Commentary

Toss baby bottles, pass winning formula

Bradford, Freeman part of a crop of young QBs who thrive when given reins early

Originally Published: November 11, 2010
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris already had talked to his scouts, his assistants and his general manager about the team's options entering the 2009 draft. Now, as he strolled into a meeting with team co-chairmen Bryan, Edward and Joel Glazer last spring, Morris prepared himself to sell his bosses on the merits of Josh Freeman, a strapping, strong-armed quarterback from Kansas State.

As Morris settled into his seat, he felt confident in his pitch. He'd been a defensive coordinator at Kansas State during Freeman's freshman season and the two had stayed in touch ever since.

What Morris didn't expect was Joel Glazer's demand once the conversation started.

"Show me his 'It' moment," Glazer said in a commanding tone.

When a mystified Morris asked for clarification, Glazer said, "I want to see his Joe Montana moment, his John Elway moment, you know -- the 'It' moment."

By the time Morris detailed some of Freeman's top accomplishments -- including leading a comeback win over Oklahoma State and an upset of Texas -- he could see Glazer's excitement growing.

"When I finally showed him the tapes of those games," Morris said, "that was all he needed to see."

Glazer might have sounded like he was simplifying the notion of what it takes to turn a first-round pick into a big-time quarterback, but his sensibilities had legitimate merit. A quarterback taken in the second round or later can afford the luxury of having marked flaws that teams can accept.

A first-round pick is a different story.

The quarterbacks who carry that honor into the NFL have to deal with the kind of suffocating pressure and endless scrutiny that can cripple a career before it ever gets started.

That is why what has been happening in the league of late has been so eye-opening.

Seven quarterbacks have been taken in the first round since 2008 and six of those -- Atlanta's Matt Ryan, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, Detroit's Matthew Stafford, the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez, Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and St. Louis' Sam Bradford -- have shown the potential for bright futures.

They actually have more than the "It" factor going for them. They might be providing the league with a new model on how to develop quarterbacks in years to come.

Temper expectations

Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, and Matthew StaffordGetty Images From left, Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and Atlanta's Matt Ryan have quickly adapted to the NFL. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford's body of work is smaller because he has been plagued by injuries.
Only Tim Tebow, Denver's first-round pick this year, has yet to show what he can do as a full-time starter.

"Before the 2008 draft, there was a lot of talk about the mistakes that had been made with first-round quarterbacks," said Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "Never mind that there were probably just as many defensive tackles who haven't worked out, either. But this group has produced a lot of hope for teams who want to get a quarterback who can lead them in the right direction."

One major reason for that hope is the approach each team has taken with these signal-callers. The biggest question about young quarterbacks used to be obvious: Do you start them or do you sit them? But these current players are succeeding because their franchises have been more focused on other issues, such as: Does this quarterback really fit their needs? What kind of supporting cast can be put around him? How much patience is necessary to put the player on the path to success? Above all else, a team wants to know how resilient the kid is.

What all six of these current quarterbacks have in common is that toughness factor. Ryan was a comeback master at Boston College while Sanchez had his own head coach at USC question is his chances of success in the NFL. Flacco had to transfer from Pittsburgh to Division 1-AA Delaware just to prove what he could do as a starter. Freeman also had his share of critics in college, Bradford saw his junior season at Oklahoma cut short due to a shoulder injury and Stafford thrived under the intense glare of big-time high school football in Texas before finding stardom at Georgia.
[+] EnlargeSam Bradford & Billy Devaney
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesRams executive Bill Devaney (right) has few qualms about giving rookie QB Sam Bradford lots of responsibility.

Executives like Dimitroff point out that there are so many variables that play into a highly drafted quarterback finding a comfort level in this league. First, a team has to be smart enough to select a player who fits its needs. That same organization also has to create a strong environment for the player, which includes a reliable supporting cast.

Then it comes down to establishing a path for development and trusting the process when setbacks predictably occur.

If that sounds easy enough, just ask David Carr (drafted first overall, 2002, Houston Texans) or Matt Leinart (10th overall, 2006, Arizona Cardinals) how much they would have liked to experience what these younger quarterbacks have in their short careers.

Three of those players (Ryan, Flacco and Sanchez) already have playoff experience and currently have their teams in first place in their respective divisions. A fourth (Freeman) has six fourth-quarter comebacks in his eight career victories. Stafford has shown ample progress despite being plagued by injuries, as he's thrown six touchdown passes and one interception in three games this season.

Still, Bradford has been the biggest surprise.

After being the top pick in this year's draft, he's helped the St. Louis Rams to a surprising 4-4 record while playing with a receiving corps decimated by injuries.

"The biggest thing I've learned is that this is a process," said Bradford, who has thrown 11 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.

"You won't come in and be perfect. You have to set your expectations at a certain level, but you also have to help your team win. You have to be open-minded every day you come to work."

Test for poise, eliminate comfort zones

What makes the comfort level of these players even more impressive is that it comes at a time when there have been so many recent questions about first-round quarterbacks.

As much as we celebrate the success stories (the 2004 class, for example, included Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers), the reality is that there have been many first-round disappointments of late.

Of the 28 quarterbacks selected in the first round between 1998 -- the year the Indianapolis Colts selected Peyton Manning first overall -- and 2007, 13 have been outright busts. Twenty of those players also have either been cut or traded from the team that initially drafted them.

Those aren't the kinds of numbers teams want to associate with a first-round investment.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco & Cam Cameron
David Drapkin/AP PhotosCam Cameron (right) liked what he saw from Joe Flacco even before Flacco arrived in Baltimore.
"When you draft a quarterback that high, he's supposed to be a 15-year player for you," Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said.

The problem, of course, is that too many teams haven't known how best to handle such a prospect. They simply force-feed a quarterback into their system and pray that he can handle the adjustment.

When the Oakland Raiders selected JaMarcus Russell first overall in the 2007 draft, they thought they were getting a big-armed, big-bodied passer with surprising mobility. What they ended up with was a player who wasn't wanted by his first NFL head coach (Lane Kiffin) and ultimately flamed out because of work ethic problems and overrated ability.

"When I saw JaMarcus in college, I saw a guy who was a fourth-round pick at best," said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who played 14 NFL seasons after being the sixth overall pick in the 1994 draft by the Buccaneers.

"And when I talked to scouts around the league that I trusted, nobody had him rated higher than a second-round pick. He had very good measurables, but the position is so much more than that."

Dilfer added that successful quarterbacks don't just need physical talent. They need cognitive, intuitive and intangible skills as well. Falcons outside linebacker Mike Peterson agreed.

"The young guys who play well at that position in this league have a certain poise," Peterson said. "They don't get rattled easily. The only way to describe it is they have a calmness to their game."

Added Cameron: "You have to know how guys will perform in pressure situations because that's every week in the NFL. The guys who throw for thousands of yards in college or won every game in a blowout haven't been through any adversity. You have to see how they've done on the road or in tough situations, because that's the biggest predictor of NFL success. Anybody else can do that other stuff."

The teams that have drafted first-round quarterbacks since 2008 have been smart enough to look for that quality in their own players.

When Cameron worked out former Delaware star Flacco before the 2008 draft, he made a point of running the session himself (instead of allowing the quarterback or a college coach to be in charge).

Cameron also held the workout outside, on a windy day and with Flacco throwing to receivers he'd never met.

Flacco responded by throwing 90 passes without one hitting the ground in those situations.

Cameron's goal that day was two-fold. He wanted to learn first-hand how Flacco handled himself in the inclement weather that is commonplace in the AFC North and, more importantly, how the quarterback dealt with pressure.

"In this league, defenses and defensive coordinators can do so much to make a quarterback uncomfortable," Cameron said. "And if you can't function at a high level outside of your comfort zone, you won't last long."

Thinking on the go, out of uniform

That also means having the right mental makeup for the position.

The Jets believed that Sanchez had that when he dined with their top officials in Los Angeles before the 2009 draft.

First, Sanchez impressed the group -- which included owner Woody Johnson, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan -- with how easily he talked football with them.

Then he really turned their heads after leaving the restaurant and hopping on a motorcycle parked in front of the establishment.

It wasn't until a sufficient number of jaws had dropped that Sanchez admitted that he was only joking, that the bike wasn't his.

What the Jets saw in Sanchez that night was a mix of intelligence and personality that would be vital in a place as rough as New York. But Sanchez also had the same hunger and work ethic that his peers possess.

Every person interviewed for this story stressed the same point about a quarterback selected in the first round: That person must be the hardest worker on the team and he must be passionate about the game.

For example, Freeman is so into his job that he spent his off day a couple weeks ago hanging around the facility and chatting with coaches.

"I don't know if Josh Freeman has a handicap in golf," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. "I do know he loves football and he wants to be great. A lot of guys think that when they come into the league, but a lot of them don't put in the time."

Don't be afraid to take charge

While all these players have the tools to succeed at this level, they've found their lives made easier by the supporting casts they've been given.

Instead of being asked to be saviors, most have been dropped into situations that have eased their respective growth processes. Before Ryan arrived in Atlanta, the Falcons had signed a future Pro Bowl running back in Michael Turner. Flacco and Sanchez also found help around them. They both joined teams with dominant defenses and strong running games.

In fact, Rams general manager Billy Devaney made a point of telling every quarterback he met before the 2010 draft that the environments they entered meant just as much as their respective talent.

"I told them not to worry so much about where they got drafted and to hope for the best situations," Devaney said. "You don't want to be somewhere where you have to score 35 points to win. The best model is what happened with Ben Roethlisberger as a rookie. He had 'The Bus' [Jerome Bettis] and a great defense. When you only have to throw 15 to 17 times a game, that's a much easier way to start your career in this league."

It also makes a difference when veterans show immediate support for a quarterback who arrives with millions in guaranteed money and plenty to prove.

When the Rams were preparing for their season opener against Arizona, Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson actually pulled Bradford aside following a meeting the night before the game.

Jackson's advice: Don't be afraid to take charge.

"He told me this is my huddle," Bradford said. "He would do what he could to help me communicate things to the team, but he was looking to me to lead this offense. When a guy like that says that to you, it helps a lot."

Bradford also acknowledged that the Rams took a lot of pressure off of him by not anointing him the starter as soon as he joined the team. They told him he would play only when he was ready, which is a strategy that Tampa Bay took with Freeman.

In fact, Morris often held what he called "young guys" periods during practice, just so his quarterback of the future could get valuable practice reps. During those sessions, Freeman would run seven-on-seven drills against veteran defenders.

Those moments gave Freeman, who entered the league as a true junior, time to adjust.

"They've held me to a high standard of work ethic since I got here," Freeman said. "I played in a similar system in college, so I knew some things, but the volume is still a lot to handle. They've spent countless hours working with me."

Freeman can see the benefits of that work in his play this season.

When he led the Bucs to an 18-17 win over St. Louis on Oct. 24, he faced a critical second-and-20 situation late in the contest. He responded by completing two check-downs for seven yards each that set up a manageable fourth-down situation to keep the drive alive. Freeman admits that last season, as a rookie, he would have tried to force a deep pass on one of those earlier downs. Now he has the patience to see what smaller gains can mean on a pressure-packed possession.

That isn't to say Freeman doesn't still have his share of growing pains. All the quarterbacks taken in the first round since 2008 have had to endure their share of adversity (Stafford, for one, is in danger of having his second straight season aborted by injury).

But as Freeman noted, "You're going to have some [bad] things happen to you. So much of what this league is about is how you respond."

Sometimes the truth hurts but helps

Even in only his second season in the NFL, Sanchez's experience provides the best example of that.

He struggled so mightily through the middle of last season -- at one point he threw 15 interceptions in an eight-game span -- that the Jets' coaches called him in for a candid meeting after a late-season loss to Atlanta.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cavanaugh, Mark Sanchez
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellJets quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh has no problem getting his points across to Mark Sanchez.

"We told him he was the reason we weren't winning games," Jets quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh said.

Those words left Sanchez sullen for a moment, but something critical happened after he heard them: The Jets didn't lose another game until their AFC Championship defeat at Indianapolis.

During that time, Sanchez protected the football and made enough plays to keep his offense productive. This season he has thrown just five interceptions and he's coming off a career-high 336-yard passing effort in a 23-20 overtime win over Stafford's Detroit Lions.

"That talk could've crumbled a lot of guys," Cavanaugh said. "He could've interpreted those comments as 'We don't believe in you.' But we did believe in him. It's just that he wasn't ready to be that kind of quarterback yet. He will be someday, but he was smart enough to figure that out."

That mental toughness is exactly what separates future busts and franchise quarterbacks.

As Cameron said: "If you're worried about getting your quarterback mentally destroyed before he's ever gotten into the league, then you have a problem. He has to go through the four-interception game. He has to know the feeling of being responsible for a tough loss. If he's tough, he'll pull through that stuff. If he's not, then you drafted the wrong guy."

So far, it seems none of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2008 have created that concern for their teams. Instead, they've given plenty of franchises more reason to be optimistic about future top picks.

After all, the pain of a failed first-round pick can be devastating for an organization. Just ask Devaney. He was part of the San Diego front office when the Chargers selected Ryan Leaf second overall in 1998, right after Peyton Manning.

Nearly a decade has passed since Leaf flamed out after four seasons (and numerous controversial moments), but that experience has helped Devaney understand what it takes to find a big-time quarterback in the first round.

As one NFL owner might say, that search all comes down to one thing: "It."

"After Ryan, I learned that the on-the-field stuff is the easy part when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks," Devaney said.

"It's the off-the-field stuff that you really have to look at. When you see a Matt Ryan, a Mark Sanchez or some of the other guys who've come out recently, you see that they really get it. They all understand what it means to be a professional."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.