Toss baby bottles, pass winning formula
Bradford, Freeman part of a crop of young QBs who thrive when given reins early
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.
"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.
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.
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.
The quarterbacks who have been drafted in the first round since 1998:
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.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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