Friday, March 14, 2008

Pro Football Weekly: Rodgers needs to overcome a disturbing trend to find success


By Matt Sohn

The pressure is on for Aaron Rodgers. After three years of riding the pine, the Packers’ 2005 first-round draft pick will be front and under center in 2008. Finally, he gets his turn to write his own chapter to a quarterbacking legacy that began when he was still in elementary school. For his sake, I certainly hope it’s a chapter far different from what was written before him, because the quarterbacking legacy he’s continuing is not a proud one.   It’s a legacy of wasted talent and unfulfilled promise. A legacy marked by heads hanging low and a short supply of high-fiving. A legacy that proves the phrase “perpetual inconsistency” isn’t so oxymoronic.  I try to find silver linings in most situations, but when looking at the quarterbacking lineage Rodgers is coming from, it’s awfully difficult to find one. True, there’s one Super Bowl ring in the mix, but that was won mainly because of a dominating defense.  That ring aside, Trent Dilfer’s career is a study in mediocrity. But even that is more than the other representatives of this legacy can say. Akili Smith, the poster boy for the Bengals’ futility in the post-Boomer Esiason era, made just 22 NFL appearances before trudging up to the Canadian Football League. David Carr epitomized similar ineptitude in Houston and then, last year, was benched in Carolina in favor of 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde and undrafted rookie Matt Moore. While Moore’s not a member of this most tarnished fraternity, his predecessor in high school, Kyle Boller, is. Boller has 18 more turnovers than touchdowns during his five years in Baltimore, a stint that you know has been bad when the fans look back nostalgically on the Dilfer days. Joey Harrington has taken turns flopping in Detroit and Miami but was just re-signed by Atlanta, a surprise considering he’s coming off a seven-touchdown, eight-interception season. After seeing your $100 million man banished behind bars for slaying canines, I suppose an affable piano player is a suitable option, regardless of how badly he stinks up the field on Sundays.

But being the unwitting owners of forgettable NFL careers isn’t what links Dilfer, Smith, Carr, Boller and Harrington. What does link them is that all were first-round busts who honed their games under Jeff Tedford.  Just 46 years old, Tedford stands as one of college football’s most accomplished QB tutors. After serving as offensive coordinator at Fresno State (1993-97) and Oregon (1998-2001), he has spent the last six years raising California to national prominence as head coach. At all three stops, his success was largely based on making stars out of quarterbacks such as the aforementioned five — though it should be noted that he worked with Carr only during the quarterback’s first year at Fresno State.   But unlike other renowned college QB gurus, such as Norm Chow — who worked with Steve Young and Carson Palmer, among others — Tedford’s products have gone belly-up when they reached the pro game. But finding a reason why is a tough task. It’s not as if he runs a gimmicky, pass-happy offense like June Jones at Hawaii or Mike Leach at Texas Tech, a pair of offenses that produce gaudy numbers but don’t prepare quarterbacks to run the more balanced systems of the NFL. Since 2004, Tedford has seen RB J.J. Arrington rush for a 2,000-yard season and RB Marshawn Lynch get drafted in the first round. So, why have the passers flopped? More importantly, is there reason to believe Rodgers, the sixth first-round Tedford quarterback, will be different?

In Tedford’s eyes, he’s almost a victim of his own success.  “I think (my disappointing NFL QBs) get magnified because there are six (including Rodgers) of them that were first-round picks that I just happened to have coached,” Tedford said. “There’s just so many of them that have come from my system that they get lumped together. I wish somebody would do a study about first-round quarterbacks and how successful they are. I think there’s a lot of them who have ended up in the same boat. Think about the Heath Shulers of the world and the David Klinglers, the Andre Wares and the Tim Couches.” 

He raises a good point. In the absence of a tangible reason as to why Tedford’s quarterbacks haven’t fared well in the pros — and neither he nor I have found one — it’s fair to question whether five players is too small a sample size to draw a broad conclusion that future Tedford products will similarly fail. It probably is, although it does seem to be a pretty big coincidence.   When comparing Rodgers to the others, there are significant differences with the situations they were put in. Rodgers sat for three years behind Brett Favre, while the other five were thrust into the starting lineup in their rookie seasons, with Boller and Carr getting the nod in Week One.   Whether or not playing immediately hinders a quarterback’s development, or waiting helps him, I don’t know. There are examples supporting both claims.  However, I do think there’s one situational difference that bodes well for Rodgers: The Packers have talent. Lots of it. With the league’s youngest roster in 2007, they still came within a field goal of reaching the Super Bowl, and the key ingredients are coming back. The offense is particularly loaded, courtesy of a stout line, a punishing running back in Ryan Grant and a trio of quality receivers in Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones. None of the other Tedford quarterbacks had nearly the supporting cast that Rodgers will have.

Essentially, Rodgers doesn’t need to be spectacular, or force the issue, for the Pack to win. He needs to make sound decisions, which is something I’m confident he’ll be doing after seeing him execute one of the most memorable quarterbacking displays I’ve ever seen on Oct. 9, 2004.   Facing top-ranked USC at the L.A. Coliseum his final year at Cal, Rodgers played small ball up and down the field. The Trojans were sitting back in a soft zone, and Rodgers responded by firing quick, direct passes throughout the game, none of which exceeded 10-15 yards. He completed 23 straight passes to start the game. Was it the most breathtaking performance? Hardly. But it was memorable because of the incredible patience he showed, not once tempted to force the deep ball.   “He tucked it and ran it a couple times, and he hit guys on some plays that weren’t the intended target,” Tedford added. “Most of the time it was just him making the right read and being very accurate. He went into that game with a great deal of confidence and an understanding of what he was doing.”   Didn’t matter that Cal ultimately lost by six points. He made a believer out of me that day. But now he must do it in the NFL all over again, something his former coach is confident he’ll succeed in doing.  “Aaron is as well-rounded as any quarterback I’ve coached, as far as having poise, having intelligence, having arm strength and being efficient,” Tedford said.  Will Rodgers be the next Brett Favre? I highly doubt it. But I’d be even more surprised if he’s the next David Carr.

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