RENTON, Wash. — Starting was Russell Wilson’s objective from the beginning, one he aimed for as soon as the Seahawks drafted him in the third round back in April.
“It definitely started as a goal,” Wilson said. “I have high expectations of myself. I always have, and I always will. That will never waver.”
That he earned that spot is about more than just Wilson’s ambition. It reflects a change in the league as a whole as NFL teams are increasingly willing to start rookies from Day 1.
That was the case last year with Cam Newton in Carolina and Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, who became the sixth and seventh rookie quarterbacks to start Week 1 in the previous four seasons. That matched the total number from the 10 years combined (see chart).
This year, Wilson is one of five rookies expected to start at quarterback in the season opener, the most of any NFL season. Whether it’s Andrew Luck in Indianapolis or Robert Griffin III in Washington, Ryan Tannehill in Miami or Brandon Weeden in Cleveland, rookie quarterbacks are standing front and (under) center sooner than ever before.
“The kids are learning how to play the position,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “And they’re taught so well and so much earlier, that when they get to us, they’re just better-equipped than they were in years past. Not anything against all the wonderful quarterbacks that came out in years past, but it’s just different.”
Carroll said he recognized that change as a college coach when Matt Barkley showed up on USC’s campus and five days into practice, it was evident he was the best quarterback on the team. No redshirt season. No waiting. Plug and play.
The stakes are different in the NFL, the margin for error is smaller, but the principal is the same even when a team has veterans on hand, as Seattle did with Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson.
The old NFL playbook for grooming a quarterback would have called for putting Wilson on the back burner. He was a third-round pick, after all. No need to rush him. Let Flynn and Jackson compete to be the starter this season while Wilson simmered for a year, maybe two, before giving him a real opportunity to earn playing time.
Any chance of that happening went out the window within two weeks of the draft after Wilson took nearly every snap during 11-on-11 drills at a three-day rookie minicamp. That convinced Carroll that Wilson was worthy of consideration in Seattle’s competition for the starting job.
Over the past three weeks, Wilson was more productive in the exhibition games than Flynn, earning the top job. Starting a rookie quarterback isn’t just a decision, it’s a commitment. It’s a willingness to suffer some short-term growing pains for the long-term benefits.
Old-time football men love nothing more than to talk about the learning curve in the league. It’s why former coach Steve Mariucci once said the best place to play a rookie quarterback is “clipboard.” It’s also the reason that in 1999, when five quarterbacks were among the first 12 players drafted, not one started in Week 1 of their debut season.
Times have changed. Quarterbacks are getting their chances earlier or — in Wilson’s case — earning that opportunity sooner.
“For my name to be called for this football team is pretty special,” Wilson said. “I’ve tried to do everything possible to prepare myself and prepare our football team to be great.”