There is no perfect science for NFL quarterback development. There’s no instruction manual, and there’s certainly no return policy. Any team with a young, first-round quarterback has a group of coaches and a front office outwardly filled with hope, and inwardly with dread.
When a franchise whiffs on a first-round quarterback, unemployment for all the decision makers involved often follows swiftly. We’ve already seen that with the doomed 2011 quarterback class, and the stench from that year is now hovering over the Jacksonville Jaguars, influencing their approach with Blake Bortles.
Head coach Gus Bradley has repeatedly said the team aims to sit Bortles for all (or most) of his rookie season, instead trotting out Chad Henne. For good measure he said it once more yesterday during an NFL Network appearance, expressing comfort in the hands and arm of Henne (gulp?).
"We really felt comfortable with (Henne) coming back with another year in the system. I think it gave us flexibility. When Blake was there available for us, we really wanted to capture that opportunity.
"And we do feel good about where Blake's at, but we feel like this time that he has under Chad, a year to develop, will be really good in the end result."
We’ve long known who Henne is, and what he’s capable of under center. He has a decent arm and makes poor decisions, which is why he threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13) over his 13 starts this past season.
Though the Jaguars made significant improvements this offseason, they’re still assembling building blocks, especially on offense with Justin Blackmon pretty much lost forever. It’s best for a still-raw quarterback with a sometimes awkward delivery to sit, watch, and learn, assuming Henne doesn’t plunge into darkness too quickly. It’s the right move, but it’s also a move that feels so foreign and odd, especially with the third overall pick.
Since 2008 when Matt Ryan led Atlanta to the playoffs as a rookie, first-year quarterbacks have rarely sat down, and when they do the learning period is only brief. That was partly the problem with Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville, as he was rushed in far too early and shattered.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered at all? Again, the quarterback crystal ball is foggy at best. But recent history shows that when a quarterback sits out for at least half of his rookie year, there’s usually a reason: he’s not that good.
Over the past five years 14 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. Of those, three were responsible for changing our patience and realistic expectations for rookie quarterbacks, with Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck looking well seasoned immediately.
The more important number during that time: two. That’s how many first-round quarterbacks haven’t started at least eight games during their rookie season over the past half decade. The exceptions are Jake Locker and Tim Tebow, with the latter a project from the beginning that was eventually scrapped, and the former making only relief appearances during his first year while in a position to develop behind Matt Hasselbeck.
At the time Locker’s problem was accuracy. And still now when he’s healthy, Locker’s problem is accuracy, with his career completion percentage of 57.2. Some core mechanical issues are too difficult to resolve, regardless of how much time a quarterback watches and waits.
Going back a little further, we saw a similar problem ending with Brady Quinn, who didn’t start until Week 10 of his second season. Then there’s JaMarcus Russell’s infamous flop after he sat down until the Raiders’ final game of his first year before beginning his long spiral to oblivion.
There are equally famous positive examples of even longer sitting periods, most notably Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers, who both sat anchored to the bench for several seasons. However, there was never really an intention of starting either right away. Any thought of that was more easily dismissed by the quality quarterback play ahead of them, and the presence of Brett Favre and Drew Brees.
The problem Gus Bradley faces is one many head coaches wrestled with recently: the fleeting nature of their employment, a silent ghost which rushes and later squashes ill-prepared quarterbacks.
Loses will inevitably mount if Henne holds the keys to the offense for a long time, just as they will if Matt Schaub does in Oakland, and same for Brian Hoyer in Cleveland, or Matt Cassel in Minnesota. At best they’re all bridges to something better, the highest status they can grasp at this point in their careers.
Often that bridge crumbles far too soon, and the structural integrity of the replacement isn’t much better.