x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'Growing pains' hurt NFL's young quarterbacks

Several promising quarterbacks have had lacklustre seasons so far and admit it is a problem.

The younger quarterbacks like the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez were expected to move their talents to the next level this season, but it has not happened.
The younger quarterbacks like the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez were expected to move their talents to the next level this season, but it has not happened.

Mark Sanchez was expected to take the next step this year in his development as a quarterback. If he has done so, it has been a lateral move, if not backwards.

Same for Josh Freeman, Colt McCoy and Kevin Kolb. Some might have added Joe Flacco to the list before his star turn in prime time last weekend at Pittsburgh.

Halfway through the schedule, the struggles have been mighty for some of the NFL's young guns.

Their problems have been brought into focus by the successes of Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, two rookies whose performances outshine the work of those other quarterbacks.

Freeman's regression is the least explainable. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 10-6 in 2010 as Freeman emerged in his second pro season and first full year as a starter. He threw for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions, had a sterling 95.9 rating and nearly led the Bucs into the play-offs.

This year: nearly nothing.

"Obviously, he's not playing his best football," Raheem Morris, the Bucs coach, said. "But at the halfway point, he's got a chance to help his team go and win eight more games. All his guys believe in him. I know this whole organisation does. We just want him to be great, and we're going to help him get there."

Freeman appeared to be headed to stardom as a comeback king, having led the Buccaneers to come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter and overtime in eight of his 17 wins as a starter. Perhaps the Bucs have become too dependent on him producing in the clutch, but he is not living up to past achievements.

One of Freeman's best traits is how quickly he learns and how well he absorbs the lessons of a young NFL quarterback. He believes he has identified his problems and knows how to fix them.

"The turnovers the first half of the season, obviously that's something you never would have anticipated," he said of throwing 10 interceptions. "But at the same time, it's happened and we're doing things to correct it.

"Looking back earlier in the season, some of those errant throws may have been from pressing, trying to make something happen when there's nothing there."

The same issue has plagued McCoy, Sanchez and Kolb.

For Kolb, the trade to the Arizona Cardinals was going to be his ticket to stardom.

He would not be fighting with Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick for playing time, as in Philadelphia. He had a coach, Ken Whisenhunt, with a good feel for developing quarterbacks. He had a lucrative new contract. He had the elite receiver Larry Fitzgerald to throw to.

Arizona are 2-6 and broke a five-game slide while Kolb was sidelined by a turf toe.

Even when healthy, he has not looked like a franchise quarterback, and his switch to the Cardinals' style of offence, in an off-season truncated by a lockout, has been difficult.

"I'm not going to lie. It's a tough deal," he said, "especially after getting trained a certain way for four years. I wish I had the off-season and I didn't."

No one did, yet other young quarterbacks, such as San Francisco's Alex Smith, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick have shown clear progress.

As for Sanchez, few if any quarterbacks in the league are required to be game managers more than the third-year pro out of Southern California. When he makes critical errors, such as in a rout at Baltimore last month, it severely sets back the Jets, a team built to win with the running game, defence and special teams.

Sanchez has the weapons at his disposal to make the passing game more effective, even dynamic. Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Dustin Keller represent a first-rate receiver corps.

"We do have some targets," conceded Rex Ryan, the coach. "We have some weapons. … But I also like our ability to run the football."

Running the ball means the Jets do not have to depend on Sanchez to produce as a passer.

To his credit, Sanchez has gone from mediocre regular seasons in his first two years as a pro to a 4-2 play-offs record, all in road games.

Still, it is easy to understand why Jets fans are nervous when the spotlight is on Sanchez.

Like Freeman, he recognises his shortcomings.

"You can't give away some cheap ones, and really, you look at the seven interceptions, I think that's what the number is, and there are some dumb ones," Sanchez said. "So, we get rid of those and we're really playing well."

No one is playing particularly well in Cleveland. McCoy clearly has regressed, but he also is working under a new coaching staff with a young and battered team. The Browns cannot protect him when he is in the pocket, and he has made some bad decisions.

"Sometimes," McCoy said, "growing pains aren't that fun."