Judging from early returns, rookie Chris Chandler has broken the rule of thumb that says it takes 3 or 4 years to develop an NFL quarterback.
In just 7 games, Chandler, who turned 23 Oct. 12, has established himself as the Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback of both the present and future. His emergence has removed some of the sting from a 2-5 start by the defending AFC East champions, who will meet the Chargers Sunday at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
With Chandler getting better each week, opposing defenses now have something to think about besides the relentless running of Eric Dickerson. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, Chandler completed 19 of 32 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown.
This wasn’t the way Coach Ron Meyer planned it when the Colts drafted Chandler out of the University of Washington in the third round last spring. Chandler was the first player picked by the Colts; they had sent their first- and second-round choices to the Rams in the deal for Dickerson.
Like almost every quarterback coming out of college, Chandler was ticketed for an extended apprenticeship. True, he had been the first quarterback taken in the draft, the only one in five rounds, in fact. But he hadn’t been considered a blue-chip prospect, and even such sure things as Jim McMahon, Jim Everett and Vinny Testaverde hadn’t started right away in the NFL.
Three factors combined to alter the timetable.
To begin with, the two veterans ahead of Chandler, Gary Hogeboom and Jack Trudeau, were not exactly insurmountable obstacles. Both would have to be classified as journeymen at best.
Second, Hogeboom and Trudeau suffered early-season injuries, and Trudeau eventually underwent knee surgery that ended his season.
Finally, Chandler turned out to be better than most scouts thought after a disappointing senior season at Washington. As a junior, he had completed 58.2% of his passes, with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. As a senior, his numbers had dropped to 51.4%, 9 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The end result was that when Trudeau got hurt, Chandler took the job away from Hogeboom. Chandler had to leave the Buffalo game 2 weeks ago with a bruised sternum, but it was he, not Hogeboom, who started against Tampa Bay in the next game.
Chandler has played in 5 games and started 4. His stats are not extraordinary, but they are something to build on. He completed 55.8% of his passes, with 2 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Also he has shown scrambling ability, scoring 2 touchdowns and picking up 3 first downs on third-down plays.
“Chandler has been a very pleasing scenario for us,” Meyer said. “Everyone raised eyebrows when we made him our first pick, but now it looks like a very, very astute move.
“He has excellent ability, a fine arm, and the mobility to run when he has to. He’s a very fine quarterback with a bright future in the NFL.”
Meyer didn’t say that Chandler also has ideal quarterback size at 6-4 and 210 pounds. You can’t ask for much better numbers than that.
Asked how Chandler had made it so fast, Meyer said, “With the great coaching he has received here. That’s tongue in cheek, of course. It takes time, but sometimes the clock is moved forward.
“I made the decision to go with Chandler because I felt it was the best direction to go for us to win. We’re not thinking about tomorrow. Of the 4 games he’s started, we’ve won 2 and were leading in the other 2. He isn’t letter perfect, but we’ve given him the job, and he’s answered the challenge.”
Chandler isn’t ready to proclaim that he has beaten the odds against rookie quarterbacks.
“I think what they say (about needing time) is true,” he said. “I’ve made some mistakes. I’ve also made some plays to make up for them, but I’ve still got a long way to go. It will take me a year or so to learn all I have to know to be a success in this league.”
Considering the circumstances, Charger Coach Al Saunders is not overly surprised that Chandler has been able to step into a starting job so quickly.
“It depends on what kind of offense you run,” Saunders said. “If you have a complex passing game, it takes time to pick up everything. If you have a strong offensive line and a good running game, as Indianapolis does with Dickerson, you have an advantage. Anybody can hand off, and you can use play-action passes.
“It also depends on what kind of college background a quarterback has. If he plays at a school like Miami, Tennessee or Stanford that throws a lot, his adaptability will be much better. Washington runs a balanced offense under Don James, so his quarterbacks are also well-schooled.”
Saunders hastened to point out that he wasn’t denigrating Chandler, just noting that he had some built-in things going for him.
“We liked Chandler coming out of college,” Saunders said. “He has great velocity, and he throws a hard ball. He’s an accurate passer, very well-poised, and he stays in there and doesn’t get rattled.
“The thing that’s so different for a quarterback coming into this league is the skill level of the defensive players. Guys who got open in college ball are not open in the pros. But Chandler has adapted very well. He has beaten out Hogeboom.”
Asked about the transition from college senior to pro, Chandler said, “It’s not quite as bad as I thought it would be. The biggest thing is the mental part of the game.
“You have to react so quickly, because the reaction time of the defenses is so much quicker than in college. All the guys are a little bigger and a little quicker, and they close up holes quicker.”
Chandler credited his reactions with his ability to stay away from opposing pass-rushers. Against Tampa Bay, he was flushed out of the pocket 7 times and escaped with 6 scrambles and a 23-yard pass completion.
“On two of those, guys were coming through the gaps untouched,” Chandler said. “It’s more reaction than anything else. You just run as fast as you can. I don’t think you ever go into a game thinking about scrambling. You react to it more out of fear.”
Despite the wave of injuries suffered by quarterbacks recently, Chandler is opposed to rules that protect them.
“I almost think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “On one play against Buffalo, a guy had me for maybe a thousandth of a second before I threw the ball to Dickerson, and the referee called me down.
“I take a lot of pride in lifting weights to build up my strength. I really feel that I can take the hits that are given at this level. I think the in-the-grasp rule has taken away from the game.
“Quarterbacks have to get bigger and tougher to protect themselves. I’m going to get as strong as I can. I think the weight room has become as important for quarterbacks as it has for linemen.”
And how does Chandler sum up his feelings about his rapid rise in the NFL?
“I would have liked to go higher in the draft, but it worked out fine,” he said. “By starting this soon, I’ve already surpassed any goals I had.”