Learning Curve
 
 
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Two weeks before the NFL season opened, Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher sat in the team's blue-and-white offensive meeting room and mused about the tantalizing gifts of Vince Young.

The Learning Curve
• Garber: QB learning curve
The volume of information for a rookie QB to learn can be staggering. Greg Garber visited with three first-round rookies to explore the learning curve for rookie QBs.

• Learning curve: Jay Cutler
The comparisons to John Elway started early for Jay Cutler in Denver. But the rookie QB knows he still has a lot to learn.

• Learning curve: Matt Leinart
Matt Leinart was a star on the big stage at USC. Now he's just a rookie trying to learn the playbook in Arizona.

• Learning curve: Vince Young
The Titans have already given Vince Young some game action. The question now is will they continue to ease him in and let him learn or decide that he needs to play now?

"One of the challenges that we're facing as a staff," Fisher said, "is dealing with the temptation of playing him sooner because of his athletic ability and play-making ability. You have different personnel groupings, different packages, and from one series to the next, you may go from a base offense to a three-wide-receiver offense. We very well could include him in one of those packages."

Sure enough, in the Titans' opening game against the New York Jets on Sept. 10, the rookie quarterback replaced starter Kerry Collins for a series midway through the second quarter. On third-and-five from the Tennessee 41, the Rose Bowl MVP completed his first official NFL pass to Drew Bennett for nine yards. On first-and-10 he found Bennett again, this time for an 11-yard gain. Young was three-for-three with a seven-yard toss to Bobby Wade.

It looked almost too easy and, of course, it was.

Young's fourth pass was complete, too, but it was caught by Jets cornerback Andre Dyson. In the context of the game -- the Titans would lose 23-16 -- the play didn't mean much, but it underlined the monstrous learning curve the NFL presents for rookie quarterbacks.

"Yeah," acknowledged Young, "it's a load man, especially as a rook coming in."

And while Young played five series in Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers, and his 18-yard pass to Bennett was the Titans' only touchdown, history says it will be a constant struggle for the rookie signal caller. Three quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 2006 draft: Young, taken by the Titans with the No. 3 overall pick, Matt Leinart (Cardinals, No. 10) and Jay Cutler (Broncos, No. 11). And because their teams invested more than $150 million in their futures, the attention and the pressure will be enormous.

ESPN.com sat down with all three quarterbacks and their coaches in the days leading up to the regular season to learn what they were up against.

"There's nothing like it," Cutler said at the Broncos' facility in Englewood, Colo. "The amount of info that we are presented with and are expected to go out there and execute and know and, in some cases, we have to know more than the coaches do."

Denver head coach Mike Shanahan went further.

"A young quarterback is trying to be a head coach right away, trying to be an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator and a head coach all at once," Shanahan said. "And for a young guy coming in, it could be overwhelming."

"It's overwhelming at times, because you learn the basic system, then week-to-week you learn game plans, so it's changing all the time," explained Jake Plummer, the Broncos' starting quarterback. "My first start when I came in [against the Houston Oilers], I threw four picks. I was throwing to hot guys that I thought were hot -- that hot was over here, but I thought he was over there."

Overwhelming -- there's that word again.

Even considering these quarterbacks played in relatively sophisticated college offenses, the volume of information is staggering. All things considered -- rookie minicamp, 17 designated on-site days and training camp -- a rookie quarterback has about 60 days to get it all down.

The Vikings' Brad Johnson is in his 13th season as an NFL quarterback. Asked how difficult it is for a rookie, he smiles and lets fly a would-be play: "U Shift Green, Left, West, F, Short, Spy, Two, Banana, Z, Over, Heads, Up, Four, 358, Smoke, Check, H, 2 Miami."

Johnson's cadence accelerates as he rolls through the play. Quarterbacks just love to share with people how difficult their jobs are. For those of you counting at home, that's 21 elements.

"You're just trying to call the play," Johnson says, "let alone operate the play."

Indeed, after the play is called -- laying out the snap count, shifts, motions, protection schemes, run and pass audibles, among other things -- the snap brings another myriad of variables into play: blitzes, protection and route adjustments and, on most occasions, onrushing defensive linemen with hate in their heart.

"It helps to have a great arm," said Dennis Green, the Cardinals' head coach. "It helps to be athletic, but you have to be able to process information very quickly in order to move the chains."

Doug Flutie played quarterback for 21 seasons, for eight different teams (the Patriots twice) in three different leagues. By his count, he operated in at least 11 different offensive schemes. Late this summer, he sat down in the Boston College athletic complex under Alumni Stadium and talked about issues of assimilation.

"I could step into the huddle at a new team, hear the play call and not know a darn thing," said Flutie, now a broadcaster for ESPN/ABC. "If I just stepped into the huddle in, say, San Francisco, I would not know what to do. It's completely different terminology, and you're learning from square one, like learning French or Spanish.

"To learn it, you are sitting with a pen and paper, taking notes for four weeks, going home and studying every night and being able to talk and communicate on the same plane and learn the language. Then, when you finally get out on the field, everything comes at you really, really fast."

"The speed of the game is definitely different," Leinart conceded. "It's definitely a lot faster. For me, I think terminology is the hardest part."

Said Cutler, "For some guys to come in and to have two months to pick it up and then try to jump right into games …it is astonishing that some guys are able to do it."

While Cutler, Leinart and Young already have demonstrated to their coaches that they are equipped to deal with the complexities of NFL offenses, there is no guarantee that they will succeed at the ultimate level. Of the eight quarterbacks who played in the last five Super Bowls, only two -- Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb -- were first-round draft choices. Johnson, playing for the Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII, was a ninth-round choice, while two were taken in the sixth round: Tom Brady (three appearances) and Matt Hasselbeck. Kurt Warner was undrafted.

Over the last five seasons, 25 rookie quarterbacks started for NFL teams. Their combined record was a dismal 61-100. Only six of them had a winning record. The exceptional exception to the rule? Roethlisberger, who won all 13 of his regular-season starts and has forged a 27-5 record overall.

As a rookie in 1983, Dan Marino helped lead Miami to a 12-4 season, but Roethlisberger stands alone.

"The coach made it a little bit easier for me by not calling all kinds of crazy plays," Roethlisberger said in training camp. "We had a great running game, and I think our college system [Miami of Ohio] was a little pro-rated as well."

Added Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, "It's not easy. It takes time. And what our quarterback has done is unprecedented and I'm not so sure will be done again.

"It probably happened really fast and he didn't have time to think about it."

Fast is the operative word. Don't expect too much, Titans, Broncos and Cardinals fans. Rookies will be rookies, again and again. Listen to Leinart's approach to the end of the game.

"For the kneel, we go Split-Right, Tight Victory, because victory is taking a knee," he said, smiling. "But in the huddle, I'll say `We're taking a knee,' and that's it."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

(Photos: 1. Photo/David Zalubowski; 2. Marvin Gentry/US Presswire,; 3. AP Photo/Matt York; 4. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey; 5. E. Bakke/WireImage.com; 6. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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