Locker, Gabbert, Luck: Did Their Teams Handle Their Rookie Years Correctly?

Nate DunlevyGuest ColumnistMay 25, 2012

Should the Colts be letting Luck start?
Should the Colts be letting Luck start?Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans have all been faced with the same question over the past two years, and each team has answered it differently.

What's the best way to handle a rookie first-round pick at quarterback?

The Colts have decided to name Andrew Luck the starter from day one.

The Jaguars didn't have Blaine Gabbert start opening day, but went to him quickly.

The Titans still don't know when Jake Locker will take over a starting job.

There are arguments on both sides of the issue. Proponents of starting a rookie insist there is no substitute for playing. Peyton Manning believes it helped him.

Others argue in favor of a "sit and learn" theory. The idea is that if a quarterback sits for most of his rookie year, he'll be better for it in the long run. Aaron Rodgers has become a poster boy for this model.

Who is right? History says everyone is.

Since 1980, there have been 76 quarterbacks taken in the first round. Of those, 14 started Week 1, and 29 started at least half the games their rookie year. We'll call this the "Peyton Manning School."

While it's too soon to judge the careers of Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton, it's clear that many teams are choosing to put their rookie quarterback in the starting lineup sooner than ever. Six of the 14 Week 1 starters began their career after 2008.

On the other extreme of the spectrum is the "Carson Palmer School." Palmer was the most extreme case of sitting the rookie quarterback in history. He didn't throw a pass his rookie year.

You could also put Jim Kelly and Steve Young into this group, but as they played in the USFL before the NFL. That's obviously different than sitting on the bench. 15 quarterbacks of the 76 didn't start their rookie years. Eighteen played in fewer than four games.

The following lessons should be learned from the past:


1. There is no inherent value in sitting year one.

Players who sat largely sat because they weren't good enough to play. The top of the list isn't any more littered with busts than the bottom of the list. A player who isn't ready to start should sit, but a quarterback who is capable of winning a starting job should be allowed to have it.

If sitting a rookie was better, you'd expect to see way more evidence in favor of it than you do.


2. The "David Carr Scenario" is unique to David Carr.

Some people love to bring up David Carr as a cautionary tale of the dangers of starting a rookie quarterback. After all, he took 76 sacks and never developed. The problem is that there really has never been another instance of that.

You can point to a couple of rookie headcases that burned out (Jeff George and Ryan Leaf), but there's not a lot of evidence that starting immediately does any damage.

Whether or not Carr could have become a viable quarterback had he not taken that beating, we'll never know. I believe he lacked the tools to be an elite quarterback, however, and wouldn't have been a star no matter how he was handled.


3. There is success to be had in all three courses.

The "Peyton Manning School" has some illustrious names in it. The "Eli Manning School" (sit at first, but start later in the year) does too. Phil Rivers and Rodgers went to the "Carson Palmer School." Of course, it's a lot easier to sit when you are behind a future Hall of Famer.

There is no one way to build a quarterback. The best strategy is to hold an open competition. If the rookie can win the job, he should be allowed to play. If he can't win the job, let him grow into it. Based on the evidence, there's no reason to be dogmatic about refusing to let a rookie start Week 1.


4. Teams are trending toward the Manning School.

More and more rookies are playing from Week 1. This list doesn't include later-round picks like Andy Dalton, who started early. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one is that quarterbacks coming out of college are more ready to play in pro-style offenses.

As the passing game takes over the college ranks, players are entering the league ready to play.


So who was right? Did the Titans err by letting Locker season? Did the Jaguars screw up with Gabbert? Should Indy have let Luck sit for a year?

The answer is probably "no" to all three questions. The best course in the NFL is "let the best man win." Any player who is ready to play should play. Any player who isn't, shouldn't.

If Gabbert, Luck and Locker become stars or busts, it will be because of the skills they have and coaching the receive. When they played and how soon they started won't have anything to do with it.