees and Co. are a lot more likely to come from this year’s crop than last year’s.

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