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Rainy day in Georgia. Rome, Ga., to be exact. April 27, 2011. The game that night between the Asheville Tourists and the Rome Braves of the Class A South Atlantic League would be washed out. That dreary morning Asheville's second baseman awoke at Rome's Holiday Inn and decided to check in on his other life. He left his room on the third floor, walked outside, took a seat on the steps and dialed up Tom O'Brien, his football coach at North Carolina State.
Russell Wilson knew his future with the Wolfpack might be tenuous. A year earlier he'd been picked by the Rockies in the fourth round of the major league draft. He'd missed spring football to play baseball and had only one season of college football eligibility left; Mike Glennon, his promising backup, had two years remaining and was likely to transfer if he wasn't named the starter for the fall.
O'Brien devastated Wilson. This is how the player remembers the coach breaking the news: "It's time, bud. We're going to move on. You should go ahead and transfer."
Wilson, sitting there on the hotel steps, cried. Hadn't he led N.C. State to a 9--4 record the previous fall, the Wolfpack's best record in eight years, and a rout of West Virginia at the Champs Sports Bowl, where he was named the game's MVP? Wilson couldn't have been more heartbroken.
He and the NFL couldn't have been more fortunate.
So much has happened since that rainy day in Georgia—to Wilson and the pro game. The NFL has drafted 10 quarterbacks who are now entrenched as their team's starters; five of this year's 12 playoff teams were led by passers who defied the gotta-carry-a-clipboard-for-years credo that ruled the league for decades. Learning curve? They don't need no stinkin' learning curve.
After getting the word from O'Brien, Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, learned an offense diametrically opposed to N.C. State's (in three weeks; oh, the scouts loved that) and quarterbacked the Badgers to the Big Ten title. After the 2011 season, done with baseball (he'd batted .228 for Asheville the previous spring), he concentrated on honing his football skills for the NFL. Last April 27, one year to the day after Wilson wept at the news that his N.C. State career was over, the Seahawks picked him in the third round of the NFL draft. Over the second half of the '12 season he was the NFL's top-rated quarterback, and he capped his rookie year by strafing the NFC's top seed, Atlanta, with a 385-yard passing day in the playoffs.
Seattle, Indianapolis and Washington, a combined 14--34 in 2011, all made the playoffs with rookie quarterbacks: Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, respectively. It was the first time in NFL history that three teams with rookie starters reached the postseason. It was also the first time that five teams—including Miami, with Ryan Tannehill, and Cleveland, with Brandon Weeden—started rookie QBs from opening day.
As a result, the game the league is playing is just ... different.
The pace is faster; New England's offense ran 1,191 plays, the most for any team since the 1994 Patriots. The thinking is faster; new Bills coach Doug Marrone will import some one-word play calls from Syracuse. And egos are being checked at the door; bright minds such as Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll are stealing liberally from the college game. Even from the high school game: In 2009, Lions coach Jim Schwartz called Matthew Stafford's innovative coach at Highland Park (Texas) High, Randy Allen, and asked for video of some of his shotgun plays. (Can you imagine Bill Walsh ringing up Joe Montana's high school coach in search of grainy film of whatever they ran back in Monongahela, Pa.?)