DOWNTIME FOR pro football coaches in the fall, time spent with the TV remote in the right hand and a nacho in the left, comes on Saturday afternoons and early evenings. That's when guys like Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron surf for college games, watching not just for enjoyment but also for new ideas. In recent weeks, as the start of the college basketball season overlapped with football, Cameron has gotten confused by the scores crawling at the bottom of the screen: OREGON 65, OREGON STATE 38 ... OKLAHOMA 61, OKLAHOMA STATE 41 ... GEORGIA TECH 45, GEORGIA 42.... Florida scores 70? Purdue 62? Gridiron or hardwood?
On one channel he sees the Florida Gators running schemes similar to those of the Patriots (no wonder—Bill Belichick swaps X's and O's with Urban Meyer after every season), and on others he sees historically run-oriented programs such as Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia gaining more than 60% of their yards through the air. Cameron keeps an eye on youth football too, and he's been seeing kids in four-wide formations throwing out of empty backfields. The young passers, and even his own quarterbacks, visualize plays at the controls of Madden 09, making quick decisions to avoid blitzes in the video game and then doing the same thing on the field.
"We're in an exciting time for offensive football," Cameron says. "I'm passionate about quarterback play, and I can't wait until the off-season to look at all the prospects out there. I think there's going to be a lot of guys, at all levels of the college game, doing things that can translate to our game."
For now, the NFL remains more long in the tooth than young at QB, and that is borne out by thirtysomething passers Kerry Collins (Titans), Jake Delhomme (Panthers), Brett Favre (Jets), Gus Frerotte (Vikings), Jeff Garcia (Bucs) and Kurt Warner (Cardinals), whose teams led or were tied for first in their respective divisions through Sunday. Only one of the five quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds of the 2006 draft, Denver's Jay Cutler, has won a starting job and kept it. Vince Young (Titans) has struggled to adapt his scrambling style to the pro game; Matt Leinart (Cardinals) has been injury-prone and doesn't have the downfield arm of Warner for the Cardinals' deep-strike offense; Kellen Clemens (Jets) and Tarvaris Jackson (Vikings) have yet to prove they're ready. All were sent back to the bench to watch the old-timers. Teams that think they have playoff potential typically lack patience with younger quarterbacks.
So what to make of the 2008 success of rookies Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Joe Flacco in Baltimore? Right place, right time for one thing: They were drafted by teams that were a combined 9--23 last year, had hired new coaches and didn't have much else at quarterback. It was easy for Mike Smith of the Falcons to go with the precocious Ryan over Chris Redman (17 games in four seasons) and for John Harbaugh of the Ravens to send in Flacco ahead of Troy Smith and Kyle Boller, who had health issues.
Through 13 games Ryan (6'4", 220 pounds) and Flacco (6'6", 230) have near-identical records (Atlanta is 8--5; Baltimore 9--4) and completion percentages (62.0 for Ryan; 60.2 for Flacco), and have shown accuracy against all variety of defenses and the ability to process information quickly. What separates Ryan a bit is that rarely has a rookie starter thrown downfield so well. (In recent years only Ben Roethlisberger comes to mind.) The Falcons are the only team with two wide receivers who've caught more than 35 passes each and are averaging more than 15 yards a reception: Roddy White (78, 16.0) and Michael Jenkins (39, 15.1). Two other traits eased the transition from college to pro for Ryan and Flacco, factors that scouts also point to when discussing the next crop of premium college quarterbacks, Georgia's Matt Stafford, Florida's Tim Tebow and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford: 1) They've operated in pro-style offenses, so the game is not too big for them; and 2) they play with an intelligent anticipation that's essential to the position yet rare in rookies. Here are some further qualities that have helped each rookie accelerate into the NFL fast lane.
Enlightened. While at Boston College he TiVo-ed press conferences of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, then studied how they handled themselves, the media and the pressure of being a star quarterback.
Rarin' to go. Ten hours after being selected with the No. 3 pick, Ryan was in Atlanta meeting with his new offensive coaches. He took a playbook home with him that night and signed his contract three weeks later; thus he arrived prepared.
Fresh-faced. In the preseason Mike Smith told his players, in essence, You're all strangers to me, so anyone can win a starting job. Ryan is one of nine new starters in Atlanta.
Prepared. Atlanta's pass-protection terminology and blocking schemes are the same as Ryan had as a BC senior, so right away he knew such technical elements as whether the tight end or the running back would pick up a stray blitzer. That allows him to immediately identify his hot receiver.
Trustworthy. Falcons wideouts have come to know that Ryan's passes will be delivered on time and on target if they run their routes properly. The rookie consistently throws the ball to spots before his receivers come out of their breaks, rather than waiting to see precisely where the break comes. This prevents cover corners from getting a bead on Ryan's passes. Result: only seven interceptions, an alltime low for any rookie through 13 starts.
Commanding. Don't be fooled by Ryan's altar-boy looks. In his first full practice with the veterans he got the call from coordinator Mike Mularkey—twin go patterns—then stepped into the huddle with the starting offense and delivered a salty play call. "Let me think of the cleaned-up version," Ryan says. "I said, 'I'm going to throw it out there, and you better catch it.'?" The pass was complete to White for a touchdown. "Sent chills down my spine," says Mularkey, who heard and saw it all.
Unflappable. The No. 18 pick out of Delaware is neither as outgoing nor as vocal a leader as Ryan, but he is coolheaded. "He never blinked in camp," says veteran linebacker Ray Lewis, every QB's nightmare, "no matter how much we threw at him or how much pressure he saw."
Pro-ready. The fact that Flacco regularly operated out of the shotgun in college was a mark against him in the eyes of many scouts—but not to Cameron. "I saw it as a huge positive," the coach says. "He'd be [in the shotgun] a lot in the NFL. It helped him read blitzes and, with so much A-gap [up-the-middle] blitzing now, gives him more time to throw." Another purported drawback was Flacco's long windup, but Cameron hasn't tinkered with it because the rookie has been efficient. In the Ravens' current 7--1 stretch Flacco has 12 touchdown passes and three interceptions.
Highly mobile. A surprising part of Flacco's game is his ability to gain yardage while scrambling—119 yards in the last seven games, while taking only 11 sacks in that span behind a mostly inexperienced line. "We drafted him because he was something rare: a big man with a smaller man's quickness," says Cameron.
Opportunistic. Second-year man Troy Smith was slated to be Baltimore's starter, but on the morning of the team's third preseason game, at St. Louis, Smith was ill with a virus. Flacco, who wasn't supposed to see action that night, instead played the entire game. At the Rams' 15-yard line early in the third quarter he and wideout Derrick Mason read their defensive keys correctly on a blitz; on the run Flacco threw a fade to the corner of the end zone that dropped right into Mason's hands. "That was what I needed to see," says Mason, "to know we had something special."
Ryan and Flacco have a fan in Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "Both of those guys should be good for a long time," he says. "What I like about them is they don't make the big mistake, and haven't from the first game. That's rare in rookie quarterbacks."
Coaches throughout the league, including Cameron, hope the duo's immediate success is a sign that more smart young quarterbacks are on the way.
DAVID BERGMAN (FLACCO)
READY-MADE With big arms, quick minds and pro-style preparation, Ryan and Flacco (5) have thrived from the get-go.
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