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SEAHAWKS AT BUCS // THROWN FOR A LOSS

There is a quarterback quandary in the NFL. A call to arms has gone unanswered by young guns who still are misfiring.

More and more teams that have invested first-round picks on snap-takers are starting to sound a lot like their wayward passers, just wishing they could have that last one back.

No wonder it is easier to dip into the free-agent market for a quarterback than to suffer through growing pains with a callow schoolboy who may never develop. That might explain why only six quarterbacks have been first-round picks _ including today's Houlihan's Stadium opponents Trent Dilfer and Rick Mirer _ in the past four pro drafts combined.

The best of the lot may be New England's Drew Bledsoe, who had a marvelous sophomore season in '94, passing for 4,555 yards and 25 touchdowns while leading the Patriots to a 10-6 record and a spot in the playoffs.

But ever since his team slumped to 6-10 last season and he didn't throw a TD pass until the sixth week, Bledsoe has had to add a few layers of skin.

"I hear what's going on. It's like a contest to see who can write the biggest Drew Bledsoe (stinks) story," Bledsoe said. "To me the position of being a quarterback in the NFL takes a lot of things, including some toughness. Not from the standpoint of knocking somebody out or taking a hit, but being able to maintain confidence in yourself while everybody in the world is telling you that you (stink)."

Call the roll and you'll realize none of these precocious passers have stepped to the head of the class.

The Carolina Panthers' first draft pick was spent on Kerry Collins, whose first NFL pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown last season. He started 13 games as a rookie but had 19 interceptions. Collins is off to a 2-0 start but won't play today because of a knee sprain.

The Houston Oilers spoon-fed playing time to Steve McNair as a rookie and still are in no hurry to put him behind center, especially since starter Chris Chandler owns the fourth-highest quarterback rating in the league.

The Washington Redskins spent the third overall pick in the '94 draft on Heath Shuler, but he wasn't even the best rookie quarterback on his own team. That distinction belonged to Gus Frerotte, an unknown from Tulsa taken 190 choices later. Shuler lost the starting job to Frerotte in training camp this year and the 'Skins may let him walk as an unrestricted free agent after the season.

As the Bucs' Dilfer and Seattle's Mirer lead their 0-3 teams into Houlihan's Stadium today, each is rated higher than only one other quarterback in their conference.

Dilfer (1 TD, 7 INTs) has a 31.3 rating; Mirer (0 TDs, 4 INTs) is slightly higher at 51.3. Coach Dennis Erickson couldn't wait past the second week to give Mirer the hook against Denver.

"It seems like that's lacking a little confidence if he does decide to take you out," Mirer said of the benching. "That bothers me and it bothered me at the time. Regardless what would happen next time, we can't change what happened the first time. If that's the way he feels, that's his job and that's what he's supposed to do. I personally would've rather played than watched, but it wasn't our day and hopefully it doesn't happen again."

Erickson sounds almost embarrassed by his impatience:

"My thought right now is not to make a change at quarterback and just fly with where we're at now and let Rick go and let him go without having to look over his shoulder and just watch him continue to improve."

Perhaps what must improve first is the way young quarterbacks are groomed as starters in the NFL. Here are a few theories on why they are so hard to identify, painful to develop and costly to keep:

You pay them, you play them

Bledsoe, Mirer, Shuler and Dilfer were signed for at least seven years at a combined cost of $87.33-million.

Owners don't want to see their highest-paid employee carrying a clipboard. So the pressure to rush a player into the starting lineup is enormous. If he is a high draft pick _ usually the result of his team finishing near the bottom the year before _ he likely will discover he has precious few weapons to work with.

"If you can deal with the expectations, then you take the talent," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "You don't feel rushed to play the guy and you don't feel rushed to make a judgment on him if he's not in the Pro Bowl the second or third year. What happens is that most of the real good quarterbacks are taken in the top five or six picks and that's a bad team, generally. And the team has to get better before the quarterback can play well.

"And there are unrealistic expectations on the guys," Dungy added. "Sometimes they get frustrated, the fans get frustrated, coaches get frustrated, owners get frustrated and it doesn't work out. But if you've got enough patience, a lot of those guys come through."

Dan Marino is the exception, but he went to a Dolphins team that had made the playoffs.

Most agree the Oilers have the right idea with McNair, who is making a huge jump to the pros from Alcorn State and didn't play as a rookie until his team had been eliminated from the post-season race.

"John Elway has said publicly that he thinks it's ridiculous to play a first- or second-year quarterback," Dilfer said. "It's so much harder now than when those guys came into the league, and look at how those guys did. You just can't understand how complicated the quarterback position is and the demands it has.

"John Elway is in his 14th season, when he should be able to go out there and blink and it should happen, and he says it's hard. Imagine what it's like for somebody in my shoes, or Heath Shuler's, or Gus Frerotte's, or Jeff Blake's."

That said, few quarterbacks are happy riding the pine.

"I think it's nice to get out there and play and learn," Mirer said. "In my situation, I'm with a staff a couple years and then we switch to a different philosophy. But you're expected to play like a veteran and you're really starting over.

"The last 20 games have been unlike any 20 I've had to deal with. The pressure I have I've put on myself. The outside stuff that people say are people who don't know what the hell you're trying to do. We've got people in the stands and people writing things in the paper who don't have any idea what we're trying to do on offense. All they want to do is see 40 points a game and that's a lot harder than people realize."

Expectations are too high

Remember the Great Quarterback Draft of '83? Never before or since have that many passers been taken in the first round, with six going in the first 27 picks.

Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly still are with their original teams. Those three guided their clubs to a total of eight Super Bowls and were selected to 15 Pro Bowl teams.

Twenty-three quarterbacks have gone in the first round since that draft, but only Dallas' Troy Aikman has made more than one Pro Bowl.

There must be a reason. With the high draft pick and millions spent on contracts comes unrealistic expectations.

"What is production? I think a lot of times we put too much on them," Erickson said. "I mean, there's other people on the team. There's 10 other positions on offense and 11 on defense, and when you lose and things aren't going well, it's automatically pointed at the quarterback and that's not necessarily how it is. People drop balls. You don't get protection. All those things happen and because of the nature of the position, they get blamed for it or they get booed and they deal with all these things they have to deal with and it's hard. I know that's what Rick's been going through the last couple years."

Redskins coach Norv Turner liked Shuler's athletic ability over Dilfer's familiarity with a pro-style offense. But Shuler, who played in a run-oriented offense at Tennessee, was slow to pick up his system and Turner couldn't live with the turnovers, so he went with the more NFL-ready Frerotte.

"Right now I think Gus Frerotte is in a position to give us consistency _ we'll have fewer negative plays," Turner said.

But not even Elway or Aikman were consistent until their third or fourth seasons.

"Yes, we can have success and we can be good players," Dilfer said. "But I think to be consistently at the top of our games week in and week out at this stage is very difficult just because we haven't seen everything yet. I do think about that often. Aikman was brutal the first couple of years. Elway was brutal the first couple years. Now, they've thrown more touchdowns than I have, but for the most part, everything else was the same."

There's no doubt young quarterbacks react negatively to the pressure to be perfect.

"It's tough," Mirer said. "Some of the mistakes that are happening are because I'm trying to make something happen to spark this team and it's backfiring sometimes."

Nature or nurture?

Quarterbacks who are exposed to nothing but bad experiences early in their career sometimes never recover.

That's why head-coaching changes can retard the progress of any young passer.

Mirer and Dilfer are experiencing that this season. It also helps if a team has an experienced veteran backup or is tutored under the steady hand of a quarterbacks coach.

Aikman studied under three of the best: Jerry Rhome, Turner and Ernie Zampese.

It's no wonder so many quarterbacks thrive after a change of venue. The Bucs have a history of this dating to Doug Williams and Steve Young. Brett Favre never blossomed in Atlanta, but he became the league's '95 MVP after joining Mike Holmgren in Green Bay. Ex-Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh was miserable under iron-fisted Mike Ditka but became the AFC's top passer under Indianapolis Colts coach Lindy Infante.

Dilfer insists he prefers dealing directly with offensive coordinator Mike Shula, rather than having a quarterbacks coach in his face on the sideline.

"It's a fad and kind of a misnomer," Dungy said. "If we said Mike Shula was the quarterback coach and we didn't have an offensive coordinator, it would be the same thing and everybody would say, "Well, you really need an offensive coordinator.' If you want to call Mike the quarterbacks coach, we'll call him the quarterbacks coach."

No matter how a quarterback gets it, nurturing may be the most important element. Defenses are more complicated than ever. Learning an offense is like mastering a foreign language.

Nobody can commiserate with Dilfer more than Mirer. Or vice versa.

"I think I understand, maybe more than most people, it may not all be his fault," Mirer said. "There's a lot of variables when the offense struggles. The quarterback usually is on the receiving end of most of the blame and the responsibility. I'm sure he's trying as hard as I'm trying, and right now we're both having hard times and things aren't working out as well as we'd like. My belief is you're pretty much supposed to win games and not lose them. All the other stuff, statistics, are cool if you win. But we just want to win games.

"Some guys get on a roll like Brett (Favre) is right now, but he's had times, too, when it hasn't worked real well and you throw a lot of balls that go to the other team. That's frustrating, but if you survive and live through it, there's good things that can happen on the other end."

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