- Associated Press - Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mark Sanchez was supposed to take the next step this year in his development as a quarterback. If he’s done so, it’s been a move laterally, if not backward.

Same for Josh Freeman, Colt McCoy and Kevin Kolb. Some might even have added Joe Flacco before his star turn in prime time last weekend at Pittsburgh.

Not to spotlight just the younger quarterbacks _ Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Kyle Orton, Matt Cassel and Donovan McNabb haven’t exactly lit up the league this season _ but halfway through the schedule, the struggles have been mighty for some young guns.

Their problems have been exacerbated by the success of Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, two rookies whose performances outshine the work of those other quarterbacks.

Freeman’s regression is the least explainable. The Buccaneers went 10-6 in 2010 as Freeman emerged in his second pro season and first full year as a starter. He threw for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions, had a 95.9 rating and nearly got the Bucs into the playoffs.

This year: pfft.

“Obviously he’s not playing his best football,” coach Raheem Morris said. “But at the halfway point, he’s got a chance to help his team go and win eight more games. All his guys believe in him. I know this whole organization does. We just want him to be great, and we’re going to help him get there.”

Freeman appeared to be headed to stardom as a comeback king, having led the Buccaneers to come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter and overtime in eight of his 17 wins as a starter. Perhaps the Bucs have become too dependent on him producing in the clutch, but he’s also struggling to live up to past achievements. And expectations.

“Last year, he simply did a better job of going through his progressions,” Morris added. “Right now, he has a little bit too much confidence in what he’s doing with his arm and forcing some things in there.”

One of Freeman’s great traits, though is how quickly he learns and how well he absorbs the lessons of a young NFL quarterback. He thinks he has spotted his problems and knows how to fix them.

“The turnovers the first half of the season, obviously that’s something you never would have anticipated,” he said of throwing 10 picks. “But at the same time, it’s happened and we’re doing things to correct it.

“Looking back earlier in the season, some of those errant throws may have been from pressing, trying to make something happen when there’s nothing there.”

The same issue has plagued McCoy, Sanchez and Kolb _ not to mention Rivers, Romo, Cassel and Orton.

For Kolb, the trade to Arizona was going to be his ticket to the big time. He now had his own starting job _ no more being the youngster sitting behind a veteran, either Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick, in Philadelphia. He had a coach, Ken Whisenhunt, with a good feel for developing quarterbacks. He had a lucrative new contract.

And he had Larry Fitzgerald to throw to.

Arizona is 2-6 and just broke a five-game slide while Kolb was sidelined by a turf toe in his right foot. He’s looked like anything but a franchise QB even when healthy, and the switch to the Cardinals’ style of offense has been difficult.

“I’m not going to lie. It’s a tough deal,” he said before he was injured, “especially after getting trained a certain way for four years. I wish I had the offseason and I didn’t.”

No one did, yet quarterbacks such as San Francisco’s Alex Smith, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick have taken nice steps forward.

As for Sanchez, few if any quarterbacks in the league are required to be game managers more than the third-year pro out of Southern California. So when he makes several critical errors, such as in a rout at Baltimore in Week 4, it severely sets back the Jets, a team built to win with the running game, defense and special teams.

Sanchez certainly has the weapons at his disposal to make the passing game more effective, even dynamic.

“We do have some targets,” coach Rex Ryan admitted. “We have some weapons. Obviously, you have Santonio (Holmes), you have Plaxico (Burress), you have Dustin (Keller), you have some good receivers out of the backfield. So certainly that’ll be something that we’ll try to do. But I also like our ability to run the football.”

Which also means not putting matters of winning directly on Sanchez’s arm.

To his credit, Sanchez has gone from so-so regular seasons in his first two years as a pro to a 4-2 postseason record, all in road games.

Still, it’s easy to understand why Jets fans get nervous when he has to be the main man. Sanchez recognizes his shortcomings, and like with Freeman, that’s a big part of the battle to get better.

“You can’t give away some cheap ones, and really, you look at the seven interceptions, I think (that’s what the number) is, and there are some dumb ones,” he said. “So, we get rid of those and we’re really playing well.”

No one is playing particularly well in Cleveland. McCoy clearly has regressed, but he’s also working under a new coaching staff with a young and battered team. The Browns can’t protect him when he’s in the pocket, and he’s made some bad decisions.

“Sometimes,” McCoy said, “growing pains aren’t that fun.”


AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall in Tampa and Dennis Waszak Jr., in New York contributed to this story.



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