How do rookie QBs stack up?

Are RG3, Luck and Wilson better than classes of 1983 and 2004?

Updated: November 21, 2012, 4:01 PM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN the Magazine
Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell WilsonUS PresswireHow does the QB class of 2012 stack up against 1983 and 2004?

Go ahead and gawk; you have statistical permission. The parade of rookie quarterbacks now romping through the NFL is as fine a collection of first-year field generals as you're ever going to see.

You know the Class of 1983, with its three top-shelf Hall of Famers (John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino)? And the Class of 2004, the top crop of QBs now in the game (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger)? Well, as of last weekend, rookie quarterbacks have thrown more touchdowns in 2012 than they did in 1983 and 2004 combined -- and there are still six weeks left in this season.

Look at the numbers the 2012ers are putting up. Andrew Luck is on pace to throw for an eye-popping 4,744 yards. Robert Griffin III is completing 67.1 percent of his passes. Add in Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden, and the quintet projects to 90 touchdowns and 74 interceptions. There's really no escaping this conclusion: The Class of 2012 is playing better as rookies than any group of NFL quarterbacks ever.

But how will they rank in the history books? Even assuming today's starters stay healthy and enjoy full careers, that's a whole different question. Because there's a catch to their stats, and it's a big one. The 2012 rookies are playing far more often than any of their predecessors. Consider that Class of '83: Kelly spent the first two years of his pro career in the USFL; Marino didn't start for the Miami Dolphins until Week 6; and three more first-rounders (Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien) also began the year as backups.

Or their 2004 counterparts: Manning backed up Kurt Warner for nine weeks, Rivers rode the bench for two years, and it took Matt Schaub so long (until 2007) to start that many fans don't even remember that he too was drafted in '04. Indeed, since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, no more than three rookie quarterbacks had ever started season openers -- until this year. Luck, Griffin, Wilson, Tannehill and Weeden have started 50 of their teams' first 50 games so far, and nothing like that has ever happened before.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.