Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Who gets Manning's monkey?

Hey, hey, we're the conference runners-up!

Peyton Manning finally won the Super Bowl, so the search is on for the next NFL quarterback who "just can't win the big one." And, yes, it must indeed be a quarterback. Edgerrin James played like hell in those Colts playoff losses, too, but no one ever accused him of having a monkey on his back. Kicker Mike Vanderjagt flat-out killed the Colts' 2005 season when he went wide right vs. Pittsburgh, but for the most part he escaped blame. (And now that James is in Arizona and Vanderjagt is unemployed, Indy finally claims a ring. Think about that.) They and everyone else gets a pass because when a team fails to win the Super Bowl year after year, it gets laid on only two people: the head coach and the quarterback. But mostly the quarterback.

Following Sunday's game, there are just seven active NFL quarterbacks who have won immunity by winning a ring. Four of them are starters: Manning, Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger (who demonstrated in Super Bowl XL that you don't even have to play particularly well; you just have to win). Two are backups: Trent Dilfer and Kurt Warner. The last one is Brad Johnson, and who knows what the hell is up with him. That leaves dozens of others who ought to be ashamed of themselves every time they look in the mirror. But who should be the most ashamed? To determine that, we have to look at what exactly makes a quarterback a Quarterback Who Can't Win The Big One.

There can only be one -- well, maybe two -- at a time. The title of QBWCWTBO is like a peerage, passed from one quarterback to another throughout the Super Bowl era. Quarterback Zero here is, of course, Fran Tarkenton. His Vikings made the Super Bowl three times in four years and were outscored 72-27. After Tarkenton came Dan Fouts, who lost two AFC Championship Games and never made the Super Bowl. As Fouts' Chargers declined, Dan Marino became the poster boy for title-less futility. Marino lost the Super Bowl in just his second season and then never made it back, despite setting every QB record that matters (except one!). In the late 1980s, Marino shared the title with John Elway, who lost three Super Bowls. Eventually people tired of them both and turned their attention first to Steve Young and then to Favre. Young won a ring in 1994, Favre in 1996. Then Elway came back from the dead and won in 1997 and '98. Marino retired, and soon it was all on Manning.

It has to be a really good quarterback. This is where the QBWCWTBO label really stings. No one ever accuses Gus Frerotte of being unable to win the big one, because he can't even be counted on to win the little ones. And while guys like Neil O'Donnell and Kerry Collins and Jake Delhomme have made it to the Super Bowl, no one pretends their failure to win it defined their careers. Hell, they got credit just for making the Super Bowl. But Tarkenton, Fouts, Marino and Manning put up enormous numbers. Young was the highest-rated passer since the Hundred Years War. Favre was a three-time MVP. They got criticized because people expected "so much more" from them. This is why it has to drive Marino just butterball-batshit crazy to see Boomer Esiason's smug ass sitting across from him on the CBS set every Sunday. Each lost his only Super Bowl -- but no one rides Boomer for it because Boomer just wasn't as good as Marino.

The quarterback has to play for a good team. This is another reason why the Tony Easons and Chris Chandlers and Stan Humphrieseseses of the league get a pass. Their one shot at a ring was just that: one shot. Humphries' Chargers, Eason's Patriots and Chandler's Falcons were generally mediocre teams for whom everything just fell into place for one season. But Marino's Dolphins made the playoffs in 10 of his 16 years as their starter (he was hurt one year). Young's 49ers and Favre's Packers made the playoffs (and lost to the Cowboys) year after year. And Manning's Colts were the winningest team of the 2000s.

Jim Kelly gets a pass. I don't know why this is, but it just is. The Bills lost four straight Super Bowls, and he was QB for three of them, and yet the word always applied to Kelly is "frustration" not "choking."

With these guidelines in mind, let's run down the 10 NFL quarterbacks most likely to inherit the heavy, heavy mantle that Manning just sloughed onto the turf in Miami ... er, South Florida. I'm not saying these poor bastards should inherit it, just that they're the ones most likely to be saddled with the loser's rep:

1. Donovan McNabb
Pro: Lost Super Bowl, possibly because he was gassed. Lost three NFC Championship Games. The Chunky Soup Factor.
Con: Injured often. Health is the critical difference between being the QBWCWTBO and being Chad Pennington.

2. Steve McNair
Pro: Lost Super Bowl. Lost AFC Championship Game. Lost in divisional round despite No. 1 seed in 2000 and No. 2 seed in 2006. Won co-MVP award in 2003. Can no longer hide behind Manning.
Con: Lost two years to Tennessee's cap crash. It's more fun to blame this year's loss on Brian Billick.

3. Matt Hasselbeck
Pro: Lost Super Bowl. "We want the ball, and we're going to score!" Lost at home to 8-8 team in 2004 playoffs. The Chunky Soup Factor.
Con: Seattle's problems usually blamed on Mike Holmgren, who, paradoxically, has won the big one.

4. Michael Vick
Pro: Near-Manning-level hype. Lost NFC Championship Game. Alleged disinterest in stepping up his game. Might be the reason his team is mediocre.
Con: Regardless of whose fault it is, team is mediocre.

5. Drew Brees
Pro: Lost NFC Championship Game with Saints. Playoff flameout with Chargers. Runner-up for MVP. Good guy, which makes him a target.
Con: Saints far exceeded expectations. Chargers' loss blamed on Marty Schottenheimer, the dean of Coaches Who Can't Win The Big One. No one hates him like they hated Marino, then Manning.

6. Carson Palmer
Pro: Big, big, big numbers. Is a No. 1 draft pick.
Con: Plays on a team full of cons. Mediocre team has yet to prove it can make playoffs consistently.

7. Daunte Culpepper
Pro: Lost NFC Championship Game in spectacular fashion in 2000. Has put up huge numbers.
Con: Huge numbers might have said more about the talent around him than about him. Now on a Miami team stuck in neutral. Bum knee.

8. Eli Manning
Pro: Got beaten like an old rug in playoffs two consecutive years. Is a No. 1 draft pick. Is a Manning.
Con: On a team full of underachievers, loudmouths, egotists and asshats, it's hard to fit just one guy for goat horns.

9. Trent Green
Pro: Years and years in a high-powered offense with little to show for it. Two early playoff exits.
Con: Got hurt in 1999 and watched Warner go all the way. Herm Edwards now his coach.

10. Rex Grossman
Pro: Just lost the big one.
Con: Just isn't a very good QB.

HEY, WHAT ABOUT THE SUPER BOWL? Don't worry. Down and Distance is busily assembling our annual Super Bowl Play-by-Playlooza. Coming soon!

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