Analysis  

 

Why NFL teams rapidly throw young quarterbacks into the fire

"Watch and learn."

How many times have you heard that phrase from a parent, teacher or coach? It's a pretty simple concept. By watching someone else perform a particular task over and over again, you will eventually gain the necessary know-how to perform the same task on your own. That was the strategy the Green Bay Packers employed to develop Aaron Rodgers, arguably the NFL's premier quarterback today.

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After selecting Rodgers with the 24th overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, the Packers allowed their young quarterback to sit behind future Hall of Famer Brett Favre for three full seasons. Rodgers was afforded the luxury of learning from both the successes and failures of Favre before taking over the starting role in Green Bay. His first start didn't come until he'd been with the team for 50 NFL games (including the postseason). In my opinion, we will never see another quarterback drafted in the first round wait that long again. And there's plenty of evidence to support my claim.

From 2006 (the year after Rodgers was selected) to 2012, there have been 20 quarterbacks selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden are the newest members of this club, and they've all been named Week 1 starters for their respective teams. Assuming all four stay healthy, 18 of those 20 quarterbacks will have started at least one game during their rookie seasons.

Here's a quick look at the group:

Draft Year Quarterback Team First career start
2012 Andrew Luck Indianapolis Colts 1st game*
2012 Robert Griffin III Washington Redskins 1st game*
2012 Ryan Tannehill Miami Dolphins 1st game*
2012 Brandon Weeden Cleveland Browns 1st game*
2011 Cam Newton Carolina Panthers 1st game
2011 Jake Locker Tennessee Titans 17th game*
2011 Blaine Gabbert Jacksonville Jaguars 3rd game
2011 Christian Ponder Minnesota Vikings 7th game
2010 Sam Bradford St. Louis Rams 1st game
2010 Tim Tebow Denver Broncos 14th game
2009 Matthew Stafford Detroit Lions 1st game
2009 Mark Sanchez New York Jets 1st game
2009 Josh Freeman Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8th game
2008 Matt Ryan Atlanta Falcons 1st game
2008 Joe Flacco Baltimore Ravens 1st game
2007 JaMarcus Russell Oakland Raiders 13th game**
2007 Brady Quinn Cleveland Browns 25th game
2006 Vince Young Tennessee Titans 4th game
2006 Matt Leinart Arizona Cardinals 5th game
2006 Jay Cutler Denver Broncos 12th game
* Luck, Griffin, Tannehill, Weeden and Locker have all been named starters for their teams' respective 2012 openers.
** Russell held out and missed the first three games of his rookie season, eventually starting in Week 17.

The two exceptions were Brady Quinn, drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2007, and Jake Locker, picked by the Tennessee Titans in 2011. Quinn ended up taking over the starting duties in Cleveland halfway through his second season. Locker, who backed up veteran Matt Hasselbeck on a competitive Titans squad last season, was named the team's starter this week.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, after Week 1 of this season, 10 of the last 20 first-round quarterbacks will have started their very first NFL game. Sixteen of the 20 signal-callers will have made their starting debuts during the first halves of their rookie seasons.

So, why are teams in such a hurry to start their young quarterbacks?

I've come up with four reasons to explain the seeming lack of patience over the last seven years:

1) First-round draft picks offer hope. Nothing energizes an organization, team or fan base quite like a fresh, new quarterback.

2) Head coaches have become more influential in the draft process over the last few years, and they are much more inclined to play a rookie quarterback that they have signed off on.

3) The college game has done a much better job of preparing quarterbacks for the NFL of late. Coaching salaries have skyrocketed at big-time college programs, and that has helped lure dozens of quality NFL assistants to drop down a level. These coaches have provided college quarterbacks with excellent tutelage in the fundamentals of the position while helping them master very complex offensive systems. College quarterbacks are also getting exposed to the same multiple-look defenses that await them in the NFL.

4) Starting a rookie quarterback no longer precludes a team from winning. In 2008, both Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco helped lead the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, respectively, to the playoffs as rookies. That completely changed a long-held perception that starting a rookie quarterback basically meant sacrificing the current season for future returns.

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There used to be a financial motive associated with playing young quarterbacks, but that is no longer the case, thanks to the new labor agreement. Rookie salaries are very manageable these days, and shouldn't force organizations to rush young signal-callers.

So, it might be time for everyone to conceive a new phrase. "Watch and learn" is no longer applicable.

What's appropriate for today's NFL?

Play and learn.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

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