Coach Bill Cowher was about to find out what kind of a coach he was.
Ken Whisenhunt was his OC in 2004. The Steelers were a veteran team with a Pro Bowl running back, a Pro Bowl wide receiver, a couple of Pro Bowl blockers and a top-10 defense. It was a team with aspirations of greatness.
Then Tommy Maddox suffered an elbow injury in the 2nd week against their divisional rival the Baltimore Ravens, forcing the Steelers to promote Ben Roethlisberger to starter. Suddenly Whisenhunt has a rookie QB taking the snaps.
Now Cowher was in a bind. This was way ahead of Pittsburgh's timetable for the development of Ben Roethlisberger. He was supposed to be their future, not their present. With Maddox out and Big Ben in, the Steelers season was about to take a turn...unexpectedly for the better. He started 13 games that season and won every one of them on his way to the play-offs. He won NFL Rookie of the Year and, astoundingly, the Steelers finished 15-1. His success was shocking but would represent a growing trend in NFL QB development.
To understand this we have to looking back at NFL history. There have been 60 rookie QBs since 1960 who have been primary starters, which is to say they started at least half of their team's games in a season. Of those 60, only 14 posted winning records. A rookie quarterback simply limits what an offense can do. That's why so few NFL teams over the years have committed to starting them. Old school thinking is that it takes three years for a quarterback to figure out all the nuances of the position at the NFL level. Not anymore though. Look at it historically:
From 1960 until 1979, there were 22 rookie QBs who were starters. Only one in 2 seasons, Phil Simms in 1979, managed a winning record. The Giants started him for the last 11 games, and he went 6-5 on a 6-10 team. However, Simms had a 50.5% completion rating with only 13 TDs but 14 INTs.
From 1980 to 1988, there were just seven rookie QB's who started their rookie season in 9 years. Now, however, three managed winning records: Chris Chandler of the Colts (9-4, 8TD, 12INT, 55.4%), Dave Wodley (6-5, 14TD, 17INT, 53.8%), of the Dolphins and of course Dan Marino of the Dolphins (7-2, 20TD, 6INT, 96%) who was the first to secure a play-off berth.
Between 1989 and 2002, there were 18 rookie QBs who started. Again, just one managed a winning record during that stretch, Kerry Collins, on the expansion Panthers for the final 13 games as a rookie in 1995 and posted a 7-6 record. Again, Collins had a 49.4% completions rating with 14 TDs and 19 INTs.
Fast forward to 2003. There have been 11 rookie quarterbacks who have started their rookie season. Seven have posted winning records starting with Kyle Boller. Boller the posterboy for success? Surprisingly he was the 1st of this generation (though struggling greatly ever since). He marks the start of 'the trend' with the 2003 Ravens, posting a 5-4 record on a 10-6 team.
Then along came Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 who won his 13 games with the Steelers, then (surprisingly again) Kyle Orton went 10-5 with the Bears in 2005. Vince Young took the Titans to an 8-5 record in his 13 first starts in 2006. Then Trent Edwards, 5-4 for a 7-9 Bills team in '07. Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan both started the season as starters and each guided teams to 11-5 records and playoff berths in 2008 with Flacco becoming the 1st rookie to ever win 2 play-off games. Finally, Mark Sanchez follows up in 2009 with Rex Ryan following Flacco's development. Sanchez starts all season and goes 9-7 (success is arguable to some) and he matches Flacco's rookie season play-off record.
Big Ben skipped his senior season to turn pro, so he was already a year behind in the NFL learning curve for the position. He also came out of the Mid-American Conference, so he had never seen the speed or caliber of defender on Saturdays that he would be seeing on Sundays. Still, Roethlisberger had the best physical tools at his position in the 2004 draft. He was the biggest and strongest QB in a draft class that had Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. But Manning went 1st overall, Rivers 4th then Roethlisberger at 11th.
The scouting consensus was that Big Ben was the least ready of the three to play coming out of college. However, in 3 years time he might be the best of the that group because of those tools. Now Whisenhunt wouldn't have the luxury of grooming him for two years.
What to do? The year before, the Ravens had to find out what Kyle Boller did well, what he was comfortable with. The tendency when coaches game plan is to put all these good things up on the board and then ask their QB to run them. You can't do that with a rookie QB. Coaches limited what that had to do and found ways to get them to do those things repeatedly from different formations and sets. So they disguised them and protected their young quarterbacks with their run game, the 1st major componet to a rookie QB's success.
Enter Ken Whisenhunt. The Ravens "success" with Kyle Boller was just one season removed. In Ben's first 11 starts in 2004, Roethlisberger never threw more than 25 passes. He threw for more than 200 yards just twice. He averaged 21.1 passes per game in 2004 as the Steelers ran the ball 62% of the time. But his attempts increased as his offensive package expanded in 2005, passing 22.3 times per game.
In 2008, Matt Ryan's Falcons would finish 2nd in the NFL in rushing with Pro Bowler Michael Turner the focal point of the offense. Flacco, Roethlisberger and Young also were rookie starters on offenses that finished in the top 5 in rushing. Rather than rush to put the ball into their top prospects hands these teams did the opposite by taking the ball out of them.
So two Super Bowls and a Pro Bowl into his career, Roethlisberger is averaging 34.4 passes per game this season. It exceeded Cowher's wildest expectations and started a trend and new fomrat for successfully employing a rookie QB in the NFL. That brings me to my next point: Expectatons.
Roethlisberger also entered the NFL without the burden of "expectation". Being an NFL quarterback is all about confidence. Most rookie QB's are quickly and easily overwhelmed at the professional level. Mitgating the pressure of the position is crucial to controlling their development. Roethlisberger wasn't the 1st overall selection of a draft like Eli or Peyton Manning. He wasn't a top-5 pick like Philip Rivers nor even a top-10 pick. He was the 3rd QB selected in his draft class. So was Boller, who went 19th overall after Carson Palmer and Byron Leftwich were drafted. Flacco was the 18th overall pick. Edwards was a third-round selection and Orton a humble fourth-rounder.
None played under the media microscope that Troy Aikman did. The 1st overall pick of the 1989 draft who went 0-11 as a rookie. Peyton Manning, who also went 1st overall in 1998 and threw an NFL rookie-record 28 INTs and mustered a 3-13 record, or David Carr, who went first overall in 2002 and was sacked an NFL-record 76 times that season while going 4-12. They inherited bad teams that leaned heavily on them as if they were saviors. The two former Qb's managed to overcome their rookie trials, while Carr has yet to recover.
Draft position is usually a key component in a successful equation for a rookie. When a player goes first overall, he generally is headed for a very bad football team. Aikman's Cowboys were coming off a 3-13 season, as were Manning's Colts. Carr was going to an expansion team. However, the glow of that top draft pisck and multi-million dollar contract dims in September when the games start and reality sets in. Many become walk-in starters and the focal point on offense because of the weakness of the cast around them. Then they become just another punching bag on a pathetic team. Generally the lower a quarterback is drafted, the better his team, the better his situation and the better his chance for success. This is whay ou see players like John Elway and Eli Manning refusing their 1t round selection teams.
Dan Marino was the 6th QB taken in the 1983 draft, the 27th overall choice, by the defending AFC champion Miami Dolphins. Look at his success. He went 7-2 as a rookie on a 12-4 team, threw 14 more touchdowns (20) than interceptions (6), won the AFC passing title and was selected to the Pro Bowl. The records by and larger show that the QBs who win the most by and large went to good teams or good circumstances.
Chris Chandler was a 3rd round pick by the Colts in '88 but started that season and went 9-4 on a team that finished 9-7. He benefited from handing the ball off to Eric Dickerson, who won the NFL rushing title that season. David Woodley, an 8th round pick by the 1980 Dolphins, posted a 6-5 record on a team that finished 8-8. He joined a Miami team coming off an AFC East title.
Defense. Boller played on a Baltimore team in 2003 that ranked 3rd in the NFL in defense. Roethlisberger's 2004 Steelers finished 1st in defense. Orton's 2005 Bears finished 2nd, as did Flacco's 2008 Ravens. Mark Sanchez's Jets defense ranked 1st. The only QB bucking the trend was Matt Ryan's Falcon defense that ranked 24th overall. Along with RB's, defenses are any QB's best friend. They take the pressure off by making it possible to win without a Herculian offensive effort. Ask Trent Dilfer. Further, the pressure that mounts on a QB to win from behind can cause them to implode. Great defenses keep even those situations tenable.
There it is. Take the pressure off the QB by running early and often. Also a top 5 defense is almost always necessary. Lastly, getting drafted early by a poor team without a solid supporting cast could doom a rookie QB to career journeymanship.
So how will the 2010 draft class fare? Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, and Tim Tebow. Any of these could be called upon in the first 8 games to take over their teams offense for some reason or another. Will we continue to see the trend grow?