Ryan paved the way for Wilson

RENTON — Last week was a reminder of how special this crop of rookie quarterbacks has been as Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III faced off in a playoff game.

This week, the Seahawks’ rookie phenom Wilson will play against one of the quarterbacks who helped pave the way for Wilson, Griffin and Andrew Luck, all of whom led their teams to the postseason as rookies.

Before 2008, it was hardly unusual for rookies to start in the NFL, but success was rarely expected. But that year, both Matt Ryan, whose Falcons host the Seahawks Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff game, and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco showed that rookie quarterbacks and winning need not be mutually exclusive.

Flacco’s Ravens had a stout defense, a strong rushing attack, and after an inconsistent start, they finished strong to make the playoffs with an 11-5 record. The Falcons didn’t put a lot of responsibility on Ryan as a rookie, but he handled what was asked of him very well, helping his team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. Sound familiar?

A lot of factors have contributed to more and more NFL teams, even ones with playoff aspirations, turning their offenses over to rookies. Most importantly, quarterbacks are coming into the league more prepared than they ever have before, the result of better preparation from the youth level all the way through college, but it also helps that coaches and general managers have seen teams succeed in recent years with rookies under center.

Before the 2008 season, only six rookie quarterbacks had started playoff games in NFL history. Then Flacco and Ryan did it in 2008, followed by Mark Sanchez in 2009 and Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates last year (though Yates was only playing because of injuries to Houston’s top two quarterbacks). And then there’s this year, with three rookie quarterbacks in the postseason.

It’s as if Ryan and Flacco were something of pioneers for young quarterbacks.

“Ha,” Ryan said when that suggestion was made on a conference call. “That’s not something I think about all that often. I will say this: I’ve been incredibly impressed with those young guys and especially Russell when you watch the season that he’s had. He’s a good person. I met him before when he was at NC State and I’m happy for him.”

Wilson has been impressed by Ryan from afar, both the rookie version and the current one, but he didn’t necessarily look to him or any other quarterback who succeeded as a rookie for inspiration.

“I don’t really pay attention in terms of what somebody else has done,” Wilson said. “I want to solidify myself just by the way I work, the way I practice and the way I play. It has been great to obviously watch guys like Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco be successful, and then obviously this year, there have been tons of (rookies) playing at a high level. It’s a tribute to the coaches and the players just in general and the hard work that it takes.

“This game is not easy. Especially playing the quarterback position, playing as a rookie, it’s as hard as it gets and you have to mentally be tough, you have to be on a constant quest for knowledge, you have to be a great leader with great attention to detail, and you have to have a real competitive nature. That’s what I try to bring to the table.”

And while experience is huge for any player, and especially for a quarterback, Wilson’s youth isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as the pressure ratchets up in the postseason.

“In hindsight, yeah, you look back and you say, ‘Man, I didn’t know this, I didn’t know that,’ but sometimes being naive isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Ryan said. “You go out there, you prepare as best you can, and you go play, and you have to trust in your talent. To a certain extent, when you look back, you wish at that point you would have known what you know now. But at the same time, the competitor in you expects to go out there be able to compete and be able to play.”

And ever since Ryan helped pave the way for rookies in 2008, more and more young quarterbacks are competing, playing, and most importantly for their teams, winning in spite of their inexperience.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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