There may not have been a season in NFL history like the one we saw in 2012, the season of the “Gang of Four.” It was a year when four young quarterbacks — rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson, and sophomore Colin Kaepernick, who touched the ball only seven times during his rookie year — immediately emerged as above-average starting quarterbacks for playoff teams. There’s just no precedent in recent league history for that many quarterbacks with no experience to step onto the field and immediately become upper-echelon signal-callers overnight. It’s a revolution that has changed the league overnight, and one that we’re blessed to witness as fans.
So which one of those four aces was the best quarterback last year? And, more importantly, which of the four will be the best quarterback during this upcoming season? The truly cool thing about this argument is that you can make pretty strong cases for each of them. That’s exactly what I’m going to try to do.
The Argument: The one-man show
Here’s a list of the quarterbacks from the past 25 years who improved their team’s record by nine or more wins in a given season: Peyton Manning. Chad Pennington. Ben Roethlisberger. Kurt Warner. Oh, and Andrew Luck, who pushed the 2-14 Colts all the way to 11-5 and a totally unexpected playoff berth during his stunning rookie season. Nobody came to the table with less and took away more than Andrew Luck did last year.
If you just look at the numbers, I’ll grant you that Luck’s statistics don’t rate him out to be an elite passer. That’s fine. Numbers don’t mean anything in a vacuum; it’s not just what you do, it’s when you do it. No quarterback in football had more game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime last year than Luck’s seven such drives. Only two quarterbacks since 1960 have produced more in a single season than Luck. In September alone, Luck picked up 47 yards in 18 seconds to set up a game-winning field goal over the Vikings, then drove his team 80 yards with four minutes to go for a lead-taking and eventual game-winning drive to beat the mighty Packers. I believe in the numbers as much as anybody, but you would have to be crazy to doubt that those late-game successes gave a young Colts team a belief that they could genuinely compete at a high level.
Furthermore, while it’s usually unfair to ascribe the entirety of a team’s improvement or decline to one player, who else can you really point to in terms of acquisitions for the Colts last offseason? Indianapolis mostly avoided free agency and turned over the bulk of its roster to young, inexperienced talent. Luck did get to play with Reggie Wayne, but the team had six other receivers accrue at least 10 catches, and five of those guys were rookies, with four taken in the third round or later.1 Those types of guys usually spend their first season sitting on the bench while getting acclimated to the speed of the NFL game; here, they were all Luck had when other teams inevitably double- and triple-teamed Wayne. Indy’s lone veteran wideout had 835 receiving yards during the first half of the season, but only 520 during the second half. Meanwhile, Indianapolis’s rookies combined for 2,005 receiving yards, more than the total produced by the rookies on any other team in NFL history. Luck made adjustments like a tenured veteran and kept the offense going, as the Colts finished 6-2 and comfortably made it into the playoffs.
1. The sixth player was journeyman wideout Donnie Avery.
There’s every reason to think that Luck will be better in 2013. His inexperienced group of receivers will have a year of games and chemistry under their belt. As a disciplined pocket passer (but wildly efficient runner) who will rarely — if ever — work out of the zone read, it certainly seems like he’s at a lower risk of injury than our other three quarterbacks. And certain quarterbacks make an enormous statistical leap after sticking it out through a difficult first season. Peyton Manning, for one, completed just 56.7 percent of his passes and led the league in interceptions as a rookie before becoming Peyton Manning a year later. That was, coincidentally, the year that he improved Indianapolis’s record by 10 games, as the Colts went from 3-13 to 13-3. If Andrew Luck makes that sort of statistical leap to go with his already excellent performance in critical situations, how good can the Colts be?
Robert Griffin III
The Argument: The franchise savior
Unlike with Luck, the numbers do a decent job of conveying just how special RG3’s season was. He led the league in yards per pass attempt, averaging 8.1 yards every time he threw the ball. No other rookie in NFL history has ever led the league in yards per pass attempt, arguably the most meaningful simple measure of efficiency and effectiveness for quarterbacks. Griffin threw interceptions on only 1.3 percent of his dropbacks, the best rate in the league and the 14th-best figure in NFL history. He averaged 6.8 yards per rushing attempt, also the best rate in the league, and the 10th-best single-season average in league history. Do you see a trend here? No rookie quarterback in the history of the NFL was more effective on a play-by-play basis than Robert Griffin.
Even beyond the statistics, Griffin meant more to the Washington offense than anybody else in recent memory. Washington had eight touchdowns of 50 yards or more last year, more than any other team in football. So much of that came down to Griffin, both as a ball carrier and as a threat to be a ball carrier. The Redskins didn’t just get guys like Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson open deep for long touchdowns; they would be open by five yards, jumping around and screaming for the ball because they needed glasses to see the closest defender. It was a dynamic that started with the bomb to Pierre Garcon against the Saints in Week 1 and kept going all season.
It’s hard to imagine Alfred Morris having such an enormous impact on the team without Griffin’s presence, too. While Morris was an effective runner both inside and outside of the zone read, he undoubtedly benefited from the locked-up defensive ends and terrified safeties who lay in Griffin’s wake. One game doesn’t tell us a heck of a lot, but it’s worth noting that he averaged just 3.2 yards per carry on his 27 rushes during the Week 15 game against the Browns, the one game Griffin missed last season. Oh, and remember that stat about how the Colts got more receiving yards out of their rookies than any other team in league history? Washington’s rookies ran for 2,450 yards last season; only one group of rookies since the merger (the 1986 Saints) managed to make it past the 2,000-yard mark. Griffin turned a team that was 20th in rushing DVOA in 2011 into the league’s second-most efficient rushing attack overnight.
More than anything, Griffin finally breathed some life into a moribund organization that had been hoping against hope for the better part of a decade. He made the Red Zone Update graphic the most exciting moment of football Sundays. I don’t mean to suggest that Washington fans would have stopped watching without a savior like Griffin joining the team — no fan base is more enthusiastic about hating their team when the organization deserves to be hated than theirs — but there’s something to be said for throwing your fans an icon once every 15 years or so. Griffin just had the best “true” rookie year, perhaps, in NFL history. And if he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to think he’ll let up.
The Argument: The completist
Just for fun, here are the statistics for Russell Wilson’s rookie season alongside the average rookie numbers for every other third-round quarterback since 1980, prorated to Wilson’s 393 pass attempts:
I’m cheating a little bit there, since quarterbacks have better statistics now than they did in 1980, but the difference is staggering enough to overcome all the era adjustments you can muster. By all accounts, given where he was valued by the league, Russell Wilson should have been a hot mess at starting quarterback for the Seahawks last season. Instead, he was … well, let’s go to another table. Here’s Wilson’s season through the first five games and then, starting with Seattle’s narrow win over the Patriots in Week 6, his final 13 games of the campaign (including the playoffs):2
Is this an arbitrary end point? Maybe. Is it also entirely possible that Wilson, a midround pick, drastically and permanently improved his level of play as the Seahawks expanded their playbook, and those first five games don’t matter much in terms of evaluating his future? I think it’s fair to consider both sides of that coin.
Those final 13 games should be about the only reason a 49ers fan might have trouble sleeping at night. If Wilson was really an overmatched third-round pick adjusting to the league over those first five games before he got the hang of things and stopped making the typical rookie mistakes, he’s a nightmare with numbers that actually outstrip Griffin’s.
Wilson also became a more efficient and effective runner as the season went along, including one game in which he tore up the poor Bills in Toronto for three touchdowns. He averaged 18 yards on five carries during those first five games, but afterward, Wilson carried the ball six times a game and saw his production double to 40 yards per contest. Over his final five games of the 2012 season, which included the playoff contests against the Redskins and Falcons, Wilson averaged 61.2 rushing yards per game, surpassing Griffin’s season average of 54.3 rushing yards.
The strength-of-schedule issue only makes Wilson’s performance look stronger. While Luck played the easiest schedule in the NFL and Griffin played the third-easiest slate in the NFC, Wilson played a tougher schedule than any quarterback outside the NFC West. He was also just the fourth rookie quarterback since the merger to win a playoff game on the road, while his feverish comeback against the Falcons in the divisional round failed only on account of his defense. If the Russell Wilson who was torching the league at the end of the season is the guy we see in 2013, he’s the best quarterback amid the Gang of Four.
The Argument: The highest peak
And yet, somehow, Colin Kaepernick might have been better by February than any of these guys. I’m not making that argument in terms of his team’s presence in the Super Bowl, although it’s probably pretty meaningful that a guy who had thrown 19 professional passes before Halloween was one pass-interference penalty (or misbegotten timeout) away from winning a Super Bowl. Here are each of our quarterbacks’ statistics starting from Week 10, the point at which Kaepernick became a starter, through the end of the playoffs, prorated to a 16-game season:
You can see the contrast between Luck’s massive volume and the hyperefficiency of the other three guys. Wilson’s numbers are a tiny bit better than Kaepernick’s over that stretch, but there are some ancillary arguments that help swing it in Kaepernick’s favor, notably strength of schedule. During his seven-week run as the starter at the end of the regular season, Kaepernick managed to catch the three top pass defenses in football per DVOA: the Bears (first), Cardinals (second), and Seahawks (third). Five of his 10 career pro starts have come against pass defenses ranked in the top eight.3 Even Kaepernick’s games against easier pass defenses were tough: Beating the Patriots and the Saints on the road during the second half wasn’t an easy feat. And when he got to the playoffs, he set a quarterback single-game rushing record with his sensational performance against Green Bay. At his best, on a purely visceral level, Kaepernick seemed like the most impossible of these four quarterbacks to defend.
Wilson had to play the Bears and Cardinals over that time frame, too, but he got to skip the Seahawks.
If I were picking between Kaepernick and Wilson based on what they did over the entirety of last season, I would pick Wilson. But if we’re talking about 2013 and beyond? Kaepernick has one huge advantage that Wilson simply doesn’t: Jim Harbaugh. Remember that Kaepernick wasn’t even getting the first-team reps during training camp and through half of the regular season; this time last year, there were doubts that Kaepernick would beat out Josh Johnson and Scott Tolzien for the no. 2 spot in San Francisco. (No, really.) (Really.) A full year of practice reps as the unquestioned starter under Harbaugh’s tutelage should only make Kaepernick that much better, right?
Who Was the Best Gang of Four QB in 2012?
This somehow seems harder now than it did before I started making cases for each of these guys. That’s not how this was supposed to work. Hmm.
Given the huge gap between his numbers and the numbers of the other three players, it seems fair to rule out Andrew Luck. I know that Luck didn’t have very much to work with, but he was also facing a cream puff schedule. In addition to his 18 interceptions, Luck also led the league in dropped interceptions last year. He wasn’t on this group’s level. I also have to drop Colin Kaepernick from the discussion, just by virtue of his shortened season. The three other players in this Gang of Four produced an average of 563 touches (pass attempts + rush attempts), while Kaepernick’s late start got him to only 281. Production involves both quality and quantity, and Kaepernick didn’t have enough quantity for 2012.
That leaves Griffin and Wilson. And if I have to pick between the two of them in terms of their overall performance last season, I have to pick Griffin. His completion percentage was higher and his yards per attempt were higher. They each threw 393 passes, and Wilson threw twice as many interceptions. RG3 also ran for more yards per carry and produced more rushing yardage. If you ignore those first few unsteady games from Wilson and compare how they played at the end of the year, you can make a really strong case for Wilson.4 On the whole, though, Griffin was the better player and the most productive member of the Gang of Four last year.
Who Will Be the Best Gang of Four QB in 2013?
4. Or, if you want to make a very weak case, you can argue that Wilson beat Griffin in the playoffs, and that somehow proves that he’s the better quarterback. Just getting in ahead of that one.
OK. Eliminating people made things easier last time, so let’s do that again. I’m going to rule out Kaepernick because he has likely lost his best receiver, Michael Crabtree, for most of the season. Knowing the Harbaugh 49ers, the guy they replace Crabtree with will become an instant Pro Bowl–caliber contributor, but I’ll be a little skeptical for now. One down.
While there continues to be great news out of Washington regarding Robert Griffin’s recovery from knee surgery, the possibility of the knee causing him further problems is meaningful enough to cross him out here. These are high standards. And while I honestly believe that Andrew Luck will take enormous strides this season, he could improve his numbers by a significant margin across the board and still come up short of Russell Wilson’s performance from the second half.
So that leaves Wilson, who picked up a no. 1 wideout over the offseason, Vikings standout Percy Harvin. Even better, Wilson won’t be splitting the first-team practice reps with anybody during training camp this year. I’m pretty comfortable picking him as the best quarterback from the Gang of Four in 2013. (Also, sorry for putting that hex on you, Russell Wilson.)
Who Will Be the Best Gang of Four QB Beyond 2013?
Oh, so you want a long-term estimate of each quarterback’s career arc and respective value? That sounds like you want an NFL Trade Value column. Good news, then — Grantland’s annual look into that very concept is coming next week.