How do young QBs become great?
George Whitfield preached, prodded and pulled every last tactic out of his endless imagination to prepare a talented quarterback named Andrew Luck for the NFL scouting combine a year ago. But as Luck's trip to Indianapolis neared, Whitfield wanted to make sure the kid touted as the best quarterback prospect in more than a decade wasn't going to be seduced by hype.
So as Luck braced for the biggest audition his life, Whitfield offered this advice to his pupil during their final workout. "Don't let them [push] you to the front of the pack," said Whitfield, who runs a quarterback academy in San Diego and counts Luck, Cam Newton and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel among his students. "Make sure you earn it." When Luck nodded in agreement, there was nothing left for Whitfield to say to the Stanford All-American.
Even at that early stage, Luck was contemplating rookie minicamps, training camps and eventually his first season with the Indianapolis Colts.
That attitude helps explain why Luck has surged so quickly to the head of a class of promising young quarterbacks, a group that includes Washington's Robert Griffin III, Seattle's Russell Wilson, Carolina's Newton and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Though none of those players faced quite the same expectations as Luck entering the league, they all are dealing with their own hoopla now. Each has awed the pro football world and left us all wondering just how high they will climb as they learn more about life in the NFL.
"Most quarterbacks, if they're going to get derailed, you'll see that happen around year two or three of their careers," said ESPN analyst and former NFL general manager Bill Polian. "That's when they find out if they can go from being players who transcend the college level with their ability to players who can operate the game at the professional level."
The question for this current group is simple: Who is going to make it to the top and who is going to fall short?
With that in mind, we interviewed people who have been around this current group and great quarterbacks in the past. A panel of 12 people whose backgrounds include playing, coaching, scouting and front-office responsibilities came up with criteria for determining the long-term success of young quarterbacks. Here is a breakdown of where each player ranks in those categories, based on those conversations.
Rankings: 1. Luck 2. Griffin 3. Wilson 4. Kaepernick 5. Newton
Warren Moon fondly remembers the first time he saw genius in Wilson. It was during the Seahawks' rookie minicamp last year, when Wilson was an unheralded third-round pick hoping that his new team would look past his 5-foot-11 frame and see brilliance. Normally first-year players in that position are inclined to do one of two things: wilt or press. But Wilson ran the Seahawks' offense so efficiently that Moon, a Hall of Fame quarterback, couldn't believe the young man's ease with the intricate system.
"I watched how he handled the information, how he ran the huddle and how crisp he was in his execution," Moon said. "The ball was zipping around like he'd been in the NFL for a few years." Wilson was displaying the most obvious trait that separates quarterbacks: smarts. He learned Seattle's offense so quickly that Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll had no choice but to play him over a more highly paid free-agent acquisition, Matt Flynn.
That same high level of intelligence also enabled Luck and Griffin to excel so quickly. One AFC personnel director described Luck as "brilliant" in discussing how Luck had little problem handling the complex playbook former Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians (now the Arizona Cardinals' head coach) threw at him during his first season.
Griffin was equally impressive mastering the offense head coach Mike Shanahan ran in Washington. In fact, former NFL quarterbacks coach Terry Shea, who trained Griffin before last year's combine, said Griffin's mental capabilities are exceptional. "Robert has a very quick mind," Shea said. "He doesn't need a lot of reps to pick things up. He makes one poor decision and he learns not to do that a second time."
This also happens to be an area where Newton and Kaepernick haven't been as impressive as their peers. One AFC quarterbacks coach said "Cam Newton isn't Andrew Luck because he can't fix protection [schemes] on his own."
ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer said Kaepernick is still in the early stages of his development. "What the 49ers are doing with Kaepernick is brilliant," Dilfer said. "It's [offensive coordinator] Greg Roman. It's the pistol [offense] and the power run game. I've told Colin this already, but he's playing remedial football over there. He sees five coverages a game where Tom Brady sees five coverages in his first six snaps. All those guys who run the zone read are seeing about one-tenth of what defenses can throw at them."
Rankings: 1. Griffin 2. Wilson 3. Luck 4. Kaepernick 5. Newton
Shea believes the biggest difference between an extraordinary NFL quarterback and a good one is accuracy. He doesn't just mean completion percentage, either.
"The best quarterbacks have the ability to see the defenders and feel the receivers when they drop back," Shea said. "Their knowledge of the offense is so great that they don't have to lock onto their receivers. They know where their [targets] are supposed to be and they can throw into those windows consistently."
This group hasn't reached that high level of accuracy yet, but it has substantial promise. Griffin led all rookies in 2012 with a completion percentage of 65.6, and Wilson (64.1 percent) and Kaepernick (62.4 percent) also showed a high proficiency in this category.
Luck (54.1 percent) and Newton (57.7 percent) didn't have great numbers, but other factors may have affected their productivity. Luck attempted 627 passes last season (Griffin and Wilson, by comparison, each threw 393), and opposing defenses threw more challenges at Newton than he faced in his rookie season, when he completed 60 percent of his passes).
Still, Griffin and Wilson are the leaders here for more than mere statistics. Shea said Griffin "has rare arm quickness for the position. He has as quick an arm as I've ever been around. When you have that skill, you can hold onto the ball longer and still make plays."
Wilson doesn't have that same trait, but Moon says the second-year Seahawks quarterback "has always been extremely accurate. He was a 70 percent passer in college, and he had high numbers here despite barely having a lot of time to work with guys before his first season. He's done a lot of work with his receivers this offseason, and he's only going to get better."
In Kaepernick's case, some people interviewed believe his accuracy will increase as soon as he develops a better feel as a passer. "He needs more touch," Whitfield said. "Once he gets that, he'll be unstoppable because he's been beating people with a fastball and fast feet. When you see him dropping the ball into receivers in the middle of coverage, that's when his game will go to another level."
Rankings: 1. Luck 2. Wilson 3. Kaepernick 4. Newton 5. Griffin
Long before his success in San Francisco, Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh used to rave about a gifted first-year quarterback he met as a Cincinnati Bengals assistant in 1969. The kid's name was Greg Cook. He was the AFL Rookie of the Year, but his career consisted of just 12 games because of a devastating shoulder injury.
One player in this current group consistently evokes concerns that he could meet a similar fate: Griffin.
Many believe that Newton, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, and Kaepernick, at 6-foot-4 and 230, can handle the punishment when running the football. Luck and Wilson, meanwhile, don't take nearly as many chances with their bodies.
"I really worry about Griffin's longevity," said NFL Network analyst and former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci. "He's already had a concussion and a major knee operation. I've talked to Mike Shanahan, and he thinks he can protect him in the run game better than in the pocket. But those hits [on Griffin] are so frequent. Peyton Manning has played 15 years, and he's faced the fewest hits of anybody in the league."
It will be interesting to see how the Redskins handle Griffin -- who underwent reconstructive surgery for a torn ACL after last season -- given the intense scrutiny of his game. Critics of his constant running include Griffin's father as well as noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, and Shanahan has taken heat for letting his quarterback play injured in a playoff loss to Seattle last season.
Griffin's handling of the attention that followed the injury also has drawn criticism. Said Moon: "I wish RG III would stop talking so much. I've never seen a player talk more about an injury than this guy does. They keep putting him up there to talk and he can't help answering questions honestly. He doesn't need to go through every detail of his rehab."
Rankings: 1. Kaepernick 2. Wilson 3. Griffin 4. Luck 5. Newton
The minute Polian selected Manning with the first pick in the 1998 draft, his next mission as general manager of the Colts was obvious: Find some help for his gifted quarterback. Polian didn't see "help" only as players, either. He wanted coaches who could help Manning blossom over the next decade.
"I remember being in Buffalo and watching how [former Bills quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator] Ted Marchibroda helped a young Jim Kelly," said Polian, who was Buffalo's general manager from 1986 to 1992. "Jim was frustrated because he'd come out of the USFL and he'd never really failed. But he struggled in that first year in Buffalo, and Ted helped him grow from it."
The most common word used to describe the best environment for a young quarterback is "fit." That includes coaches, systems, teammates and, above all else, faith. Said Denver Broncos quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp: "The first thing really is fit. Does the guy fit the building that he's coming into? Is it a really good learning environment? Is there patience? And does that quarterback take over a team with a good defense? You can play a lot differently with a team that has a good defense and good special teams. In the case of a Russell Wilson, Seattle could be patient with him because the pressure wasn't on him to throw all the time."
Wilson and Kaepernick both benefit from exceptional supporting casts that should be together for years. The Seahawks and 49ers both had defenses and rushing attacks that ranked in the top five in the NFL last season. Griffin played with a rookie running back, Alfred Morris, who rushed for a team-record 1,613 yards and a defense that will be improved with the return of injured linebacker Brian Orakpo.
Luck and Newton, on the other hand, work with teams still developing. Newton especially is facing a potentially pivotal point in his young career. His new general manager, Dave Gettleman, already has publicly said that "now it's time to win," and Newton's critics far outnumber those of his peers. Polian went so far as to say, "Newton shouldn't be included with this current group," and another AFC quarterbacks coach added that "he's a 'me' guy at heart. That will always creep into his game. He can't handle criticism and he goes into a shell at times. Does he have all-star talent? Sure. But he needs help."
"I really think Cam is on the verge of going through what Alex Smith faced in San Francisco," Mariucci said. "If [Panthers head coach] Ron Rivera doesn't win enough games, there could be a change there. And Cam could end up taking a step backwards before he takes two steps forward."
Rankings: 1. Wilson 2. Luck 3. Kaepernick 4. Griffin 5. Newton
This is the toughest quality for evaluators to measure. One AFC quarterbacks coach described "urgency" as watching New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees throwing passes during an offseason workout in San Diego with the intensity of a man trying to win the Super Bowl.
Knapp said a day doesn't goes by when Manning isn't hitting him with a text message suggesting some way to improve Denver's offense. "Peyton is just like [Hall of Fame quarterback] Steve Young," Knapp said. "The great ones want to be coached. I'm not going to change his game at this stage of his career, but he takes the insights I give him -- even if it's as simple as footwork details -- and tries to use it to improve his game."
Though every player in this group has displayed his own sense of urgency, Wilson is the front-runner in this category largely because of circumstances. As Seattle's third-round pick last season, he had to compete for the starting job and grow quickly despite limited practice reps with the starters in training camp. How did he do it? By working with the intensity of a 10-year veteran.
Said Moon: "I've never seen a player prepare like Russell Wilson does. If Peyton Manning and Tom Brady prepare harder than this guy does, then I want to see what they do. He came in here with routines for taking care of his body, when he needs to rest, how much he needs to study. He didn't waste a minute last year. The only thing I know he did that wasn't football-related during the season was make visits to the children's hospital on his off days."
Another aspect of urgency is understanding how to avoid distractions. That is an area where Griffin and Kaepernick face the most concerns. Both are in high demand by the media and endorsers, and they've already seen how quickly innocent decisions can morph into controversies. Griffin's relationship with Shanahan has quickly become non-stop soap opera, and Kaepernick ignited an uproar merely by wearing a Miami Dolphins hat in public earlier this summer.
"Everybody expects these guys to make the right decisions all the time," said former NFL head coach Dan Reeves, who coached John Elway in Denver. "Sometimes it doesn't happen that way."
The Bottom Line
Rankings: 1. Luck 2. Griffin 3. Wilson 4. Kaepernick 5. Newton
So which of these players actually is destined for greatness after all that evaluation?
The consensus is that Luck remains the can't-miss player of the group. Moon said, "Andrew doesn't have any weaknesses in his game." An NFC general manager added, "Luck should be a Hall of Famer 15 years from now. He took a team that was 2-14 before he arrived and led it to 11 wins in his rookie year. That's a pretty good start."
As for the others, most people interviewed for this story also see greatness in the futures of Griffin and Wilson. Griffin holds a slight edge because he's more dynamic -- "He can run and he's accurate," said Tuck. But Wilson is the safer bet to be more durable and play longer. Kaepernick is the wild card of the group. Many people think his ceiling could be higher than Griffin's if his game develops steadily. Newton, on the other hand, is at a point in his career where he's likely to plateau if the Panthers keep struggling.
We also might have to adjust our thinking of what exceptional truly means. "We are entering the golden age of quarterbacks," Dilfer said. "I don't know if these guys are better players than the guys who came before them, but the league is set up for them to be better. The rules. The offensive diversity. I think all these guys will be productive, but the one-million-dollar question is how we will define greatness. They will all have great numbers, but it will come down to who has the biggest moments."