Gabbert vs. Newton shows the thinking on young QBs has changed
Teams are bucking tradition of sitting young QBs while they learn the system
Simplifying the playbook for after the lockout has made a huge difference
Spread offenses in college no longer seen as a hindrance by NFL coaches
When Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio on Wednesday surprised absolutely no one and named Blaine Gabbert his new starting quarterback for this week's game at Carolina, it was an announcement that doubled as a fait accompli.
Of course Gabbert will start. That's what highly drafted rookie quarterbacks do in today's NFL. They start, most of them from the very beginning, or darn close to it, as in the case of Gabbert's Week 3 ascension to the top rung of the Jaguars' depth chart. The days of a Carson Palmer going first overall and then sitting an entire year in Cincinnati behind veteran Jon Kitna are over in the NFL.
Starting with 2008 first-round picks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, the list of highly drafted quarterbacks who have played early -- and played surprisingly well -- seems to grow by the week. Carolina's Cam Newton and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton are both off to impressive starts this year (with Newton's record-breaking first two games being the story of the season in the league so far). Last year it was Sam Bradford from day one in St. Louis and Colt McCoy taking over in Cleveland by Week 6. And 2009 gave us Matthew Stafford in Detroit, Mark Sanchez with the Jets and Josh Freeman, who was the guy in Tampa Bay by the time the Bucs' eighth game of the year rolled around.
So to see Gabbert join Newton and Dalton in the ranks of rookie starting quarterbacks -- with Tennessee's Jake Locker, Minnesota's Christian Ponder and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick still waiting their turns -- merely seems like the natural progression of things in a league flush with young and promising passers. That we get to see Gabbert make his NFL starting debut this week in head-to-head competition with Newton and the Panthers only heightens our sense of anticipation. Can the 10th overall pick out of the University of Missouri possibly make as quick an impact as Newton and Dalton have, as he takes over for the benched Luke McCown in Jacksonville?
"Based on this season with Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, and on recent history in the league, there's no reason to believe Blaine Gabbert will not come out and play well,'' ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski said Wednesday. "And really, it's almost mind-numbing to see what these two rookies have done this year. I never in my wildest imagination would have expected to see these two guys play that well. Watching Cam Newton in these first two games, it's ridiculous, the way he's playing the game. It looks like he's been playing in the NFL for five years.''
Newton, this year's first overall pick out of Auburn, has astounded the NFL in his first two games, becoming just the sixth quarterback in league history to post consecutive 400-yard passing games, and the first rookie to do so at the start of his career. Newton's 854 passing yards were the most ever by a quarterback in the season's opening two weeks, at least until New England's Tom Brady broke that hours-old mark with 940 yards early Sunday evening in Foxboro. Newton's Panthers are 0-2, but hardly anyone has noticed, given the jaw-dropping promise and potential he has flashed.
And poor Dalton. Were this a Cam-free year in the NFL, he'd be the talk of the league, with his 413 yards, 66.1 completion percentage, three touchdowns and 105.7 passer rating through two games for the 1-1 Bengals. With those kind of results being posted, is it any wonder Del Rio and the Jaguars ended McCown's starting era after just two games? Make that a game and three quarters, because Gabbert replaced the benched McCown in the fourth quarter of Jacksonville's 32-3 loss at the Jets last Sunday, going a smooth 5 of 6 for 52 yards in his relief stint and setting the stage for this week's change.
After the long lockout-filled months of this offseason, the premise of how much the NFL's work stoppage was going to hurt this year's rookie quarterback crop by robbing it of vital development and preparation time was absurdly wrong. At least so far in the case of Newton and Dalton. Jaworski has come to think it might represent a classic case of less is more when it comes to the young quarterbacks' learning curve.
"Maybe this is telling us something, what happened with the lockout and these guys not getting all the offseason work and getting the playbooks late,'' he said. "Maybe coaches over-coach. Maybe they over-burden these guys with too much in the playbook, getting them to think too much instead of playing. It's just causing everyone to revisit and rethink everything. Coaches can give these quarterbacks so much in the playbook, so much to do and think about that they can't play football. It's paralysis by analysis.
"The lockout meant coaches have down-sized their playbooks and given these guys less to worry about, making you think, 'Hey, maybe you don't have to give these guys the whole playbook from day one. Just play to their strength and let them go play the game.' I think that's part of what's happening. I'm kind of old-school when it comes do quarterback development, and I feel the best thing is for a guy to sit a year or two and learn the game and learn the system. But this is making me rethink those thoughts.''
Ironically, it was Palmer's early retirement in Cincinnati that prompted the Bengals to get into the quarterback market in this year's draft, taking Dalton with the third pick of the second round, 35th overall. But they couldn't afford to follow their own model with Palmer and sit Dalton for a year to watch and learn. Cincinnati tossed the former TCU star the keys from day one of training camp. Newton had to win a training camp battle in Carolina with last year's starter, Jimmy Clausen, who as a second-round pick in 2010 has been the rare QB non-success story of late, but Newton cleared that hurdle rather easily and took off.
"It may never happen again, waiting for a first-round quarterback to develop before he gets on the field,'' Jaworski said, noting that Denver's Tim Tebow was a recent exception to the rule. "And the club owners may wake up to this and tell these coaches, 'Hey, you know what, you don't have to kill this guy with the learning process. Get him on the field and strip the playbook and let him go play football. We've got tens of millions of dollars invested in these guys.' Maybe the last three or four years have shown us you don't have to ride the pine to be an NFL quarterback. Maybe the coaches need to wake up a little bit.''
While selecting a quarterback high in the draft has historically been a crapshoot of sorts, with a roughly 50 percent failure rate (the Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf debate in 1998 epitomized the state of the draft science), that history seems to have largely ended around 2008. That's when Atlanta and Baltimore hit it big with Ryan and Flacco in the draft's first round, with both teams producing turnaround playoff seasons with their rookie QBs playing every step of the way from Week 1 on.
Sanchez added to that trend in 2009 in New York, and with Freeman leading a resurgence in Tampa Bay's fortunes, and Stafford at last healthy and productive for a Lions team that is ascending, getting a young quarterback and getting better are starting to be almost synonymous in the NFL. The hope Bradford (first overall pick) and McCoy (third round) inspired last year in St. Louis and Cleveland, respectively, served to again underline the trend.
"I just think young quarterbacks are better these days,'' said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, himself a first-round pick out of Fresno State by Tampa Bay in 1994. "They play in these huge college programs with their conferences having huge TV deals, with the pressure from the fan base, and the coaching staff that they face. They experience an NFL environment from day one starting in college, and it's really not that different for them being in the NFL.
"I came out having been a big fish in a small pond in college, and I didn't handle the NFL so well at first. But these guys, they're acclimated so much better to the NFL environment. Yes, the game's a little faster, it's more complex, there's more studying, and it's more of a job. But it's not like going from Single A ball to the big leagues. I just don't think it overwhelms them much.''
And that comfort zone that rookie quarterbacks feel extends to the field, various NFL sources said. The NFL coaching and personnel communities are rapidly changing how they view the spread offenses that have come to predominate college football. Not long ago, the conventional wisdom was that spread offense quarterbacks get to the league relatively unequipped to play the game in a pro-style passing attack. But what was once seen as a disadvantage may now be one of the keys to the early success of passers like Newton, Bradford, Freeman and McCoy. Coming out of the spread, quarterbacks come to the pass-happy NFL very used to seeing the field, making quick decisions, and throwing, throwing and throwing some more.
"What's happening is you're get a lot of these read-option quarterbacks, and they have to make a lot of decisions on the field,'' said former Bucs and Colts head coach Tony Dungy, now an NFL analyst on NBC's Sunday Night Football. "And quarterbacking is so much about decision-making. It's not the same type of decision-making necessarily, but they're still in the decision-making mode in college and I think that's helping them. So it transfers a little bit quicker.
"People have kind of gotten away from the stereotypical thinking we used to see about the spread. I remember when [Florida State's Heisman winner] Charlie Ward came out and they said, 'Oh, he plays in the shotgun.' There were all these different reasons why he couldn't succeed, and it just baffled me. I said 'Do you see what the guy is doing? He's making plays to win games. He's making decisions, he's throwing the ball, he's on target, he's moving away from the rush, all the things you have to do in the NFL. Taking a snap from the center is the easiest thing to learn, all those other things are hard. But I think we've kind of gotten away from that kind of thinking, and we're looking at what these guys do positively. They can make decisions, they can throw on the move, and they can get out of the pocket. So you say, OK, let me build off of what their strengths are.''
The success of quarterbacks like Newton and Bradford atop the draft the past two years has influenced the league's instinctive distrust of spread-offense passers, and if Gabbert succeeds as well, NFL personnel decision-makers will have another recent example to point to. While much is made during every spring's draft scouting season about whether or not spread-offense QBs can master the center exchange, no one seems to be worrying much about that in the fall these days.
"I think it's a knee-jerk reaction to the spread offense, which I've had as well, when I scout college quarterbacks,'' said NFL Films guru Greg Cosell, who serves as creator and executive producer of ESPN's NFL Matchup, for years the most respected football analysis show on television. "I'm going to watch them totally differently now because of the reaction to guys like Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert. People say almost automatically, 'Oh, these guys have a two-year learning curve.' But that's no longer true. We don't know how Newton will play the whole year. Defenses will get a look at their offense, and who knows, maybe if teams figure it out it'll be different. But I don't think the guy's going to go from what he did the first two games to being a total bust.
"It does make you re-evaluate things. The public perception is that the spread in college does not prepare a guy for the NFL, but there are NFL coaches who I talk to who are saying the exact opposite. Because those quarterbacks are sitting back there, they take the snap, they've got to know where to throw it, they've got to make decisions, and they're in a passing offense. They're throwing the ball, and seeing the field, and that's what you do in the NFL.''
Credit deserves to be doled out to Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and new Panthers head coach Ron Rivera -- a longtime former defensive coordinator and defensive assistant in the league -- for not trying to fit the round peg of Newton's skill set into a square hole, several NFL analysts said. The Panthers aren't going the same route as the Jets have with Sanchez, asking him to manage the game and avoid the game-turning mistakes. They might be 0-2 in part due to that decision, but they're looking long-term in regards to Newton's development.
"I think it's brilliant,'' Dilfer said. "This is what you do. You don't develop a game manager, like Tampa Bay did to me. You develop a quarterback, you develop a passer. You let him go pass the ball. Let him go fail, and teach him on Mondays. Teaching him on Mondays after failure is so much better than teaching him on Wednesday through Saturday, because the pain of the failure will allow him to take the coaching more, and the affirmation of the success will make him want to do the good stuff even better.
"Now, if you're playing a rookie in a quarterback-driven offense, you're still going to lose in the short term. Ryan, Flacco and Sanchez all won right away, but they weren't in quarterback-driven offenses. The difference with Bradford last year and Newton this year, those are quarterback driven offenses. You've got to sacrifice something. But what these teams are saying is they're willing to sacrifice the opportunity to win consistently this year to develop one of the great players in this league. I think that's what Rivera is doing. He can't say it because it's not politically correct, but that's what they're doing.''
Of course, a head coach can more readily take that gamble in his first year on the job, when he has plentiful political capital still in bank. Del Rio is in a different situation in Jacksonville, given that he is widely perceived to be coaching for his job this year. Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver has said it's playoffs or bust this season for his ninth-year head coach, and with Peyton Manning no longer leading the Colts, the AFC South race appears as winnable as it has ever been. That, combined with Jacksonville's conservative run-first penchant on offense, will likely produce something less than a Carolina-like wide-open offense led by Gabbert.
"Gabbert's not playing for a team that's going to toss the ball all over the field, although we all wouldn't have believed that Carolina would have ever done that either, with a defensive coach like Ron Rivera,'' Cosell said. "But Rivera has been around [Eagles head coach] Andy Reid a long time and maybe he recognizes, you know what, I'm here to be a champion. And you're not going to be a champion today in the NFL handing the ball off, playing good defense and controlling the clock.
"Rivera's saying, 'I drafted this kid No. 1, and if we're ever going to be a champion, he's going to have to become an elite quarterback. And he's not going to become that by not throwing the ball.' Teams don't compete for Super Bowls any more without one. Cam threw over 40 times in each game (actually, 37 and 46), and when in the game's history would a rookie quarterback even think about throwing it 40 times a game? It's a new world. A whole new world.''