NFL Playoffs: Time for the Veteran Quarterbacks to Take a Back Seat

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NFL Playoffs: Time for the Veteran Quarterbacks to Take a Back Seat
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Robert Griffin III was playing house at the playground in elementary school when Peyton Manning made his NFL debut against the Miami Dolphins in September of 1998. That game saw Manning go against a future Hall of Fame quarterback in the form of Dan Marino.

It was a changing of the guard of sorts in the old AFC East. While Marino came out on top in that game and led Miami to the playoffs with a 10-6 record, everyone knew his time in the NFL was limited. As it turned out, Marino played just one more season in the NFL before hanging his cleats up.

Andrew Luck had just turned 12 and was first starting to think about the female form when second-year quarterback Tom Brady made his first start in September of 2001 against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The game was a whitewash, as a young Brady led his New England Patriots over the Colts, 44-13. It was also the start of a rivalry that still exists on the largest platform the NFL has to offer some 11 years later.

We can play "six degrees of Peyton Manning" all we want, but that's really not what I am attempting to dig into here.

Brady and Manning might be two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. After all, they have combined for 20 Pro Bowl appearances, seven first-team All-Pro honors, seven trips to the Super Bowl and four Lombardi Trophies.

The two have combined to play 26 seasons in the NFL—longer than the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush combined. They have thrown for over 100,000 yards (57 miles) and 770 touchdowns.

In fact, they have more touchdown passes than Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck or Colin Kaepernick has pass attempts.

This goes to show you just how good Brady and Manning have been in their careers. On a less popular note, it also indicates that Father Time is quickly approaching for these two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

The changing of the guard appears to be in full effect right now.

Six of the 12 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs are first- or second-year players. They have combined for exactly half the career starts of Manning alone. When such a large group of young quarterbacks has this type of success in the regular season, it is worth noticing. When they lead their teams to the playoffs, it is time to start paying closer attention.

Does this mean that any of these quarterbacks are going to lead their team to a Super Bowl championship in New Orleans in February? Of course not. It just indicates that the National Football League is quickly evolving into a new type of league with a new breed of quarterback, all right in front of our eyes.

Manning and Brady are your prototypical pocket passers. They will not beat defenses with their legs; instead, their primary way of disposing of defenses is to kill them with their arms.

Meanwhile, RGIII, Wilson, Kaepernick and to a lesser extent Luck run wild against opposing defenses. They have combined for 1,974 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground this season. To put that into perspective, Manning and Brady have tallied 1,476 yards and 31 touchdowns on the ground between the two of them in their careers.

It's one thing to provide that type of production for a mediocre football team (I'm looking at you, Cam Newton). It is an entirely different thing to lead your team to the playoffs while redefining what it means to play quarterback in the NFL.

Whether it is the zone read or the option, this new generation of quarterbacks is extremely hard to guard against on defense. You have to worry about them taking the ball and running with it on the outside. If you close the box and attempt to tackle them behind the line, then it leaves you vulnerable to the downfield pass.

No, I am not talking about a Tim Tebow or Collin Klein type of quarterback either. Instead, these youngsters in the NFL have what it takes to kill defenses in the pocket and are as mechanically sound as they come in their throwing motions.

It really is a killer combination.

Brock Huard explaining how the zone read creates "easy" yards.

When a player like Patrick Willis is out of position and completely lost attempting to guard against a specific play, you know something is rotten in Denmark. This is a situation I found the future Hall of Fame linebacker in multiple times against Wilson in Week 16. A defender really is caught between a rock and a hard place trying to defend against the zone read. Does he go after the quarterback or create a lane for him by dropping back into coverage?

Without speaking ill of Brady and Manning, this is something defenses don't have to plan against in the week leading up to playing them. Defenses can play nickel or zone for a majority of the game and at least game-plan against them.

The same cannot be said when going up against this new generation of quarterbacks.

Prior to the start of the regular season, I focused on the zone read and pistol formations becoming prevalent in the NFL. I looked at how defenses would have a hard time stopping a backfield that included Kaepernick and rookie running back LaMichael James in San Francisco. Little did I know that they would play important roles for the 49ers in the playoffs this January.

The point I made was that this type of scheme and the talent that goes along with it create a tremendous number of issues for defenses. As noted above, it is nearly impossible to guard against.

The Wildcat was a gimmicky way of attempting to catch defenses napping when the Miami Dolphins first started utilizing it a couple years back. While some teams still do feature it once in a while, it is nowhere near as widespread as the formations Brock Huard and I both talked about.

Courtesy of ESPN

One of the primary keys here is having a quarterback with the skill set to beat defenses with his arm and his legs.

Using advanced statistics, I have come to the conclusion that a majority of these first- and second-year quarterbacks will continue to be successful in the future playing the same type of football that led their teams to the playoffs this year.

Brady and Manning rank first and second, respectively, in points added per play. RGIII, Wilson, Luck and Kaepernick all rank in the top 12 in the NFL in that category. Of course, this specific statistic takes into account both running and passing plays.

They are also getting the ball downfield on a consistent basis. Kaepernick (second), Luck (third) and Wilson (seventh) all rank among the top quarterbacks in the NFL in percentage of deep passes (15-plus yards) attempted. All possess a quarterback rating in the top 10 of the NFL in these situations.

Keep defenses guessing with the ball in your hands and then make the split-second decision whether to run with it, drop it off to a running back or throw it downfield.

While these statistics aren't primary indicators of success, they do go a long way in telling us how a young quarterback is performing. A more realistic and clear-cut way of determining success in the NFL is quarterback rating, overall QBR and performance in the final stanza. Let's take a gander at this for a second.

Top Rating for Playoff Quarterbacks 
Player Team QB Rating Total QBR
Aaron Rodgers Packers 108.0 72.5 (fifth) 
Peyton Manning Broncos 105.8 84.1 (first) 
Robert Griffin III Redskins 102.4 71.4 (sixth) 
Russell Wilson  Seahawks 100.0 69.6 (seventh) 
Matt Ryan Falcons 99.1 74.5 (fourth) 
Tom Brady Patriots 98.7 77.1 (second) 
Colin Kaeperick 49ers 98.3 76.8 (third) 

If sabermetrics and advanced statistics won championships in the professional sports world, the Oakland Athletics would have won a World Series once in the last decade. However, what they do is give us scribes something to actually write about without sounding like we are talking off our back end. They also give us an understanding of what front offices focus on when it comes to player evaluation.

It isn't a coincidence that all the quarterbacks listed above rank in the top 10 of the NFL in quarterback rating and total QBR. They have to be doing something right.

If a quarterback doesn't turn the ball over, is completing more than 60 percent of his passes, has a decent yards per attempt total and leads his team to scores, he is going to win a majority of the games he starts.

Manning ranks first among playoff quarterbacks with a 122.3 quarterback rating in the fourth quarter of one-score games. On the other hand, Brady is in the middle of the pack at 84.2. RGIII, Luck and Wilson all have ratings over 92 in this specific situation.

Meanwhile, Kaepernick has a rating of 121.7 in this category. That being said, he has attempted a total of 20 passes in the fourth quarter of one-score games, not much of a sample size compared to the 89 passes attempted by Luck.

Now that your eyes might be bleeding, the above statistic was just to show you exactly how well young quarterbacks have performed in crunch time as rookies or second-year players. Simply astonishing, if you ask me.

The playoff field appears to be wide open, with a majority of the teams having a legit shot at capturing the Lombardi Trophy. If anyone tells you that the teams led by young quarterbacks don't stand a chance against the likes of Manning and Brady, just refer them to the comments section of this article. I will have a friendly debate while going against common logic.

If 2012 has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. After all, I am pretty sure none of us had six teams making the playoffs with first- or second-year quarterbacks under center.

It should be interesting.

 

Follow me on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL

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