It is no secret that NFL teams are increasingly in a rush to turn over their offenses to young quarterbacks, particularly ones drafted in the first round.
By the end of last season, four of the first five quarterbacks drafted were the starters for their respective teams. The exception, of course, was the Tennessee Titans’ Jake Locker, the eighth overall selection who finally claimed the job midway through this summer’s training camp. In addition to Locker, the opening week of the 2012 season featured five rookie quarterbacks under center.
That rush to get young players on the field at what many consider the most difficult position in sports also allows for a rush to judgment. Much more often than not over the past decade, the success of a quarterback in his first season as a starter has set the tone for what is to come.
Given the way the Titans started this season — with blowout losses to New England and San Diego — and the fact that the idea is for Locker to be their quarterback for a period of years, it seemed all too possible for him to set a bad precedent in terms of wins and losses.
Typically, quarterbacks who have won nine times or more in their first seasons as starters have been consistent winners, in recent years at least. Those who opened up with losing records rarely have discovered any winning ways.
“No one [win] is easier than the other,” Locker said. “You have to go out and prepare each week, and come out and play really well to earn wins in this league. You might get rolling a little bit, but each week is its own animal, and you have to prepare like that and be ready for that every week.”
Between 2002 and 2010, 24 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. Of those, only three — Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers — have led their teams to Super Bowl victories.
Manning and Roethlisberger, each selected in 2004, have been a part of two championship teams. Roethlisberger was 13-0 as a starter during his rookie season and has never done worse than 7-7. Manning’s first full season as a starter was his second. He went 11-5 and has not yet endured a losing season.
The other notable quarterback drafted that year was Philip Rivers, selected fourth by the New York Giants and traded to San Diego in a deal that included Manning. Rivers became a starter in his third year and helped the Chargers go 14-2. His worst season as a professional was 2011, but his team still finished 8-8.
“You have to move past it,” Rivers said. “We can only control this season, and right now. … I think it’s just one game at a time and learn from last year and grow from it, and then move on.”
Two teams that look like early Super Bowl contenders this fall are the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, both of which got their quarterbacks in the first round of the 2008 draft. Both Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco went 11-5 as rookies. Ryan entered this season 43-19 for his career. Flacco was 44-20.
San Francisco’s Alex Smith was considered one of the game’s great reclamation projects when he and the 49ers went 13-3 last season. The first overall pick in 2005 was in and out as a starter for most of his first five seasons, but the one time he started all 16 games (2006) he went 7-9, which still was nearly twice as many victories as that franchise had in the previous season.
If things turn out badly this season, the Titans at least can look to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers for inspiration. The 2005 first-round pick went 6-10 the first year he replaced Brett Favre, but responded with an 11-5 mark the next season and has been one of the game’s premier players since.
He’s the exception, though, in a group of forgettable players such as Joey Harrington (3-9), J.P. Losman (8-16 in his first two seasons), Byron Leftwich (5-8), Jason Campbell (8-12 in two seasons) and Jamarcus Russell (5-10), none of whom ever recovered completely from rough starts.
“This is a very scrutinized league, and [quarterback] is a very a scrutinized position,” Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “You need to have a personality that can deal with that. If you’re not comfortable being the center of attention, then you’re going to have a difficult time dealing with what’s required of the position.”
And if you don’t win games in your first year, you’re going to have a difficult time doing so later.