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The NFL's Quarterback Problem

Will Robinson |
December 1, 2011 | 8:51 p.m. PST

Staff Writers

Flacco has exceeded what most young QBs, even good ones, can hope to accomplish early on. (Wikimedia Commons)
Flacco has exceeded what most young QBs, even good ones, can hope to accomplish early on. (Wikimedia Commons)
It happens every year like clockwork.

Every season, when rookie quarterbacks take over starting jobs, critics openly ask, “Will he be the next Matt Ryan? Will he be the next Joe Flacco?”

Ryan and Flacco, of course, bucked the rare trend that a rookie signal caller could come in the league and make an immediate impact. Each team made the postseason with their new quarterbacks in surprising, turn-around seasons for the clubs.

Hearing “quarterback is the single most important position in football and perhaps any sport” one million times makes the phrase grow weary and lose its shine. But there is some truth to it.

It is the most critiqued, over-analyzed position in American sports, particularly when it comes to young, developing quarterbacks.

Whether it is warranted or not, now, it happens almost immediately when a guy steps in to take the reins of a franchise.

To an extent, it makes sense; the quarterback is the most visible player of any team. And yet, it can set up unfair expectations on either side of the spectrum, expecting too much or too little.

Take this year’s crop of new starting quarterbacks.

Andy “Shawshank” Dalton has been the successful of this season’s crop of rookie quarterbacks, with some already deeming him the best quarterback of his class through 11 games.

Really? Eleven games don’t seem like much to make a definitive opinion on quarterback. If that were the case, seeing Vince Young’s production in his rookie year would have valued him over Jay Cutler (concession: Young did start more games and cultivated an inaccurate image, after winning Rookie of the Year, that he could be a legit NFL starter).

The Bengals aren’t 7-4 because Dalton has been lights out and won many games for them. Their defense has been very good, and don’t think he doesn’t thank the gingery-football gods every night that Cincy picked A.J. Green to catch his passes.

Dalton (left, at TCU) hasn’t egregiously erred, and that is why Cincinnati sits one game back from first place in the AFC North.

There’s a cause-and-effect discrepancy when young quarterbacks are in the mix in the league. Teams are not necessarily winning because of a new quarterback (see: Tebow, Tim), but because of the other facets of the team playing very well (see: Denver’s defense and special teams. Also, another tangential cause-and-effect misconception: teams don’t need to establish the run. Teams run the ball when they are winning, not winning because they run the ball. But that’s a 10,000-word story waiting to happen).

While the orange and black featuring the former Horned Frog have been a success, another rookie has not endured the same sunshiny days: Mr. Blaine Gabbert.

was rated by most as the top quarterbacking prospect of the 2011 draft, rated ahead of eventual number one pick Cam Newton.

But so far? Gabbert (below right) has produced subpar numbers – six touchdowns and picks apiece – culminating in his being benched last Sunday after a gaudily atrocious 13 for 29 passing, 136 yards and an interception.

At least 87 percent of Jags fans (you know, the percentage of the stadium seats that aren’t covered up by a tarp) had to cringe and cry in disgust as the apparent “quarterback of the future” struggled.

Here’s the point: it is far too early to sound the alarm and pray for a quarterback to be selected early next April.

More so than other positions, quarterbacks can take a long time to develop. A poor rookie campaign should not fully disenchant a fan base, nor should an impeccable one delude them to instantly believe the savior hath been found.

Pump the breaks, everyone. Please.

Don’t set Dan Marino’s second season as your expectation. To put it lightly, that’s lofty.

It would be idiotic to think Gabbert is trailblazing and tearing the AFC South a new one. Obviously, he’s not.

But the sudden rush to conclusions (notably, the great Bill Simmons) about his ability and future borders on irresponsible.

The same is true with Colt McCoy. Last season, he was praised coming in as a rookie and  performed admirably, although his final stats immensely differed from his Texas ones.

This year, he has improved in some categories (yards per game, percentage of passes intercepted, TD to INT ratio) and dropped in some (completion percentage, yards per attempt).

In his second year, with a new offensive coordinator/head coach, and no lengthy offseason to prepare? A bumpy road was to be expected, like Gabbert.

Josh Freeman, anyone? After a spectacular second season, Freeman has fallen from elite, young, quarterbacking grace, hard and fast.

Dalton’s offense is anything but a far cry from what he did at TCU (pictured right). Newton has not learned all of the Panthers’ playbook, as the coaching staff kept it simple with no OTAs.

Of the young quarterbacking bunch, Mark Sanchez is the one who is killed most often.

There is no doubt Sanchez (left) is wildly frustrating to watch. His play can be less predictable and frightening than playing Russian roulette.

One week, he completes fewer than 32% of his passes. The next, he has his best statistical outing of the year.

Being drafted fifth overall to a New York team and being dubbed “The Sanchize” may have created higher expectations than needed. But with the lockout, the Jets should make a decision on Sanchez after next season, not this one.

In 2004, the San Diego Chargers thought their quarterback, Drew Brees, had no potential as a franchise cornerstone. They drafted Eli Manning, and since he didn’t want to go there, they traded him for Philip Rivers.

In case you missed it: Brees lifted the Lombardi Trophy two Februarys ago. San Diego is still trying to win one with the man who conducted the draft-day trade and selection, the Lord of No Rings.

Jumping the gun on quarterbacks can be a dangerous proposition. Unless they produce on a JaMarcus or Leaf level, then one cannot definitively say “Quarterback A is the next Manning!” Or for that matter, “Quarterback Z is busting harder than Ryan Leaf.”

With Flacco and Ryan, the Ravens and Falcons, respectively, more or less know what they have. Improvement and the oft-discussed “leap” could happen, but that happens when a quarterback is already a known commodity.

Sanchez is not. Gabbert is not. Dalton is not. Newton, McCoy, Tebow… you get the picture.

Development could pick up, or slow, for any of them.

One of the sadder stories in the league has been Jason Campbell being thrown around to new offenses each season.

Campbell (right) never benefitted from growing in a functional organization with one head coach, one offensive coordinator, and maybe most importantly, one offensive scheme to learn.

His growth as a quarterback was stunted because every year he was forced to switch his style up.

And who knows? Obviously, Dalton has produced some this season, but if offensive coordinator Jay Gruden left, and Cincy hired a new OC with a different system, Dalton could be completely screwed.

Too much over analysis is brought too often for players from people following the NFL week-to-week.

Less micro, more macro thought is the way to go.

Teams don’t want to miss the next Drew Brees, so they will be wary and careful with their quarterback evaluations.

And if Gabbert is top-notch next season, and people say, “he came out of nowhere!” it will be extremely maddening when pundits praise him, while forgetting his rocky rookie season and the condemnations that went with it.

Just like clockwork.


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