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School of hard knocks

Forced to learn on the run while under the gun, young quarterbacks often take their lumps


By Clay Latimer, Rocky Mountain News

September 26, 2003

When the Washington Redskins chose Heath Shuler with the third overall pick in the 1994 NFL draft, Sonny Jurgensen summarized the mood of a city smitten with prominent people.

"If Heath plays as well as he can," the Redskins Hall-of-Fame quarterback said, "he can own this town."

Instead, Shuler was run out of town three years later, one of the biggest busts in NFL history. The quarterback who was supposed to lead the Redskins to the Super Bowl ended up on his 550-acre ranch in the Great Smoky Mountains, where he trains Labrador retrievers.

Being tossed to the dogs is a routine fate for young NFL quarterbacks.

In fact, the list of first-round flops is as long as Shuler's endless rookie season: Rick Mirer, Ryan Leaf, Dan McGwire, Todd Marinovich, Jim Druckenmiller, David Klingler, Cade McNown, Akili Smith, Jeff George, Andre Ware . . .

"Some guys get shattered in training camp, let alone the regular season," Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson said.

Yet in spite of a high casualty rate, NFL teams are turning to newcomers at a rate unseen since the Class of 1983, when Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly set off a youth movement.

As that generation retired and successors failed, someone had to fill the void, which is why 11 starters were 27 or younger in 2000, compared with 13 in 2001, and 17 a year ago. That includes Detroit Lions rookie Joey Harrington, who'll lead his team against the Denver Broncos on Sunday at Invesco Field at Mile High.

"They have to play today," said former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, now a radio and television analyst.

In the old days, teams at least allowed rookies four or five years to grasp an offense. But in the era of free agency, when the future is this moment, extended apprenticeships are a nostalgic dream.

Teams demand instant production from top picks, even when it might accelerate the player's demise, which is why a quarterback's maturation is a delicate business, a balancing act that requires intuition, luck and a thick hide. A crapshoot, in other words.

"You never really find out if you can play quarterback in this league until you get beat 35-7," Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said during a recent news conference. "You've thrown four or five interceptions. Everybody knows you're the main reason why the team lost. The press is on you. The fans are on you. All the talk shows are on you. The coaching staff is looking at you sideways. Your teammates are looking at you.

"Now it's Wednesday, and you've got to be back in the huddle and show everybody you're the guy to lead the team. Until that happens, I don't think you really know what you have."

Option quarterbacks

Some quarterbacks crash and burn as starters and never recover, including Leaf, Klingler and Shuler, who completed only 45 percent of his passes in eight rookie starts.

"No rookie quarterback should play in this league," New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins said. "There were times as a rookie (with the Carolina Panthers in 1995) when I didn't want to run onto the field. Your confidence is really being tested.

"It's not fun. It's not easy. It would be nice to have the luxury to sit back and learn."

Others, most notably Peyton Manning, play and prosper immediately, in spite of some dangerous patches.

"The only way you can learn is to be there on the field and actually have the bullets coming right at you," said Houston's David Carr, a rookie starter a year ago.

Still others carry clipboards as rookies and eventually flourish, including Michael Vick, Steve McNair, Chad Pennington, Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb.

And some follow paths that defy conventional logic, including: Pittsburgh's Tommy Maddox, who flopped with the Denver Broncos in the early '90s but re-emerged with the Steelers a decade later; Kurt Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl after proving himself in the Arena League; and Miami's Jay Fiedler, one of several obscure college players who blossomed late.

Yet only one rookie in the modern era - Marino - has excelled. And since 1985, only one rookie with at least eight starts has led his team into the playoffs. That was Bernie Kosar in '85 when the Cleveland Browns won their division at 8-8.

"There's so many different ways a quarterback can progress," Harrington said during a recent news conference. "You look at guys like Peyton Manning and Michael Vick who were Pro Bowlers by their second year. Then there's Rich Gannon. The guy is 38 years old and he's just starting to round into shape.

"I'm just trying to find my own speed and my own little niche."

A new game

In the NFL, young quarterbacks are virtually guaranteed hard falls. The worst teams select the best passers in the April draft. Coaches feel pressure to rush them onto the field. As mistakes and defeats mount, unnerving criticism does as well.

Huge, quick defenders, thick playbooks, and complex tactics add to an overburdened rookie's misery.

During his rookie season in 1989, Troy Aikman wore a wristband inscribed with 12 passing and six running plays. Last year, New England's Tom Brady had three tight ends, a back and a wide receiver on the field on one play, and five wideouts on the next play.

"Everybody wonders why a quarterback can't call his own plays today," said Denver Broncos backup Steve Beuerlein. "Well, it's impossible. There are just too many changes in personnel. There are just too many things to know. It's a different ball game since I came out in '87."

In fact, pregame preparation never ends, as Klingler discovered on the eve of his first NFL start.

According to Esiason, a Bengals quarterback at the time, first-year coach David Shula hadn't accounted for the Pittsburgh Steelers' unusual 3-4 alignment in his game plan.

"If you haven't seen it before in live action, it would kind of eat you alive," Esiason said. "The blitz comes from everywhere.

"So the night before the game they talk to Klingler about it as a possible scenario. He got murdered the next day, got sacked nine times. I remember watching him walk off the field. I felt bad for him, because he was a nice kid, but I had to tell him: 'It's only going to get worse before it gets better.'

"As a rookie I was really in a great situation in Cincinnati. I had so many positive (factors). But I had no clue what I was doing. I started wondering if I even belonged in the NFL.

"We all had doubts. I know John Elway had them and Troy Aikman had them. It's human nature because you're so overwhelmed with everything."

The Baltimore Ravens selected Kyle Boller with the No. 19 overall pick in April's draft, made him the starter, and watched him crumble two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, when he completed only seven of 17 passes for 78 yards and finished with a quarterback rating of 31.0.

Just two weeks into the season, owner Art Modell was forced to come to his rookie's defense, urging fans to be patient.

"We're going to ride the kid," he said. "If we made a mistake (with Boller), it was an organizational mistake. But we have confidence in Kyle Boller."

David Carr threw a 19-yard touchdown on his first NFL pass, and led his expansion Texans to a 19-10 victory against the Dallas Cowboys. In Week 16, he was sacked for the 73rd time, breaking the NFL single-season record.

"I was trying to break some NFL records when I came into the league," he quipped.

At least Carr could chuckle, an admirable trait on a team dominated by second-tier players.

He was hardly alone. Some of the best of the current quarterbacks had miserable rookie ratings: Drew Bledsoe (65.0 with New England), Collins (61.9 with Carolina), McNabb (60.1 with Philadelphia), and Aikman (55.7 with Dallas). Indianapolis' Peyton Manning (71.2) and Cleveland's Tim Couch (73.2) had OK ratings, but their teams had a combined record of 5-27.

"(Most) quarterbacks have skills that were very well suited for the college game," former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh said. "But the pro game is much faster with much better athletes. It takes time for quarterbacks to learn the pro game. It's not just a matter of adjusting to the defenses, but also learning receivers.

"Then, there's the matter of coaching. Many times, these quarterbacks are dealing with coaches who don't understand that you have to fit your system to what your quarterback can do, rather than the other way around. These coaches eventually get fired, but by that time, the quarterback has failed.

"Finally, with the emphasis on blitzing by defenses, a quarterback has to be able to escape the pressure and throw quickly and accurately on the run. Often you have the two extremes. A quarterback may have a great arm but not be able to escape the pressure and get his pass off, or he may be able to get away from the pressure but not be able to throw accurately."

Mind games

The phone calls came in the middle of the night during his rookie season, yanking Joey Harrington out of deep sleep and his last zone of privacy.

"People got hold of my phone number and (they're) yelling, 'Hey, Joey! Let's go to the bar!' " Harrington said. "I don't like that. During the off-season, people got hold of my home address and sent me all kinds of requests. My mother read one and she said, 'Aren't you going to answer this?' And I said, 'No, this shouldn't be coming to my home.'

"And she said, 'But you should hear this, it's a nice story.' And I said, 'You don't understand. There has to be some kind of line drawn.' You get tired of having to star-67 your phone number all the time because you're afraid of someone realizing it's you. You get tired of being watched all the time. I guess learning to deal with all that is the biggest thing."

In the old days, a rookie quarterback often went unrecognized in public, which eliminated the stress of instant fame. Salaries that were modest by today's standards added to a sense of normality.

But a quarterback today is the nerve center for a metropolitan region on game day, which is why temperament is as important as talent to NFL scouts.

In his first month as a starter, Leaf had a shouting match with a writer, apologized, complained that he didn't like being booed, then apologized again, establishing a career pattern.

The following summer, he skipped a voluntary mini-camp to play in a charity golf tournament. He confronted a heckler at the Chargers training camp, then was fined $10,000 by the NFL for not wearing team-issued clothing on the sideline during a preseason game.

"Who knows how good Ryan Leaf could have been?" Beuerlein said. "He was pretty emotionally immature, and didn't know how to handle it and got worked up by little things and very distracted.

"You're living in a fishbowl, under a microscope, whatever cliché you want to use. And the pressure is tremendous. You have to be incredibly mature for your age - and incredibly secure - to deal with it.

"It's a huge adjustment to come out of college never having money, and all of a sudden . . . you're trying to get your affairs in order, but people are pulling from all directions, which makes it hard to focus on all the things you need to be focused on."

In 1990, Jeff George signed a rookie contract worth $2.2 million - a record at the time - to play in his hometown of Indianapolis. Though blessed with a remarkable arm, the Colts went 8-24 his first two seasons. George mocked a lineman, screamed at a rookie receiver and pouted when fans offered advice.

In 1992 the Colts finished 9-7, and it appeared George was on his way. But he blew it by flying home with friends after the last game instead of celebrating on the team plane. In Atlanta his acrimonious relationship with management led to a sideline temper tantrum, suspension and another bitter departure.

In 1998, Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian decided to screen all personal-appearance inquiries for Manning, and assigned an employee to deal with the rookie's autograph requests. In Houston, Texans coach Dom Capers convinced Carr to put off endorsement deals for at least a year. Carr also surrounded himself with family members.

Nothing could save Shuler, the third overall pick in 1994. A 13-day holdout hampered his development and made him a target of fan resentment after he finally signed an eight-year, $19.25 million deal.

He suffered a foot injury and went wire-to-wire in only two Washington victories. In 1997, after a mistake-filled season with the New Orleans Saints, he faded away.

Today, he runs a business in Knoxville, Tenn., and trains his retrievers in the nearby hills.

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