A passing resemblance

The Baltimore Sun

As the curtains open on the 2008 season, we've already had a major cast change. No one had even found their seats yet, and already we saw Kyle Boller exit stage left and Joe Flacco enter stage right.

The symbolism of the quarterback change glows in neon colors. The Flacco Era begins just as the Boller Error concludes. Boller's season - likely his career in Baltimore - was mercifully cut short because of injury just a few days before Flacco makes his NFL debut. There would be no overlap for the two, save a few weeks of meaningless preseason games, some locker-room chats and maybe breaking bread a few times in the cafeteria.

Until Flacco gives us reason to think otherwise, he and Boller will be indefinitely linked. The Ravens have used just two first-round picks on quarterbacks. They traded up in 2003, taking Boller with 19th overall pick and traded down, and then back up, in April to select Flacco with the 18th pick.

Today is as much about fear as it is promise. While Ravens fans were excited about adding Flacco to the roster, many were hopeful the team would learn from past mistakes, that they would take their time, nurture the 23-year-old quarterback and allow him to serve as understudy before taking the stage.

This is why Boller will loom over Flacco's rookie season. The comparisons are inevitable because the memories are so fresh and the concerns so real: No one wants to see history repeat itself; no one can bear the thought of burning another young arm and singeing another young psyche in a needless trial by fire.

This is where we should acknowledge a tiny bit of good news: Joe Flacco isn't Kyle Boller. Their fates are not tied together. They shared a logo on the helmet and space in the locker room, but it's possible that the similarities might end there.

Boller might very well have suffered irreparable damage by assuming so much responsibility at such a young age. He was 22 when he started nine games in 2003. But that doesn't mean every rookie starter who struggles coming out of the gate is doomed to inevitable failure.

There is no formula for grooming a rookie quarterback. Different players are ready at different times. For every Ryan Leaf, there's a Peyton Manning.

From the modern era, there are 23 quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Twelve of them started at least half his team's games as a rookie. Make of that what you will, but it looks to me like a tossup: Half the quarterbacks might benefit from a year on the sideline, and half might be ready to go right away.

What's interesting, though, is that those who stepped right in didn't necessarily win right away. Jim Kelly was 4-12 as a rookie in 1986. Fran Tarkenton was 2-8. Troy Aikman was 0-11 and, in fact, won just three of his first 21 career starts.

I make this point because the argument against starting a rookie hinges on this idea that early struggles will damage a player's confidence, irreparably shake his mental makeup.

There are plenty of Brett Favres, Steve Youngs and Tom Bradys who fared just fine by holding a clipboard and biding their time. But it's not the only way. The league has also had its share of good quarterbacks who overcame difficult starts. Manning was 3-13 as a rookie and then 13-3 in his second season. His brother Eli won just once in seven starts as a rookie and managed to hoist the Lombardi Trophy last season.

Many of the ingredients that make for a great franchise quarterback are the same ingredients that should help a young quarterback get through a tough early period. Often - and this was probably the case with Boller - it's not that a rough rookie campaign sabotaged future glory; more likely, ticker-tape success was probably never in the cards to begin with.

Bert Jones is a great example. This month, in fact, marks the 35th anniversary of Jones making his Baltimore Colts debut. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1973 draft and he was chosen to start Week 1. The Colts lost, 24-14, to the Cleveland Browns. Jones went 6-for-22 for 56 yards. He would start only four more games that season - 12 interceptions, four touchdowns and just one win - and was eventually benched in favor of Marty Domres.

But for Jones, his confidence wasn't fatally crushed; instead his competitive juices were stoked and he became even more intent on proving himself. Jones, of course, led the Colts to three straight division titles and was league Most Valuable Player in 1976.

Flacco, like Jones and like Boller, too, is blessed with an incredible arm and seems to have all of the physical tools. What will ultimately distinguish him from those who came before is how he handles the mental challenges of starting as a rookie, especially playing for a team that has the potential to struggle mightily.

We won't learn today whether he's the next Boller, the next John Unitas or the next Jones. But not far down the road, the way he responds to the highs and lows of this rookie season will reveal exactly what kind of a quarterback and what kind of competitor Flacco really is.

points after

* For two weeks I was glued to the political conventions, and I got to admit, from both parties, all this talk about change and the shared frustration with recent history is pretty refreshing. I have to double-check, though: We are talking about the Orioles' pitching woes, right?

* And I don't know why everyone's up in arms about lack of experience. Around Baltimore, having head coaching or managerial experience actually disqualifies candidates.

* If Tropical Storm Hanna wanted to be a gracious visitor , she would stick around, shower on Camden Yards every night for a couple of hours and ensure that fans wouldn't have to watch the Orioles lose another game until next spring.

* The Orioles' did chalk up at least one September victory: extending Dave Trembley's contract through the 2009 season. Just a suggestion: Now that that's finally taken care of, perhaps someone in the Warehouse wants to address the team's pitching. Just saying.

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