Every year since 1998, ESPN The Magazine has recognized an elite group of emerging athletes to watch in the year ahead — athletes dubbed “NEXT.” They are competitors not only on the cusp of stardom, but on the verge of transcending their sports. Some of these athletes who fit this description include four young NFL quarterbacks who already have made significant impacts on their respective teams: Russell Wilson (Seattle), Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco), Andrew Luck (Indianapolis), and Robert Griffin III (Washington).
Front Row spoke with The Mag’s Senior NFL Writer Seth Wickersham, who explores this subject at length in “Pass or Fail,” in ESPN The Magazine’s “NEXT” issue — featuring 20-year-old NBA star Kyrie Irving on the cover — currently on newsstands, and also on ESPN.com.
How did you approach this story on the rise of the NEXT generation of QBs?
Like most, it arose from observing, reporting, and thinking about football, and two dominant themes emerged. First, it’s become obvious that teams need a great, not almost great, quarterback to win a Super Bowl. The past 10 years is all the proof you need. And second, this season, more than any other in years, coaches seemed not only willing but perhaps eager to roll the dice on young quarterbacks rather than experience a Groundhog Day of sorts with good-but-not-great starters, betting on the high ceiling as opposed to the high floor. That’s why many young quarterbacks were starting.
This has become the Year of the Young Quarterback. But as with Tom Brady in 2001 and Aaron Rodgers in 2008, behind every young quarterback is a coach who had the guts to not only start him but support him through the inevitable bumpy patches. I respected the risks that [Seahawks coach] Pete Carroll and [49ers coach] Jim Harbaugh. . .took in backing their young quarterbacks, so I decided to highlight the decision, as opposed to exclusively focusing on why the young quarterbacks are playing well.
How did this story change as you pursued it?
It didn’t, really, because the facts supported my larger theme before I boarded a flight to Seattle. The discovery that surprised me is the same one that’s surprised everyone, including the coaches who risked so much on their young quarterbacks, which is how well these young guys are playing, the grandness of their impact. . .I kept waiting for the bubble to pop for these guys, and it hasn’t.
Of the young QBs who will be competing in the playoffs, which one will have the biggest impact?
All of them. I mean, they’ve pretty much carried their teams to the playoffs, so they don’t have a choice but to have a big impact. Their impact has been felt all along.