Who is the most important player on the football field? Ask 100 fans and you would get well over 90 tagging the quarterback as the key player. That's not hard to understand when you consider he handles the ball every play, makes the decisions at the line of scrimmage, throws the passes and leads the team -- whether he likes being a leader or not.
I remember a very talented young quarterback drafted in the first round a few years ago and handed the starting job telling me that he didn't understand why he had to be the leader. He didn't last very long on the field or in the league. Leadership ability is just one of the many factors that contribute to the success of an NFL quarterback.
Questions in Cleveland
With so many factors to consider, why is it such a strange road to the field for so many guys? And can you really tell what you're getting when they're in shorts?
This week in Denver, the Broncos announced that Kyle Orton has "won" the job while in shorts this spring. Cleveland announced that it's a dead heat between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. Heck, those two guys have been fighting for that job for three years and it's still a dead heat?
The Jets paid Mark Sanchez $28 million in guaranteed money after just 16 college starts and promptly announced he's in a battle with Kellen Clemens for the starting job. Tampa Bay has a new coach and is bound to have a new quarterback -- and your guess is as good as mine as to whom it will be: Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown or first-round pick Josh Freeman?
Denver's announcement took the media and fans out of the equation, sending everyone home for the summer with an answer. But did it really resolve the issue? A few years ago, Jack Del Rio made a similar announcement about Byron Leftwich, and before you knew it, Leftwich was released and David Garrard was the starter. Things could change in Denver this summer, but for now the club has made it a non-issue just like the Jags did, which I prefer. As one NFC head coach said, "I let our QB deal get ugly once and I'll never do it again. What a distraction."
Cleveland is having an open competition, which sounds great, but putting both quarterbacks on a level playing field is a challenge. The media will stay on the story all summer. In the end, Denver backup Chris Simms probably will have as good a chance of starting for the Broncos as the eventual backup will in Cleveland. Do both Browns quarterbacks get equal reps with the same offensive line, receivers and running backs against the same teams in the preseason? It's almost impossible to do.
Last year, Arizona said it had a head-to-head competition between Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner for the No. 1 job. Leinart was leading all summer until the third preseason game, and even though he played well in the fourth preseason game, when the competition supposedly was still going on, he lost the job and never left the bench.
Is the Cleveland battle going to come down to an interception in the fourth quarter of the third preseason game? The media will lead with the quarterback story every day of camp, and at the end of camp the winner will not have taken as many snaps as he should have to get ready for the season. As one GM said, "The Browns need Quinn to win the job and it could be real hard for Anderson to overcome that reality."
I love competition, but in this case the danger is that it becomes inevitable for players to take sides over the summer.
San Francisco is worth watching because how its quarterback situation is resolved may give some insight into the power structure of the franchise. What if Hill plays poorly in the preseason? There has been a lot of money spent on Smith, and this could be his last chance to prove he's worth the bucks. Then again, if he never gets on the field in 2009 and goes on to play well somewhere else, it would be a disaster.
Announcing a starter now may only be a half-truth, but it makes the selection process less complicated. Last year, the Ravens didn't announce Joe Flacco was their man in June. In fact, the Ravens had Flacco third on the depth chart until a series of injuries and illnesses put him on the field. Flacco started out 2-0, and I asked John Harbaugh if he was ready to announce Flacco was the No. 1 quarterback. The rookie head coach was still hesitant at that point.
Is Tampa Bay set up to be another Baltimore? Freeman sits in the third spot and rarely gets mentioned as the 2009 starter, which takes all of the pressure off of him. Will he wind up on the field a lot sooner than people think? An AFC quarterbacks coach thinks it's a possibility.
"Freeman might as well get on the field because the future isn't Leftwich or McCown," he said. "They have a good enough O-line and running game."
I like how Freeman is flying under the radar like Flacco did in 2008.
As for the top two quarterbacks taken in the draft, Matthew Stafford and Sanchez, it's a delicate situation. The pressure of Matt Ryan and his spectacular success last year looms large. The Falcons announced he was the starter right after he signed his contract and never looked back. Neither the Lions nor Jets are prepared to make that statement, which has merit.
As one coach on that Eagles staff said, "You learn a lot more by playing than watching, but you just have to be careful early so not to destroy his confidence."
Both McNabb and Manning had very similar experiences to kick off their careers. McNabb attempted 31 passes over the first eight games in 1999 just to get his feet wet. Then in the last seven games (he missed the Patriots game), he threw 185 passes for eight touchdowns and seven interceptions and was sacked 18 times while the team went 2-5.
Manning threw nine passes in the first nine games, then took over as the starter and threw 188 passes in the last seven games for six touchdowns and nine interceptions with 12 sacks while his team went 1-6.
Both players were still considered backups in the spring of their rookie years, stayed under the radar, grabbed some valuable experience late in the season and came back ready to go in year two.
Of course, the aforementioned situations are not the only places where you'll find quarterback issues -- they're all over the league. Minnesota is waiting for Brett Favre, Miami likes what it sees in Chad Henne, Oakland has Jeff Garcia waiting in the wings if JaMarcus Russell struggles, Kansas City has two guys in a battle and Washington needs Jason Campbell to play better. But none of these teams is talking about its quarterbacks, which may be the best way to handle the situation.
If you don't have a franchise, Pro Bowl-type guy, then don't say anything. As my old boss, the late Dick Steinberg, would say: "These things have a way of working themselves out."