Ira Miller: Let's tap brakes on anointing rookie quarterbacks

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 17, 2017 at 1:12 PM
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They couldn't contain themselves in Chicago this week, where the front-page headline following the debut of rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky screamed in capital letters more than an inch high, "THE FUTURE IS WOW!"

This followed just a tad more than a half of work by Trubisky in the exhibition opener against a bunch of people wearing Denver Broncos uniforms who will mostly be looking for work in another month.

Call it premature excitement.

And it makes you wonder: Why are we always looking for instant saviors in a line of work where history tells us, with few exceptions, it takes time to learn the job?

Bill Walsh tried to force Joe Montana into the lineup in his second year with the 49ers and had to bench him. John Elway was benched twice as a rookie. Jim Plunkett eventually won two Super Bowls, but did not have a winning record as a starter until his 10th season.

Brett Favre so exasperated with his first coach that he was traded away. Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie. It took five years for Terry Bradshaw to establish himself as a starter. A San Francisco newspaper welcomed Steve Young as a starting quarterback by running a reader poll to ask whether Young or Steve Bono should be the 49ers' QB.

Kurt Warner, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame this month, had a job stocking grocery shelves for $5.50 an hour and might never have played in the NFL if the Rams hadn't become desperate due to an injury to their presumed starter in 1999.

And on, and on, and on.

Bradshaw's on-again, off-again early career is a good example of how developing a NFL quarterback takes time. A couple of decades later, Young struggled so mightily with Tampa Bay that executives and coaches around the NFL could hardly stifle a chuckle when Walsh, the 49ers' quarterback guru, traded for him. Young later led the NFL in passer efficiency six years in a row on the way to the Hall of Fame.

Finding a quarterback, clearly, takes patience.

Teams are always searching and frequently overpay. Last spring, three teams (Chicago, Houston, Kansas City) traded up in the first round to select a QB. But four of the last eight Super Bowls were won by quarterbacks who were not first-round draft choices.

In fact, of the four Super Bowls in this recent stretch won by first-rounders, only two - Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers in 2011 and Baltimore with Joe Flacco in 2013 - were won by quarterbacks playing for the team that drafted them.

And furthermore, only three quarterbacks (Warner, Favre and Ken Stabler) have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the last decade, and none of them was a first-round draft choice.

Patience, however, is not a virtue for NFL fans nor, in many cases, for NFL journalists. But for every Manning, who started every game beginning with his rookie season and eventually, you may recall, developed into a pretty good quarterback, there is a Phil Simms, whose career foundered for several years, in part due to injuries that set back the learning curve, before he eventually played well enough to set a record for passing accuracy in the Super Bowl.

Which brings us back to Chicago.

John Fox, the Bears' head coach, tried to defuse the Trubisky mania by pointing out, "First time we threw Tim Tebow out in Denver was pretty similar." You remember Tebow actually helped the Broncos win a playoff game in 2011. Lasted three seasons in the NFL.

Several years before that, when the Broncos were coached by a legitimate quarterback guru, Mike Shanahan, they drafted a quarterback named Jay Cutler. Cutler is a modern-day incarnation of a former San Francisco quarterback named Steve DeBerg, of whom Walsh once solemnly intoned, "He plays just good enough to get you beat."

Early on, one Denver columnist called Cutler "the greatest thing since raspberry jam."

As it turned out, Cutler played just good enough in Denver to get Shanahan fired, and the next coach traded him to Chicago, which greeted him as a combination of Johnny Unitas and Otto Graham. On his arrival in the Windy City, one columnist wrote, "The Bears now have the best quarterback in the NFC."

Fast forward to today. Cutler is now expected to be the savior in Miami, he has a .500 record for his NFL career and one playoff appearance in 11 seasons. The irony is that he had the best year of his career when Adam Gase, the current Dolphins' head coach, was his offensive coordinator in Chicago, and, well, connect the dots. A career-long record of mediocrity suggests Cutler is, well, mediocre, but perhaps Gase is a miracle worker who can get to him.

In any event, Cutler's career, and inversely, the roads traveled by Bradshaw, Young and Simms provide compelling evidence that it's idiotic to fall head over heels for a quarterback after one exhibition game or even one season. But it's a clear sign of how challenged some teams in the league are to find a decent quarterback that it takes so little to get them and their fans excited.

There have been quarterbacks who were great from the get-go, but you can pretty well count them on one hand. Dan Marino led the AFC in passer rating as a rookie in 1983. More recently, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger led their teams to the playoffs as rookies.

But if you really want to know why it's stupid to make a rush to judgement on a quarterback, consider the case of Robert Griffin III, the second player chosen in the 2012 draft. He led the Redskins to the playoffs as a rookie, has never has been able to recreate his first-year success and, at age 27, is looking for work after flunking out in that NFL graveyard in Cleveland.

So, let's contain the first-week excitement, even the first-year excitement, please. Quarterback is the hardest job in professional sports, and you'll usually be disappointed looking for instant success.

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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