DENVER — Learn by doing. There is no substitute for it.
That’s true in pretty much any job, and playing quarterback in the NFL is no exception.
It’s something that Vince Young of the Tennessee Titans and Jay Cutler of the Denver Broncos are finding out first-hand as second-year starting quarterbacks in the league.
The two players will be forever linked — along with Matt Leinart of Arizona — as first-round quarterbacks from the 2006 NFL Draft Class.
Young and Cutler, the former Vanderbilt star, face off tonight at Invesco Field on Monday Night Football and find themselves in similar situations.
Both are learning on the job and trying to grow into the role of leading their respective franchises. Young has essentially inherited the legacy of his mentor Steve McNair in Tennessee. And if you think that’s tough, the man Cutler is measured against in Denver is Hall of Famer John Elway, who is in the conversation when the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game are discussed.
It hasn’t always been easy, as both stepped into starting roles in the middle of their rookie seasons, and found mixed results.
For Young, the Titans are 13-8 in his 21 starts under center, but some of that success, especially in 2007, has come courtesy of a strong defense that ranks second overall and a running game that ranks fourth in the NFL.
Young, who threw 12 touchdowns passes and 13 interceptions last season on his way to winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, has had his share of issues throwing the ball this season. Young has just four touchdown tosses to 10 interceptions. Young isn’t running as effectively either, with 217 yards through nine games this season on the heels of 552 yards on the ground last year. He also added seven rushing scores as a rookie.
Young is still very much a work in progress, but points to the team’s success as a silver lining in his development.
“I wouldn’t say everything is on my shoulders. I’ve got a whole team of guys that have my back. … It’s not all about me; it’s not all on me. As a team we have to go out there and win ballgames,” Young said. “Me being a quarterback, the light is going to be on me, but at the same time, it takes each last one of us, the offense, defense, the coaches, special teams, to win a ballgame.”
The Broncos seem to be putting even more on Cutler, who ascended to the starting role last year in the final five games with Denver trying to hang on to a playoff spot. The Broncos slid out of the playoffs on the regular-season’s final week, and this season are 4-5, but still in the AFC West hunt.
Cutler’s numbers are decent, as he has completed 161 of 248 for 1,882 yards with nine TDs and nine interceptions.
“Last year it was a whirlwind there at the end of the season, and we were kind of in a playoff chase,” Cutler said. “I was just getting my feet wet and trying to figure out exactly what it takes to be a quarterback in this league. Obviously, nine games into it now, I’m comfortable and things have slowed down. I know what is expected from me week to week and things have calmed down.”
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan is pleased with Cutler’s growth, despite his 6-8 record as a starter, and agrees that the entire team is the key to a quarterback’s success.
“There have been a lot of great quarterbacks who it has taken a lot of time for them to get through the years. It’s not easy,” Shanahan said. “It’s not always one person. It’s the supporting cast. There’s definitely a growing curve. Unless you’re lucky with a great supporting cast and don’t put too much pressure on a guy, there are a lot of growing pains.”
Titans backup quarterback Kerry Collins knows first hand of those growing pains, and says for any quarterback, and especially a young starter, it is important to learn from mistakes and move forward.
“Playing quarterback is always a learning process,” Collins said. “Every quarterback, when they’re young, goes through the learning curve. There are gonna be some mistakes. It’s just part of the position. As you move on, the mistakes become less and less and less. Whenever you start playing it, whether it’s your rookie year, second year or third year, there’s going to be a learning curve. And so those guys playing as early as they have are going to get that out of the way pretty quick.”
In the meantime, the key is to try and minimize errors through preparation.
“I really feel like I’m in a good situation,” Young said. “You’ve got guys like Kerry Collins, Norm Chow, Craig Johnson, and these guys are so knowledgeable of the game, I feel like I have a great advantage and [they] get me prepared so much. So I feel like when we go out to the game, everything that we’ve seen on tape and everything that we’ve talked about is really happening out there, and all I have to do is pay attention, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Added Fisher, “You try to minimize mistakes on the practice field and put them in position to be successful. All quarterbacks are going to make mistakes; that’s the nature of the position. You just have to move on; learn from them, but move on.”
Learning and moving forward are the keys, says Collins, to long-term success as a pro quarterback — no matter if you learn from triumphs or failures along the way.
“If you want to play for a long time, you’ve got to learn how to do it. That’s not just mistakes — that’s touchdowns, that’s good games, good years, because until you retire, you’ve always got to prove yourself,” Collins said.