Trail for young QBs has changed drastically over the years

Nearly half the starting quarterbacks in the NFL are in their first four seasons in the league.

And that's your short-version answer to the question many people ask: Why do so many quarterbacks seem so inconsistent?

"We used to have the five-year 'must' rule," said Ernie Accorsi, the retired general manager of the New York Giants.

The "five-year rule" is not a phrase familiar anymore because the game has changed. Back in the '70s and '80s, however, before the free agency and salary cap era, a young quarterback rarely got onto the field in his first few seasons in the league.

Quarterbacks generally learned by watching. And if they did play, they were expected to struggle, and their teams had a world of patience with them.

"In those days, you would draft a quarterback, and the media would buy into the fact, 'Okay, it's going to take time,' and they left the kid in peace, whether he played or not for awhile," Accorsi recalled. "Now, you draft a quarterback and he plays, and if he fails, they want to change right away."

Expansion, the salary cap, free agency, and an ever-increasing anxiety and lack of patience among coaches, owners, general managers, fans and the media mean teams no longer have the luxury of grooming their quarterbacks for an extended period.

Many quarterbacks today are forced to play before they're really ready, and the results often are unsightly. Consider that San Francisco's Alex Smith, the first player chosen in the 2005 draft, threw one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions as a rookie, and the one touchdown pass did not come until the final game.

You'll find Smith's rookie season in the dictionary under the definition of "struggling." Even the best young quarterbacks are amazed by the difference between what they faced in college and what they must do in the NFL.

"They struggle because the game, at the high end, defies your eyes," said Hall of Famer Steve Young, who knows whereof he speaks because he was one of those struggling young quarterbacks at the start of his career. "I don't want to say it's 10 times faster, but the athletes are so good, you can't imagine a defender doing something like (they do).

"The speed at which they play, until you get a handle on it, you're always going to be behind. You have to learn football under new terms. Some guys can't make the adjustment."

The Chicago Bears apparently have given up on a former first-round pick, Rex Grossman, after only 29 starts in the NFL, less than two complete seasons. Nineteen of them came in 2006, when the Bears reached the Super Bowl. But Grossman's inexperience showed in his inconsistency -- seven games in which his passer rating was above 100 and five in which it was under 40.

After three games this season, Grossman was benched. His replacement, 10-year veteran Brian Griese, has thrown 10 interceptions in four games. But the Bears seemingly have no plan to go back to Grossman, who will be a free agent after the season.

Grossman is hardly alone as a high pick who didn't work out or still is struggling. But while we tend to hear so much about the failures, the fact is the washout rate is not much different than it ever was, despite the changes in the developmental process.

Over a 10-year period, 1992 through 2001, that covers the start of free agency, NFL teams drafted 18 quarterbacks in the first round. Eight of them have played in the Pro Bowl, six in the Super Bowl. Compare that to the decade of the 1970s, when 16 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round, seven went to the Pro Bowl and three played in the Super Bowl (although the three, Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett and Doug Williams, made a total of seven appearances, all victories).

For every Tommy Maddox and Heath Shuler who washed out in the '90s, there was a Jerry Tagge or a Steve Pisarkiewicz in the '70s.

We just hear more about the failures now and hear about them faster.

"There's more scrutiny, more pressure now," Accorsi said.

Matt Leinart, before he was hurt, was in and out of the lineup with Arizona. Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson, who is now injured, is the 34th-ranked passer in a 32-team league. Jay Cutler, so highly regarded that offensive guru Mike Shanahan traded up to draft him in the 2006 draft, actually had a much better touchdown-to-interception ratio a rookie than he has in his second year. The trials of such other recent top-1o draft picks as Byron Leftwich, David Carr, and Joey Harrington have been well documented.

Conventional wisdom holds that quarterbacks enter the NFL more ready to play than they used to, because college teams are passing more than they ever did. But there is much more to the position than simply throwing the ball.

"I read all this stuff about how they come in better prepared because they throw the ball more in college, but I don't see where they're more successful," Accorsi said.

"Defenses are so much different than what they face in college," said former coach Dan Reeves. "In college, you just see a couple of defenses, and that's it. Here, you see a lot more."

The late Bill Walsh, who developed Young, Joe Montana and Dan Fouts into Hall of Fame quarterbacks, said in an interview about a year before his death last summer that teams did not need "great" quarterbacks to win, but just "functional" quarterbacks.

"Scouts have totally misunderstood the position," Walsh said, because they put too much emphasis on arm strength and not enough on discipline, accuracy and the ability to "function under stress."

"Any real flaw in any one of those categories and the quarterback's going to cost you," Walsh said. "He's going to fail you sooner or later."

Further, because of the NFL draft system, the brightest prospects invariably are consigned to the most difficult situations.

"Most young quarterbacks are on the field because their team stinks," said Young. "You cannot show your stuff when you're not being protected."

The common thread that connects most of the quarterbacks who had success early in their careers: They got to teams that already were good.

Although Ben Roethlisberger played well in his 2005 Super Bowl championship season with Pittsburgh, finishing third in the NFL in passer rating, he benefited from the team around him. Among the top league's 25 highest-rated passers that season, only one threw fewer passes than Roethlisberger. The Steelers had more rushing attempts than any other team in the league and led the AFC in defense.

Dan Marino also went to the Super Bowl in his second season with Miami, in 1984. But when Marino joined the Dolphins as a rookie in 1983, they already were the defending AFC champions, led by a strong defense.

"Both of them literally fell into places where there was a complete cocoon for young players," Young said. "Those teams were going to the Super Bowl without (them)."

"When you look at some guys that really flourish early, they are . . . not carrying all the weight of the team on their shoulder," added Jim Fassel, the former Giants' coach. "They can be part of the process, not be the cornerstone of it. Most of the time, the quarterback is kind of the cornerstone."

Tom Brady was different, taking over a team in 2001 that had lost 13 of its 18 previous games. How do you explain Brady's success? Well, how do you explain Picasso? Some people are just special.

Vince Young might be one of them, too, the cornerstone of a rebuilding team in Tennessee.

The Titans were 8-5 after he took over as their starter in 2006; he was just the fifth among 23 rookie quarterback since 1990 to start at least half his team's games and compile a winning record (the others were Roethlisberger, Kyle Boller, Kerry Collins and Kyle Orton).

Jeff Fisher, the Titans' coach, put Young into the lineup much faster than Steve McNair, his rookie quarterback in 1995. McNair started just two games his first year and a half in the NFL. Young took over in the fourth game of his rookie season.

"What we learned is you can't put a timetable on it," Fisher said. "You have to help them unfold. You don't want to mold them. It's the same approach you take with your kids. You have to be patient with them and don't put them in position to do things they can't do, or you lose their trust and their confidence."

It might have been easier for Young, however, because of the experience Fisher got breaking in McNair. Fisher says the Titans have made their offensive system more "player-friendly in terminology," and that helped speed Young's development.

Something else that helps a young quarterback: A veteran as an insurance policy. Fisher signed Collins, by then an 11-year pro, after drafting Vince Young. When he drafted McNair, he signed veteran Chris Chandler. Accorsi signed Kurt Warner to hold down the position while Eli Manning was groomed with the Giants. This year, Oakland brought in two veterans, Daunte Culpepper and Josh McCown, to ease the transition to JaMarcus Russell, the first player chosen in the 2007 draft. Russell has not played in a game yet.

For the most part, however, teams today feel compelled to get their young quarterbacks on the field early because they are tying up a lot of salary cap money and the alternative, basically, is to groom them to lose them to another team in free agency. Atlanta found itself in that spot last spring before Michael Vick's career spiraled out of control; the Falcons traded fourth-year quarterback Matt Schaub, who was entering the final year of his contract, to Houston. Schaub ranked among the league's top 10 passers until last weekend.

Of the 16 quarterbacks drafted in the first round between 2002 and 2006, 11 started games as a rookie, including eight who were in the lineup by mid-season.

"Before free agency, you could bring a young guy along," said Reeves, who was the first NFL coach of both John Elway and Vick. "You try to bring him in there when he's more prepared and more ready. Now, because you're paying them so much, you've got to get them in there quick, and the way the system is set up, you can't keep a backup guy. If you've got a young quarterback and he's not playing, he ends up someplace else."

Some coaches turn that to an advantage. In Green Bay, former coach Mike Holmgren and former general manager Ron Wolf drafted quarterbacks almost every year even though Brett Favre was in place. They turned those players into extra draft picks with trades -- Aaron Brooks to New Orleans, Mark Brunell to Jacksonville, for example. When Holmgren got to Seattle, he traded for another Packers' quarterback he had drafted, Matt Hasselbeck. All three of those quarterbacks were allowed to develop patiently while watching Favre.

Walsh hired Holmgren for his first NFL job in San Francisco. Walsh did a magnificent job of bringing Montana along, at first putting him into games in situations where Montana could look good, later making him the starter in his second year and then benching him for a time after Montana struggled. Reeves had to pull John Elway from his first two starts, then bench him. When Elway got back into the lineup, Reeves said, "The difference was night and day."

Still, the increased emphasis on passing in today's game puts more focus and pressure on the quarterback. And the number of coaches who have a good idea how to handle a young quarterback is rather limited.

"I'm not trying to be critical, but there are some young (coaches) and they make the game sound so sophisticated," Fassel said. "You don't have to get up in front of the group and make it sound like building a rocket to go to the moon. If you have a young quarterback, you need to adapt what you're doing for him. Let him grow.

"What you really want to do (is) keep it simple for the guy, don't give him too much, so he can do things and understand it. There's nothing worse than taking that snap and you're confused. It's complicated, but you've got to try to make it so that guy can be real easy with it."

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