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Rookie QBs suffer most by lockout-prohibited work, teaching

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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This week's court decision allowing the NFL lockout to stand was more than just a setback for players. It was a crippling blow to rookie quarterbacks. They're the guys who need the mini-camps, OTAs, classroom work and on-field repetitions to develop into the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of tomorrow, only they're the ones not getting it

Now tell me that won't retard their development … because it will.

I know, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder are busy planning touch-football workouts with their teammates, and that's great. Only one problem: While it will help them learn new names, it won't help them learn new offenses.

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Nope, to do that, they must be around coaches, classrooms and practice fields for months, and that's not going to happen as long as the lockout lasts. And from what we heard this week from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, that won't be anytime soon.

The court will rule on an NFL motion for appeal next month, and the expectation is that it puts the season on indefinite hold. That's not good for anyone involved in the game, but it's downright devastating to the development of a young quarterback.

"You want to build a bridge from the spring to the summer," said an AFC assistant, "but you can’t. Plus, you're not going to have time to have competition. You have to know things right off the bat, otherwise there's a lot of guessing going on -- and that's not good. Guys are going to have to suck it up for awhile.

"The smart guys might be OK, but the 'repetition' guys are screwed. Guys who need that work over and over aren't going to get it, and they'll get left behind -- at least at the beginning. It's the instinctive guys who will succeed.

"My prediction: Young quarterbacks are going to spend all their waking hours in the building during the season -- if there is a season -- a lot more than during normal years."

Of course, it's not just the rookie quarterbacks who are affected. It's the coaches teaching them, too. Already they've started to pare playbooks to reduce the learning curve for their students. The idea is for coaches to make things as uncomplicated as possible for their understudies.

"Let's just say the packages will be limited," said an NFC quarterbacks coach. "It's going to be: What do they really need? It's especially hard with rookie quarterbacks that are with veteran teams. You can't show a rookie quarterback what he should have gotten on his own because veterans will get bored out of their minds. Look at Minnesota: Brett Favre could step in and make all the calls tomorrow, but Christian Ponder can't. So it's going to be hard."

Learning the quarterback position is difficult as it is, with some coaches firm in their beliefs that it takes three to four years for passers to feel comfortable. All I know is that it takes more than one, and I offer Peyton Manning as an example. He was 3-13 as a rookie. Troy Aikman was 0-11. John Elway threw twice as many interceptions as touchdown passes. Eli Manning produced a Blutarsky (zero-point-zero-zero passer rating) in a dreadful performance against Baltimore. And Drew Brees … well, it wasn't until his fourth season -- or after San Diego had all but given up on him, drafting Philip Rivers -- that he became a polished and reliable quarterback.

So it takes time, and that's where the lockout hurts rookies -- because it's not giving time to anyone but attorneys and judges.

Still, all is not lost. At least quarterbacks taken in the first-round have playbooks -- or should have. When the lockout was lifted it was done the day after they were chosen, so guys like Locker, Ponder, Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert in all likelihood were handed playbooks before leaving their team headquarters, and that can't hurt.

"That’s an absolute advantage," said an AFC offensive coordinator. "At least they can get down the terminology, see formations and look at pictures. None of that will change, so that gives them an edge."

But I'm not sure how much it means if you don't have someone to help you with calls or walk you through exercises. In essence, it's like showing up the first day of school, getting handed a 100-page homework assignment, then going home to sit for weeks, maybe months, trying to figure it all out. You might be OK if there were a lifeline to call, but there isn’t. Nobody can help … or, at least, nobody is supposed to.

Rookie QBs like Jake Locker are already behind the daunting learning curve that passers face when jumping to the NFL. (Getty Images)  
Rookie QBs like Jake Locker are already behind the daunting learning curve that passers face when jumping to the NFL. (Getty Images)  
One head coach I consulted said he believes assistants probably are communicating with players ("There's just too much you read about not to believe it's going on," he said), but so what? There's no face-to-face communication or on-the-field instruction to help with mechanics, techniques, formations and reading defenses.

Basically, there's no nothing, and I don't see how that does anything but retard the development of someone like Newton, who won a Heisman Trophy in a spread offense, ran more than he threw in his career at Auburn and the University of Florida and is in urgent need of tutoring because he's expected to be the starter in Carolina.

The Panthers may not admit that, but that's how it goes when you're the first pick of the draft, and Jimmy Clausen is the competition.

One GM said, "My question is: Do they start him from Day One? Or do they put him behind Clausen and let him learn, working him in by the eighth game or so. Or do they roll out both -- having, in essence, a two-quarterback system, that's not real popular but might be necessary.

"We don't know how quickly he'll pick things or what they'll throw him, but I guarantee it will be limited. And that will affect what Carolina is able to do. Because when you limit what you give the quarterback you limit the offense in general because he's the trigger man, and I want to see how that plays out over time.

"They might give him 30 plays where he would have had 300, and maybe those 30 are effective. But this is going to work both ways because if you're a defense facing the guy you're going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at him, and he'll do what he can to survive -- like throwing the 'out' or run and scramble.

"The key is what these guys are missing mentally -- because that is everything. The quarterbacks who achieved the most in this game, like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, all talk about how much they study in the offseason, and it shows. Because when you understand, you're confident. That comes with experience, but it comes with a lot of hard work, too."

Unfortunately for guys like Newton, Gabbert, Locker, Ponder and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton -- all rookie quarterbacks who could start this season -- the only work they do is on their own. And no matter what that is, it can't replicate what they could accomplish at their teams' headquarters.

No one is ready to say it's too late to make them ready for this season, but no one is prepared to say they aren't staring at an enormous learning curve, either. "No question, these guys are handicapped," the GM said. "A lot of this is going to depend on what we have for a training camp. If we have a normal one, the rookie quarterback is still going to be behind because he missed everything in the offseason. If we have half a training camp or two weeks to get ready, you're going to have a disaster for most of the season -- especially if you want him to start."

Bottom line?

"Bottom line," said an NFC head coach, "if you're a rookie quarterback, and you're looking to start, your back is against the wall."

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