There is no steeper learning curve for a position in sports than at quarterback.
For years, teams were loathe to deploy a rookie regularly for fear that any struggles might leave long-term scars. He might get so twisted with confusion or shell-shocked by repeated hits that it was preferable to let him bide his time on the sideline for a season or two.
That theory is obsolete. Quarterbacks-in-the-making today start throwing a few years out of the crib, learn to read defences soon after they learn to read books and are fast-tracked toward the NFL through opportunities such as passing-only summer leagues for teenagers.
So it comes as little surprise that the two quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds will hold a game ball instead of a clipboard this weekend.
EJ Manuel starts for Buffalo Bills against New England Patriots and Geno Smith for New York Jets versus Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Manuel gets the call despite an injury, Smith in part because of one. The Bills rookie underwent minor knee surgery only three weeks ago, while the Jets first-year player won a competition with Mark Sanchez by default when the veteran hurt his shoulder.
The upside for Manuel is better. He blends into a decent offence, and his skill set – large and athletic, with a howitzer arm – fits the current job description.
Smith, though tall, is less of a threat to run and embeds into a feeble offence. Both quarterbacks are exuding confidence, though. "I definitely feel ready," Manuel said. "My mind feels good."
"I'm ready," Smith said. "I don't think I've been rushed. They wouldn't put me out there if they didn't think I was ready."
Rookies pressed into action on opening weekend usually lose – understandable, given that most start as a result of an unsettled signal-caller situation. The 12 previous quarterbacks are 4-8 dating to 2000. Five of them threw at least three interceptions. Brandon Weedon of Cleveland Browns was a horrid 12 for 35 with four picks, Matthew Stafford 17 for 37.
Some coaches protect their precious commodities with conservative game plans. Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan launched only 13 passes, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton 15, both in winning efforts.
But the St Louis Rams' Sam Bradford amassed 55 throws and Carolina Panthers' Cameron Newton 37 (for 422 yards). And Dallas tried caution with Quincy Carter in 2001. The rookie who never panned out scrounged out 34 yards on nine completions, along with two interceptions, in a 10-6 defeat.
At least publicly, the new kids' optimism is shared by their coaches.
"I'd be lying if I'm standing here saying I don't expect him to do great things," Doug Marrone said of Manuel.
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