Vince Young and Bruce Gradkowski made up two-thirds of the most significant rookie-QB weekend in eight years
For all the talk about how to properly handle a rookie quarterback -- trial by fire, a la Troy Aikman, or clipboard apprenticeship, a la Steve McNair -- these things are usually determined by circumstance.
Who knows how long the brain trusts in Arizona, Tampa Bay and Tennessee wanted to sit on their rookie passers this season? At this point, it's moot.
Circumstances -- whether it be a Chris Simms ruptured spleen, a lack of veteran alternatives in Nashville or too many Kurt Warner turnovers -- led to a Week 5 quarterback youth movement that wasn't to be denied. With Vince Young opening his second game for the Titans and Bruce Gradkowski and Matt Leinart making their starting debuts for the Buccaneers and Cardinals, respectively, this past Sunday marked the most significant weekend for rookie quarterbacks in eight years.
The last time three rookie quarterbacks started in the same weekend at this point in the season or earlier was in Week 5 of 1998, when the feat was pulled off by Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf and Charlie Batch. As short as it is, that list suggests the full gamut of career possibilities for Gradkowski, Leinart and Young: MVP, massive bust, life-long grinder.
The good news: The early returns on all three 2006 rookies felt more like Manning than Leaf.
None of the three rookie starters won, but all three were in a decided underdog position and all three kept their teams in contention much longer than expected. In Indianapolis, Young nearly led his team to the upset of the year, as the Titans held a 13-7 fourth-quarter lead before that aforementioned Manning threw the winning touchdown pass for the Colts with five minutes to play. In New Orleans, Gradkowski's second TD pass of the game gave Tampa Bay a 21-17 lead in the fourth quarter before another electric rookie, Reggie Bush, won it for the Saints with a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown. And in Arizona, Leinart had the Cardinals up 20-10 on the high-powered Chiefs before a 13-point fourth quarter gave Kansas City the victory.
These rookies, as Cardinals head coach Dennis Green would say, were "game."
"Matt did some very good things out there," said Green after the Cards' loss. "I think he was very game. As far as trying to help us win the ball game, he did his part."
Indeed, Leinart threw for 253 yards on 22 of 35 passing, tossing two touchdown passes against one interception. Those yardage and completion numbers were tops among the three rookie starters, and they led to a 91.7 passer rating.
Young threw for only 63 yards, but that's just part of his game. He also rushed four times for 43 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown that opened the scoring in Indy and looked a lot like the type of purposeful scramble he used to gash teams with in Austin.
"For the most part, he did a nice job with what he needed to do with the ball," said Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher. "He stayed alive in the pocket, scrambled around in control. It's a difficult place to play with the noise in the huddle, but I thought he handled it well."
Gradkowski, surely the most unlikely of the three starters, was the only one not to toss an interception, and his 107.6 passer rating was the best among the three. He completed 20 of 31 passes for 225 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, also in a very noisy environment.
"There is a lot of promise in that young guy," gushed Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden. "He played his brains out. He really did. He played one heck of a football game. I liked everything about him."
Every NFL season has some dose of rookie excitement under center, of course. Last year, Alex Smith made his debut in San Francisco and Kyle Orton got significant playing time for the Bears. Ben Roethlisberger stepped in quickly for the Steelers in 2004 and won his first 13 ballgames. This year, it appeared that Jay Cutler, the 11th overall pick to Denver, might lead the way when his strong preseason was followed by Denver's shaky start under Jake Plummer.
The Broncos stuck with Plummer, however, and it was actually Gradkowski who got the first official nod among rookie passers. A day after Simms' frightening spleen injury shelved the fourth-year veteran, Gradkowski, another preseason standout, was named the starter in his place. However, since the Bucs were just embarking on their bye week, Young was actually the first rookie QB to start when he took over for Kerry Collins in Week 4.
It's not particularly surprising to see the moves take place in Tennessee and Arizona, where very high draft picks were spent on the obvious quarterbacks of the future. Young and Leinart faced each other in last January's NCAA title game, and the Texas Longhorn went third overall to the Titans while the USC Trojan landed at the 10-spot in Arizona.
Gradkowski is the surprising addition to this trio, obviously. After starring in a much lower-profile Toledo offense, he went in the sixth round to the Buccaneers, No. 194 overall. A June practice-field injury to Luke McCown and Gradkowski's own precocious August performance moved him into the primary backup role and made him the obvious replacement when Simms went down.
Gradkowski has been wide-eyed, but surprisingly poised in the spotlight. He's candid about the speed of the game but not lacking in confidence.
"I came out here and wasn't surprised by a lot of things," he said after his debut in New Orleans. "The defensive line is pretty fast. Things are a lot faster out there. It's football. You just have to go out there and play hard. I had a lot of help from the guys out there, so it makes my job out there easy."
Obviously, these young men want to play, sooner rather than later. This is a collective dream come true for them, and perhaps a sign of greater things in the future for their franchises. Most of all, it was a lot more fun than any of the three necessarily expected to be having by Week 5.
"I had a good time out there, just playing football," said Leinart. "It was fast, but I didn't get touched very often. I think we just take it as a positive. That was my first start and I would just go from there."
Defenses in Indy and New Orleans, and on the visiting sideline in Arizona, were probably expecting to feast on the NFL's newest crop of rookie starters. Instead, Leinart, Young and Gradkowski may have served notice that there is a new generation of passers on the rise.
In fact, New Orleans LB Scott Fujita might have been speaking of any of the three when he said this of Gradkowski: "He was composed, he had good game management skills and I think he's got a bright future in this league."