McNair-style apprenticeships likely history

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Steve McNair might be the last big quarterback drafted in the first round out of a historically black college, Len Pasquarelli wrote Monday.

The former Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens quarterback, who was shot and killed on Saturday, also might be one of the last quarterbacks drafted high to benefit from a team's plan to bring him along slowly.

As a rookie in 1995 with the then-Houston Oilers, he sat the first 12 games except for two series of mop-up action in one game. In the first 27 games of his career, McNair had one start. Then he took over as the lead guy.

San Diego's Philip Rivers worked behind Drew Brees his first two years, appearing in four games and starting none. Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, the top pick in the 2003 draft, didn't play a snap as a rookie before taking over as the starter in Year 2.

But more and more, giving a young quarterback time to observe early-on is a luxury teams simply can't afford.

A team that spends a top-10 pick on a quarterback has made a huge financial investment. He's a guy expected to turn the team around. He's probably lined up as the franchise's top marketing tool. And the possibility of having a quality veteran willing to take on a short-term job ahead of him is lower now, as there are typically plenty of teams offering better opportunity.

And, of course, if a team waits on the kid, it could wind up developing a guy who will move on as a free agent and play his best football somewhere else. Or the team puts itself in a position to have to make a decision on a second contract before it knows exactly what it has.

The Titans intended to bring Vince Young along in a fashion similar to the one they utilized with McNair. An 0-5 start in 2006 and a nudge from the team's owner changed that, but ultimately the job proved too much for Young and the Titans turned to Kerry Collins.

"I think times have changed and you'd want to see him play sooner," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said of the likelihood a high pick ever gets the sort of developmental plan McNair got. "We clearly had a plan and that was to bring him along slowly. But it's hard to say, they are all different. ...

"We may have been to the Super Bowl in [1998], who knows if Steve had played earlier. But you won't see that approach again in this day and age."

Jerry Rhome, the Oilers' offensive coordinator for McNair's first two years with the club, said the young quarterback handled the apprentice period well.

"He was not ready to play.... Jumping from Alcorn State to the NFL, that's a heck of a jump even though he had a lot of ability," Rhome said. "It was a really good situation, a luxury where you could let him bide his time and to get better and better. I don't think there is any doubt, if you've got the luxury, it's going to help the quarterback. That's not a bad thing at all. If you're in dire need, that may be a different ball game."

Rhome said that while Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Joe Flacco in Baltimore came out and did well as rookies last year, both had spent five years in college and had experience at major programs -- Ryan at BC, Flacco at Pittsburgh before he transferred to Delaware.

By design, the 1995-96 Oilers had a quarterback they were comfortable starting while McNair watched.

Chris Chandler played some good football for them those two seasons, but later admitted he didn't approach the mentoring aspect of his job as he should have. The unflappable McNair never seemed to let that bother him, and he went on to be especially kind to young quarterbacks who were on the roster during his career.

Brad Hopkins played left tackle for McNair's Oilers and Titans, protecting the quarterback's blindside. He thought the franchise's approach with McNair early on really helped set him on the right course.

"Have you seen these young quarterbacks falling by the wayside?" Hopkins asked. "Do you know why they are? Because the pressure is immense for young quarterbacks to get in and respond when they don't have the maturity level to do that. We expect Vince Young to come in here and perform at a Brett Favre-type level when he just put away his Texas Longhorns helmet.

"It's just not going to happen. Because not only is it a physical process, it's a mental process to be able to grasp the pressures of being an NFL quarterback. For [McNair] to have two years watching other quarterbacks grow and make mistakes, that definitely [helped] his career. It made him a better person. Because here he is, knowing he's not capable of leading this team and accepting that, waiting his time, waiting his turn and then taking advantage of it once it got there."


One extra: Doug Farrar crunched McNair's numbers for The Washington Post and concluded his body of work is most similar to those of Phil Simms, Steve Bartkowski and Jim Kelly.