Time to show a little patience with these young QBs

Alex Smith, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Leinart (l-r) still have to prove their worthiness as No. 1 QBs. US Presswire

We learned last season that Eli Manning is a championship-level quarterback. But in the course of his rapid maturation during the New York Giants' Super Bowl run, we also received a lesson on the importance of having patience with a young signal-caller.

After all, Manning failed to impress throughout most of his fourth season. Some in New York viewed him as a disappointment. Others wondered if he was a bust. But then something clicked at the right time -- and now it looks like Manning will be a different player from here on out.

This offseason clearly will be an interesting one for a handful of quarterbacks who've endured the kind of adversity that Manning knows all too well. Alex Smith enters his fourth season in San Francisco facing questions about how long he can keep his job. Matt Leinart goes into his third season in Arizona hoping to avoid splitting time with veteran Kurt Warner. Kansas City's Brodie Croyle and Washington's Jason Campbell are among those QBs having to adjust to new offensive systems.

And we certainly can't ignore the mind-boggling return of the much-maligned Rex Grossman to the Chicago Bears.

All these teams are hoping that their young QBs can turn on the switch just like Manning did. But for that to happen, positive reinforcement is required, such as the kind of confidence-boosting comments being made at the NFL combine.

Whether it was Chicago coach Lovie Smith talking about how much the Bears wanted Grossman back (despite the fact that they benched him last season) or Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt detailing all the progress Leinart has made over the past few months, every coach who spoke about a young quarterback did his best to avoid the hint of negativity.

A high level of self-esteem is what ultimately enabled Manning to fight through his inconsistency. Giants general manager Jerry Reese noted that Manning always had adequate support.

"When guys are talented, you have to give them every chance to fail," Reese said. "You can't give up on players too soon. But it happens and that's just the way it is. Some teams have more patience than others."

Though Smith, Grossman and Croyle are the only quarterbacks who need to be worried about a team completely giving up on them this season, the point that Reese made can't be ignored: It takes time to develop quarterbacks, maybe now more than ever.

Today's game is so complicated that even head coaches such as Kansas City's Herm Edwards admit that some teams do their quarterbacks a disservice by throwing too much information at them too quickly. The QBs ultimately get so bogged down by trying to fit into a specific system or handling an overstocked playbook that their confidence vanishes with every mistake they make. Before they know it, they've gone from being bright-eyed and optimistic to sullen and shell-shocked.

In watching Manning this past season, it's obvious that nobody knows when some of these quarterbacks will figure it out. While the Giants kept offering Manning their support, the numbers didn't always back him up -- and critical comments from ex-Giants running back Tiki Barber last summer didn't exactly help sway public opinion toward the quarterback.

But Manning was fortunate to have enough talent surrounding him to allow him to persevere. Other young quarterbacks saddled with far worse circumstances -- such as David Carr in Houston or Joey Harrington in Detroit -- discovered that whatever ability they did possess was negated by the combination of bad coaching and inadequate teammates.

A solid supporting cast might allow quarterbacks such as Leinart and Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson to make huge strides this season; the Cardinals and Vikings both contended for postseason bids in 2007.

The same, though, can't be said for Smith, who appears to be a poor fit for the high-powered system that will be installed by new 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz. As for Grossman? His return to Chicago defies explanation. Granted, it's just a one-year deal, but this is the same player who lost his job after throwing six interceptions and just one touchdown pass in his first three games of 2007.

Perhaps Chicago saw enough in the five games Grossman played later in the season (he threw three touchdown passes and one interception) to think it was better to keep him than to probe a weak free-agent market. He could be a useful stopgap if the team drafts a younger quarterback, plus Chicago has backup quarterback Kyle Orton in the mix. And yes, there's the possibility that Grossman could rediscover the groove that made him dangerous in the early parts of the 2006 season (OK, that's probably dreaming too big).

The fact remains that anything can happen with a young quarterback in this league. It just depends on how long a team is willing to wait.

"[Developing a quarterback] is a difficult process, and there's going to be peaks and valleys," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "But if you believe in that guy, you've got to stay the course."

That's the philosophy that eventually turned Manning and the Giants into Super Bowl champs. And it's sufficient reason for more teams to remain patient with their own young quarterbacks in 2008.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.