A How-To Guide for Bringing Along Rookie QBs in the NFL
As an NFL general manager who's just spent a high draft pick on a rookie quarterback, you have an employee who's going to make you look like a genius for the next 15 years or make you look like an idiot and get you fired in three.
Whether it's the former or the latter depends partly on the work you and your staff have done in evaluating that player's college tape, All-Star Game performances and pre-draft workouts.
Much of a rookie quarterback's success, though, is determined by how you bring him along.
Here's a handy guide to getting the most out of your young signal-caller.
Step 1: Match the Player to the Coach
When you and your staff were doing all that scouting, film-watching, grading, interviewing and debating, you'd better have involved your coach and offensive coordinator.
There's no such thing as a can't-miss prospect, and quarterbacks so talented they'll excel regardless of system are vanishingly rare. The better prospect isn't always the better player; getting the "best" prospect is not nearly as important as getting the player who is most right.
When you don't do this, bad things happen.
Matt Millen, who as Detroit Lions president and CEO did nearly everything wrong, drafted quarterback Joey Harrington despite his offensively minded head coach Marty Mornhinweg wanting nothing to do with him.
According to the late, great Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski, Mornhinweg was "furious" when Millen turned in the draft card with Harrington's name on it. Kowalski heard this from team sources and reported it, forcing Mornhinweg to say he was on board with it to Kowalski's face.
This was never going to work, and it cost Mornhinweg and Harrington their jobs. Eventually, making decisions like this cost Millen his too.
To keep your job, you've got to make sure your quarterback has the tools to do what your coaches are trying to accomplish. What if he doesn't? Well, then your coaches had better be on board with trying to accomplish something different.
Step 2: Sit or Play?
From the instant a quarterback is drafted, the debate rages on local sports talk radio and team message boards: Should he sit, or should he play?
The old-school football cavemen say rookie quarterbacks' butts should never leave the bench during their first season, regardless of how good they are or how bad the team is. The new-school football video-game crowd thinks if a quarterback doesn't set the world on fire as a rookie, he never will.
The truth isn't somewhere in the middle. The truth is, the right approach differs for every quarterback and every team.
If you've got an elite veteran quarterback, you've got your choice made for you: You can't bench your starter for a rookie.
The Green Bay Packers, of course, had Aaron Rodgers fall into their lap with the 24th overall pick of the 2005 draft while Brett Favre was still going strong. Rodgers recounted his fall for NFL Films:
Rodgers had plenty of big-game experience at a quality program with a pass-first offense—and the talent to become the NFL's best all-around quarterback, as he is today. Rodgers may have been able to succeed if he'd started right away, but he had to sit in deference to Favre.
Did sitting help Rodgers' development, growing and learning without the pressure of starting right away on a contending team? Or did it slow him down, keeping him from applying classroom knowledge to game situations? It's impossible to know.
Though managing the transition from Favre to Rodgers is the kind of "headache" any GM would be blessed to have, let's assume you're not "cursed" with the same problem.
If you have no other viable quarterbacks, you may have to give your rookie a trial by fire. Name him the starter from the first minicamp and do everything you can to help him.
There are many great quarterbacks who have walked through flames and lived. Peyton Manning led the NFL with 28 interceptions as his Indianapolis Colts went 3-13. Not only was his team poor, but he also made his share of rookie mistakes:
It takes rare mental strength to "fail" that often without losing confidence or competitive fire.
If your quarterback didn't start multiple seasons in college, played in an unconventional offense, didn't play in a power conference or didn't display elite field-reading skills on tape, it's unlikely he'll come through a trial by fire unsinged.
The Jacksonville Jaguars threw Blaine Gabbert into the fire, but Gabbert had none of the tools that might help him survive—and the Jaguars couldn't support him with consistent, quality coaching or offensive weapons. Gabbert isn't done yet, but he's shown no signs of putting it together any time soon.
Step 3: Support Your Quarterback
Whether he gets minimal mop-up reps in a few blowout games over his first few seasons or is pronounced "The Man" from day one, you and your staff need to give your quarterback every opportunity to succeed.
When the Washington Redskins drafted Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 overall pick, they made him the starter right away. Given Griffin's injury-shortened college track record, unconventional college offense and unique skill set, it was unlikely he'd pick up Mike Shanahan's famously complex passing offense in one training camp.
Shanahan brilliantly responded by changing his offense.
As Chris Brown of Grantland explained, Shanahan mixed his blocking schemes and famous running game with packaged option, zone-read and pistol-based plays similar to what Griffin ran in college.
By giving Griffin simple, familiar choices and chances to use his natural tools, Shanahan maximized Griffin's chances for success. Watch how Shanahan made it easy for Griffin with powerful play action:
This 88-yard touchdown pass came in the first quarter of the first game of RGIII's career. The Redskins lined up in a two-receiver, two-tight end set. The New Orleans Saints lined up in base 4-3 and sent free safety Malcolm Jenkins in to blitz:
With strong safety Roman Harper patrolling center field, Griffin's two receivers will attack that space.
On the snap, the Redskins line sells a zone run to the right, hard, and Griffin executes a clean play fake:
Tight end Niles Paul moves like a pulling guard to seal the back side, but instead of blocking Jenkins, he releases on a shallow underneath route. Jenkins is left for Griffin to evade, so he has two deep options and one wide-open safety valve:
Receiver Pierre Garcon, cutting inside on a deep post route, has been allowed to go by the cornerback covering him, Corey White. White was expecting Harper to step up and cover Garcon, but Harper already shaded over toward Josh Morgan's side, and Morgan has effectively screened him from Garcon:
By the time Garcon comes down with it, he's home free. All Griffin had to do was execute the play fake, then get the ball to the more open of two receivers in the same area of the field.
Even quarterbacks without Griffin's dangerous speed will benefit from this approach. Rather than dump an entire NFL playbook on your rookie, do the work for him and let him focus on execution. As he becomes more experienced, more of the burden can be placed on his shoulders.
Step 4: Regression, Progression and Patience
Many good young quarterbacks "regress" in their second or third season. It's usually not because they're forgetting how to play the game, but because they're being asked to make more decisions or have been granted more field-reading and play-adjustment responsibility.
This is a natural part of your quarterback's progression and shouldn't be cause for alarm. Continue to invest in protection and weapons for him, as the Colts have with Andrew Luck.
The most important thing for a young quarterback is continuity. Making him work with a flurry of different head coaches and offensive coordinators, as the St. Louis Rams have with Sam Bradford, is the quickest way to torpedo his development.
Though your fans (and owner) will demand quick results, you must be patient with a young quarterback—especially if he's the cornerstone of a rebuilding effort, as many first-round quarterbacks are.
Step 5: Success
Congratulations! After three or four seasons in the NFL, your rookie should already be an effective starter, or at least have proven he's ready to take over for that crusty old veteran next season.
With a huge chunk of your job done right, you can rest easy knowing your quarterback will always keep you in contention for the next decade...
His agent's calling.
I hope you remembered to carve out cap space for a $100 million extension!
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