Every year, just 12 teams out of 32 make the NFL playoffs. This year, six of them will have quarterbacks playing their first or second season of professional football.
The Bengals, Colts, 49ers, Redskins, Seahawks and Vikings all qualified for the NFL postseason with a rookie or sophomore quarterback. More incredibly, most of those six are making the playoffs thanks in large part to their quarterbacks.
A decade ago, this would have been unheard of. It was standard to sit a rookie quarterback for a year or two before betting your franchise's success on his ability.
But the offensive revolution in college football has turned the world of pigskin on its ear.
Not long ago, "pro-style offense" meant a college offense that featured three- and four-wide receiver sets and the occasional use of the shotgun. Now, "pro-style offense" means an offense that doesn't run four- or five-wide receiver sets as its base out of the shotgun.
Quarterbacks used to come out of college needing years to make the schematic leap up to the professional level, but now, the NFL isn't showing them much they haven't already seen.
A Broken Mold
What do Andy Dalton, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Christian Ponder and Russell Wilson all have in common?
Not that much, and that's the point.
Luck and Kaepernick have prototypical NFL quarterback size; they're 6'4" and 6'5", respectively. Ponder, Griffin and Dalton are all listed at 6'2" and weigh from Ponder's 229 pounds down to Dalton's 215. Wilson is 5'11".
Griffin, Kaepernick and Wilson can all run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds. Luck and Ponder clock in in the 4.6 range, and Dalton's time pushes 4.9.
Dalton, Griffin and Kaepernick all played at smaller schools. Luck, Ponder and Wilson came from traditional power-conference universities.
Luck, Ponder and Wilson all led largely conventional offenses. Dalton and Griffin ran spread variants. Kaepernick ran a new offense so innovative, coaches at every level are studying and copying it.
As prospects, these quarterbacks not only don't fit a common mold, they represent the full range of possibilities. There's absolutely nothing you can point to and say "Here's the trait they all share. If your team drafts a rookie with "X," you'll make the playoffs, too."
Instead of what these quarterbacks have in common, let's look at the teams they run.
Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's success with Dalton got him enough head-coach candidacy buzz he had to address it at his latest press conference, per CBSSports.com.
Let's take a look at what Dalton's been able to accomplish (NSFW warning, audio contains profanity):
A careful observer might note that most of the big plays Dalton's made have gone to his draft classmate, receiver A.J. Green. That's because Cincinnati's pass offense mostly revolves around getting Green open and helping Dalton get the ball to him.
Clearly, it works.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan had years and years of success with his personal variant of Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense, but when he made Robert Griffin III his quarterback, he ripped out huge swaths of his playbook and installed zone read, play-action and other concepts Griffin ran at Baylor.
The results have been devastating:
Those plays show off Griffin's running ability, but Griffin isn't a "running quarterback." Mike Shanahan and his offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, are schematically maximizing Griffin's incredible ability by folding his running into Pro Bowl-level passing.
Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians—who has, of course, also served as interim head coach during Chuck Pagano's leukemia treatment—put Andrew Luck in a position to win by, well, asking Luck to win games for them:
Luck, the best all-around NFL quarterback prospect to come out in years, has been successful right away because he's simply that good. His statistics aren't as outstanding as Griffin's, but he's just as responsible for the Colts' success.
Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has designed the perfect offense to maximize Christian Ponder's utility:
That's right; those are Adrian Peterson highlights. Musgrave knows Ponder is most dangerous when he's handing off to the best running back in the game, so he is digging deep in his playbook for alignments, formations and wrinkles that will keep defenses guessing—even when they know what's coming.
A New Generation
The six young playoff quarterbacks are part of an NFL revolution. They aren't only the ones changing the football world; the coaches are changing as well.
From the high school level on up, football coaches over the past decade or two have been realizing that it's not about finding players who can execute their brilliant offensive system. It's about getting the most out of the talent they have.
Instead of slavish dedication to a particular formation or mindset, coaches are beginning to get the best young players they can and building around their strengths—and weaknesses.