Rookie QBs: To play or not to play?
Browns General Manager Phil Savage recently told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that if rookie quarterback Brady Quinn signed a contract before training camp, he’d have the opportunity to start under center in 2007 ahead of Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson.
The question is, should Quinn even get the chance to start or should he be holding a clipboard for a season while he learns the nuances of the game?
Of course, it’s next to impossible to answer that question with any sort of certainty. We can, however, look to previous examples for a little insight into the situation.
Peyton Manning, rookie starter
The Colts finished 3-13 during Manning’s rookie year as the starter, but reversed their record the year after to 13-3, clinching the AFC East and making the playoffs. Now Manning has a Super Bowl ring, gobs of records and a horde of endorsement deals, and Indy is a Super Bowl contender every single year.
Outcome: Manning is one of the best examples of how starting a rookie QB can pay off.
Ryan Leaf, rookie starter
After winning his first two games as a rookie, Leaf completed just 1-of-15 passes for 4 yards and two interceptions in a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs. The loss ended up being a precursor to the rest of his disastrous rookie campaign and he crumbled under the pressure of the league, media and fans.
Outcome: Leaf was a complete failure and is thought of as one of the biggest busts in NFL history.
Tim Couch, rookie starter
With the pressure of having an expansion team on his shoulders, Couch cracked under Cleveland’s inexperienced offensive line and lack of offensive playmakers early in his career. Before breaking his leg during the final regular season game in 2002, he did lead the Browns to the postseason while passing for just under 3,000 and 18 touchdowns.
Outcome: Other than the 2002 playoff season, Couch’s career was marred by inconsistent play and injuries.
Donovan McNabb, part-time rookie starter
While he’s succumbed to injuries the past couple years, McNabb’s career has mostly been a success. In every season from 2000 to 2004, he led Philly to the playoffs, including three straight NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl appearance.
Outcome: Despite what his critics will argue, McNabb’s been a very good NFL quarterback, albeit with some peaks and valleys throughout his career.
Akili Smith, part-time rookie starter
There’s no other way to say it: Smith was a complete bust from start to finish. He did play in seven games as a rookie after starter Jeff Blake went 0-4 to start the season, but Smith finished with a QB rating of 55.6. Failure to understand the complexities of the game and his playbook led to Smith only starting 17 games in four years before finally being released in 2002.
Outcome: Complete failure.
Daunte Culpepper, held a clipboard
Culpepper was named Minnesota’s starter for his second NFL season in 2000, winning his first seven games and eventually leading the team to an 11-5 record and the postseason. In the next two seasons, however, Culpepper struggled while the Vikings skidded to 5-11 and 6-10 records, respectively. He had an MVP-like 2004 season, bouncing back to throw for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns, but the past two seasons with the Vikings and Dolphins have been disastrous.
Outcome: Mixed, but mostly a failure.
Michael Vick, mostly held a clipboard
Vick has led the Falcons to two postseason berths: in 2002, Atlanta handed the Packers their first ever playoff loss at Lambeau Field, and in 2004, the Falcons advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game. However, 2005 and 2006 really brought out Vick’s inconsistencies as a passer and Atlanta failed to make the playoffs after hot starts in each of the two years. Now marred in controversy surrounding an alleged dog fighting ring, Vick is getting more attention off the field than he is on it.
Outcome: Much like his career, mostly mixed with major highs and lows.
Drew Brees, held a clipboard
Brees has been on a bit of a roller coaster since being drafted in the second round of the 2001 draft. In 2002, he led the Chargers to an 8-8 record in his first year as a starter, but then took a huge step backward in 2003. With first-round pick Philip Rivers breathing down his neck in 2004, Brees led the Chargers to a playoff appearance and nearly missed a repeat performance in 2005 before injuring his shoulder in the final regular-season game. Last year, Brees led the Saints on a magical season, falling one win shy of the team’s first ever Super Bowl.
Outcome: A little bumpy, but mostly successful.
Joey Harrington, rookie starter
Ask any Lions fan how they thought Joey “Blue Skies” fared while in Detroit, and if they don’t beat you senseless first, they’ll angrily convince you that he was a bust. Harrington never had great personnel around him, which in turn made him less confident. He was finally traded to the Dolphins in the 2006 offseason, but lasted just one season in Miami and now is in Atlanta.
Outcome: Still to be determined, but mostly a failure.
Carson Palmer, held a clipboard
Palmer sat his entire rookie season, but went 8-8 as a full-time starter in 2004 and 11-5 the following year while leading the Bengals to the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Palmer suffered a major knee injury against the Steelers in the Divisional Round playoffs in 2005, but still managed to have a somewhat successful season in 2006, leading Cincy to an 8-8 record.
Outcome: Yet to be determined, but mostly a rousing success.
So what do these 10 examples illustrate about young quarterbacks and their success rate after their first year?
Leaf, Smith, Couch and Harrington were all in charge of resurrecting horrid franchises. With that, the talent around them wasn’t great and their play suffered because of it.
While Manning was drafted by a terrible team in 1998, the Colts weren’t far off and once they got their steady signal caller, everything fell into place for the now juggernaut franchise. Throw the Eagles into the same boat, as McNabb stepped onto a team that was coming back from the dead.
The best thing the Chargers did when they drafted Brees was to take running back LaDainian Tomlinson in the previous round. And the Bengals drafted Carson Palmer after a decade of picking near the top of the draft, which also meant that their talent was starting to peak.
The Falcons and Vikings weren’t great when Vick and Culpepper took over the starting roles during their sophomore seasons, but they were markedly better than the Browns and Lions were when they drafted Couch and Harrington.
So the idea seems rather simple: surround a young quarterback with enough talent and he should pan out.
Take Ben Roethlisberger as another example. As a rookie, he took the Steelers to the AFC title game in 2004, and won a Super Bowl in 2005. Guys like Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, Plaxico Burress and a fantastic defense helped take the pressure off Roethlisberger while he built enough confidence and experience to lead the team on his own.
Eli Manning faces scrutiny from critics all the time, yet still has led the Giants to back-to-back postseason appearances the last two years. Does it matter that he was a rookie starter for most of the 2004 season? Probably not, because the talent around him has helped him keep his head above water.
Now, in the case of Leaf and Smith, their poor attitudes and work ethic greatly played into their failure. It’s no surprise that Peyton Manning is one of the hardest working players in the league, which in turn has brought him tons of success.
Aside from Brees, all of these players were first-round picks, so it should have been assumed they had the talent to play in the NFL. However, guys can have all the tools in the world, but if they don’t have the work ethic, desire and commitment, it’s usually not going to matter if they’re handing the ball off to Larry Johnson or Milhouse Van Houten.
So, back to the original question: Should Cleveland even consider starting Quinn as a rookie? Well, we’ve already established that surrounding a young quarterback with adequate talent should foster enough victories to breed confidence. Plus, a good coaching staff ready to teach the young man, coupled with a patient organization and fan base, will surely help give a rookie quarterback the best chance to succeed. But the Browns, who aren’t as far off talent-wise as most people think, still probably don’t have enough at this point to justify giving Quinn the keys to the offense. Plus, Romeo Crennel is on the hot seat and whenever a head coach feels pressure to save his job, patience goes out the window with a young QB and expectations tend to be raised to unrealistic heights.
In other words, Cleveland, next to “QB1” on the depth chart, write in “Anderson” or “Frye” and let the rookie learn for a year.
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