Playoff field filled with inexperienced QBs

The playoff field is filled with inexperienced QBs. How they handle the pressure could determine their team's fate.

Updated: January 2, 2004, 6:57 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

With a Louisiana accent thicker than day-old gumbo, and a way with words that is sometimes no way at all, Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme often sends the media and even teammates and coaches scrambling for an interpreter.

Like, ask Delhomme about how he feels the intensity level might be ratcheted up when the playoffs commence this weekend, about what he has heard concerning the enhanced level of competitiveness at this time of year, and get set to have your head swiveling like Linda Blair's in "The Exorcist."

Jake Delhomme
Getty ImagesJake Delhomme threw 19 TDs and 16 INTs this season.
"From what guys say, it's different, but I'm trying to make it the same," Delhomme told one Charlotte radio station after the Panthers had secured their first playoff berth since they won the division title in 1996. "The fact you know it's harder, well, maybe that will make it a little bit easier."

Uh, got that, folks?

Fact is, it's up to all of us to decipher the convoluted and mind-numbing ramblings of Delhomme, a throwback-type player and self-deprecating good guy. In his first season as a starter, he is now also in his first playoff experience as a team's No. 1 guy, and his job is to divine the pass coverages of the Dallas Cowboys for Saturday evening's wild-card matchup, not to explain his jambalaya-jumbled syntax.

What is notable for some of the dozen quarterbacks whose season has been extended, however, is that they will soon discover the playoffs are akin to a foreign language. And there is no Berlitz crash course capable of accelerating the learning curve. This figures to be a Super Bowl tournament that, given the lack of playoff experience at the quarterback position, will include plenty of on-the-job training.

And that, in addition to the overall strength of the 12-team pool and the experience of the head coaches involved, likely will be one of the subplots through the coming month.

"You would think that my experience [in the playoffs] will help us some," acknowledged Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre. "It ought to count for something."

If it counts for anything at all, when compared to the aggregate experience of the other starting quarterbacks in the playoffs, the Packers could legitimately challenge for a spot in Super Bowl XXXVIII. There is, in general, no substitute for experience. That truism could be magnified immediately, since only one of the four quarterbacks in Saturday's two wild-card games, Steve McNair of Tennessee, has ever started a playoff contest.

Indeed, this represents one of the least playoff-experienced aggregations of quarterbacks in several years. Three of the dozen quarterbacks own Super Bowl rings but one of them, Kurt Warner of St. Louis, is a backup. That anomaly is kind of a microcosm for the total makeup of the starting quarterback talent pool.

This year's playoff quarterbacks have totaled just 39 postseason starts, an average of only 3.3 each, with a record of 22-17. Had Arizona wide receiver Nathan Poole not scored on the final play against Minnesota last Sunday, the total starts would be significantly less. That's because Favre, who would have been riding the tractor around his Hattiesburg, Miss., farm by now if not for the heroics of Poole and the Cardinals, owns 17 of them and a 10-7 record in the playoffs.

Remove him from the equation, and then eliminate McNair and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, with seven starts apiece, and that leaves the remaining nine quarterbacks with a paltry eight postseason starts among them.

Six of the quarterbacks have never started a playoff contest. Seven of them have never won a postseason outing.

For sure, part of the fascination of this year's playoffs will be the morbid curiosity of watching to see which of those players implodes in his first big postseason moment. A lot of eyes clearly will be on youngsters like Delhomme, Anthony Wright of Baltimore, Marc Bulger of St. Louis, Dallas' Quincy Carter and Matt Hasselbeck of Seattle. Even Trent Green of Kansas City, a 10-year veteran, is a first-time playoff starter.

Green conceded last week he is both excited, and slightly daunted as well, by what lies ahead for him when the Chiefs start playoff competition next week, following a bye. He has been around playoff situations in the past -- remember, Green was to have been the Rams' starter in 1999, but watched the entire season and Super Bowl XXXIV from the sidelines because of a knee injury -- and has some feel for the experience. But being party to playoff preparations, and being the guest of honor at the party, are hardly the same.

Given the nature of the position, those quarterbacks are all accustomed to the spotlight, of course. The great unknown still out there for them, though, is how well they will respond when the pressure grows white-hot at center stage in such a conspicuous setting.

From what guys say, it's different, but I'm trying to make it the same. The fact you know it's harder, well, maybe that will make it a little bit easier.
Jake Delhomme, Panthers QB on playing in the playoffs

Noted the offensive coordinator for one of the franchises that will go into the playoffs with a quarterback who has never started a postseason contest: "We talk a lot now in the league about having a quarterback who can manage the game for you, one who doesn't necessarily have to make every play. Basically, what that means is that we don't have a lot of franchise quarterbacks in the league anymore. But in the playoffs, there is going to come a moment of truth, a time when you're guy better play like a franchise quarterback. There are teams who have really nurse-maided their quarterbacks along to this point. Well, now the apron strings are going to be cut, you know? The quarterbacks are going to be left alone in the kitchen by themselves without a cooking manual."

And some of them, it would follow, might need a microwave to get up to speed. Even then, a few are apt to get burned, no matter how confident they seem now. What might be viewed as an adventure before the fact could be recalled as a misadventure after it. A quarterback can make his bones in the playoffs and, conversely, a poor postseason game could become another skeleton in the closet.

Dallas coach Bill Parcells, while heaping praise on Carter this week for the quantum leap he took this season on and off the field, nonetheless sounded a cautionary note about the upcoming playoff challenge. "This is," Parcells noted, "something else. It won't take too long into the game for [Carter] to realize that."

Six weeks ago, Carter marshaled the Cowboys to a victory over the same Panthers team he will encounter on Saturday evening but that win is a distant memory and has virtually no relevance to what is about to transpire.

Give the three-year veteran quarterback credit for knowing this much: The opponent in the wild-card matchup is the same. The personnel and schemes he will face are the same. But the circumstances are as different as night and day.

"People say your reputation is really made in the playoffs, that you're judged by your performance there," Carter said. "I'm looking forward to it. It's my first time, so we're going to find out some things about me, I guess."

You, Quincy, and a lot of your counterparts.

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

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