x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The demand for five star performances

As a quintet of rookie starting quarterbacks take to the stage this opening weekend of the NFL season, Mike Tierney, looks at the expectations on their shoulders.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.

It is the most daunting position in team sports.

The job duties begin with launching bull's-eye passes while super-sized defenders are trying to put you in an ambulance. They end with doubling as a coach on the field: calling plays, inspiring teammates, confusing opponents. There is much in between.

For generations, most quarterbacks newly arrived in the National Football League with lofty pedigrees would serve an apprenticeship; they would absorb the playbook, gain the confidence of coaches and earn the trust of their teammates before taking the reins.

"It's a tough position to play, and it's really hard to find good players," Dan Marino said this week. "There's always pressure at that position."

Marino was part of the memorable quarterback Class of 1983, Six QBs were taken in the first round of the college draft that year, and three (John Elway, Jim Kelly, Marino) are in the Hall of Fame. The other three (Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien, Todd Blackledge) carved out creditable careers.

Yet, for their first professional games, only Elway was entrusted with a start. Marino had to wait until the sixth week.

Marino remembered his coach, Don Shula, telling him: "I want you to come in here and work as if you're going to be the starting quarterback. He said, 'Now, that could be Week 1. It could be Week 10. It could be maybe next year.'" How times have changed. Five first-year quarterbacks will start on opening weekend, three more than in any previous season since the NFL merged with the old American Football League 42 years ago. Until now, only 30 rookies over that period heard their names called in Game 1.

Four quarterbacks were selected in the first round of this year's draft, which nowadays stamps them as potential starters right away. Indeed, each will be in the huddle this weekend. Some of them were declared the starter before the ink was dry on their contracts.

Congratulations and condolences, Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts), Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins), Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins) and Brandon Weeden (Cleveland Browns).

The roll call of instant starters does not end there. Russell Wilson, plucked in the middle of the third round by Seattle Seahawks, will take the initial snap.

Marino might advise them to avoid teammates prior to kick-off. He recalled that a Dolphins player approached after the national anthem was played and said: "I don't want you to feel any pressure. But if you play bad, we're going to lose."

These rookies rarely swallowed defeat in their college days. Now all are on subpar teams, projected to finish with losing records, so they should brace themselves for an occasional, if not constant, beating.

Of all the potholes, the deepest to dodge is growing discouraged over the unfamiliar experience of losing.

Twenty years ago, David Klingler was drafted sixth overall by Cincinnati Bengals and became a starter in his first season. Graduating out of a pass-first college offence, the tall, rifle-armed Klingler seemed ideally suited to the NFL.

Playing behind a porous line and on a shaky team, Klingler sprung a confidence leak and was unloaded by the Bengals after three seasons.

Klingler is long gone, but not forgotten. In 2010, the former Bengals lineman Joe Walter said in a radio interview about the Cincinnati quarterback then: "He's to the point where he's shell-shocked. I'm kind of calling it the David Klingler … fiasco. If you remember, Klingler was always getting hit. I think he's back there fending for his life, and he's scared he's going to get pummelled every time he lets go of the ball."

Other rookies on dreadful teams have suffered a similar fate, notably Tim Couch, the first pick in 1999 who was a bust with the Browns. He never played for another team after they parted ways following five unfruitful seasons.

That is the danger of tossing a draft pick without a flame-retardant outfit into the fire.

Increasingly, though, quarterbacks are better prepared for immediate duty.

Coaching, especially of the passing game, has become more sophisticated down to the schoolboy level. Teens have access to private tutors and attend quarterback camps. Summers are spent in seven-on-seven leagues, a non-contact, pass-only format.

The best of the bunch are polished by the time they show up on university campuses. Many college teams were way ahead of the NFL when the pros' pendulum swung from emphasis on the ground game to the aerial style. The transition, though never seamless for new pros, grew progressively smoother.

In addition to the five rookies, five second-year guys have gotten the nod this weekend over more seasoned candidates: Andy Dalton (Bengals), Blaine Gabbart (Jacksonville Jaguars), Jake Locker (Tennessee Titans), Cameron Newton (Carolina Panthers) and Christian Ponder (Minnesota Vikings).

Newton broke in successfully last season, earning Rookie of the Year honours, as did Sam Bradford (St Louis Rams) in 2010 and Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons) in 2008. Ryan did not advance his team to the Super Bowl, but fellow rookie Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens) did.

In between Ryan/Flacco and Bradford, Mark Sanchez paced the New York Jets to the AFC championship game, becoming only the second rookie to win twice in his welcome to the post-season.

As recently as 2004, incoming blue-chippers were expected to wait their turn. Eli Manning (New York Giants), Phillip Rivers (San Diego Chargers) and Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers) might have been worthy, but each viewed his first regular season game from the sideline.

Peyton Manning, who survived a rough initiation in 1998 with the Colts to become a prototype quarterback for the modern game, dismisses the need for waiting.

"The best way to learn is to play," said Manning, who has resurfaced with Denver Broncos. "I think the sooner you do it, the better off you're going to be in the long run."

Two factors driving the career acceleration of young quarterbacks: money and impatience.

With player salaries in a bygone era minuscule compared to today's, owners were content to wait. Young quarterbacks were given time to develop in practices and meetings, often under the tutelage of veterans.

Marino's first-year salary was US$150,000 (Dh551,000). For Luck, that figure represents a few days' pay; he will collect $18 million. Colts owner Jim Irsay, much like his peers, is hardly inclined to compensate a back-up so richly.

Besides the Rolexes on their wrists and the Lamborghinis in their garages, owners are little different from fans in that they seek instant gratification from wins. Today, not tomorrow. Now, not next season.

Even if a team's administrators preach patience, urging the boss not to rush a rookie, the clamour from ticket-buyers to see the star-in-waiting - now - is difficult to ignore.

Coaches might go against their better judgement and go with the fresher face. A prized draft pick in action brings hope to a fan base and buys the coaches, who are rarely afforded patience themselves, more time to succeed.

Still, coaches can better justify the youth movement. First-time starters have delivered four teams to the play-offs in as many years.

"They're ready," the former quarterback Phil Simms told the Miami Herald. "They come in and they're just not intimidated."

It is no shock that Luck and Griffin climbed promptly to the top of the depth chart. On draft day, Locker and Weeden were not expected to ascend so rapidly, but their starting roles seemed inevitable early in training camp.

The unforeseen one is Wilson, given his third-round draft status and the Seahawks signing Matt Flynn to a substantial contract. Wilson is short for a quarterback, but he excelled in preseason. The job was not handed to him; he earned it.

"Was I surprised? I was more excited about the opportunity," he said. "I believe that I can help this team win and do a lot of great things."

Ah, those cocky, innocent kids. Are they not aware that quarterback is the most challenging position in team sports?