Home > FNQB, NFL > The Return of Friday Night QB: What T.J. Yates, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, and Tim Tebow prove about NFL team behavior

The Return of Friday Night QB: What T.J. Yates, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, and Tim Tebow prove about NFL team behavior

The NFL is already flush with young quarterbacks, and this is a trend that will continue through the next two drafts.  I know that much for certain.  What’s far less clear is exactly what role those young quarterbacks will have on the NFL playoff picture and the NFL postseason.  It is certain that they will matter, just not to what degree.

Offensive coordinators in pro football have an entirely different job now than they did even five years ago.  In a world where the ability to hold your position for three consecutive years is rare, it is more critical than ever before to avoid having dismal quarterback play.  You can not select a quarterback in the first round, or even be part of an organization that selects a quarterback in the first round, without being held accountable for the quarterback’s performance in his developmental years.

Lets look at the state of two struggling franchises: the Jaguars are undergoing some pretty significant organizational changes right now because Blaine Gabbert has not been good as a rookie and the Jaguars have lost games in a year where they have undergone a fantastic defensive transformation back to the top of the league.  The offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers on the other hand, Rob Chudzinski, is now on a short list of potential head coaching candidates for the upcoming season because of the work that he has done with Cam Newton.  It would not at all surprise me to see Chudzinski running the show in quarterback rich places like Indianapolis or St. Louis next year.

The Panthers, you may have realized, have the same record as the Jaguars this year.  But with two equally touted college quarterbacks, one franchise has turned their pick into a must-see rookie of the year candidate, and the other franchise appears to be just playing their pick for lack of a better option.  As far as building an organization, the Jaguars have been as good if not better than the Panthers at building a foundation for the future.  They have the defense, they think they have the quarterback, and many of the pieces are already in place, pending the next coach because the current staff is taking the fall for the losing.  The Panthers staff has created a culture of optimism based around Cam Newton, and though the optimism is probably no better founded there than in Jacksonville, the Panthers’ coaches are going to get better gigs than the Jags coaches next year.  Style points do matter in the NFL.

Style points are why Tim Tebow is regarded as lightly as he is around the league.  It’s hard to actually make the case that Denver’s passing offense has been a total disaster since Tebow took over.  The Broncos have 13 total offensive touchdowns in exactly 13 halves of football since Tim Tebow became the quarterback, and Tebow personally accounted for 11 of those 13 touchdowns.  Tebow has fumbled 5 times and thrown just one interception.  For Tebow to have numbers like that and still significantly limit the passing game, he would have to be doing a lot worse than 45.5% completion and 6.0 yards per attempt.  Whether or not Tebow’s historically low interception rate and relatively low fumble rates are sustainable is a different topic, but his value to the Broncos is pretty obvious.

Tebow has fundamental issues caused I believe by a changed throwing motion that has really hurt his arm strength and accuracy to the outside of the football field.  But we’re forgetting the whole reason that Tebow’s throwing motion was changed in the first place: he was a 23 year old rookie under Josh McDaniels, and was widely criticized prior to the NFL draft based on what I believe to be a non-essential trait of success or failure: that elongated throwing motion.  The whole idea with coaching up his throwing motion was that it would positively affect his draft status (and it did).  I think Tebow actually regressed as a rhythm/accuracy passer from year one to year two.  But because this is year two of Tebow, I think there is a ton of final judgement being done on him as a passer, and I can understand why very little of it is positive.  Tebow has shown some ability to place the ball when the throw is within a certain range of arm talent, but down the field and to the edges of the defense he needs a significant window to make the throw.

Even in the case of Tebow, a coaching staff got fired because they built around a whole concept of loading up for the future, and the owner in Denver (Pat Bowlen) did not give ample opportunity for Josh McDaniels and his staff to succeed after multiple early failures.  The changes in the organization have really hurt Tebow as a passer.  And the Broncos may now have to make a decision on his future as is, meaning that if they decide he’s not good enough from the pocket to lead the Broncos, they may have to go back to the drawing board and find someone who is.  The quandary that Tebow has put the Broncos in by running this offense really effectively is pretty much the only thing Tebow can do at this point to save his job.  He’s incredibly limited as a pocket passer, and I just don’t think that was the case even one year ago.

Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton had very divergent college careers, and both could have easily gone anywhere between the first and fourth round in the 2011 NFL draft.  The Vikings fell in love with Ponder at no. 12 overall, making him a common choice for most overdrafted player based on his perceived draft stock.  Andy Dalton got picked 35th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals, who opted not to take him 4th overall based on his perceived draft stock.  The Vikings weren’t willing to gamble on Ponder being there later, and the Bengals won their gamble.

And it might surprise you to learn that, according to Total QBR, Dalton and Ponder have been almost the same player.  I can attest that Dalton has been tested a lot more early in his career, but Ponder is being forced to improvise to save his offense, and he’s enjoying at least moderate amounts of success.  Both Jay Gruden (offensive coordinator – Bengals), and Bill Musgrave (offensive coordinator – Vikings) have put in great work to be able to have rookies lead teams.  It’s hard to say how Dalton and Ponder will do down the road since both are looking up at much stronger organizations in their own division that they will have to play every year, and Dalton is 0-2 against the Bengals and Ravens while Ponder went 0-2 against the Packers.

But 2012 will be a big year for both quarterbacks and their coaches.  The Bengals are set up really nicely for the future, because they have a ton of draft picks and the Steelers and Ravens are aging rapidly.  The Vikings, however, could be playing for Leslie Frazier’s job as soon as next season.  And who knows if Musgrave will stay as offensive coordinator for Ponder or take a better opportunity.  As much as both franchises have the right to be optimistic after landing quarterback high in the draft that could lead their franchises well into the future, no team is ever more than 365 days away from cold, dark uncertainty.  Even if the Bengals make the playoffs this year, it does nothing for them if they fall off the map next year unexpectedly.

All of this brings me to Houston quarterback T.J. Yates, the real point of this article.  Yates was a sixth round pick who is probably most famous for being around for practically forever at North Carolina.  The guy who may be most sympathetic to Yates’ plight around the NFL would have to be Browns quarterback Colt McCoy.   The NFL is a backwards league in many ways, but here’s one you might not have thought of.  Tim Tebow is getting tons of criticism for the style of his play, but understand that the criticism is not unfounded, because Tebow is also getting a very legitimate chance to win games, a chance that Tebow would never have gotten if he were a 5th or 6th round pick.  T.J. Yates, like McCoy, is precisely that.

The only reason either got a shot as a first year player was due to injury.  And unlike first round quarterbacks, mid-round quarterbacks don’t get a chance to screw up.  If they struggle in their first opportunity as a rookie, they end up on a backup QB career path or out of the league entirely.  Look at Titans’ QB Rusty Smith, who literally got one game to prove himself in the NFL, and was shut out by a historically bad defense.  I feel confident in saying that Rusty Smith will never play in the NFL again.

But the whole idea with drafting quarterbacks in the middle rounds is the idea that “developmental prospects” exist.  However, this is patently untrue.  The difference between middle round quarterback selections and high selections is not the level of development required to turn them into a reliable starter, it is the level of confidence the coaching staff would have to play you as a rookie.  It’s almost a curse to have to play as a rookie, but sometimes its necessary: you can’t earn a roster spot through preseason performance alone.

A lot rides on Yates for the Texans.  If he plays really, really well, the Texans could have a situation on their hands similar to what the Patriots had with Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe ten years ago.  If he plays poorly, no one in the league is ever going to go out and get T.J. Yates to solve their quarterback issues again.  For this opportunity, T.J. Yates had roughly four months from the end of the NFL lockout to the present day to prepare to define his career as an NFL quarterback.  He becomes the second quarterback in modern history to get drafted in the sixth round or later and have a legitimate chance to win the super bowl before the age of 25 (Yates will turn 25 in May).  He is old for a rookie, and the Texans need to trust him in order to go deep into the playoffs.

To conclude, the primary factor of judging a rookie quarterback is his ability to play quarterback as a rookie.  First round picks seem to be able to get two years to show their worth to an organization, everybody else is on a game by game basis.  I think this is part a factor of teams having more options at the quarterback position than ever before, and part of it is that some smart coaches showed that you could win right away with rookie quarterbacks, and so the tolerance for losing because of a rookie passer is now a relic in the NFL.  Just ask Jack Del Rio.

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