It's that time of year when we inevitably hear about the big competitions going on around the league for starting roles in the fall.
Unfortunately, all the players are still in shorts. Don't get me wrong, teams can get a lot of work accomplished in the organized team activities (OTAs), but this isn't the time of year the true depth chart is built. It's a stretch to sell the idea of a few morning practices without equipment as the battle ground.
The real battle ground takes place in training camp, especially for a rookie trying to win a starting quarterback job. A young kid with natural throwing talent and a young pair of legs such as Matthew Stafford will show flashes of his ability, but the reality is Stafford has never faced an NFL defense. A veteran such as Daunte Culpepper has already earned his wiley status in the real game. It really shouldn't be a contest in Detroit unless it's just time for a change.
Football is a violent game in which physical intimidation and psychological pressure from defenses created by coaches such as Dick Lebeau, Jim Johnson, Dom Capers and Leslie Frazier, to name a few, can rattle a young player's mind.
The 75,000 screaming fans in a hostile environment are no joke. Neither is playing through injuries, keeping your cool when the pressure is strong enough to bust pipes, and calling on your experiences when a situation looks hopeless. All of those abilities are required to succeed as a starter in the NFL and most of them can't be measured in the spring time on the practice field.
As one former GM said to me when we talked about spring practice, "Everyone is so eager to coach and build the team that they overvalue what is going on at practice and subconsciously raise their own expectations. Just install the packages and save the evaluations to when the real bullets are flying."
A quarterback has to play well, exude confidence in the huddle and lead older men. There's no substitute for experience, although a number of good quarterbacks never saw the field in their rookie season. The Bengals learned a lot from the mistakes of David Klingler and Akili Smith and there was no way they were going to subject their third first-round quarterback, Carson Palmer, to that blueprint for disaster in 2003. Titans coach Jeff Fisher was very patient with Steve McNair, starting him just six times in his first two years, yet McNair went on to have a tremendous 13-year career.
The success of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco last year certainly will apply pressure on this year's first-round signal-callers to get on the field in September, but what should fans in Detroit realistically expect from Stafford this season? He could "win" the job this spring and head to camp as the starter, like Peyton Manning did in 1998, or he could come off the bench and play half a season like Eli Manning did as a rookie in 2004. How he is managed in his rookie season could mean the difference between a solid career and the frustrations endured by Joey Harrington.
Being the first pick in the NFL draft is a very tough spot to start from because of the expectations, the amount of money guaranteed in the contract and, most of all, the pressure to win. I talk with Lions fans every day on my Sirius Radio show and they carry the decades of frustration with them wherever they go, and they will be going to the Lions games again this fall. Throw on top of all that the fact that Stafford was a junior last year and joins a team that just went 0-16. That essentially puts the Lions down where expansion teams were when they first started out, meaning it may be unwise to start Stafford in Week 1, even if he does look better than Culpepper this spring.
Culpepper, of course, is not the long-term answer in Detroit, but neither is Kurt Warner in Arizona or Kerry Collins in Tennessee. Do the Lions want to risk having the same situation that the Cardinals and Titans have right now with top-draft pick quarterbacks on the bench because the older, veteran quarterback gives the team a better chance to win? What will happen to Stafford when he starts is anyone's guess, but history is a pretty good indicator.
Let's take a look at No. 1 quarterbacks drafted since 1990 in an attempt to generate reasonable expectations for Stafford in his rookie season. There were 10 quarterbacks taken with the first overall pick: Jeff George (1990), Drew Bledsoe (1993), Peyton Manning (1998), Tim Couch (1999), Michael Vick (2001), David Carr (2002), Carson Palmer (2003), Eli Manning (2004), Alex Smith (2005) and JaMarcus Russell (2007). Add the two QBs taken with the second pick -- Ryan Leaf in 1998 and Rick Mirer in 1993 -- and we have a pool of 12 quarterbacks taken at the very top of the draft, mostly to bad teams. Among those 12 were four that came out of school early -- Leaf, Couch, Smith and Russell -- and all were asked to deliver in their first season, much like Stafford may be asked to this year.
For the four juniors drafted at the top spot, their completion percentage was down seven percent, their touchdown production was down almost 50 percent, and their sack and interception totals were significantly worse than those quarterbacks who stayed in school the extra year. On average, a junior quarterback with all the weight of being the first pick got sacked nearly five times and threw two interceptions for every touchdown he connected on. That likely could add up to a lot of boos from the Lions fans if Stafford takes the field in Week 1.
Considering that Stafford played a lot in college and is considered by many to have as much experience as some seniors, we could split the difference in the success rate of these quarterbacks. Nevertheless, Stafford still looks to be a young man who has to go through the growing pains of a 55-percent completion rate with seven touchdowns, 11 interceptions and 27 sacks -- and that's if he starts eight games. That kind of production isn't going to win many games for the Lions and it may rattle his confidence to the point of no return.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz has already started to temper some of the enthusiasm to play Stafford before he's ready, and that's a good thing. Schwartz knows better than anyone if the line is ready to pass block, if the running game is credible, and if the defense can recover from the extra turnovers created by a rookie quarterback.
Throwing a few touchdown passes in shorts on a June day does not constitute winning a starting job and being successful in the fall. I hope he's ready to play and defy the history of top picks in their first season, but if he's not, then the bench is the best place to be for the time being.