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Hey rookie! Your development as an NFL quarterback is on fast forward

It is one of the most interesting--and contradictory--trends in professional football. As the game has gotten more complex, and more specialized, as it has evolved into much more of a passing game than it was years ago, as more responsibility is ...

Sep 1, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) on the sidelines against the New York Jets at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles defeated the Jets, 14-6. Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 1, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) on the sidelines against the New York Jets at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles defeated the Jets, 14-6. Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It is one of the most interesting-and contradictory-trends in professional football. As the game has gotten more complex, and more specialized, as it has evolved into much more of a passing game than it was years ago, as more responsibility is shoved onto the shoulders of the quarterback, teams are more and more entrusting that position to untested kids.

Including two rookies who have been named starters in Philadelphia (Carson Wentz) and Dallas (Dak Prescott), more than half the teams in the league-at least 20 of 32-will begin the season with quarterbacks who have been full-time starters since early in their rookie seasons.

(Sam Bradford would make 21 if he is the Minnesota starter, and the number would be even greater if it included quarterbacks like Chicago's Jay Cutler, a starter since late in his rookie season, or San Francisco's Blaine Gabbert, a rookie starter who lost his job).

Contrast that with the quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and you see how different the game has become.

There are 25 "modern era" quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, only eight of whom started at least half his team's games as a rookie-John Elway, Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, Bob Griese, Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Otto Graham and Y.A. Tittle.

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And even among those eight, only Elway, Marino and Aikman were rookie starters on established NFL teams. Tarkenton started for an expansion team, Griese got the job because of an injury on a second-year expansion team, Namath was the AFL's poster child who helped hasten the merger of the leagues and Graham and Tittle began their careers in the old All-American Football Conference, a 1940s rival to the NFL.

Joe Montana became a full-time starter in year three. Terry Bradshaw? Year six-even after winning his first Super Bowl. Brett Favre was traded from his first team. Warren Moon began his career in Canada, Jim Kelly and Steve Young in the USFL. Johnny Unitas was cut by the Steelers. Len Dawson threw 45 passes in his first five seasons.

And on and on and on.

Long ago, there was an unwritten rule among teams known as the "five-year plan," whereby they figured a new quarterback would observe and be a backup for five years before being handed the reins. Yet, in the last 15 years, only one Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, served an apprenticeship of even three years before becoming a starter, and the only reason Rodgers was not thrust into the lineup was the future Hall of Famer (Favre) ahead of him.

That five-year rule has become more like a five-minute rule.

The Eagles thought 24 passes in one exhibition game-and a 41.8 passer rating-was enough to hand Wentz the job and dump a quarterback (Sam Bradford) to whom they had given an $11 million signing bonus earlier this year. Prescott got his spot because of an injury. Denver is opening the defense of its Super Bowl championship with a quarterback, Trevor Siemian, who is starting his second season but whose next NFL pass attempt will be his first.

So, what's going on here?

Well, besides something very obvious-college football has become even more slanted to the passing game than the NFL in recent years, so quarterbacks have thrown many more passes when they get to the pros-the way NFL coaches control their quarterbacks has changed dramatically over the years: No quarterback calls his own plays anymore.

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So, while the quarterback still has more responsibility than any other player on the field, by executing plays called by the coach instead of calling them himself, his workload has been lightened significantly from days of old.

The flip side, of course, is the late 1970s rules changes-limiting the five-yard bump rule, the liberalized holding penalty-that encouraged more passing, and it has had the desired effect. Last season, 59 percent of NFL plays were passes (either passes thrown or sacks). In 1977, that figure was 42.3 percent.

But while quarterbacks are asked to throw more and coaches now have more control over what happens on the field, playing a young quarterback gives them a built-in excuse to buy time to build a program. That's not likely the reason a coach will choose a young quarterback, but nonetheless, it's a result. They want to develop the quarterback and build a team around him.

There are few better examples of that situation, and why it frequently requires more patience than owners have, than Alex Smith of Kansas City, who was the first overall pick of the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 draft.

Smith played strictly in a spread offense in college and even his college coach, Urban Meyer, said he'd never develop in the NFL until he got comfortable with everything around him. Smith never got comfortable in San Francisco, where he had a different offensive coordinator every season, but has blossomed since being traded to Kansas City where head coach Andy Reid and co-coordinators Mike Nagy and Brad Childress have been running the offense since 2013.

Young quarterbacks also have become more attractive to teams because of the salary cap. When they draft a quarterback who eats up a lot of salary cap room, they don't want to have to pay a lot of money to another quarterback and have that kid with his fat wallet sitting on the bench.

They don't do much sitting anymore.

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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Aug 19, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) during the game against the Miami Dolphins at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys defeated the Dolphins 41-14. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Related Topics: CARSON WENTZFOOTBALL
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