NFL HALFWAY: How QB handles 1st 24 games gauge for success
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Trade Marcus Mariota. Play Jared Goff now. Carson Wentz isn't as perfect as Eagles fans thought only a month ago. Dak Prescott can do no wrong.
And where is Jameis Winston again?
Quarterback is the premier position in the NFL, and everyone is searching for that guy who can anchor a franchise for at least a decade. Then they often rush them on the field under pressure to win now, with patience in short supply.
For every Peyton Manning who survived a rough rookie year on his way to NFL stardom, being picked first or second overall is no guarantee of success.
''The bottom line is we're playing these kids well before they're ready to play,'' said Rich Gannon, the NFL's 2002 MVP and now an analyst for CBS. ''For many of them, they're going to have a bad experience. And in some cases such a bad experience, it can do real damage and irreparable harm to their confidence. The other thing is they learn bad habits as young players they're often times very difficult to break when you get another coaching staff that comes in.''
How a quarterback fares over the first 24 games of his career can be a pretty good measure of future success – or failure.
Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 pick overall in 1998, lasted only 25 games in the NFL. Robert Griffin III edged Andrew Luck for the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, yet is with his second team in five injury-filled years. Winston, the No. 1 overall pick of 2015, just played his 24th career game, while the No. 2 pick overall last year, Marcus Mariota, has 21 starts under his belt.
Yet Winston and Mariota already are on their second head coaches in just their second seasons. Tampa Bay promoted Dirk Koetter from offensive coordinator to maintain continuity with Winston, while Mariota is working with his third play caller in Tennessee since being drafted out of Oregon. Coaches with both teams believe they've seen enough to know they have the right quarterback.
''Is he there yet? No,'' Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Todd Monken said of Winston. ''Are we there yet, collectively? No, but you'd rather have to try to reel a guy back in than try to develop some sort of toughness or will to win in competitive spirit. That's what we have at quarterback, and we need to embrace that and continue to mold that and develop that. That's coaching, that's playing, that's run the football better and him taking care of it better.''
Mariota has helped the Titans (4-5) win more games than in all of his rookie season with seven games left.
''I'm glad he's our quarterback. There's no question about it,'' Titans coach Mike Mularkey said.
Fans in Los Angeles believe Goff could be their quarterback, though coach Jeff Fisher has kept this year's top pick on the Rams' bench. Gannon credits Fisher both for knowing his quarterback and all the pieces the Rams don't have just yet to help Goff.
''You think for a second Jeff Fisher, who hasn't had a winning team in a while, would just sit there and go, `We're going to go 6-10 or 7-9 whatever, it is just because we want to be safe?''' Gannon said. ''He's going to put his best guy who gives him the best chance to win. The best guy right now is Case Keenum. It may not be the sexiest thing, but believe me, their problems are a lot more extensive than the quarterback position.''
Some quarterbacks, such as Tim Couch in 1999 with the expansion Cleveland Browns and even Archie Manning with the New Orleans Saints, found themselves drafted by teams building almost from the ground up. Survival meant as much living to play the next week rather than worrying about any extended careers.
Having an offensive line already in place, a go-to wide receiver or tight end certainly helps.
Prescott, the seventh quarterback drafted this year, has won seven straight in Dallas, fitting well into the offense with help from fellow rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott already has taken a handful of franchise rookie records from Troy Aikman, who went 0-11 in 1989, and has given Dallas reason to think of keeping veteran Tony Romo on the bench longer once Romo is fully healthy.
Being picked at the top of the draft is much more challenging because quarterbacks go to teams coming off losing seasons. Mariota missed four games as a rookie because of injuries, so Tennessee traded for running back DeMarco Murray and bolstered its line this offseason to help him. As good as Wentz looked winning his first three games, the Eagles need more help at wide receiver, which they can't add until the offseason.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has schemed against plenty of quarterbacks in his 58 NFL seasons. He notes Ben Roethlisberger, the 11th pick overall in 2004, win his first 13 starts in Pittsburgh. LeBeau has a simple reason why some quarterbacks succeed and others fail.
''The answer is those guys are special players,'' LeBeau said.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall, Schuyler Dixon and Greg Beacham contributed to this report.
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