Managing a young starting quarterback in the NFL is a balancing act. Very quickly, a coach must ascertain his passer's strengths and weaknesses; then, he has to formulate game plans that aren't so complex as to overload his student yet have enough variety to keep opponents off guard. All the while, the new leader of the offense has to remain focused on his weekly task while adjusting to the media attention, fame and fat contract that come with the job.
It's a seesaw experience, but once a coach and quarterback are in sync, the result can have the impact of a Barry Bonds homer into McCovey Cove. Consider, for instance, what the New England Patriots' 25-year-old Tom Brady accomplished on Sunday in a heavily hyped game against the Buffalo Bills and his former teammate Drew Bledsoe. Abandoning a wide-open pass attack for shorter throws and a stepped-up ground game, Brady had the most accurate passing day in club history, completing 23 of 27 attempts (85.2%) for 310 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-7 rout.
For the first time in more than a month the Patriots' offense was in perfect harmony, and it was because the New England coaches and Brady had returned to the notion of defining Brady's strength and revising the game plan accordingly.
In the first two months of the season offensive coordinator Charlie Weis used a spread offense with Brady doing his best Dan Fouts imitation. The defending Super Bowl champs bolted out of the gate, averaging 38.3 points during a 3-0 start. But then the offense stalled, and the Patriots dropped their next four games. That's when New England acknowledged that its quarterback couldn't carry the offense by himself, in the manner of a Fouts, a Dan Marino or a Brett Favre.
So against the Bills, in addition to throwing a lot of screens and dump-offs and flares, Brady handed off to running back Antowain Smith a season-high 29 times for 111 yards and a touchdown. Throwing the short stuff, Brady was 17 of 18 for 222 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. "Those screens, in all honesty, don't work every week," Brady said on Monday. "But against this opponent, that's what kept working. If they hadn't, we'd have changed, and we had a bunch of different stuff in. Out of about 70 pass plays in the game plan, we had 15 that I'd never seen before. That's Charlie trying to put me in the best position not just every week, but every play."
The NFL is more reliant on young quarterbacks like Brady than at any other time in the last two decades. In a review of the league's starting quarterbacks at the midpoint of the past 20 seasons, the 17 current starters under age 28 constitute the largest number of such players in any season since 1983. (Last year 13 starting quarterbacks were under 28; in 2000, the number was 11.) In fact, not since the great quarterback draft of '83, when Marino and five other passers were drafted in the first round, have so many young QBs been handed the stewardship of their teams so early.
Among the 17 young starters, eight have fewer than three full seasons in the NFL. With Brady, the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick, the San Diego Chargers' Drew Brees, the Houston Texans' David Carr, the Detroit Lions' Joey Harrington and the New York Jets' Chad Pennington leading the charge, the new wave is surely here. Plus, inexperienced passers such as the St. Louis Rams' Marc Bulger and the Cleveland Browns' Kelly Holcomb have been impressive as stopgap injury replacements. "The Elways and Marinos are gone, but a bunch of young guys are stepping up," says Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, "and they're going to get better in a hurry."
Even Marino, now a CBS and HBO analyst, concedes that newly anointed franchise quarterbacks have it much tougher than he did. "Today a rookie is expected to be the savior of the franchise, because the franchise isn't very good," Marino says. "I came in with a Super Bowl team, and there's no way I saw the kind of exotic defenses that these quarterbacks see."
The first pick in the 1989 draft, former Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Troy Aikman, pointed out to Brady a few weeks ago how times have changed. "Troy told me that when he started out, he had a wristband with 12 passes and six runs on it," Brady says. "Yesterday, on one play, I had three tight ends, a back and a wide receiver in the game, and on the next play it was five wides. So the game has changed dramatically for us."
These signal-callers not only have to prepare for what defenses throw at them, but also for what their teammates will think of a rich-kid leader in a locker room typically dominated by veterans. Pennington, for one, has been walking on eggshells for a month, ever since Jets coach Herman Edwards tabbed him to replace Vinny Testaverde, the slumping but highly respected veteran.