RGIII is special. Other rookie QBs could be...but not yet
The NFL likes to sell itself as the league where anything can happen. On any given Sunday, the saying goes, any team can beat any other team. In any given season, you can pretty much guarantee that at least one team will emerge from nowhere to challenge for a title; at least one will fall apart in a way that nobody had thought possible.
In truth, though, we all know there are limits. TJ Yates will never have a 5,000-yard season; the Cleveland Browns will never finish top of the AFC North; and a rookie quarterback playing in his first professional game will never outshine Drew Brees in the Superdome.
After just 20 minutes of his NFL debut, Robert Griffin III was already well on the way to doing exactly that: completing 10 of his first 11 passes (including all of the first eight) and throwing two touchdowns to catapult the Washington Redskins – a team who, lest we forget, won only five games last year – into a 17-7 lead. By the time the game ended he had completed 19 of 26 for 320 yards, adding a further 42 in the running game. Washington won 40-32.
Great things were always expected of RGIII, the second overall pick in this year's NFL draft and a player who many believed to be a better prospect than the man taken before him: Andrew Luck. But even his most fervent supporters cannot truly have expected quite so much, quite so soon.
For while his 88-yard hook-up with Pierre Garcon for the first score was spectacular, even more impressive was the composure in the pocket – the ease with which he stepped away from pass rushers and took what the defense gave him. Cam Newton's record-breaking debut last year was more eye-catching, but the sight of RGIII, midway through the second quarter, eschewing a mad dash for the marker on third and six in favour of what would become a 27-yard completion to Santana Moss spoke to a rare maturity.
It will not always look this easy, and there will be much worse days ahead. Just before his second touchdown, Griffin threw a pass that on another day would have been intercepted. As Dan Graziano wrote on ESPN.com, "the Redskins are not going 16-0". Even in the NFL some things are still impossible. Just not as many as we once thought.
But rookie greatness is still the exception, not the rule.
Luck did some good things on his NFL debut too. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback and first overall pick in this year's draft completed 23 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown. But he also threw three interceptions and had a further 19 passes fall incomplete. And his team lost to the Chicago Bears, 41-21.
That, of course, is normal. The terrific rookie seasons enjoyed last year by Newton and Andy Dalton might have allowed fans and coaches to kid itself that college football – where pro-style offenses have grown more and more prevalent – is now routinely churning out NFL-ready signal callers, but the truth is that most still require time to bed in.
Indeed, Luck's predecessor in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning, posted eerily similar numbers on his Colts debut, going 21 of 37 for 302 yards, one touchdown and, yup, three interceptions. We all know how that worked out.
Luck was joined by Miami's Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland's Brandon Weeden and Seattle's Russell Wilson on Sunday in opening their careers with a defeat. All threw interceptions, and all made plenty of other makes besides. But none should be judged too harshly just yet. Rookie quarterbacks are not supposed to dominate straight away, even if one or two sometimes do.
Peyton Manning: still got it
As for Manning himself, were we really worried about whether he could be able to cut it in a new setting? He certainly did not look too rusty on his Denver Broncos debut – completing 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and two scores against a Pittsburgh Steelers defence which ranked top in the league last season.
Fears about his body's ability to stand up to a full NFL season following the four neck surgeries that cost him the entire 2011 season cannot be answered in a single game, and will remain a lingering concern for all Broncos fans. But after seeing him join Dan Marino and Brett Favre as the only three quarterbacks ever to have thrown for 400 career touchdowns, they will know that Manning still retains the touch and vision which brought him the first 399.
The Jets are not as bad as advertised
Buffalo were a fashionable pick to win at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, with many observers (ahem) predicting that, following defensive line upgrades this offseason, the Bills were ready to surpass the Jets as the greatest challengers to the New England Patriots in the AFC East. New York, meanwhile, were set for a quarterback controversy, with Mark Sanchez to inevitably struggle and the calls for Tim Tebow to begin.
For a moment things appeared to be going according to that script, Tebow reminding us of his existence with a cameo at wide receiver on the game's very first play before Sanchez finished the same series with an interception. But the twist was not long in coming. Rather than Sanchez, who finished up throwing three touchdowns and no more picks, it was Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick who came rapidly unstuck against New York's ball-hawking secondary. He was intercepted three times as New York romped home 48-28.
Beyond the defense, New York could take further encouragement from the performance of rookie wide receiver Stephen Hill – who caught five passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns. While the Jets can look forward to his further development, the Bills were left sweating on a knee injury to running back Fred Jackson – though it must be said that CJ Spiller did not perform too shabbily in his absence.
The Tim Tebow Show, meanwhile, never really materialised – with the player getting just five carries out of the Wildcat. "I think you can never have too much Tebow," opined the New York Jets owner Woody Johnson this summer. But after a start like this, Rex Ryan will believe his team had just the right amount.
San Francisco have come back stronger
The 49ers and Packers were supposed to meet in last year's NFC title game – before fate and the New York Giants intervened. But if any fans might be tempted to treat this game as indicative of how that match-up might have played out then one point must be immediately noted. Randy Moss was not on San Francisco's roster in January.
If the evidence of this game is to be trusted then Moss – even after a year away from the game – can provide the 49ers with another important weapon at receiver, quarterback Alex Smith exploiting the player's speed on a 20-yard sideline pass on his team's second drive, then his capacity for finding the gaps in a defence on a 14-yard scoring strike early in the second quarter.
Then again, Smith looked good even when he wasn't throwing to Moss, orchestrating five consecutive scoring drives at one stage as he led his team to a 30-22 win. With the defense playing up to their usual standard, Jim Harbaugh's team look very much like a team set to challenge once again in the NFC.
The efforts of kicker David Akers should also be noted after he equalled an NFL record by converting a 63-yard field goal – via the crossbar – just before half-time. And while we're talking kickers, Minnesota's rookie Blair Walsh deserves a mention after marking his debut with a successful kick from 55 yards to force overtime against Jacksonville – arguably an even more impressive feat, given the do-or-die context.
Celebrating a touchdown is not as easy as it looks
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image: © Keith Allison