Beware, Marcus Mariota.
In case you hadn't heard, on Saturday Mariota won the Heisman Trophy, and the chatter has already begun over whether he might be the No. 1 overall draft pick in next year's National Football League draft.
Then Sunday happened.
Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel (also a Heisman-winner) made his professional football debut, and it wasn't remotely pretty. By the fourth quarter, the Browns coaches may well have been yelling "mayday" into their headsets.
Of course, it is just one game. And of course, Mariota is not Manziel.
But this year has not been a kind one for young quarterbacks in the NFL. Indeed, if 2012 was a coming out party for a new generation of pro quarterbacks, then in 2014, the cops have arrived to shut it down.
Not only has their style of play – as exciting with their legs as with their arms – been exposed, but so has the notion that the college quarterbacks of today are more suited to success in their rookie seasons. The college game may have changed – and radically – in recent years, but it's still not enough to prepare quarterbacks for what they see the first time they stand behind center in the pros.
The Browns turned to Manziel Sunday because previous starter Brian Hoyer threw one touchdown and eight interceptions the past four games – and had looked bad doing it. Remarkably, Manziel looked worse. His final stat line: 10-18 for 80 yards with two interceptions and zero touchdowns.
This year, some of the debutants of 2012 have looked little better.
The Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III won the rookie of the year award in 2012. Two games ago, he was benched, though he played Sunday (and lost) after journeyman quarterback Colt McCoy got injured.
Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers was not a rookie in 2012 – he was a first-year starter as a second-year pro – but he took the San Francisco 49ers to within seven yards of a Super Bowl title. Now, 49ers fans are burning Kaepernick jerseys.
Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck also took their teams, the Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts, to the playoffs in their 2012 rookie years. But they have fared better – Wilson because he has arguably the league's best defense and running back behind him, and Luck because he was seen as the best college quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning.
That's once-in-a-generation, if you're counting, and that math is bearing out. On Sunday, he clinched a playoff spot for the Colts, his third in his three years as a pro.
A generation ago, many quarterbacks didn't even play in their rookie seasons. The transition from college to pro was seen as too difficult. The pro game was too fast, the schematic concepts too complicated, the passes required too difficult. Quarterbacks needed time to marinate and develop.
It seemed 2012 demolished that thinking. But 2014 might bring it back.
Game after unwatchable game, it is becoming plain that 2012 was an anomaly, and the expectations that it raised for first-year quarterbacks might well be damaging their long-term development.
Two other quarterbacks from 2012 (Nick Foles and Ryan Tannehill) have shown flashes of greatness in their second and third years. But every other quarterback selected in the first three rounds since then has simply not been able to cope. The four top quarterbacks selected in this year's draft (Blake Bortles, Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, and Derek Carr) have a combined record of 9-30.
This is not necessarily an indictment of them. But it's evidence that the old rule still applies: The pro game is too fast, too complicated, and the throws required too difficult for most first-year and perhaps even second-year quarterbacks.
This has been exacerbated by trends in the college game, where mobile quarterbacks play wide-open spread offenses that eviscerate lesser competition. Their reads and throws are easy, and when they're not, these quarterbacks then make plays with their legs – and win widespread praise (and Heisman Trophies) for it. After all, it's Fred Astaire dancing out of the pocket. What's not to love?
But none of this works very well in the pros. At some point, college quarterbacks have to learn to become pocket passers, and that takes time.
Enter Mariota, the newly crowned Heisman trophy winner.
In many ways, it's the same scouting report that came with Manziel, Griffin, or Kaepernick. Writes NFL analyst Bucky Brooks:
While he's an impressive athlete with considerable arm talent, he remains a bit of a developmental prospect as a dropback passer. Sure, a creative offensive play caller can mask Mariota's deficiencies by running some of the core concepts of the spread, but Mariota will only become a franchise player when he learns how to consistently win from the pocket.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. says Mariota doesn't yet have pro-level accuracy because he didn't need it in college. His receivers were (by pro standards) wide open. "Could he be really good?" Kiper asks. "If you’re patient with him, if you wait and let him evolve, and we don’t write him off as a bust early on, then you’re fine.”
The same might be true of Manziel. But the fact is, NFL teams don't have time anymore. In the salary cap era, draft picks are precious. They are the only way to bring in top-end talent at manageable prices. The idea of using a No. 1 pick on someone, then sitting him for one or two seasons as the team loses, would take a brave general manager.
This year, the Jacksonville Jaguars vowed not to play Bortles (the No. 8 pick overall). He was starting by the third game.
Some quarterbacks learn on the job. Manning went 3-13 his rookie year, then 13-3 his second year. But Griffin and Kaepernick are now being exposed because they have not improved since their rookie years. Meanwhile, Manziel on Sunday looked like a player utterly out of his depth.
Already, the Redskins are talking about cutting ties with Griffin after this season. For Manziel, it seems, the clock is already ticking.