Jags, Vikings could soon turn to rookie QBs if struggles persist

Associated Press
Rookie quarterbacks Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert could start soon with vets struggling ahead of them.

Each Tuesday, NFL Network reporter Albert Breer will share his thoughts on topics around the NFL as teams transition from the previous Sunday's game to the next encounter on the schedule. Today, he begins with whether two teams should transition to their rookie-QBs-in-waiting.

If you examine the quarterbacks drafted in the first round from 2008-10, the trend to throwing young signal-callers to the wolves early is clear.

Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, and Sam Bradford all started on opening day. The two exceptions, Josh Freeman, who took the job in Tampa before his rookie year was out, and Tim Tebow, who got a taste at the end of 2010. And all that was a marked change from the three years previous, with all eight first-round quarterbacks from those drafts starting their careers with a clipboard.

In a way, that makes 2011 a throwback. Only one of this year's four first-round quarterbacks is starting.

A consequence of the lockout? Maybe. But it's also something that could change quickly.

Jacksonville and Minnesota both have veteran quarterbacks who, to put it mildly, struggled Sunday. One is anonymous and 1-1; the other famous and 0-2. Luke McCown and Donovan McNabb, respectively, certainly have reason to look over their shoulders at Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder.

The question then becomes not what's right for the old guy, but what's correct in developing the young guy whom the franchise has invested in heavily.

The answer: While conventional wisdom holds that it's best for a kid to sit, and Aaron Rodgers is certainly proof positive that it can work, there really isn't overwhelming evidence that playing early is that damaging. Ryan, Flacco, Stafford, Sanchez and Bradford in fact seemed to benefit from the experience, with three of the five going to the playoffs as rookies.

Conversely, Brady Quinn sitting over a year, or JaMarcus Russell and Alex Smith waiting didn't exactly fix flaws. In fact, 21 quarterbacks went in the first round from 2000-07, 19 of them sat at the start of Year 1 (Kyle Boller and David Carr being the exceptions), and seven didn't start a game as rookies. In that group, you have Rodgers and Philip Rivers. But you also have Quinn and J.P. Losman.

In the end, perhaps the most important thing is having an environment -- remember, Flacco, Ryan and Sanchez weren't asked to carry teams -- that prevents the quarterbacks from a) getting beat up too badly or b) developing bad habits because too much is being demanded of him.

For Minnesota and Jacksonville, having Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew is a good start in taking the heat off. Same goes for the Titans with Chris Johnson, should decision time come with Jake Locker down the line (Matt Hasselbeck's been much better than McNabb or McCown thus far).

But the bottom line remains it's a matter of a rookie's readiness to handle that spotlight. What the past three years have proven is that going under it isn't necessarily a bad thing for a young quarterback.

Fake issue is a real problem

The "faking injuries" issue got itself a national spotlight Monday night. And it's a mighty tricky situation for the league to navigate in a time when player safety concerns are running high.

How do you tell a player not to stay down? How do you tell him not to take precautions if something doesn't feel right? And how exactly do you tell if he's faking it? You can threaten fines or change rules on how a long a player who goes down has to spend on the sideline. But it's much tougher to prove whether an athlete was truly shaken up on a play or not.

If anyone has a suitable answer here, let me know. What I can tell you is that the problem isn't going away. More offenses are going no-huddle to combat defenses that substitute more as they become increasingly specialized, forcing some personnel groupings to stay on the field, and defenses have very little recourse outside of this less tasteful tactic.

Mason vs. Belichick

Pulling back the curtain on the NFL, as "A Football Life: Bill Belichick" did, will reveal some candid moments on the field. One such instance that had legs was the spicy in-game exchange between the Patriots coach and then-Raven Derrick Mason from October 2009. Mason tweeted after seeing the scene about being disrespected, which dumped gasoline on the brushfire. But the truth is, Mason spent more time trying to figure what he said in the first place than he did formulating those 140 characters.

And one important thing to note here too: Mason visited Foxborough and almost became a Patriot in 2005, before choosing to go to Baltimore instead.

'A Football Life: Bill Belichick'
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"A Football Life", returns Thursday, Sept. 22 at 10 p.m. ET with part two of Bill Belichick being wired for sound for the entire 2009 season by NFL Films.

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"Basically, it's much of nothing," Mason told me. "I respect Belichick, and I'm pretty sure he respects me, because I played against him basically every year of my career. We've had some tough battles, I've had some good games against them, and they've had some good games against us. There's a respect factor there. I'm still trying to figure out what I said, and I'm pretty sure I didn't say anything bad.

"When I'm playing football, and you can ask any head coach -- Romeo Crennel, Marvin Lewis, even (Mike) Tomlin -- when I go and talk to them, it's in happiness. I have fun with them, and they talk to me back. Maybe he was cranky at the time and I just came to the sideline at the wrong time."

Mason reserved judgment on comparing the Jets-Patriots rivalry he's jumping into with Ravens-Steelers. But he knows now he'll be a central figure in Week 5, and that's fine with him. "I'll get a taste of it in three weeks and see how nasty this thing can get," he said. "I'm gonna go over there and talk to Belichick and smile and have fun."

Haley on the hot seat?

The relationship between Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley might be in a tenuous spot in Year 3 of their rebuilding effort. And consecutive blowout losses to Buffalo and Detroit won't ease any hard feelings, nor will having to play without Tony Moeaki, Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles.

The shame of it is that there is, now, a fairly legitimate core that's taken shape in Kansas City, so long as the aforementioned trio can work their way back. Those guys are joined by defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey, receiver Dwayne Bowe, linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, and cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr. All are 26-and-under except Johnson (28) and Hali (27).

Much, of course, will depend on how far quarterback Matt Cassel can take the team. But Pioli and Haley have acquired and developed a really good group of young guys, and both are capable at their jobs. It'd be too bad if they don't see this through together. We should know more on where this is going by Halloween, when K.C. wraps up a five-game stretch that includes three AFC West contests.

Bills are building unconventionally

Bills GM Buddy Nix really made his name in San Diego with monster drafts in 2004 and '05, classes that served as the foundation for Chargers teams that won four straight division titles. And you'd figure that with the Bills off to an impressive start, there might be some similar work behind it.

Yet, of the 18 players Nix has drafted since becoming GM last year, only one -- 2011 third overall pick Marcell Dareus -- started on Sunday against Oakland. Only three of the 2009 draftees even played, which is the same number as have been released.

So how have they pulled it off? Well, Nix made up for some of his swings-and-misses in the draft by hitting the undrafted market, with players like receivers Donald Jones and David Nelson. And they've turned other folks' trash, like tight end Scott Chandler and (of course) quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, into their own treasure. It's working, for now. But Nix has emphasized building through the draft since being elevated to GM, and so the development of the 2011 draftees should be key to continuing this ascension.

Another impressive Cam stat

It's hard to say enough about Cam Newton's remarkable start. And it's the "quarterback" things he's doing that really make this more impressive.

Consider: Newton has hit eight different receivers through two weeks, just one fewer than Tom Brady and Drew Brees, and two fewer than Aaron Rodgers. And this: Six of Newton's receivers have at least five catches, something neither Brady, Brees nor Rodgers can say.

Maybe Newton's been so adaptable to this level of football because his college career was so itinerant. No matter what it is, it's something to see.

Five one-liners

» The Cowboys might be retooling, but you can see Jason Garrett's program taking hold in the way they responded last week, with that comeback win over the 49ers following a crushing loss and another cross-country trip.

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» The Jets should know a lot about themselves Oct. 10, when consecutive trips to Oakland, Baltimore and New England are in their rear-view mirror.

» There are other good young quarterbacks in the NFL, but few have "it" like Josh Freeman, who led his eighth career fourth-quarter comeback, this one on the rebound from a 17-0 deficit on the road with his Bucs staring down an 0-2 start.

» The Packers get points for character as well, withstanding a tough start and some rust to ride one out on the road.

» While all eyes Sunday will be on how Wade Phillips' Texans defense holds up against Brees, I'll be just as interested to see if Gregg Williams' group can prove, once and for all, that Week 1 was an aberration with Matt Schaub and Co. in town.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer