The plan all along was to have Carson Wentz watch and learn, leaving the game-day responsibilities to starter Sam Bradford and his primary backup, Chase Daniel. Then Howie Roseman’s phone rang Sept. 1, and the world was suddenly about to change for the Eagles’ rookie quarterback.
Trevor Siemian wasn’t Plan A when the Broncos moved on after Peyton Manning’s retirement following last season’s Super Bowl. He wasn’t even Plan B or Plan C. But after the Broncos failed to re-sign Brock Osweiler, then signed veteran Mark Sanchez and drafted first-round quarterback Paxton Lynch, it was the almost unheard-of second-year passer who got the starting job.
Dak Prescott was an under-the-radar rookie in Cowboys training camp when he was summoned to be the starter when Tony Romo suffered a back injury in a preseason game. And rookie Jacoby Brissett was pressed into action when Jimmy Garoppolo, who was filling in for suspended quarterback Tom Brady, suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2 and left the untested rookie as the starter for a prime-time game against the Texans.
Add those first-time starters to the growing list of NFL quarterbacks who no longer have the luxury of time before being thrown into the action despite a lack of experience. It’s a trend that runs counter to the narrative from a generation ago, when quarterbacks playing right away were the exception, not the norm. And it’s a development that will almost certainly continue, as growing impatience to find out whether younger players are good enough will trump the patience once preached in nurturing young quarterbacks before they take over as starters.
“I think the system dictates this, because you only have these guys for four years in a lot of cases,” former NFL general manager Charley Casserly said, referring to the league’s free-agency system that allows players to strike deals with other teams after four seasons. “They can take the money and run. So the system is set up where you have to play guys fast.”
The neophyte quarterbacks who are in that situation this season are producing successful results so far, starting with Wentz. The Eagles made a series of trades to move up the draft board to take the North Dakota State quarterback with the second overall pick. But with Bradford having signed a two-year contract early in the offseason, and with veteran backup Chase Daniel following first-year coach Doug Pederson from Kansas City, Wentz was not even expected to be in uniform on game days.
Clearing way for Wentz
But after Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice less than two weeks before the regular-season opener, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman called Roseman, the Eagles’ GM, and eventually swung a trade to acquire Bradford as Bridgewater’s replacement. That meant Wentz would become the No. 1 quarterback.
Playing with the poise of a 10-year veteran, Wentz has been spectacular through the Eagles’ surprising 3-0 start, completing 64.7 percent of his passes and throwing five touchdown passes and no interceptions for a 103.8 rating.
Pederson credits Wentz’s preparation, as well as his physical gifts, with setting the stage for the strong start.
“He loves watching tape,” the coach said. “I hear him just even in the building talking to guys about plays and routes and protections. It’s Peyton Manning-ish. You don’t want to put labels on guys, but that’s how Peyton prepared. That’s how these top quarterbacks prepare each week. The challenge now is the more success, how much gets pulled on him and taken away from him. But he’s off to a good start, and it’s definitely part of the process and his preparation.”
Wentz is also drawing comparisons to Packers Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, who often extended plays by scrambling away from the pass rush before finding open receivers.
“I always want to be a thrower first,” Wentz said. “Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking [to throw], because that’s where the big plays are happening. If I scramble, I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, but I’m not that fast. I always want to get it to the guys that can make plays.”
Siemian’s 3-0 start is perhaps even more stunning, given his unlikely ascent to the No. 1 job. The Broncos had hoped to re-sign free agent Brock Osweiler, but he spurned the team’s $16-million-a-year offer and took a four-year, $72-million deal from Houston. The Broncos then signed veteran Mark Sanchez and drafted Memphis star Lynch in the first round. But it was Siemian, a seventh-round pick out of Northwestern in 2015, who won the job in training camp.
The defending champions are off to a perfect start, and Siemian is coming off a four-touchdown performance against the Bengals.
“In Denver’s case, they had a feeling about liking this guy, but they did offer Osweiler a tremendous contract,” Casserly said. “They were upset when he left. Then they get Sanchez and draft a guy [Lynch] in the first round, so this was unexpected.”
Broncos general manager John Elway, a Hall of Fame quarterback with two Super Bowl rings, acknowledged his good fortune in a radio interview last week, when he said in reference to being unable to sign Osweiler, “A lot of times, those deals you don’t make are the best ones.”
While Osweiler is in the first year of a deal that averages $18 million, Siemian’s rookie contract averages just $583,196.
“You try to make the best decision when you have to make it,” Elway said. “We really felt good with the way everything’s fallen, the way we went into camp, and we’re really excited with the guys who are playing the position for us now.”
Holding the fort
In Prescott’s case, the injury to Romo in a preseason game against the Seahawks forced him into a starting role much earlier than expected. But he carries himself with a veteran’s poise, and though he has just one touchdown pass in the first three games, he hasn’t thrown an interception. The Cowboys are 2-1 and are expected to put Romo in the lineup once the fractured bone in his back is fully healed.
“I know I’ve got guys around me that have been to Pro Bowls, that have played a lot of games,” Prescott said. “They’ve seen it all. Just to go out there and allow them to make the plays and just give them chances and put ourselves in the best position to win.”
And Brissett did a terrific job in leading the Patriots to a Week 3 win over the Texans, despite having only three days to prepare for the Thursday night game at Gillette Stadium. He didn’t have an interception and scored a rushing touchdown in a 27-0 win. Either Brissett or Garoppolo will start Sunday’s game against the Bills, with Brady set to return from his four-game suspension next week in Cleveland.
The promising results for the young passers certainly bodes well for the future, and there’s no going back to the days when passers — even high-round picks — often spent years preparing to become starters. But it’s not always an easy transition, given the growing impatience and expectations in today’s game.
In the wings
“If you look at our society today, everyone wants instant gratification and wants results right now,” said Bradford, who started as a rookie with the Rams in 2010, when he was the No. 1 overall pick. He’s now with his third NFL team. “I think the expectations for young players to come in and succeed from the beginning are a lot higher than they once were.”
Bradford, who won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010, said he preferred playing right away.
“I know that getting in there and learning on the fly, learning on the field, was the best way for me,” he said. “You can only learn so much from a film room. But I haven’t done it the other way, so I’m sure there are pros and cons to both.”
This year’s No. 1 pick, Jared Goff, is doing it the other way. In contrast to Wentz, the Rams would rather Goff soak up the game from the sideline and have Case Keenum serve as the starter. It remains to be seen how long coach Jeff Fisher will keep Goff on the sideline, though, especially with so many other young quarterbacks playing so well so soon.
Another highly drafted quarterback who is being developed slowly: Jets second-round pick Christian Hackenberg, who is inactive on game days, when the team goes with starter Ryan Fitzpatrick and backup Geno Smith. Despite not playing, Hackenberg prepares mentally as if he’ll be the starter.
“My focus is just getting better and learning as much as I can, but you see around this league that you’re two or three snaps away, and you’re playing,” Hackenberg said. “There’s a lot of ‘next man up.’ So it’s really important, not only for myself, but for all of us, to prepare as if you’re one snap away.”
It remains to be seen when Hackenberg will get his shot. Fitzpatrick and Smith are signed through this season, and both quarterbacks might not be back next season. That means either Hackenberg or Bryce Petty could get a shot.
“If [being the starter] happens to be the case, I’ll give everything I have for the guys in this locker room, this organization and myself,” Hackenberg said. “I know I am confident in my abilities, and I’ll be able to do what I need to do to get whatever it is done. But right now, that’s not my situation.”
One thing that may help Hackenberg’s development is his exposure to the pro-style offense that former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien employed when Hackenberg was a freshman. O’Brien later took the Texans head-coaching job. Unlike many college quarterbacks, who play in the spread offense and have trouble adjusting to the NFL game, the pro-style approach can be more helpful.
“I was very fortunate to have Bill O’Brien as my head football coach my freshman year in college, so I got exposure to that style of offense,” he said. “He had just gotten done coaching Tom Brady [as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator]. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to that at 18 years old, and that was something that’s been very valuable to me throughout my first couple of months here, from an expectations standpoint, to an X’s and O’s standpoint, and to pretty much the whole spiel. How you come in to work, how you prepare yourself. That’s been good for me.”
Casserly suggests that many of today’s young quarterbacks aren’t as NFL-ready as they could be because of the prevalence of the spread offense in the college game.
“You could argue that in many cases, they’re not as ready because of the simplicity of the spread system,” he said. “There’s no real reading of defenses. In a lot of pro schemes, it’s a lot of one read and throw. More people are playing the spread than ever before, so it’s tougher on NFL coaches. So I do have a concern about quarterback development.”
So far this season, though, the young quarterbacks are adjusting just fine. It doesn’t mean they won’t have significant challenges that lie ahead. But in a league that stresses the passing game more and more, the future certainly looks promising.