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The starting job: Hand it to rookie QBs or make 'em earn it?

Associated Press
Andrew Luck (left) and Robert Griffin III will be starting from Day 1 for the Colts and Redskins, respectively.

On the morning of the 2012 NFL draft, at the final day of the new coaching staff's first team workouts, Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians boldly proclaimed that "there ain't no doubt" that first overall pick Andrew Luck would be the team's starting quarterback from Day 1.

Quarterbacks drafted in first round in past 10 years
Player (Overall pick) Year Date named starter
*Cam Newton (1) 2011 9/1/2011
Jake Locker (8) 2011 N/A
Blaine Gabbert (10) 2011 9/21/2011
Christian Ponder (12) 2011 10/18/2011
*Sam Bradford (1) 2010 9/4/2010
Tim Tebow (25) 2010 12/18/2010
*Matthew Stafford (1) 2009 9/7/2009
*Mark Sanchez (5) 2009 8/26/2009
Josh Freeman (17) 2009 10/28/2009
*Matt Ryan (3) 2008 8/24/2008
*Joe Flacco (18) 2008 9/1/2008
JaMarcus Russell (1) 2007 12/26/2007
Brady Quinn (22) 2007 11/3/2008
Vince Young (3) 2006 9/27/2006
Matt Leinart (10) 2006 10/2/2006
Jay Cutler (11) 2006 11/27/2006
Alex Smith (1) 2005 10/5/2005
Aaron Rodgers (24) 2005 3/24/2008
Jason Campbell (25) 2005 11/13/2006
Eli Manning (1) 2004 11/15/2004
Philip Rivers (4) 2004 3/15/2006
Ben Roethlisberger (11) 2004 9/20/2004
J.P. Losman (22) 2004 2/16/2005
Carson Palmer (1) 2003 3/1/2004
Byron Leftwich (7) 2003 10/2/2003
*Kyle Boller (19) 2003 8/30/2003
Rex Grossman (22) 2003 12/10/2003
*David Carr (1) 2002 9/4/2002
Joey Harrington (3) 2002 9/19/2002
Patrick Ramsey (32) 2002 10/7/2002
*Started Week 1 as a rookie

Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan did the same with Robert Griffin 10 days later, saying, simply, "He's the starter. Period."

The idea of throwing a rookie franchise quarterback to the wolves is hardly a novel one. Ten of the 11 signal callers selected in the first round over the past four years became starters in Year 1, and six won the job prior to Week 1.

But what Arians and Shanahan did was different, and significantly so, than what just about every coach of such a quarterback has done since the turn of the century.

Thirty-four players at the position have been drafted in the first round since 2002. Of the 30 taken from 2002-11, only three were named starter as early as August of their rookie year (see table, right). And while in some cases, the rookie winning the job might have been a fait accompli, there's a reason why most coaches hold off.

"I think it was beneficial for him and the rest of the team that way," Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of waiting until Sept. 1 to name Cam Newton starter last year. "This is my personal opinion, but I didn't want to have guys see us just giving things to people. We talked about competition at all the other positions, and I wanted to be on point and consistent. But everyone handles things differently."

Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has seen it both ways. He was with the Colts in 1998, when Peyton Manning was installed with the first team at the club's first minicamp. But he was also on staffs where a quarterback sat his whole first year (Washington, Jason Campbell, 2005), a quarterback won the job by midseason (Jacksonville, Byron Leftwich, 2003; Christian Ponder, 2011), and a quarterback won the job in camp (Ryan). And it's his experience that forcing them to compete is important.

"I think that's part of the process in knowing if they're ready or not, and if they belong out there," Musgrave said. "The team, his teammates individually, the other quarterbacks, the staff -- they'll get a sense for whether or not the young quarterback is ready to be out there during showtime."

By almost every account, both Luck and Griffin possess maturity beyond their years, which might uniquely equip each to handle the job without having to win it first. But there are plenty of roadblocks ahead for their coaches to help them navigate.

A position to succeed

The first thing that needs to be determined by the coach: Is the player ready? For Mike Munchak, it was even more important to answer the question as the Tennessee Titans zeroed in on Jake Locker before last year's draft, with the lockout leaving uncertainty as to the club's ability to add a veteran.

"If we didn't think he could start as a rookie, we couldn't take him at 8," Munchak said. "Our deal was, once we got Matt (Hasselbeck) signed, the thinking turned to, 'How do we go from here?' And we adjusted our thinking. But it didn't change how we felt about Jake. If Jake had to start last year, we felt comfortable that he could've."

Locker didn't wind up starting a single game, but did play on five occasions with Hasselbeck working through some injury problems. In those spots, Munchak and the offensive staff used the principle he learned in being around for the ingratiation of Steve McNair and Vince Young into the NFL. It was vital to play to Young's strengths. For Locker, like with McNair and Young, it meant using his athleticism, getting him to throw on the move, and simplifying his reads to begin with, then adding more along the way.

Rivera employed a similar approach with Newton, even installing some zone-read concepts that the quarterback had exceptionally run at Auburn. The idea isn't complicated, and it's one that Shanahan has said he'll adhere to with Griffin. A quarterback who's comfortable can be confident, and a confident quarterback can mean a confident team.

"That's very important," Musgrave said. "But it is with all positions. As a coach, think players first, then plays."

And if the quarterback can handle the load, the spotlight, and succeed with the players around him, the benefits are obvious.

"Each situation is different, but the fact remains that if a young quarterback is ready for the pro game, and is trained well, he'll learn faster by playing than by watching," Musgrave said. "That's assuming the stars are aligned. You have to be good enough around him, so he doesn't have to do it himself, that's essential. He'll need to do his part, and he'll learn and develop faster by doing it. And I've always maintained a quarterback learns more from his mistakes than triumphs and touchdown passes."

But there is a line there, and it's one that both the Colts and Redskins had to take into account before pulling the trigger on naming Luck and Griffin starters.

The downside

Rivera said he had "two epiphanies" with Newton in preseason. One came in a game against Miami, where Newton's numbers were lacking, but he was making the right decisions and simply needed his body to catch up to his mind. The other came on a 12-play touchdown drive against Pittsburgh. But as much as those moments told Rivera that Newton was ready, the situation around him needed to be right.

That meant the right offensive line. The right running game. And the right weapons.

"The big thing you're concerned with is how people are gonna attack him, and whether or not that is gonna be overwhelming," Rivera said. "You can damage him by throwing him to the wolves when he's not ready, but you can also do it by having a team that's not ready. The Texans, with David Carr, they set a sack record. I'm not sure that group was ready. And that was one of our concerns. We were lucky; we had an offensive line that had all started together before for the Panthers."

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The running game, too, was sound. The Panthers also had Steve Smith and added tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen to give Newton security blankets.

The Carr example, on the other hand, is one that coaches use consistently as a cautionary tale. It's not to say that the first pick in the 2002 draft would've been a star under better circumstances. It's just that he was beaten up early and not given a chance to develop properly as a result. Or at least that's the perception.

"That was the extreme -- no one ever experienced something like that. That's definitely hard," Munchak said. "I think that's why you haven't seen it happen again, teams are being smarter protecting the quarterback. You make sure those things don't happen. If you're gonna pick a quarterback in the first round, you have to have a plan to protect him. It's the organization's fault if that doesn't happen. When Manning came in, they played two tight ends, they protected him, set up quicker decisions.

"You may not win a ton right away that way, that's part of it, but you want to avoid the amount of hits. You have the guy lose confidence, get the guy hurt, that's worse."

In Griffin's case, the Redskins rebuilt the offensive line in Shanahan's first two years, and broke the bank on receivers this year. With Luck, the Colts signed a center in free agency, and drafted three skill position players, including two tight ends, consecutively, after taking the quarterback first.

The right guy

Musgrave's "epiphany" with Matt Ryan was similar to Rivera's with Newton, in that it came in a preseason game. After giving the third pick in the 2008 draft snaps in the first two games, Atlanta let Ryan start the third one. What ensued was what Musgrave termed "a bloodbath" against the Titans, and the quarterback's ability to survive it convinced the coaches he was ready.

With Manning, it was different. He was a first-teamer on the first snap of his first day, and seemed right at home. Everyone knew.

"It was clear from the minute he stepped in the huddle," Musgrave said. "He directed Marvin Harrison on what to do. He had an instant rapport with Marshall Faulk. It was clear. Crystal clear. He was prepared. He was mature. He'd been exposed to pro football his whole life, and it showed."

Whether Indianapolis and Washington did the right thing by handing the rookie the reins right away in a similar fashion -- and one immediate benefit will be those extra practice reps -- remains to be seen.

But if history is a guide, the conviction these franchises have in their young, Texas-bred signal callers is rare. In fact, it's almost unprecedented.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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