Combine notes: QB primer; In praise of Gruden

INDIANAPOLIS - The Bengals can get a primer here at the NFL scouting combine on what to do and what not to do if they do indeed plan on taking a quarterback high in the draft and expect him to carry the load right away.

Riding a rookie has been the trend. Just in the past few years rookie quarterbacks like Atlanta's Matt Ryan, Baltimore's Joe Flacco and St. Louis' Sam Bradford have either led their team to the playoffs or to the brink.

The common thread?

The team and scheme around them.

The early returns on new coordinator Jay Gruden's playbook seems to be along those lines of taking the heat off the quarterback. Short drops, quick throws, underneath routes.

"We did a little scaling back. What I remember most when he was tagged as the starter, to make sure, first and foremost was to protect him," said Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who* *took last year's No. 1 pick, Sam Bradford, to a 7-9 finish after years of losing in St. Louis. "Because to me, in this league it gets tough when things start coming fast at you and people are hitting you. That was real important to us."

Flacco, as the Bengals know, won two playoff games as a rookie. Head coach John Harbaugh had it scripted.

"The No. 1 thing is to put a good team around him," Harbaugh said. "That means a good defense. That means a good offensive line and hopefully a good running game."

Harbaugh also says the Ravens scaled back the offense back in '08 for their rookie. But he says they're still trying to do that for a four-year veteran.

"Probably," said Harbaugh of scaling it back, "but you probably want to do that with any quarterback, right? The better team you have, the better player he's going to be. Try to let him go on that platform of just building a good team around him."

NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, who cut his teeth in the league with quarterback guru Bill Walsh in the '80s, recalled Thursday that Walsh always told him the quarterback position was the hardest to evaluate. And he says it's even more difficult now than then because the college game is so much different than the pro game. For instance, he says teams have to be wary of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton's look-and-run offense and there are those at Paul Brown Stadium wondering about Blaine Gabbert's spread-five-receiver-set at Missouri.

"The (Auburn) shotgun is completely different than in our league," Lombardi said. "You have to spend time learning what they're taught and what their reads are."

He says you have to adjust your offense to them, not the other way around, words that Gruden echoed earlier this week.

"We'll do what our players can do," Gruden said.

Bradford appeared to make a seamless transition from the Oklahoma spread.

Sam is just an athlete. Sam can pick up any sport, whether it's a hockey stick, golf club, or whatever, he was just good at it," Spagnuolo said. "Being underneath center, it was not a big deal and I thought our coaches did a real good job with him."

Flacco made the leap from tiny Delaware look small.

"I don't think you can make the assumption that the guy can't do that because so many teams do that," Harbaugh said. "It does put a premium on the (Stanford's) Andrew Lucks of the world where it helps a little bit. It's an advantage a little bit to be in a pro style. We saw specific skills. Release. Quickness. Way more athleticism than you expect to see in guy his size. So we thought he could make the transition.

"Joe himself is really talented. Very tough. Very competitive. He's a courageous guy. He stands in there and takes hits and gets the ball off. You look at those qualities."

Bottom line?

Smart. Tough. Big arm.

But Lombardi says they all add up to intangibles. And he says a lot of that evaluation comes this week. How they carry themselves. How they follow blackboard talk.

"He's got to be the hardest-working guy on your team," Lombardi said. "This guy is going to be the face of your franchise. If you pick him in the top 10, you better make sure he works hard and is going to do the things necessary."

There is no consensus on a consensus. Lombardi says it's not a reach at No. 4 if the guy turns out to be good enough. One scouting service said Thursday all the top quarterback prospects are a reach and the safest picks at No. 4 are any of the defensive ends or Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green.

"You better be sure of the work ethic," Lombardi said.

IN PRAISE OF GRUDEN: Lombardi is sold on Gruden. He spent time around him back in the late '90s when he was the general manager during brother Jon Gruden's head coaching tenure in Oakland.

"He's an outstanding coach. He works hard. What makes Jay appealing is he's been divergent in his thinking," Lombardi said. "In the sense that when you play in all those different leagues he played in (Arena and UFL), you can't always do things you typically do in the NFL. You have to force yourself to think differently and be creative and I think that will certainly happen."

Lombardi, who also helped run the Bill Belichick Browns in the early '90s, has no doubt of the identity of Gruden's quarterback. And he believes he'll revive Carson Palmer's career.

"Who has won a standoff with Mike Brown?" Lombardi asked. "I think (Gruden) will be great. I think once Carson spends some time with him, it will be real good. You're not going to win that battle. That's time tested."

There's a deadline on everything these days. Coaches aren't allowed to talk to players if the lockout hits March 4.

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