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Originally published January 5, 2012 at 10:01 PM | Page modified January 6, 2012 at 11:13 AM

Jerry Brewer

Young quarterbacks take the NFL by storm

Cam Newton lived up to Warren Moon's prediction by continuing a trend of first-year success by quarterbacks.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes These young QB's are only putting up big numbers because the game of football has... Read more
quotes Kellen Moore 2nd or 3rd round. Does nothing but win. And he's as tall or taller than Dr... Read more
quotes Warren Moon is one of the rare "experts" who recognizes talent, as well as... Read more

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Warren Moon was right. He's not the trash-talking type, so we'll have to do it for him.

Last spring, Moon put his Hall of Fame neck on the line, defended Cam Newton and even proclaimed predraft criticism of the quarterback carried racist undertones. That ignited a national debate and left Moon open to ridicule if Newton proved him wrong.

Instead, Newton — once considered disingenuous, immature and, for many, incapable of running a sophisticated pro-style offense — turned out to be even more than what Moon, his adviser, boldly declared he could be.

Newton set an NFL rookie record with 4,051 passing yards. He rushed for 14 touchdowns, an NFL record for a quarterback. He became the first player in league history to throw for at least 4,000 yards and rush for at least 500. He is the clear top candidate for the league's offensive rookie of the year award. And now, the 22-year-old is atop everyone's list of emerging young franchise quarterbacks.

Moon, the former Washington and Seahawks quarterback, was right but can't even take credit for it. All credit must go to his fast-learning protégé.

Newton's story is more than another athlete's triumph over doubters, however. Most interesting is that he's now the poster child of a youth movement at quarterback in the NFL. Quarterbacks are more precocious than ever. They're developing faster than previous models, and as a result, teams are changing their attitudes on what young quarterbacks can handle.

Newton would be the runaway offensive rookie of the year if people weren't also impressed with Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, who threw for 3,398 yards and helped the Bengals make the playoffs. In addition, Minnesota rookie Christian Ponder started 10 games and had some decent moments. Jacksonville rookie Blaine Gabbert struggled, but he started 14 games, and plenty of good quarterbacks have had worse first seasons than Gabbert. And in more limited action, former Washington quarterback Jake Locker was impressive backing up Matt Hasselbeck in Tennessee and solidified himself as a trustworthy future starter.

This rookie class is merely continuing a trend that goes back as far as 2004, when Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in 34 years to be honored as the offensive rookie of the year — and he was the unanimous pick. Since then, we've seen quarterbacks Vince Young (2006), Matt Ryan (2008) and Sam Bradford (2010) win the award. There have been other early success stories, too, including Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez providing defensive-minded teams just enough offense to make postseason runs.

It's still foolish to judge a quarterback too harshly too soon. But signal callers are running sophisticated passing games at earlier ages now, and it means that an advanced caliber of quarterback is entering the NFL.

"Well, my opinion in the last few years has changed on what the quarterbacks can do coming out of college," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I would have told you, in years past as an NFL coach, that young guys can't do it, and there were only a couple that ever did, and that wasn't enough to make that an expectation that you could count on. But I think that's totally shifted.

"I don't think that's the case anymore. I've changed my attitude about it just based on the results of the guys. Flacco and Matt Ryan came out, and those guys, both in the same year, played great winning football. And Mark Sanchez found his way to do it, and guys are doing it in Detroit (with third-year QB Matt Stafford)."

It used to be that, unless a team had a Peyton Manning-like talent, it would sit its highly drafted rookie quarterback for most, if not all, of his first season. Sometimes, the quarterback would sit for two years. Not anymore.

It's an encouraging thought as the Seahawks examine whether they should use a high draft pick to select a quarterback in April. There's a chance that, if they choose the right player, he could avoid stunting the team's growth.

"There's a carry-over in the upbringing of quarterbacks that now is allowing them to transition much more quickly, and I think you can go with a young quarterback," Carroll said. "A few years ago, I'd have said that you can't. I don't believe that anymore, and I think it's all a product of the whole football world of growing in the confidence and belief in the throwing game."

A few years ago, the worry was that college spread offenses were making the NFL transition too difficult. But quarterbacks are growing quickly anyway.

Moon saw it. Newton proved it.

Dare we predict the damage Andrew Luck might do as a rookie?

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

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