Lockout puts additional pressure on young QBs

NEW ORLEANS – The contempt was so profound you could feel the sneer on St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford's(notes) face as he talked over the phone.

"Who's not going to want to work to get better at their profession?" Bradford asked, rhetorically. "As players, this is what we do and we have pride in it. We want to be great. Our guys are going to be out there."

Many teams were originally scheduled to start offseason workouts this week. Instead, the responsibility for those workouts now falls on the players to do them voluntarily. At least three members of the Tennessee Titans have already started some workouts. Other teams, such as the Rams, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons have preliminary plans to get started soon. Given the human tendency to relax when no one is supervising, the question for most teams will become whether or not the quarterback is strong enough to lead the way.

In seven precincts, that pressure falls on a signal caller that who was drafted in the first round over the past three years and whose leadership stands to be severely tested the longer the lockout goes.

"Everything you do as a team starts with your quarterback," veteran Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes) said. "He's the guy that everyone is looking at, taking their cues from. If he's not working hard, if he's not out there, guys tend to look around and start saying, 'Why should I?' "

In 1982, when the NFL went through a strike, the key for the Washington Redskins on their way to winning Super Bowl XVII was the work of veteran quarterback Joe Theismann in getting his teammates to practice two or three times a week.

"I took Joe Gibbs'(notes) last game plan from that year and we went over it again and again," said Theismann, who was in his ninth season in the NFL by that time. "We made sure we were working, we were in shape and we were sharp. We knew there was going to be a point at which we were going to play again, and we weren't going to embarrass ourselves. We knew how good we were, and I knew the job I had to do to make sure we got there."

Today, for St. Louis, Detroit, the Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – all of whom have taken quarterbacks in the first round since 2008 – the test for their quarterbacks goes beyond work ethic. It's about the ability to rally players behind them at a time when they have yet to truly establish themselves as great players.

"I know what you're getting at, and it's a concern," one NFL head coach said recently. "All of those guys are supposed to be the leaders because of where they were drafted. Some of them have started to do some things, but it's not like any of them has pelt on the wall yet. It's going to be tricky."

For teams with established quarterbacks, such as the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning(notes), New England Patriots with Tom Brady(notes) or New Orleans Saints with Drew Brees(notes), the issue is not as significant. If Manning, who started searching last summer for a high school in Indianapolis to run practices in case of a lockout, or Brees contacted every player on the roster and told them to show up, it's hard to imagine more than a few players declining to be there.

The same is not necessarily true of the aforementioned teams with extremely young signal callers or clubs like the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers or Oakland Raiders that don't have a quarterback with a long-established presence or even a highly regarded pedigree. The difference between the two groups, though, is that the expectation to be great leaders is much higher for guys like Bradford, Atlanta's Matt Ryan(notes) and Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman(notes).

Bradford helped the Rams win more games in 2010 (7) than they did the previous three years combined (6).
(Jason O. Watson/US Presswire)

"I think we have a lot of leaders on our team besides me, so I don't think we're going to have a problem," said Bradford, who helped the Rams go from 1-15 in 2009 to 7-9 and one win short of the playoffs as a rookie last season. "But I also know guys look at me. That's part of the job with any quarterback."

The question for Bradford and the others is whether teammates will respond to them. Will they be able to keep players motivated and interested if the lockout goes for an extended period? Will they manage the inevitable collision of alpha-male egos that go with any NFL locker room?

The answers to those questions are a complicated mix of factors that revolve around personality, leadership skill and success. It is more complicated when talking about particularly young players who have been well paid.

Bradford's first season showed promise because the team won a lot more than recently accustomed. Still, there are plenty of veterans who will look at him as a $50 million bonus baby if he doesn't handle the offseason effectively. Likewise, Ryan, who has led the Falcons to two playoff appearances in three seasons, and Freeman, who helped Tampa Bay improve from 3-13 in 2009 to 10-6 last year in his first full season as a starter, have gained credibility because of their obvious ability to improve the teams.

"There's no question that [Ryan] has the whole team behind him, both offense and defense," Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "Matt is an incredibly responsible person and he's mindful of the preparation it takes to be successful … Those were traits we were really cognizant of when we were getting ready to draft him."

It's one thing to flash such traits; it's another to consistently carry it out. For Bradford, Ryan and Freeman, their teams' improvement gives them a certain amount of credibility. While that also should apply to guys like Baltimore's Joe Flacco(notes) (the Ravens have made the playoffs in each of his three seasons) and the Jets' Mark Sanchez(notes) (New York has made the postseason and won four road playoff games with Sanchez), the critics are a little more vocal.

In the cases of Flacco and Sanchez, they play on veteran, defense-dominated teams where they have been perceived more as caretakers than guys expected to carry the team like Manning, Brees, Brady, Philip Rivers(notes) or Aaron Rodgers(notes). More important, questions remain whether or not they have the willingness to be disliked and tell people what to do at a critical moment.

Stafford only played in three games last season.
(Matthew Emmons/US Presswire)

In Detroit, Matt Stafford's issue is slightly different. While Stafford has had some moments, such as returning to the field with an injured shoulder to throw the winning touchdown against the Cleveland Browns in 2009, he has also been limited to 13 games in two seasons because of injuries.

Can a guy who hasn't played be a real leader?

"Matt has the makeup and the drive to be that guy, you can see it," Vanden Bosch said.

Or as Lions head coach Jim Schwartz put it: "It's in his character, all the things that go way beyond whether he can throw a ball. Being a quarterback, especially when you're the No. 1 overall pick, is about so many more things than just whether you can make a throw. You have to handle the press, the fans, the locker room. That was all part of the evaluation of why we think Matt will be that guy."

Still, there's a ways to go when you're not actually on the field. Worse, the question for Stafford is whether he has gone through enough game situations to really have a grasp of what needs to be done.

"It's like what Bill Walsh used to talk about," one AFC coach said. "Just because guys are practicing doesn't mean it's good practice. If you're doing the wrong things over and over again and there's no coach around to tell you what to do, the coach is just going to have to fix it all later."

That situation also applies to Denver's Tim Tebow(notes), who started the final three games last season – a campaign that ended in disarray. While Tebow has a strong history from college, that doesn't necessarily carry over to the pros.

"[Tebow] is going to have the hardest time of anybody [in that group] because he hasn't played [much], and he's not even really the starter right now," an AFC general manager said, referring to the fact that Kyle Orton(notes) is still technically the starter. "It's going to be interesting to see how he handles that situation because that's the guy so many people think is going to be the answer. Basically, they're going to have to find out and, the way things are going, sooner than later."