The Curious Case of Starting a Rookie Quarterback in the NFL

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The Miami Dolphins have named rookie Ryan Tannehill their starting quarterback for the season, giving us yet another opportunity to discuss the NFL’s most ambiguous quest: quarterback development.

Quarterbacks are the obvious key to the NFL and, yet, there is great mystery surrounding the science of developing a good one.

If a universal answer existed, we wouldn’t see the ruins of JaMarcus Russell, J.P. Losman and Joey Harrington roaming the Earth.

If developing a quarterback came with a set of rules, the Cleveland Browns wouldn’t be in the shape that they’ve been for the past 12 years.

It’s easy to say every situation or player is different, and development is an evolving science that will never be perfect. This is fine. The Dolphins have probably convinced themselves of something similar as they justify the risk they are taking with Tannehill.

The risk, of course, is that Tannehill will fail to the point where he will never be able to succeed again. He will be ruined mentally. We’ve seen it in Cleveland before.

So while I think it’s true – every player is different – I think there is a rule to be found here and the Dolphins have really missed it.

As we get to it, I must admit that I am in the vast, VAST, minority of those who would have been fine with the Browns drafting Ryan Tannehill. I loved him.

Sure, his inexperience scared me, but there are very few players who can do what we were seeing in Tannehill’s highlight films, throwing strikes on the move like Aaron Rodgers and barreling down the field over tacklers like Cam Newton.

Tannehill has the size, speed and the sweet release today’s unstoppable quarterbacks have.

But based on his conversion from wide receiver and limited starts as a quarterback, the plan the Dolphins sold from the outset was to sit the guy as a developmental player for at least a year. As they said, he was a project (i.e. great physical tools but in need of coaching).

It is their departure from this plan that is going to cost them; moreover, they are putting Tannehill in a position where there will be consequences to failure.

First of all, the Dolphins should have seen this coming.

They should have known they would be under pressure to play such a high draft pick right away, and they should have been ready for the scenario where Tannehill shined against Matt Moore and the second-string defenses of the preseason. Now they’re caught between pumping up Tannehill too much and flip-flopping on their own well-laid plans. They retained Moore and brought in David Garrard for a reason: to bury the project Tannehill on the depth chart.

Second of all, there are plenty of examples of teams sitting highly-drafted quarterbacks on which the Dolphins could have rested.

The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Carson Palmer No. 1 overall in 2003 and sat him for an entire year behind Jon Kitna. The team improved under Kitna, developed the pieces they would need for Carson to succeed, and when the time came, they handed Carson the job that was his all along.

In San Diego, the Chargers sat the No. 4 overall pick, Philip Rivers, behind Drew Brees for two full seasons. They let Brees walk as a free agent in 2006 and handed Rivers the job that was his all along.

In both situations, there was no safety net. There was no“if Carson fails, we’ll do this instead.”

The Bengals and the Chargers were upfront and deliberate about when their projects would become starters, and that had an effect on the psyche of the player. Win or lose, they were going to be the quarterback.

So not only have the Dolphins displayed a lack of conviction in their plan to build the team, they have failed to start Tannehill out on a path they could have easily shown him as having worked before.

Where Rivers and Palmer benefited from believing in their respective team’s plan, the Dolphins’ lack of clarity may open the door for Tannehill to doubt himself. Doubt is a killer.

Now, do quarterbacks succeed when asked to start immediately as rookies? Of course – it’s easy enough to point to what the Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts did with Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning.

Both famously started as rookies and played poorly. However, neither was asked to justify their starting job by outperforming another player. They had the unwavering support of their front offices to screw up and play on. There was no safety net and no doubt. This proved to be a necessary step in their development as Hall of Famers.

You can see the same thinking at work with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. These two star-studded rookies have entered camp as the unquestioned starters with no alternatives. There is no circumstance in which they will be benched for poor play this season, and that will allow them to learn properly, to make mistakes positively.

Tannehill has not ascended to being a starter under those circumstances. He was positioned as the third-stringer and an injury changed the Dolphins’ mind.

This happens. Plans in the NFL often go astray. Anything from an injury to illegal dog fighting can spoil a team’s path, but a team can survive such a catastrophe so long as they can preserve that consequence-free environment.

If Tannehill can win his job, he can lose it too. This is different than being pressed into duty.

We have a great example of this in the AFC North, where both Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger have started and led their teams to the playoffs as rookies. It’s easy to say both Pittsburgh and Baltimore have great supporting casts, but they also broke in their quarterbacks in physiological environments similar to Manning’s and Aikman’s, where it didn’t matter if they struggled.

In both cases, Flacco and Roethlisberger were told entering their rookie seasons that they would not start. There was no competition. They would sit on the bench and learn for a year. And in both cases, the veteran starter ahead of them got injured.

Flacco and Roethlisberger were then told to just go out and play. If they struggled, they weren’t going to lose their jobs. They were playing because their team had no choice. Removing that fear of failure was key. The Dolphins, on the other hand, had a choice.

This is where the Browns are almost correct in their approach to grooming Brandon Weeden, and why they won’t fully get there until they unload Colt McCoy. The second a healthy Weeden does not start a game over McCoy, the second he even starts looking over his shoulder, is the moment you risk losing him forever.

They even have an element of purity working for them when you consider Weeden’s age. The Browns have no choice but to play him now.

But as a college star, Colt McCoy has always carried a high profile, so regardless of his actual talent, he’ll have a voice in the media, a presence.

If the Browns are not able to successfully showcase McCoy to the Philadelphia Eagles this week (and boy could the Eagles use him), I hope they are strong enough to cut McCoy before this thing goes any further, because his presence can only threaten Weeden’s freedom to make those positive mistakes.

If a young quarterback is not left to feel completely consequence-free, well, look no further than the trials and tribulations of Derek Anderson vs. Brady Quinn. Each only succeeded when they had nothing to lose, when a mistake didn’t matter. Eventually, both succumbed to the damage done by being forced to constantly look over their shoulders at one another. Overall, the Browns were also attempting to redefine their direction, and that contributed to lack of clarity that doomed Anderson and Quinn.

We can see it dooming John Skelton and Kevin Kolb in Arizona, and maybe even Russell Wilson and Matt Flynn in Seattle.

The rule I am getting to here is this: a team’s approach to breaking in a new quarterback – their stated plan and how they go about paving the way for their guy – is apparent to everyone, especially the quarterback at stake, and a great way to develop a quarterback who doubts himself is to project that approach as a philosophy. You have got to go all-in.

The Browns are talking the talk right now with Bradon Weeden when it comes to their plan, and if they can finally cut the cord with McCoy it will prove to everyone they mean to stick to it.

The Dolphins, on the other hand, will now face a new pressure to keep Tannehill in there no matter how much he struggles (and, as a rookie quarterback, he is going to struggle).

Since they set the standard that the best player will start, if Tannehill fails, they have to bench him. And once you’re yanking quarterbacks in and out of a lineup, you know you’re on the road to disaster.

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Tags: Brandon Weeden Cleveland Browns Ryan Tannehill

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