Peterson: NFL teams starting young quarterbacks early in their careers may hurt their development

Dec. 3, 2014, 8:18 p.m.

Whether or not Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been the best quarterback in the NFL over the past few years is up for debate, with the answer fairly likely being no.

But after the Packers’ 26-21 victory over the Patriots, and with Rodgers’ astounding performances as of late, namely 12 straight home games without an interception, an NFL-leading 119.3 passer rating and a 30-3 TD-INT ratio, there’s little debate as to who currently stands as the NFL’s most valuable player and top quarterback. It’s almost certainly Rodgers this year, even though Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady loom right behind and stand ready to wrest that honor away at any moment. And if you disagree, you have to at least acknowledge that Rodgers is in the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the NFL. I’ll leave debating the finer points of quarterback value to people more qualified than myself.

How Rodgers reached this position is really rather mysterious.

Among the 32 starting quarterbacks from this past weekend’s games, the only quarterbacks who have not started at least 13 games in one of their first two seasons (or for rookie quarterbacks, be projected to start 13 games this year) are Brian Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Drew Stanton, Philip Rivers and Rodgers. Not exactly shining company, except maybe Rivers.

Looking at a third season, only Hoyer, Stanton and Rodgers didn’t reach the 13-start plateau in their third year either. And, considering the fact that Stanton only starts because of a season-ending injury to Cardinals’ quarterback Carson Palmer, and Hoyer may be benched in favor of Johnny Manziel in the future, Rodgers might stand alone in this regard among current starting quarterbacks.

Nowadays, teams tend to start young, talented quarterbacks earlier and earlier in their careers. Three of the top four quarterbacks in the 2014 draft have made a start, and Manziel, the only one not to, might make his first next Sunday. The top three quarterbacks drafted in 2013 have also recorded a start, along with seven of the top eight taken in 2012.

Yet Rodgers, the second quarterback taken in the 2005 draft, didn’t start until his fourth season, largely because of the legendary quarterback starting ahead of him, Brett Favre. However, even though the Packers faced a favorable situation in which they could sit Rodgers for a few years and play a Hall-of-Famer in Favre, Rodgers’ meteoric rise raises doubts about the quarterback development process for every young quarterback, no matter the situation.

Is the path Rodgers took just an exception due to fortunate circumstances, or should his path be the norm?

The question ultimately boils down to whether playing a young quarterback early will spur or stunt growth and, if a slight stunt in growth is the belief, whether sacrificing future wins is worth gaining wins this season, at least for teams with an otherwise subpar starting quarterback.

It’s almost impossible to determine how playing a quarterback early in his career affected his development. Would Andrew Luck be as good as he is now if the Colts had decided to sit him behind Peyton Manning for two seasons? Would David Carr still be quarterbacking the Texans if they waited a couple years to start him? How good would Rodgers be now if he started in his first three seasons?

At Stanford, David Shaw, and Jim Harbaugh before him, abides by the belief that a quarterback needs time to adjust to the system and the college game before he can take over the starting reins. This is clearly evident in the case of Andrew Luck, and even slightly in the case of Keller Chryst. This notion could seemingly apply to the NFL as well, and yet, most teams don’t follow this principle. Along with the previously mentioned current starting quarterbacks, only Tony Romo and Tom Brady didn’t start a single game their rookie year.

It’s time for NFL teams to strongly consider sitting most rookie quarterbacks for at least a year.

It’s doubtful that Kevin Hogan would still be the starter if he played from day one at Stanford. According to Shaw and the coaching staff, the “light came on” for Hogan during the middle of his second season. Starting before that time could have been permanently damaging to Hogan’s confidence and fundamentals.

NFL quarterbacks experience the same process. I’m sure former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert didn’t appreciate the lackluster talent, especially on the offensive line, surrounding him while he was trying to develop his fundamentals, as Gabbert was constantly under pressure and lacked playmakers around him. Blake Bortles, the Jaguars next iteration of top-young-quarterback-starting-on-a-terrible-team, might be playing even worse. Given a couple years to hone fundamentals and learn the playbook better, Gabbert and Bortles might have played completely different.

For every Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck, who were both clearly ready to play on day one, there is a Jake Locker, a JaMarcus Russell, a Matt Leinart and a Vince Young. Is it worth the risk of possibly discovering a Wilson or Luck a season or two earlier to risk creating a Gabbert or Leinart?

It will never be proven beyond a doubt, but letting young quarterbacks, even really, really good ones, sit behind really, really bad placeholders, might give a team the best chance to produce the next elite quarterback. And, considering the almost unquantifiable value of a truly elite quarterback, it’s worth the risk. Just consider the curious case of Aaron Rodgers.

Based on Michael’s column, his admiration for Aaron Rodgers almost rises to the seemingly insurmountable levels previously  reserved for Mike Trout. To discuss with Michael how Rodgers, in the words of the Stephen A Smith, is a “bad man!”, email him at mrpeters ‘at’

Michael Peterson is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. He has served as a beat reporter for football, baseball and men’s soccer and also does play-by-play broadcasting of football and baseball for KZSU. Michael is a senior from Rancho Santa Margarita, California majoring in computer science. To contact him, please email him at mrpeters ‘at’

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