If you’re a fan of a perennially rebuilding NFL team, there is no better time than early May.
Rookie camps are to some fan bases what Super Bowls are to others – at least depending on the specific franchise’s misery index ranking. In the respective cases of the Colts, Redskins and Browns, there is a considerable reason why fan interest has soared in recent days.
Most reports from rookie camp focus primarily on the positives of a newly drafted player. The practices themselves – shrunken thanks to the league’s new collective bargaining agreement – offer only glimpses of players framed in a gym class environment. As such, every rookie quarterback appears confident, strong-armed and capable of becoming the proverbial face of the franchise.
Of course, veteran fans of such teams – those who draft the likes of JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen know better. At the least, early May offers a sort of temporal sense of halcyon days that could be. At this moment, Andrew Luck is still light years ahead compared to a typical rookie swimming in a thousand-page playbook, RG3 is freakishly fast against fifth-string talent and Brandon Weeden’s still fresh arm can accommodate “cannon” descriptors.
However, the volume of hope attached to each team’s new crop of rookies far outweighs the reality of struggles that will soon ensue. For each of April’s first-round quarterbacks – Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Weeden – will likely begin the 2012 season as starters. Others – such as Brock Osweiler, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and even Nick Foles and Ryan Lindley – could only be a snap away from seeing real action.
Yet, the recent league trend has seen practically all rookie quarterbacks at least become capable starters, while a few have achieved tremendous success. All four of 2011’s first round quarterbacks – Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbard and Christian Ponder – saw action, while second-round pick Andy Dalton and fifth-rounder T.J. Yates faced off in a January playoff game. Previous years saw rookies Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco become both entrenched NFL starting quarterbacks and faces of their respective franchises.
It’s obvious that the days of rookie quarterbacks “sitting and learning” have expired. With the intense pressure exerted on both coaching staffs and front offices, rookie quarterbacks now enter the league armed with instant expectations. And while there is no sure individual formula for rookie success, at least there are some team criteria which help to lessen the burden.
1. Run the Ball
Speedy wide receivers and flashy offensive designs are great, but a rookie quarterback’s best friend is a capable running game. Both Ryan and Flacco broke the taboo of a rookie quarterback being able to achieve success thanks to their team’s respective rushing attacks. (Or, if you wanted to go back to 2004, Ben Roethlisberger proved to be the ultimate example.)
Ryan was backed by the Falcons generating over 2,400 rushing yards – with Michael Turner gaining just under 1,700. Flacco’s Ravens put up similar numbers, with the trio of Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice combining for 2,207 yards. Similarly, Sanchez’s 2009 rookie season – in which he threw 12 touchdowns against 20 interceptions – featured a Jets’ rushing attack that combined for over 2,220 yards.
The trend continues with Bradford and veteran Stephen Jackson in 2010, Dalton’s Bengals in 2011 who totaled 1,778 rushing yards and Newton’s Panthers, who compiled 2,408 (706 coming from Newton himself.) While both Ponder and Gabbard could rely on strong rushing attacks (2,318 and 1,970 yards), other internal weaknesses plagued each starter. Finally, in 2009, Stafford and Freeman led offenses that didn’t feature a 1,000 yard rusher. Perhaps coincidentally, the Lions and Bucs combined for 5 total wins – although each team was undergoing a major rebuilding project.
Of this year’s likely rookie starters (Luck, RG3, Tannehill and Weeden), none will have the benefit of an already strong rushing attack. None of the four teams that will likely start a rookie QB in 2012 managed more than 2,000 total rushing yards in 2011 and both Indianapolis (1,594) and Cleveland (1,531) were among the league’s worst units. However, the Browns at least feature what should be an upgrade in Alabama’s Trent Richardson. The other teams’ top 2011 rushers (Donald Brown, Reggie Bush and Roy Helu) may not offer much in the way of support.
2. I Thee Wed
How else can you characterize the relationship between coach and rookie quarterback? In most respects, a new coach is “married” to his rookie quarterback – at least in the sense that future success or failure will be exclusively tied to this relationship. Perhaps no better evidence can be found than in again looking at the same ten quarterbacks over the past few years. For the most part, the quarterbacks who played for stable head coaches achieved more success than those who were in more transient situations.
Both Ryan and Flacco were the centerpieces of Mike Smith and John Harbaugh’s first seasons as head coaches. Each team went to the playoffs – similar to Sanchez’s 2009 Jets (Rex Ryan). All three coaches enjoyed the support – and relative flexibility – of being first-time leaders. In 2011, Dalton’s Bengals were under the helm of veteran coach Marvin Lewis – who had signed a contract extension prior to the start of the season. Newton’s Panthers – led by first-year coach Ron Rivera – enjoyed a similar comfort despite the team’s 6-10 finish. A case could even be made for Bradford in 2010 under Steve Spagnuolo, who at the time was still basking in a relative honeymoon period.
Of the other quarterbacks on the list, Stafford and Campbell were part of rookie coaching staffs that had assumed huge renovation projects. Perhaps the same could be said for Ponder and Vikings’ coach Leslie Frazier and not for Gabbard and the recently deposed Jack Del Rio. Clearly, there is something to be said for both organizational and coaching stability. In 2012, both the Colts (Chuck Pagano) and Dolphins (Joe Philbin) feature new head coaches, while the Browns’ Pat Shurmur and Redskins’ Mike Shanahan return for their second seasons.
3. Keep It Simple
While both the Falcons and Ravens’ coaching staffs strictly adhered to this concept in 2008 with Ryan and Flacco, last season saw a revolutionary leap in how to acclimate a rookie quarterback to the NFL. The Bengals’ coaching staff offered Dalton a skeleton offense after the lockout ended last August, before gradually opening up the playbook as the season progressed. The results were impressive as Dalton never appeared rattled throughout his rookie campaign.
In Carolina, a similar approach was used with Newton, a player who basically ran a high school offense at Auburn. The Panthers’ offense – already a vertical attack helmed by Rob Chudzinski – started simple and finished in a similar manner. Newton only had to make a few reads and was able to rely on both his strong arm and athletic feet to feel out big plays. The results were some 5,000 combined yards of offense and 35 total touchdowns and not a confused and frustrated rookie quarterback.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but both Dalton and Newton play for defensive-minded head coaches – similar to Ryan and Flacco in 2008, Sanchez in 2009 and Bradford in 2010. In 2012, only Luck benefits from this – what could be a complete anomaly – although he will soon run veteran coordinator Bruce Arians’ offense. Griffin, Tannehill and Weeden not only inherit offensive-minded head coaches, but also head coaches who like to call their own plays.
Maybe this is another reason why hope tends to peak in May.