ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, AUG 24-25 - FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2013, file photo, Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard runs against the Tennessee Titans during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Tennessee Titans in Cincinnati. Like St. Louis, Cincinnati addressed a pressing need that plagued the offense for years when it selected the speedy, shifty Bernard. Not only can he be an effective complement to power runner BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but he's the threat on passes the Bengals have lacked. (AP Photo/Tom Uhlman, File)
Updated: August 24, 2013 4:19PM
Gone are the days when NFL rookies were seen but not heard — and not playing.
Not after the likes of the brilliant quarterbacks class of 2012: Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Not with running backs such as Alfred Morris, Doug Martin and Trent Richardson. Or defensive gems Luke Kuechly, the top rookie on that side of the ball in 2012, Bobby Wagner and Casey Hayward.
Rookies no longer are relegated to the sideline or carrying clipboards if they are good enough to play. They’re on the field, often leading their teams to big turnarounds and playoff berths, as RG3, Luck and Wilson did last season.
‘‘I know that I adapted a long time ago,’’ Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. ‘‘When I was at USC and was making all of those calls on personnel, I just saw it differently. We needed to see what our talent could do and how they could add to the team. When we threw guys in, we learned that if we kept them in really comfortable roles, they could contribute.
“We’re trying to do that across the board. The quarterback situation has been so obvious with the young guys that I think we’re going to continue to see young guys play.’’
The sea of change started in 2004, when Ben Roethlisberger became the first quarterback to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Once coaches saw how coach Bill Cowher entrusted the most important position to the raw but talented Roethlisberger — and the Pittsburgh Steelers went 15-1 — others followed suit.
If a rookie quarterback could step behind center and run a team, surely youngsters at other positions not quite so demanding
deserved the opportunity.
After they got it and proved themselves capable — in many
instances becoming instant stars — the theory that youth is wasted on the young was given the boot.
‘‘Rookies can play,’’ said former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, now an ESPN commentator. ‘‘I have
always been big about playing young guys. If he knows what to do, we have got to play him.
‘‘The negative side is when you play young players, they will make errors. You’ve got to live with the errors, and hopefully they are not critical errors. But they also bring the ability to make a play that you didn’t draw up in your game plan.’’
Talent, however, isn’t the only reason rookies have big roles. Rookies represent cheaper labor, relatively speaking, particularly those drafted after the first round. If a team can spend a lot less than seven figures in a year for a starter, it frees money under the salary cap to go elsewhere.
So if your quarterback isn’t the highest-paid player on the roster — rookies no longer come close to such earnings under an established wage scale — yet he is a winner, nothing could be better.
Such was the case with Griffin, Luck and Wilson last season.
‘‘Those are the guys you know you’re going to have for at least four years,’’ Cowher said.
More teams draft to fill holes than they used to, believing that a turnaround from being 5-11 to 11-5 is just around the corner.
‘‘You’re drafting more for need now than you ever have just
because of the system,’’ Cowher said, referring to the salary cap. ‘‘So when you’re drafting need, you’re giving these guys an opportunity to play. You want to see what you have.’’
The Dallas Cowboys were criticized by some for taking Wisconsin center Travis Frederick at the
bottom of the first round in the draft in April. But the Cowboys are plugging him right in at center, which they considered a weakness.
‘‘A lot of people said I was a reach, or I shouldn’t have gotten drafted where I was,’’ Frederick said. ‘‘And for me it was just about coming out here and getting better every day and improving every day and proving those people wrong, and proving to myself that this is where I belong and I deserve a starting spot.’’
Players coming out of school are better trained for the NFL because the pro game has, in some ways,
become an extension of college play. Yes, it’s faster, more physical and a full-time job, but it’s also wide-open, like most college games. The schemes on offense and defense are similar.
Plus, coaching on the college
level has become so strong that stepping into a starting spot in the NFL no longer is farfetched. In many cases, it’s expected.
‘‘I never felt over my head or
uncertain,’’ Griffin said after his sensational pro debut season. ‘‘I felt prepared for the challenges.’’