Roethlisberger may be responsible for rookie QB trend


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Even though he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft, Troy Aikman never dreamed his first season with the Dallas Cowboys would unfold as it did.

Sure, he would become the first rookie to start at quarterback for the Cowboys since Roger Staubach in 1969. And, yes, he threw for a rookie-record 379 yards in a game against the Phoenix Cardinals.

Aikman, though, lost his first 11 games and the Cowboys finished 1-15. It was a rude welcome to the NFL for a player who won the Davey O'Brien Award as the nation's top collegiate quarterback a year earlier.

"I think back to when I came in 1989, the only quarterback who had success as a rookie was Dan Marino, and part of that was he had gone to a team that had Super Bowl experience," Aikman said. "Over the years, it was pretty difficult to come in and play and do anything. I certainly struggled and so did a lot of guys."


Today
  • Game: Steelers vs. Jaguars at Heinz Field.
  • When: 1 p.m.
  • TV: KDKA.

Not anymore.

Rookie quarterbacks are being thrown to the NFL wolves these days, rarely getting more than a year to be an understudy and learn the game from the sidelines, the old-school way. Today, fresh of out colleges where they operated in pro-style or spread offenses, they have a better understanding of reading coverages and what it takes to be successful in the NFL.

Three rookie quarterbacks already are starting this season, and one of them -- Blaine Gabbert -- will lead the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4) into the 1 p.m. game today against the Steelers (3-2) at Heinz Field. Gabbert has not enjoyed the same measure of success as the other rookie starters: Carolina's Cam Newton, who already has back-to-back 400-yard games; and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, who is 3-2 and has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,047 yards and six touchdowns.

In a league where elite quarterbacks are nearly mandatory to win a Super Bowl, teams are trying to unearth them as fast as they can. And, in many instances, it's working -- even in a year when a lockout was supposed to hinder the development of young players, especially quarterbacks.

"First of all, these quarterbacks have a lot more throws under their belt before they get to the NFL, even if they come out as juniors," said Aikman, an analyst for Fox Sports who went on to win three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span for the Cowboys. "They certainly have more throws than I did and guys of my era.

"But, also, so many of these coaches in college have spent time as head coaches or assistant coaches in the NFL. I think of Pete Carroll, Les Miles, Nick Saban, Charlie Weis, there are tons of examples. These guys ran NFL-style offenses and defenses. Even the way they practiced really started to resemble the way things were done [in the NFL]. And I think the quarterbacks come into the league far more prepared than before."

Just look at what has happened the past four years:

In 2008, Joe Flacco opened the season as the starter in Baltimore and became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two playoff games in the same season. That same year, Matt Ryan and first-year coach Mike Smith became the first rookie quarterback-rookie coach tandem to make the playoffs.

Mark Sanchez started for the New York Jets in 2009 and led them to the AFC championship game before losing to the New England Patriots. He followed that by taking the Jets back to the conference championship last season, where they lost to the Steelers. Josh Freeman, the 17th overall pick, was inserted as the starter after seven games in Tampa Bay, replacing Byron Leftwich. In 31 games, he has thrown for 6,462 yards and 38 touchdowns and compiled a 16-14 record as a starter.

In 2010, Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, was one of four rookies to start at quarterback, joining Cleveland's Colt McCoy, Carolina's Jimmy Clausen and Denver's Tim Tebow. Bradford was the NFL's rookie of the year and led the Rams to the cusp of the playoffs before losing in the final game of the season in Seattle.

All of this has caused ESPN's Ron Jaworski, a former second-round draft choice who was known as the "Polish Rifle" when he came out of Youngstown State in 1973, to change his mind about how a rookie quarterback should be handled in the NFL.

"You're seeing younger guys perform at a high level, and it's been pretty impressive to me," said Jaworski, who sat for two full seasons behind John Hadl and James Harris with the Los Angeles Rams before he got a chance to become a starter. "I always thought a quarterback came in and learned behind a wily old veteran. But now I'm seeing them come in and perform at a very high level and I've been re-thinking the whole thing."

There is only one person to blame:

Ben Roethlisberger.

A ready rookie

In 2004, after being selected with the 11th overall pick by the Steelers, Roethlisberger was forced into the starting lineup in Week 3 after an injury to Tommy Maddox in Baltimore. All he did was become the first quarterback in NFL history to go 13-0 in the regular season and lead the Steelers to the AFC championship game.

One year later, he won his first Super Bowl.

Curiously, Roethlisberger was considered the quarterback who was least ready to play immediately in the NFL because he came out after his junior season at Miami of Ohio. The two quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, Eli Manning (No. 1 overall) and Philip Rivers (No. 4), were thought to be more NFL-ready.

Since then, teams have not been afraid to try a rookie at quarterback, never knowing when one might perform like Roethlisberger.

"I would definitely agree with that," Jaworski said. "It was not only Ben, but the way it was handled with Ben. He was kind of on a pitch count where he would throw 20 to 22 times a game and they would run the ball and play defense. They didn't ask Ben to throw it 40 to 45 times a game, where you're going to get embarrassed sooner or later."

That does not mean quarterbacks can't be successful being nurtured and tutored for several years before becoming a starter.

The most classic example of a quarterback who flourished after sitting and learning behind a veteran is Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who was Brett Favre's backup for three years before coming the starter in 2008. Since the middle of the '09 season, Rodgers has compiled a 25-8 record in his past 33 games, including postseason, and has won a Super Bowl. This year, he is the NFL's passing leader with a 71.7 completion percentage and a 122.9 rating.

Former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair is another. He did not become a permanent starter until his third season, playing behind Chris Chandler when the franchise was in Houston. But he went on to throw for more than 30,000 yards and 174 touchdowns in a 13-year career that included a co-MVP Award in 2003.

"I think teams think we might as well try, if that kid can do it, why not give it a shot," Roethlisberger said, referring to his 2004 season and what effect it might have had on decisions to play other rookie quarterbacks. "The tough part is, if a quarterback has success early, people are quick to say how good you can be. It happened with me, too.

"Of course they're going to have greater success the first time around because teams haven't see you. That's why you see a dropoff the second or third time around because defenses are good and they start game-planning. People are very quick to jump on a rookie quarterback's bandwagon early. Usually, you want to wait a year or two. They got my number the second and third year."

Other successful rookies

Roethlisberger is not the only Steelers quarterback who started as a rookie and had success.

Leftwich was the seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft by Jacksonville when he replaced veteran Mark Brunell as the starter in the fifth game. After an 0-4 start, the Jaguars went 5-7 the rest of the way with Leftwich, whose passer rating of 73.0 that season was the fourth-highest of 37 quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round since 1983.

"When I first got into the league, the philosophy was changing then," said Leftwich, who led the Jaguars to records of 9-7 his second season and 12-4 in 2005. "You'd rather play guys right out of the gate. I was one of the guys who believed the quicker I'm in there, the better I get because I can see it. I don't believe in sitting there waiting in the wings and watching from tape. I'm a guy who always learned by doing."

Charlie Batch is another. He was a second-round draft choice from Eastern Michigan when the Detroit Lions inserted him as the starter in Week 3, replacing veteran Scott Mitchell. Batch started the next 12 games and went 5-7. The following year, he started 6-2 before he missed five games because of a fractured knuckle on his throwing hand.

"I wanted to be thrown into the fire and learn under pressure," Batch said. "The majority of quarterbacks are thrown into fire. But, when you look at Carson Palmer and Daunte Culpepper and Aaron Rodgers, those teams that drafted those quarterbacks say, hey, we don't need you this year. We look at you as the quarterback of the future."

But, in many instances, the future has been accelerated. That is why the three rookie quarterbacks already starting in the NFL may soon be joined by two other first-round picks -- Jake Locker of the Titans and Christian Ponder of the Minnesota Vikings.

That this is happening in a lockout year might be surprising, although Aikman said the lack of offseason training has forced offensive coordinators to pare their playbook drastically for rookie quarterbacks. Nonetheless, it further underscores how ready they are to succeed in the NFL.

"If you go to a high school game, you might see them throw it 40 times; only a few years ago, they might throw it four," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "Almost every college I see, they don't even huddle now. They have four or five receivers and they're spread all over and they're throwing the ball.

"These quarterbacks are coming up in a pro offense and a throwing-style offense and they're orientated to reading hot reads and coverages. And it makes the transition, I'm not going to say it's easy, but it makes it quicker for them, no question about that."


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac . First Published October 16, 2011 4:00 AM


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