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NFL playoffs: Are rookie QBs outliers or start of a new era?

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Eventual Hall of Famer Troy Aikman went 0-11 in his first season with the Dallas Cowboys, throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. “And he looked bad doing it,” Tanier says. "There were questions then, but that quarterback would definitely be on the hot seat now.”

Better earlier

Today’s rookies have the potential to fare better earlier for two reasons.

One, the game’s sophistication has been trickling downward at a steady rate for many years. “Playbooks have expanded significantly at lower levels, and there’s an increasing level of professionalism at the high school level,” Tanier says. Head coach of a good high school football team is a full-time job, not done by someone who also teaches classes. 

“You have to go to the countryside to see them running a T-formation,” he says. “In high school, they’re already running no-huddle offenses and progression of reads.” 

High school offenses have evolved to the point where many “have the same playbooks that the NFL may have had 15 years ago,” says Chris Brown, who writes and edits smartfootball.com and is a contributor to espn.com's Grantland. There are more elements in the pro game, he adds, but “the fundamentals are the same. And more kids are exposed to it,” through widely available game film and the emergence of offseason leagues that emphasize passing.

In college, too, it’s more common to see three- and four-year starters making key decisions on offense. Luck, for instance, called his own plays his final year at Stanford.

Second, once these highly trained prospects go pro, NFL coaches are more willing to tailor offenses to suit their talents, rather than plugging them into a highly sophisticated, preexisting models and letting them run it badly for a few years.

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