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A Developing Situation

Posted May 21, 2010

It takes time for a quarterback to be NFL-ready

 The Cardinals will try to develop rookie quarterback John Skelton.
 
 
By the time Chris Miller signed his rookie contract with the Atlanta Falcons in 1987, the strike-torn season was already nine games old and the team was terrible.

So the Falcons decided to take their new quarterback – a University of Oregon product woefully unprepared to play right away – and stick him in the lineup the final few games. That included a start against the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers, and their Pro Bowl safety Ronnie Lott.

“Pre-snap, I am going through my cadence,” Miller recalled. “All of a sudden all I am doing is watching (Lott) sprint from one side to the other side. I have no idea what play I am running or what they were doing on defense.”

It was a microcosm of the day, a 35-7 loss in which Miller was sacked three times and threw four interceptions. He was “thrown to the wolves” and lost in an NFL world he was not yet equipped to handle.

Miller, now the Cardinals’ quarterbacks coach, eventually learned enough to become a Pro Bowler. But it might not have been the optimal way to develop a young quarterback – not that there is any set blueprint.

“Everyone learns differently,” Miller said. “I think that’s a big part of developing quarterbacks, knowing how each guy ticks.”

****

The Cardinals have developing to do. John Skelton was the team’s fifth-round draft pick. His size – 6-foot-6, 244 pounds – and arm strength scream NFL-caliber. His pedigree, after playing at Fordham in college, does not. Undrafted rookie Max Hall faces an uphill climb to stick around, but he has impressed Miller with his ability to quickly learn. The question will be if that will be enough to overcome Hall’s size (at 6-1, he is appreciably smaller than the team’s other three QBs).

In this process considered never ending, even Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson have their own personal learning curves.

Leinart has worked with Patriots Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady in California during a couple of offseasons. Brady told Leinart he was still working on mechanical details despite throwing basically the same way for 18 years, since Brady arrived in high school.

“Even if you are Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, I guarantee you they are doing things in the offseason to get better at certain things,” Leinart said. “Little things always come up. That’s the thing I have learned. You work your butt off to prepare and then you get to minicamp and think, ‘I want to do this better or that better,’ or, ‘I’ve worked on this but I need to work on it more.’ You are never perfect.”

Interestingly, Leinart – who started 11 games as a rookie and the first five the next season before an injury and Kurt Warner’s talents sent him to the bench – believes that sitting, watching and learning in the NFL makes more sense than playing right away.

The only way that works, however, is if there is a veteran in place to play in the meantime and help develop the younger passer.

“It’s tough when you’re on a team that struggles,” Leinart said. “You have to have help or it won’t matter how talented you are.”

Miller said mental makeup becomes crucial. Some players can play right away for a bad team and eventually make it work. Troy Aikman was terrible as a rookie for a one-win Cowboy team, but overcame that. So too did Steve Young after being battered in Tampa Bay. Others – like Miller’s Oregon brethren Joey Harrington and Akili Smith – never developed.

“You can get ruined in this game,” Miller said. “Can a guy handle some failure, and still get up and keep learning?”

****

In between practices at the recent Cards’ minicamp, many players were getting lunch, playing cards or resting. Skelton was tucked off to the side in the locker room, staring at his playbook and reviewing his notes.

One thing Miller saw quickly from Skelton – and from Anderson – is that both seem better off once they have a chance to go through a play on the practice field, rather than just digesting it on paper. It’s one of those details crucial to understand in developing a quarterback.

“It’s one thing when you are in the meeting and you think you have it down but it is another thing when you are out on the field and you’ve got to run it,” Skelton said. “For the most part I am picking it up, but it is translating it to the field that is the hard part.”

For Skelton, the easiest part of his transition to the NFL is actually playing football again. That’s where he feels comfortable. He acknowledges he wants to play – “You don’t want to go somewhere like Indianapolis and back up Peyton Manning” – but he knows he has much to learn.

From that aspect, when he looked at prospective teams that might draft him, “a good coaching staff is more the key.”

There is some coaching to do. Miller estimates Skelton is a couple of years away from being able to perform at a level the Cards need – which is leading a playoff contender. As enticing as Skelton’s raw skills are to the Cardinals, they aren’t everything.

“You can throw the ball 70 yards in this league but really, how many times do you do that?” passing game coordinator Mike Miller said. “We feel, if you have a quarterback who can throw 35 or 40 yards but is efficient, is smart, he can identify the defenses and coverages and get us into the right plays, and be accurate, that’s what you want.”

It’s what Cards want to develop, whether it’s Leinart, Skelton, Anderson or even Hall.

“It’s a tough position to come in and play,” head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Guess that’s why the guys who do come in and play well get paid so much.”
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