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Patience can pay off with first-round QBs

4/16/2004

On the eve of the 2003 draft, having decided to exercise the first overall choice in the lottery on Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer, the Cincinnati Bengals handed the Heisman Trophy winner a signing bonus check for $10.01 million.

Not until about 11 months later, however, did head coach Marvin Lewis hand Palmer the starter's job.

For the characteristically penurious Bengals, watching Palmer spend his entire rookie year as a spectator while banking more in total '03 compensation ($11.08 million between the signing bonus and his base salary) than all but eight other players in the NFL, certainly must have been a little unnerving. While the three other quarterbacks chosen in last year's first round combined for 25 starts, Palmer never abandoned his sideline perch, taking zero snaps in his inaugural campaign.

Levied a salary cap charge of $2.5 million, Cincinnati got a quarterback who posted a passer efficiency rating of 0.0.

But the Bengals are not the only franchise in recent draft history to follow such a course, rewarding a first-round quarterback with a pricey contract, while conceding the prospect might be tethered to the bench for a season or two. It is, for sure, a tough swallow, giving a first-round quarterback so much money before giving him the keys to the car. But it is an element of the game sure to be repeated in next week's draft, and, most likely, in every lottery that follows.

It is simply a fact of life that some quarterbacks are going to cashier a lot of money to star in the NFL equivalent of The Apprentice before they ever star in a game.

"It's not an easy thing to do, because you're making an investment now on a belief for the future," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "You can probably say the same thing, I guess, about any player that you draft. But the (financial) ramifications are bigger at quarterback. The tradeoff, at least in theory, is that you're investing now for a guy who is going to make a difference in your team for a long time."

Indeed, the only savings for a team that drafts a quarterback it knows won't play as a rookie, is on the laundry charges for his unsullied uniform. Then again, if the quarterback is eventually the franchise's salvation, the layout is usually money well invested.

That doesn't make the decision, or the second-guessing from anxious fans or an owner who wants instant gratification, any easier. Which is why choosing a quarterback who is not expected to start as a rookie is such a wrenching experience for the general manager or personnel director who has to make such a determination.

There is some historical mitigation -- of the 13 quarterbacks chosen in the first round of the past five drafts, only three started the first game of their rookie season, and just six started in half of the games of their debut campaign -- with which to comfort one's self. Still, arriving at a pay-him-now-but-don't-play-him-now mindset is a mental journey that is fraught with high anxiety.

No team likes to give away the combination to the bank vault. Doing so is exponentially more troubling, though, when you acknowledge that the recipient is essentially going to be pad-locked to the bench for a while.

On the flip-side, even with some teams diminishing the significance of the quarterback spot, the position remains paramount to success. And teams are more willing to exercise patience with a quarterback if they sincerely believe there is a pot of Super Bowl gold at the end of the rainbow. That means paying now on the promise of production later.

"You have to put on the blinders and the ear-plugs (for such a decision)," Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher allowed. "The scouting and coaching departments almost have to work in a vacuum, where the outside factors don't affect you. I mean, you can't listen to the fans, or talk radio, or whatever. (You) assess the situation and say, 'Is this the best thing for this team and for its future?' If it is, and you're sure, you have to do it."

Fisher can speak with authority on such matters from having lived the experience.

In the 1994 draft, the then-Houston Oilers chose quarterback Steve McNair with the third overall selection, and all but immediately announced a timetable for his development that essentially ruled out him playing as a rookie. Sticking to their guns despite criticism from the fans, the Oilers also stuck to their blueprint for preparing McNair, and he didn't get his first NFL start until only three games remained in his sophomore season.

A decade later, with McNair one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks and co-most valuable player for the 2003 season, the roadmap his team followed looks like a masterstroke. That doesn't mean it wasn't rocky at times.

In many cases, and Cincinnati might qualify as such, economics eventually dictate when a quarterback's gestation period has ended and when he must leave the safety of a sideline womb. Other times, as with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis or David Carr in Houston, the team simply makes the decision to begin the building process immediately with the guy who figures to be the chief architect of success. But for the most part in the league, first-round quarterbacks are not first-game starters, and they typically spend their rookie seasons breaking the bank and not breaking into the lineup.

That experience is no less taxing for the quarterback, pointed out New York Jets star Chad Pennington, than it is for the personnel people and coaches who determine at what point the passer will play. Pennington is the only first-round quarterback since 1970 who did not start a game in his first two seasons.

"The upside," said Pennington, "is that you've got more money than you've ever had in your life. But while the money is nice, you'd still rather be playing, and your pride is a little but shaken. Part of the territory is that the big expectations come with being a first-round quarterback. And it's hard to have the money, and have all those eyes on you, and be making no contribution at all."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.