Ernie Accorsi knows poise when he sees it. The New York Giants vice president and general manager drafted John Elway and Bernie Kosar when he was general manager of the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns, respectively. He was with the Colts during the Bert Jones years.
Accorsi and many others believe he has the next great quarterback in rookie Eli Manning, the top overall selection of this year's draft for whose rights he traded Philip Rivers, and a first-, third- and fifth-round pick to the Chargers. Friend and former Mets general manager Frank Cashen concurred, sending Accorsi a note afterward that said, "Deal you had to make."
Manning, the son of Archie and brother of Peyton, won over Accorsi by making the plays that had to be made in the fourth quarter of an Ole Miss win over Auburn last fall. Accorsi loved it that Manning waved his arms as he came to the line on the winning drive, quarterbacks' universal signal to the crowd to settle down. The game was at Auburn.
"Like they're going to listen to him," Accorsi said with a laugh. "He was cool. Took them all the way down and scored. He's phlegmatic, almost, when it comes to pressure."
Essential for someone in Manning's position, one as unique as there has ever been, even among the quarterbacks who share his draft status. And though it didn't seem possible, the already great expectations for the third Manning, who will make his first career start Sunday against Atlanta, have been heightened because of the instant success of the 11th pick, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. It comes with the territory of being taken at the top of the draft.
Quarterback is football's marquee position. There's always great pressure to excel. It's the nature of the position. Combine the responsibilities of leading a franchise with the distinction of heading up an entire draft and the corresponding contract and you have a 20-something working under circumstances perhaps unlike any in all of sports. A quarterback chosen in the first round already is under excessive scrutiny, and the glare of the spotlight intensifies exponentially for the ones taken No. 1 overall. There's equal pressure on the team's decision makers to justify their investment.
"There's just a tremendous amount of pressure on that guy," said former Broncos and Falcons coach Dan Reeves, who coached two quarterbacks who were taken first overall, John Elway and Michael Vick. "They watch everything they do. They write about it, they know what cereal they ate for breakfast, what candy they gave out for Halloween. There's always a comparison of the guys in that class, particularly the ones taken high."
Head of the class
Being the first overall draft pick is like finishing first in a graduating class -- the initial choice is considered to have been the best and, therefore, most likely to succeed in the pros. Drafts often are identified by a player's success or failure. Only merely succeeding, especially when said player is a quarterback, isn't good enough. He must achieve stardom. The Eli Mannings of the league carry the greatest of expectations even though they usually have to meet them playing for the worst team from the previous season.
The 14 who have been taken first overall in the 35 drafts since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger are a unique group within the fraternity of pro quarterbacks. This exclusive club has added six No. 1s in the past seven years including the last four, beginning with Atlanta's Vick and continuing with Houston's David Carr, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, and Manning. The top pick might have the total package, but it is imperative that he be handled properly, else he be broken and forced to put his career back together elsewhere.
It's different strokes for different folks. Manning backed up Kurt Warner for the first nine games and attempted just nine passes. Palmer, the Bengals' starter, did not take a snap as a rookie.Since the merger, he was the only quarterback taken first overall to debut in his second season. Carr started the first game in Texans history and is close to achieving elite status. Vick played in eight games as a rookie, starting two, then made the Pro Bowl his first season as a full-time starter and is one of sports' biggest stars.
"It's very delicate," said Floyd Reese, the Titans' executive vice president and general manager. Tennessee's Steve McNair was the third player, but the first quarterback, taken in the '95 draft.
"The problem," Reese continued, "is when you have an opportunity to draft someone that high, it probably means your season before probably wasn't that good, and now you think this kid that has just graduated from college, who is 22 or 23 years old, is going to come in and save the franchise. Well that's just unrealistic."
Though not impossible. Two of the 14 quarterbacks taken first overall, Terry Bradshaw (1970) and Elway (1983), are in the Hall of Fame and won six Super Bowls between them with their original teams. Troy Aikman (1989), who should join them in Canton, Ohio, in two years, was a three-time Super Bowl winner with the Cowboys. Peyton Manning (1998), another future Hall of Famer, has piled up the victories, but is still seeking his first title.
As for the others, Vinny Testaverde ('87) and Drew Bledsoe ('93) are nearing the ends of solid careers. Jim Plunkett ('71), Steve Bartkowski ('75), and Jeff George ('90) each had a few good seasons in otherwise average careers. Plunkett and George, like the ageless Testaverde, finished their careers with different franchises than the ones that drafted them.
The only bust of the bunch is Tim Couch, the top pick and first of five quarterbacks chosen in the first round of the 1999 draft. Couch, along with two other members of the QB class of '99, is out of the league after five years.While his game might be flawed, Couch's and the Browns' colossal failure underscores the importance of a viable supporting cast. That's why Roethlisberger, 7-0 as the Steelers' starter, is being hailed as perhaps the best rookie quarterback since Dan Marino in 1983. Contracts aside, quarterbacks taken later often have it better at the beginning than the guys who go earlier. It helps that teams can afford to play them later, i.e. Daunte Culpepper.
"What happens with these young guys is they come in, they barely have learned their offense, they certainly don't know anything about NFL defenses, and they come in and they get hit harder than they've ever been in their life," Reese said. "They don't know where it came from, if it was a blitz or somebody missed a protection. Until you really know your offense and until you at least have an idea of NFL defenses and what's going on, how do you learn anything constructive?"
The waiting game
Eli Manning's transition to starter is going almost exactly according to plan. Accorsi had said that he wanted Manning's progression to mirror not that of his brother, Peyton, who has started all 104 games of his career, but that of Marino, who made his first start in October 1983. "If you were to write the book, that's the way to write it," Accorsi said.
Marino suggested to the Giants that Manning sit to start his career.
Accorsi also consulted, among others, Bengals president Mike Brown and Colts president Bill Polian for insight as to how they developed Palmer and Peyton Manning, respectively. But that was simply diligence on the part of Accorsi, who merely needed to draw on his own experience for answers.
"I saw, my second year in the league, Plunkett played right away and just get clobbered," Accorsi said. "The Patriots just weren't very good. Look how long it took him to eventually resurrect his career. I saw Bert Jones with [the Colts] start in the beginning and we had to get him out of there. I saw Elway come in and really struggle. [Denver] played us twice that year and they had to get him out of the first game and Steve DeBerg came in and beat us. The second game they pulled him out and put him back in. Almost everybody struggles."
Reeves made the choice to start Elway, whom the Broncos acquired in a forced trade with Accorsi's Colts, immediately, but had to give him the hook after a few games because he was so bad.
"John played really, really well in the preseason," Reeves recalled. "The thing I didn't know, and I had never played a young quarterback, that defenses get much more complicated for them in the regular season. The language is so difficult, the terminology. Back then, before you could talk to the quarterback, he would have to listen to the play from someone else, put the formation with it, then call it in the huddle, and by the time he got up to the line of scrimmage, the clock would be going down to five, four, and he's just trying to get it off. He didn't have a chance to look at the defense and assess it and anticipate it. We benched him, and when he came back later, he was better."
When Reeves got Vick, also via trade, this time with the Chargers, he made certain not to make the same mistake. Plus the Falcons, like this year's Giants with Manning, didn't want to compromise competitiveness in order to develop their young quarterback. "Until you get to the point where you can't win, it's not fair to your football team," Reeves said. "When they work each week, they want the best opportunity to win. You can fool a lot of people, but you can't fool those players."
Vick, 20 years old when he was drafted, watched Chris Chandler for most of his first year and didn't take over as the starter until the final two games. The next year, the Falcons turned him loose, having changed their offensive terminology from verbiage-based to digital so Vick could visualize routes and manage the huddle.
"It's hard to keep a thoroughbred in the barn when he's ready to run," said Redskins quarterback coach Jack Burns, Vick's tutor his first two years. Burns said the Falcons' public relations staff managing Vick's potentially overwhelming off-field obligations allowed him to devote most of his energies to football. That's key, because everyone seemingly wants a piece of No. 1.
Reeves said he believes it's best for young quarterbacks to get a piece of the action, not watch it.
"I may have made a mistake starting John too early," he said. "But he got there quicker because he was out there. Mike Vick didn't start getting better by observing, he got better being on the field. Ben Roethlisberger is better because he's been on the field. But what you don't want to do is put them out there when they're not ready and hurt their progress. If John hadn't been as tough as he was mentally, I could have destroyed him. So there's a thin line there."
When formulating his plan for Palmer, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis paid particular attention to how Atlanta handled Vick, who before starting the last two games, played mostly at the end of games, and appeared in only one of the first six road games. Lewis, more intent on developing a winning environment in Cincinnati than the Bengals' future quarterback, wanted to be selective with what situations he put Palmer in, but the way the season played out, the "right" time never came and Palmer ended up getting no time.
"I wish we would have had the lead in some games, but it just didn't work out that way," Lewis said. "It wasn't our plan that he didn't see the field."
In the meantime, the Bengals maximized Palmer's preparation time. Lewis extended Thursday and Friday practices just to give Palmer reps. And Palmer was responsible for presiding over the quarterbacks' Saturday meeting, as if he were the starter.
"This league and this position can be so mentally draining on you," said Palmer, the league's 30th-ranked quarterback with a 66.0 quarterback rating. "It can just wear you out. But I know what Tuesdays and Wednesdays are like, I know what the Thursday practice is like, I know what it's like to come in Saturday morning for walk-through and you've got family in town."
Palmer, though he missed having all eyes on him, said he can see, in hindsight, that it was better for him to watch and learn as much as possible before dealing with the inevitable growing pains. "We had a quarterback that could win games, and he did a great job," Palmer said. "I definitely wouldn't have been able to perform as well as (Jon Kitna) did. With a lot of guys, there isn't another great quarterback in front of them. They've gotta get in there and play."
That was the case with Carr and the expansion Texans three years ago. Houston failed early on in its attempts to acquire a viable veteran and didn't sign a newcomer until bringing in Tony Banks in late August. Subsequently, starting Carr was the team's best option.
It was similar to the situation in Cleveland three years earlier when Carr's quarterback coach, Chris Palmer, was head coach of the expansion Browns. After the first game, a 43-0 loss to Pittsburgh, Palmer decided to go with Couch over Ty Detmer. Six years earlier, Palmer had been a member of the Patriots' coaching staff when New England drafted Bledsoe and, by the second month of his rookie season, he was playing ahead of Scott Secules.
Carr took every offensive snap as a rookie in 2002 and suffered through the worst year ever for a quarterback in terms of sacks, as he was taken down a league-record 76 times. But some good came out of Carr getting beat up. He grew along with the Texans, as did their respect for their leader.
Indeed, it takes a mentally and physically tough individual to withstand all the criticism, comparisons, "could-have-hads" and collisions on the way to meeting the often unreachable expectations that come with being chosen with the first pick of the NFL draft.
"It's kind of like a unique little fraternity," Carr said. "I've talked to Troy Aikman. We've both gone through the same things. He's already been through and been to the places I want to go with my team. John Elway and I, we have the same marketing agent, so I've spent some time with him. It's neat to talk to the those guys because you see that if you work hard enough and you keep believing and trusting, that you're going to be all right, you can hopefully be in the same position some day.
"Troy told me to just make sure that when your team is ready to go to the playoffs and start winning football games that you're ready as a player to take them there. That's something I still remember. I passed it on to Carson. Hopefully it helps him out."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.