Passing the torch, but doing it slowly

Quarterbacks: Despite the temptation for instant returns on their investments, NFL teams are not rushing to start the five prize rookie passers from the 1999 draft

Generation X And O

Class Of '99

September 10, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The quarterback of tomorrow is learning on the job in the NFL today.

He is Tim Couch, who prepped for the Cleveland Browns by running Kentucky's multiple-motion offense.

He is Donovan McNabb, better known for his option skills at Syracuse, but who will be pressed into action with the Philadelphia Eagles because of his passing potential.

He is Akili Smith, who dazzled the Cincinnati Bengals with a meteoric rise at Oregon.

He is Daunte Culpepper, who will tutor with the Minnesota Vikings after dominating inferior opponents at Central Florida.

He may even be feisty little Cade McNown, who earned a shot with the Chicago Bears by winning impressively at UCLA despite shortcomings in height and arm velocity.

They are the Class of 1999, the next generation. In order, they were the five quarterbacks taken in the first 12 picks of the April draft, an unprecedented rush to judgment.

Now comes the precedented rush to get them on the field. In a league where the average age of starting quarterbacks on opening day in 1999 is 30, the pressure to play a rookie quarterback taken in the first round has grown significantly.

But success with rookie quarterbacks is rare. Since 1983, when Dan Marino did it with the Miami Dolphins, only two more rookie, first-round picks have guided their teams in the playoffs. The others were Bernie Kosar, a supplemental draft pick, who did it in 1985 with the Cleveland Browns, and Jim Everett in 1986 with the Los Angeles Rams.

Most rookie quarterbacks struggle. Recently retired John Elway was 4-6 in 10 starts in 1983. Troy Aikman was 0-11 in 1989. Drew Bledsoe was 5-7 and Rick Mirer 6-10 in 1993. Last season, Peyton Manning went 3-13 with the Indianapolis Colts and Ryan Leaf was 3-6 before getting benched by the San Diego Chargers.

Against that backdrop, none of the five first-rounders this season will start in Week 1. Only McNown, in a unique arrangement, has been promised playing time. And he was the fifth quarterback -- 12th pick overall -- to go.

That's not to say that Couch, the first pick in the draft, or McNabb, the second, won't be starting by Week 2. The countdown has already begun in Cleveland and Philadelphia to replace veterans Ty Detmer and Doug Pederson, respectively.

The coaches of both those teams will be understandably reluctant to pull that trigger early, though.

"We have a great deal invested in Tim Couch," said Browns coach Chris Palmer. "The worst thing in the world would be to throw him to the wolves and have him lose his confidence. Once you lose your confidence as a player, it's difficult to regain."

The Browns gave Couch a seven-year, $48 million contract with a $12.25 million signing bonus. McNabb's bonus for his seven-year deal was $11.3 million.

Eagles coach Andy Reid insisted in April that Pederson, who has yet to start a game in four NFL seasons, will open the year against Arizona. Not even McNabb's three-touchdown-pass effort in a preseason game last week changed that.

"There's no possible way, if and when Donovan were to start, that we could give him the absolute, complete, overloaded game plan that we do," Reid said.

Palmer and Reid are first-year, quarterback-friendly head coaches. Palmer was the receivers coach with the New England Patriots in Bledsoe's rookie season, and coached the quarterbacks in 1996, the year the Patriots went to the Super Bowl. He was offensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars the past two years, when he helped polish Mark Brunell into a playoff quarterback.

Reid spent seven years under Mike Holmgren with the Green Bay Packers, the last two coaching quarterbacks.

Both coaches were hired in part because of their ability to mentor young quarterbacks.

"We have a very good relationship," Couch, 22, said of Palmer. "I think he expects a lot out of me. He thinks I can be a very good player. He's going to push me to make sure I get to where he thinks I can be. That's the kind of coach I want."

In five preseason games -- including one start -- with the expansion Browns, Couch completed 39 of 69 passes (56.5 percent) for 410 yards and two touchdowns. Palmer said Couch answered the persistent question about arm strength and showed the ability to make big plays.

"You can see the guy is a play-maker," Palmer said. "You can see why he completed 72 percent of his passes [at Kentucky last season]. He's very accurate. But he was limited at Kentucky in the defenses they saw. And what he will see in the NFL is so different than the college game. That's the area he has to grow in."

Couch had to adjust to the speed of the pro game, but became more comfortable as training camp wore on. Although the Browns have a veteran offensive line, they have few playmakers at running back or receiver. When Couch does step in, he won't have many weapons. Perhaps that's why Palmer declines to target a starting date.

"When I was in New England, it was clear Bledsoe, in the middle of camp, was the best player," Palmer said.

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