• Image about Byron Leftwich


It was one of those pre-draft workout moves that promised to create a buzz. After all, it's not every day a rookie-to-be, especially one from the University of California, takes a knee at the opposite 45-yard line and fires a perfect spiral through the uprights to a receiver positioned 10 yards beyond the goal posts. But that's exactly what Kyle Boller did to finish off his February Combine session, which was followed by a chorus of applause from the NFL scouts and coaches in attendance.

Come September, we'll see if Mr. Boller can hit his mark while on his feet.

"That is the idea of the game, isn't it?" says fellow rookie signal caller Byron Leftwich upon hearing of Boller's feat. "You drop back into the pocket, check out the defense, find a receiver, and get him the ball, right?"

Sounds easy enough.

Of course, reality is something entirely different. While both Boller and Leftwich throw a mean pass and compiled some rather lofty stats in college, taking the quantum leap to the pros at the most demanding position in all of sports is tougher than beating Jon Gruden in a stare-down.

Even the most highly regarded rookie quarterbacks (see Ryan Leaf, Rick Mirer, Trent Dilfer, Todd Blackledge) sometimes never find their way to NFL stardom. Regardless of the college pedigree, the play-for-pay league just chews them up and spits them out. Physically, most every quarterback who's drafted can play at the top level. But it's their mental makeup and their ability to lead a group of men - often veterans of numerous NFL battles - that truly make or break young QBs.

"In my first year, I focused on one receiver on every play and threw him the ball no matter what," says veteran New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins. "I couldn't believe how fast everything was moving. If my guy wasn't open, I either threw a pick or an incompletion. Hopefully, more of the second than the first."

David Carr knows the feeling.

A star at Fresno State, Carr was the No. 1 overall pick of the expansion Houston Texans last season and started from Week 1. Although his first regular season game was a stirring victory against the Dallas Cowboys, Carr was knocked down more often in 2002 than the orange cones in driver's ed class. In all, he was sacked an NFL-record 76 times. By year's end, Carr did throw for the second-most passing yards by an expansion QB since the aforementioned Collins (2,592 compared to Collins' 2,717 for the Carolina Panthers in 1995). But overall, it was a year of hard knocks and tough-love lessons.

WANTED: THE NEXT DAN MARINO
"The best position for a rookie quarterback is 'clipboard,'" asserts the Detroit Lions new head coach Steve Mariucci.

The man knows whereof he speaks. Mariucci was, after all, the quarterback coach for Brett Favre when Favre arrived in Green Bay, and he coached Steve Young in San Francisco. He now inherits second-year phenom Joey Harrington, who didn't start from Week 1 during his rookie season but did see plenty of action.

"The only quarterback I can think of who came in and starred as a rookie was Dan Marino," Mariucci has said. "Everybody else needs time to learn. Favre got a 'redshirt' year. Steve Young took a while to learn the [49ers'] offense. A rookie quarterback comes in and sees things he's never seen before, and it takes him time to adjust. In the meantime, he's getting knocked around. He's always been the star, but now he's being humbled."

"I'm always asked how much difference it makes to play immediately," says ex-QB Troy Aikman, who started his rookie season in Dallas in 1989 and won exactly zero games in a glorious 1-15 campaign under coach Jimmy Johnson. "I only know one answer since I had no choice in the matter. I think in the long run it's a good thing to start right away. But it's not a blanket statement. It's dangerous with some guys because they can lose their confidence by never experiencing success as a rookie. But if a guy plays through the setbacks and he sticks with the program, his entire team will be stronger for it."

PUT UP OR SHUT UP
In this year's draft, the top QB prospects were Leftwich (No. 7 to Jacksonville), Boller (No. 19 to Baltimore), Rex Grossman (No. 22 to Chicago), Chris Simms (third round to Tampa Bay), and Carson Palmer (No. 1 to Cincinnati). All brought big arms to the table but plenty of question marks about playing under pressure as well. Of the group, only Leftwich and Boller have bona fide shots at playing this season.

Leftwich will have the enviable position of tutoring under veteran Mark Brunell, whose big-money contract and bruised body will soon make him expendable. When he does earn his shot, Leftwich's lack of mobility will make him an easy target for blitzing linebackers if he tries to stand tall in the pocket too long - one of his traits at Marshall University. Still, of all the teams in the league, Jacksonville sets up as the best situation for Leftwich. Much like Steve McNair did in Tennessee, Leftwich will have time to gain his sea legs and then take command of the ship.

Boller will learn his craft under Baltimore head coach Brian Billick, considered one of the NFL's best offensive minds. While Boller should play this year, he probably won't be thrown to the dogs in Week 1. Then again, if his mind can grasp Billick's complex offense, his Howitzer right arm is everything it's made out to be, and he doesn't hide under the nearest bench when he watches hitting-machine teammate Ray Lewis in practice, Boller might just be the surprise story at this year's training camp.

Speaking of surprises, as was the case last year with Carr, the Houston Texans may have selected the premier quarterback prospect of the draft - except this time few fans in Houston gave it a second thought. That's because the Texans took a flier on Drew Henson, who currently plays third base for the New York Yankees Triple-A club in Columbus. Henson was a superstar quarterback in the making at the University of Michigan before he decided to chase his dream of playing next to Derek Jeter in Yankee Stadium. That dream has turned into a sub-.200 batting average and mediocre power numbers, which could mean an NFL future for Henson. He was considered a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and a possible No. 1 overall selection in the NFL draft, so if Henson does give up on baseball, the Texans will own a valuable commodity. So far, though, Henson says he's only focused on reaching the majors.

Meanwhile, Carson Palmer, Hollywood's golden boy, won't be able to sneak up on anyone this year. Palmer's senior season at USC, which garnered him the Heisman, was enough to convince the Cincinnati Bengals to pick him with the first-overall selection.

Palmer is big (6 feet 5 inches, 220 pounds), owns a quick release, and is accurate with both deep and short routes. He can move out of the pocket when necessary, has played in a pro-style offense under the tutelage of Norm Chow, and, well, he's darn good-looking. What more could a coach ask for?

Regardless, Bengals first-year head coach Marvin Lewis has already said that veteran Jon Kitna, not Palmer, will be his starter in Week 1.

The decision isn't a total surprise. Kitna is a solid professional who can take the pressure off Palmer while the youngster learns the ropes. In the current scenario, Palmer will get some late-game snaps - probably when the Bengals are being demolished - and intensely study NFL defenses each week. By the time he gets the call to go full-time, he'll at least have a fighting chance to succeed in Cincy.

Smart move? Time will tell. Studying films and practicing squad repetitions only go so far. Until a quarterback calls a play in the huddle during a regular-season contest, everything else is window dressing.

And for that, we say toss them into the pool and see if they can swim. Sure, they'll struggle, but young quarterbacks always struggle. By pushing them out onto the field as soon as possible, at least you get the real embarrassing moments out of the way. And it's kind of fun to watch. 

A freelance writer living in Dallas, Klancnik recently penned Emmitt: Run With History, a book commemorating Emmitt Smith's successful pursuit of Walter Payton's all-time NFL rushing mark.     

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JOHN CARROLL