Third down is known as the money down for NFL quarterbacks. Can a guy stand and deliver when it counts most and the defense knows it's a passing situation?
While players get better in the pressure-filled situation with time, practice really doesn't have the same impact as game experience. Heading into 2010, there could be at least four quarterbacks thrown into the situation.
Sam Bradford is the only rookie quarterback likely to win a starting job out of training camp. Even though the Rams list A.J. Feeley as the starter, general manager Billy Devaney told me, "Players don't win jobs in shorts, they win starting jobs in pads in camp."
Unless the Rams conclude the offensive line can protect Bradford, I expect him to earn the starting spot. What should the expectations be when it comes to third-down efficiency? In looking at 11 NFL quarterbacks who started at least 13 games as rookies, and in most cases 16 games, the third-down production wasn't pretty. As a group, they threw 52 touchdowns on third down compared to 70 interceptions and were sacked 133 times. On average, the third-down numbers went like this: A sack every 12 attempts, a pick every 21 passes and a 52 percent completion rate. An ugly sight, but it's probably what can be expected of Bradford in 2010.
Not one rookie QB of the 11 (David Carr, Kerry Collins, Joe Flacco, Byron Leftwich, Peyton Manning, Kyle Orton, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford, Vince Young) completed more than 57 percent on third down, and only four (Young, Ryan, Flacco, Roethlisberger) threw more touchdowns than picks.
Although Manning is probably going to go down as the greatest passer statistically, he struggled his rookie season on third downs. He completed 87 of 169 passes (51.5 percent) with four touchdowns, 12 interceptions and seven sacks. In 2004, Roethlisberger was sacked one out of every seven third-down throws.
Bradford has some tough days ahead, but he's not alone. Kevin Kolb (Philadelphia Eagles), Matt Moore (Carolina Panthers) and Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) take over for their respective teams with limited third-down snaps.
Kolb has very limited experience with just 130 NFL passes and on third downs, completing just 12 of 30 attempts for 136 yards (4.53 yards per attempt) with no touchdowns and one interception.
Moore has a better feel on third down at this point than Kolb, but still has room to improve. He's completed 49 of 89 attempts for 586 yards (6.5 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns, four picks and six sacks.
Freeman has connected on 43 of 88 for 537 yards with three touchdowns, five interceptions and seven sacks.
If you come from the school of thought that there is a great benefit to sit and watch for a year or two before actually playing, here's a look at quarterbacks that had a chance to learn from the sidelines.
Eli Manning got his feet wet in 2004 before taking over in 2005. In his first full season as the starter, his third down results were 84 of 164 passes with a solid 7.27 yards per attempt average but 14 sacks. That's example of how tough it is to read coverage and avoid pressure.
Tom Brady has three Super Bowl rings and many feel he's the best QB in the NFL. After watching in 2000, he got 14 starts in 2001 and completed 64 of 110 passes but had only two touchdowns with four interceptions and 22 sacks on third down.
There should be a reality check for guys like Kolb, Moore and Freeman. The high end when it comes to expectations is based on what Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers did after learning from the sidelines. In 2006, Rivers hit 74 of 127 third-down passes at 9.31 yards an attempt with 11 touchdowns, six picks and nine sacks. Rodgers connected on 64 percent of his third-down passes for 14 touchdowns, five interceptions and 11 sacks in his first season as a starter in 2008.
After looking at 30 quarterbacks and their first full season as starters, here's what to expect for this year's new full-time starters on third downs. They will complete less than 60 percent of their passes, convert less than 38 percent of the third downs, average less than 6.8 yards an attempt, throw more interceptions than touchdowns and average a sack a game.
If the fans realize that is part of the growing pains of the job, they will give the young starters the breathing room needed to grow and succeed. If fans expect more and get frustrated, especially in Philadelphia where the Eagles still have to face Donovan McNabb twice a year, they aren't being realistic about the difficulty of the third-down execution.