NFL Week Six

Rookie QBs have the right stuff

The Globe and Mail

Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets scrambles away from Jeff Charleston #97 of the New Orleans Saints at the Louisana Superdome on October 4, 2009 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) (Chris Graythen/2009 Getty Images)

It used to be that when an NFL team opted to start a rookie quarterback, it was viewed as sacrificing a season in the name of developing a player at the game's most important position. And there was plenty of evidence that while the move meant short-term pain, the long-term payoff was worth it.

These days though, NFL teams are more of the mind that they can have their cake and eat it, too.

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Take the New York Jets, for example, who this past spring moved up in the draft to fifth to select the University of Southern California's Mark Sanchez, a red-shirt junior who had started all of 16 games in college before deciding to enter the draft.

So what did Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan do during his first training camp this year? He not only anointed Sanchez the starting quarterback, but started talking about being able to challenge for a Super Bowl this season.

"That was motivating," Sanchez, 22, said this week. "I think it's what [Ryan] really believes and he's not going to hide anything. He promised he would never baby me into anything. He's like, 'We're not just going to spoon feed you through this whole thing. You're mature enough, you're ready to handle this attention. You're just going to be yourself and have fun and play like you always have. This is a special group, we have a lot of talent and a lot of potential but that's doesn't mean anything unless we get the job done, so a lot of that's on you.'"

Ryan's attitude is the latest example of the heightened expectations on young quarterbacks who are being expected to enter the NFL with enough poise and skill to make teams competitive from the get-go.

And with good reason. Last season, Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons) and Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens) became the first pair of rookie quarterbacks to lead teams to the playoffs - with the Ravens falling just one game short of the Super Bowl, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game.

Ryan - whose Jets will be in Toronto on Dec. 4 to play the Buffalo Bills - sees no reason why Sanchez can't help deliver similar results.

"We wouldn't have moved up [in the draft]when we did if we didn't think he had that ability to be a starter immediately," the coach said. "But I also wanted to make sure he earned it.

"I think it's a position that is a leadership position. I wanted to see how his teammates reacted to him. We knew he had the poise and all that stuff, but I wanted his teammates to see it and I wanted to make sure that he could absorb the entire playbook, which he has. … He definitely earned it. I think he played really well in the preseason and really well in the practices. He was absolutely tremendous on the practice field, and Clearly, to me, it was an easy decision to make and I think it was the right one for our organization."

Part of the reason young quarterbacks can so flawlessly fit into the NFL comes from U.S. college and the pro game being less distinct.

Where college football was once a collage of option quarterbacks and wishbone offences, more and more schools run pro-style offences in which quarterbacks are coached to stay in the pocket and throw. Similarly, NFL offences have borrowed from college-level trends, such as spread offences, which also put more emphasis on the passing game.

Sanchez, who played at one of the country's dominant programs (which produced current NFL quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart), says there's no denying there is still an adjustment to the professional level.

"It's so much faster," he said. "I think just your time in the pocket - and I'm getting plenty of time, don't get me wrong - but plenty of time in this league is a lot less time than you're used to in college. And guys being open in the league might not feel like they were open in college.

"Open is barely half a step on a guy because the players are so good, they recover so quickly and they're so instinctive and smart."

Taking nothing away from the recent NFL success of young quarterbacks, none of them have had to do it on their own.

The common link between such players as Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Flacco, Ryan and Sanchez so far is each of them have had the good fortune to be thrust into the spotlight on teams where the surrounding cast was playoff-ready - meaning none of them were expected to shoot the lights out.

Sanchez considers himself lucky, although with the Jets at 3-2 and riding two consecutive losses, it won't take much before the scrutiny in New York tightens. And should he forget what's expected of him, he's got Ryan to remind him.

"We're built on being able to run the football on offence with a veteran offensive line and an outstanding offensive line," the coach said. "And we have two Pro Bowl running backs, so that definitely helps. Then, when you look at the defensive side of the ball … this is a strong unit on defence.

"Everything is in place here. We have no excuses. We just got to produce. Mark understands what he has. It's not about him. He just got to be part of the solution. He doesn't have to be the solution himself."