“You come in as a snotty-nosed rookie thinking your stuff don’t stink,” McNabb said. “Then you come out of practice with three picks.”
Once he got his chance to start, however, the second overall draft choice resolved to give his teammates reasons to keep playing hard. He wanted to avoid what he called “rush ball,” a dangerous disease that can afflict young quarterbacks pushed into action. He had seen others, overwhelmed by the moment, develop habits that eventually could cut short a career: forcing plays, missing protections, throwing off a back foot.
McNabb compensated by peppering questions at everyone in the building. He asked the PR staff to get phone numbers for quarterbacks he respected — Warren Moon, Doug Williams, Dan Marino — so he could get their thoughts, too. This way, when he completed fewer than half his passes and threw nearly as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns (eight), his teammates had reason to believe they were building toward something.
He did all that because he was facing the question then that the Washington Redskins’ Dwayne Haskins is facing now: What can a quarterback learn from a challenging rookie year?
The Redskins gambled the immediate future of their franchise on Haskins, and the 15th overall pick out of Ohio State has often struggled during his seven games, with three touchdowns, seven interceptions and 26 sacks. Those stats shouldn’t be placed upon Haskins alone — the team must protect him and surround him with playmakers — but Haskins admitted he pressed early on, forcing passes he shouldn’t have. There was also concern, back in October, that he was having trouble learning the team’s plays.
Understanding the playbook and developing an ability to decipher a dizzying number of defensive schemes are the most important things a rookie quarterback can do, according to several former quarterbacks and coaches. Establishing a base knowledge slows down the game and allows the other necessary attributes — resilience, leadership, work ethic — to propel the quarterback forward.
Year 1 is never about the stats; it’s about finding meaning in meaningless games. Look no further than Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning, John Elway and Terry Bradshaw — who threw more picks than touchdown passes and lost more games than they won as rookies en route to Hall of Fame careers.
Haskins has flashed incremental advances in his past few starts, particularly in up-tempo situations. Interim coach Bill Callahan credited Haskins for not repeating mistakes, and he praised the 22-year-old’s progress in cycling through his reads in the passing game, syncing up his eyes with his feet and improving his recognition of defensive schemes. He called it “a growth pattern … that continues to emerge.”
“Not everything is going to go your way when you first start playing; that’s something I learned throughout my time so far as a rookie,” Haskins said this week. “Eventually that time will come for me to be able to play at a high level, but right now I’m just continuing on working on getting better every day.”
Hiccups are necessary, former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore said. Some coaches prefer to sit their quarterbacks for a year — as Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid did by having future league MVP Patrick Mahomes back up Alex Smith — but Moore never believed in it. You could “look at that grease board until you’re blue in the face,” he said, and it wouldn’t make a difference. When the Colts drafted Manning first overall in 1998, the way Moore saw it was, “If he’s our quarterback, put him in.”
“We didn’t sit around saying, ‘Something bad could happen,’ ” Moore said. “We went out and opened it up. Sometimes [stuff is] going to happen your rookie year. You can’t go into a shell. You got 16 more years left.”
Ron Rivera held a similar philosophy when coaching Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton as a first-time head coach in 2011, Rivera said, and Newton delivered a solid season with 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. But, Rivera added, “If you’re going to put them out there and expose them, you got to be able to support them.”
Or as Moore told Manning: “You take credit for the touchdown passes. I’ll take credit for the interceptions.”
The Redskins fired coach Jay Gruden in early October, and Callahan, his replacement, waited a few games before starting Haskins. McNabb likes Haskins’s strong arm and believes he’ll learn pocket presence and the playbook, but he worries that inconsistency from the team could undermine the rookie’s confidence and stunt his development. He urged the Redskins not to rush judgment on Haskins and pointed to Lamar Jackson, noting that the Baltimore Ravens supported him when he struggled as a rookie last season and now he’s an MVP candidate.
The responsibility of the rookie passer, coaches and quarterbacks said, is to make it easy for the team to back him publicly by inspiring hope for change. Kelly Holcomb was the Colts’ backup quarterback in 1998, and when teammates asked him whether Manning improved after a rough first season (26 touchdowns to 28 interceptions), he never hesitated to say yes.
A memory had lodged in Holcomb’s brain from one of Manning’s first minicamps. They were practicing a slant-and-go route on which the quarterback dropped three steps, pump-faked and shuffled twice more before throwing. Manning was struggling so much that he chased down a team video guy and asked him to record his footwork. Manning studied the tape, realized what he was doing wrong and later perfected the move. That showed Holcomb everything he needed to see.
“A lot of people don’t like to work on their weaknesses, but he was honest with himself,” Holcomb said. “That’s what separated him.”
Players and coaches pointed to the offseason as one of the last and most important steps of a quarterback’s rookie season. The successes and mistakes of the first year are only valuable afterward if you actually learn from them. Colts coaches analyzed every play from Manning’s rookie campaign, and they spent the spring honing their approach during 6:30 a.m. workouts. A year later, in Philadelphia, McNabb determined the things he was weakest at — throwing to a spot, stepping up in the pocket, knowing when to check down — and studied film of quarterbacks who excelled in those areas.
Once in a while, McNabb remembered what his coaches had repeated again and again during the season on the sideline or in the meeting room. They told him to forget the last play, something Haskins is hearing now. That advice is a reminder every quarterback needs coming out of his rookie season.
“We need you focusing on now,” McNabb remembered hearing over and over. “We need you to make a play for us.”
Les Carpenter contributed to this report.