DANNY ONEIL

Four years later, Seahawks’ Russell Wilson remains rookie QB exception

Sep 15, 2016, 2:34 PM | Updated: Sep 16, 2016, 10:56 am
Four years after Russell Wilson was a rookie starter, top overall pick Jared Goff is just watching....
Four years after Russell Wilson was a rookie starter, top overall pick Jared Goff is just watching. (AP)
(AP)

Russell Wilson was an underdog four years ago in the NFL’s best quarterback crop in two decades.

Case Keenum was an undrafted afterthought.

That they will start against each other on Sunday when the NFL returns to Los Angeles after 22 years is a testament to just how rare that quarterback class of 2012 was, only not in the way you’d think.

When Wilson and four other rookies from that draft were Week 1 starters in 2012, it wasn’t just a record. It was considered an omen. A sign that quarterbacks were coming out of college more NFL ready than ever, and that perception was only enhanced by the fact that three of those rookie quarterbacks led their teams to the playoffs that season, including Wilson in Seattle.

But on Sunday, the Rams will start Keenum ahead of Jared Goff, who was only the top overall pick in this year’s draft.

“We’re going to play him when he’s ready,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

Fisher left open the possibility the Rams might really go nuts this week against Seattle and let Goff put on a uniform as the backup, but he’s not starting yet. Neither is Denver’s Paxton Lynch, who was also chosen in the first round. Of the three quarterbacks chosen in the first round in this year’s draft only Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz is starting, and that was only after the Eagles’ 11th-hour trade of Sam Bradford (which bordered on extortion when you consider the first-round pick they wrenched out of Minnesota).

It’s certainly a long way from where Wilson was four years ago when he won Seattle’s quarterback job outright, and he wasn’t alone. Wilson was one of five rookie quarterbacks to start Week 1 that season. The other four were all first-round picks: Andrew Luck (Indianapolis), Robert Griffin III (Washington), Ryan Tannehill (Miami) and Brandon Weeden (Cleveland), and before you ask, yes Weeden really was a first-round choice. I went back and double checked.

In the 42 seasons before that, there had never been more than two rookie quarterbacks serving as Week 1 starters for their respective teams.

And as much as it was characterized as a new era for quarterbacks, four years later that class remains the exception rather than the rule, Exhibit A being that Goff watched last week’s game in street clothes while Case Freaking Keenum looked particularly hapless under center.

“He’s getting better,” Fisher said of Goff. “Each day and each week he’s getting better. I thought he really had a good camp and he’s excited. Our intention was to let him observe last week and he did so.”

Perhaps colleges have gotten worse – not better – at developing quarterbacks for NFL play. Whether it’s the spread offense, Mike Leach’s air raid or any other cutely named offensive iterations that we’re seeing in college, the quarterbacks are arriving in the NFL with a lot more work required.

Of course, Wilson was different. He had played four years for North Carolina State, which featured a West Coast passing approach. As a graduate transfer to Wisconsin, Wilson played one year in an offense that featured a power running game.

It was pretty much perfect tutelage for what turned out to be the Seahawks offense, and when he turned out to be more NFL-ready than even his coach expected, Carroll counted himself among those praising the pro readiness of young quarterbacks.

“I said that, too, at the time,” Carroll said. “I thought the guys were better prepared. I still believe that’s the case. Guys are coming out, it’s not just their college years, it’s going back to their high-school years and all of the quarterback stuff that’s going on, all of the training. They’re just way farther ahead. They can adapt more quickly if they have what it takes.

“I think it’s still happening.”

And that may be true, but it’s not happening this year. At least not in Los Angeles where Goff will be watching this week while the Seahawks will get an eye full of Keenum.

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