Used to be quarterbacks started their NFL careers as understudies.

Used to be quarterbacks started their NFL careers as understudies.

This year, three of them will be starting playoff games.

That fact speaks to not only the quality of the quarterback crop this year, but to a new NFL reality: rookie quarterbacks don't mean a team is rebuilding.

That was the rule of thumb anyway. Troy Aikman lost all 11 games he started as a rookie for Dallas in 1989. Peyton Manning didn't win his first until his fifth start nearly 10 years later.

But this year three of the 12 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs are in their first season: Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle's Russell Wilson.

Before this season, there had been only 11 rookie quarterbacks to start an NFL playoff game in the past 30 years. Only eight of those quarterbacks posted a winning record as a starter in the regular season.

"We have three this year," said Washington coach Mike Shanahan. "That is quite unusual. I think it has something to do with colleges preparing these guys better for the pro game a lot more."

Or is it that the pro game is more accommodating of young quarterbacks now, tailoring their offenses to suit the players' skill set as opposed to letting the rookie wait, watch and learn the team's playbook.

That used to be the protocol. Carson Palmer spent his first year as a backup in Cincinnati. San Diego's Philip Rivers — part of a quarterback class considered among the best in NFL history — waited two years to start his first game. Even the great Dan Marino didn't start Week 1 of his rookie season.

Now NFL teams like Seattle and Washington are mixing in quarterback option runs in their offense, following the cues from Carolina's success with Cam Newton a year ago.

The result has been more immediate payoffs for teams that cast their lot with a rookie under center. In that regard, 2008 stands as a watershed moment as Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Atlanta's Matt Ryan became the first two NFL rookies to start playoff games the same year.

"They hit it quickly," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said of that pair, "and hit it well and won quite a few games with their teams. I thought that was kind of a statement, that young guys can get in here."

In the previous eight seasons, three different rookie quarterbacks have started in a conference championship. Could this be the year one reaches the Super Bowl?

That wouldn't shock anyone as much as it would have 10 years ago when most NFL quarterbacks began their rookie seasons as an understudy.

"You don't have to wait years and years for those guys to show up and be a big factor, obviously," Carroll said. "We'll see how that goes. Maybe this is just the class of classes too."

Three different rookies have started a playoff victory over the previous four seasons, and one is guaranteed to accomplish the feat today when Griffin and Wilson face off.

It will be only the second time that two rookie quarterbacks have started opposite one another in a playoff game, but judging by recent history, it's unlikely to be the last.