NFL star search: the hunt for a quality quarterback

Sports Columnist
Thursday, October 27, 2011

The NFL quarterback. He’s synonymous with leadership, and is almost always the figurehead for his franchise. The man who takes a chunk of responsibility for his team’s fortunes, whether deserved or not. The other thing about the quarterback is that, besides kickers and punters, he tends to have the longest career.

It’s a pretty popular storyline this year that we have entered a “golden age of quarterbacking.” Defenses are getting lit up. So the quarterback talent level must have reached staggering new heights, right?

Well, no. That’s what makes the current quarterback phenomena so interesting.

Of the NFL’s 32 teams, a staggering 13 currently start quarterbacks who were not the team’s starter last year. On top of that, four of these guys are rookies, an almost unheard of ratio in the pool of first-year starters. But why now? Why the sudden instability in the quarterback market? Some of it can be credited to injuries to regular starters like Peyton Manning, Sam Bradford and the immortal Chad Henne, but there is still another reason.

There simply aren’t enough franchise-caliber quarterbacks in the NFL. Every team is burning through their revolving door of players, desperately looking for the guy that will stick. If you think your team can win right now, you go out and a get a proven veteran. Sometimes this works, like it did for the Arizona Cardinals with Kurt Warner or the Minnesota Vikings with Brett Favre in 2009. Other times, it backfires horribly, like with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ signing of Luke McCown or any team that has acquired Donovan McNabb since his Philadelphia Eagles days.

If you are stuck at rock bottom and have some time before your team will be a serious contender, the other option is to go young and hope you can get a guy who will be around for a while and become an institution for your franchise. Examples here include Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Phillip Rivers and even Manning.

The point to all of this is that, at the end of the day, not all of these guys have the talent to be legitimate NFL quarterbacks. Personally, I think there are only eight quarterbacks playing right now that are proven guys: Manning, Rodgers, Rivers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Tony Romo. I wouldn’t hesitate to give any of these guys four-year extensions, because even if any of them are injury-prone or entering the twilight of their careers, the impact that they would have on the game is clear and tangible.

There are also guys who are lurking on the outskirts and seem poised to break into this group. Matt Schaub had a fantastic season last year, Eli Manning shows flashes of brilliance, Matt Ryan makes things happen and the healthy Stafford certainly seems like the real deal. Even Jay Cutler, whom I mocked viciously last year, has impressed me with his tough play behind what is arguably the worst offensive line in football. The problem is that there are still question marks about a lot of those guys, and I wouldn’t count on them to have the caliber of game I would ask those previous eight for.

Instead, teams are now accounting for this lack of reliable guys to put under center by bringing back the “game managing” quarterback. This is a nice way of saying they are kind of bad, but other aspects of their team ­— like the defense and run game — are good. At that point they are told to play conservatively and just not mess anything up too bad. Guys like Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Alex Smith are great examples of this technique. The bad news for them is that this hasn’t worked since Brad Johnson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won in 2002.

What if your team doesn’t have a nice run game, like the Carolina Panthers or the Denver Broncos? Well, then you get a quarterback who can make a play with his legs. Like Cam Newton or Tim Tebow, for example.

At the end of the day, though, McCown, Matt Moore, Tavaris Jackson, A.J. Feeley, John Beck, Rex Grossman, Colt McCoy and Kyle Boller have all started for an NFL team at some point this season, and only so much of that can be blamed on injuries. The only reason these guys should be on a professional football field is to perform the national anthem with their newly-formed a capella group, “The Third-Strings.” Moore probably sings in a gorgeous baritone.

Maybe that’s why I’m so excited to see Newton rejuvenating Steve Smith and the entire Panthers franchise. Maybe that’s the reason that I yell “Red Rocket” when I see Andy Dalton drop a perfect spiral to A.J. Green in the corner of the end zone. Maybe that’s why I’m hoping Blaine Gabbert can get a little confidence from that big Monday night win. Maybe that’s why I was so excited to see Christian Ponder give the defending-champ Green Bay Packers a scare before his awful head coach decided to punt the ball back to the best offense in the league.

Talented quarterbacks make the league fun. No one wants to watch Moore overthrow Brandon Marshall all afternoon or to see McCoy and Charlie Whitehurst try to out-terrible the other en route to a 6-3 final score. I want these rookies to blossom into the franchise-saving messiahs that their fans hope they can be, because the NFL needs good quarterbacks. And until we get them, we are going to be stuck watching Curtis Painter every Sunday. And not even his mom wants that.

Sam Sheehan ’12 didn’t even make one “Palmer? I hardly know her!” joke last Sunday. Talk sports with him at or follow him on Twitter @SamSheehan.