When the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills finally named their starting quarterbacks this week, they reaffirmed a trend that even the historic game by Peyton Manning in Thursday's regular-season opener couldn't refute: The NFL is in the midst of a quarterbacking youthquake.
The Jets' Geno Smith and the Bills' EJ Manuel might be the only rookie quarterbacks who will start this week -- in last year's extraordinary rookie class, five quarterbacks opened the season on the field -- but consider this: Fourteen teams are projected to start quarterbacks who have two or fewer seasons of experience, the most since 1950. In other words, nearly half the league is starting relative newbies. Manning and Tom Brady remain the quarterbacking standard bearers even as they near the ends of their careers. But the wave of the future is, well, the future.
Smith and Manuel came by their starts in part by happenstance. The veterans who might have won their jobs -- Mark Sanchez and Kevin Kolb, respectively -- instead were hurt during the preseason. That opened the door for the Jets and Bills to do what so many others have done in recent years: trade the risks of inexperience for the hope of a high ceiling.
Almost nobody expects Smith and Manuel to fare as well as last year's rookies did. Jets coach Rex Ryan acknowledged this week that his team recognizes the challenge of using a rookie quarterback -- in this case, one who had limited, and mostly unimpressive, snaps in preseason games. Last year, three rookies -- Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson -- led their teams to the playoffs; this year, Smith couldn't even score a commitment from the Jets to make him the starting quarterback for the entire season. But that considerable downside cannot overwhelm a cold reality of life in the NFL: There is no time to waste, even for teams that would appear to be in the throes of significant rebuilding projects, like the Jets and Bills this year, and the Cleveland Browns (who started Brandon Weeden), Miami Dolphins (Ryan Tannehill) and Indianapolis Colts (Luck) last year.
"You're going to have growing pains," said one long-time scout, speaking about the decision the Jets faced between Smith and Sanchez. "Do you want to have them with a rookie or with a veteran?"
The first week of games might help answer another question: Just how long do growing pains last? Luck, Griffin and Wilson dazzled the NFL last season in part because they caught so many off-guard with how fully developed their games were. That won't happen again. It also won't surprise anyone if those former rookie phenoms struggle more in their second year, particularly as defenses catch up to the read-option plays that Griffin and Wilson used to such devastating effect with the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, respectively.
No matter. Youth might be wasted on the young, but it's not being wasted by the NFL.
Here are 10 more things to watch in the first weekend:
1) How will the Redskins fare with the first crack at solving Chip Kelly's "Blur" offense? It's a challenge that has defensive coordinators scrambling for their Oregon tape. In the preseason, the Philadelphia Eagles led the league by running an average of 74.3 plays per game -- and they presumably did not have their feet fully on the gas pedal yet. Last year, the New England Patriots -- the NFL's top offense -- averaged 74.4 plays per game. The Redskins showed a six-linebacker scheme in the preseason -- will that create enough confusion to slow Eagles quarterback Michael Vick?
2) How will the league officiate hits on running quarterbacks? San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was engaging in a bit of gamesmanship when he questioned the intent of the Green Bay Packers' plan to hit Colin Kaepernick. But with so many teams using at least some quarterback runs, the line of demarcation for hitting quarterbacks could be blurred. The future of the read option in the NFL might rest on how much protection -- or how much of a pounding -- quarterbacks get.
3) Whither Tom Brady? The Patriots' offense has ranked in the top three for four of the past six seasons, including last season, when the unit was tops with 427.9 yards per game. But consider this: Of all the touchdown passes Brady has thrown since 2010, 72 percent went to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski -- none of whom will be on the field for the Patriots on Sunday, assuming Gronkowski sits out while he continues to recover from a string of offseason surgeries. In fact, Brady will be without the intended receiver on 565 of his 637 passes last season (that's 88.7 percent). If Gronkowski is out, Brady will be throwing to a receiving corps made up of players who have combined for 14 receiving touchdowns.
4) Is there hope for the New Orleans Saints' defense? It was the worst in league history last year, and new coordinator Rob Ryan (who has one top-10 defense, from 2006, on his résumé) now must contend with the absence of injured linebackers Will Smith, Victor Butler and Jonathan Vilma. The Saints will find out against the Atlanta Falcons, the only team last year with two players (Julio Jones and Roddy White) who eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving while averaging 14 yards per reception. The Falcons moved to diversify an offense that rushed just 37 percent of the time by adding Steven Jackson, who has posted eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
5) Can Marc Trestman make Jay Cutler a top-tier quarterback in time for Cutler to land a new contract? The Bears' passing offense ranked 29th last season, not good for a signal-caller heading into the final year of his deal. Enter Trestman, a long-time quarterback guru who made it back to the league for the first time since 2004 by finally landing an NFL head-coaching job. One of Cutler's shortcomings has been his performance against top teams -- since 2009, he's thrown 45 touchdowns and 46 interceptions against teams that finished .500 or above. Against teams under .500: 37 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. On Sunday, we'll know quickly if that has changed. The Cincinnati Bengals, an AFC favorite, had 51 sacks last season and allowed 13 or fewer points seven times.
6) Have the Seahawks solved their sleep-deprivation issues? This is no small matter in what might be the league's toughest division. The Seahawks are a Super Bowl favorite, but they have five road games scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m. ET -- or 10 a.m. Seattle time -- including Sunday at Carolina. They went 1-3 in such games last season; since Pete Carroll took over as coach in 2010, Seattle is 4-7 in games that start at 1 p.m. ET. The San Francisco 49ers have just two 1 p.m. ET kickoffs on their schedule this season.
7) Are rapid injury recoveries here to stay? Adrian Peterson set the standard in 2012, but with Robert Griffin III and Darrelle Revis both starting this weekend, unusually fast recoveries from knee injuries might become the new normal. Neither RGIII nor Revis played a snap in the preseason; how their teams use them -- we're mostly looking at you, Mike Shanahan -- might say plenty about their real comfort level.
8) Will the Dallas Cowboys' offense look any different with Bill Callahan calling plays instead of Jason Garrett? Last year, the Cowboys ranked 15th in scoring, 31st in rushing and third in passing. Since then, they've shored up the offensive line, so maybe a little more balance is coming their way. DeMarco Murray's yards per rush fell from 5.5 in 2011 to 4.1 in 2012, and Romo twice attempted 62 passes last season -- both in losses, one to the New York Giants and one to the Redskins.
9) Can Rex Ryan reverse a troubling trend on his Jets defense? Forget the starting quarterback psychodrama in New York for a minute. Ryan's defense has seen diminishing returns in the past two seasons. In his first two years with the Jets, the defense allowed 16.9 points, 271.9 yards and 94.8 rushing yards per game. In the past two years, the Jets have given up 23.1 points, 317.7 yards and 122.3 rushing yards per contest. Last year, the Jets allowed 27 or more points in nine of their 16 games. This season, Ryan is taking a more hands-on role with the defense. His first test will come against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense that, despite featuring the uneven Josh Freeman at quarterback, reached franchise highs in total yards, points and passing yards in 2012.
10) Just how much of a difference can Andy Reid and Alex Smith make for the Kansas City Chiefs? The Chiefs ranked last in scoring and passing last season. Enter an offensive-minded coach and a quarterback who has been revived in his past two seasons. The Chiefs' roster is loaded with talent, and if Smith continues his upward trend against the Jacksonville Jaguars -- he completed 64.2 percent of his passes in his two years with Jim Harbaugh compared to 56.8 percent earlier in his career -- it could portend good things for K.C.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.