That seems to be the prevailing attitude, but it's also a lot of bunk. If a club truly wants to develop a player for the long term at one of the toughest positions in sports—and that player is signed for four or more years, as these quarterbacks are—why throw him to the wolves before he's ready? If it takes two or three years of intense study to learn how to play quarterback in the NFL, why risk ruining a player's career by running him onto the field to get hammered?
The Houston Oilers saw what happened when the Bengals did that to Klingler, who was rushed into action and had his confidence shattered. So last year, after they drafted Steve McNair of Alcorn State with the third overall pick, the Oilers gave him a seven-year, $28.4 million contract, and new coach Jeff Fisher told him he wouldn't play much—if at all—in his first two seasons. McNair would spend that time learning from veteran Chris Chandler and one of the best quarterback tutors in the business, assistant coach Jerry Rhome. In 1995 McNair appeared in four games, starting two, and threw 80 passes. He has taken only 11 snaps in '96.
"We didn't want to put Steve in a position to fail," Fisher says. "Many people feel the best way for a young quarterback to get experience is by playing him. We disagree. The experience Steve gets by watching Chris have success is more important. Confidence is the key to having success."
Even when a team doesn't have a high pick to spend on a quarterback, this conservative approach can pay off. As offensive coordinator for the 49ers in 1993, Mike Shanahan pushed for the club to draft Elvis Grbac in the eighth round. Grbac did not play as a rookie and threw only 50 passes in his second season. But with Steve Young sidelined at times in 1995 and '96, Grbac has led the 49ers to a 5-2 record, including a three-TD-pass day against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday (page 82). A potential free agent after the season, Grbac could become a starter for another team in '97.
Of the Struggling Six, only Bledsoe looks like a keeper for the next decade. Unfortunately for Bledsoe, as he goes, so go the Patriots. He played poorly in New England's first two games this season, both losses. Now the Patriots have won three straight, and on Sunday he threw for 310 yards and four TDs in a 46-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Mirer has a tendency to lock in on one receiver, which was never more evident than in the four-interception game against the Packers. In Atlanta he would be learning his third system in four seasons, and even a former booster questions his ability. "I'm disappointed Rick hasn't flourished," says Walsh. Dilfer and Brown have badly flawed mechanics. Shuler must prove to skeptical coaches that he can remain cool under pressure. Klingler, who excelled in the spread formations and quick-strike mentality of the run-and-shoot in college, never adapted to the more complex pro-style sets, but will probably get another chance in the NFL. A quarterback with a gun for an arm usually does. If and when that happens, he would be wise to heed this piece of advice: "In this league," says the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman, "the game is played from the shoulders up."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]