In 1983, the NFL harvested one of the greatest rookie crops in history. Besides a cornucopia of Hall of Fame position players—including single-season rushing king Eric Dickerson—there was a bushel of incredible quarterbacks.
Six quarterbacks were taken in the first round, three of whom became Hall of Famers: John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Two of the other three were productive starters. All the way down in the eighth round—which used to be a thing—the Denver Broncos drafted current Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak.
The 2012 draft class is already shaping up to be an all-timer. With three rookie signal-callers leading their teams to the playoffs and five more getting at least one start, "2012" could one day be spoken of in the same hushed tones as "1983."
But can this year's rookies really measure up to the undisputed champions of NFL draft history?
Before we compare the two classes, let's remember: 1983 was a long time ago. The attitudes toward rookie quarterbacks have changed; those who started from Day One were a very rare breed. Rookie starters were either exceptional talents, played on an exceptionally bad team or both.
The game has changed since 1983, too. As run/pass balance research from Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats shows, in 1983, the NFL was thawing out of an offensive Ice Age. Rules changes in 1978 made downfield passing much more effective, and teams started passing more:
Though the accomplishments of mid-'80s quarterbacks like Elway, Marino and Kelly helped make the NFL a pass-first league, it's still nothing like today.
2012's rookies entered an NFL where rookies are expected to start—and quarterbacks are expected to shoulder a huge part of the offensive burden. For instance, their colleague, Matthew Stafford, broke the all-time record for pass attempts in a season. Per Pro Football Reference, teams threw an average of 34.7 times per game and ran just 27.2 times (a 56/44 split).
The Greatest of All Time?
John Elway was the No. 1 overall pick in 1983, and most would call him the greatest quarterback to come out of this greatest class. His cannon arm, competitive fire and overall athleticism (he'd been drafted by the Yankees in 1981) made for a lethal combination.
As a bonus, Elway had a quality teams love in a quarterback: He was a coach's kid. John was the son of Jack Elway, a successful high school and college coach.
After Elway refused to play for the team that drafted him, the Baltimore Colts, the Stanford legend was traded to the Broncos. There, he picked up the slack for oft-injured starter Steve DeBerg.
Elway wasn't exactly shot out of a cannon. In his first game as a starter, the Broncos only let him throw eight times. He went 1-of-8 for 14 yards and an interception. He ramped up quickly, though: In Week 15, he threw 44 times for 345 yards and three touchdowns—no picks.
Elway finished his rookie year with 259 pass attempts in 10 starts. From those attempts, he netted 1,663 yards, seven touchdowns and 14 interceptions. His advanced passing metrics weren't so advanced: His adjusted net yards per attempt was a minuscule 3.33, and he was sacked on 9.8 percent of his dropbacks. His passer efficiency rating was an awful 54.9.
Elway's incredible talent blossomed into incredible ability. He elevated the play of his teammates—Elway rarely played with difference-making receivers—and willed his teams to the top of the mountain, over and over.
Elway finished his career as one of the greatest ever to play. He piled up 51,475 yards (fourth most all-time) and 300 touchdowns over his 16-year career. He made nine Pro Bowls and five Super Bowls, and unlike any other 1983 or 2012 pick, he won a Super Bowl ring—in fact, he won two.
To Match the Unmatchable Legacy?
When it comes to this comparison, Andrew Luck isn't so lucky. As a fellow Stanford alumnus, Luck was compared to Elway throughout his outstanding college career. Like Elway, Luck was drafted by the Colts. Like Elway, Luck had to start from Day One.
Like Elway, Luck didn't start off so hot.
Luck had to face the stiff Chicago Bears defense on the road, and without a running game to fall back on, he threw 45 times. He gained 309 yards and a touchdown but also threw three picks and was sacked three times in a 41-21 loss.
Like Elway, Luck got better as the season wore on; unlike Elway, Luck had an effective-by-veteran-standards season. Luck completed 54.1 percent of his passes for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns (with just 18 interceptions).
Most impressively of all, Luck led a team that finished dead last in the NFL in 2012 to an incredible 11-5 record. Like Elway, Luck didn't have a consistent running game or outstanding defense to fall back on, either: Luck's seven game-winning drives ("GWD" as defined by Pro Football Reference) came at the helm of a team whose defense allowed more points per game (24.2) than its offense scored (22.3).
Luck has the arm, athleticism and leadership skills to surpass everything Elway's ever done...or anything anyone's ever done. All that's left for Luck is to go out and do it for the next 15 years.
The Most Overlooked?
The second legendary quarterback taken in 1983 was Jim Kelly, at No. 14. But Kelly didn't even play his rookie year in the NFL; like a few other top prospects of the era, Kelly went to the rival USFL.
Like Elway, Kelly was a two-sport star, excelling in basketball. Like Marino, Kelly hailed from western Pennsylvania. But unlike either of those two, Kelly couldn't get a quarterback offer from his dream school, Penn State; Joe Paterno wanted to convert Kelly to linebacker. Instead, Kelly went to the University of Miami and kick-started a football dynasty.
Drafted highly by both the NFL and USFL, Kelly—not wanting to be exiled to frigid Buffalo—chose the Houston Gamblers, running Mouse Davis' "Run 'n Shoot" spread offense.
When the USFL went under in 1986, Kelly swallowed his pride and played ball for the team that held his NFL rights: the Bills.
Kelly's first season in Buffalo was rough: The Bills went 4-12.
It wasn't Kelly's fault. He completed 59.4 percent of his 480 pass attempts, racking up 3,593 yards, 22 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. His passer efficiency rating was an impressive 83.3, and his adjusted net yards per attempt was 5.62.
Kelly, already having mastered an advanced passing offense, soon led one of the most ahead-of-its-time passing offenses: the "K-Gun," a no-huddle, hurry-up offense engineered by head coach Marv Levy and offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda.
Kelly led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls—an incredible feat. But he was never able to add "Super Bowl champion" to his CV: five Pro Bowls, one first-team All-Pro, 35,467 yards passing and 237 touchdowns.
Because Kelly had neither the rings of Elway nor the arm of Marino, he is often overlooked when talking about the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He played in an era that didn't appreciate skills like reading the field and making excellent decisions quite as much.
But Kelly was still a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he deserved it just as much as Elway and Marino.
The Most Amazing...but Not Most Honored?
What Robert Griffin III has done this year is nothing short of phenomenal. Having won the Heisman Trophy at a small school after an ACL injury, Griffin was drafted No. 2 overall, inspired head coach Mike Shanahan to make radical changes to his legendary offense and made the Pro Bowl.
Griffin's statistics are flatly incredible, not just for a rookie quarterback but for any quarterback. He started 15 games and completed 65.6 percent of his 393 attempts for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns. He led the NFL in interception percentage, throwing a pick just 1.3 percent of the times he threw.
His 8.1 raw yards per attempt led the NFL, his adjusted net yards per attempt was a very healthy 7.05, and his passer efficiency rating was an impeccable 102.4.
Oh, and he also ran 120 times for 815 yards and seven touchdowns.
Griffin's incredible game-breaking ability—both on the ground and through the air—has led his team to a shocking 10-6 record and NFC East division crown. But by the end of the season, the talk of the town stopped being about "RGIII" and started being about Luck and their unlikely foe for Offensive Rookie of the Year: Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Who knows what the future holds for Griffin? He's unquestionably the most productive of the top three quarterbacks this season, and is at least as good as all of them in everything. But questions remain.
Griffin missed time in several games due to injury, and the threat he brings running the ball also brings the threat of injury. The unconventional offense he runs in Washington is...well, unconventional, and the long-term forecast for unconventional offenses is always murky.
But as Kelly proved with the K-Gun, when an unconventional offense is executed by great coaches and a great quarterback, it's just that much harder to stop.
The Most Talented, the Single Flaw?
Dan Marino was one of the most amazing quarterback prospects of all time. Coming out of the quarterback cradle of western Pennsylvania, Marino had a lightning-fast release and could easily zip perfect spirals to any area of the field.
Marino's stock fell when rumors of recreational drug use made the rounds. Even his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers took a pass because of those rumors, as then-head coach Chuck Noll confirmed in 1992 (Associated Press, via the Observer-Reporter).
As a result of this single flaw, Marino was the last of the six 1983 first-round quarterbacks taken (No. 27 overall). Unlike the others, Marino took over a contending team, one coming off a strike-shortened AFC Championship season.
The Dolphins had a veteran starter, David Woodley. Head coach Don Shula didn't let Marino walk into the starting lineup—at least, not immediately. Marino got into two games before getting his first start in Week 6, going 19-of-29 for 322 yards, three touchdowns and two picks.
Marino ended the season with the most pass attempts (296) of any of the six quarterbacks taken in the first round in 1983. He gained 2,210 yards and 20 touchdowns and threw just six picks. Incredibly, he led the NFL in adjusted net yards per attempt, with 7.4.
In his second season, Marino made the first of his nine Pro Bowls, was named first-team All-Pro for the first of his three consecutive times and led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl—but they didn't win, and they never returned.
For all of Marino's incredible talent and incredible numbers (61,361 yards, second most all-time; 420 touchdowns), he's most often remembered as the "best ever to never win a Super Bowl."
It may be that one ring bound him from erasing the last six words of that title.
Saving the Best for Last?
Like Marino, Russell Wilson had eye-popping natural talent. Like Marino, Wilson had a fatal flaw: his height.
Based solely off his college accomplishments and natural talent, Wilson should have been a lock for the first round. Listed at 5'11", Wilson did incredible things his senior season at Wisconsin, leading it to a Big Ten Championship.
Wilson, like Elway, was also a minor league baseball prospect, drafted by the Colorado Rockies. But unlike Elway, Wilson never possessed prototypical size and didn't come with pigskin bona fides. Wilson fell all the way to the third round, where the Seattle Seahawks took a flier on him.
Like Marino, though, Wilson joined a team that had recently made a questionable postseason appearance—and like Marino, he wasn't drafted to start. But Wilson left free-agent signee Matt Flynn in his wake in the preseason and started all 16 games for the Seahawks.
Wilson announced his arrival on Monday Night Football in Week 3, throwing a controversial game-winning touchdown pass to beat the Green Bay Packers. Wilson threw 25 other touchdowns this season, against only 10 interceptions. He also completed 64.1 percent of his 393 attempts, swelling his passer efficiency rating to a whopping 100.0.
Wilson also showed off his athleticism, rushing 94 times for 489 yards and four touchdowns. He completed three fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives, proving he not only can make numbers happen, he can make it happen when it counts.
The bar the 1983 class set is incredibly high. At the minimum, the 2012 class will have to produce three first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Besides the Big Three, there were three other first-round 1983 quarterbacks: Todd Blackledge, Ken O'Brien and Tony Eason. O'Brien led the NFL in passer efficiency rating in 1985, and Eason led the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 1986.
Neither came anywhere close to Elway, Kelly or Marino's accomplishments, though—and no 1983 quarterback taken after the first round ever started more than a handful of games.
It's the not-big-three quarterbacks of the 2012 class that could very well put it over the top.
No. 8 pick Ryan Tannehill has shown quite a bit of promise in Miami, and first-rounder Brandon Weeden has put a few flashes on tape. Third-round pick Nick Foles has played well in relief in Philadelphia, and even Griffin's backup Kirk Cousins has people thinking he'll start someplace sooner rather than later.
Of course, only time will tell.
By the Numbers
As a parting shot, here are the raw stats for all the 1983 and 2012 quarterback draft classes and their first year in the NFL. They're grouped by draft class and sorted by passer efficiency rating. The leader amongst each draft class in each stat is in bold:
What do you think? Can the 2012 quarterback draft class become the greatest of all time? Or is the bar set by the 1983 legends just too high?
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