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The Redshirt Rookie QB Season Is a Fantasy That Few Teams Can Afford

Best-laid plans to slowly integrate a first-year quarterback are no match for the grueling realities of an NFL season

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Football fans are likely familiar with this old cliché: “If you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none.” It’s usually credited to John Madden, though not always, raising the question of what you get from multiple authors of the same quote, but I digress. The point is, it’s the most important position in the sport. Very few can play it well, so if a team has one of those players, it’s probably pretty obvious that he’s the guy.

In theory, prioritizing clarity makes sense. Competition is good, but every team would love to start training camp knowing which quarterback the other members of the offense should be developing chemistry and timing with. In practice, though, picking a starter isn’t always so simple. Even Madden once had to navigate a messy transition from Daryle Lamonica to Ken Stabler as the starter when he coached the Raiders. Sometimes, if you have two quarterbacks, you have two quarterbacks—and a tricky situation to manage.

That situation becomes even more complicated when teams feel pressure to get highly drafted quarterbacks on the field. When two veterans compete, it’s relatively simple to let the best player win. When one player is seen as the franchise’s future, though, there’s an incentive to get them into the lineup even if they’re not ready for the rigors of an NFL season. Since Week 1 of 2008, when Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco both took their first snaps as rookie first-round picks, 39 quarterbacks have been taken on the first day of the draft. Only three of them—Jake Locker, Patrick Mahomes, and Jordan Love—spent their rookie seasons on the sideline (Mahomes’s only action came in the Chiefs’ final game in 2017, when he started in place of the injured Alex Smith).

“We’re in a different time,” said former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin. “If you can get a quarterback and get him on the field and playing well while he’s on that first contract, there are a lot of things you can do with the money to help your team out until that guy gets ready to get his big deal. But if you can get him in the first deal you’ve got to get him on the field.”

There’s immense value in building a team around a good quarterback on a rookie contract. Teams with high draft picks are also usually bad, and therefore have little incentive to stick to the status quo (Mahomes and Love were drafted by teams that made the playoffs their rookie seasons). The combination of these factors tends to propel young, highly drafted quarterbacks into significant roles early, even when they’re still relatively raw.

The challenge this presents to teams is finding ways to fast-track a rookie’s development. For bad teams, like the Bengals last year and the Jaguars and Jets this year, the hope is that their quarterbacks can develop during losing seasons without developing bad habits or getting hurt. It becomes trickier for teams that hope to be competitive in both the present and future.

Five teams drafted quarterbacks in the first round of last April’s draft. Two of them, San Francisco and Chicago, started veterans at quarterback despite trading up for Trey Lance and Justin Fields, respectively. The 49ers and Bears both worked on special play packages for their rookies during the offseason, leading to some speculation that one or both would deploy a platoon system, or at least find a significant number of snaps to get them on the field. Neither outcome quite materialized, but both Fields and Lance have been thrust into action earlier than expected due to injuries. Fields got his first substantial playing time in Week 2 after Andy Dalton was hurt, and on Sunday, Lance started the second half after Jimmy Garoppolo left the game with a calf injury. Lance will return to his backup role once Garoppolo is healthy, but Bears coach Matt Nagy announced on Wednesday that Fields would keep the starting job. Whether it’s due to injury or competitive needs, effectively redshirting a rookie quarterback is a privilege that few teams are afforded.

“You want to give him time,” Kyle Shanahan said. “You want him to be fully ready, but you don’t always have that luxury.”

Before Sunday, both Fields and Lance had been used sparingly. Lance had played seven snaps—four in Week 1 against the Lions and three in Week 3 against the Packers. The 49ers didn’t name a starter until just before Week 1 and seemed to be planning on using Lance at least sporadically as a running threat (they dedicated part of training camp to read-option runs that would figure to be part of a package for him). Until halftime of Week 4, though, Lance had spent most of his time holding a clipboard, including in the first half of Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks as Garoppolo’s injury worsened.

After entering the game, Lance looked like a rookie seeing his first substantial action and who’d played only one college football game in 2020. His first two passes were wild, but he settled in the fourth quarter and led a 13-play, 80-yard drive capped by a touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel and Lance’s own run for a 2-point conversion. Lance completed nine of 18 pass attempts for 157 yards and two touchdowns and ran the ball seven times for 41 yards, mostly on scrambles rather than designed runs, a sign that he was operating a game plan created for Garoppolo instead of for him.

Fields’s entrance was even more challenging. After seeing the field for only five snaps in Week 1, he completed less than half his passes in his Week 2 relief appearance and was below 50 percent again in his first start the following week. Both Fields and Lance said they weren’t overwhelmed by the moment. But most quarterbacks would tell you the situations they were put in were far from ideal.

“If guys are going to be honest with you, it’s not fun coming off the bench mid-game or late in the game where everybody else has been playing for two hours and you’re cold, haven’t been in rhythm, haven’t taken a hit yet and you have to come in and basically save the day,” said Luke Del Rio, a former Florida quarterback and the current offensive quality control coach for the Washington Football Team. “If you do go in, it’s something bad. You just watched your buddy get his knee snapped in half or get concussed, or he’s playing so bad you’re probably down by a lot. Something is not going well.”

Del Rio split time with another quarterback, Austin Appleby, at Florida in 2016, en route to an SEC championship game appearance and win in the Outback Bowl under head coach Jim McElwain. Del Rio won the starting job in training camp, but was hurt early in the season; he and Appleby wound up juggling playing time as a result. Both wanted to play, but neither wanted to go in mid-game, cold. They were so adamant about avoiding such a fate that anytime Del Rio or Appleby got knocked down, whichever quarterback wasn’t in the game would scream, “Get up! Get your ass up! I’m not coming in,” from the sideline.

It was a roundabout way of showing support in what could have been a tense situation—two people who want the same job aren’t normally the best candidates for friendship—but it was also a reflection of how challenging it is for a quarterback to get going in the middle of a game.

A substitution at quarterback isn’t just hard on the passer entering the game. Slight differences before and after the snap based on which quarterback is playing can disrupt the rhythm of the entire offense.

“Cadence is different, mechanics are different, reads are different,” said former Panthers receiver Steve Smith Sr. “You can’t really keep making your offensive line, wide receivers, running backs in the flow of the game go up and down.”

Both Lance and Fields have gotten more comfortable with their respective offenses. Lance was best in the fourth quarter last Sunday and Fields improved significantly in his second start with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor calling plays.

“The no. 1 thing that I understood as a head coach and that we all understood as an organization is knowing that when you make a trade up to go get a guy to develop and be the franchise quarterback, you always know that there’s going to be that want to get him in there ASAP,” Nagy said Wednesday, when naming Fields the starter.

That want, though, runs counter to Nagy’s initial plans when he insisted that Dalton would be the Bears starter as long as he was healthy, plans he said remained in place as recently as Monday before backtracking Wednesday. Nagy was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City in 2017 when Smith remained the starter through Mahomes’s rookie year. After Chicago drafted Fields, Nagy said he’d use that season in Kansas City as the “blueprint” for developing Fields behind Dalton. That idea turned out to be a bit fantastical given the differences between the states of the two teams: The Chiefs went 10-6 and made the playoffs with the sixth-best offense in the NFL that season, while the Bears are 2-2 so far in 2021 with the 30th-ranked offense. Nagy may have wanted to stick with Dalton, but as has often been the case for teams in similar situations, it’s hard to keep a rookie on the bench and harder still to send him back there once he’s gotten on the field.

It’s not clear whether the 49ers feel the same pressure. Though Garoppolo said last Sunday after leaving the game that he anticipated being out “a couple weeks” with the calf injury, Shanahan said Monday that, after additional testing, Garoppolo had “a chance” to play in Week 5 and would be back as the 49ers’ starter soon in any case.

There will be pressure to keep getting Lance on the field because of the ransom the 49ers traded to move up to no. 3 in the draft to take him, but San Francisco shares some features with those teams that have sat their rookie quarterbacks for the majority of their first seasons: The Niners are 2-2, with a shot to make the playoffs and, despite Garoppolo’s limitations, the offense has moved the ball. There’s also the matter of keeping a quarterback who’s taken the team to a Super Bowl and is on a $24 million salary feeling motivated and valued and avoiding letting a competition turn sour. Neither Dalton nor Garoppolo has any interest in splitting reps, so any quarterback transition has to be managed delicately from a personal side, too.

“You can quickly piss off both guys if you handle it wrong, you know?” Del Rio said. “And now you have nobody.”

Giving both quarterbacks playing time does not seem to be much of an option. Because of limited prep time and the difficulty of switching back and forth, NFL teams almost never play multiple quarterbacks unless they have to.

Quarterback tandems are far more common in college. If there’s a modern godfather of the platoon approach, it’s Steve Spurrier, who loved to go with the hot hand in his days at Florida and South Carolina. He took the practice to its most extreme end with the Gators in 1997, when he had both a talented but erratic sophomore, Doug Johnson, and a beloved senior, Noah Brindise, on his roster. They swapped starts during the season, though Johnson played the majority of the time, but for the final two games of the season against no. 1 Florida State and no. 11 Penn State, Spurrier decided not to rotate Brindise and Johnson by game or half or quarter, but on every single down.

“We were playing FSU and the word was that they had videoed our signals—we didn’t hide our signals as well as we should have, to be honest with you,” Spurrier told me. “Well, I said, ‘We can eliminate our signals because I’ll just give it to the quarterback on every other play and away we go!’”

The plan worked—Florida upset FSU 32-29 and knocked off Penn State 21-6 in the Citrus Bowl. Spurrier said that he’d actually thought about taking the platoon even further by adding third-string quarterback Jesse Palmer to the rotation, and had practiced substituting all three quarterbacks in practice before the FSU game but opted not to. “I sort of chickened out,” he said.

Still, he gave up the practice after those two games and doesn’t believe playing multiple quarterbacks is usually sustainable, particularly in the NFL.

Spurrier did point out one example of an NFL team using two quarterbacks, the same example most sources interviewed for this piece pointed to.

“I like how New Orleans does it,” Spurrier said. “Their guy comes in and he may play a couple plays or one or more but it’s just something different.”

The consensus is that the New Orleans model, which relies on a starting quarterback who’s a pure passer, like Drew Brees or Jameis Winston, plus an über-athletic running quarterback like Taysom Hill, who’s still enough of a threat as a thrower, is the best way to go. If an offense is going to switch quarterbacks, it’s preferable that those players have drastically different skill sets than subtly different ones. When the Hill-type player is mostly in for running plays that come with an option, most blocking concepts can also remain the same.

“I think that can work, and it doesn’t screw up your rhythm because it’s the same plays that you’re running as an offensive lineman,” said former Browns tackle Joe Thomas. “It’s just you have an additional element of throwing the football. The times it doesn’t work is if you’re trying to play another guy who’s essentially running the same passing plays and is doing the same things and you just want a spark.”

The other benefit, of course, is that the two players have clearly defined roles as the starter and the change-of-pace replacement.

“You can do a package in the NFL and you’re going to eat up some prep time for the next defensive coordinator that you’re going to play,” Del Rio said. “But honestly the Saints play Taysom Hill more than I thought you ever could play a rotational, change-of-pace guy and it worked—he was really good at it.

“But I don’t think people realize what a unicorn Taysom Hill is. He is a phenomenal athlete. It’s just hard, the experience part of it, too—it’s really different coming off the bench or being a change-of-pace guy and being the guy. The prep is different, the pressure you feel is different, the media you get is different. It’s just different.”

These two-quarterback systems are an unorthodox approach that don’t fit the priorities or timelines of San Francisco or Chicago. But they are, at least, some kind of blueprint for teams looking for an alternative way to prepare their young quarterbacks when sitting them behind a veteran starter. So far, neither Lance nor Fields has gotten more than a few snaps in any game they weren’t starting, but even a few snaps is something.

While there’s more pressure than ever to get rookie quarterbacks on the field quickly, alternate avenues beyond simply starting them from the get-go haven’t been fully explored or embraced. This may be for good reason. But watching the longer-term development of quarterbacks like Sam Darnold, who was put in a particularly bad situation as a young player, at least poses the question of whether asking a rookie to sink or swim makes it more likely he will do the former. If opportunities to get snaps without starting remain rare and the redshirt year is a rarity reserved for the best teams, overcoming a trial by fire is the messy path left open to the rest.