In 1983, John Elway, the first pick of that year's draft, started the opening game of his rookie season. The Broncos traveled to Pittsburgh and Elway completed one of eight passes in the first half. He got yanked for his own good.
This year five rookie quarterbacks started opening day, an NFL record. And though those five were more suspect than prospect—four touchdown passes, 11 interceptions combined—they'll have longer ropes before getting yanked.
Football has changed. College isn't an isolationist game anymore; it's more of a feeder program for the passing game of the pros than ever, yielding players who are prepared to acclimate, prepared for change.
But the changing face of the NFL applies beyond just quarterbacks. As the league's 93rd season begins to take shape, here's how I saw the best and worst of players adapting to new places.
September 17, 2012
DALLAS'S NEW CORNERBACKS
After being riddled by Eli Manning and losing the NFC East title to the Giants last year, the Cowboys imported corners Brandon Carr ($50 million in free agency) and Morris Claiborne (a first-round pick out of LSU). That pair stifled Manning in a season-opening win over New York, leading owner Jerry Jones to boast, "Finally we can match up with the great quarterbacks." Imagine this: A Week 17 back-to-the-future showdown, Dallas at Washington, for the NFC East title. It's not the impossible dream.
THE PATRIOTS' NEW STARS
Sturdy rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower scored on a fumble return in a rout of the Titans; 23-year-old back Stevan Ridley outgained formerly all-world Chris Johnson, 125 yards to four; and Brandon Lloyd began paying dividends as the deep threat Tom Brady has lacked. There's a good chance the Pats will never be bad again, in any of our lifetimes.
RONDE BARBER THE FREE SAFETY
Thirty-seven going on 27 and transitioning to a new part-time position, he was the Bucs' best defender on the field in a win over Carolina: one interception, one sack and two tackles behind the line.
... THE BAD AND THE UGLY
THE REST OF THE KID QUARTERBACKS
It's ridiculous to kill first-round, opening-day starters Ryan Tannehill of Miami and Brandon Weeden of Cleveland (combined: zero TDs, seven picks) when their best receiving options are a collection of what would be third and fourth receivers elsewhere. But they have to top their combined 45% completion rate, even if they just check down to running backs.
MARIO WILLIAMS IN BUFFALO
For $16 million a year he has to do better than the one tackle, zero sacks and zero QB hits he had in his Bills debut—especially when the man across the line, Jets right tackle Austin Howard, is a career backup.
THE NEW NEW ORLEANS
In a stunning home loss to Washington, Drew Brees threw 28 incompletions while suspended coach and mentor Sean Payton watched from afar in Dallas. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo saw a debuting QB torch his unit for 40 points and 464 yards. There's not much time for interim coach Aaron Kromer to get things straightened out: The Saints face Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers (both away) and Philip Rivers during Kromer's remaining games in charge.