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The New NFL: Rookie Quarterbacks and What it Means for Philip Rivers

Football is evolving, and one of the effects of that has been better rookie QB play. We'll take a shot at explaining why that is, and what it might mean for the Chargers.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a lot of talk here recently about Philip Rivers. John, our illustrious leader and sometimes-hipster (sorry, boss man), suggested it could be Rivers’ last year in San Diego. He addressed this with a lot of fancy salary cap talk, but the gist of it is this: Philip Rivers is really freaking expensive, and he’s been extremely turnover prone.

Now, there are lots of extenuating circumstances that many have cited to explain away River’s poor play. First and foremost is the offensive line, which in 2013 was He Who Shall Not Be Named Level (rhymes with "Myron Beef") bad.

I happen to agree with John. I think Rivers has to prove he has the tools and mental makeup to again attain totally-nebulous "elite" status (basically, stop turning the ball over so goddamn much).

One popular argument for keeping Rivers is that it would be extremely tough for a rookie or other journeyman QB to step into his shoes and immediately perform at the same level. I tend to agree with that, BUT there has been a recent trend in the NFL of rookie QB’s performing well from the start. Here are a few factors that may contribute to this, and what it might mean for Philip Rivers.

Reps, from Middle School and Up

From even middle school on, the game has changed and grown more sophisticated. There are an incredible number offseason football camps, full-time individual coaches, trainers, diet regimens and aggressive film study. More time is spent perfecting a quarterback’s craft than ever before.

All of this prep means quarterbacks can be tasked with doing more on the field, at an earlier age. Take a look at Max Browne’s stats in high school (Browne is the #1-ranked pro-style quarterback coming out of high school by Rivals.) Compare them to Peyton Manning’s stats (the #1 QB in his class of 1994) for reference.

Here are Browne’s high school stats:

Season Attempts Comp. Comp % Yards TD’s
Sophomore 432 294 68 4,182 50
Junior 409 288 70% 4,034 45
Senior 377 277 73.4% 4,526 49
Total 1,218 859 70.5% 12,742 144

and Peyton’s:

Season Attempts Comp. Comp % Yards TD’s
Sophomore 230 140 60.9 2142 23
Junior 264 144 54.6 2345 30
Senior 265 168 63.4 2703 39
Total 761 452 59.4 7,207 92

Browne had more completions than Peyton had attempts! He threw more than 500 more high school passes, meaning he had just that much more experience than Peyton. Along with that responsibility, Browne attended camps like Peyton’s own Manning Passing Academy and the super prestigious Elite 11 camp.

All things considered Max might be even further along than Peyton, WHOSE DAD WAS AN NFL QUARTERBACK!!

College Stats

We all know about the spread offense and it’s effect on college football. In systems like Mike Leach’s Super-Astronaut-Pirate-Ninja-Extravaganza Air Raid, quarterbacks have been putting up "video game" numbers for years now.

Still, the passing game is bigger in college than it ever has been, with nine quarterbacks throwing for over 4,000 yards during the 2012-13 season and 38 (THIRTY-EIGHT!) quarterbacks have amassed over 3,000 yards. Go back eight years to 2004, and only three quarterbacks eclipsed 4,000, with only fifteen quarterbacks even over 3,000 yards.

To continue in 2004, twelve quarterbacks threw more than 400 passes, 31 threw more than 350. In 2012, 41 threw more than 400 passes, and 64 threw more than 350. That’s more than twice as many!

Think about this all under the Malcolm Gladwell "10,000 hours" paradigm. Quarterbacks throw more passes, have more preparation, spend more time watching film, etc. to reach that "expert" level earlier in 2013 than they did in 2004.

Preparation + Offseason Training

College QB’s have also been tasked with perfecting their fundamentals. Part of that comes from HIGH SCHOOL quarterbacks receiving more coaching. Look at the pocket presence, poise, footwork and fundamentals of the aforementioned Max Browne.

Now compare that to Peyton Manning’s (please note the music, it’s so Peyton.)

Even on the very first play, Peyton shows awful footwork. He doesn’t step into his throw, he telegraphs where he’s going with the ball from his very first step, etc. It’s just not as sophisticated as Browne’s.

Basically, football lowered the learning curve by perfecting many QB’s fundamentals before they even make it to college. If they aren’t perfect, collegiate offseason work has also improved. Just look at the offseason work undertaken by Clemson QB Tahj Boyd, he even has his own personal QB coach (who also coached Andrew Luck, RGIII, etc.)

In short, it’s increasingly rare that a first-round QB comes into the league with bad footwork, pocket presence or coverage reading. Why? Again, because the college game has prepared them to deploy extremely complex offensive systems that help quarterbacks to understand defensive structure and leverage.

Rookie QB’s, then and now

Another reason recent rookie QBs have been so successful: the college game has changed drastically. Quarterbacks are expected to do much more pre-snap with the rise of the "option" offense that packages several run/pass plays into the same action. SmartFootball has put together an excellent breakdown of this "option" trend. Additionally, look at how complex Boise State’s offense is.

Again, quarterbacks are ready earlier and deploy more sophisticated game plans, earning them valuable repetitions that in turn make them more prepared.


Finally, one of the biggest and yet least–talked–about reasons for rookie QB success? Madden.

You’re laughing, but I’m serious. As technology progresses, the tools young QBs grow up with have increased tenfold. Think about how much easier it is to understand an NFL offensive system by say, logging on to Bolts from the Blue (I kid, but Rivers should read Posey’s breakdowns.)

In college, Peyton Manning couldn’t log onto his iPad and immediately get access to a detailed breakdown of every single play he ran the past week. Andrew Luck could, and did. Even playing Madden at a young age helps quarterbacks to understand defensive principles like the Cover 2 vs. Cover 3, how to read that coverage based on safety play and understand where to best attack the coverage to exploit it’s weaknesses. What West Virginia does in this regard is astounding, and it’s the norm, not an outlier.

All of this shows. This shift in preparation, increase in QB camps, offseason training and offensive complexity has drastically changed how the NFL has been able to prepare young quarterbacks for immediate action.

Understanding the Practice Week and its Effect on Quarterbacks

In the past, much of a rookie QB’s practice time was devoted to perfecting their fundamentals, making sure they understood the dramatically more complex terminology and playcalls, understanding their pre–snap reads, etc. Obviously, that takes away from week–in–and–week–out specific game-planning against an opponent. These limits effectively handcuffs an offensive coordinator to the limitations of his young quarterback, meaning complex gameplans cannot be quickly deployed or implemented. In turn, that made young, inexperienced QBs easy picking for a defense that could basically watch film to understand those quarterback’s tendencies and the team’s basic gameplan.

Eventually, those rookies would master the fundamentals and be treated like an NFL quarterback. Their OC would make week-to-week adjustments, and (you hope) they would flourish. Again, it all comes down to preparation and fundamentals, which are now often coached at an early age.

The Rookie Wage Scale

Prior to the last CBA, rookie contracts were out of control. The #1 draft pick basically was set to enter the league as the highest paid player at his position, which is pretty counterintuitive given that they had never actually proven themselves on the field. This reality meant the first pick could actually be more of a liability than a boon to teams that were struggling. Here’s a list of the last few #1 overall quarterbacks under the previous CBA.

  1. Sam Bradford
  2. Matt Stafford
  3. Jamarcus Russel
  4. Alex Smith
  5. Eli Manning1
  6. Carson Palmer
  7. David Carr
  8. Tim Couch

WOW. Out of those eight quarterbacks, only two have ever made a Pro Bowl (Eli and Carson). Yet all were among the highest paid players in the NFL for their time.

This cost-benefit proposition is really, really shitty. It put even MORE pressure on high draft picks to perform, and also basically penalized teams for years if these guys didn’t work out. The #1 overall pick basically had to work out or "whoops! There went your salary cap."

With the new rookie wage scale, draft picks are basically paid according to slot, and there’s a ceiling on what they can be paid. Cam Newton, the first #1 overall pick under the new CBA, signed a 4-year, $22 million deal. Sam Bradford, the #1 pick in the previous draft, signed a 7-year, $76 million deal, with $50 million guaranteed.

What does this all mean for Rivers?

Well, it means that replacing Rivers might be simultaneously a more sure-thing and save the team millions of dollars that can be used to improve the team in other areas. Along with John’s analysis of Rivers’ play and contract situation: by releasing Rivers, the Chargers save themselves $13.8 million in cap space in 2014, and $15.75 million in cap space in 2015 … this could get interesting.

Now, I personally hope El Capitan has a giant bounce–back year and this is all moot. Just consider the fact that if he doesn’t, it won’t be as hard or expensive to replace him as it once might have been.

1 HAHAHAHA this is the best picture ever: