One of the NFL’s biggest storylines this season has revolved around a pair of rookie quarterbacks taken in the top two spots in the 2012 draft. Which would be the better option? Could either of them turn around flailing franchises?
The Indianapolis Colts were so committed to spending the number one pick on Stanford’s Andrew Luck that they parted with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, the man who practically built Lucas Oil Field. The Washington Redskins trade up at great cost to snag Baylor star Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick.
Neither team regretted their choice. Luck threw 23 touchdowns to 18 interceptions for 4,374 yards. He added 255 yards and five rushing touchdowns with his feet. Griffin tossed 20 touchdowns against just five picks, throwing for 3,200 yards and adding 815 yards and seven scores on the ground.
Luck’s interception total could have been lower and his completion percentage (54 percent) higher. Griffin could have waited in the pocket and thrown a little more. But the top-line team numbers don’t lie. The Colts went from last place at 2-14 to 11-5 and a playoff appearance in just one season. The Redskins improved from 5-11 to 10-6, winning the NFC East, making the postseason for the first time in five years, and having their first home playoff game in 13 years.
On wild-card weekend, both storybook seasons came to an end. Luck fought hard, leading the offense on long drives that accumulated 419 yards and 25 first downs. The Colts dominated the Baltimore Ravens by a full 15 minutes in the time of possession.
But Indy couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone, settling for three field goals. They also had a pair of turnovers, including a Luck interception, and an uncharacteristic Adam Vinatieri miss. The Ravens made big plays and beat them by 24 to 9.
The Redskins’ game started promisingly enough. Griffin, though clearly never 100 percent, and running back Alfred Morris initially ran the ball down the Seattle Seahawks’ throats. Washington opened by scoring touchdowns on their first two drives, with a Seattle three-and-out sandwiched in between.
After that, the Redskins didn’t do much else on offense. Griffin reinjured his knee, with his condition deteriorating until he was totally ineffective. He took the hits until he couldn’t get up. Coach Mike Shanahan inserted backup Kirk Cousins — who has a good arm — too late. It wasn’t as bad the Minnesota Vikings when Joe Webb playing in place of Christian Ponder forced them to rely on Adrian Peterson alone, but it was bad enough.
The Redskins held on to their lead until the fourth quarter, but fell to the one-two punch of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch. Lynch rushed for 132 yards and capped off the night with a 27-yard touchdown run.
Now Wilson, who wasn’t in even supposed to be a starter this season, is the last rookie quarterback standing the playoffs. The 5’11 Wisconsin graduate was drafted to compete with offseason acquisition Matt Flynn, who had impressed as a backup in Green Bay, and incumbent Tarvaris Jackson. Wilson unexpectedly won the job, as Flynn became an expensive clipboard-holder and Jackson shuffled off to Buffalo.
Going forward, the Redskins probably have more to worry about. They need Griffin’s need to heal fully, especially if they wind up trading Cousins to replenish depleted draft picks. As Michael Vick demonstrated, even the most talented run-heavy quarterbacks in the NFL are spotty and injury-prone. Can Griffin make the transition to running to supplement the pass more, like Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger?
With Luck, the Colts need to bolster the offensive line to protect him better. A main reason for Sunday’s loss was that the pocket kept collapsing, making a win against a good defense too tall an order for a first-year signal-caller. The defense could also use improvement, as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco picked apart that secondary at times.
The Redskins’ offensive line has improved. But the pass blocking could still use some work, if the team hopes to keep Griffin the pocket more.
Football may be a young man’s game, but it is the era of these two young men yet. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, both still better than either Luck or Griffin, are getting ready to take the field for the playoffs. Ray Lewis, the Baltimore linebacker who recently announced this will be his last season, returned to lead his team with nine tackles in the victory over the Colts.
Two of the worst teams in football a year ago are now headed in the right direction. But neither of them has reached their destination just yet.