Overall, five QBs making playoff debuts

This weekend's wild-card matchups feature veteran playoff QBs vs. signal callers making their postseason debuts.

Updated: January 8, 2006, 12:10 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

It is the most mundane of football events, the action with which every play from scrimmage commences. An exchange that should be nearly as natural and involuntary an afterthought as, say, drawing your next breath.

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But for a quarterback making his NFL postseason debut, simply taking his first snap from center is often anything but a snap.

"No matter how many times people say to you, 'Calm down, it's just another game,' that really isn't the case," said Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who enters this year's playoffs with four postseason starts on his résumé. "Everything you do, whether it is good or bad, but especially the bad, is [magnified]. It kind of hits you when you get up under the center for the very first time. [You] walk up to the line and it's different. You definitely feel the [additional] pressure. It's just not the same as the regular season. If you haven't been through it before, it can be a little bit nerve-racking."

In the playoffs, coaches want quarterbacks who are nervy, not nervous, and the difference between those disparate states often comes down to previous postseason experience. In fact, playoff experience likely will be a scrutinized commodity when the Super Bowl tournament begins this weekend.

Chris Simms
Scott A. Miller/US PRESSWIREChris Simms had a season-high 3 TD passes in Week 10 against the Redskins.

Each of the four wild-card matchups features a quarterback with at least two games of playoff seasoning against a counterpart with no postseason starts. A look at this weekend's first-round pairings: New England's Tom Brady (nine playoff starts) versus Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich (none); Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (two) against Cincinnati's Carson Palmer (none); Washington's Mark Brunell (eight) against Tampa Bay's Chris Simms (none); and Delhomme (four) against the New York Giants' Eli Manning (none).

Expanding the examination to the entire playoff field, including the four franchises with first-round byes, five of the 12 starting quarterbacks in the 2005 postseason pool have no playoff starts and six have never won a single playoff game.

The 12 playoff quarterbacks have a cumulative 37 postseason starts, but three of them -- Brady, Brunell and the Colts' Peyton Manning -- own 25 of them. Whether the lack of playoff experience is a factor with the remaining quarterbacks, among whom only a pair of Jakes (Denver's Plummer and Carolina's Delhomme) have more than two starts, remains to be seen.

The experience issue, however, is a factor nearly every season.

The winner of three Super Bowl titles over the last four seasons, Brady has accounted for nine of the 21 playoff victories registered by the dozen quarterbacks in the 2005 playoff pool. He joins Delhomme as the only two quarterbacks in the playoffs with a previous Super Bowl starting appearance, and is the only one who owns a ring.

That Brady is 9-0 in the postseason, one would think, counts for something. Any amount of playoff experience, Roethlisberger noted this week, is going to be helpful to a quarterback. Certainly the Steelers' starter hopes the two playoff starts he got under his belt in 2004 as a rookie will benefit him this time around.

"I'm a lot more comfortable," Roethlisberger told Pittsburgh reporters Wednesday after practice. "I understand what's going on a little bit more … and hopefully, it will translate into better football."

During the 2004 regular season, Roethlisberger tossed only 11 interceptions in 295 pass attempts, one for every 26.8 passes. In two playoff games, though, Roethlisberger had five interceptions in 54 passes, or one for every 10.8 attempts. Two of the interceptions were returned for touchdowns, and Roethlisberger had just three touchdown passes in the playoffs. His postseason passer rating of 61.3 paled in comparison to a sterling efficiency rating of 98.1 during the regular season.

Such postseason drop-offs are not uncommon. First-time playoff starters tend to press a little more, to sometimes play too cautiously, to take longer than their more experienced counterparts to recognize the heightened intensity that accompanies postseason football.

While it's true that five of the last 10 Super Bowl titles have been won by quarterbacks appearing in their first postseason, these overall statistics don't lie: Dating to 1990, the initial season under the current 12-team format, first-time playoff starters recorded passer efficiency ratings nearly a dozen points lower than experienced ones. In the same period, playoff rookies won only one-third of their first postseason starts.

No matter how many times people say to you, 'Calm down, it's just another game,' that really isn't the case.
Panthers QB Jake Delhomme
Said one veteran quarterback, who asked not to be identified when recalling his first postseason game: "Right before I left the locker room, I [vomited] my guts out. The first snap of the game? Hey, I thought I was going to [urinate] down my leg or something. All of a sudden, it's not like you can screw up a game, and just come back next week and [redeem] yourself. Screw up and there is no next week. For you or for 52 other guys all looking at you. I mean, that's pressure."

Notable about this year's pool of playoff first-timers is that they appear well prepared for the rigors of the postseason. Simms was just 6½ years old when his father, former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, led his team to a Super Bowl XXI title and set a record for passing accuracy, but he has seen the playoffs up close and personal. Eli Manning has watched older brother Peyton perform in the playoffs. Palmer and Bears quarterback Rex Grossman played in big bowl games and in big-time conferences.

But just as in life, there is no substitute for experience in the playoffs, and no amount of counseling can accelerate the postseason learning curve.

That's a lesson a few playoff quarterbacks figure to learn in the next couple weeks.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.