PASS IT FORWARD

Four young quarterbacks took the league by storm in 2012, but how quickly—and how high—will they rise? SI compared each with a Super Bowl champion, showing ways in which the past could be prologue
September 02, 2013

WHY RG3 = JOHN ELWAY

When You're Born to Run, It Doesn't Mean You Can't Be the Gunslinger

"IF YOU'VE got a guy who's got the talented arm and he can make off-scheduled plays—that gives you a chance to win Super Bowls," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan says. He's not just referring to John Elway, with whom he won a pair of Lombardi Trophies in Denver. He's also talking about Robert Griffin III, with whom he hopes to win more in Washington.

Griffin's speed—he ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL combine—makes him unique among quarterbacks, but he is more than a runner just as Elway was more than a passer. "I don't think there is any question that both of these guys are outstanding athletes, and with that comes not only the ability to throw the football but the versatility they give your offense," says Dan Reeves, the Broncos' coach for the first decade of Elway's career.

Shanahan won titles with Elway and—as the 49ers' offensive coordinator—the similarly mobile Steve Young, experiences that sold him on Griffin's value. Elway never rushed for 815 yards in a season, as Griffin did as a rookie, nor was he the triggerman on the zone-read-option plays that were a significant part of Washington's offense in 2012. But early in his 16-year NFL career "my athleticism is kind of what carried me," says Elway, 53, who is now executive vice president of the Broncos. (His career high for rushing yards was 304, in 1987.) Denver did use quarterback draws and scramble sets, putting pressure on the defense by releasing Elway outside the pocket. From there he could either tuck the ball and run or buy time for a receiver to get open.

Elway's greatest skills were creating with his legs and throwing deep. In Griffin, Reeves has observed the same ability to scramble, keep an eye downfield and connect on a big pass play.

As the Redskins' QB continues to develop, chasing the vast expectations he quickly created, he may resemble Elway in another way—one that became obvious after Griffin's reconstructive right-knee surgery last January. Elway eventually came to rely more on his arm than on his legs as his ability to read defenses and anticipate throws increased and age rendered his body less able to rebound from hits. "That's going to be one of the key things with RG3: Is he going to be able to make that transition?" Reeves says. "He's fortunate to have a coach that's had that experience."

Jenny Vrentas

WHY ANDREW LUCK = PEYTON MANNING

When You Lose a Legend, It Doesn't Mean You're Out of Luck

TENSE. That's how the older members of the Colts remember practices in the Peyton Manning era, especially on Fridays. Manning fostered tension—thrived on it. It was an approach to the game that he'd brought from the University of Tennessee. Former Volunteers and later Ravens running back Jamal Lewis remembers dreading the moment he'd drop a practice pass from the 21-year-old Manning. "When you got back into the huddle, you didn't even want to look him in the eye," Lewis says. "He'd give you this ugly, cockeyed look. Everybody who's played with him has seen it."

Manning used that look in Indianapolis with well-documented success, rising to MVP of Super Bowl XLI. But with injury and age weighing on him, he was released after the 2011 season, making way for the top pick of the '12 draft, Andrew Luck. The rookie threw for 4,374 yards and led the Colts to an improbable postseason berth, inevitably drawing comparisons to his predecessor. Luck has the arm strength that Manning, now the Broncos' QB, once boasted, and the same obsession with preparation. But there's one way in which he's very different.

"In practice he has fun," says Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who gained 10,602 of his 13,063 career receiving yards on passes from Manning's right hand. "He's like a big kid out there playing Pee Wee football."

The dog days are dogged no more in Anderson, Ind., site of the Colts' training camp. There's time and tolerance for celebratory water-bottle showers among the defensive linemen and for prolonged postplay wrestling for ball possession among receivers and defensive backs. If a receiver fails to sprint downfield after a completion—or, worse, drops a pass—Luck shrugs it off and moves on. Manning would have remonstrated. That's not a habit Luck is likely to develop as he gains experience and confidence.

"It's just not Andrew's style, not his personality," says Colts safety Antoine Bethea, another holdover from the Manning era. "He's intense in a different way."

Luck doesn't like to compare himself to Manning; he seems embarrassed (though "tremendously honored," he says) to be likened to an NFL great only one season into his pro career. "Peyton set the bar for being a quarterback," Luck says, "and certainly for being a quarterback in this town. But I do not live in Peyton Manning's world. I feel like the media has made me out to be more like him than I really am."

Personality differences aside, the weight on their respective shoulders has hardly been the same. The Colts under team president and vice chairman Bill Polian had a bend-don't-break defense, putting a huge burden on Manning as he carried the offense. Under second-year G.M. Ryan Grigson, defensive upgrades have balanced the responsibility, and there's no expectation for Luck to be someone he isn't. That's more than O.K. with him.

"One of the good things about being here," he says, "is I don't feel I'm being held to some Peyton Manning standard. I'm just trying to be me."

Robert Klemko

WHY COLIN KAEPERNICK = STEVE YOUNG

When You Can Play Fast And Loose, It Doesn't Mean You Can't Be a Precision Weapon

HE PLAYS FOR Steve Young's former team and has a similar skill set. So it's inconvenient to point out that Colin Kaepernick, a native of Wisconsin, grew up idolizing Brett Favre, whose Packers knocked San Francisco out of NFC playoffs three straight years during the prime of Young's career. In particular, Kaepernick admired Favre's supreme self-assurance, his inclination to attack. "He played without fear," the 49ers' quarterback recalled before heading into a meeting at training camp. "He just went out there and winged it."

The Kaepernicks moved to Turlock, Calif., when Colin was four, and brought their Cheeseheads with them. While the boy's allegiance remained with Favre, he became aware of and intrigued by the play of Young. "He was different from most quarterbacks, as far as the scrambling, what he was able to do with his legs," Kap says. "And he went out and he won games."

Hmm. Whom else could Kaepernick be describing? He has far more in common with Young than he did with Favre—parallels that extend beyond their on-field styles and NFL teams. Both played in the Western Athletic Conference (Young at BYU, Kaepernick at Nevada); both wound up with the Niners; both became embroiled in quarterback controversies that ended when the other guy got traded to the Chiefs (Joe Montana in 1993, Alex Smith last March).

Kaepernick's career has mirrored Young's, albeit in highly condensed form. It took Young 10 seasons to make it to the Super Bowl as a starter. (He was the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX, San Francisco's 49--26 rout of the Chargers.) It took Kaepernick 10 games—the final 10 of his second season. "I mean, the first competitive NFL two-minute drill he had in his career was in the Super Bowl to win it," Young recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. "And he almost did!"

"Inevitably," Young added, "there will be challenges. And he'll learn along the way."

Yes, the equation seems not quite balanced. Young endured the trials of Job before finally vaulting out of Montana's shadow. Where is Kaepernick's adversity? Ten starts, and he's on stage accepting an ESPY for best breakout athlete. Ten starts, and his jersey is the NFL's best seller? The 25-year-old generated a fair amount of tongue-clucking in the off-season by appearing to have fun. There were reports of him taking his leisure at the Playboy mansion with Dodgers sensation Yasiel Puig. He provoked a media furor by ... wearing a Dolphins hat to the beach.

Did any of that behavior faze the 49ers' coach? "He's had an outstanding off-season," Jim Harbaugh says. "Top-notch."

"During OTAs I'd get here pretty early," says wide receiver Kyle Williams. "This is before our workouts. I see this guy out on the field running 200-yard sprints. Kap works harder than everybody."

"If you don't do that," explains Kaepernick, "people aren't gonna respect you as a leader, they're not gonna want to follow you, because you're not putting in the same work they are."

And so Kaepernick enters his first full season as a starter. Without apology. Without an established second receiver to play opposite Anquan Boldin. Without fear.

Austin Murphy

WHY RUSSELL WILSON = DREW BREES

When You're Barely Six Feet, It Doesn't Mean Your Career Is Six Feet Under

LAST SEASON'S Pro Bowl was special for Russell Wilson. The Seahawks' star became one of only nine quarterbacks ever selected for the game as a rookie, and he met his athletic idol, Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Wilson's interest in Brees borders on obsession. He thinks, throws, talks, prepares and generally carries himself like the former Super Bowl MVP, who is as classy as he is talented. Wilson is so versed on all things Brees that he didn't have any burning questions when he finally sat and chatted with him. "I pretty much knew everything about him already," Wilson said later. "I had read his book twice."

His admiration for Brees began when he was a teenager in Richmond. Each time Russell watched Brees on TV, he saw himself: a player who refused to accept critics' contention that he was too short. Brees, who is listed generously at six feet, won a Big Ten championship at Purdue and an NFL title with the Saints. He accomplished those feats by pushing himself on the field and immersing himself in the playbook off it. He believed failure was a stepping stone, not a setback, and he lavished attention on the smallest details—attitudes that the 5'5" Wilson adopted.

Last season, during a lull in practice, then Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley asked Wilson about his throwing motion. Bradley thought he'd get a simple answer, but Wilson delivered a postgraduate-level lecture on the science behind his release, all the way down to making sure his thumb was pointed at the ground when he let go of the ball.

"That's very cool," Brees said after hearing the story. "Maybe when you keep hearing early on in your career that you're lacking so many things, which is what he's heard and what I heard throughout college—not big enough, not strong enough, not fast enough, not tall enough—you become extra focused on the little things and the details, because [they're] what is going to give you the edge, despite what other people say."

At the Pro Bowl, Brees told Wilson he'd noticed a flaw in Wilson's footwork. When he returned home, Wilson went to the team's indoor training facility and, late at night, after everyone else was gone, went about correcting the problem.

Yet for all their similarities, Brees sees a major difference. "He's more talented than I am," he says. "He's more athletic. He grasped the NFL game at a faster pace than I did. He has not only great leadership qualities, great charisma, but also the It factor that you look for in a young quarterback. I couldn't be more impressed. You watch the road he traveled, and you're happy for him and root for him."

Jim Trotter

PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDLike Elway (near right) in his prime with the Broncos, Griffin can make a big play with his legs or throw a downfield strike with precision. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] PHOTORICH GABRIELSON/ICON SMI (MANNING)While Manning (above) and Luck share the same obsession with preparation, the Colts' QB allows himself to have fun in practice. PHOTOANDREW HANCOCK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LUCK)[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN IACONO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (YOUNG)Kaepernick (below) has not had to endure the same trials as Young, but his rapid rise has not altered his work ethic. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KAEPERNICK)[See caption above] PHOTODAVID GRUNFELD/NOLA.COM/THE TIMES-PICAYUNE/LANDOV (BREES)Wilson (right), who read the book on Brees (twice), got schooled on footwork by the Saints' quarterback at the Pro Bowl. PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WILSON)[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)