Football Mythbusters: To Sit Or Start Stafford and Sanchez?

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Football Mythbusters: To Sit Or Start Stafford and Sanchez?
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
MYTH: Starting their rookie quarterbacks gives the Lions and Jets the best chance of winning.

FACT: True in one instance, false in the other. The Jets would be best served to start Mark Sanchez, but the Lions should let Matthew Stafford sit behind a veteran for as long as possible. 

Due to the success of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco last year, it is only natural to wonder if you should expect the same level of success from this year’s top quarterbacks of the draft class: Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez.

Josh Freeman is another first-round rookie QB who has a chance to start in 2009, but I haven’t seen or heard enough to know anything about him; the only real details I know about the Buccaneers’ quarterback situation is what I know about Byron Leftwich. 

He was an adequate starter for the Jaguars for several years. However, he is not very mobile, and has an incredibly slow release when he passes. Put him behind a porous offensive line and the results will be disastrous, as they were in Atlanta in 2007. 

If the Buccaneers’ offensive line performs poorly, then an injury to Leftwich will probably leave them with no choice but to start Freeman at some point during the season. If the line holds up and Leftwich stays healthy, he’ll do a better than average job for the rebuilding Buccaneers. 

Also, Freeman wasn’t taken until the 17th pick of the draft. Because he doesn’t have as big of a contract as top-five picks like Stafford and Sanchez, he doesn’t carry the same risk-and-reward scenario as the other two QBs taken in the first round, and will not garner anywhere near as much attention.

With the size of Stafford’s contract, if he is successfully developed into a top-tier quarterback, the Lions will be set at that position for years. If Stafford fails, so does the team that is being built around him. The same goes for Sanchez.

The Buccaneers can better afford their first-round quarterback not to pan out. Though it would be frustrating for the team, management, and fans alike if Freeman were a bust, Tampa has nowhere near the amount of money invested in Freeman that New York and Detroit have invested in their rookie QBs.

For this reason, much more attention will be centered on whether Stafford and Sanchez see significant playing time.

For Detroit, it makes little sense to start Matthew Stafford. In terms of raw talent, he was worthy of a No. 1 pick. When it comes to the mental aspects of the game, Stafford is still pretty rough around the edges, and could use some time on the bench as he makes the adjustment to playing the most cerebral position in the NFL.

In an earlier article I wrote about Tim Tebow I briefly mentioned that it was beneficial for NFL quarterbacks to develop on the bench for a season, if not longer, before they saw significant playing time.

“Look at Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart; both were USC standouts and Heisman winners. Both were drafted by teams with great receivers. Yet in the NFL, Palmer has enjoyed more success than Leinart.

In the NFL, Palmer sat behind Jon Kitna for a year before taking the reins and leading the Bengals’ offense to great success.

Leinart, on the other hand, was thrust into the starting role for the Cardinals and failed, despite the help he had at receiver. In 2008, the Cardinals’ starting QB job was officially given to Kurt Warner, who then helped lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.”

This is probably the best modern example of the importance of making quarterbacks sit and learn.

There are so many intricacies that go into preparing for an opposing defense week in and week out, and to add the extra difficulties of having to learn an entire playbook and build chemistry with a new team is just piling on the difficulty. This is why for every Peyton Manning, there are plenty of Ryan Leafs. 

Matthew Stafford, no matter how good of a quarterback he is, cannot expect to duplicate the success of Ryan and Flacco. Both teams had solid supporting casts to make their job a whole lot easier.

The Ravens, after going 13-3 in 2006, fell to a 5-11 record in 2007 mainly due to injuries. When healthy, the 2008 Ravens made it all the way to the AFC Championship thanks to their strong running game and dominating defense (and with the help of a 43-second play clock in the divisional round against the Titans. Google it if you don’t know what I mean).

The Falcons in 2007 had arguably one of the most tumultuous years a team could have. The team hired a new coach, saw its franchise quarterback go to jail for dogfighting, and was forced to rely on draft bust Joey Harrington. Then, in the middle of the season, the first-year head coach quit.

Luckily for the Falcons, Arthur Blank hired Thomas Dimitroff, former scouting director for the Patriots, as the new G.M. The Falcons then proceeded to clean house. They did an excellent job of bringing in talent through free agency and the draft, and also did a good job of eliminating dead weight.

In perhaps the most ironic offseason move of all time, cornerback DeAngelo Hall demanded a trade because, as he said “he was tired of losing.” The Falcons then traded him to Oakland

In just one offseason the Falcons did an excellent job of providing their rookie QB with all the tools to be successful and push for the playoffs, and he did just that.

Another interesting tidbit is that the Falcons and Ravens had no choice but to start their rookie QBs. Atlanta didn’t have anybody to compete with Ryan for the starting job, and Flacco got the starting nod after neither Kyle Boller nor Troy Smith were healthy enough to start.

Detroit, on the other hand, has a viable alternative to starting Stafford. Daunte Culpepper had some great seasons in Minnesota when he was throwing to Randy Moss. Though Culpepper is now a Lion, he has the same offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, that he had in Minnesota, and he also has a great young receiver who is physically very similar to Moss.

Though Culpepper won just as many games as the rest of the Lions’ starting quarterbacks last year, he should do much better if given the starting job this year. While Culpepper wasn’t outstanding when he came out of retirement mid-season, he did a good job working with what he had, and the Lions’ offense wasn’t terrible with him.

Also, it should be taken into consideration that Culpepper didn’t have the benefits of a training camp or preseason to get in shape and become accustomed to his receivers. He simply came out of retirement, and adjusted on the fly. Having a full offseason with the Lions under his belt should really help make Culpepper an even better quarterback for the Lions.

Since Culpepper is capable of providing a short-term solution under center for the Lions, it makes sense to let Stafford sit and learn in 2009 so that he is a better quarterback when he finally does start. At the end of the 2009 season, the Lions can then decide whether to re-sign Culpepper, or hand the keys to Stafford.

Though he might be ready to start as early as his second year in the NFL, 2009 is too soon to start Stafford.

The Jets, on the other hand, do not seem to have the luxury of having a capable veteran to start while Mark Sanchez learns the offense. 

After falling just short of the playoffs last year, and then improving in the offseason, the Jets feel like they are ready to play football in January.  However, by trading up in the draft to pick Sanchez, the Jets made it clear that they didn’t think Kellen Clemens was a quarterback capable of leading them to the playoffs.

It’s one thing if a quarterback falls to you and you draft him because he’s the best available player. When you actively trade up in the first round to get yourself in position to draft that quarterback before anyone else can, then you are making it clear that you feel you desperately need that quarterback.

If this is the case, then the Jets are better off starting Mark Sanchez. He played in a pro-style offense at USC, so the transition to the NFL should be a little easier for him than for Stafford. Also, the Jets have a more solid team than the Lions, which takes a lot of pressure off of Sanchez.

The Brett Favre media circus has overshadowed everything else that has gone on with the Jets since Favre arrived. The defense slowly got better, the offensive line improved tremendously, and the running game started performing better than they had recently.  

This offseason, the Jets have gotten even more quality players; signing former Baltimore LB Bart Scott in free agency, and trading for ex-Eagle Lito Sheppard. They also hired defensive mastermind Rex Ryan as their new head coach to replace Eric Mangini.

True, they have a questionable receiving corps after losing Laveranues Coles to the Bengals in the offseason, but the Jets’ offensive line and running game take some of the pressure off of the passing game.

In reality, the Jets aren’t asking Mark Sanchez to come in and work wonders. They’ve become good enough that all their quarterback has to do to help them to the playoffs is avoid the costly turnovers that doomed the Jets at the end of 2008.

Though Stafford and Sanchez will often be mentioned in the same breath, their situations are not comparable to one another; which is why it makes sense for one to start, but the other to sit.

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