Monday, December 11, 2006

The Quarterback Question: Should Rookie QBs Sit Or Play Right Away?

Since Carson Palmer rode the pine for the Bengals for his entire rookie season, I’ve found myself wondering if it is truly beneficial to a quarterback to spend much of that first year on the bench. Many experts will tell you that this is absolutely the case, that being able to stand on the sidelines and carry a clipboard allows the quarterback valuable time to learn the offense and get a feel for the flow of the game. Others, however, live by the theory that the best way to learn is to do; therefore, every play a quarterback runs in an actual game is beneficial to his development.

The following method is fairly unscientific, but hopefully it helps draw a conclusion or two. To begin, I took every current starting quarterback in the NFL (in a perfect world, I would have gone back and looked at every quarterback drafted in the last ten or so years, especially the first rounders, but I’m not getting THAT into this right now), then used Yahoo! to find out how many games each played in his rookie season. The quarterbacks were then grouped into three lists: those who played eight or more games as a rookie, those who played one to seven games, and those who did not play at all. Those lists are as follows:

Note: italics denote the player is a 2006 rookie.

Eight Or More (12): Matt Leinart (Arizona), Michael Vick (Atlanta), David Carr (Houston), Peyton Manning (Indianapolis), Byron Leftwich (Jacksonville), Joey Harrington (originally with Detroit), Eli Manning (New York Giants), Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia), Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh), Alex Smith (San Francisco), Bruce Gradkowski (Tampa Bay), Vince Young (Tennessee)

One To Seven (12): Steve McNair (originally with Tennessee), J.P. Losman (Buffalo), Jake Delhomme (Carolina), Rex Grossman (Chicago), Charlie Frye (Cleveland), Jake Cutler (Denver), Jon Kitna (Detroit, then with Seattle), Brett Favre (Green Bay, then with Atlanta), Tom Brady (New England), Drew Brees (originally with San Diego), Chad Pennington (New York Jets), Philip Rivers (San Diego)

Did Not Play (8): Carson Palmer (Cincinnati), Tony Romo (Dallas), Trent Green (drafted by San Diego and debuted with Washington), Brad Johnson (Minnesota), Aaron Brooks (Oakland, then with New Orleans), Matt Hasselbeck (originally with Green Bay), Jason Campbell (Washington), Marc Bulger (St. Louis)

Three rookies have played eight or more games already this season, with first round picks Matt Leinart and Vince Young taking the reins in Arizona and Tennessee, respectively, and sixth rounder Bruce Gradkowski being pressed into service following Chris Simms’ injury early in the season. The remaining nine quarterbacks on that list present a mixed bag, with one surefire Hall of Famer (Peyton Manning), one guy who will stir some debate when his career is over (McNabb), six who might turn out to be journeymen or all-time greats (Vick, Carr, Leftwich, Roethlisberger, Smith and Eli Manning), and one who is hoping a change of scenery will jumpstart an otherwise mediocre career (Harrington). Given this, it appears that teams should be more careful about allowing quarterbacks to accumulate significant playing time early in their careers – in most cases, it does not reap positive results.

The group of QBs who played one to seven games in their rookie seasons only includes one rookie, Jay Cutler of Denver, who missed inclusion in the first category because Mike Shanahan stuck with Jake Plummer for about three weeks too long. Another player, Philip Rivers, is the type of guy for whom this type of debate was created: he sat behind Drew Brees for nearly two full seasons, appearing in just four games total before getting a chance to start this season and flourishing with a 96.3 passer rating through thirteen games. In that respect he is not that different from his Brees, who played one game as a rookie before earning the starting role in 2002, and McNair, who was a top five pick in 1995 and played just thirteen games over his first two seasons in the league.

The most celebrated late round pick in recent history is Tom Brady, who went late in the sixth round in 2000 and sat for almost his entire rookie season before stepping in for the injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and establishing himself as the leader of one of the NFL’s great dynasties. He will be joined in the Hall of Fame one day by Favre, the Packers legend who was originally drafted by Atlanta before being traded to Green Bay after attempting just five passes for the Falcons in 1991. On the other end of the spectrum are a handful of guys who show some brilliance at times – Delhomme has a Super Bowl appearance on his resume, Grossman was the MVP of the NFL through four games this season, Kitna was a dependable starter before losing the Cincinnati job to Carson Palmer – but have never proven that they can perform consistently as NFL quarterbacks.

Of the final group, the only player who was drafted into a starting position and held out to learn the position was Palmer, who sat behind Kitna for a full season before being handed the job by coach Marvin Lewis in 2004. Only four of the remaining seven are still with their original teams (although Johnson left Minnesota, played for a few other teams, then returned for this tour of duty). Hasselbeck and Green are the proven stars of the group – each has played six seasons with his current team, with Hasselbeck leading the Seahawks to a Super Bowl appearance last season and Green putting up outstanding passing numbers for the Chiefs – and Romo has emerged as a quality player in Dallas.

After looking over the above lists, it seems evident that the middle group, in which guys played a handful of games as rookies before taking over a starting job, was the one in which the most successful of the current starting quarterbacks resided. With the possible exception of J.P. Losman and Charlie Frye, both of whom are still young, there are no real duds to be found.

Just remember: if an NFL team ever hires me to coach or run their football operations, and I insert a rookie quarterback into a starting role, forget you ever read this.

All career information courtesy of Yahoo!

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