Joe Montana spent a year and a half on the bench behind Steve DeBerg. Steve Young, after two disastrous years with the Buccaneers, spent several years on the bench behind Montana. Brett Favre began his career in Atlanta on the bench, and we all know how long Aaron Rodgers later sat behind Favre. While other greats like John Elway and Dan Marino started right away, some of the game's all-time best quarterbacks began their careers sitting on the bench.
And while today we seem to think we are in the age of the ‘starting caliber QB from day one', with Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck all respectively leading their teams to relative success very quickly with no time spent on the bench, we do forget we still have Colin Kaepernick and Nick Foles, who started as backups before seizing control and having their own success.
There is some hubbub going on over the Jacksonville Jaguars' recent announcement that they are committed to having the #3 overall pick, Blake Bortles, sit on the bench throughout this season as Chad Henne continues to lead the team. Yes, both the Cleveland Browns and our own beloved Minnesota Vikings have given lip service to the concept that Bortles' fellow first rounders Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater will have to earn their starting slots, but by and far neither team has said anything to the idea that they are ‘committed' to having them sit unless they cannot win the job in training camp and preseason.
Now, will the Jaguars follow through with their plan? That remains to be seen and, of course, may not even be up to the Jaguars at all- should Henne get hurt, it would be surprising to see them jump Bortles on the depth chart to Ricky Stanzi (assuming Stanzi even remains their third QB). But is their decision the right one- and, of course this being a Vikings blog and all, is it something the Vikings themselves should consider emulating with Bridgewater?
My initial reaction is "if the Jaguars do not think Bortles is better than Henne, then they're idiots for drafting him #3 overall". Henne may not be the league's worst quarterback out there, but dear lord you can do better. But then again, it's not always about starting the best quarterback right away when it comes to developing. It's about ensuring that your QBOTF is going to develop into the best QB they can be. Would Montana have been better than DeBerg? (DeBerg, by the way, wasn't awful.) Of course we don't know the answer to that, but even if he were nominally better, the follow-up would be: would Montana have been as good as he was had he not been given a chance to develop? And that might be the more important question to ask- is starting your QB right away, just because he's better than the alternative, going to give you the greatest player possible for the future?
All quarterbacks are unique. Some develop primarily by playing the actual game- Elway being a great example of this, as his first couple of season were fairly shaky before he rose to greatness. But to impose this fact on all quarterbacks can be foolhardy. Young perhaps is the best example of a quarterback who needed to sit and develop first- his terrible years as a Buccaneer compared to his later years as a 49er give evidence to this.
How can we tell what's better for a young quarterback- starting and developing in the actual game, or sitting and developing on the bench? Obviously, that's a question best answered by the individual quarterback's coaches (or, at least, it's hopefully best answered by them). But if you want to try and analyze it without the benefit of watching them practice day in and day out, seeing them in the closed door meetings, etc. etc., your two best bets would be to look at their overall ‘coachability' (defined a bit more for this context below) as well as their ability to shrug off mistakes and not let things haunt them.
One of the worst things you can do to a true developmental guy is to start them too soon. Bad habits can become more quickly ingrained in live game situations, as the brain is forced to work faster and therefore more likely to set back on old, ingrained habits that are logically known to be bad- whereas in practice, the mind has a greater chance to progress to that logical realm where they know they're supposed to be doing something different. To use another sport as a metaphor for this concept, take MMA/ boxing. If you throw a poor jab, you're more likely to hammer it out and adjust your technique when working in a relaxed sparring session with a coach who is getting you to focus just on doing that one thing right. If you're in the actual fight, however, and you haven't developed that old habit completely out of your system, you're going to very quickly start throwing sloppy jabs just like you did before because your muscle memory will take over from your rational reasonings. Worse, the fact that your body has begun to perform this technique again in a high-stress situation, you're actually reinforcing that muscle memory. The same can be said about quarterbacks. If the throwing motion is off, a ‘relaxed' training wherein you are allowed to focus on changing your mechanics will help you far more than a high-stress situation like a live game with large, angry men rushing at you. In that situation, if you have not changed your muscle memory, your mechanics will revert to what ‘feels' natural without giving you a chance to think ‘that's not right, I'm supposed to be doing this'. And again, the more often you're forced to revert to that old habit, the more ingrained it becomes, and a vicious cycle begins.
When it comes to the concept of overall ‘coachability' for the purposes here, this principle becomes important. Everyone is wired differently, and quarterbacks are no exception to that rule. Some people have a very strong tendency to rely on ingrained muscle memory, more so than others. Some are able to quicker change said muscle memory. Some quarterbacks may need to throw the football 100 times in practice to change their mechanics for good; others may need to throw it 10,000 times. While the level of mechanical adjustment necessary is obviously a factor, the general make-up of the QB's ability to change their muscle memory is just as important. A quarterback who needs the 10,000 reps will not be someone you want starting right away, because they're not likely to be getting that many throws in between games. (Unless you want to destroy your QB's shoulder.) And again, in every game where they throw the ball wrong, they're increasing the number of ‘good' throws they're going to have to make to fix the mistake, and you're creating a cycle wherein they're never going to be able to adjust it. On the other hand, the guy who just needs 100 throws to change what they're doing wrong is a better bet to start right away. While their first couple of games may still show the old habit, you're likely going to have it solved at least by the end of their first season- plus they're getting to learn the speed of the game, live timing with receivers, actual looks at defenses behind the line of scrimmage, etc. etc.
The latter issue to consider when contemplating whether to sit a QB or not is again their ability to forget mistakes. Some of the best quarterbacks in the game obviously do this very well- they throw an INT, get mad for a second, and then shrug it off. The next time they have the ball, they may throw the exact same play. (Hopefully not in the style of Jay Cutler.) The issue is how frequently they can do this, and whether or not they can maintain that through a season filled with rookie mistakes. It shouldn't be terribly difficult for most NFL-level rookie quarterbacks to shrug off their first pick, particularly if their coaches are worth anything at all. But once they end up throwing ten picks that season, the issue becomes whether or not it's beginning to build on them. ALL rookie quarterbacks are going to make mistakes- Peyton Manning was an interception machine his first year with the Colts, throwing almost 30 picks. His very next season he slashed that number nearly in half. It proved that Manning, as much as the Manning Face is a great meme, has the ability (unless it's against the Seahawks, apparently) to shrug off his mistakes and not let them change the way he plays. For a converse example, our own Christian Ponder makes for a (sadly) excellent one. After arguably being rushed onto the field too early, the heavy hits he took behind the sieve of an offensive line that year led to him seeing ‘ghosts' and moving from phantom pressure throughout his career to date. That's not to say Ponder is afraid of getting hit- he's got plays where he's proven he's tough enough and very willing to put his body on the line for his team. But he never developed the ability to ‘forget' taking sacks and massive pressures that affected his game, and therefore it affects him even when it's not there.
If a quarterback doesn't have the innate ability to utterly forget mistakes and focus on doing what's necessary at that moment, starting them too soon can damage them in the long term as well. The transition from college to the pros is a big one, and again, all rookie quarterbacks are going to be highly mistake prone. Spending a year watching, learning, and taking practice reps can minimize those mistakes later on when they do in fact start, and can minimize the psychological damage of an uneven rookie campaign.
So, in essence, attempting to figure out if it's wiser to start or sit a rookie quarterback (regardless of their talent level compared to the current starter) requires one to try, to the best of their ability, to see if the quarterback has the coachability as defined above as well as the ‘amnesia' required to shrug off many mistakes. As an aside, it should not be taken as an indicator that a quarterback is not going to be a quality starter if they don't have these characteristics; again, Steve Young makes for a perfect example of a guy who just needed to develop to reach great heights.
I have no reason to believe that the Jaguars spent their first round pick on Bortles without knowing the answers to these questions. For whichever of these reasons, they feel that he will be more successful sitting and developing at least a season first- something many draft analysts felt about him already. Again, the issue isn't necessarily whether or not he's better than Henne; it's rather or not he will become the best starting quarterback possible by playing or sitting. And damn my initial reaction mentioned above, I commend them for showing the fortitude to look to the future rather than rush things for the now.
But now, what about the Vikings? I've seen a lot of people argue that Bridgewater should sit this season behind Matt Cassel and also develop. But just because it's best for Bortles doesn't mean it's best for Bridgewater. Bridgewater has received a lot of (well-deserved) praise for the jump he took between his sophomore and junior campaigns at Louisville; even more impressive is that it wasn't like his sophomore season was terrible by any means already. Between all three seasons spent at Louisville, Bridgewater made tremendous increases in every appreciable passing statistic (no secret around here). And we've heard the fact that he's highly coachable multiple times from Norv Turner and Mike Zimmer already. It would seem that he has that coachability aspect that we discussed earlier; this lends more to the idea that he should start and develop on the field of play. What about his amnesia? That's a bit harder to look at, seeing as how he only had 4 interceptions all last season, and never more than just 1 per game. So while it's hard to analyze from last season alone whether or not he can shrug off mistakes, one would presume that his constant cutting down on INTs throughout his ‘career' at Louisville (12 as a freshman, 8 as a sophomore, and then 4 as a junior) means he can do it just fine. Make no mistake about it- I cannot possibly envision a scenario where he's not throwing quite a few more picks against professional defenses. But it would appear- on the surface, at least- that that won't be something that impacts how he plays the future.
So, while Jacksonville may be making the right choice by choosing development for the future rather than the knee-jerk ‘who's technically better RIGHT NOW' with Bortles, the Vikings are not likely to be making such a decision. Indeed, should Bridgewater beat out Cassel and Ponder in training camp and preseason, I expect him to be given the starting job and to develop as he goes- assuming of course Turner/ Zimmer don't see something in camp that makes them think otherwise, because they'll always have more information than we do.