Of all the stories that unfolded during the preseason and extended into the regular season, none was more intriguing or captivating than the emergence of the young guns. They're now, surprisingly, everywhere.
Five rookie quarterbacks -- Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Washington's Robert Griffin III, Miami's Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland's Brandon Weeden and Seattle's Russell Wilson -- are scheduled to start on opening day, the most since three started openers in 1968 and 1969.
Combined with last year's draft class, there will be 10 starting quarterbacks on opening day who are rookies or entering their second seasons -- three more than the previous high in 2000, when teams started seven quarterbacks in their first or second seasons.
In other words, nearly a third of all teams are building around inexperienced quarterbacks. What other conclusion can be drawn but that the league has entered into unprecedented times? Especially with these rookie quarterbacks.
This is the most decorated rookie quarterback class the league has seen. It doesn't mean these quarterbacks will turn out to be as productive as the class of 1983, which had John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Todd Blackledge and Ken O'Brien. But it does mean this class is rewriting the rules of how rookie quarterbacks are viewed.
They now are being counted on to contribute from the jump. And of all the rookies, none is better prepared to do it than Luck, the No. 1 overall pick.
During this summer of quarterback talk, the most interesting and thought-provoking statement came from a Colts executive who declared that he believed Luck already is "one of the top five quarterbacks in football."
Think about that. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger. And yet this Colts executive believes Luck is better than at least four of those quarterbacks. And he was not alone.
One NFL coach who watched Luck play this summer said he also would include Luck in a list of the game's top five quarterbacks. Another NFL executive said Luck is the most well-prepared quarterback to enter the NFL. Ever. Three men, three glowing opinions.
It all seems like so much, so soon. Yet rookie quarterbacks seem to be making plenty possible these days.
Told about the statements of those NFL men, that Luck already is among the top five quarterbacks in the game and the most prepared quarterback ever to enter the league, ESPN analyst (and former Colts president) Bill Polian scoffed. "Let's see him win a game or two first," Polian said.
Luck's first game is Sunday against Chicago. Time for Luck, and the rest of this rookie quarterback class, to get to work.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
1. Seeking a breakthrough: See if this sounds familiar, and see if you can guess which quarterback is being described: Quarterback arrives at a franchise in the gutter, bringing hope. Quarterback shines in regular season but struggles in postseason. Quarterback loses each of his first three playoff games, despite playing with one of the game's top wide receiver tandems. Quarterback faces questions entering his fifth season about when or whether he will win games that matter.
Anyone say Matt Ryan? Good guess, but the correct answer is Peyton Manning, who arrived in Indianapolis when the franchise was struggling, performed well in the regular season, lost his first three postseason games, then faced questions about whether he could win a big game.
As ESPN Radio host Mike Greenberg recently pointed out, Ryan's career is starting to resemble Manning's. Ryan certainly will have to accomplish plenty to achieve the milestones Manning has. But at this point, his career is precisely where Manning's was at a similar time. If anything, Ryan has been more impressive.
After four seasons, Ryan has completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 14,238 yards with a 95-46 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio and a won-loss record of 43-19. Through four seasons, Manning had completed 61 percent of his passes for 16,418 yards, a 111-81 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio and a 32-32 record.
When Manning was at the same stage of his career, then-Colts coach Tony Dungy pulled aside his quarterback and told him how the public once said Michael Jordan couldn't win the big game. A short time later, during the 2003 season, Manning's Colts beat the Broncos 41-10 in a wild-card game. Once Manning had one postseason win, he strung together many, including a victory over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. His standing was solidified.
Now Ryan is out to silence the skeptics and critics the way Manning once did. Ryan acts like Manning. He knows the game and appreciates its history the way Manning does. Entering his fifth season, with Atlanta opening Sunday at Kansas City, Ryan is looking to break through the way Jordan once did, the way Manning once did. But at a time when he's coming under fire, it's worth pointing out that it's still early for Ryan.
2. A good bet for success: When NFL teams were scouting quarterbacks, they should have done a better job of listening to Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema about former Badger Russell Wilson. The day after Seattle named Wilson its starting quarterback, Bielema said on a conference call that he knew it would happen.
"By NCAA rules, I cannot bet," Bielema said. "But I bet you I've told hundreds of people since draft day, he's going to be the starter in Seattle. Got texts from several ESPN people that I've been conversing with over the course of the last six months and they said, 'You were right.'
"Coach [Barry] Alvarez and I, when we sat down sometime after the draft, we both kind of said, 'We know they paid a lot of money to get [Matt] Flynn, but until you see what Russell Wilson does behind the scenes and what he does on game days ... he's so contagious.' Someone sent me a video clip ... and just to see him kind of engage in that locker room, I walked out of there, I'm like, 'He's got that locker room wrapped around his finger now.' I shot him a text and said, 'Congrats, keep working, take it a day at a time.' And his standard [response]: 'Thanks, Coach. God is amazing. Love you, Coach.' That's who he is. That's what he is every day. That's why he's where he's at."
Yet as much as Wilson has impressed, Seattle appears to have hit pay dirt on other draft picks as well. First-round pick Bruce Irvin showed elite speed this summer and had a handful of quarterback pressures in Seattle's preseason game against Kansas City. Fourth-round pick Robert Turbin has looked bigger, stronger and faster than starting running back Marshawn Lynch, whom he could one day supplant. Seventh-round pick J.R. Sweezy has played well enough to become the starting right guard. And there's Wilson. Seattle's front office, led by general manager John Schneider, drafted the equivalent of a triple espresso shot. This year's rookie class has given the Seahawks life.
3. Schwartz in the spotlight: Get the cameras ready and focused on Lions coach Jim Schwartz. On Sunday, Schwartz will be matched against Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who has been one of his mentors and friends from the 10 seasons they spent together in Tennessee. The next Sunday, Schwartz will be on the opposite sideline of San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, with whom he had last season's most notorious postgame handshake/patdown/showdown. This past week, Schwartz insisted Sunday's game has nothing to do with his close connection to Fisher, who will be coaching his first game with the Rams after spending last season out of football. Many left the subject alone. But there's no way that a Schwartz-Harbaugh showdown in San Francisco's home opener will be left alone, not in an age when coaches' postgame handshakes have become central storylines in today's games.
4. A rookie rush: While the spotlight continues to shine on rookie quarterbacks, it would be a mistake to overlook rookie pass-rushers. Last season, five rookies -- Aldon Smith in San Francisco, Von Miller in Denver, Adrian Clayborn in Tampa Bay, Jabaal Sheard in Cleveland and Marcell Dareus in Buffalo -- led their teams in sacks. Now, just as rookie quarterbacks are poised to shine again this season, rookie pass-rushers look as if they're going to do the same. A handful of rookies exploded onto the scene during organized team activities and the preseason, including New England's Chandler Jones, San Diego's Melvin Ingram, Houston's Whitney Mercilus and Seattle's Irvin. Nobody should be surprised if any -- or all -- of these players leads his team in sacks this season. And although quarterback play is the most important factor in determining who reaches the Super Bowl, the second-most important just might be a team's pass rush. Rookies will matter here.
5. Vick on the run: Now it's a bit easier to understand why the Eagles inquired about the availability of Peyton Manning, explored a trade up to the No. 2 spot to draft Griffin and had a private session with Tannehill before his pro day at Texas A&M. The Eagles can't fully trust Michael Vick to play a full season. In four preseason series, Vick bruised his thumb and bruised his ribs. Now, Vick and the Eagles will be lining up each Sunday against some of the league's top pass-rushers. The Eagles' opponents combined for 625 sacks last season, which is the fifth most by any group of combined opponents for a team in 2012, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It looks as though Griffin, Weeden, Roethlisberger and Flacco also will be on the run quite a bit more than other quarterbacks. The Redskins' opponents this season combined for 649 sacks last season, Browns opponents had 636, Steelers opponents registered 635 and Ravens opponents rang up 630.
6. Browns going green: Even with five rookie starting quarterbacks in the league, there is not an offense -- or roster -- as young and inexperienced as Cleveland's. The Browns' 53-man roster includes a whopping 15 rookies and 11 players entering their second seasons, meaning almost half of Cleveland's players don't have more than a year of NFL experience. Cleveland is expected to start Weeden at quarterback, rookie running back Trent Richardson and rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and also lean heavily on rookie wide receivers Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin. So when the Browns go to one-back, four-receiver sets, they will have five rookies on the field. And even the wide receivers Gordon and Benjamin will be paired with aren't exactly loaded with experience. Starter Mohamed Massaquoi is entering his fourth season and Greg Little is entering his second. So Cleveland's four-receiver sets will have five seasons of NFL experience. But where Cleveland did pick up some experience on offense is with former Vikings coach Brad Childress, its new offensive coordinator. Childress' presence has enabled head coach Pat Shurmur to spread his focus among the offense, defense and special teams, which should help the team. The Browns believe they finally have some of the weapons to compete with the other three teams in their division. And they soon will add their biggest weapon: Every NFL executive who knows new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam swears by him. They insist that if any one person is capable of turning around this franchise, Haslam is the guy. He might turn out to be the most important Brown since Jim Brown.
7. A power shift in Chicago: For years, the Bears have been known for their defense. Defense helped Chicago to its only Super Bowl title. It carried the Bears to the playoffs every time they went in recent seasons. But for the first time in a long time, the offense might just be the strength of this team. Quarterback Jay Cutler is back after suffering a broken right thumb that former NFL coach Bill Parcells believes was the most devastating injury of the 2011 season. Running back Matt Forte is back after signing a long-term extension and is matched with former Raiders running back Michael Bush, giving Chicago one of the best one-two running back combinations in franchise history. It will be difficult for almost every NFC North cornerback to cover new Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, along with second-round draft pick Alshon Jeffery. Chicago has offensive line questions, but it has enough playmakers to mask some of those deficiencies. Meanwhile, Chicago's defense might just be past its prime. Linebacker Brian Urlacher, 34, has nagging knee issues that threaten to linger all season, linebacker Lance Briggs turns 32 in November and defensive end Julius Peppers already is 32. All are still top players, but this season the Bears might have to ride their offense, not their defense, to the playoffs.
8. Woodson just keeps getting better: In the early part of his NFL career, Charles Woodson was ridiculed across the league for the immature ways in which he conducted himself. He was criticized for being out too late and too often, for not taking football and life seriously enough. But after he moved from Oakland to Green Bay, Woodson transformed himself from a man about town to simply a man. Now Woodson is one of the most respected players in the league, not only for what he does on the field but for what he does off it as well. One of the most impressive sights this offseason was seeing Woodson help raise more than $1.35 million for C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich. Woodson attacked his fundraising efforts as aggressively as he did his offseason conditioning. The way Woodson interacted with donors as well as children in the hospital was beyond impressive. On the field, he has rounded out his Hall of Fame résumé. Last season, at age 35, Woodson tied 25-year-old Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington and 26-year-old Chargers safety Eric Weddle for the league lead with seven interceptions. Woodson has made up for any physical decline with his mental approach. In nickel and dime packages, he'll often cover the opponent's slot receiver, and at other times he's used at safety. But Green Bay needs his ballhawking abilities, which is a testament to Woodson's talents and longevity. At the rate he partied in Oakland, few thought Woodson would last this long or be this good. But as he prepares to enter his 15th season, Woodson has become one of the game's greatest and underrated ambassadors.
9. Patience, please: Nobody is saying Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is elite. But he should hardly be the maligned quarterback he has been this offseason and preseason, either. At this stage of his career, Sanchez's stats exceed the ones Eli Manning posted during his first three seasons. Sanchez has a .574 winning percentage, compared with the .513 that Manning had after his first three seasons. Sanchez has completed 55.3 percent of his passes, compared with Manning's 54.1. Sanchez has a 55-51 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio, compared with Manning's 54-44. And Sanchez has won four road playoff games, whereas Manning didn't win any playoff games in his first three seasons. Sanchez hasn't been a Pro Bowl quarterback, but he hasn't been bad either, and his career is still young. New York forgets how it once questioned whether Manning could be elite for the Giants. Now it questions and, more often, criticizes Sanchez, wondering whether he can make the same jump Manning did.
10. The ins and outs of the playoffs: The NFL is, above all else, one giant surprise party. Surprises come every year, with numbers and teams. Last season marked the first time in NFL history that three teams -- Green Bay, New Orleans and New England -- scored at least 500 points. A record-tying six teams -- Green Bay, New England, New Orleans, San Francisco, Baltimore and Pittsburgh -- won at least 12 games. But the biggest surprises always involve who makes the playoffs and who doesn't. Every year it seems like the playoff teams are nearly preordained. And every year they are not. Last season, for the 16th consecutive year, at least five new teams advanced to the postseason. Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Houston, the Giants and San Francisco went from out of the playoffs to in last season. The six repeat playoff teams were New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New Orleans and Atlanta. Yet of the 12 playoff teams from the 2011 season, at least five will not make it this season -- book it. It seems as though it can't happen, but it will. It always does. One prediction on some new potential playoff teams for the coming season: Philadelphia, Carolina, Chicago, Seattle, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Kansas City, San Diego. The curtain is about to go up on sports' biggest surprise party.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: San Francisco at Green Bay. One of the league's top defenses squares off against one of the league's top offenses in a matchup that could be an NFC Championship Game preview.
• Player of the week: Ravens running back Ray Rice. With Baltimore's new no-huddle offense, Rice gets his team out to a quick start.
• Upset of the week: Buccaneers over Panthers. Carolina and Cam get the first taste of how different the Buccaneers under Greg Schiano will be.