It wasn't supposed to be this way. Not after all of the hype. Not after all of the expectation.
By now, Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Tarvaris Jackson should have been fully entrenched as starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
Instead, these prominent members of the 2006 draft class have spent most of this season watching and waiting while veterans lead their respective teams.
"It's a very different situation that's very humbling," said Jackson, a second-round pick whom the Vikings replaced with 37-year-old Gus Frerotte after Week 2.
So far, Jackson is the only one of the three whose wait finally ended. A back injury forced Frerotte to leave the field late in the first half of the Vikings' 20-16 victory at Detroit in Week 14. Jackson took over and completed 8 of 10 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Young: "If I'm coaching him, I've got to find a way to go back to square one with the guy and talk about coverages, talk about fronts, talk about formations, talk about protections. I've got to make sure that he doesn't have some of the answers; he has to have all the answers. Because, clearly, that's one area where he has to continue to improve. If you look at him physically, there's no question that the guy is very gifted and he could certainly be a dominant player. But, honestly, there are a lot of guys out there that can run around and throw the ball. I think, in order for him to take the next step and become an everyday player, he's got to grow in terms of his approach as it relates to the mental part of the game. That's not criticizing his intelligence. That's just a simple fact of the matter."
Leinart: "I think the offseason is going to be critical for him. He's going to have to go above and beyond. You have to make an impact, an imprint on the coaches, the people in the (team's) building, and your teammates. You've got to make that investment to put yourself in a position that the teammates feel really good about you. Whenever you get the chance (to play), you've got to be good, even if it's preseason. In the second half of a preseason game, he should go out there and light it up. It gets back to consistency with him."
Jackson: "Tarvaris is a guy that, physically, is very talented. He can make all the throws, he has good athleticism. Two things that jump out at me with him -- one, can he stay healthy? He's been nicked, he has had little things that have kept him out of practice and he has missed some games. And my comments to him were, 'Your most important value to a football team is to be available each and every week. I'm not talking about on Sundays. I'm talking about on Wednesdays for practice.' The other thing I talked about with Tarvaris, much like Vince Young, was that the game has to be able to slow down for him. I think it does slow down when you're not seeing things for the first time, when you're not seeing that coverage that you didn't anticipate, or when you get to the line of scrimmage and it's not the right front. When I watch Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Brett Favre, they don't waste plays. With these young guys, you see a lot of (wasted plays) because they're not equipped to get out of those situations because there's not enough trust and confidence in their skills and abilities to be able to live in that world."
Frerotte, who kept the starting job by going 7-3 before his injury, is still hurting. As a result, Jackson is likely to make his first start since being benched when the Vikings face the Cardinals on Sunday. The other starting quarterback in the game will be another 37-year-old, Kurt Warner, who beat out Leinart -- the 10th-overall-choice -- for that spot during the preseason and has guided Arizona to the NFC West title.
Meanwhile, Kerry Collins, who is nearing his 36th birthday, will make his 13th start of the season when Tennessee visits Houston on Sunday. He was thrust into the job after Young, the third overall pick, suffered a knee injury in the season-opener. However, Collins performed well enough to keep it even after Young recovered and has led the Titans to an NFL-best record of 12-1 and the AFC South crown.
The only first-round quarterback from the class of '06 starting is Jay Cutler, who has led the Broncos to the top of the AFC West and whose 23 touchdown passes rank second in the conference.
For the other three young guns, the challenge is to stay prepared for an opportunity that, in the case of Jackson, presents itself with a division title in reach and, in the case of Young and Leinart, could very well come in the postseason.
Said Leinart: "I'm one snap away from getting in and being put in position to win football games. As a professional, I prepare every day like I'm the starter. I try to visualize plays. I try to ask Kurt as much as possible. I just really try to put myself in his shoes every time he walks up to the line of scrimmage."
Still, staying focused when you spend the week knowing that someone else is getting the start isn't easy. It's even harder for players who feel the frustration and disappointment over not realizing the success they were projected to have after brilliant college careers.
For Young, those feelings are only enhanced by the tremendous promise he showed while starting 19 games (including a playoff contest) through his first two seasons and played in a Pro Bowl.
He and Leinart won national championships at Texas and USC, respectively.
How could they fall so far so fast?
"I just think a lot of these players aren't ready to play," Gannon said. "It's a process, and I think that, in this day and age, we kind of rush them along -- because of their draft position, because of the amount of money being thrown out there -- honestly before they're really ready to play. It can ruin some of them. You saw some of the mental strain that a guy like Vince Young went through."
And Gannon has a simple message for how Young, Leinart and Jackson should deal with the stumbles they took this year: Get over it.
"No one's going to feel sorry for you," he said. "You really become more of an afterthought."
Until this week, Jackson, like Young and Leinart, has spent most of each practice running the opponent's plays for the benefit of his defensive teammates. As with all backup quarterbacks, he has attended every meeting during which the offensive coordinator thoroughly discusses the game plan, reviews each play that will be called in all situations, and goes over defensive tendencies and weaknesses that can be exploited. However, reserve quarterbacks will tell you that the best way to truly grasp how to run the offense of their respective teams is to pay close attention when the starter is on the field. That means listening to the play that's called, anticipating the coverage before the snap, and determining the correct place to go with the ball. The process is known as taking a "mental rep."
Of course, nothing can replace doing it yourself.
"It's hard to watch," said Leinart, who started 11 games as a rookie and five last year before suffering a season-ending collarbone injury. "The hardest thing is being a competitor and wanting to get out there and wanting to play and wanting to be a part of it. But the biggest thing that I've realized is I'm a young quarterback. I know I have a long career ahead of me.
"To look back at the last couple of years, it's probably not how I thought it would pan out, for sure. But I'm a part of something really special going on. We're in the playoffs. Obviously, there's more work to be done, but to be a part of that is something great. And I've got a pretty good quarterback playing in front of me. Kurt is an NFL MVP and a Super Bowl MVP, and I've learned a lot from him. He's smarter than anyone at that position I've ever been around or ever seen."
It took a week or so, but Jackson did eventually wrap his mind around the fact he no longer was a first-string player. He credits that with allowing him to perform as well as he did against the Lions.
"You've got to get to the point where you're able to cope with it and use it to your advantage, use it to motivate yourself and just try to get better," Jackson said. "I wasn't really happy about the situation, but I tried to use that anger and frustration of not playing to make sure I was still working out, still trying to stay in shape and just try to use it to get better."
Gannon, who did his share of backing up during 17 years in the league, said the best advice he has for any reserve is to make an extra effort to work on his game and absorb as much knowledge as he can even though no one is really paying much attention to him. When he backed up Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac in Kansas City, Gannon said he knew he was "more prepared mentally" than either starter.
"In other words, I think you have to outwork the guy ahead of you," Gannon said. "If you want to play, you've got to do more than what he's doing. I think that's got to be the mindset, and unfortunately, in our business it's not in a lot of situations. You have to grab guys after practice to work with you -- the practice squad guys, your quarterback coach. You've got to do all the little things to try to find a way to facilitate getting yourself throws in the red zone, third-down throws, whatever it takes to get yourself ready.
"It comes fast and furious and you'd just better make sure you're prepared. It says a lot for Tarvaris to go in there and play the way he did. That's part of the process of winning back the trust of your teammates and your coaches. One game isn't going to get it done, but if you continue to do that over the course of a period of time, then when you get the chance again, just make sure that you're ready."
At Childress' request, Gannon, who resides in Minnesota, has spent the last two offseasons working with Jackson. During each session, he has stressed to Jackson that his primary concern must be to put his team in position to have a chance to win rather than looking to carry the bulk of the offensive load on his throwing arm.
"I wanted him to make sure he understands what he has around him in terms of a great defense and a good running game and those types of things," Gannon said. "Now, what you hope, is a guy who has to step aside for a time period can grow from the experience and then when he finally does get his opportunity to get back on the field, he doesn't come off. Like I've told Tarvaris, unless your name is Marino or Elway, we all go through it."
To some extent, Jackson draws comfort from the fact that he's not alone in awaiting his chance to reclaim a starting spot, whether that happens with the Vikings or another team.
"Not hoping that (Young and Leinart) have to go through that, too," Jackson said. "But it just shows you that it takes time and it doesn't always happen the way you plan it. Sometimes you've got to take a back road to get to where you want to go."