Thursday, September 07, 2006

Breaking down the AFC quarterbacks

It always hurts to play in Cincinnati

With the possible exception of Kimo von Oelhoffen, no one does a more thorough job of handicapping AFC quarterbacks than Down and Distance. Now that the teams have made their final cuts and the season is upon us, let's take a spin through the conference and see who's going to be thorwing balls on the field and who's going to be fingering balls on the sidelines. Watch for the NFC edition before this Sunday's games.

Baltimore Ravens
We all know Ravens coach Brian Billick is some sort of quarterback guru, having turned Stoney Case and Chris Redman into perennial Pro Bowlers and Anthony Wright into a freakin' Hall of Famer. But the guru business isn't what it once was in America, and Billick's latest project, Kyle Boller, has a chronic case of two steps forward, two steps back. So Billick is taking a page from other successful gurus in U.S. business managemet and has assigned quarterback development to an outside contractor. Just as IBM discovered it was more cost-effective to farm out laptop production to China, the Ravens have outsourced offensive production to the Tennessee Titans. There's a reason Boller has that dark cloud hanging over his pretty little head: the recent arrival of Steve McNair, who just waltzed into Baltimore and took the starting job that Boller had been butterfingering for the past three years. Not that McNair doesn't deserve a break after spending half the offseason banging on the doors of the Titans' workout facility and shouting at the guard to come unlock the door. (Turns out the Titans had their fingers crossed when they proffered McNair's last contract. Sooprize!) Among the many advantages to giving McNair the job over Boller is that McNair has spent 11 years in the NFL outside the blast radius of Billick's fierce intellect, so no matter how deep the Brain gets his claws into him, there's only so much damage he can do at this stage. And that's why coaches coach, players play and fans get the shaft. At third QB, the Ravens couldn't decide between Brian St. Pierre and Drew Olson, so they cut them both. That's what I like to see.

Buffalo Bills
An embarrassment of riches. While teams like Dallas tiptoe into the season without a proven backup QB, the Bills have three of them. J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb and Craig Nall will compete for the No. 2 slot. The runner-up will be the third-stringer, and whoever is left over will be the starter. Losman, the poor man's Patrick Ramsey, lives on a seesaw, at best. Holcomb, the poor man's Brian Griese, is always a fan favorite until he's sent into the game. And Craig Nall, the rich man's Kliff Kingsbury, received a surprising amount of money to come to Buffalo and make things even more difficult. This is as good a place as any to mention that Bills GM Marv Levy is 81 years old.

Cincinnati Bengals
The long-suffering football fans of Cincinnati will be watching through their fingers all season long as Carson Palmer plays on his surgically repaired knee, because there's nothing behind him on the depth chart. Dangling from the end of the second string is Anthony Wright, who was cut in favor of Chad Hutchinson in Dallas and was less effective than Kyle Boller in Baltimore. The Bengals also have Doug Johnson, because ... there's apparently some law that says you have to have three quarterbacks. You may remember Johnson from such roles as Atlanta's disastrous Plan C the year Michael Vick broke his leg. Nevertheless, he's an improvement over Cincinnati's previous No. 3 QB: Craig Krenzel. Or is he? At least Krenzel "won some games" while he was stumbling around out there for the Bears.

Cleveland Browns
It's a sign that the latest incarnation of the Browns might finally be headed in the right direction that they've quit playing hide-the-salami with quarterbacks they got cheap from the day-old bread bin. Trent Dilfer was a great guy but a bad fit, Jeff Garcia had no business whatsoever wearing an orange helmet (as if anybody does), and there's nothing you can say about Kelly Holcomb that I haven't already said above. Charlie Frye may be young, but these guys aren't going anywhere for another year or so anyway, and besides, the locals absolutely love him. So Romeo Crennel should be applauded for tossing him out there and letting him figure out which way is up. If he actually has Kellen Winslow to throw to for any length of time, all the better, but no one's really counting on that. Maybe Winslow can play center! Behind Frye are Ken Dorsey, who's developed into a perfectly serviceable and reliably non-threatening backup, and Derek Anderson, who I couldn't tell you anything about, even if you were to listen.

Denver Broncos
It's too early to know which of these guys to feel sorry for. On the one hand, you've got Jake Plummer. After six years in the castrating wilderness of Arizona and two wobbly years in Denver, Plummer finally put it together last season to lead the Broncos to their best record since the Elway era, their first playoff victory since the Elway era -- over the defending champions, no less -- and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. His reward? On draft day, his team picked a quarterback in the first round. And it wasn't just a case of "Hey, wow, we couldn't believe this guy was still available." No, the Broncos traded up to get him. Thanks for all your help, Grizzly Adams! On the other hand, you've got Jay Cutler, the aforementioned first-round draft choice. Feel-good story, great player stuck on a lousy college team, shows a lot of character, blah blah blah. Pop quiz: What do Matt Mauck, Bradlee Van Pelt, Jarious Jackson, Brian Griese, Jeff Lewis, Tommy Maddox, Shawn Moore, Todd Ellis and Buddy Funck have in common? All were quarterbacks drafted by the Broncos after 1983, the year John Elway came to Denver (via Baltimore and diaper school). Griese was the only one to become the starter, and oh boy did it mess his ass up. The rest not only couldn't displace the starter, they couldn't displace Gary Kubiak as the backup. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be "heir apparent" in Denver. In the final analysis, the guy to feel bad for is Bradlee Van Pelt. Sorr-ee, Brad-lee.

Houston Texans
For someone who just got an $8 million bonus and a three-year commitment from his team even though a) they had every right to cut him loose, and b) it would have cost them next to nothing to do so, it sure sucks to be David Carr. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft, Carr has spent the bulk of his career being piledriven into the carpet while his linemen shuffle their feet and avoid eye contact. He's had a lot to worry about, but at least he never had to bear the burden of comparison with the other QBs in his draft class. When you're up against Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, Josh McCown and a litter of Rohan Daveys, Kurt Kittners and Seth Burfords, any glint of adequacity will shine like Ultrabrite. This year, the Texans again had the first pick in the draft (which tells you something about how far they've come since 2002). They decided against selecting a quarterback and instead picked up Carr's option through 2008, thus ensuring that he'll heretofore be held liable for not being Matt Leinart, Houston native Vince Young, Jay Cutler or maybe even Tarvaris Jackson. To add insult to the devastating injury that's looming in Carr's future, Houston also passed on Reggie Bush, only to have Domanick Davis' knee go bum. Check this exact space next September as we drool all over Texans rookie quarterback Brady Quinn. With Dave Ragone finally (ra-)gone, backing up Carr this year will be the Favorite Quarterback of Mrs. Down and Distance, Iowa State alumnus Sage Rosenfels. There is as yet no third quarterback, which could have Carr either jumping for joy or weeping softly into his pillow, depending on which way you want to go with that.

Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have been able to carry two placekickers on the roster for the past few seasons because they've only needed two quarterbacks: perennial Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, and perennial Week 17 starter and future Week 16 starter Jim Sorgi. The free-agent signing of Renaissance man Adam Vinatieri, who can kick both field goals and kickoffs, freed up another roster spot, and the Colts brought in Shaun King to audition for No. 3 quarterback. Indy's brain trust ultimately decided that King's on-the-job experience -- falling a game short of the Super Bowl with a Tony Dungy-coached team one year, followed by an embarrassing early exit from the playoffs the next season -- would be, uh, redundant. King was cut at the end of camp, and it's a Manning/Sorgi ticket again in '06. Hey, room for another kicker!

Jacksonville Jaguars
If we're within a month of the NFL season, it must be time for some clown or another to once again suggest that Byron Leftwich should be benched in favor of The Much More Mobile David Garrard. As evidence, he'll cite the two quarterbacks' records as starters in 2005: Leftwich was 7-3 in the Jaguars' first 10 regular season games and 0-1 in the playoffs; Garrard was 5-1 in the final six regular season games, after Leftwich broke his ankle. Here are the teams Leftwich beat: the eventual NFC champion Seahawks; the AFC North champion Bengals; the Super Bowl champion Steelers (thank you, Tommy Maddox); the Jets; the Texans; the Ravens; and the Titans. Here are the teams Leftwich lost to: the 14-2 Colts; the 13-3 Broncos; the Rams (well, OK); and the defending champion Patriots, in Foxboro, in the playoffs. Garrard, meanwhile, beat the Cardinals, Browns, 49ers, Texans and Titans and lost to the Colts. Put me in there, and I'll do pretty good against the Cards, Browns, 49ers, Texans and Titans. Well, not me, exactly, but the NFL equivalent of me, which is David Garrard. The third-stringer is Quinn Gray, making the Jaguars the first team with three African-American quarterbacks, which is pretty cool. Even cooler is that we've gotten to the point that it's not really a big deal.

Kansas City Chiefs
What's interesting about Trent Green is that even though it seems like he's been around absolutely forever, there's no evidence of it. He was drafted in 1993 but threw only one pass through 1997, then all of a sudden he was a starter and was throwing for like 4,000 yards a year. The guy's got so much gray, he looks like Daryle Lamonica, yet he began the season just 49th in career passing yards. What's also interesting is that with all the trouble the Chiefs have had over the past several years, Green has largely ecaped blame. I'm not saying he should be blamed, but he's the quarterback. Getting blamed is what you do. Green has a couple good years left in him, so he's got nothing to worry about. In the meantime, Kansas City is grooming his successor, Brodie Croyle, who is not Brady Quinn, though for the longest time I didn't know the difference. Sandwiched between the two on the depth chart is Damon Huard, the uglier of the Huard brothers. He's not being groomed for anything.

Miami Dolphins
People have finally come to realize that although Daunte Culpepper was horrid in the first two games of 2005, when he was still with Minnesota, he played much better from the third game on, right up until the Panthers crippled him in Week 8. Go back and look at the film, and it becomes clear what happened. Culpepper had lost his offensive coordinator, his top receiver, and his All-Pro center before the season began, but nobody told him. He was throwing those passes out there like always, but for some reason it was Travis Taylor or some other clown running around on the other end instead of Randy Moss. Once Culpepper figured this out, he got better. That's my theory anyway. So blame Mike Tice. Again. Culpepper wound up being traded to the Dolphins, less for his performance on the field than for his performance on Lake Minnetonka. In Miami, he gets a fresh start on a rebuilt knee. The reduced mobility could be a problem, or it could not, but whatever happens, his job is safe. I mean, that's Joey Harrington with the clipboard back there. (You may not have recognized him because he's begun sporting Paige Davis' haircut.) And Cleo Lemon sure as hell is no threat.

New England Patriots
After putting up big, big numbers when he had to last year, Tom Brady erased any doubt that he's the best quarterback in the National Football League. As such, it's awfully tempting to say he's not in any danger of losing his job -- but he plays for the New England Patriots, and Bill Belichick will cut anyone at any time. He'll cut rookies, he'll cut veterans, he'll cut stars, he'll cut scrubs, he'll cut his own throat just to teach you a lesson. Every year, a high-profile Patriot (e.g. Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law) gets made an example of. This year it's Deion Branch, MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX and long Brady's No. 1 target. I asked Brady this last year, and I'll ask him again: A couple years back, you took less money than you could have demanded so that the team would have more cap room for other guys. When do you suppose they'll start using that cap room on other guys? Oh, I kid! Branch has a contract; he, not the team, is the one refusing to honor it. I'm sure Brady is perfectly safe. ... But the Patriots have been giving Matt Cassel more playing time than he ever dreamed of in college. Watch yourself out there, Tommy. It'd be a shame if anything were to ... happen to you.

New York Jets
Ten years from now, during a Sunday Night Football game between the New York Jets and the Los Angeles Ravens (oh, wouldn't that be poetic?), the beloved, newly retired quarterback who returned the Jets to glory in the mid-'00s will weave up to sideline reporter Raven Symone and demand a little sugar. But will it be Chad Pennington, Patrick Ramsey or Kellen Clemens? Fragile chew toy Pennington is coming off his second major arm injury in as many years and continues to test Down and Distance's pet theory that he's considered a star for no other reason than that he plays in New York. Well, near New York. Enter Ramsey, who as a Redskin endured vicious beatings on the field under Steve Spurrier and off it under Joe Gibbs. The Jets acquired him from Washington for a sixth-round pick. Just four years ago, Ramsey was a first-round pick -- and perhaps the strangest first-round quarterback selection of the past decade. I've seen teams pick bad quarterbacks in the first round (Akili Smith, Jim Druckenmiller). I've seen teams pick average quarterbacks way too high in the first round (Joey Harrington, Tim Couch). I've seen teams pick fruitcakes and psychopaths in the first round (Cade McNown, Ryan Leaf). But Patrick Ramsey is the first quarterback I've ever seen who was drafted in the first round even though he didn't have first-round talent and, most important, even though no one with the team that drafted him seemed to want him. Spurrier certainly didn't. He wanted his former Florida guys, Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews, even though Wuerffel had already bombed out of the NFL and Matthews was headed in that direction. It was rumored that Dan Snyder was behind the pick, but he didn't seem terribly enthralled with Ramsey, either. When Gibbs came to town, he benched Ramsey, played a gimpy Mark Brunell as long as possible, eventually declared Ramsey the starter in 2005, and then took away the job for good when Ramsey suffered a not-season-ending injury in the second quarter of Week 1. Pennington will open the season as the starter, but Ramsey will play at some point, because these are the Jets and every quarterback gets playing time whether he deserves it or not. That leaves us with Clemens, a second-round pick out of Oregon. The Jets media were positively over the moon about this guy. One word of caution for Gang Green: Oregon.

Oakland Raiders
Aaron Brooks is Al Davis' kind of quarterback, one with a great big arm who isn't afraid to wind up and throw the ball as far as he can. If only he had any idea where it was going to come down, he might be the next Jay Schroeder. Randy Moss was so impressed with what he saw of Brooks in the preseason that he recommended the Raiders sign Jeff George, who had been out of the NFL for five years (and out of football even longer than that). George lasted all of five days in camp, so it's back to Brooks. Andrew Walter got a long look in the preseason and will probably get a longer one in the regular season once Oakland sinks far enough into the toilet. And Marques Tuiasosopo is now farther away from the starting job than at any previous point in his five meaningless years in the league.

Pittsburgh Steelers
It's clear now that Ben Roethlisberger is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, because he's bitching about "respect" and vowing to "prove everyone wrong." It works like this: The Steelers win the Super Bowl on the strength of their running game, their defense and a nifty trick play. Roethlisberger has a generally ugly game (9-for-21, 123 yards, no TDs, two interceptions), but it doesn't really matter when all's said and done. After the game, he proceeds to moon in the locker room over how he should have "done more" to help his team. Coming back for 2006, he tells Sports Illustrated that after crapping on the carpet at Ford Field, he now has something to prove. The Cult of Ben swoons. So intense! So driven! Peeyoo. Get a grip. You sound like you're 12. In more ways than one. On the other hand, it's comforting to see Big Ben able to say anything after having turned his face into a maraca on Second Avenue near 10th Street. I'm not going to lecture him about the importance of wearing a helmet while overcompensating around town on a crotch-rocket. There are entire non-profit organizations dedicated to that sort of thing. I will berate him, however, for his cavalier attitude toward appendix health. People are counting on you, man. Think! With Roethlisberger on a clear-liquid diet, the Steelers open the season with Charlie Batch at quarterback. Last year Tommy Maddox was the QB all Pittsburgh lived in fear of, while Batch was the lesser of two evils. Now Maddox is gone, and Batch is the only other quarterback on the 53-man roster. Sometimes, there's no way you can win. Curiously, the Steelers kept two QBs on the taxi squad: Omar Jacobs (heh!) and Brian St. Pierre (haw!).

San Diego Chargers
The real problem with Philip Rivers isn't that he's inexperienced. It's that he doesn't look like a professional football player as much as the Republican candidate for Wyandotte County Commissioner. Rivers became the Chargers' starting quarterback after Drew Brees was cheerfully encouraged to take his bad shoulder and his winning attitude somewhere else. It was an ugly situation, but it wasn't Rivers' fault. It might actually have been Brees' fault. If he hadn't spent his first three years in the league defining "average" downward, the Chargers never would have felt compelled to draft Eli Manning, trade him for Rivers and doom us all to two years of awkward press conferences. Be that as it may, the Chargers are now Rivers' team, and the organization is demonstating that it's fully committed to ... whoops! It says here that San Diego used its third-round pick this year on Charlie Whitehurst of Clemson. "We've got full faith in you, Phil. Could you, ah, bring the new kid up to speed?"

Tennessee Titans
The Titans enter another(!) rebuilding year with a mismatched set of luggage at the quarterback position: a former star (Kerry Collins), a presumptive future star (Vince Young), and a former presumptive future star (Billy Volek). When the preseason began, it was a two-man race. Volek was the loyal backup who patiently waited his turn and even turned down the chance to start elsewhere so he could re-sign with the Titans. Young is the electrifying rookie who led Texas to the national championship before being drafted to play under Matt Leinart's old coach in Tennessee. By the end of preseason, however, the answer to the "Volek or Young?" turned out to be "Kerry Collins." So expect the veteran Collins, a good soldier but a fading talent, to start until the Titans are mathematically eliminated (Week 7), then turn things over to young Young. Volek, his patience and loyalty rewarded the way patience and loyalty are always rewarded in pro sports, will ride the bench for the rest of his life. Unless Pacman Jones shoots Collins to death. And Young. In that scenario, Volek might have a shot at beating out Jeff Blake for the job.

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