The young quarterbacks are in place. Now the question is about their pace.
Let’s examine the big issues that will go into deciding whether and when to drop these rookies into the starting lineup.
The potential for shell shock is the single biggest issue to me. (See: David Carr and his 76 sacks as a Houston Texans rookie in 2002.) If the guy is going to be under fire, you have to be significantly more careful. The alternative quarterback won’t love getting hammered either, but he’ll know what he’s getting into.
Locker: The Titans have a head coach in Mike Munchak and an offensive line coach in Bruce Matthews who are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as offensive linemen. The 2010 season was a down year overall. With an immobile quarterback, Kerry Collins, taking most of the snaps, the Titans gave up 27 sacks. Whoever is behind center in 2011 should get good protection if the interior group rebounds the way the team is expecting. Locker is at his best on the move, which helps him in this category as well.
Gabbert: Jacksonville allowed 38 sacks last season. That’s too many. The Jags spent a third-rounder on Lehigh guard Will Rackley and maybe he injects himself into the interior or maybe he’s a project for later. Right tackle Eben Britton missed the last nine games last season with a shoulder injury, so that hurt the unit. The Jaguars spent their first- and second-round picks in 2009 on left tackle Eugene Monroe and Britton. GM Gene Smith purposefully has worked inside-out. You get the linemen first in order to be able to put the quarterback out there. So they should be able to put the quarterback out there, right?
2) Learning curve and the lockout
If the lockout stretches out and there is a shortened training camp and/or a shortened season, the case for any rookie quarterback playing early is weaker. Neither team can roll out its new signal-caller if he’s had minimal time working with his coordinator and the offense. If the training wheels are still on, you can’t enter him in a motorcycle race.
Locker: Unless it’s Collins, a veteran signed after the lockout ends will also be starting from behind. Even though experience will mean he can step in sooner and adjust on the fly, the gap between Locker and a veteran new to the team won’t be as vast as it would be if that veteran was already in Nashville. Chris Palmer is a new coordinator, so a new coach and a couple of new quarterbacks will all be in it together.
Gabbert: David Garrard has organized workouts for the Jaguars during the lockout and is a long-standing incumbent. He’ll be more difficult to displace even if things go perfectly for Gabbert. A scenario with an extended lockout certainly helps Garrard, who’s quite familiar with the system of coordinator Dirk Koetter, who’s been running the offense for four years. Continued labor strife definitely helps Garrard and hurts Gabbert.
It’s a lot easier to let a new guy sit and learn if you’ve got another guy who can play effectively while the new guys waits. It’s a complicated relationship, but the right veteran can be a huge influence and mentor for a rookie just by example. That veteran should approach the job like a pro, not get flustered by the kid-in-waiting, bounce back from bad moments and games, etc. No matter who’s in front of a rookie, one bad game’s going to create a public demand for the young guy. How does the veteran stand up to that knowing eventually it’s going to happen?
Locker: We don’t know who he’ll be working with or potentially backing up. Collins? Matt Hasselbeck? Marc Bulger? Spending the eighth pick on Locker should mean the Titans won’t spend a lot to trade for a veteran now, and the guy they sign is going to know he’s getting a temporary job.
Gabbert: We know Garrard’s ceiling. Consistency and an inability to see the entire field are his big issues. We don’t know how having someone new looking over his shoulder will impact his performance. We also don’t know if Jack Del Rio will be compelled to stay loyal to Garrard for longer than may be warranted.
Both the Titans and Jaguars have offenses built around their running backs, Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew. With the primary weapon lining up in the backfield, a rookie quarterback won’t have to carry his team. First and foremost, he’ll be turning around and handing it off.
Locker: If Kenny Britt is focused and not serving a suspension for off-the-field stuff, he’ll be a huge weapon for Locker. The Locker-Britt combo is one the Titans are hoping will be quick developing. Jared Cook is due to be a consistent threat as the pass-catching tight end. Beyond that, the targets are question marks. But with Johnson also available as a route-runner, Locker should have enough to work with.
Gabbert: The Jaguars do not have a No. 1 receiver, but Mike Thomas can be consistently productive. They are counting on a big showing from Jason Hill and fourth-rounder Cecil Shorts, but the Jags don’t know exactly what they’ve got in those guys. Tight end Marcedes Lewis blossomed as a pass-catcher last season and Jones-Drew is used a lot as an outlet. Home-run play potential may have to be with yards after the catch, not guys running under deep stuff.
5) Why not?
With all due respect, the Titans with a to-be-determined veteran and the Jaguars with Garrard are not going to the Super Bowl.
The Oilers managed to take their time with Steve McNair. Philip Rivers watched Drew Brees work. Carson Palmer got to sit a season. Tom Brady needed a Drew Bledsoe injury to get on the field. Aaron Rodgers’ apprenticeship was as much happy accident as roster architecture.
More common is the drop-him-in approach where guys get only a little time to watch at the start, if any. That’s a list that includes Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith and Sam Bradford.
The Titans and Jaguars won’t predetermine timetables. There will not be target dates. But timing will be everything. Both quarterbacks appear mentally tough enough to handle adversity, and they’ll have to. Their teams don’t need to give them more hardship early on than needed, however.
With big dollars invested in a highly drafted quarterback, teams usually feel compelled to let him take his lumps and learn on the job. It worked for Peyton Manning and Troy Aikman. But it’s destroyed other guys.
Deciding whether to play Locker and Gabbert sooner or later is a big decision. I suspect we'll have occasion to discuss it again.