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To start or not to start your new franchise QB

 

Peyton Manning is always joking about somebody breaking his rookie interception record.

 

You can tell he hates owning it.

 

But he loves the fact he had the chance to get it.

 

As a rookie in 1998, Manning threw a record 28 interceptions. There's a reason for that: He was given a chance to start from Day 1 for the Indianapolis Colts without many restrictions placed on him, receiving quarterback freedom early on that allowed him to throw a rookie-record 575 passes.

 

The Colts knew there would be mistakes. That's inevitable with a rookie starter. They were building something. And you can see what that is today, a passing offense as good as any and a Super Bowl ring on Manning's hand.

 

The Detroit Lions have to do the same thing.

 

They have to play Matthew Stafford as a rookie. Not spot duty. Give him the job. End the stupid debate that's going on in Detroit and name him the starter.

 

I keep hearing how Daunte Culpepper is in shape and isn't a tackle playing quarterback anymore. I hear he looks good throwing it again, that he's ready for a fight, ready to force new Lions coach Jim Schwartz make a tough decision.

 

That's all well and good, but what does that do for the franchise if Culpepper starts? Here's what: It stunts future growth.

 

Culpepper is 32 years old. His best football is behind him. The last time he was any good was in 2004 and he had a guy named Randy Moss in Minnesota.

 

The Lions aren't a good enough team that a veteran quarterback can make a difference.

 

They were 0-16 last year. Remember? They won't be a playoff team this season -- no matter who starts.

 

By playing Culpepper, they would be postponing the inevitable.

 

This is Stafford's team now and for the long run.

 

When the Lions used the first pick in this year's draft on Stafford, they landed the franchise passer they've been craving for years.

 

He is a prototype: Big, strong and understands the passing game.

 

I've watched enough tape of the kid to know that he has what it takes to be a top-level passer.

 

The Lions have to know it, too.

 

So why hesitate to play him? Schwartz has said he will play Stafford when he's ready and when he's the best quarterback for the Lions.

 

Deep down, he has to know that time is now.

 

Was Manning ready when he started as a rookie? Probably not, but the experience made him the quarterback he is today.

 

Manning has told me many times that playing experience is invaluable.

 

"You just can't get the same thing by watching," he said.

 

When brother Eli came into the league, Peyton openly hoped Eli got the chance to start as a rookie, which he did.

 

The Atlanta Falcons started Matt Ryan all 16 games as a rookie in 2008 because they had a new coach and were coming off a losing season. All Ryan did was lead the Falcons to the playoffs.

 

The book on the Falcons heading into season was they lacked a good enough offensive line to protect Ryan.

 

Some wondered if the beating would melt his psyche.

 

But Ryan made the line better. He cured an ill, which good quarterbacks do. Todd McClure, the Falcons center, told me last year Ryan had a strong presence in the huddle, which made it hard to tell he was a rookie from the get-go. The Falcons allowed 47 sacks in 2007. With Ryan, it was down to 17 in 2008.

 

The Lions do have issues on their offensive line. It is a unit that gave up 52 sacks last season, the worst in the league. That's why we keep hearing how that line could ruin Stafford's confidence if he plays from the opener.

 

When Manning took over, the Colts had given up 62 sacks the previous year and the team was coming off a 3-13 record. Indy went 3-13 in Manning's rookie season, but he was only sacked 22 times.

 

As far as Stafford's psyche, does this sound like a kid with a fragile psyche?

 

"I'm a competitive person," Stafford said. "I love a challenge."

 

Did the 28 interceptions damage Manning's psyche? Did going 0-11 as a rookie starter ruin Troy Aikman?

 

That's the point here: If the quarterback is the right guy, rookie struggles won't impact their future.

 

The playing experience will.

 

Those who counter will bring up David Carr and Tim Couch and Cade McNown and some of the others whose careers flopped after stating for bad teams early in their careers.

 

Those passers simply did not meet expectations and, no matter what circumstances, would have failed.

 

Carr had all the tools to be a star. But the word out of Houston was he wasn't dedicated to the task. That's why he failed. Not because he was sacked a record 76 times.

 

Detroit fans went down this path in 2002 when the Lions drafted Joey Harrington with the third overall pick. He started as a rookie, struggled behind a bad line, and was later considered a bust.

 

Harrington didn't have the mental makeup -- or the skills -- to handle being the starter.

 

That doesn't mean Stafford can't handle it. If the Lions drafted him to turn the franchise around, let him do it.

 

If he sits this season, that will make 2010 a learning year for him because learning from the sidelines isn't learning on the field.

 

So let's say Culpepper starts the entire season. The Lions go 3-13. Then what? Stafford has his real rookie season in 2010, and the Lions are starting over again. For coach Schwartz, it would mean Year 3 before a playoff chance is even possible.

 

By playing Stafford this season and letting him learn on the fly, it might accelerate that timetable.

 

Matt Stafford wearing a baseball cap on Sundays this fall will do nothing for the Lions' long-term future.

 

Even if he breaks Manning's rookie interception record -- which Peyton sure hopes -- at least he'd be playing.

 

 

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Now we started Eli midway through his rookie season, it was a hot debate then and now we have had a few years of Eli Manning. Did this help or hinder his development?

 

After reading the article, an interesting point is made that a franchise QB can make his offensive line play better around him. Makes you wonder if all these years it was less to blame on our offensive line and more on the QB not establishing a presence in the pocket?

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The last of the middle linebackers

 

 

 

Picture in your mind the NFL's all-time most dominating defensive players.

 

You're probably seeing Ray Nitschke's bent nose, Mike Singletary's cutting stare, Dick Butkus' scowl. Maybe it's Jack Lambert's toothless growl, Junior Seau's wild eyes or Ray Lewis' ferocity.

 

Middle linebackers have been so much a part of the league's history, they might as well be part of the logo, like the silhouette of Jerry West in the NBA.

 

But where have all the great middle linebackers gone? Once roaming wild, today dominating middle linebackers practically are on the verge of extinction.

 

(CLICK HERE FOR A PHOTO GALLERY OF CURRENT STARTING MIDDLE LINEBACKERS.)

 

They have been replaced as feared game-changers by sleek rush-ends, massive defensive tackles and shut-down corners. Recent free-agent signings reflected as much, with Albert Haynesworth signing a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Redskins, Nnamdi Asomugha signing a three-year deal worth $15 million a year and Carolina's Julius Peppers signing a one-year tender worth more than $16 million.

 

The evolution of defenses and, more significant, offenses, has broken the mold of what a middle linebacker should look and play like.

 

Quick: Name the five best middle linebackers in the league today.

 

Baltimore's Lewis? Naturally. Chicago's Brian Urlacher? Of course. Patrick Willis of the Niners and DeMeco Ryans of the Texans? You would get an argument in some circles, but probably.

 

And ... and ... who else?

 

Most impact NFL middle-linebackers today are either relics, such as Zach Thomas and Tedy Bruschi, or hybrids playing the inside-linebacker spot in the ever-popular 3-4 defense, like Karlos Dansby and Bart Scott.

 

The position has changed and been devalued, literally.

 

Once the premier position on the defensive side of the ball -- the proverbial quarterback of the defense -- middle linebackers now are more like the tight ends of the defense. Or at least that's how they're paid.

 

If you averaged the top-five salaries at every position on the field in 2008, the five highest-paid middle linebackers averaged $5.68 million. Only kickers ($2.24 million) and tight ends ($3.74 million) averaged less. Cornerbacks ($10 million), defensive tackles ($8.04 million) and defensive ends ($8.02 million) averaged significantly more among the five highest-paid players at their respective positions.

 

Clearly, owners and general managers are investing significantly more elsewhere on the field. It speaks to how much value is put on finding a premier playmaker in the middle. It also speaks to how difficult it has become to find big-time talent at the position.

 

Where have you gone, Chuck Bednarik?

 

The position is going the way of the dinosaur for the same reason real dinosaurs disappeared. The landscape and climate have changed

 

 

The beginning of the end of the do-everything, Ray Lewis-type middle linebackers probably began with the advent of run-and-shoot and no-huddle offenses in the mid-1980s.

 

In a sense, football mad scientists Darrel "Mouse" Davis and Sam Wyche helped change the position.

 

When Jack Pardee hired Davis to implement the run-and-shoot for the Houston Gamblers in the upstart USFL in 1984, the numbers quarterback Jim Kelly put up were astounding. It was impossible for the NFL not to notice -- and copy. Offensive coordinators around the league began tinkering with run-and-shoot sets and by the late-1980s, the Houston Oilers went full run-and-shoot in the NFL with much success.

 

Meanwhile, Wyche was changing things in Cincinnati, implementing a no-huddle attack that fatigued opposing players, put a premium on smaller, faster defensive personnel and changed the way defensive coordinators game-planned. Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason excelled under the attacking style, and the Buffalo Bills followed suit with a similarly fast-paced K-Gun that led to four Super Bowl appearances.

 

Defenses have been trying to adjust to variations of the run-and-shoot and no-huddle ever since.

 

Offenses have spread the field with four- and five-wide sets. There have been one-back and no-back sets. There have been spreads, wider line-splits and now more teams turning to the wildcat formation that extends the defense even more.

 

Classic middle linebackers have been left in the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust past.

 

That's not to say there is no place for fierce players like San Francisco's Willis, Houston's Ryans or Carolina's Jon Beason. Teams still must stop the run in order to be successful. And middle linebackers have evolved as well, becoming faster and better in pass coverage without losing tackling punch. But those kinds of talents are rare.

 

There simply are not a lot of them. And making things more difficult have been the huge changes in college football.

 

Spread offenses -- with quarterbacks constantly in the shotgun formation, running backs running laterally into pass routes and wide receivers all over the field -- have stressed the linebacking talent pool.

 

It's not uncommon on college football Saturdays to find safeties playing in the middle-linebacker spot, or not a single linebacker even on the field. College defensive coordinators are forced to put five, six, seven defensive backs on the field. Players who could be NFL linebackers usually are forced to line up on the defensive line.

 

The position has become the most difficult to scout and project, because teams are speculating on whether a collegiate defensive end can play standing up, can tackle and pursue, or if an undersized safety or outside backer can bulk up and play inside.

 

The last middle linebacker to enter the Hall of Fame was Mike Singletary, 11 years ago. Take a good look at Ray Lewis. Take a mental picture. He is among the last of a dying breed.

 

 

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And where does Antonio Pierce stand in the MLB gang...

 

Everyone in the organization keeps saying news of Pierce's decline has been greatly overblown. Still, he has to prove it on the field. Too many blunders, too many bad plays, too few tackles and not enough sacks made 2008 a struggle.

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And Aaron Curry was the #4 overall pick,yeah MLB'ers are dissapearing definently. MLB'ers are still a intrigual part of the defense including Pierce who if nothing else is a great leader and the guy barking signals,there is also Stewart Bradley in Philly,and alot of great MLB'ers in the nfl still, not really sure the point of that article

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And where does Antonio Pierce stand in the MLB gang...

 

Everyone in the organization keeps saying news of Pierce's decline has been greatly overblown. Still, he has to prove it on the field. Too many blunders, too many bad plays, too few tackles and not enough sacks made 2008 a struggle.

 

Without a great supporting cast Pierce's skills at this moment don't cut it anymore.

 

He is a good QB in the middle of the D but that doesnt always mean he

can execute. Losing Boley's speed hurts him more than the rookie being injured.

 

If Kehl improves that will help. Wilkinson is a question mark.

 

Pierce in coverage has been scary.

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And where does Antonio Pierce stand in the MLB gang...

 

Everyone in the organization keeps saying news of Pierce's decline has been greatly overblown. Still, he has to prove it on the field. Too many blunders, too many bad plays, too few tackles and not enough sacks made 2008 a struggle.

 

now now........hes a "coach on the field".......also a great wingmate if you want to drive into the city and hit the Latin Quarter

 

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now now........hes a "coach on the field".......also a great wingmate if you want to drive into the city and hit the Latin Quarter

 

Yea but he's a Giant and deserves our respect.

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I'm betting Kehl starts this season.

 

Without a great supporting cast Pierce's skills at this moment don't cut it anymore.

 

He is a good QB in the middle of the D but that doesnt always mean he

can execute. Losing Boley's speed hurts him more than the rookie being injured.

 

If Kehl improves that will help. Wilkinson is a question mark.

 

Pierce in coverage has been scary.

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