Developing young QBs in NFL a tricky balancing act
NEW YORK — Start them right away? Ease ’em in? Have them sit a whole season?
When it comes to developing young quarterbacks in the NFL, it all depends on who you talk to.
Some teams think it’s best to throw rookie QBs into the fire to learn on the job. Others prefer to gradually work them into the offense. Some say it’s more beneficial to have them grab a cap and clipboard and take it all in from the sideline.
“I think every position is the same,” Jets offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said. “If someone can’t handle it mentally, then you don’t want to put them on the field, because naturally they’ll play slower and be thinking instead of reacting.”
Sam Darnold clearly passed that test for New York, and the No. 3 overall pick in April was under center to start the season.
“If a player shows the athletic ability, the talent and has the mental capacity to handle a gameplan and go into a game and be successful,” Bates said, “then he’s ready to play.”
That doesn’t mean things have necessarily gone smoothly for the former USC star.
Darnold’s 14 interceptions lead the league and have contributed to the Jets’ 3-6 start. So have his 55.0 percent completion rate and 68.3 quarterback rating, which also rank among the worst in the league.
Still, some point to these early struggles as crucial building blocks for the future.
“I’m going to continue to learn,” Darnold said Sunday after a 13-6 loss at Miami in which he threw four INTs. “There’s always lessons to be learned.”
Of the 32 quarterbacks currently listed as starters for their teams, 12 were under center in Week 1 of their first season.
On the flipside, some veteran superstar QBs waited a while before they got their chances.
Aaron Rodgers was stuck behind Brett Favre in Green Bay before finally starting in his fourth season. Philip Rivers didn’t start with the Chargers until his third year, when Drew Brees went to New Orleans. Even Brees didn’t get his first NFL start until his second season.
Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith weren’t Day 1 starters, either.
“In an ideal world, it gets to be like Drew, who had a chance to watch a little, or Tom Brady and Aaron,” said former quarterback Rich Gannon, the 2002 NFL MVP and now an analyst for CBS Sports and SiriusXM NFL Radio.
Patrick Mahomes sat behind Smith in Kansas City until Week 17 as a rookie last year, and now is a leading MVP candidate as one of the NFL’s top gunslinger s with a league-leading 29 TD passes for the 8-1 Chiefs.
“We knew that Patrick was very talented, but any time that an NFL team goes with a young quarterback, usually it’s a very challenging endeavor,” Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said. “Sometimes it takes time, several years, but as we’ve seen, Andy (Reid) had Patrick ready to go Week 1.”
Gannon thinks the Chiefs provide the perfect blueprint.
“Mahomes had a chance to watch a master of his domain for a year,” he said. “Alex Smith knew that system inside and out, has great huddle command and leadership skills. Maybe he doesn’t throw it like Mahomes does, but this is a guy who was willing to share and help him for that year, and we’re seeing the fruits of it now.
“That’s the best situation you can have.”
Again, that depends on who you ask.
In the past three drafts, 11 quarterbacks were taken in the first round — including Darnold, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Arizona’s Josh Rosen and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson this year.
Jackson is the only one to not yet start at least one game. Baltimore has Joe Flacco leading the huddle, but Jackson has still been used in the offense and is the Ravens’ second-leading rusher.
The Browns wanted to have Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick this year, sit and learn behind Tyrod Taylor. But like most plans in Cleveland, it backfired.
Taylor got hurt in Week 3 and Mayfield was thrust into the lineup, helping the Browns rally to beat the Jets in a nationally televised game and end a 19-game winless streak. Mayfield has shown poise and promise, but lacks playmakers and is dealing with a coaching change after Hue Jackson was fired.
In Buffalo, the Bills weren’t anticipating Allen starting in the second week. They were taking what coach Sean McDermott called a “calculated” approach. But after AJ McCarron was traded before the season opener and Nathan Peterman bombed in Week 1, McDermott was left with no choice but to turn to Allen.
The rookie has been dealing with a sprained right elbow , and is uncertain to play Sunday against the Jets.
“When you draft a quarterback like we did, there’s a part of it where you have to say, ‘Hey, he’s going to play either A, B, or C — early, middle, or late or next year.’” McDermott said. “You have to be OK with all of that.”
The initial plan in Arizona was to have Rosen learn behind Sam Bradford. All that changed when the veteran was ineffective and benched in favor of the No. 10 overall pick.
Rosen took his lumps with some turnover-filled performances. Then, Mike McCoy was fired as the Cardinals’ offensive coordinator and Bradford was later cut — leaving the job to Rosen.
“His demeanor allows him to have success,” new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “Quarterbacking in this league is hard and when things go bad, this kid tends to be fine.”
But, some say too many adverse situations could end up having long-term deleterious effects on a young player.
“When you put them in before they’re ready, they also get hurt: Josh Allen, Josh Rosen,” Gannon said. “The speed of the game is way too fast for them. … Or they have a bad experience, like what wound up happening with (the Jets’) Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith, or going back to Ryan Leaf (with the Chargers). They play right away before they are physically or mentally ready or maturity-level ready. They get benched and booed and maybe run out of town, the coach gets fired, and then the next thing, they’re on their third or fourth team. They think he will be a savior and he’s not ready to play.
“How is that being responsible from a coach and ownership standpoint? It’s doing a tremendous disservice.”
Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston and Tennessee’ Marcus Mariota started right away after being the top two picks in 2015, but the jury’s still out on both.
For those who preach patience, 25 of the 32 current QBs started a game at some point in their rookie season. And, several held on to the job from there.
Quarterbacks such as the Rams’ Jared Goff (No. 1 in 2016) and the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky (No. 2 in 2017) started and struggled as rookies, but benefited from changes in coaching staffs and philosophies and took leaps in their second seasons.
So, who’s right?
Well, all of the above.
“There’s certainly valuable experience when you stand and watch,” McDermott said. “But we all know there’s no substitute for the experience when you’re actually behind the wheel. There’s a lot of value to that.”