It's always a tough decision for an NFL team to decide when to start a talented rookie quarterback.
Some teams choose to make the young quarterback prove himself in training camp - whether it's his first year or somebody who spent a year or two sitting on the sidelines learning the playbook.
This strategy has been somewhat successful, especially recently. The New York Jets and Detroit Lions are going forward with neophytes Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford this season. Last year, the strategy worked for both the Baltimore Ravens and the Atlanta Falcons as Joe Flacco and Matthew Ryan each led their respective teams to the playoffs in their rookie seasons.
Indianapolis' Peyton Manning also began his career starting the first game of the season as a rookie. He ended up throwing a league-high 28 interceptions, but nine Pro Bowls and three MVP awards later Manning is already regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Starting a young quarterback at the beginning of the season after watching and learning on the sideline for a year or two has also led to a number of successful NFL quarterbacks. Carson Palmer sat his entire rookie year while Jon Kitna took all the snaps for the Bengals. Phillip Rivers watched and learned for two full seasons as Drew Brees led the Chargers.
These young quarterbacks learned during their time on the bench; each one of the teams was competitive, as none of them finished under .500. Today, Brees leads the undefeated Saints, while Palmer has turned around the luck of the once-lethargic Bengals.
On the other hand, some teams choose to throw a young quarterback into action after the team's hopes for the playoffs have already disappeared, usually after a bye week, to give the inexperienced player some extra time to prepare.
The Buccaneers, after giving veteran Byron Leftwich and second-year Josh Johnson a shot, are now starting rookie Josh Freeman next week after their bye. The Titans started Vince Young this week after last week's bye. Both teams had been winless when they made the decision to switch quarterbacks.
Throwing young quarterbacks to the wolves is not always a recipe for success, however. Recent busts JaMarcus Russell, Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Alex Smith were each drafted in the first seven picks of the draft and have all had rather unsuccessful NFL careers thus far.
Russell didn't make his first start until the last game of his rookie season when the Raiders were 3-12. Harrington started his first game in 2002 for a 0-2 Lions team. Leftwich first started for the Jaguars after they got off to a 0-3 start in 2003 and Alex Smith made his first career start in 2005 when the 49ers were 1-3.
A team can't just start a quarterback because they have given up hope on the current season and are playing for the future. That simply does not work and can often damage a promising career. A team and its quarterback cannot be successful unless the quarterback has earned the right to be out there by being the best player.
Even with the numerous busts, there have been some successful quarterbacks who debuted during the middle of the season. They, however, earned the right by being the best player and playing to win games, not to gain experience for the future. For example, Jay Cutler, Eli Manning and Tony Romo each made their first career start for a team that was in playoff contention or at least able to win a few games. They played because they were the team's best chance of making the playoffs.
Others like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner made their debuts by replacing an injured starter during the middle of the season. Brady and Warner won Super Bowls during their first year as starters and Roethlisberger got his first ring in his second professional season.
Something that is also important and often overlooked is the development of young quarterbacks. The Raiders have made an art of not pushing new players to develop and make a successful transition from college to the professional ranks. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, appear to be building a franchise around Freeman, instead of along with him. This is setting him up for failure because he had not earned the starting spot and everyone knows he is playing just for experience and not to win games. Franchises should be built up with the quarterback in order to win, not around a young quarterback.
NFL teams looking to do what's best for them and their players need to think carefully about the timing of starting new players before deciding to send young quarterbacks out for their first start.