Sunday, September 10, 2006

Breaking down the NFC quarterbacks


With the possible exception of Lawrence Taylor, no one does a more thorough job of handicapping NFC 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 throwing balls on the field and who's going to be fingering balls on the sidelines. Don't forget to check out the AFC edition.

Arizona Cardinals
Some Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are destined to win still more Super Bowls (see Brady, Tom). Some Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are destined to spend the rest of their careers moving to progressively worse teams, teaching other guys how to play quarterback (see Dilfer, Trent). So it is that Kurt Warner now lives in Arizona (where, just FYI, the largest supermarket chain appears to be Bashas'). Warner will undoubtedly open the season as the starter but will give way sooner rather than later to rookie Matt Leinart, this year's nominee for young quarterback most likely to appear on the Web in a drunken stupor (which, also FYI, is no way for a new daddy to act). However, Dennis Green treats quarterbacks like disposable razors, so there's a good chance Warner will take back the starting role at least once this fall. (Remember, Green once tried to start Dan Marino's bones ahead of a young Daunte Culpepper.) John Navarre, who has demonstrated in sporadic action the past two years that the broad side of a barn is all he can hit, will probably get his shots, too. The last one standing gets to be the starter in the 2007 opener.

Atlanta Falcons
A Quarterback Controversy of One. Observers tell us that for the third consecutive year, "this is the year that Michael Vick needs to get it together and learn to play like an NFL quarterback, or the Falcons won't be legitimate contenders." That's one way to look at it. But if the Falcons make the playoffs -- and they play in the NFC, for Pete's sake, so it's not like I'm talking crazy here -- you'd better lay in an extra supply of Internet, because the one we have will fill up quickly with I-told-you-so's from Atlanta and environs. Vick won't be responsible for the (at this point purely hypothetical) playoff run in any case, but try telling that to falconzfan1134. Count me among those who say the "haters" might as well stand down because Vick is never going to learn to "play like an NFL quarterback." He's still the most exciting slot receiver in football; it's just too bad the Falcons' QB can't get him the ball. The backup quarterback is Matt Schaub, who, depending on whom you ask, might be Atlanta's latest Brett Favre or its latest David Archer. Both of those men also showed promise as the Falcons' second-stringer. Favre, of course, was expendable because Atlanta already had a Pro Bowl-caliber leader in Chris Miller, so he was traded in 1992 to the Packers, where he had a couple good years. Archer, on the other hand, backed up Steve Bartkowski ably, took over as the starter in 1985, stunk, and drifted out of the league. (Billy Volek, take heed.) The third-stringer is rookie D.J. Shockley, a hometown hero who will enjoy it while it lasts.

Carolina Panthers
Wow. Didn't see this coming. The Panthers' starter is Jake Delhomme. No argument there. He talka kinda funny (actual headline on Cajun up with Jake: Let's geaux), but hoo-wee, he t'row dat ball like a mudda -- and twice a year he gets to remind the New Orleans Saints that they had this guy sitting on their bench for years behind the likes of Billy Joe Hobert, Billy Joe Tolliver, Billy Joe Wuerffel and Aaron Brooks. However, I just assumed that when Carolina broke camp, the No. 2 quarterback would be Stefan LeFors, just two years out of college and ready to go Tom Brady all over your ass, and that the No. 3 would be Chris Weinke, just five years out of college and already a grandfather of three. Well, Carolina went and t'rew us all a curve: Weinke, whose only significant playing time coughed up a 1-15 season and destroyed all that George Siefert once stood for, is the backup. The backup. LeFors has been cut, and the Panthers go into the season with only two QBs. Fine. In three years, when LeFors is playing the Delhomme role, and his new team has become the 2003 Panthers, and the Panthers are the Saints, Down and Distance will be laughing its ass off. And trying to figure out that last sentence. In the meantime, the Panthers win Super Bowl XLI, and no one cares what I think.

Chicago Bears
Coming into the 2006 preseason, the biggest question about Chicago's offense was the same as it was in the 2005 preseason: Can Rex Grossman, the Precious China Doll of the Monsters of the Midway, stay healthy for the whole season? Or half the season? Or three games? After a few exhibition games in which Grossman underthrew half his passes and overthrew the rest, the question quickly became whether Bears fans wouldn't prefer that Grossman break another leg. Or two. If Grossman's backup was still Kyle Orton, those fans might keep their opinions to themselves. Orton's performance in relief last year was so dreadful that the natives would have been screaming for his head if not for two things. First, the Bears won most of his games on defense and luck. Second, he wasn't Alex Smith. The backup QB this year, however, is Brian Griese, the rich man's Kelly Holcomb. A couple dandy showings in the preseason, and suddenly Griese is the most popular guy in town. Just like he was in Denver, Miami and Tampa. That the Bears have a brewing quarterback controversy is not surprising. The team hasn't had anything resembling a consistent, capable starter since, maybe, Jim Harbaugh in the early 1990s. In the intervening 15 years, they've wheeled out the league's motliest revue of noodle arms, tired legs, empty heads and fused spines. Steve Walsh. Erik Kramer. Dave Krieg. Shane Matthews. Cade McNown. Jim Miller. Kordell Stewart(!). Chad Hutchinson. Craig Krenzel. Orton. Orton. Orton. And of course Orton, who now lies in wait at the bottom of the depth chart for Grossman's inevitable broken ankle and Griese's inevitable hyperextended knee.

Dallas Cowboys
Having watched his team spin its wheels for two seasons, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hopes to gain traction by having Drew Bledsoe thrown under them. To that end, he imported Terrell Owens and asked Bill Parcells to graft him onto the Frankenstein's monster he's continually assembling and reassembling out of other people's discards (e.g. Eddie George, Anthony Thomas), other people's troublemakers (Owens, Joey Galloway), and his own discards and troublemakers (Vinny Testaverde, Drew Bledsoe, Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn and, really, Bill Parcells). Dallas will begin the season, but not end it, with Bledsoe under center. T.O. has taken over for Johnson at the key position of Disgruntled Wideout, and from there should begin lobbying for backup QB Tony Romo, something of a Parcells favorite, in or around the season's 10th week. The Cowboys have officially given up on Drew Henson (who had essentially been a free agent without the freedom since Parcells first laid eyes on him) and at present are carrying only two quarterbacks. That will change when the O-line finally gets Bledsoe killed for good. I hear Jeff George is available.

Detroit Lions
Would it be ridiculous to call Jon Kitna the perfect quarterback? Well, he was the perfect quarterback to lead the Bengals for a season while they gave Carson Palmer time to develop. He was also the perfect quarterback for the Bengals to have on the bench as insurance once Palmer took over as the starter. And he'd be the perfect quarterback for the Lions if they could just go back in time and draft Carson Palmer. The Lions also have Josh McCown, whose confidence should be pretty well shot after two years as Dennis Green's yo-yo, and Dan Orlovsky, who was able to get into only two games last year despite sharing the depth chart with both Joey Harrington and Jeff Garcia.

Green Bay Packers
Brett Favre spent another offseason playing slap-and-tickle with Packer Nation before making the same decision he always does: to come back for "one" more season. You can't question the man's grit, but after Favre declared that Green Bay has assembled "the most talented team that I've been a part of as a whole," feel free to question his honesty and/or cognition. Against San Diego in the first series of the Packers' first preseason game of 2006, Favre looked less like the quarterback of a contender than an old lady trying to dodge a purse-snatcher. Make that failing to dodge a purse-snatcher. He's said all along that he'll retire when the game isn't fun anymore, and this could be the year scientists learn exactly how many blows to the head it takes to drain all the fun out of football. Whenever Favre does leave -- and make no mistake, it will be his decision -- the Aaron Rodgers era can begin. Or can it? New Packers coach Mike McCarthy's previous job was offensive coordinator in San Francisco, where presumably he was part of the team that opted to take Alex Smith instead of Rodgers in the 2005 draft. Let that sink in for a minute. Now, you decide which is more troubling for Packer fans: That their quarterback of the future might be worse than Alex Smith, or that their new head coach was the guy responsible for the 49ers' offense in 2005. Behind Rodgers is Ingle Martin, famous for losing his starting job to a freshman when he was at Florida, then transferring to Furman. All or nothing, eh, Ingle?

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings' season hinges on which nugget of Brad Johnson trivia proves most pertinent: 1. Johnson is the only NFC quarterback to win a Super Bowl in the 21st century. 2. Johnson turns 38 two days after the Vikings' season opener. 3. Johnson has been benched in favor of both Jeff George and Brian Griese in the past six seasons. Depending on how that shakes out, Minnesota has in reserve the intriguing Tarvaris Jackson, on whom they used a second-round pick even though no one else was in any hurry to take him, and Brooks Bollinger, who lost a roster slot with the Jets through no real fault of his own. Bollinger's signing pushed J.T. O'Sullivan off the roster. That's assuming "J.T. O'Sullivan" is a real person at all and not that new sports bar at the shopping mall.

New Orleans Saints
Damn. You turn your back for an offseason and suddenly New Orleans has Drew Brees, the Saints' first bona fide star quarerback since ... well ... Double damn. Has New Orleans ever had a star quarterback? Forget Aaron Brooks, the Saints' QB for the past five years. Before the 2005 season, Pro Football Prospectus made the convincing argument that Brooks is an average quarterback masquerading as a star. Expect that to be proved this year in Oakland. As you dig around even deeper into Saints history, you realize what a cesspool the quarterback position has been. Many times, the team had the wrong guy calling signals. Other times they had the right guy, but they had him a few years too early or too late. Kerry Collins, for example, roared through town on a bender between his "drunk"-"racist"-"quitter" flameout in Carolina and his redemption in New York. New Orleans was where Heath Shuler endured a final season that was even uglier than Ryan Leaf's first. Ken Stabler, Richard Todd, Jim Everett and Jeff Blake all passed through the Big Easy on their way to retirement. Wade Wilson, the Billy Joes (Tolliver and Hobert) and Steve Walsh all passed through on their way to nowhere in particular. Bobby Hebert? Only if USFL stardom counts. Jake Delhomme? See the Carolina Panthers entry above for the rogues' gallery of clucks who stood in the pocket for the Saints while Delhomme picked his nose on the sideline. So, no, he doesn't count. You pretty much have to go all the way back to Archie Manning's tenure, 1971-82, to find something like a star. But even then: Can you be considered a star if you throw 36% more interceptions (156) than touchdowns (115)? Are you a star if your team never gets to the playoffs? Archie Manning had a hell of a college career, was a game and gutsy player as a pro, and is a damn fine human being, but he may not fit the definition of "star" for the purposes of our discussion. Bitchin' DNA, though! Now let's bring this back to the 21st century. Brees has become something of a folk hero by the simple fact of his willingness to come play for a city that had been kicked in the crotch by nature and nurture, God and government. And Saints owner Tom Benson. Brees was free to sign with the Saints because San Diego finally balled up the nerve to cut the cord after he hurt his shoulder in last year's meaningless final regular season game. How far the Saints go this year depends on how well Brees has recovered from the injury. Yeah, right. Brees and Reggie Bush may be a strong nucleus for a bright future (mixed metaphor), but it'll take more than these two to move the needle very far this season. And if Brees can't go? Next in line is Jamie Martin, who is kind of like Brett Favre, in that they are both 36 years old, both went to smaller schools, and both are listed on the roster as quarterbacks. If it weren't for Favre's Super Bowl ring, eight Pro Bowl appearances, 400 touchdowns, 53,000 passing yards and 223 consecutive starts, they'd be like twins. The Saints' third QB might have been Adrian McPherson, except he got run over by a golf cart driven by a man in a raccoon suit during pregame warmups.

New York Giants
If you're in one of those fantasy football leagues with more than, say, eight teams, someone probably chose Eli Manning on purpose. Someone needs his (or her!) head examined. That's not to say Manning is a bad player, because he isn't. He also isn't his brother. Every one of us needs to look deep inside ourselves and decide what we really believe: Is the real Eli Manning the guy who had 14 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions in the first half of last season? Or the one who had 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in the second half of last season? Take a wild guess which side I come down on: The dark side. On the bright side, look who's been elevated to No. 2 on the Giants' depth chart: Jared Lorenzen! J-Lo's weight is still charitably listed at 285, but if he's an ounce under 300, I'll eat my hat. If he hasn't gotten to it already. Tim Hasselbeck, meanwhile, has been kicked down to the third string after signing something like a four-year contract that all but guaranteed he'd never start. You've got to love that competitive fire. See, Hasselbeck -- whose brother just started in the Super Bowl -- needed to stay in New York because his wife is co-host of The View. And if you think he'll ever hear the end of it in the locker room, get in line behind Eli Manning's fantasy owner for one o' them head examinations.

Philadelphia Eagles
Of course the starter is Donovan McNabb, who joined the ranks of the elite by internalizing the lesson Steve Young eventually learned, Daunte Culpepper will now be forced to learn, and Michael Vick has shown no willingness to learn. Namely, that an "athletic quarterback" is a quarterback first and an "athlete" second. Too much "athleticism," which I dare you to define, and a guy's asking to have his head lopped off, so expect McNabb to wait even longer in the pocket before pulling the ball down and taking off. But enough about Donovan McNabb. Let's talk about T.O.! The Eagles' 2005 season fell apart for a number of reasons: McNabb's injuries, David Akers' injuries, Brian Westbrook's injuries. But it was the 24/7 Me-Ring Circus that is Terrell Owens that turned it into Dunkirk. Owens had spent the offseason accusing McNabb of choking in the Super Bowl, then, seven games into the season, declared that the 4-3 Eagles would be undefeated if their quarterback had been Brett Favre (who at the time was coming off a five-interception game). Owens was soon gone, but then again, so was McNabb, who went out with a "sports hernia," which ... if you're a boy, you don't want to know the details. That left the season in the hands of Mike McMahon and Koy Detmer, both of whom were various flavors of awful before combining for a 14.3 passer rating in a Monday night loss to Seattle that embarrassed Philadelphians all the way back to Ben Franklin. At season's end, McMahon followed Brad Childress to Minnesota, only to be cut there, while Detmer, who had been with the Eagles even longer than McNabb, was waived bye-bye. In their place this year are Jeff Garcia and, believe it or not, A.J. Feeley. First, Garcia: In the mucho macho world of pro football, there are few things worse than calling a guy a jake, which is what Owens did to McNabb in Philadelphia. One of those few things, however, is calling him a gay, which is what Owens did to Garcia in San Francisco. Garcia hasn't done much since leaving the 49ers. He spent a dreadful 2004 not fitting in with what Cleveland was doing, then was brought to Detroit by Steve Mariucci in 2005 to destroy what was left of Joey Harrington's confidence. Mariucci was out before the end of the season and now reads cue cards on NFL Network (not very well, I might add). Garcia was gone not much later and now finds himself in Philadelphia, where he might not be much of a backup QB, but will serve to remind McNabb that he wasn't the first guy to get backstabbed by Terrell Owens. (The Cowboys come to town in Week 5, and by then Drew Bledsoe should be ready to join the support group.) As for Feeley: Eagles fans remember 2002, when McNabb was injured in the ninth game and Detmer in the 10th, leaving the season in Feeley's soft young hands. He kept the Eagles in contention and handed the keys back to McNabb for the playoffs. His Scott Mitchell-esque adequacity earned him a contract offer from the Dolphins. Failing there, he was dealt to the Chargers for the immortal Cleo Lemon. San Diego cut him in late August, and he has returned to the role he was born to play: third-string quarterback for the Eagles. Welcome home, A.J. Welcome home.

San Francisco 49ers
What's left to say about Alex Smith, really? He's a nice kid, and it would be a shame if he can't get pointed in the right direction. The 49ers have brought in Trent Dilfer to mentor Smith. If that doesn't work, electric shocks and water hoses might be their only option left. Unlike a lot of teams this year, the 49ers will carry three quarterbacks, and run a good chance of having to use them all. The No. 3 is Shaun Hill, who spent the first four years of his career with Minnesota. Out of 66 total games in those four years (64 regular seaon, two playoff), he spent 56 inactive as the third quarterback and 10 as the backup, and he saw action in exactly one game: He knelt down twice to run out the clock in the 2005 season finale. Makes Cody Pickett look like George Blanda.

Seattle Seahawks
There doesn't appear to be much doubt left that Matt Hasselbeck is the best quarterback in the NFC. That's meant to be praise. I mean, it's not Hasselbeck's fault that the majority of the other starting quarterbacks in the conference are older than dirt (B. Johnson, B. Favre, D. Bledsoe), greener than grass (A. Smith, R. Grossman), has-beens (M. Brunell, K. Warner), never-weres (J. Kitna), or now living in Miami (D. Culpepper, J. Harrington). Hasselbeck capped his breakout season last year with an up-and-down Super Bowl that managed to capture in one single play the essence of all that is Seattle Seahawky. Down 14-10 in the fourth quarter and still very much in the game, Hasselbeck was intercepted near the goal line by Ike Taylor. Ouch! Then he ran down Taylor and tackled him. Redemption! Then he was penalized for ... tackling without prior approval, maybe? Bogus! And yet: Typical! Anyway, Hasselbeck should be coming into the season good and angry, and if he isn't, I got no sympathy for him. Here's someone else I got no sympathy for: Seneca Wallace. He's a dynamic player, but dynamism does nothing for him or his team so long as the dynamo is nailed to the bench. (Dy-no-miiite!) Wallace could be cavorting on magazine covers and smiling on cereal boxes from here to Ames, Iowa, if he'd just get his ass in the slot like Antwaan Randle El did. Yet Wallace continues to play that I'm-a-quarterback-and-that's-what-I-expect-to-be game. You know, the game that made a fool out of Kordell Stewart and cost Eric Crouch a whole lot of rupees? That one. Randle El didn't demand that the Steelers play to his lifelong dreams rather than his skill set, and look what happened to him: He threw a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. Matt Jones switched to wideout, and now he's the Jaguars' No. 1 receiver rather than, say, their No. 2 quarterback. Seneca, we love you. We're married to a lady with not one but two degrees from Iowa State. We're proud of you. Go catch the damn ball. The final Seattle quarterback is rookie David Greene. With Hasselbeck's bald head up there in the front of the bus, I have no idea why Seattle burned a third-rounder on this dude, swell as he may be.

St. Louis Rams
After wrestling Kurt Warner for the better (or worse) part of two years for the right to be the Rams' starting quarterback, Marc Bulger finally claimed the position for good at the beginning of the 2004 season, at the precise moment when being the Rams' starting quarterback quit being something to aspire to. Though the Rams went to the playoffs that year, it was only because someone had to. Last year, the team returned to its mid-'90s roots at 6-10, and Bulger proved he truly was Warner's heir by missing eight games because of injury. The Rams' 2005 season may have died the night they blew a 17-point lead in Indianapolis, but the last rites were administered sometime in July. Bulger is healthy again, which is fantastic, because the backup is Gus Frerotte. You knew he was going to turn up somewhere. After that, it's just Ryan Fitzpatrick. Who? Think Brooks Bollinger, except wearing an Ivy League necktie.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All right, all right. I was wrong, but so was everybody else. Chris Simms is a legitimate NFL starting quarterback, not just a pretty-boy choke artist. My bad. What with Simms firing that cannon arm of his this-a-way and that, the Manning brothers running wind sprints down Madison Avenue, and Brian Griese threatening to bring down another franchise in Chicago, it's a surprise no one's camped out on Neil Lomax's doorstep asking if his boy can come out and play. Tampa Bay's coach remains Jon Gruden, so you'd expect to find at least one creaky old fart backing up the youthful Simms, but you'd be wrong. (We're full of surprises today.) The second-stringer is Tim Rattay, who got dicked by San Francisco for Alex Smith's sake (talk about bum luck), and the third-stringer is another one of those MAC quarterbacks, Bruce Gradkowski, who looked like a stone-cold superstar in the preseason ... playing against guys who got cut the day after the last game.

Washington Redskins
After injuries made him look like a dainty, over-the-hill fool in 2004, Mark Brunell had something to prove in 2005: that at age 35 he wasn't too old to play quarterback in the NFL. He led Washington to the playoffs, so ... Mission Accomplished! Now Brunell is about to turn 36, which we all agree is too old for him to play quarterback in the NFL. I assume Joe Gibbs will give Brunell more time to fail this year than Patrick Ramsey got last year (all of 19 minutes). At some point, though, the hook will come out, and Jason Campbell, last year's first-round draft pick, will make his debut. What about Todd Collins, ostensibly the No. 2 QB on the Redskins' depth chart? Well, what about him? If I was still picking up game checks after having thrown 27 passes in eight years, I wouldn't draw attention to myself, either.

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