Let It Fly. The NFL’s New Approach to Starting A Rookie QB

More than ever, quarterbacks are the lynchpin to a team’s success in the NFL. If the man under center isn’t reliable, you’re probably not winning. Developing a franchise quarterback has long been considered a lengthy and tedious process. Not anymore.

As the NFL continues its transition into the quarterback era, drafting franchise quarterbacks is the most imperative piece to building a winning team. As history has taught us, drafting a quarterback is an imperfect science. Missing big on a top pick will cripple a franchise for years (hello, Oakland). Conversely, hitting a home run can set a team on the path to winning for the next decade (hello, Green Bay). As teams across the NFL continue their search for the next Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, the approach to grooming rookie quarterbacks has changed, and drastically.

In 2011, two rookie quarterbacks began the season as their respective team’s starter (Cam Newton and Andy Dalton). Another took over his team’s starting role in week 3 (Blaine Gabbert). What we’ve seen from all three quarterbacks has mostly been par for the course: flashes of greatness, costly mistakes, and overall inexperience. However, what we haven’t seen before, at least not across the board, is the workload given to the 2011 rookies.

In four starts, Cam Newton is averaging over 40 attempts per game, even surpassing 45 twice. Andy Dalton is averaging just over 30 attempts per game, and that includes his NFL debut where he only attempted 15 passes. Excluding week 1, Dalton’s averaged well over 35 attempts per week. Blain Gabbert got a later start to his NFL career. In his debut in week 3, he only attempted 21 passes, probably because of the torrential rain and horrendous conditions. A week later, Gabbert doubled his attempts against the Saints. It appears, at least for now, the old mantra of bringing along a quarterback slowly has been tossed aside for the “drinking from the fire hose” approach.

Take a look and compare the workloads of four rookie quarterbacks from the past two years to other notable rookie starters from the last decade (Name, Number of Starts, Year):

Picture 2

As you can see, over the past two seasons the attempts for rookie quarterbacks have increased to over 30 per game where as none of the rookies listed who entered the NFL prior to 2010 exceeded 28.  To no one’s surprise, the increase in passing attempts led to an increase in passing yardage, albeit minimal. Only Matt Ryan averaged over 200 yards per game as a rookie. Three of the four rookies from 2010 to 2011 currently average (or in Bradford’s case, averaged) over 200.

However, the increase in attempts doesn’t indicate a dramatic increase in yardage. Thus, one could reasonably argue the excessive passing attempts are intended to expedite the long-term development of the quarterback, not improve the present day offense. Except, of course, for Cam Newton, who is, simply put, a unique player. Not only are his attempts off the charts, but his production is as well. Newton is on pace to shatter nearly every rookie passing record.

In my week 2 NFL recap, I offered the following; “I’m almost convinced they (the Carolina Panthers) believe by having Newton take twice as many attempts as a normal rookie, they’re doubling the rate of his development.” During Sunday’s game against Chicago, FOX commentator, Brian Billick, echoed this opinion. And you know what? Although I wasn’t convinced a few weeks ago, I like the Panthers’ approach now. Why not give a young rookie every opportunity to fail, succeed, learn, grow, etc…? This in no way discounts the sit-and-study approach, because it has proven effective also (see Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady), but considering a team like Carolina has no proven veteran quarterback, or even a quarterback you’d want Newton studying, it makes complete sense to teach him to swim by throwing him in the deep end. The same is true for the Bengals and Andy Dalton, and to a lesser degree, the Jaguars and Blaine Gabbert.

Furthermore, the Bengals, Jaguars, and Panthers aren’t good enough to win now. The Panthers and Bengals, especially, are teams built for the future. Getting Dalton and Newton a heavy amount of reps early will only accelerate their individual progress, and in turn, the team’s. Ironically, it just so happens that both the Bengals and Panthers remain competitive because of, and at times, despite, the play of their rookie quarterbacks.

Granted, there are drawbacks to the “drinking from the fire hose” approach. Take David Carr, for example. Carr was highly touted out of college and appeared destined for NFL greatness. He started every game for the Houston Texans his rookie year and played adequately for an NFL rookie at the most important position in all of sports. However, Carr was beaten like a drum by opposing defenses. His offensive line leaked like a sieve. While Carr was gaining hands-on experience, he was also growing exceedingly skittish and losing confidence by the week. Ultimately, he never recovered and his career was a huge disappointment for a number one overall pick. While taking excessive hits and learning under less-than-ideal conditions were obviously not the only factors to Carr’s struggles, they were undoubtedly significant contributors.

Sam Bradford is in a similar situation this year. After a standout rookie season, Bradford has regressed dramatically in 2011. With limited weapons around him, Bradford absorbs excessive beatings from opposing defenses. He looks more shaken and less confident than at any point in his rookie campaign.

Currently, Newton, Dalton, and Gabbert haven’t experienced such volatile conditions. Their respective learning environments have been relatively comfortable, or as comfortable as the pressure of being a 1st round pick at the quarterback position allows.

Another factor one must consider before throwing a rookie quarterback into shark-invested waters is his psyche. Newton looks unflappable. Winning and performing at a high level is all he cares about (or so it appears thus far). I think the Panthers have nothing to worry about with Newton. After tossing three interceptions in his second start, I paid close attention to Newton’s body language and how he performed the following week. He never lost confidence. He never looked hesitant or discouraged. Most importantly, he came out the next week and didn’t force anything in hurricane conditions and won his first NFL game as a result. Newton is a franchise star through and through. He only needs time. Carolina hopes by increasing his opportunities now, the time until maturation will consequently decrease. And while I haven’t paid as much attention to Dalton, the same appears to be true in Cincinnati. His come-from-behind victory over Buffalo in week 4 after throwing two 4th quarter interceptions in a tight game against the 49ers a week prior speaks volumes to his confidence and fortitude. As for Gabbert, it’s still too early to tell.

It’s only been four weeks, so it’s impossible to label Dalton, Gabbert, or even Newton, a surefire superstar or first round bust. Regardless, the “drinking from the fire hose” approach employed by the Bengals, Panthers, and to a smaller degree, Jaguars, has given us a more advanced look as to where these rookie quarterbacks project.

We always hear how the NFL continually changes and moves faster. It appears the approach to developing franchise quarterbacks has followed suit.


  1. Yeah, I think brett favre is an example of how the NFL used to be. The Packers implented the sit-and-study approach for a few years before he finally hit the feild.

    Everybody is definitely quicker to send in their fresh rookie QB more than ever before. I guess we’ll just have to wait til the end of the season to see how these rookies do.

  2. Ryan (Author)

    I’ll be watching.

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