Young guns

Published: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 3:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 3:02 p.m.

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - Michael Vick sat on his couch around this time last year, trying to pick a playoff quarterback to root for.

Vick had a tough choice. There was Donovan McNabb. Peyton Manning. Tom Brady.

"I was pulling for Donovan," Vick recalled this week. "He's my homeboy, but at the same time I was pulling for Peyton, pulling for Brady because those are all guys I'm cool with."

Perhaps there is a reason for that. Vick, McNabb, Manning and Brady are part of the new generation of quarterbacks, rising stars in the league that have yet to hit 30. This year, Vick is a part of the playoff bunch with his three friends, and they have helped make history.

From MVP Manning to rookie Ben Roethlisberger, none of the eight QBs in the Super Bowl quarterfinals is older than 28. It is the first time since the AFL-NFL merger that all the passers are so young, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"That's a good thing," said coach Herman Edwards, who has 28-year-old Chad Pennington leading the Jets. "A couple years prior to this we were always talking about, 'Where are the young quarterbacks coming from?' Now, all of a sudden you have them in the playoffs, and that's good for the league."

There are first-rounders and sixth-rounders, record-setters and jet-setters among the group. Their backgrounds are diverse, but there are a few reasons why they have come this far. Many franchises have decided to build their team around a young player while hoping he becomes a future superstar.

The theory of having rookie quarterbacks sit on the bench for several years while learning behind a wily veteran has all but disappeared. Of the 32 starters on opening day, 18 were 28 or younger. Because of injuries or the need for a change, that number jumped to 21 when the regular-season ended.

"It's always been accepted as fact in this league that you need a great quarterback to go very far, and I think you can see the eight teams that are left believe that," Colts general manager Bill Polian said.

Manning started immediately as a rookie in 1998, when he was the No. 1 overall pick. He struggled early but has led the Colts to five playoff appearances in his seven seasons in the league, including three straight. Daunte Culpepper, McNabb and Vick became full-time starters in their second seasons.

"I still consider myself to be a young quarterback, believe it or not, even though quarterback years are kind of like dog years," Manning said. "I'm in my seventh year and I'm known as kind of an old man as far as quarterbacks go in the NFL."

Brady, Pennington and Marc Bulger sat behind veteran quarterbacks before getting their shot to play. Pennington, in his fifth season, took his first snap as a starter in 2002 to relieve an ineffective Vinny Testaverde. Brady came in for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and the results are self-evident: two Super Bowl MVPs.

Bulger unseated another Super Bowl MVP in Kurt Warner, who became a starter for the New York Giants. But Warner was benched in favor of another young star: No. 1 overall pick Eli Manning.

"You never know how far these young quarterbacks can take you," Warner said. "Sure they can put you in position to make the playoffs. But as a veteran guy, that's the one thing you can hang onto. You know how to get your team a championship.

"It's a hard battle because there are so many young quarterbacks. They can do all those things that look good, but that's the one advantage I have over them."

There are several other reasons why young players are having greater success. They come into the NFL equipped to handle the rigors of starting, because college programs are getting better. Plus, six of the eight quarterbacks used up all their college eligibility.

"I think with pro coaches going back to college, with the evolution of college football, players, just like they're getting bigger, faster, stronger, physically, mentally they're getting better," Pennington said. "So when they step up to the next level, mentally there's not as many surprises."

Many teams are not asking their young stars to do it all. Take Roethlisberger, an unprecedented 13-0 as a starter this season. The Steelers have a solid defense, terrific running game, great receivers and an excellent offensive line, taking a lot of pressure off the rookie.

CBS analyst Phil Simms, the 1987 Super Bowl MVP, also has noticed teams are trying to run more wide-open offenses, like the Colts.

"It's about really throwing the ball," Simms said. "I don't mean nickel and diming it. I mean chucking it down the field because the athletes have gotten good. Why try to have a 10-play drive when you can have it in four? That tells us we need quarterbacks that can throw it down the field with ease."

Some expect the trend to continue. Others think it may not. But one thing is clear: these quarterbacks are here to stay, and each wants to win as many championships as possible.

"When you're a kid, you're out in the backyard throwing the football with your dad or whoever and you're talking about being an NFL quarterback and that you're going to win a Super Bowl," McNabb said. "We have an opportunity right now so it's a dream come true, you step out on the field and have fun and see where it takes you."

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