Passing the torch, but doing it slowly; Quarterbacks: Despite the temptation for instant returns on their investments, NFL teams are not rushing to start the five prize rookie passers from the 1999 draft; GENERATION X AND O; CLASS OF '99

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The quarterback of tomorrow is learning on the job in the NFL today.

He is Tim Couch, who prepped for the Cleveland Browns by running Kentucky's multiple-motion offense.

He is Donovan McNabb, better known for his option skills at Syracuse, but who will be pressed into action with the Philadelphia Eagles because of his passing potential.

He is Akili Smith, who dazzled the Cincinnati Bengals with a meteoric rise at Oregon.

He is Daunte Culpepper, who will tutor with the Minnesota Vikings after dominating inferior opponents at Central Florida.

He may even be feisty little Cade McNown, who earned a shot with the Chicago Bears by winning impressively at UCLA despite shortcomings in height and arm velocity.

They are the Class of 1999, the next generation. In order, they were the five quarterbacks taken in the first 12 picks of the April draft, an unprecedented rush to judgment.

Now comes the precedented rush to get them on the field. In a league where the average age of starting quarterbacks on opening day in 1999 is 30, the pressure to play a rookie quarterback taken in the first round has grown significantly.

But success with rookie quarterbacks is rare. Since 1983, when Dan Marino did it with the Miami Dolphins, only two more rookie, first-round picks have guided their teams in the playoffs. The others were Bernie Kosar, a supplemental draft pick, who did it in 1985 with the Cleveland Browns, and Jim Everett in 1986 with the Los Angeles Rams.

Most rookie quarterbacks struggle. Recently retired John Elway was 4-6 in 10 starts in 1983. Troy Aikman was 0-11 in 1989. Drew Bledsoe was 5-7 and Rick Mirer 6-10 in 1993. Last season, Peyton Manning went 3-13 with the Indianapolis Colts and Ryan Leaf was 3-6 before getting benched by the San Diego Chargers.

Against that backdrop, none of the five first-rounders this season will start in Week 1. Only McNown, in a unique arrangement, has been promised playing time. And he was the fifth quarterback -- 12th pick overall -- to go.

That's not to say that Couch, the first pick in the draft, or McNabb, the second, won't be starting by Week 2. The countdown has already begun in Cleveland and Philadelphia to replace veterans Ty Detmer and Doug Pederson, respectively.

The coaches of both those teams will be understandably reluctant to pull that trigger early, though.

"We have a great deal invested in Tim Couch," said Browns coach Chris Palmer. "The worst thing in the world would be to throw him to the wolves and have him lose his confidence. Once you lose your confidence as a player, it's difficult to regain."

The Browns gave Couch a seven-year, $48 million contract with a $12.25 million signing bonus. McNabb's bonus for his seven-year deal was $11.3 million.

Eagles coach Andy Reid insisted in April that Pederson, who has yet to start a game in four NFL seasons, will open the year against Arizona. Not even McNabb's three-touchdown-pass effort in a preseason game last week changed that.

"There's no possible way, if and when Donovan were to start, that we could give him the absolute, complete, overloaded game plan that we do," Reid said.

Palmer and Reid are first-year, quarterback-friendly head coaches. Palmer was the receivers coach with the New England Patriots in Bledsoe's rookie season, and coached the quarterbacks in 1996, the year the Patriots went to the Super Bowl. He was offensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars the past two years, when he helped polish Mark Brunell into a playoff quarterback.

Reid spent seven years under Mike Holmgren with the Green Bay Packers, the last two coaching quarterbacks.

Both coaches were hired in part because of their ability to mentor young quarterbacks.

"We have a very good relationship," Couch, 22, said of Palmer. "I think he expects a lot out of me. He thinks I can be a very good player. He's going to push me to make sure I get to where he thinks I can be. That's the kind of coach I want."

In five preseason games -- including one start -- with the expansion Browns, Couch completed 39 of 69 passes (56.5 percent) for 410 yards and two touchdowns. Palmer said Couch answered the persistent question about arm strength and showed the ability to make big plays.

"You can see the guy is a play-maker," Palmer said. "You can see why he completed 72 percent of his passes [at Kentucky last season]. He's very accurate. But he was limited at Kentucky in the defenses they saw. And what he will see in the NFL is so different than the college game. That's the area he has to grow in."

Couch had to adjust to the speed of the pro game, but became more comfortable as training camp wore on. Although the Browns have a veteran offensive line, they have few playmakers at running back or receiver. When Couch does step in, he won't have many weapons. Perhaps that's why Palmer declines to target a starting date.

"When I was in New England, it was clear Bledsoe, in the middle of camp, was the best player," Palmer said.

"I think what happens with all players is, the light goes on. Whenever that is, is really determined by the player. You see in today's game more and more players taking a longer time to develop. How long is it going to be? Who knows? But we've been very pleased with what he's done."

In Green Bay, Reid watched Brett Favre evolve from a predictable thrower to a three-time MVP quarterback in Holmgren's version of the West Coast offense. It didn't happen overnight.

"It takes about two years until you really understand the thing," Reid said of the offense he brought to the Eagles. "It's the same with coaches, quarterbacks and other players. Midway through Brett's first MVP year [1995], that's when the light went on. You say, 'This guy's really got it.' You just knew."

Reid said that light went on after Sterling Sharpe, a five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, retired from the Packers with an injury in 1995. Favre looked for Sharpe first on all passing plays, regardless of the call.

"After Sterling was injured, people said that's when Brett became a better quarterback because he had to learn the whole offense," Reid said. "It made him use the other positions. It made him read the whole field rather than be a half-field thrower. The biggest part of this offense is learning the progression."

McNabb struggled early after a one-week holdout, then finished the preseason with a flourish. He hit 35 of 66 passes (53 percent) for 266 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in four games. He demonstrated a strong arm, quick feet and, like Couch, a penchant for the big play.

His ability to avoid the pass rush keeps plays alive, buying time for receivers to find an opening in the defense. With an offensive line that allowed 56 sacks a year ago, McNabb, 22, may need to buy a lot of time once he takes over for Pederson. The Eagles' starting offense failed to score a touchdown in the preseason, although Pederson had similar numbers (37-for-71, 282 yards) to McNabb, who played mostly against backups.

Of the other three first-rounders, only McNown figures to get on the field, at least early in the year. Smith, the third pick in the draft, hurt his chances by missing 27 practices in a lengthy contract dispute with the Bengals. His arm is so strong the Browns considered taking him with the first pick. For now, though, Smith, 24, will back up veteran Jeff Blake.

Culpepper, meanwhile, has the longest grace period of any of the first-rounders. The 11th pick of the draft, he will sit behind veterans Randall Cunningham and Jeff George on a team favored to reach the Super Bowl. Only a rash of injuries could force Culpepper, 22, into serious playing time this season.

That leaves McNown, at No. 12, as the first man in. In a strategy announced last week by new coach Dick Jauron, Shane Matthews will start, but McNown will play some portion -- probably a series or two -- each week.

"That will help Cade's progression and bring him along quicker," Jauron said. "Shane has earned the job on the field. We've said all along we hoped we wouldn't have to play Cade too early. We still feel that."

McNown, 22, staged an 11-day holdout, then agitated some of the Bears' veterans with his brash attitude. McNown is just under 6 feet 1, and some of his best college moments were impromptu plays made with sheer skill. The Bears, however, have concerns about McNown's ability to execute the multiple-formation schemes of new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton.

The man who beat out McNown is a six-year veteran who has played in only two career games. Matthews, 29, isn't likely to keep the job very long, though, before it's time to play the quarterback of tomorrow.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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