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Starting young quarterbacks is a risky business

Troy Aikman now views his rookie year in Dallas as a learning experience. He also knows that Carson Palmer and Eli Manning might end up as better quarterbacks by starting their careers on the bench.

``I was 0-11 as a starter and there were times when I walked off the field wondering if I'd ever win a game in the NFL,'' says Aikman, who went on to quarterback Dallas to three Super Bowl wins.

Aikman was the first pick in the 1989 draft, chosen by the Dallas Cowboys, who had a new owner, a new coach in Jimmy Johnson and had plummeted from the top of the NFL to 3-13 the previous year. There was no free agency in those days to rebuild instantly and Johnson used the season as a revolving door tryout camp, with Aikman as the sacrificial lamb.

Young quarterbacks struggle. It's one NFL rule that never changes.

High picks Palmer, Manning and Philip Rivers sit as rookies, as did Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb, the two survivors of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 1999 draft. So will second-year man Chris Simms when Tampa Bay plays at Oakland on Sunday after making his first career appearance last week.

They start only when there's no one else.

That's what will happen in Miami on Sunday when Ben Roethlisberger, the 11th overall pick in this draft, leads Pittsburgh against a very good defense that's been embarrassed by its offense. Coach Bill Cowher has no choice: Tommy Maddox is out with a torn ligament in his elbow and Charlie Batch, who would have been his backup, is gone for the season with a knee injury.

Aikman played in 1989 because Johnson knew the Cowboys couldn't win. Peyton Manning started his entire rookie year for the 1998 Colts, who had just changed the entire front office and coaching staff. He finished 3-13.

But even a historically bad team like Cincinnati is reluctant to start a rookie quarterback.

So Palmer sat last year and the Bengals improved from 2-14 to 8-8 with Jon Kitna and were in playoff contention until the final week. Palmer is now starting and is 1-1, but is learning on the job _ he was impressive in his first start until he threw an interception that ended a potential game-tying drive because he misread the New York Jets' defense.

Eli Manning, this year's No. 1 pick, was given a chance to compete for the Giants' starting job, but was beaten out by Kurt Warner _ no surprise at all.

It's different now,'' Aikman says.All 32 teams think they have a shot. They look at Carolina and other teams that defied expectations and got to the Super Bowl and say, 'We can do that.' So you want to start a veteran and see if he can win. Playing a rookie at quarterback tells the other players that you're giving up the season.''

Eli already has played _ mop-up duty in a loss to Philadelphia.

But coach Tom Coughlin won't start him until it's clear the Giants aren't contenders, be it 10 games, 12 games or the full season. Warner proved why it's the correct approach last week in a win over Washington, managing the game with precision. He took no sacks after New York had taken a 13-point lead and threw the ball away rather than forcing anything.

Simms, who didn't take a snap as a rookie, did just the opposite for Tampa Bay last week.

He was inserted for Brad Johnson late in the second quarter after the offense hadn't scored a touchdown against Washington or Seattle. He completed 21 of 32 passes for 175 yards, but also was sacked four times and lost a fumble trying to hand off to Mike Alstott at the Seahawks 1-yard line.

Then he forced a pass into coverage while on his knees. It was intercepted, ending his team's final drive in a 10-6 loss, a typical youngster's mistake. So Johnson will be back this week when Tampa Bay goes to Oakland.

All of that is standard to St. Louis coach Mike Martz, considered one of the NFL's top quarterback gurus. He subjects youngsters to what amounts to a stress test.

They have to be perfectionists,'' Martz says.If they're not when they come in they need to learn that real quick. There's no excuse for not knowing, there just isn't. When they make a mental error and they clap their hands and say, 'My bad,' well, I know it's your bad. We'll find another quarterback then.''

That probably won't be the case with Palmer, Rivers, Eli Manning and Simms; Rivers is the son of a coach and the latter two are well-known sons of former NFL quarterbacks.

``I know I just have to keep studying, watching Kurt, learning as I watch,'' Manning said after a horrendous performance in an exhibition game.

Detroit's Joey Harrington, the third overall pick in 2002, could be this year's example of a quarterback who's finally gotten it.

In two games, he has completed nearly 63 percent of his passes and his passer rating is 93.8. In his first two seasons, when he started 28 games, his completion percentage was nearly 10 points lower and his rating was 62.2.

It shows _ the Lions are 2-0 after going 8-20 in games Harrington started his first two years.

I'd say Joey's experience is the standard,'' Aikman says.The third year is often when you really find out what's going on.''

History bears that out.

No quarterback has been AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in the 47-year history of the award. Only Peyton Manning and Dan Marino were certified stars by Year 2, although McNabb performed well after getting playing time in the second half of his rookie season with the Eagles.

Byron Leftwich showed promise starting for Jacksonville last season and the Jaguars have started 2-0 this year, but have scored only 20 points and Leftwich's rating is a mediocre 61.9.


DIRTY DOZEN: The top six and bottom six teams based on current level of play:

  1. New England (2-0). This is one champion with staying power.
  1. Philadelphia (2-0). Living up to the hype so far.
  1. Seattle (2-0). The prolific offense has been less than that, but the defense is very good.
  1. Indianapolis (1-1). Can't stop the run, but Manning, James, Harrison and Wayne (sounds like a law firm) make up for it.
  1. Atlanta (2-0). Vick makes anything possible.
  1. New York Jets (2-0). The defense is suspect, but Pennington and Martin seem ready for big years.
  1. Arizona (0-2). Dennis Green can't fix everything at once.
  1. Kansas City (0-2). No defense, and an offense that lacks wideouts hasn't been very good.
  1. Houston (0-2). Lower the expectations.
  1. Buffalo (0-2). No offense.
  1. Tampa Bay (0-2). No offense.
  1. Miami (0-2). Less than no offense.
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