First-round QBs: Start now or later?
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley's words were clear even in March. It wouldn't matter where they picked a quarterback in the draft. They wouldn't be selecting a rookie starter for the 2014 season.
"That's our plan," Bradley said. "We'd like to create an environment where that quarterback could come in and just put all of his focus on preparation and learning without the distractions that come with it [playing right away]. That would be the ideal environment."
What did the Jaguars do with the third overall pick in the draft? Yes, they selected a quarterback higher than they ever had. But not just any quarterback. Jacksonville took Central Florida's Blake Bortles, a top prospect some experts have compared to Ben Roethlisberger.
So, while Bradley tempered his March statement by saying they would obviously play the best guy, the team came into training camp sticking with the plan. Bortles is apprenticing under re-signed veteran Chad Henne, ideally for the entire season.
"We felt like Blake has some development from year one to year two and this first year is going to be critical for him to develop," general manager Dave Caldwell said. "We have a plan going forward. We talked at length with our coaching staff. ... It's such an important position in this league and you want to do it right, and that's what we're about: doing it right."
Bortles wants to play now -- as every player does -- but he understands the Jaguars' plan for him. Though he's a fierce competitor, which is one of the things Caldwell and Bradley said they loved about him, Bortles said he's not going to have a problem sitting behind Henne.
"If you have the right mindset about it I think you'll be all right," he said. "You're going to go to practice and you're going to practice and prepare and study like you're the starter whether you're the second, third or fourth [quarterback]. That is the mindset I'll have."
Bortles, who was 11-for-17 for 160 yards passing in Thursday's preseason game against the Bears, isn't the only rookie quarterback in this situation. The Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings came into camp with the same plan for Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater. It's a sound plan, and it has worked before, but is it realistic in today's NFL? Can struggling franchises afford to keep these huge investments off the field?
"Everybody has a plan to do a lot of things," said Phil Simms, who led the New York Giants to one Super Bowl title and was an integral part of another before being injured. He now works as the lead football analyst on CBS. "Plans don't usually work out the way you expect them to."
A look at the quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 20 drafts from 1994-2013 shows that more often than not they end up starting at least half of their rookie season. Of the 49 quarterbacks, 27 started at least eight games, including eight who started every game. Seven failed to start a game. Only 10 started fewer than five games.
Only three of the 16 quarterbacks selected in the first round of the NFL draft the past six seasons didn't start at least 15 games as rookies. That's why few people outside the Jaguars, Browns and Vikings organizations believe that Bortles, Manziel and Bridgewater won't be starting games by November.
"I would think in the ideal world everybody says you need to groom them slowly. I don't really believe that," said Ron Wolf, who retired as the Green Bay Packers' GM in 2001. "I think this is one area where the game hasn't changed. If you don't have one of those guys [elite quarterbacks] you don't have a bleeping chance when you play on Sunday. It's a demoralizing experience. I had been through that for two years. It's an unbelievable feeling.
"However, if you get a guy that's good enough, he's good enough now. Not in all the nuances of the game, all the sophistications of the game, but he's good enough to play."
Sometimes they don't have to play because of the team's quarterback situation. Brett Favre was still in his prime when the Packers took Rodgers with the 24th pick in 2005. Rodgers played in seven games his first three seasons (zero starts) before taking over as the starter in 2008 after the first of Favre's retirements. Chad Pennington (Vinny Testaverde), Daunte Culpepper (Randall Cunningham/Jeff George) and Jake Locker (Matt Hasselbeck) also had established veterans ahead of them.
But those are exceptions. If they're not handed the starting job outright on the day they're drafted, they usually end up starting games at some point in the season. The team is struggling, the quarterback on the field is clearly not the answer, so why not throw the young guy out there and see what he's got?
Trent Dilfer thought it was going to be pretty smooth once his rookie season in Tampa Bay ended. The No. 6 overall pick in 1994 played in five games (two starts) behind Craig Erickson, but the Bucs traded Erickson to Indianapolis on the day of the 1995 draft and Dilfer inherited the starting job.
He admittedly wasn't ready, throwing for 2,774 yards with only four touchdown passes and 18 interceptions.
It was disastrous to Dilfer's confidence.
"You're trying to avoid what happen to me and many others," said Dilfer, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. "You have so many failures early on that you lose your confidence. You start playing with that evil demon on your shoulders saying, 'Don't, don't, don't, don't.'"
That's one of the risks to playing a young quarterback early. Teams can scout his size, arm strength, mobility and comfort in the pocket, but they can't know how he's going to handle adversity and failure until he's right in the middle of it.
That demon has been around a while, and clearly got to Blaine Gabbert, whom the Jaguars took with the 10th pick in 2011. The Jaguars' starter in 2011 was supposed to be David Garrard, but in a surprise move the team released Garrard just five days before the 2011 season opener. That put Gabbert on the field before he was ready and he never developed. Gabbert was 5-22 as a starter and threw 22 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions in 28 career games before the team traded him to San Francisco in March.
Into the fire
Not everyone believes it's risking a quarterback's future to put him on the field immediately. Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie. Matt Stafford threw 20. Luck and Carson Palmer both threw 18. They've gone on to have pretty good careers.
Manning's rookie season in 1998 was unlike anything anyone had seen. Indianapolis coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Tom Moore kept calling pass after pass after pass. By the time the season ended with a 3-13 record, Manning had thrown an NFL single-season record 575 passes.
Manning said that experience allowed him to grow into an elite passer. He has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in all but one of his 14 seasons since and has led his teams to three Super Bowl appearances.
"All I know is had I not thrown the ball as much as I did that year, and I've always kind of felt this way when people ask, I wouldn't have learned what I did," Manning has said. "I wouldn't have learned what you couldn't get away with playing against the good corners. ... And there's just no way I could have made the jump that I did in that second, third year without playing that much that year. The only way to find out is go out there and push it a little bit, see what works, see what doesn't, but you can't lose that ability to keep going in that situation."
Others who played early, however, didn't flourish. David Carr, Ryan Leaf and Tim Couch really struggled their rookie seasons and never recovered. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said recently they should have played a veteran quarterback in their inaugural season instead of putting Carr on the field, where he got battered while playing for a terrible team. He was sacked 76 times and threw 15 interceptions as a rookie.
Leaf's rookie season was a disaster. He won only three of his nine starts, threw just two touchdown passes and 15 interceptions, and had several off-field incidents that showcased his immaturity.
Couch was supposed to sit out his rookie season with Cleveland in 1999 but the Browns got blown out by Pittsburgh 43-0 in the season opener and coach Chris Palmer benched Ty Detmer and started Couch in the third game. It was a miserable season. The Browns were an expansion team --Art Modell had moved the franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season and Cleveland was without football until '99 -- and lost 11 games by double digits. Couch was sacked 56 times and lost 10 fumbles that season.
"I think the most frustrating thing for a young quarterback who doesn't have the right pieces around him is dealing with some early failures and how you handle that," said Couch, who posted a 22-37 record as a starter in five seasons with the Browns. "Can you keep your confidence high and not get gun shy in the pocket?
"I questioned myself. It probably happened toward the end of the season. You started kind of looking at yourself, saying, 'Man, I don't know if I can play at this level. Is it me or what's going on?' All those things go through your mind. Me being the No. 1 overall draft pick, I felt extra pressure as well. It was the wrong thing to do, of course, but I was going out there and with every throw I was trying to prove I was the No. 1 pick."
But the feeling among Wolf and Simms is that if a quarterback loses his confidence by playing early the blame belongs on the GM and coach.
"If you throw him out there and it doesn't go well and that ruins his career and changes him then he wasn't the guy to begin with," Simms said. "If you can't handle adversity you're playing the wrong position in sports. Playing quarterback is all adversity and very little good.
"It's a game of adversity, and it really is for the quarterback. They're not going to put him on the field until they think he's somewhat capable of going forward and doing the job. If it backfires and you have to take him back out, he'll live. If it destroys him he wasn't the guy and all their scouting was wrong."
It's just as simple for Wolf. A quarterback is going to be great or he's not, and sitting him because a team is worried about ruining his confidence won't impact that at all.
"The bottom line is you either have that confidence and ability to take your team and win or you don't have it," Wolf said. "You're either good enough or not good enough.
"If you have one you play him. If you don't have one, then you make excuses. Not going to play him because he needs seasoning? Bullcrap. If you don't win you're going to need seasoning because you're going to be fired."
That's not always the case. There are also examples of quarterbacks who played minimally as rookies that went on to become at least productive quarterbacks, and in some cases elite.
Rodgers played in three games in a rookie and didn't become the Packers' starter until his fourth season. He threw for more than 4,000 yards and at least 28 touchdowns in four of his next five seasons and led the Packers to a victory in Super Bowl XLV.
Philip Rivers played in two games as a rookie because he was behind Drew Brees. He has gone on to surpass 4,000 yards passing five times, including leading the league with a career-high 4,710 yards in 2010. Culpepper played in just one game as a rookie and became one of the game's most dangerous quarterbacks until a knee injury led to his decline.
Why it's inevitable
It's unlikely that Bortles, Manziel and Bridgewater will all sit for the entire season, so at some point at least one will be on the field. When each players will depend on several factors, Dilfer said.
Does the coach have the proper perspective of his team and the quarterback?
Is there a sacrificial lamb?
Is he willing to allow the rookie quarterback to make mistakes?
The first question is the most important and the one that should be the easiest to answer, Dilfer said.
"I think the answer, it depends on what your internal perspective of your team is and what your evaluation of the temperament of your quarterback is," he said. "Not skill. I don't want to confuse skill in this. They're all talented enough.
"He's going to make some knucklehead mistakes, but [can the coach say] we're good enough to make up for it [on defense]. Or we're good enough at receiver to get open. Or we're good enough in the offensive line and running game that we can be a ball-control team and pick our spots when to throw. If that's your perspective then you can say, 'We can play a young quarterback.'"
It doesn't appear any of the three teams are in that position.
The Vikings have one of the best running backs in football in Adrian Peterson and are solid at receiver with Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson but had the 31st ranked defense in 2013. The Browns likely won't have receiver Josh Gordon for a signficant part of the season (suspension) but did have the league's ninth-ranked defense last season. The Jaguars, who had the league's second-worst offense in 2013, added a pair of receivers in the second round (Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson) but ranked 27th on defense.
All three teams do, however, have a sacrificial lamb: A veteran quarterback that clearly isn't going to be elite, but someone reliable enough to make plays here and there and not constantly put the team in bad positions.
"I promise you that is the No. 1 deciding factor with most of these teams," Dilfer said. "This guy's pretty good. We like him. He's a pro. He's a dude. Coaches love him. Players love him. The locker room is better because of him. He's got enough stuff that he can win some games for us ... and the young buck doesn't have to grow any demons on his shoulders through the adversity."
The last question is probably the hardest for coaches. Are they willing to let the rookie fail, and sometimes fail miserably? Can they be OK with losing games now if it means future success?
"If you're going to put in a rookie you have to give him an absolute free rein to fail," Dilfer said. "He's going to have strict boundaries. You go into every game saying our objective is not to win. Our objective is to allow this butterfly to fly, for the most corny analogy of all time. Let him go. We want him to learn and play and fly and enjoy this.
"Fifty-two other players are going to suffer because of it but we know it's best long term."
Sometimes this isn't an option, especially for a coach who has struggled through three or four mediocre or bad years. They know they may not be around to see the young QB grow if they don't win now. Luckily, that's not the case in Jacksonville, Cleveland and Minnesota. Gus Bradley is in his second season of a massive rebuild and isn't under any pressure to win now. Mike Pettine and Mike Zimmer are in their first seasons.
None of them will face pressure to play their rookie quarterbacks. The fans may call for Bortles and Manziel and Bridgewater, but that's irrelevant. For now they're sticking to their plan of bringing them along slowly.
Again, it's a solid plan, but there's plenty of skepticism.
"It's talk," Simms said. "Deep in their heart they might believe that. It never works that way.
"When you're drafted high you're going to play. It's just a matter of when. The higher you're drafted the quicker the when is."
Despite the argument to the contrary, there's no clear benefit to sitting a rookie quarterback. Thirteen quarterbacks taken in the first round from 2013-1994 played in five or less games as rookies. Eight went on to become at least solid starters and guided their teams to three Super Bowl appearances.
But there's no clear benefit to starting one, either. Roughly half (17) of the remaining 36 first-round QBs in that span led their teams to eight Super Bowl appearances.
Regardless of when they get on the field -- whether it's Week 1 or Week 1 of the 2015 season -- their job is the same: Get their team to the Super Bowl. Playing early doesn't automatically mean they'll be able to do that sooner.
It may, however, allow a team to find out sooner if they're capable of doing so.