Young QBs take the slow lane on road to success Sophisticated defenses help delay development of passing prospects

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first two picks in the 1993 college draft shared the common bond of duty. Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer -- cornerstones, saviors and quarterbacks -- would usher the NFL into the next generation, pure and simple.

A decade after there was Marino and Elway and Kelly, there would be Bledsoe and Mirer, and the league's fine line of superstar quarterbacks would be reinforced.

That it hasn't exactly happened that way is further proof of how murky this business of franchise transformation is for a young quarterback these days.

Like virtually every other quarterback who passed this way before them, Bledsoe, with the New England Patriots, and Mirer, with the Seattle Seahawks, have struggled, at times mightily.

For Bledsoe, the No. 1 pick in 1993 after a prolific career at Washington State, the struggle was delayed. He went to the playoffs and the Pro Bowl his second year, throwing for 4,555 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Then, overnight, he became an inconsistent, uncertain passer who looked almost shellshocked a year ago.

Bledsoe's task now: reinvent himself as the game's brightest young quarterback hope.

For Mirer, the No. 2 pick in '93 out of Notre Dame, the challenge is more daunting. Having lost his starting job this week after throwing one touchdown pass and nine interceptions in the Seahawks' first five games, he is trying to reclaim his reeling career.

"It's a tough job," said Bledsoe, 24, who faces the Ravens on Sunday in Baltimore. "When quarterbacks get drafted high, they're going to teams that didn't do well before, teams that don't have a lot of talent. For a quarterback to be successful, you've got to have guys around you that can complement your talents.

"Rick's up there in Seattle running for his life. The running game isn't working; Chris Warren, one of the best backs in the league, doesn't have any place to run. If you don't have [good] personnel around you, it's very difficult to be successful."

Mirer is not alone, of course. Struggling and failed quarterbacks litter the NFL landscape like penalty flags this season:

Tampa Bay's Trent Dilfer, a No. 1 pick in 1994, is the NFC's 16th-rated passer at 39.6. He has thrown 10 interceptions and one touchdown pass. When he limped off the field after taking a hit last week, some Bucs fans cheered.

Washington's Heath Shuler, the third overall pick in 1994, lost his job to seventh-round pick Gus Frerotte, who has the Redskins off to a 4-1 start.

New York's Dave Brown, a No. 1 pick in the 1992 supplemental draft, took heavy criticism when the Giants started 0-3 and his passing game was virtually nonexistent.

St. Louis' Steve Walsh, a supplemental No. 1 in 1989 with Dallas, recently was demoted by the Rams from starter to third string, behind rookie Tony Banks and Jamie Martin.

Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda, one of the league's best quarterback tutors, said the problem starts with sophisticated defenses.

"I think defenses have changed so much in the league over the last six, seven, eight years, it's tougher for a kid to come in and do extremely well early," he said. "They don't get as much single coverage that the great quarterbacks of the past have gotten.

"In the old days, you only had a couple of coverages. Now you have so many different coverages. I think it will take a little more time for somebody to become like the Elways, the Marinos, the Kellys. I think it's too early to pass judgment on these people."

But it's never too early to force feed a quarterback. Because of the financial investment in first-round picks and the pressure to win, many young quarterbacks are thrust into action before they are ready.

"When you're the No. 1 pick in the draft, the expectation is, 'You're going to come in here and play. Here's a playbook, go play,' " said Don Strock, a 17-year NFL veteran who is quarterbacks coach for the Ravens. "That doesn't happen. [Dan] Marino sat four games behind [David] Woodley before he got a chance to play. It just doesn't happen."

Marino is one of the few who made the adjustment almost instantly. John Elway, the first pick in the Class of '83, struggled early with the Denver Broncos, and Jim Kelly spent three years in the U.S. Football League before reporting to the Buffalo Bills.

"You could make a strong case that with the exception of Dan Marino, what young quarterback hasn't struggled?" Redskins general manager Charley Casserly said. "Marino went to a team a year removed from the Super Bowl and had a good cast around him."

Kerry Collins, a former Penn State quarterback, went to an expansion team a year ago and became the Carolina Panthers' starter in their fourth game. He threw for 234 yards that week, the second highest total by a rookie in his first start. The best debut was unleashed by the Ravens' Vinny Testaverde, then with the Bucs, in 1987, when he threw for 369 against New Orleans.

Collins won seven of his 13 starts to become the first rookie since Marino to finish with a winning record (7-6). His 2,717 passing yards were second highest to Mirer's rookie figure of 2,833, and Mirer had three more starts.

At 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds, Collins has the physical skills to excel in the NFL. But it's his demeanor that sets him apart, Panthers president Mike McCormack said.

"What we liked about him was when we went to Penn State, Joe [Paterno] told us of all the guys he's had, Kerry was as tough mentally as anybody," McCormack said.

Collins, who missed most of the past two games with a knee injury, will play Sunday against Minnesota. Playing in a run-oriented offense on a team with an excellent defense, he appears to be the right fit for the Panthers.

"The truest test is the test of time," McCormack said. "We think he will [become a star]. He's got the demeanor and the mentality that will afford him every chance to succeed."

Of all the young quarterbacks, Bledsoe appears closest to moving into the elite group that includes Marino, Elway, Kelly, Troy Aikman of Dallas, Steve Young of San Francisco and, now, Brett Favre of Green Bay.

"I thought he would be the benchmark, what everybody went by, because he had so much poise in his first year," Marchibroda said of Bledsoe. "He has a great arm, a great touch. He has all the qualities you need to be a great one."

Bledsoe delivered a playoff berth in his second season. At the age of 22, he became the youngest quarterback to play in the Pro Bowl. But in 1995, he slumped (13 touchdown passes, 16 interceptions, 23 sacks) and the Patriots slipped out of contention at 6-10. His problems included injury, a changing cast of receivers and an inability to capitalize in the red zone.

He says now that at times he pressed trying to make up for previous plays.

"Sometimes I felt I had to try to make the big play, when the job of a quarterback is to put the ball in somebody else's hands and allow them to make a play," Bledsoe said. "Any time a quarterback tries to do more than his job, you get into trouble.

"Part of the year last year, maybe I wasn't as sure of myself, wasn't as sure when I threw the ball it would end up in the right hands.

"What it took was sitting down with myself and saying, 'Hey, I'm a good football player. I can play this game with the best of them. Things are going to go good again.' In order to do that, I've got to try to elevate my level of play."

In the Patriots' 2-2 start, Bledsoe is averaging 226.8 passing yards, on pace for a 3,600-yard season. He has thrown for six touchdowns and three interceptions.

"I don't know if I'm back to Pro Bowl-level yet," Bledsoe said, "but I think I can get there. We've got some great receivers in Terry Glenn, our first-round draft pick, and Shawn Jefferson from San Diego. Vincent Brisby will be healthy soon. With Ben Coates, Curtis Martin and David Meggett, we've got some real weapons.

"I think if I can put the ball in their hands, they're going to make me look awful good."

@2

The next generation: NFL's young quarterbacks

Head of the class

QB -- Favre, GB

Age -- 27

Yr. -- 6

Sts. -- 66

TDs -- 124

INTs -- 68

Record -- 41-25

Skinny -- Already won league MVP

@Coming into their own

QB -- Blake, Cin.

Age -- 25

Yr. -- 4

Sts. -- 29

TDs -- 45

INTs -- 31

Record -- 11-18

Skinny -- Would benefit from running game, better defense

QB -- Bledsoe, N.E.

Age -- 24

Yr. -- 4

Sts. -- 47

TDs -- 59

INTs -- 61

Record -- 23-24

Skinny -- On the rebound after subpar third season

QB -- Brunell, Jac.

Age -- 26

Yr. -- 3

Sts. -- 15

TDs -- 23

INTs -- 15

Record -- 5-10

Skinny -- Plays like an unpolished Steve Young

QB -- Collins, Car.

Age -- 23

Yr. -- 2

Sts. -- 15

TDs -- 17

INTs -- 20

Record -- 9-6

Skinny -- Who said Penn State doesn't produce QBs?

QB -- Frerotte, Was.

Age -- 25

Yr. -- 3

Sts. -- 20

TDs -- 21

INTs -- 21

Record -- 8-12

Skinny -- Won job because he makes fewer mistakes

Fading fast

QB -- Brown, N.Y.G.

Age -- 26

Yr. -- 5

Sts. -- 36

TDs -- 26

INTs -- 31

Record -- 16-20

Skinny -- Duke doesn't turn out NFL QBs

QB --Dilfer, T.B.

Age -- 24

Yr. -- 3

Sts. -- 23

TDs -- 6

INTs -- 34

Record -- 7-16

Skinny -- Thrown 1 TD, 10 INTs for winless Bucs

QB --Mirer, Sea.

Age -- 26

Yr. -- 4

Sts. -- 47

TDs -- 37

INTs -- 53

Record -- 19-28

Skinny -- AFC's lowest-rated passer has lost his job

QB -- Shuler, Was.

Age -- 24

Yr. -- 3

Sts. -- 13

TDs -- 13

INTs -- 19

Record -- 4-9

Skinny -- Must wait for a new team or new opportunity

Too early to tell

QB -- Banks, St.L.

Age -- 23

Yr. -- 1

Sts. -- 1

TDs -- 3

INTs -- 1

Record -- 0-1

Skinny -- He'll get a lot of playing time with Rams

QB -- Grbac, S.F.

Age -- 26

Yr. -- 4

Sts. -- 6

TDs -- 11

INTs -- 6

Record -- 4-2

Skinny -- Elvis has not left the building yet

Pub Date: 10/04/96

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