Quarterbacks jump in fast

Special to The Times

When football succeeded baseball as the national pastime a few years back, it was understood, first, that quarterbacks play the game's key position. But, second, it was widely believed that young quarterbacks need four or five years to mature into seasoned players. That has changed.

At least four NFL quarterbacks are playing effectively while in their first year of starting.

One of them is the longest shot on the board, Tony Romo of Dallas, who, not long ago, thought so little of his skills and future that he spent his college days at Eastern Illinois.

The other impressive first-year passers are Philip Rivers, Matt Leinart and Vince Young.

Romo in his next start will lead Dallas against the New York Giants today.

In his last appearance, he threw five touchdown passes to blow away Tampa Bay, 38-10.

His performance as an immature pro surprised some sports fans. Football is a pastime requiring more professional experience than Romo, Rivers and the year's other new quarterbacks have had -- or so the game's veteran critics and evaluators maintain.

Critics say new young quarterbacks need four or five years to mature into NFL starters.

But they don't.

Not anymore.

As we've seen, well-qualified newcomers are succeeding fresh out of the box. When sports fans ask what's new, that is.

At Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger won a Super Bowl in his second year as an NFL starter.

In New England, Tom Brady won it in his first starting year before winning again on two other winter days. Skill has lately been trumping experience.

It didn't used to be that way, but it is now.

The play-calling

All told, there seem be two reasons why, these days, it's taking less time to develop quarterbacks than it did in the eras of Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas and even Joe Namath.

* Play-calling used to be the province of quarterbacks. When Baugh, Unitas, Namath and the other old-timers were active, they called their plays.

That was in fact such a large part of their workday that they said it was the most important part of the job.

No more.

There's no need for today's quarterbacks to study the tactics and strategy of calling plays. They're wired for sound -- the voices of their coaches are in their helmets, which are radio-lined -- and the role of today's quarterbacks is simply to relay the signals voiced by the men they work for.

* Moreover, quarterbacks today, before they step on an NFL playing field, have been well-prepared -- over a period of years -- by their high school and college coaches for, among other things, their most important NFL role: throwing the football.

In this century, a pro coach's job is simply to polish the new guy and work him into the system.

Not so long ago, college teams played the cloud-of-dust game, the game made famous by Woody Hayes. They ran the ball most of the time. For college passers in that era, there wasn't much pass-play plotting, training or experience.

At game-time or on practice days, they handed the ball off and got out of the way.

By contrast today, quarterbacks arrive in the pros with a lot of experience reading defenses and using accepted pass-play techniques.

They're ready for today's stepped-up pass offense. That's making a difference.

Booty, Quinn ready

The reason 2006 quarterbacks are so far in front of their 20th-century predecessors was personified by two young college passers the other day when the Notre Dame Ramblers came to town with a field leader named Brady Quinn for their annual outing with the USC Trojans, who won with quarterback John David Booty.

For the most important college game of their lives, before a sold-out crowd of 90,000, both players were asked to take on the burden of passing on a large majority of downs and both came through with great success -- Booty spectacularly.

It was among the best matchups the college series has fielded.

Booty and Quinn both threw short, deep and midrange passes with power, accuracy and the quickness afforded by their throwing motion.

Both used the Namath-style centrifugal motion coached so effectively in so many places these days.

Both obviously are now getting an ideal education for instant success in the pros.

For both, the next chapters in their lives as athletes will be something to see.



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