49ers, Seahawks take the riskier path

Jim Harbaugh, as he so often is, was brief and to the point when asked about the change he made at quarterback earlier this season.

“I just felt that was the best thing for our team at that time,” the San Francisco 49ers coach said on a conference call with Seattle-area reporters.

Harbaugh’s 49ers went 13-3 last year with Alex Smith under center and was again in first place this year when Smith had to sit out a game with a concussion. Then the coach decided to hand his offense over to Colin Kaepernick, an unproven but dynamic young quarterback drafted in the second round by San Francisco a year earlier.

And this Sunday in Seattle, Kaepernick will lead the 49ers offense, while rookie Russell Wilson will do the same for the Seahawks.

Back in August, Pete Carroll could have just given the starting job Matt Flynn, the free agent the Seahawks paid big money last spring, but Carroll saw something special in Wilson, so like Harbaugh, he went with the youngster over what looked like the safe pick.

Both coaches chose to go young at quarterback, taking the riskier path, and both by all indications made the right choice. As Harbaugh put it, it was the best thing at that time. Not the best thing for the 49ers’ future; the best move now. When Wilson and Kaepernick face off for the first of what should be many, many meetings, they won’t be young quarterbacks developing along with a rebuilding teams, they will be key players on two of the best teams in the NFC.

Welcome to the new normal in the NFL.

Like everything else in pro football, the view on playing young quarterbacks has evolved over time. For a long time, young quarterbacks just didn’t play unless they were on bad teams that were more focused on future success. And even in recent years when playoff contending teams have handed the reins to inexperienced quarterbacks, they’ve done so hoping their defenses were good enough to win so long as that quarterback didn’t commit too many costly errors. That was the formula for success when Baltimore let Joe Flacco start as a rookie, and when the Steelers won a Super Bowl in Ben Roethlisberger’s second season. Heck, that was how the Seahawks started this season before gradually asking more of Wilson.

But now, playoff contending teams aren’t just surviving with inexperienced quarterbacks, they’re relying on those players to lead the way. As it stands now, six of the 12 teams in playoff positions have starting quarterbacks in their first or second year, including Seattle and San Francisco (though it could be argued that the Vikings are winning in spite of second-year quarterback Christian Ponder, not because of him).

The Seahawks, Redskins and Colts each have a good shot of making the playoffs with rookies who have become much more than caretakers of their teams’ offenses.

There are plenty of reasons for this shift. For starters, draft classes can be cyclical. The past two years have produced several quarterbacks who came in and made an impact right away, but there could easily be a year or two when no rookies come in and start right away.

More than anything, young quarterbacks are playing more because young quarterbacks are coming into the league much better prepared to play the game’s most challenging and important position. Carroll noticed that shift even at the college level, when players like current USC senior Matt Barkley arrived on campus and was almost immediately the team’s best quarterback. And just as quarterbacks going from high school to college are more prepared, so too are the quarterbacks coming into the NFL.

Now that so many young quarterbacks are making an immediate impact, from Cam Newton and Andy Dalton last year to Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III this year, teams will be more willing down the road to turn their offenses over to inexperienced quarterbacks, even teams going into a season with high expectations.

In other words, the bold risks Carroll and Harbaugh are taking this year might not seem so bold in the future.

“I think what came first was the advance development of the young guys, but it does open up the doors and you can see it happening; you’re more apt to go along with the flow and recognize that the talent is there,” Carroll said. “We have a lot of examples now. I don’t know that this will ever move in the other direction. I think it’s really evolved to a point where the young guys coming up are always going to get a chance. So many guys have done so well; I don’t think there’s any going back from that now.”

The Seahawks and 49ers certainly aren’t going back. Even though Matt Flynn and Alex Smith might both be capable starters, these two teams, both likely playoff bound, recognize that their offenses are more explosive with Wilson and Kaepernick leading the way. Between them, they have won two of the last three NFC offensive player of the week awards, and it appear both are only beginning to tap into their full potential.

“The league is changing,” Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson said. “I’ve always said the league is eight to 10 years behind college. You’re starting to see the spread offenses come into the league, you’re starting to quarterback who can run, who can be smart with his body by not taking the big hits, and who can also really throw the ball. You’re starting to see those guys come into the league. I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d be willing to bet in 10 years it’ll be 32 quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, or 32 quarterbacks like RGIII or Andrew Luck. It’s exciting.”

It is exciting. And unlike in the past, talented young quarterbacks aren’t exciting because of what the future might bring. More and more often, they’re exciting right now. Herald columnist John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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