Recent history has been unkind to rookie QBs

Eli Manning and Philip Rivers are likely to experience the difficulty of starting as rookies.

Updated: May 10, 2004, 4:10 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Having scored an impressive 39 on the Wonderlic test, quarterback Eli Manning certainly demonstrated his problem-solving skills to NFL scouts prior to the NFL draft draft. Now the former University of Mississippi star, and bearer of a surname that augurs brilliance at the game's most difficult position, must tackle an even more challenging conundrum.

How to tilt an empirically tested equation which suggests that a rookie quarterback plus a first-year starting job typically equal disaster.

Eli Manning
Will Manning and the Giants be down and out in 2004?
It is, of course, the same daunting reality that will confront all four quarterbacks chosen in the first round. But for Manning, whose famous father and brother combined for a 7-21-2 record as rookie starters in the league, the challenge of taking over the New York Giants will be a bit more pressure-packed in an environment where the expectations figure to be ratcheted to unrealistic proportions.

Given the respective situations into which the four first-round quarterbacks are entering, Manning is probably the most likely immediate starter, the road paved for his immediate ascent to the top of the depth chart with the Giants' release of Kerry Collins. Even if the Giants sign a veteran quarterback, odds are that it will be the rookie who takes the first snap at Philadelphia in the Sept. 12 regular-season opener.

"If that's the way it is," said the youngest Manning sibling, "then that's the way it is. You just get prepared for it as best you can. I mean, that's the road Peyton followed, (and) it seemed to turn out pretty good for him."

But in 1998, when Peyton Manning stepped out of Tennessee and into a starting job, the Indianapolis Colts were coming off a 3-13 mark. The Colts were a small-market franchise with a new head coach (Jim Mora), and Peyton was viewed by the local media as pristine, a guy with nary a hint of controversy. It is, in Indianapolis, a much more benign media contingent, one not accustomed to sensationalism and with very little competitive edge.

The bet is that for Eli Manning, the nickname bestowed on him in college, "Easy," won't exactly be the most appropriate precursor for what is about to transpire.

For openers, the spotlight will burn much brighter, and the magnifying glass under which every quarterback operates will be more like an electron microscope. Manning witnessed firsthand on Saturday morning the fickle nature of the knucklehead fans, jeering him one minute for refusing to play for the San Diego Chargers, then rhythmically chanting his name after the Giants acquired him in arguably the most unusual trade in draft history.

There is no denying his bloodlines, the thoroughbred numbers he posted at Ole Miss, the hints that he is physically and mentally prepared for what lies ahead. But outside of the bloodlines, other first-round quarterbacks have seemed similarly poised for success, and have faltered as rookies.

None of the 10 quarterbacks taken with the initial choice in the draft since 1983 compiled a winning record and the aggregate rookie mark of the group was a miserable 24-73.

There are also mixed signals about how the Giants are perceived following the collapse of last season, when a roster expected to contend for a Super Bowl berth finished the year at 4-12, undermanned by injuries and overmatched on the sidelines and on the field. Some players, perhaps even a few Giants officials, still regard 2003 as an aberration. For those true believers, the roller coaster ride inherent to starting a rookie quarterback could be an unsettling experience.

Wide receiver Amani Toomer allowed that the Giants are "not going to have much time to wait on somebody to develop," and first-year coach Tom Coughlin insisted that he is "not going to concede anything."

Make no mistake, Coughlin is a terrific coach, a proven winner. And the Giants offensive lineup is rife with playmakers, such as Toomer, tight end Jeremy Shockey and tailback Tiki Barber. On the flip side, the line unit is being revamped, and Manning will probably be working behind a quartet that features only two returning starters.

Said one New York veteran: "It's probably not the best situation for (Manning) or for the rest of us right now. But you knew there was going to be a change after last season and this is what we've got. So you try to make the best of it, right?"

Here's a look at the circumstances faced by the other three first-round quarterbacks:

Philip Rivers
Rivers
  • Philip Rivers (San Diego): Assuming the fans are still paying attention -- and many have been turned off by eight straight non-winning seasons that include five campaigns with double-digit defeats -- the former North Carolina State star figures to be embraced. After all, he isn't the quarterback who didn't want to play in San Diego, and will never be perceived as petulant. And with an NCAA record 51 starts on his resume, it might well be that Rivers is even more prepared than Manning to step quickly into the lineup.

    But what a perilous lineup it is into which he would step. Tailback LaDainian Tomlinson is a splendidly talented performer who keeps growing, as evidenced by his improvement as a receiver in 2003. There is, however, little else around which to build. The Chargers either lost in free agency or released eight of their 11 offensive linemen from '03, and that includes top tackle Vaughn Parker. The best receiver on the San Diego payroll might be James Lofton, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame member is the receivers coach.

    The staff that fell in love with Rivers at the Senior Bowl, where it coached him, could be gone by season's end. There is a lingering suspicion, one which in part fueled Manning's reluctance to go to San Diego in the draft, that things will be turned upside down in the football operation if 2004 is a disaster. In short, it is not the optimum situation for such a good kid and exemplary prospect.

    San Diego turned down at least one trade offer for Drew Brees during the draft, but the three-year veteran isn't viewed through the same prism he was a couple years ago. The bet is that Brees opens the season but that Rivers is starting by late November. Even if he starts just 4-6 games, Rivers could absorb more punishment than Manning. But by 2005, he will be the opening day starter for the Chargers.

  • Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh): The fallback guy in Pittsburgh, by a team that coveted Rivers even more, Roethlisberger is viewed by some as the quarterback with the most upside potential of the first-round quartet, but also as the least ready to play quickly. "Big Ben" figures to get very little time on the clock in 2004, especially now that the team is poised to upgrade the contract of incumbent Tommy Maddox.

    That should actually come as good news for Roethlisberger, who has been playing the quarterback spot just four years, and doesn't need to have his shortcomings exposed so quickly. Whether or not the Miami (Ohio) star even takes a snap in 2004 likely depends on Pittsburgh's ability to stay in contention deep into the season. Coach Bill Cowher feels the 6-10 record of a year ago was an aberration. If it wasn't, he might not be around long enough to see Roethlisberger develop into the Steelers' quarterback of the future.

    No matter how 2004 plays out, though, Roethlisberger is in a good situation. He is going to a stable franchise, one that doesn't change coaches very often, and into a city where the rabid fans reacted positively to the Steelers using a first-round choice on a quarterback for the first time since 1980. The Steelers already have an experienced No. 2 quarterback in Charlie Batch, and so Roethlisberger will be able to apprentice quietly and without any immediate expectations. Expect him to challenge for the starting job, realistically, in '05.

  • J.P. Losman (Buffalo): The contract extension to which incumbent Drew Bledsoe agreed reduces the urgency for the former Tulane star to be ready to play in 2005. And in Bledsoe, who phoned Losman shortly after he was chosen on Saturday to welcome him to the team, the youngster will find a willing and cooperative mentor.

    Losman will also benefit from the trio of head coach Mike Mularkey, coordinator Tommy Clements and quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche, three excellent minds and three guys whose knowledge of the position is terrific. Losman will play a ton of snaps in preseason because, given the current depth chart, he could win the job as Bledsoe's primary backup. If the Bills' new staff can rehabilitate Bledsoe, though, and shake him from the lethargy that marked his 2003 performance, Losman will probably get a "redshirt" rookie year.

    Arguably the most physically gifted of the four first-rounders, he is going into a good situation, one where the Bills have added to their offensive arsenal. The classy Bledsoe doesn't view him as a threat. He's got an innovative head coach and clever offensive schemer who will eventually design ways to play into his athleticism. Unfortunately, for Losman, we probably won't see him on display very much before 2006.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

  • ALSO SEE