Quarterbacks: Start them or bench them?



Coaches and general managers across the NFL often have to deal with the age-old quandary when they draft rookie quarterbacks. There are generally two schools of thought on this topic: start them right away and let them learn on the job; or let them sit for a season or two and learn from the bench.

There are certainly merits in each philosophy. But both can be disastrous depending upon the quarterback and the supporting cast you have on the roster at the time. There are so many examples on both the pro and con sides of this issue historically that I’ll keep this to the most recent history, looking only within this decade.

I got the idea for this article when I was listening to Brian Billick talk on ESPN with Mike and Mike. Billick said he was never of a mind to sit a rookie, because he didn’t believe that a player could learn anything by being on the bench. Of course the first thing that came to my mind was the track record of ALL the quarterbacks who ever played for him and thought, “How did that work for you?” But there is merit in starting a quarterback right away. There are some players who need to just be tossed right into the fray and let free to learn the speed and intensity of the game.

I understand the Billick line of thought on this topic. It’s one thing to watch tape, read a playbook, and sit on the sideline watching things as a detached observer. It’s quite another thing to be under center, making your reads before the count and then watching as a half-dozen oversized behemoths come at you looking for blood. There are reads, checkdowns, protection packages, and so much more during the game that goes into the very complex job of being an NFL quarterback.

Peyton ManningTake Peyton Manning for example. He started the same season he was drafted and learned to run the offense on the go. Needless to say, he struggled and learned, but has had an extensive and arguably successful career. So why is it so hard to find another quarterback who has been given the keys to run the franchise from the day he hits the roster? I really had to do some searching, and came up with no other signal caller playing today who started all sixteen games his rookie year before the 2008 season. So are there more coaches who believe that their quarterback needs to earn his chops before he gets on the field? It might be so.

When you consider starting a quarterback, there are many variables to count. If you’re going to start an expansion franchise like the Texans did back in 2002, you might want to be kind and get a veteran quarterback to take the drubbing while your rookie watches and learns. This should pertain to starting all rookies though. Look at how Big Ben Roethlisberger wound up starting his auspicious career. His team had a phenomenal record when he took over and then won the Super Bowl the following year. But Roethlisberger was surrounded by some considerable talent and wasn’t called upon to be the team savior.

All too often you see quarterbacks like Carr, Harrington and Vick brought in to be the football messiah of the city. We all know how that worked out for the three of them, prison sentence and team cuts notwithstanding. Essentially my point here is that if you’re going to bring in a rookie you should surround him with talent that will be able to compensate for his lack of experience and help him progress with time. Even with ideal circumstances you know for sure that you’re in a rebuilding stage when you plug a rookie quarterback into your offense. It may turn out to be something good like we’ve seen with both Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan this year, but chances are that you will have to wait several seasons for your gamble to pay off.

Cam BreesOn the other side of the coin, are you guaranteed success if you sit a rookie? There certainly are cases of late bloomers who pop to mind such as Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, and Jay Cutler. But look at how many teams this year alone have sat their rookie quarterbacks in favor of a grizzled veteran. Out of a grand total of thirteen quarterbacks drafted only two won the starting job — and one of those, Joe Flacco, effectively won the position by default. Granted, both of those rookies have had a good rookie campaign and have shown why they were chosen in the first round. So is there something to be said for having your quarterback sit on the bench and learn the playbook and the speed of the game?

Apparently Jeff Fisher, a wiser man than I, believes this will work for the fragile ego of Vince Young. Fisher said that Young will be able to benefit from his time holding the clipboard and watching Kerry Collins win games for the team. It begs the question as to whether or not a player can be benched and come back with confidence enough to win back his job. Certainly we will also have to wait to see if Matt Leinart will ever step out of the shadow of journeyman Kurt Warner, who seems to be more tenacious than melted bubblegum on the sidewalk.

But then I’m reminded of the story of Matt Hasselbeck, who was given the reins of the Seahawks and asked to do so much for the team… so much, in fact, that coach Mike Holmgren admitted he was requiring more of Hasselbeck than he did of Favre at any time. Yet Hasselbeck spent his time holding the clipboard and bided his time until he could win back the starting spot and prove he was a bona fide quarterback. So you have to wonder if formerly heralded phenoms like Leinart and Young can do likewise, or will they be remembered as a footnote like ninety-nine percent of the quarterbacks from the class of 1999.

Here is where the discussion begins. Should you toss your rookie quarterback to the lions and see how he does learning on the go, or would you prefer to have your quarterback benched so he can see the speed and note the coverages for each package? Can there be any substitute for actually stepping onto the gridiron and getting dirty? You tell me…

by Jay Matthews

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