QB play key to coaching success

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As an economics graduate of Georgetown University, but more importantly as a guy who successfully assimilated to the nuances of employing the available software to develop integral football applications, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz long ago learned the most essential adage for the delicate interface between the NFL and computers.

Garbage in, garbage out, the old saw holds.

That isn't to suggest that Schwartz, one of the most intense and brainiest coaches in the league, would intentionally input corrupt data into his laptop. But it's notable that Schwartz was among the league's seven first-time coaches in 2009, who compiled an aggregate record of 41-71. And it's just as notable that only one of the seven, Jim Caldwell of Indianapolis, entered his debut campaign with a well-established, veteran quarterback.

Indeed, even Caldwell would concede, as he did here during this week's annual NFL owners' meetings, that Peyton Manning can compensate for a lot of rookie shortcomings.

"You might be able to win without a [franchise-level quarterback] ... but it's hard," said Schwartz, who invested the top overall choice in the 2009 draft in Matthew Stafford of the University of Georgia, who he hopes will develop into a top-shelf starter in their second season together. "There are a lot of ways to win. But it's a lot easier if you've got one of those [franchise] guys."

Rex Ryan, whose New York Jets went to the playoffs as a wild-card entry in his inaugural season, feels he has one in Mark Sanchez, his first-round selection in 2009. Schwartz and Raheem Morris of Tampa Bay (Josh Freeman) each might have one. And Caldwell, who inherited Manning with the Colts, definitely does. But the jury is still out on Denver's Kyle Orton and Kansas City's Matt Cassel, and St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo hopes to locate one in this draft.

The rookie coaching class of 2009 learned a lot of tough lessons in its debut season in the league. But uppermost among those realities, the group seemed to agree, is that an already difficult job is probably made exponentially harder without a big-time quarterback.

"If you've got [the position] covered," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said, "you feel like you're halfway home. You've at least laid the biggest part of the foundation."

And that probably explains, as much as anything, why Spagnuolo and Rams general manager Billy Devaney are focusing their attentions of late on quarterback Sam Bradford of Oklahoma as the first overall selection in the draft next month.

A few years ago, when he was coming off a career season and was rewarded with a new, pricey contract that left little doubt about the face and future of the franchise, most observers would have noted that Marc Bulger was the Rams' unchallenged meal ticket. But the veteran has suffered through three straight tough seasons and seems only weeks away from his release. As someone pointed out here the other day, the two defensive tackles in whom the Rams are allegedly interested (Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy) are terrific, foundational players, but no one has recently suggested that an interior defender was critical to his club winning a Super Bowl.

Does anyone remember the names of the New Orleans Saints' starting defensive tackles in Super Bowl XLIV or recall a game-altering play authored by one of them?

Like Schwartz, Spagnuolo is a one-time, highly regarded defensive coordinator. Like Schwartz, he knows what (or who) wins not only games but also championships.

So unless Bradford's surgically repaired right arm falls off during his visit with St. Louis officials later this month, odds are he's the No. 1 choice. No matter how convincing Spagnuolo and Devaney are in their insistence to the contrary, the quarterback is the appropriate selection.

Noted one NFC general manager here, whose team probably needs a young quarterback but likely isn't in very good position to land one next month: "Because of the position they play, if you can get a stud [quarterback], you get one. ... There just aren't many studs this year."

Actually, there aren't many stud quarterbacks in any draft, as the rookie coaches from this past season will attest. And that accentuates the importance of getting one. Of the first-year coaches from last season, Caldwell accounted for more than one-third of the total victories. And he's got the one commodity everyone desires.

Unfortunately, you can't just clone Manning. But in plugging in the computer analysis, Schwartz is convinced he fed something much more precious than garbage into his laptop last season.

The Rams' management team, short of a brain cramp, hopes to do the same.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.