RG3, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck head class of rookie winners

With 10:19 left in the third quarter Sunday, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson found himself in a strangely unfamiliar place at a strangely early point in the game: On the sideline. Watching the offense. Without any injury to explain for it.

"I don't remember the last time I was on the sideline for that long," Wilson joked during a phone conversation Monday night.

Are you catching this? If not, it's time that you do. Actually, it's time for all of us, as we approach Week 15, to truly step back and appreciate the odd nature of this special season for first-year quarterbacks.

You can start here: This past Sunday, a rookie quarterback -- one who was selected in the third round of the draft -- was pulled from a game to preserve his health for a potential playoff push, because his team was already ahead, 45-0. That's just ... not normal.

"That was a pretty cool scene, though," said Wilson, who watched as the Seahawks closed out a 58-0 win against the Arizona Cardinals. "To get that in the National Football League? Are you kidding me? 58 points, man? And not only that -- it was a shutout!"

We can talk all day about records -- about Ryan Tannehill surpassing Dan Marino's rookie totals with the Miami Dolphins or Andrew Luck topping Peyton Manning's first-year numbers with the Indianapolis Colts -- but in this passer-friendly era, bloated statistics aren't what make the Class of 2012 worthy of unprecedented respect.

Instead, it's the way they are doing it.

"I think this class will go down in history," Wilson said. "Whether that's this year or down the road, I think there will be a lot of great things to come from all of us. This rookie class is kicking it off pretty strong, all the way across the board. That's pretty cool."

It will surely take some time before we know the real worth of this class -- whether these rookies have what it takes, from a longevity standpoint, to stack up with the Class of 1983, which included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Marino -- but Wilson is absolutely right. They've gotten off to one memorable start.

On Sunday, two more rookies became the latest to come up big in clutch moments: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles threw a last-second game-winning touchdown, and Washington Redskins backup Kirk Cousins tossed a TD pass and completed a two-point conversion to send his team to overtime. Beyond the gaudy numbers, those are the types of moments that have defined this class.

That's why these rookies deserve such respect: Because of games like the one Wilson had against the Chicago Bears two weeks ago. Because of games like the one Robert Griffin III had in Week 4 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the one he had in Week 13 against the New York Giants. Because of drives like the one that Tannehill led in the fourth quarter during Week 12 against Seattle.

These rookies aren't just putting up big numbers. They're winning.

You want clutch? This is clutch: Seven rookie quarterbacks this season have accounted for 15 game-winning drives and 13 fourth-quarter comebacks.

"When the game is on the line, that's when I want the football," Wilson said. "That's when I love to play. That's when you're the most tuned in. I call it laser focus. You've got to have that laser focus when the game is on the line, and that's when I love to play.

"All I ask for is the ball with two minutes left. If I can get that, it's a great situation."

We've already seen that the quarterbacks in this rookie class certainly seem to have that clutch gene. In the coming weeks, we'll learn a little more about them; we'll find out if they're still clutch when the speed of the game ratchets up another level, when playoff atmospheres and late-season pushes separate the men from the boys.

In the past 62 seasons of NFL football, 10 rookie quarterbacks have led their teams to the playoffs. If the season ended today, Wilson's Seahawks and Luck's Colts would both be in. Griffin's Redskins are still pushing for a wild-card spot, while Tannehill's Dolphins and Brandon Weeden's Cleveland Browns are also technically still alive, if barely.

That's impressive. However, none of these rookies have locked up playoff spots just yet. And that's what we get to watch for next.

There are so many reasons to love this crop of quarterbacks. They combine coolness and sophistication. They're likeable and marketable. Talented and dedicated. Athletic and accurate. They should make us all excited for the future of football.

Perhaps most importantly -- perhaps what makes the Class of 2012 so special at this point -- is the fact that this group is doing more than piling up passing yards. It's also piling up wins.

"That's what the NFL is about," Wilson said. "Great players play great in big-time situations, and I'm looking forward to that. I've always dreamed of being a Super Bowl winning quarterback, doing great things.

"I have a lot to do before I get there, and I just need to take one game at a time. We're working at it. You can never be afraid to excel. And I'm definitely not afraid of that. That's for sure."

Neither, it seems, are the rest of his rookie counterparts.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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