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EJ Manuel benching underscores NFL's flawed approach to QBs

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» What's the problem with New England's offense?
» One rookie who's certainly living up to expectations -- and then some.
» The key to Philip Rivers' brilliance.
And much more, beginning with the deterioration of quarterback development at the NFL level. ...

This shouldn't be read as a defense of EJ Manuel.

I was in Houston on Sunday. I saw him miss a wide-open Sammy Watkins. I saw him sail one to Robert Woods, too. I know the Bills want to find a way to get more out of what they believe is a playoff roster.

But it's hard not to look at the situation in Buffalo, where Manuel has been benched in favor of 31-year-old Kyle Orton, and wonder about how the NFL is developing its quarterbacks.

The Bills' 2013 first-round pick is just the latest in a line of presumably overdrafted signal-callers to have the plug pulled on their development barely after the lights could be turned on. Thursday night's game in Green Bay provided another glaring example, with the Minnesota Vikings' already-given-up-on first-rounder of 2011 pinch-hitting for this year's first-rounder, drafted to replace him.

"It's not helping the development of young quarterbacks, but it is the reality of the NFL," said Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who played the position for a decade in the NFL. "They need to come in and go, and hopefully not have any lulls, and start on the upswing. It's hard, it's really hard. I was just thinking off the top of my head, Josh Freeman was a guy that I thought had a big future, but never had a chance to work in the same system. It's hard."

Over the first decade of this century (2000 to '09), there were a dozen first-round quarterbacks who didn't make it to a second contract with their drafting team. Eight of the 12 got at least two seasons' worth of starts. Seven of those got more than 40. Only two were discarded after less than four years, and they at least made it to Year 3.

Since then, there have been a pair of first-round quarterbacks tossed on the trash heap after just two years (Tim Tebow, Brandon Weeden). And two of the four teams that took quarterbacks in the first round in 2011, the Jaguars and Vikings, turned the page and spent another 1 on a QB this year. So 40 percent of the quarterbacks drafted from 2010 to '12 got three years or less. And Manuel was the only player at the position to go in the first round in 2013.

What all that adds up to is a learning environment that's been bastardized for a transitioning player at a position where trial-and-error is a vital element of growth.

"Even Peyton (Manning) wasn't MVP his rookie year," said San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who played 14 NFL seasons. "Here's the other thing: Expectations are part of the problem. Some guys are getting drafted in the top 10 because of the premium on the position, not because they're top-10 picks. There's such a premium, you figure, Let's take a chance -- maybe we'll be better. There's a tendency to overdraft. Then, the expectation is that a first-round pick should be able to play in Year 1."

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So he plays early. The decision timetable is accelerated. And everything winds up out of whack.

How did we get here? Well, the expectation that a first-rounder should play right away is, in part, a product of the shortened shelf life of head coaches and general managers.

In many cases, a new regime will draft a player, and because coaches don't have more than two or three years to break through, there's no time to let a guy develop in the shadows. Compounding the problem can be staff overhauls that force system changes, which make getting a clean evaluation on a QB tough.

"Guys are judged too harshly too soon -- there's a learning curve -- and a lot of that is because coaches are being judged so quick," one NFC quarterbacks coach said. "For coaches, we gotta win now, or it's on to the next guy. With EJ, you'd like to have him work through his issues. But you go 5-11, and the staff gets fired, then yeah, he's better, but he's better for the next staff."

One way coaches have made it work of late is to meet the quarterbacks halfway, implementing pieces of their college offenses to cut down the volume of learning. Carolina installed Auburn concepts for Cam Newton. Washington put in a facsimile of the Baylor offense for Robert Griffin III. The Dolphins had Ryan Tannehill's college coach, Mike Sherman, as offensive coordinator to blend the Texas A&M and Miami schemes.

That helps, of course, and buys the quarterback time to develop.

The larger issue is that they might not be given enough of a chance to fail. Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie. Tom Brady was labeled a game manager early on, and didn't post a QB rating over 90 until his fifth year. And he, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers combined for zero starts as rookies, afforded the chance to make their mistakes on Wednesdays and Thursdays, rather than Sundays.

"The only way to get better is to keep seeing stuff," an AFC offensive coordinator said. "Rodgers got so lucky, because he got better as he waited, went 6-10 in his first year starting, and had a huge year the next year. Peyton threw how many picks his rookie year? A ton. ... If a guy isn't ready, it's so (expletive) hard to play this position."

What all these coaches agree on is that there really isn't a set formula for every quarterback. Some (see: Luck, Andrew) are ready to play as they slip on an NFL practice jersey. Others are better off waiting. Many need a strong supporting cast early, which you won't often get on a high-drafting team.

But all can use time, whether it's to develop on the field or away from it. And each has to be treated individually.

"Some guys who started early weren't successful," said Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements, who played quarterback at Notre Dame and in the CFL. "You look at John Elway and Troy Aikman, they weren't successful. Then you look at (Ben) Roethlisberger and (Dan) Marino and they were successful. What's the reason? It's partially their development, partially the type of team they play on. I don't think you can come out and say what the right thing to do is."

So Manuel sits. If Orton play competently, it'll probably be for the rest of the year. And if the Bills' new ownership decides to turn the page on GM Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone, Manuel's development will be in the hands of a regime with far less invested in him.

In a way, all of that's too bad. But so long as everyone else is on a short leash, quarterbacks will be, too, which ultimately is likely to lead to the NFL having less good ones.

Four downs

1) Don't blame Tom Brady ... yet: After the Monday Night Massacre in Kansas City, I asked a number of trusted personnel folks about what they were seeing with the New England Patriots' 29th-ranked offense. I couldn't find one guy who laid the blame at the feet of the quarterback. The best characterization of the situation came from a scout who said New England -- long armed with Brady as its margin for error -- had built a unit begging for a 30-year-old version of No. 12 to bail it out, while the 37-year-old model is more than within his rights to be asking for a heck of a lot more help. Another evaluator, this one an AFC personnel executive, said, "You can mask a couple of problems, but when it comes to protection and you are a pocket QB, those problems can be hard to overcome. And the receivers have to get open, but there's no deep threat there, and without the vertical element, the defense can play tighter." So in a nutshell, the protection problem means the ball has to come out quicker, and without a deep threat, the defense can take away shorter routes and create the extra second it takes to get a hit on the passer. Add it up, and the Patriots' offense is in a position it's been in for short stretches in the past: forced to hope Brady can again make wine out of water. It's hard to doubt him, or Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, based on their collective track record. But this won't be easy.

2) Rob Ryan's sophomore slump: Rex's twin brother, rightfully, has a reputation for being a mad scientist. But in his most recent two stops -- he's now been a defensive coordinator for four different NFL teams -- a troubling trend has developed. Ryan gets the first-year bounce. But it doesn't keep up the way he, or the teams employing him, would like. The Cowboys ranked 23rd in total defense and allowed 27.2 points per game in Wade Phillips' final year. Ryan got them to 14th and 21.7 ppg in his first year in Dallas. The Cowboys regressed to 19th and 25.0 in 2012, and the DC was shown the door. Similarly, Ryan took the historically bad 2012 Saints defense (32nd, 28.4 ppg) and raised it all the way to fourth, while allowing just 21.7 points per game. Through four games this year, New Orleans is at 29th, and allowing 27.5 points per game. So what gives? Here's a theory I've heard: In Year 1, Ryan gets guys to play fast and is able to implement enough to be effective schematically. In Year 2, the volume Ryan throws at players causes a problem. We'll see if the fix is coming. At least some around the league believe the best way for it to happen would be for the coach to cut back down, and get his guys reacting rather than thinking out there. (UPDATE: Hours after the publishing of this column on Friday, the Saints placed safety Jairus Byrd on season-ending injured reserve -- a huge hit to the struggling defense.)

3) Broncos trading up. If the Broncos win it all this year, they might want to send something nice to the agents for Brandon LaFell and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. In March, Denver was confident that both would be with them in 2014. In both cases, escalating prices drove them elsewhere. Start with LaFell. The Broncos felt like they were closing in on a deal a few days into free agency, but as they pushed for a conclusion to talks, LaFell's demands rose. And rose. And so, as sticker shock started to set in, the Denver brass came up with an idea: Why not just look at the No. 1 receiver the coaches had on the free-agent board? That player was Emmanuel Sanders, whom Denver had stacked above LaFell and its own free agent, Eric Decker. Initially, the Broncos thought Sanders would be too pricey. A few calls later, they had him at $15 million over three years, rather than LaFell at slightly less. Meanwhile, as Rodgers-Cromartie decided to set out on an old-fashioned free-agent tour, Denver put in a call to Aqib Talib. Within hours, they were able to reach an agreement on a six-year, $57 million deal. Rodgers-Cromartie didn't sign for another five days. The results of the strangely-similar circumstances: Sanders paces the Broncos with 25 catches for 334 yards (LaFell has 10 for 165 in New England with one extra game under his belt), while Talib has emerged as a leading force for the Denver defense (Rodgers-Cromartie has had an impact for the Giants, too).

4) Houston creating a problem. Romeo Crennel's defense is ranked 21st in the NFL, 24th against the run and 15th against the pass, but is doing a lot more than those numbers would indicate. In both the opener and Sunday's win over Buffalo, the defense played with edge and attitude, and flustered an athletic quarterback, buying time for the Texans' struggling offense to get untracked. There were times Sunday where, as Houston players saw it, EJ Manuel flat out didn't know what he was looking at, and that is a credit to Crennel building positional flexibility into individual players and teaching his guys the "why" in addition to the "what." The result is a defense where guys can float from spot to spot and carry out the scheme as it's intended to be run. "The scheme is very complex, but he's done a really good job teaching it," captain Brian Cushing said. "He really tells you -- and teaches you -- why he calls things in certain situations. It makes you a lot more football savvy." And those numbers above? Yeah, not great. But the situational statistics tell a different story. Houston entered this week tied for first in the NFL in takeaways, ranked first in third-down defense, second in red-zone defense and sixth in scoring defense. And they're getting Jadeveon Clowney back soon. As Cushing puts it, "It's not like he's a guy we've played with all these years and all of the sudden he's out of there. We've really never played with him before, so when he is back in there, it'll be an added boost."

Three checkdowns

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1) Surprisingly enough, C.J. Mosley was the first Alabama player Ozzie Newsome has taken in the first round in his 19 drafts in Baltimore. And so it should be less surprising that the linebacker's delivering more than even the Ravens thought he would. He's proven to be a player whose skills translate at every level to the NFL, and is seen internally as a young NaVorro Bowman.

2) The Jim Harbaugh-going-home rumors won't quiet soon under the increasingly hot seat of Brady Hoke at Michigan. But if the Wolverines are to land him, they might still have to overcome some hard feelings. Why? The story goes that Harbaugh held a grudge over Michigan's lack of interest in 2008, when U of M tabbed Rich Rodriguez. One thing that could help the school's effort to the land the coach: new administration.

3) Just like Jon Gruden has been connected to the Raiders, expect Harbaugh to be continually linked to the Miami Dolphins, the team that aggressively pursued him and fell short of getting him in 2011. Owner Stephen Ross comes with deep pockets, and the contractual flexibility in-house to clear the decks for a new superstar coach to wield a boatload of power.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Alabama S Landon Collins (at Ole Miss, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): The Crimson Tide have had an assembly line of first-round defensive backs since Nick Saban, who fancies himself a specialist on secondary play, arrived in Tuscaloosa. Collins may well be the best model yet. "He's better than (Mark) Barron, he's better than Ha Ha (Clinton-Dix)," an AFC college scout said. "If you look at him, he plays special teams, he plays defense and he's all-out. He's just a football player. Good range, good hands, explosive tackler, always around the ball. ... Barron was a good player, but more of a thumper. Ha Ha was more rangy. This guy is a mixture of both." This week will be a good chance for scouts to check out the potential top-15 pick. Saban's defenses have come under criticism for struggling with tempo offenses, and that's what Ole Miss is. And the Rebels bring an imposing skill group to that hurry-up, starting with budding star receiver Laquon Treadwell. This is, very much, the kind of stage Collins should thrive on.

2) Nebraska DE Randy Gregory (at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): The former junior-college transfer has 15 sacks in 17 games at Nebraska, and will be the first thing the Spartans concern themselves with in looking at the Cornhusker defense. For good reason, too: Gregory sacked Connor Cook once, and hurried him four more times in Michigan State's win over Nebraska last fall. Since, sophomore Jack Conklin has taken over as the Spartans' left tackle, and has not allowed a sack through five games this season. But he hasn't had to block a freak like Gregory. And one NFC college scout says Gregory "hasn't scratched the surface of what he's capable of. Still raw and still making plays." While the scout says facing Iowa LT Brandon Scherff over Thanksgiving weekend will be Gregory's biggest test, this week provides a chance to play against a tough offensive line and a quarterback, in Cook, who figures to wind up being a high draft pick. And for a 6-foot-6, 240-pounder that still has plenty of room to grow, both physically and technique-wise, that's a pretty good proving ground.

Extra point

Project Philip Rivers' current numbers over the full season, and you get this line: 384-for-548 (70.1 percent), 4,620 yards, 36 TDs, 4 INTs, 114.5 QB rating. How good is that? Well, in 2010, Tom Brady was a unanimous MVP after posting 3,900 yards passing, 36 TDs, 4 INTs and a 111.0 QB rating.

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So ... Rivers has been pretty damn good, enough to make his two-year swoon of 2011 and '12 feel like it happened 20 years ago. And the rebound has come because, at 32, the quarterback has never been more in control of what's around him.

"I see a guy who has complete mastery over the system," Bolts offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "And what I see that's a cut above everyone else is what he does in protection and his understanding of what a defense is trying to do to him, his ability to identify and understand what teams are doing, where pressure's coming from, and the right protection call is at a level beyond what I can describe. It's not at graduate level. It's at PhD level."

The best example of that is pretty mind-blowing. Reich describes rare moments he sees, in practices and games, where Rivers will actually make adjustments during his drops, carrying out a play-action fake while shouting to the back, "Need ya," as a way of telling him to stay in and block, an on-the-fly change that would almost qualify as in between pre-snap and post-snap adjustments.

So what does this mastery do? For one, it allows the Chargers to optimize the combination of receivers and blockers deployed. If Rivers knows just how many guys he needs to stay in consistently, that gives the offense the advantage of releasing the highest number of players into routes on every play, which puts the greatest amount of stress on the defense. And from a personal standpoint, his knowledge of all things around him allows Rivers to let plays develop longer, giving teammates more time to get open.

That's allowed Mike McCoy, Reich and the Chargers to build on what they did with Rivers last year, which was to emphasize taking easy completions to cut down on the risks that he's prone to take as a great deep-ball thrower. Pocket presence and ball security were the focus last year. He's been eyeing better footwork and finish this year.

And with his 33rd birthday two months away, all of that work is why Rivers keeps getting better. He's every bit the coach's son and gym rat he ever was.

"When I envisioned coaching, this is what I envisioned it being like -- working with a guy like this," Reich said. "We work hard, but we have a blast -- a lot of laughs, a lot of blood, a lot of sweat. We work together, and there's a mutual respect. There's a great chemistry on this team, and it's because of veterans like Philip. He's such a great leader, not just a great player, but a great leader."

And the best might be yet to come.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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