The saying goes that you can’t learn to swim by reading a book; you have to get into the water. Many feel the same principle applies to playing quarterback. The coaches and executives who tout this action-over-observation philosophy believe that the best way to prepare a rookie passer for the NFL is to toss them in—much like the Jaguars and Jets are doing with Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.
The Jaguars held a “quarterback competition” this preseason between Lawrence and incumbent starter Gardner Minshew II, but it was never really a question who would win. (Minshew was later traded to Philadelphia for a conditional sixth-round pick.) The Jets, meanwhile, didn’t even bother to hold a competition for Wilson—they just named him the starter. Two weeks into the season, the results for both have been … shaky. Lawrence and Wilson have combined for six touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and an 0-4 record, while being outscored by 50 points. Wilson threw more interceptions against the Patriots on Sunday (four) than he did in his entire final season at BYU (three).
Then there’s Mac Jones, the rookie QB for the Patriots who got his job by winning a (real) quarterback competition against Cam Newton. So far this season, Jones has game-managed his way to a 1-1 record, neither impressing nor depressing along the way. He has one touchdown and zero picks in two games, and his average pass is traveling just 5.7 yards downfield (if you can even call that traveling). Jones’s head is above water, but it hardly counts as swimming.
These kinds of early struggles are expected for rookies who are thrust immediately into game action. Peyton Manning was a legendary prospect when he was drafted in 1998, but in his first year in the league he set the rookie record for interceptions. He turned out OK. Russell Wilson started his entire rookie season, and he won a Super Bowl in year two. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert unexpectedly started in his second NFL game last season and already looks like one of the league’s top players. In a sink-or-swim league, the best passers often rise immediately.
But ask around the NFL, and many coaches follow another, more traditional school of thought: Young quarterbacks should sit and learn on the sidelines. The Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers have both gone that route this season, with Chicago sitting Justin Fields in favor of veteran Andy Dalton, and the 49ers sitting Trey Lance behind Jimmy Garoppolo. There’s plenty of historical evidence to back up this method, too. After all, some of the best quarterbacks of the last 20 years were developed this way: Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees.
Mahomes’s rookie-year offensive coordinator was Matt Nagy, who is now the head coach for the Bears. Nagy was the one who made the decision to sit Fields for Dalton, and he cited a forward-looking approach when explaining the choice. “If we play Justin early to satisfy our needs and not to do what’s best for Justin and the Chicago Bears, we’re going to ruin Justin and hurt the Bears,” Nagy told NBC’s Peter King in August. “We need to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears—not only right now, but we want this to be something that lasts 15 years. Not two years.”
Nagy has a plan, but there’s a saying for that, too: Man plans, God laughs. Dalton hurt his knee on Sunday, and now Fields will be making his first career start this week against Cleveland. But Fields being pressed into duty so early clouds a more interesting question that five franchises this year alone have been forced to grapple with: How do you know when to throw a rookie QB into the pool?
Playing quarterback is so impossible that we often forget how difficult it is to even get an offense set. Matt Schaub played QB in the NFL for 16 years, and he estimates that in the 40 seconds before each play, a quarterback needs to do roughly 20 things to give his offense a chance:
- Check the down and distance.
- Listen to the coach radioing in the personnel who will be on the field for the next play.
- Get everyone in the huddle.
- Listen to any concerns (or complaints) from teammates about the previous play.
- Listen to the play call coming into the headset (if you can hear it over the crowd noise).
- If you can’t hear the call, fill in the gaps using what you studied that week. You might have only heard three words, and you’ll need to figure out the other seven.
- Call the play in the huddle.
- Break the huddle and check the play clock.
- Make sure everyone is lined up correctly.
- Check the play clock again.
- Look at where the opposing safeties are (this tells you a lot).
- Check the line of scrimmage—how are the front seven defensive players aligned?
- Figure out where a blitz could come from.
- Figure out the right blocking adjustment to counteract the blitz.
- Communicate that adjustment to the offensive line (and yell loudly enough that they hear you over the crowd).
- Check the play clock.
- Check if the safeties are still where they were seven seconds ago.
- If the play requires it, put any receivers or tight ends in motion.
- Check the play clock again.
- Snap the ball.
A quarterback has to do that before every play. And that doesn’t even factor in whether the defense is in zone or man coverage, and how that could change the offense’s matchup advantages. It also doesn’t account for situational football. Is the team nursing a lead or mounting a comeback? Are you shooting for the end zone or trying to stay in field goal range? Do you want the clock to stop or keep running after the play? Can you take a sack, or is it better to throw the ball away? Is this a four-minute offense, a two-minute offense, or an end-of-game situation? Are you in the red zone?
“That’s where guys start to get exposed,” says former NFL head coach Norv Turner.
The job doesn’t get any easier once the ball is snapped. There are obvious differences between college football and the pros: All the players are bigger, faster, and stronger. Quarterbacks must throw to receivers who look covered. Success can’t just be based on physical advantages, but on timing, repetition, and accuracy. “Six inches,” Schaub says, can be “the difference between a completion or an interception.”
Dirk Koetter, a former college and NFL coach who served as the offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers during Jameis Winston’s rookie season, says there are a number of small differences between the college and pro games that can spell trouble for rookie QBs. The two-minute drill is a big one. First, NFL teams do it a lot more frequently. Second, in college, the clock stops after the offense gets a first down. In the NFL, it keeps running. Koetter also says the field itself is a sneakily big difference. NFL fields have narrower hash marks, which dictate where the ball is placed for each play. That is boring to us viewers, but functionally means that NFL defenders are all jumbled closer together than college defenders, making it much easier for defenses to disguise blitzes and coverages.
Hell, even snapping the ball is different in the NFL. Many college quarterbacks famously arrive in the league barely knowing how to take a snap under center. But taking shotgun snaps is different, too. College quarterbacks can clap for the ball during the snap count. In the NFL, quarterbacks must be much more still. On Sunday, after Fields came in for Dalton, he was called for a false start for clapping too exuberantly during his snap count—twice. (And if you’re thinking this is just a Fields thing, the same thing happened to Kyler Murray in the preseason of his rookie year.)
The only way to achieve the level of precision and accuracy required to play QB at the highest level is for a quarterback to not only understand their job, but everyone’s job. “You need to know where all the bones are buried,” says Doug Pederson, former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
“A whole organization is depending on you,” Turner says. “There’s a big difference between being able to make a play and being ready to play.”
Matt Hasselbeck was not ready to play. When he was drafted by the Packers in 1998, the sixth-round pick’s head was spinning. Fortunately, the Packers already had a cemented starter under center: Brett Favre. So the rookie got to learn under legendary offensive head coach Mike Holmgren and go to work every day in a QB room that featured Favre, backup QB (and future head coach) Doug Pederson, and quarterbacks coach Andy Reid. “They went and signed Rick Mirer, the former no. 2 pick overall, just because,” Hasselbeck says.
Hasselbeck thinks that experience—and Green Bay’s investment in the QB room—extended his career. “There’s examples of guys who struggle early because they get thrown out there too early,” Hasselbeck says. “Eventually, if [you’re] able to weather the storm—mentally, physically, emotionally—and get people to believe in you, then you can pull around or come out of it. But for me, I was not ready my first year. I was someone who needed probably four years. They gave me three years to get ready to be a starter, and I probably needed another year. But I think I see that a lot. Especially people who just get down on themselves and can’t pull out of it.”
Mahomes, despite his early-career brilliance, has echoed a similar sentiment. He has said that he couldn’t read defenses until midway through 2019—his second season as a starter and third in the league—and that he didn’t feel truly comfortable until 2020. Pederson also believes it takes three years for a quarterback to understand his offense and opposing defenses. But players rarely get the luxury of that much time to sit and marinate. “That’s the thing about it in today’s game,” Pederson says. “You don’t have three years. You’ve got to coach them up to play right now.”
Meyer announced Lawrence as the starter after Jacksonville’s second preseason game, saying that he and the rest of his coaching staff felt the rookie had come out and earned that spot. The Jets were committed to Wilson pretty much right away, not even bringing in a serious veteran to challenge him in training camp.
But the Bears and 49ers have taken different approaches. Nagy was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City when Mahomes was learning behind Alex Smith in 2017. He saw the value of Mahomes’s time on the bench and told King that whatever happens with Fields, he wants it to happen organically.
“I was in that meeting room every day,” Nagy said. “I saw how Patrick earned Alex’s trust. … That red-shirt year was so huge for Patrick’s development. He grew in practice. He really grew in the meeting rooms.”
Kyle Shanahan’s approach is blunter. When Shanahan was asked before the draft if Garoppolo would be on the roster on the following Sunday, Shanahan replied, “I can’t guarantee anybody in the world will be alive on Sunday.”
Reading between the lines: A lot of stuff happens in an NFL season, and coaches genuinely mean it when they say they take things day by day.
“You see [the rookies] everyday in practices,” Turner says. “Sometimes it’s just ‘he’s getting better, and we’re not as good as we need to be.’”
Rookies sitting early in their career used to be the norm. But the incentives changed with the NFL’s pay structure. In the old days, rookie QBs routinely earned more money than veterans, which made them much bigger investments. Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford was drafted no. 1 overall by the Rams in 2010 and signed a deal for $50 million guaranteed—the most in NFL history at that time. Partially because of that deal—and the growing ridiculousness of rookie contracts overall—the NFL and NFLPA agreed to change the rules to limit rookie pay within the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Now, rookie QB pay is almost comically low: When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013, Russell Wilson made less than the team’s long snapper. Mahomes won the Super Bowl with Kansas City in 2019 while accounting for about 2 percent of the team’s budget. Front offices noticed that if teams could find young quarterbacks who could play early in their contracts, the most important position in sports was cost-controlled.
“With the contract structure now, I think you see more teams taking a shot at guys because it’s almost like a three-year tryout,” Turner says. Before 2011, drafting quarterbacks “weighed on you more because of the commitment you had to make.”
A team drafting a quarterback is still a commitment—like marriage. But divorce, in this case, has been destigmatized. Earlier this year, the Rams traded Jared Goff to Detroit (along with two first-rounders and a third) for Matthew Stafford—a swap of two former no. 1 picks. The Eagles also traded away Carson Wentz, who was taken just after Goff in 2016, and took the biggest dead-money cap hit in league history to do so. Arizona traded up to take UCLA QB Josh Rosen with the no. 10 pick in 2018, then booted him to take Murray with the first pick just one year later.
Now that teams have a financial incentive for quarterbacks to play earlier in their career, it feels like the league is full of first-, second-, and third-year starters. Tom Brady noted that on his Let’s Go! podcast earlier this month, saying he barely recognizes all the younger quarterbacks he’s playing against. “I don’t remember this many rookies playing,” Brady said. “Even the second-year guys. Tua [Tagovailoa], [Justin] Herbert, [Joe] Burrow, Trevor Lawrence. Fields played a little bit. Trey Lance played a little bit. Zach Wilson is playing. Mac Jones is playing. That’s a lot of young quarterbacks. Gone are the days of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning. You know, those are the guys I’m used to hearing about.”
The irony of Brady’s comment about the quarterbacks with longevity is that all of them except Peyton Manning sat behind a veteran before starting.
“Fans want to see that shiny new car out there, and they want to drive it,” Pederson says. “But what happens when you ding that side panel in the parking lot, and you bang the door, and now it’s not so shiny anymore?”
While Lawrence, Wilson, and Jones are already into the deep end (and Fields is about to join them), Trey Lance is still staring at a Microsoft Surface. Lance is the lone first-round quarterback this year who didn’t play in Week 2—not even getting into the game on a gadget play like he did in Week 1.
“We’re an NFL team and we’re trying to win each game, and we do have a starting quarterback, and that usually makes it pretty simple,” Shanahan said after Sunday’s win over the Eagles. “But when your backup quarterback does have a skill set that can bring different things to the game, that’s what gives him an option for us to do. He has something that someone has to prepare for week in and week out. And I think that’s an awesome club that we have in our bag that we can use at any time.”
As long as the 49ers keep rolling, Lance will likely stay in a limited role. But Fields is about to enter the fray. His first start will come this week against Cleveland, a team that has two former no. 1 picks in defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.
Pederson understands Nagy’s position when it comes to his quarterback conundrum. Pederson worked with Nagy in Kansas City before leaving to coach the Eagles in 2016—the year Philly drafted Wentz with the no. 2 pick. Pederson’s original plan was to sit Wentz behind veteran Sam Bradford, but the week before the season, Vikings starter Teddy Bridgewater injured his knee, and Minnesota offered the Eagles a first- and fourth-rounder for Bradford. They accepted. “At that point,” Pederson says, “we just said, ‘Hey, Carson. Let’s go. We drafted you for this reason.’”
Starting Wentz came with growing pains. Pederson was a first-year head coach installing a new offense with a rookie quarterback, and he said everyone in the building had to understand there were going to be a lot of mistakes early on. “These are the discussions that they have behind closed doors,” Pederson says. “Like, ‘Hey, if we’re going to go all in with Carson Wentz, just understand there’s going to be some ups and downs.’”
Fields had ups and downs in relief of Dalton on Sunday. The rookie finished with six completions on 13 attempts for 60 yards and an interception. His pick was a classic welcome to the NFL moment in seeing complicated coverage. And he was stripsacked on a play where he stayed in the pocket far too long. But Fields also made some excellent throws that didn’t end up in the box score, like a long would-be touchdown to Allen Robinson that was dropped.
When Fields plays this week, he’ll likely have a few more dazzling moments, along with some legitimate struggles. But everyone has to dive in eventually—and teams can never know if their quarterbacks are ready until they take the plunge.
This piece was updated after publication with new information.