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NFL Football Week 18 – The Golden Age of Passing

January 2, 2008 by  

NFL; In the new millennium the quarterback position has become the most coveted of all destinations in pro football. Where the focus of the game once lay squarely on a teams ability to run the football today’s fans are enthralled by the pass instead. Surrounded by bruising offensive linemen and protected in a soft cottony web of regulations and penalties designed to keep them safe and sound, the new generation of quarterbacks are truly an elite breed. The exalted Heisman trophy, once the domain of fullbacks and halfbacks, and the literal embodiment of which has been a trophy of a stiff armed runner, has been given to an NCAA passer in seven of the last eight years.

So one has to wonder why these golden boys aren’t doing miraculous things once they graduate from school and start getting a paycheck for their work. Like head coaches who were worshiped when they led college football teams to astounding records and bowl game victories but who withered when exposed to the realities of professional sports, the rookies playing quarterback in pro football typically don’t have a great deal of success. And among pundits of the NFL a popular topic of discussion has always been; when is the right time to play a highly drafted rookie quarterback?

“The best position for a rookie quarterback is ‘clipboard’ ” according to Steve Mariucci, former NFL head coach and himself a three time All-American quarterback at Northwest Michigan. “The only quarterback I can think of who came in and starred as a rookie was Dan Marino,” Mariucci said. “Everybody else needs time to learn. A rookie quarterback comes in and sees things he’s never seen before, and it takes him time to adjust. In the meantime, he’s getting knocked around. He’s always been the star, but now he’s being humbled. Sometimes, these quarterbacks get to thinking they’re just no good, and they never really recover.”

One of the most important things to remember when considering the situation that pro football rookies face is that the NFL is an organization that is dedicated to a concept called parity. This roughly stipulates that no one team is allowed to be too strong or dominant on a consistent basis. Towards that end, weaker teams which have had very poor records are the ones who get first choice among the new crop of college graduates.

The NFL rules notwithstanding, star quarterbacks are often seen as the shining hope for teams that have fared particularly poorly with the result being that extremely talented college quarterbacks many times go to play for NFL teams that are just plain bad, particularly on the offensive line which is the group that’s charged with protecting the quarterback. Sometimes a few talented players are drafted alongside the quarterback and the team improves, but more often than not the team remains poor and the rookie passer just gets beaten up.

Dan Marino, famed Dolphins QB certainly achieved success as an NFL quarterback almost immediately upon joining the league, garnering a rookie record 96.0 rating even though he only played in 11 games, 9 of which he started. But Marino was brought onto a Miami team that was pretty solid already, having just gone to the Super Bowl the previous year.

Marino, who’s passing numbers had been relatively disappointing in his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh was the 27th pick of the draft and thus was obviously not seen as the saving grace for any of the perennial losers in the league. Had anyone known at that time that Marino had the potential to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history his future would probably have turned out much differently.

Peyton Manning, the first player drafted into the pros in 1998 was thrust into the limelight by the Colts right away. Unlike Marino who didn’t start until Week 6 of the 1983 season, Manning was the Indy’s starter from day one. He struggled at first, throwing three touchdowns and eleven interceptions in his first four games and ranking extremely low compared to other quarterbacks in the AFC.

Peyton eventually started throwing more TD’s and lessening the number of pickoffs although he wound up the season with about the same number of each. The Colts finished 3-13 that year, but Manning, a mature competitor with the ability to grasp the complicated offensive schemes run by todays NFL teams rebounded to lead Indianapolis to a 13-3 season the following year. Remember also that he is the son of two time pro-bowl quarterback Archie Manning, who was able to give Peyton a lot of advice on making the transition from collegiate to professional football.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is an example of a rookie quarterback who’s entry into the game was handled properly. A Heisman Trophy winner and the very first player picked in the entire 2003 NFL draft, Palmer did not take a single snap in his first year in the pro’s. Instead, he stayed on the sidelines and was mentored by quarterback John Kitna who is now starting for the Detroit Lions. Kitna led the Bengals to an 8-8 season that year, but was probably resigned to the fact that Palmer would be taking the reins very shortly.

By January of 2004, Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis had named Palmer as his starter. In only his second year as a first stringer Palmer was named to the pro bowl, and before he suffered a low blow to his knee, a type of tackle that is now illegal in the NFL, the Bengals had every expectation that Palmer would lead them past the Steelers in the AFC championship game and on to victory against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. And they were probably right.

Although quarterbacks like Marino and Manning have started as rookies and survived the plunge their stories are the exception rather than the rule. The defensive alignments in pro football, the complex play calling, the requirement for a quarterback to “read” the defense and make the appropriate adjustments and for him to be on the same page with his receivers and backs who are making the same decisions all within a 10 second time frame – all these combine to form a formidable barrier to successful decision making by a newcomer.

There are literally dozens of young inexperienced players who will get trampled in their first outing as a starting NFL quarterback assuming they even make it that far. For every ten quarterbacks who actually get signed to a contract in the league maybe one will ever become anything more than an occasional starter. Given those kinds of odds, one has to believe that Steve Mariucci may have gotten it right. Just give the kid a clipboard.

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