One semi-successful start into what figures to be a long career, and now slated to start for a second time against the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend, Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Charlie Frye could still cede the No. 1 job back to veteran Trent Dilfer at some point this season. Or the third-round draft pick, who threw for 226 yards and registered a pair of touchdown passes in last Sunday's debut against the Jacksonville Jaguars, could settle cozily into the lineup for a long run.
So which will it be?
First-year coach Romeo Crennel probably has some inkling about the answer but, demonstrating that he also understands the gamesmanship that is part of his job description, he isn't saying much about what might transpire beyond this week. Part of those tactics is a perceived edge gained from keeping future opponents guessing about whether they'll face Dilfer or Frye. And part, almost certainly, is that Crennel learned during his long apprenticeship as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator that determining how you develop rookies at any position, not just quarterback, is sometimes a tough call.
And one that often requires a coach to think on his feet and sometimes change course.
"It's a fine line," Crennel said last week, as he played cat-and-mouse with the Cleveland-area media and the Jaguars, about the identity of his quarterback. "You want to do the right thing, and not every case is the same."
Indeed, even as Crennel was committing to Frye only on a trial-run basis, one of the league's other two first-year coaches, Mike Nolan of San Francisco, moved rookie Alex Smith into the starting quarterback spot and announced that, barring an injury, the first overall choice in this year's draft will keep the job through the balance of the season.
Two coaches. Two rookie quarterbacks. Two apparently different approaches. And no coaching manual that lays out the one surefire method for determining, say, when your first-year quarterback is ready to jump from the Frye-ing pan and into the fire full-time.
But it's not just a quarterback quandary. Coaches grapple every season, and sometimes every week of every season, over the question of how to best transform the rookies they've invested in into solid dividends.
This is, essentially, the NFL's version of a nature-versus-nurture debate: It's only natural, particularly in the case of high-round and pricey draft choices, for coaches to want instant results from those players. At the same time, though, most rookies require an assimilation period, mentally, physically and emotionally, in their transition to the pro game.
One league personnel director said: "We once had a stock line we used every week in evaluating rookies and when they should play. 'Is it soup yet?' Sometimes a guy is at full boil and ready to go. And other guys need to simmer a little longer. And making the call, deciding whether a [rookie] is ready to go or is still [vulnerable] to being overwhelmed, is one of the critical things that every team goes through. Once you put that brand on a guy, 'starter,' it immediately raises the expectations, fair or not. So before you raise the bar, you better make sure you've raised that kid the right way."
Obviously, the gestation period varies from player to player. Maturity and readiness to play are defined by myriad variables, many involving the player but some team-related components as well. Do you think, for instance, that fourth-round draft choice Kyle Orton would have started all 12 games for the first-place Chicago Bears had Rex Grossman not broken his leg in the preseason? On the other hand, the league's reigning most valuable player, Peyton Manning of Indianapolis, has started since he was drafted in 1998.
"Every case is different, every team is different," said Colts team president and general manager Bill Polian. "What you hope to have is a consistent philosophy for developing players, and be able to stick to it, but circumstances sometimes don't allow that."
In the case of Frye and the Cleveland Browns, it isn't as if circumstances will force Crennel into starting the rookie. The veteran Dilfer, acquired in a trade this spring and brought in to serve as a sort of transitional quarterback, has played well enough at times. Despite suffering from tendinitis and associated problems in his knee, he is not so incapacitated that he can't get on the field, and insisted that he could have played against the Jaguars. Crennel, clearly, has options.
Nor is Crennel under the ancillary pressure of a playoff race. While he has returned a dose of respectability to one of the NFL's most storied franchises -- Cleveland's four wins equal its total for the entire 2004 season, the team has been surprisingly competitive and Crennel and general manager Phil Savage seem to have things pointed in the right direction -- the decision between Frye and Dilfer won't dramatically alter the Browns' season. It could, though, impact the franchise's future.
And since it involves the quarterback position, naturally, it commands more attention.
In the big picture, though, the situation with Frye isn't all that different from those playing out all over the league. As the regular season comes to a close, coaches and teams would like to sneak a peek at 2006, and do so knowing they have garnered at least a glimpse of most of their rookies, no matter which round they were chosen in.
There are, for sure, rookies who have been thrust into higher profile roles because of injuries. Some others, who might have planned on getting more playing time in their first NFL season, have seen their growth stunted a bit because their teams are in the playoff chase and are not inclined to use that crucible as a testing ground. Indeed, a rookie's readiness can be determined by how prepared a team is to admit that its season is basically over.
That almost certainly won't be the case for Frye in Cleveland, where Crennel knows the future is more critical than any short-term dividends, but where curiosity and intrigue could be factors in the quarterback decision.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.