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Jun 12, 2014; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns Johnny Manziel (left) talks with quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains and Tyler Thigpen during minicamp at Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

NFL Quarterback Debate: Should Rookies Start Early?

If a rookie quarterback, fresh out of college and fresh off an early round pick in the NFL Draft, is a good quarterback, should he be the starting quarterback for his team right out of the gate, or should he be tutored for a year or so to learn the ins-and-outs of the professional football? It’s a debate that seems to rage every season with a variety of differing opinions, and it’s an important debate.

Show Me The Money

In the 1996 film, Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise plays a successful sports agent named (you guessed it) Jerry Maguire.  Maguire has an epiphany about all the things that are wrong with the system of managing professional talent.  Not realizing that often private thoughts ought to be kept that way, he shares his epiphany (his mission statement) with his peers, and is more or less laughed out of the building and a job. He goes on to start his own agency, with himself as boss, one executive assistant played by Renée Zellweger, and one lone NFL player to manage, Rod Tidwell, played by Cuba Gooding Jr.

In one famous scene from the movie, Maguire and Tidwell are having a discussion about the lackluster progress being made in Tidwell’s career, and Maguire asks Tidwell a simple question, “What can I do for you, Rod?” Tidwell comes back with the most famous line in the movie (no, for me it’s much more famous than the cheesy but famous “you had me at hello”) when he replies to Maguire, “show me the  money!” Now there’s much  more to the scene than that, with yelling, dancing, and cursing, but the point of the scene is obvious – whatever epiphany Maguire may have had, or mission statement he  may have developed – in the end sports really is all about the money.

Like me, you may have your share of romantic notions about sports, but sports is ultimately all about the money, and all those greenbacks a team can generate in a season are one of the central equations in the debate about whether or not a good quarterback should start right out of the gate in his rookie year. If an NFL team weak in the QB department is struggling year-in, year-out with trying to have just a break-even season, they are going to do everything they can to get the best quarterback in an NFL Draft, and the decision of whether to start him in his first year is largely about money! Winning is important in professional sports, and not because of pride or some other romantic notion, but because winning generates revenue!

Factors To Consider

The question of whether to start a good rookie quarterback isn’t a simple one, with multiple of factors that have to be carefully considered when making such a decision.

You might think it’s simply about which quarterback performs the best in training camp, and while that’s an important factor, there are many other questions.  A team might not want to start a valuable rookie quarterback right out of the gate because he’s a costly investment, good offensive line protection isn’t there for him that first year, and a team may want to shore up that offensive line before running the risk of injury to their investment. Remember, it’s all about the money!

A young quarterback may be immature, unable to handle the new pressures of the press circus, new living arrangements, juggling relationships and a newer, tougher schedule.  There are hundreds of possible personal and social reasons why a team might opt to have a young rookie tutor under a more seasoned quarterback for a year or two before handing him the reins.

Jun 17, 2014; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterbacks Stephen Morris (6) and Chad Henne (7) and Blake Bortles (5) go through passing drills during the first day of minicamp at Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

The team’s current quarterback may be injured, questionable in some way, or under-performing, and while he may be an invaluable resource to a rookie quarterback in intangible ways, the team may see a clear need to have a rookie start right out of the gate.  It’s been done many times of course, sometimes with success and more often with failure.

Dan Graziano of ESPN wrote a piece a few days ago, sharing his opinion that teams should go ahead and start rookie quarterbacks, particularly good ones, right out of the gate.  He likens a good rookie quarterback to a fine, new car and opines that when we buy a car we drive it!

When you spend a bunch of money on a new car, you drive it. You don’t put it in the garage and drive your old car until you think the new one’s ready. You like the new car better than the old one, or else you’d have used that money on something else. But you didn’t. You used it on a fast, shiny, beautiful new car. And what you do now is you drive it.

So consider this a common-sense plea to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings, all of whom drafted quarterbacks in the first round this year and insist they’re not planning to make them starters right away:

Drive your new cars.

The problem of course with that logic is that young players, however talented they may be or however ready we think they might be to start, are not cars! Cars can be replaced rather easily, but a player I think needs to be handled with considerable more care.  Oh, I get his argument – particularly where he references the Jaguars, Browns and Vikings. Those are three teams (more arguably two)  in dire need of better leadership and skills at quarterback, but I think that Chad Henne, Brian Hoyer, and the tandem of Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder have a great deal to offer to these young rookies in terms of tutoring and mentoring, and I don’t get the rush to push a rookie into the fray with all the risks involved.

By contrast, Bill Polilan of ESPN believes, as I do, that this rush to start rookie quarterbacks right out of the gate can be a mistake, allowing that every circumstance is different, and each team has to make their decision while weighing the factors specific to their situation.

There’s no universal right answer when it comes to developing a quarterback in the National Football League. Every situation and every player involve distinct circumstances. Time frames are accelerated and delayed by any number of factors. But there is one certainty: It takes multiple seasons to develop a truly capable NFL starter under center. And that’s why, if it were up to me, none of this year’s drafted quarterbacks would take a snap in the 2014 season.

It is unlikely any of them can succeed in Year 1 beyond simply improving. And I don’t say that because they lack talent. I say that because the learning curve of an NFL quarterback is a long one, and simply adapting to the league makes first-year success a near impossibility without ideal circumstances, no matter who you are.


Which Side Do You Fall On?

Gus Bradley, head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars has said that he is perfectly okay with sitting rookie quarterback Blake Bortles for a season and go with Chad Henne for the time being, but with Henne’s QB rating of just 76.5, you have to wonder how serious Bradley is about sitting Bortles a full season. Sure, using Bortles right out of the gate is a risk with an investment, but you have to think the Jaguars are really anxious to start that winning I talked about earlier.

Jun 17, 2014; Eden Prairie, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) throws in drills at Winter Park. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

While most cannot imagine the Cleveland Browns sitting Johnny Manziel at all, let alone a season (and they likely won’t), the Browns made it clear to Manziel that he’s 2nd on the depth chart behind Brian Hoyer. That’s no surprise, and the standard memo most teams will give to a yet unproven rookie quarterback, no matter how impressive he was in college, but it will be hard to ignore the potential of Manziel for long.

And for the Minnesota Vikings, and their tandem of Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, it’s certainly debatable whether that experiment is best for that team, but General Manager Rick Spielman made it quite clear that they are comfortable with the tandem, and have no plans to do anything speedy with Teddy Bridgewater, content to let him sit and learn slowly. While the first two situations might be different, personally I agree with Spielman on Bridgewater.

So which side of the debate do you fall on? I think there are too many factors in each situation for this to be a black and white debate.  There are just too many shades of gray in between.  Robert Griffin III had amazing potential as a rookie, and he showed it in his rookie season, but he also got banged up quite a bit, and potentially so much so that it could affect the rest of his career. Was starting him right out of the gate a wise move?

Early moves worked for rookies like Cam Newton, Dan Marino (week 6), Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, and Matt Ryan, but did it work as well for Sam Bradford or Vince Young? With this new crop of young, talented quarterbacks, you be the judge.

Tags: Blake Bortles Johnny Manziel NFL Quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater

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