DOWNTIME FOR pro football coaches in the fall, time spent with the TV remote in the right hand and a nacho in the left, comes on Saturday afternoons and early evenings. That's when guys like Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron surf for college games, watching not just for enjoyment but also for new ideas. In recent weeks, as the start of the college basketball season overlapped with football, Cameron has gotten confused by the scores crawling at the bottom of the screen: OREGON 65, OREGON STATE 38 ... OKLAHOMA 61, OKLAHOMA STATE 41 ... GEORGIA TECH 45, GEORGIA 42.... Florida scores 70? Purdue 62? Gridiron or hardwood?
On one channel he sees the Florida Gators running schemes similar to those of the Patriots (no wonder—Bill Belichick swaps X's and O's with Urban Meyer after every season), and on others he sees historically run-oriented programs such as Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia gaining more than 60% of their yards through the air. Cameron keeps an eye on youth football too, and he's been seeing kids in four-wide formations throwing out of empty backfields. The young passers, and even his own quarterbacks, visualize plays at the controls of Madden 09, making quick decisions to avoid blitzes in the video game and then doing the same thing on the field.
"We're in an exciting time for offensive football," Cameron says. "I'm passionate about quarterback play, and I can't wait until the off-season to look at all the prospects out there. I think there's going to be a lot of guys, at all levels of the college game, doing things that can translate to our game."
For now, the NFL remains more long in the tooth than young at QB, and that is borne out by thirtysomething passers Kerry Collins (Titans), Jake Delhomme ( Panthers), Brett Favre (Jets), Gus Frerotte ( Vikings), Jeff Garcia ( Bucs) and Kurt Warner ( Cardinals), whose teams led or were tied for first in their respective divisions through Sunday. Only one of the five quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds of the 2006 draft, Denver's Jay Cutler, has won a starting job and kept it. Vince Young (Titans) has struggled to adapt his scrambling style to the pro game; Matt Leinart ( Cardinals) has been injury-prone and doesn't have the downfield arm of Warner for the Cardinals' deep-strike offense; Kellen Clemens (Jets) and Tarvaris Jackson ( Vikings) have yet to prove they're ready. All were sent back to the bench to watch the old-timers. Teams that think they have playoff potential typically lack patience with younger quarterbacks.
So what to make of the 2008 success of rookies Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Joe Flacco in Baltimore? Right place, right time for one thing: They were drafted by teams that were a combined 9--23 last year, had hired new coaches and didn't have much else at quarterback. It was easy for Mike Smith of the Falcons to go with the precocious Ryan over Chris Redman (17 games in four seasons) and for John Harbaugh of the Ravens to send in Flacco ahead of Troy Smith and Kyle Boller, who had health issues.
Through 13 games Ryan (6'4", 220 pounds) and Flacco (6'6", 230) have near-identical records ( Atlanta is 8--5; Baltimore 9--4) and completion percentages (62.0 for Ryan; 60.2 for Flacco), and have shown accuracy against all variety of defenses and the ability to process information quickly. What separates Ryan a bit is that rarely has a rookie starter thrown downfield so well. (In recent years only Ben Roethlisberger comes to mind.) The Falcons are the only team with two wide receivers who've caught more than 35 passes each and are averaging more than 15 yards a reception: Roddy White (78, 16.0) and Michael Jenkins (39, 15.1). Two other traits eased the transition from college to pro for Ryan and Flacco, factors that scouts also point to when discussing the next crop of premium college quarterbacks, Georgia's Matt Stafford, Florida's Tim Tebow and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford: 1) They've operated in pro-style offenses, so the game is not too big for them; and 2) they play with an intelligent anticipation that's essential to the position yet rare in rookies. Here are some further qualities that have helped each rookie accelerate into the NFL fast lane.
Enlightened. While at Boston College he TiVo-ed press conferences of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, then studied how they handled themselves, the media and the pressure of being a star quarterback.
Rarin' to go. Ten hours after being selected with the No. 3 pick, Ryan was in Atlanta meeting with his new offensive coaches. He took a playbook home with him that night and signed his contract three weeks later; thus he arrived prepared.
Fresh-faced. In the preseason Mike Smith told his players, in essence, You're all strangers to me, so anyone can win a starting job. Ryan is one of nine new starters in Atlanta.