Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Denver Broncos

At last, we've gotten to the Quiz I really wanted to do, as Cutler is my favorite player on my favorite team and I actually know something about him that is not the result of quick research around the Internets in order to put together a coherent piece. But the quizzes have been good for me as well, because they give me a better sense of each team and how the draft chips might fall in April. One thing I do know about the Broncos -- they need defensive help like whoa. Firing defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who wanted to use a system that he didn't have the right pieces for, may be a start, but new coordinator Bob Slowik has been on teams that have been record-setting in all the wrong ways for the amounts of points yielded. He was formerly the secondary coach, however, and prized corner Champ Bailey has spoken highly of him, saying he's more willing to listen to players and to run systems that are catered to the team's defensive strength -- namingly, their All-Pro tandem of Bailey and Dre Bly at the corners, and safety John Lynch (if he returns, which isn't a certainty, and he's lost a little of his edge with age). But one thing they also need is an offensive lineman who will adequately protect Cutler, regarded as the new face of the franchise, and that's why a number of mock drafts have them taking Boise State's offensive tackle Ryan Clady (the Boise State team, interestingly, is also named the Broncos) or Cutler's fellow Vanderbilt alum Chris Williams, also an OT, with the 12th overall selection. If they decide to beef up the safety position to account for Lynch's possible departure, Miami's Kenny Phillips is an option, as is Washington State's Husain Abdullah, younger brother of current Broncos safety Hamza. Neither of those would be the first pick for Denver, but may be available in the later rounds.

Denver Broncos (7-9): Jay Cutler

Playing quarterback in Denver ever since the Post-Elway years has always been a trial by fire. Brian Griese had one Pro Bowl year in 2000, but was plagued by too many interceptions and general inconsistency, and Jake Plummer was dubbed "Jake the Snake" by snarky Denver sportscasters for, well, you can probably guess why. I can't believe I am going to write this, but Plummer wasn't entirely as terrible as everyone tended to think he was, as he rated 91.2/84.5/90.2 in his first three seasons with Denver and did in fact once beat the Patriots in a playoff game. He did throw 60 touchdowns in those seasons, but also 34 interceptions, not exactly the desired ratio for a quarterback, and even I, who did not yet really follow football at the time, knew of Denver's general loathing for Plummer and his constantly recurring ineptitude.

For everyone still basking in the Elway glow, Plummer just didn't fit the bill, and his hesitance in passing and decision-making, plus his knack for being picked at inopportune times, led Mike Shanahan to start emphasizing the run more, something which carries over to this day; he doesn't seem to realize that he can again try some of the longer passing plays with Cutler that he did with Elway. Denver employs a West Coast offense that requires a quarterback able to open lanes for the run, and if said quarterback cannot complete passes to stretch a defense horizontally, the running back is going to head smack into all those big guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage. (Hell, this happened a lot this year, as Shanahan kept calling running play after running play after running play...) But now that they have a quarterback who has the arm and smarts to be able to make passing plays work of their own accord, not simply to clear holes for running backs Travis "Da Babymaker" Henry and Selvin Young, hopefully we'll see some difference. The problem with plugging Plummer into this (or any) system, of course, was that it didn't matter if you were trying to complete long or short passes, he just wasn't a guy you could trust to complete them -- period.

People forget as well that Elway was really only a very average quarterback for the first 10 years of his career (the highest he rated in between 1983-1992 was 83.4) and although he has over 50,000 career passing yards and 300 TD, he has 226 INT as well. (His career rating, for the record, is 79.9). He was, however, a strong-armed gunslinger in the model of Brett Favre, and leading the team to consecutive Super Bowls in '97-'98, including one over Favre's Packers, ensured that didn't matter. Watching Plummer attempt mightily just to get it to the guys in blue and orange didn't quite match up. Besides, Elway had that steely-eyed, jaw-set charisma of a natural-born leader, and the much-ballyhooed and parodied "intangibles" that could will a team to win. He was responsible for orchestrating one of the best and most mythic comebacks in NFL playoff history (The Drive, 1987) and was a guy that you could always feel confident would inspire the others to play at their highest potential. Plummer, on the other hand... let's just say he didn't invoke that kind of confidence. The best you could hope for was that he wouldn't mess up too badly, or he'd stumble his way into a good game, and that reaches the players as well as the fans. They're professionals, they always play hard because it's their job, they're being paid, and they (presumably) all love football, but there's a big difference between having a quarterback with average skills and an Elway mindset and a quarterback with average skills and a Plummer mindset. But enough about J.C.'s predecessors.

Jay Christopher Cutler, future saviore to a Denver team weary of Plummer's farting around, was born on April 29, 1983, in the festively named Santa Claus, Indiana (yes, the one where they send all those Christmas letters to get the Santa Claus postmark) and grew up in a subdivision named Christmas Village, which means he probably got sick of Christmas when he was a teenager. Attending Heritage Hills High School in Lincoln, Indiana, he, like many other of the quarterbacks we've examined, played three sports; he made All-State in basketball and baseball (where he was a shortstop). But he excelled in football, and started for three years both as a quarterback and as a safety. (Cutler was good at safety, too. He intercepted 9 passes as a senior -- only one short of the 10 put up this year by San Diego's Pro Bowl corner Antonio Cromartie. Of course, this is the NFL, that was high school, but still). But when he wasn't making other quarterbacks miserable, he was doing a decent job of it on his own -- more than decent. (It should also be noted that Jay Cutler was the best Patriots quarterback in organizational history. Er, the best Heritage Hills Patriots quarterback, that is). But like his NFL counterpart Tom Brady, he also led the Patriots to a perfect season -- 15-0 his senior year after going 11-1 as a junior. Also like the NFL's Patriots, they tyrannized the competition -- the Heritage High Patriots scored 746 points while permitting only 85, and Cutler presided over a 90-0 shutout of Pike Central High School at one point, an embarrassment that would have made Belichick proud. But unlike the real Patriots, they sealed the deal. (Burn). Cutler led Heritage High to the school's first 3A state championship, in which Zionsville High School was unable to play the part of the New York Giants and pull an upset. The Patriots won 27-24.

Cutler chose to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, an unfortunate member of the SEC (Southeastern Conference) alongside heavyweights UGA, UT, UK, and UF, and generally their doormat. (Seeing as Vanderbilt is the most scholastically inclined of the lot, that explains why it becomes a problem when they face off against their football-minded rivals, who get all the best athletic recruits). But Jay started 45 games at quarterback for the Commodores, not missing a game to injury or, ahem, unavailability, which was a school record. A four-year starter (and team captain for three) Cutler wasted no time in making his mark -- as a freshman, he set records for rushing (393 yards) and touchdowns (9, plus 10 passing ones) running more than any other QB in the SEC, and was named to the All-SEC team. As a sophomore, he threw for 2,347 yards, 18 TD, 13 INT, and a 127.7 rating, as a junior it was 1,844 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT, and a 134.8 rating, and as a senior, it was 3,073 yards (only the second Commodore to throw over 3,000 in a season) 21 TD, and 9 INT with a 126.1 rating. For his performance, Cutler was the first Commodore to be named SEC Offensive Player of the Year -- in a division with the Volunteers, Gators, and Bulldogs, remember -- since 1967 and Bob Goodridge. At one point, Vanderbilt almost upset the Gators in Florida, lasting until double overtime before succumbing 49-42. They still managed to put up the second most points ever on the Gators in the Swamp, and when evaluating the Broncos' pickup in 2006, that led John Lynch to remark, "If this guy can take a bunch of future doctors and lawyers and have them competing against the Gators, this guy is a stud." He seems to be quite right thus far, and another year will only help.

Cutler went out with a flourish, closing his college career with a 28-24 win over the Volunteers in Knoxville -- the Commodores' first at their in-state rival's field since 1975, and their first overall since 1982. When he was all through, he held school records for total offense, TD passes, yards, completions, attempts, and total touchdowns, and graduated in December 2005 with a degree in human and organizational development before attending the annual NFL Scouting Combine the next spring. He impressed there as well, completing 27 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press (higher than some linemen and able to press as high as 400) and recording a 4.77 40-yard dash, being rated as the third-best quarterback prospect behind UT's Young and USC's Leinart. (Although Leinart was later selected by the Cardinals, some mock drafts had Cutler going there instead. I am glad this wasn't the other way around).

Although the Cardinals, Ravens, Raiders, and Lions had all expressed interest (dear god, I pity poor Jay if he ended up on any of those teams, especially the Raiders -- I wouldn't like having to hate him) the 11th-overall selection by the Broncos stunned everyone, Jay himself included. The Broncos had traded their 15th and 68th picks to the St. Louis Rams to take their selection, and nabbed the third ever first-round pick from the Commodores. Plummer had done nothing to endear himself in the last game the Broncos had played, a 34-17 AFC Championship game loss to the Steelers in which his three fumbles and one interception led to three Pittsburgh touchdowns, and Denver was less pleased with him than ever. It was time for a changing of the guard.

Cutler didn't bother with any silly Quinn/Rivers holdouts, signing a six-year, $48 million contract with the team in July 2006. But despite all, the brain trust wasn't ready to hand the keys to the Denver offense to a rookie just yet, and gave Plummer one last chance to prove he wasn't a total tool and could be trusted to run the team. Plummer, however, failed unequivocally at this; in passing for 1,994 yards, 11 TD, 13 INT, and a 68.8 rating, it was a miracle that the team got to 7-4, which is where it stood when Shanahan finally gave him the boot, ending weeks and weeks of Cutler/Plummer debates in the Mile High City. Plummer had his supporters, mind you, who argued that he'd gotten the team all the way to the AFC Championship the year before and that Cutler was still a rookie from a less-heralded program. But it's safe to say that nobody was really too broken up to see Plummer go.

Cutler started out with a 23-20 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football, completing 10 of 21 passes for 143 yards, 2 TD, and 2 INT. One of these TDs, however, was a 71-yard bomb to rookie WR Brandon Marshall, offering the first glimpse of what eventually could become a lethal combination in the Denver offense; if not Brady/Moss, then maybe Romo/Owens or Manning/Harrison. (Marshall is a big receiver with speed, good hands, and strength -- he excels in getting after-catch yards and it generally takes a double team to bring him down. He and Cutler took advantage of it this year, as Marshall had a 102-catch, 1,325-yard, 7-TD season and looks only to build on it next season. He and Jay, along with tight end Tony Scheffler, are spending the winter training together in Atlanta, Georgia). It took Cutler a few tries to win his first game, as he lost to the Chargers on the road the next time out, but even that wasn't without its highlights, as he and Scheffler connected for two touchdowns in the space of 48 seconds.

But he at last got his first win as a starter on December 17 against the Arizona Cardinals, 37-20, and again showed off the howitzer attached to his right shoulder by bombing a 65-yard TD pass to Javon Walker on the offense's third play from scrimmage. He finished with a 101.7 game rating, the highest for a Broncos rookie QB since Elway (of course) and earned praise from Shanahan. He definitely wasn't making anyone miss Plummer (which would have been hard anyway, but still). The Broncos won against the Bengals on Christmas Eve, 24-23, but just missed the playoffs in the last game of the season against the 49ers. Cutler had a chance to show his own toughness -- although he got concussed in the first half, he stayed in the game (this is either totally admirable or total lunacy) and even led the Broncos on a game-tying drive in the last minutes to force overtime. They didn't get as lucky there, as the 49ers kicked the winning field goal to deal Denver a heartbreaking 26-23 loss, which was made even more heartbreaking in the wee hours of January 1, 2007, only hours after they'd been eliminated. Cornerback Darrent Williams was killed in possibly gang-related violence during a New Year's party. One shot to the neck killed him instantly, and he fell onto Javon Walker, who was with him in the limousine -- what a terrible experience to have to go through, with your friend and teammate dead in your lap and gunshots outside. The team honored him by placing his #27 in prominent view during the next season, but it understandably left them stunned and grieving, marking a very somber close to the 2006 campaign. Jay finished the year with a 59.1 CP, 1,001 yards, 9 TD, 5 INT, and an 88.5 rating in 5 starts.

Cutler opened 2007 as the unquestioned starter, and in Week 1, led the Broncos 12 plays and 42 yards in the last seconds of the fourth quarter to set up Jason Elam's game-winning last-second field goal for a 15-14 triumph. (However, this was the game in which Buffalo TE Kevin Everett sustained a career-ending injury that led to doubts about if he'd even walk again after colliding with Denver kick returner Domenik Hixon; Hixon is now with the Giants. Everett's recovery is a truly heartwarming story and if you're a football fan, go read it now). But Jay also did it again the next week -- at home in Invesco against the archrival Raiders, he moved the chains 15 plays and 78 yards with 2:18 left in the fourth quarter to set up another Elam game-winning field goal. Unfortunately, there were three straight losses after that -- all to playoff teams Jaguars, Colts, and Chargers -- that left Denver fans muttering and grumbling. They went into the bye and came out of it beating the Steelers, 31-28, and lost to the Packers again in overtime the next week. However, the fact that they even got to overtime was remarkable, as Cutler proved to Favre that the young gunslinger could sling just as well as the old one, leading an 89-yard drive with 2:27 remaining to get Elam to tie it at 16. Unfortunately, they lost the coin toss and Favre unleashed a bomb to Donald Driver to win it, no doubt feeling threatened and wondering if Cutler was going to run at him and launch him into the stands with a T-shirt gun. (Yet again, I have no evidence for this, but it's fun anyway).

Cutler suffered a leg injury early on against the Lions, which led to backup Patrick Ramsey taking over instead. (Due to a video showcasing Cutler's game-by-game performance, and in which Ramsey was partnered with the "It's peanut butter jelly time!" song, I can no longer think of him as anything but Peanut Butter Ramsey). This, um, did not go well. Firstly, Denver lost to lowly Detroit in embarrassing fashion, 44-7, and Ramsey painfully proved the difference between him and Jay. He lost a fumble that was immediately run in by the Lions for a touchdown, threw another interception that was run back for another touchdown, and ended up with a 76.5 rating for the game. Fortunately, Jay was back the next week, and he rebounded in fine fashion, completing 17 of 29 with a TD and INT to lead the Broncos to a very rare 27-11 road win in the Chiefs' notoriously hostile Arrowhead Stadium. (Then again, the Chiefs just weren't that formidable this year, finishing 4-12, which might help). He also led them to a 37-20 Monday Night Football triumph against the Titans and friend Vince Young, completing 16 of 21 passes for 2 TD and no INT, but the week after that was the Bear Game That Will Not Be Spoken Of, in which all you really need to know is that Sauerbrun kicked it to Hester, twice, and Broncos fans everywhere may never get over it.

Jay and the Broncos had their best performance in Week 14 against the Chiefs, this time at home in Invesco. The Broncos slaughtered Kansas City 41-7, and Jay, in completing 20 of 27 passes for 4 TD and 0 INT, registered a career-best 141.0 game rating. Unfortunately, they lost to the Texans the next week, as the O-line might have put paper bags on the field in their uniforms for all the protection they gave Cutler, and dug themselves further with a 23-3 Christmas Eve defeat to the Chargers which saw Cutler record his lowest rating (32.7) and get shouted at by a smug prick in a lightning-bolt suit. But the Broncos rebounded to close the season in the same way they'd started, with a game-winning Elam field goal to seal a 22-19 overtime victory over the Vikings. However, their overall record was only 7-9, they lost four of their last six, and they missed the playoffs for a second straight year, which is never acceptable in football-country Denver. The Rockies made inroads into reclaiming their audience with their magical NL-winning pennant drive, but Colorado is and remains very much Broncos territory.

Cutler finished the year and made all 16 starts, later admitting it was a fatiguing grind to go through every game at the pro level, but he did quite well for it. The NFL's 12th-ranked quarterback at 88.1, he had the tenth-most yards at 3,497, which was good for seventh all-time in Broncos history. He also had the third best-ever franchise completion percentage at 63.6, and threw for 20 TD and 14 INT. He was the ninth-best in the league on third-down conversions, with a 92.0 rating (73-of-125) with 8 TD and 3 INT coming when the Broncos needed to keep moving the chains. However, he needs to work on controlling the ball better -- he fumbled at least once in 10 of 16 games for 11 overall, losing four of them. He has a formidable skill set already -- strong arm, good head, quick feet, and he is so cool under pressure as to lead to accusations of lethargy (there are always the type who want him to be a screaming leader, and apparently he's been working on taking charge of the clubhouse after a few veterans told him to make himself more of a presence). He does, however, have the mental makeup that Plummer lacks, is already a more polished talent, and shows every sign of finally being the signal-caller worthy, at least in the minds of the public, to succeed Elway. (He has already well outdone Elway's rookie and sophomore years. Starting 10 games in 1983, Elway threw for 1,663 yards, 7 TD, 14 INT, and a 54.9 rating. Starting 14 in 1984, he threw for 2,598 yards, 18 TD, 15 INT, and a 76.8 rating).

So why were the Broncos so terrible this year (at least by their standards?) One word: defense. As mentioned above, the Broncos had a porous, to say the least, D-line, and their run defense was particularly abysmal; no matter who had the football for the other team, they let him find the gaps. Their run defense was a 30th-ranked 142.6, and believe you me, for someone who watched or game-tracked all 16 games, that is very accurate; I can't count the number of times I was yelling at them to dogpile the little guy with the ball, but they never listened. Their strong corner tandem of Bailey and Bly kept their pass defense at a much more respectable 7th, but the defense ranked 28th in points allowed, permitting 25.6 on average a game, and they ranked 19th in total yards, allowing 336 on average a game. When your offense is only averaging 20 points a game and your defense is giving up 25, you can see how that becomes problematic. The Broncos will be drafting both offensive and defensive tackles, probably a safety, and at some point, need to look into taking a wide receiver as well. They have superstar in the making Marshall, but Javon Walker has worn out his welcome and will probably be leaving, Glenn Martinez is better as a kick returner only, and veteran Brandon Stokley, at 31, isn't getting any younger. The Broncos do have the pieces to effectively run a three-tight end set, with Tony Scheffler, Chad Mustard, and Daniel Graham, but they'll need more wideouts to help effectively spread the field and give Cutler more targets. The offensive run game was 9th, which isn't as bad as I was fearing, but with the Broncos' offense structured the way it is, it needs to stay there.

If they can find or sign the offensive lineman that protects Cutler and gives him time to throw, and make sure he has enough options on the other end to catch them -- plus upgrade their sad-sack defense -- the Broncos will have a chance to return to prominence next year, although they'll have a tough time with the Chargers to get atop the AFC West. They lost to San Diego twice this year, failing to score a touchdown as they combined for two field goals, one in each game, but that could always change next year. Cutler, as I and many other Broncos fans believe, is the type of player you can build a franchise around, and after he's spent the winter with Marshall and Scheffler, the three of them will have a better rapport than ever. I plan to thoroughly enjoy the Rockies' season first (BASEBALL HOLLA) but I am looking forward to September and the Broncos showing me what they can do. Hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: San Diego Chargers

So yes, I am actually spending an entire evening writing about Phyllis... er, Philip Rivers, possibly my least favorite QB in the NFL. I even managed to do it without being too snarky, although if one or two zingers slip in, I swear that isn't my fault. For the last few days, I've been reading combine news like a madwoman (the Dolphins will probably take Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long first overall, Boston College's Matt Ryan may be the first quarterback picked, I do not care about Glenn Dorsey's injury, Darren McFadden may already be turning into Travis Henry, De'Cody Fagg may have had the worst result a player can imagine in possibly suffering a career-ending injury (aside from his last name, which is also a problem) Joe Flacco is nice to little children, and will you people stop bashing Colt Brennan already? It's not his fault he was dying of flu at the Senior Bowl, so he gains weight like you want him to and you grumble some more. Notice to sports reporters: Brennan did have an NCAA career before the Sugar Bowl, and one of the best in a while, too. Fortunately, his passing performance on Sunday was one of the best -- 20 of 21, but since his only incompletion was a perfect chest-high laser that bounced out of the wide receiver's hands, they gave him a perfect 100% accuracy rating anyway. They have complained about his lack of arm strength -- several completions went for 40+ yards. Okay, off my high horse now, but I have a fondness for the former Hawaii Warriors QB and would like to see him do well).

Now, do I have a fondness for the former NC State Wolfpack QB? Not so much.

San Diego Chargers (11-5): Philip Rivers

The Chargers, after going 14-2 last year under the stewardship of Marty Schottenheimer, took the #1 AFC seed into the playoffs but lost to the Patriots 24-21 in San Diego, courtesy of one of Tom Brady's patented late-game comeback drives, and consequently bitched about the Patriots celebrating too much by dancing on their field. (It's kind of a habit). They fired Schottenheimer and thought it would be a brilliant idea to hire Norv Turner, which they did, and finished 11-5 as the third seed in the AFC, beat the defending champion Colts 28-24, and then ended their season by losing to the Patriots again 21-12, this time in Foxborough. Coming into this year, they sadly didn't have much competition, as the Broncos were in rebuilding phase, the Raiders are owned by Al Davis (the Peter Angelos of football) and the Chiefs, well, took a little tumble this year. Which meant that Marmalard, as Kissing Suzy Kolber so adeptly calls P. Rivers (and if I keep plugging that blog, it's because you need to go and read it, especially the Adventures of Marmalard) was able to lead the Chargers to the AFC West title, or at least sit back and take credit while LT continued to do the grunt work. Boo. (I told you I wasn't being snarky. I swear. It ends here. I'll try).

Philip-spelled-with-one-i-after-the-Apostle-Rivers was born in Decatur, Alabama, on December 8, 1981, but evidently he's yet to make such an impression as to get a day named after him. (There is no Philip Rivers Day, as far as I know, so at least we have been spared that horror). If you want a really terribly corny story, young Phil, who was the waterboy for the football team his father coached, made a project in fifth grade that showed his head pasted over the body of a Vikings player on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Too bad the jinx couldn't kick in by association). Attending Athens High School, Rivers played quarterback and free safety, got named Alabama Player of the Year, and graduated with a 3.70 GPA, all of which he carried off to North Carolina State. There, he led the Pack to four bowl games (two Tangerine, one Gator, one Citrus) won three of them and got named MVP, and was also named MVP of the Senior Bowl in his last year as he went about setting just about every NC State record for quarterbacks. His won-loss in his time at school was 34-17 out of a NCAA-record 51 starts, he is second all-time with 13,484 yards, fifth all-time with 95 TD passes, seventh in Heisman voting his senior year, the 2003 ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) Player of the Year, first ACC player with 3 3,000-yard seasons, and second-team All-America as a senior. He graduated with his degree in business.

(YOINK! Now that I've just said plenty of good things about Rivers....) Coming into the 2004 draft, Rivers was rated as the third-best quarterback available behind Ole Miss's Eli Manning and Miami University's Ben Roethlisberger. Interestingly enough, a number of draft prognosticators had Rivers, not Roethlisberger, taken by the Steelers at the eleventh overall slot, but of course, that didn't happen. The Chargers took Eli first, the Giants took Rivers fourth, and the two teams swapped young, promising QBs, along with New York flinging a pair of draft picks San Diego's way. The Chargers made good use of these, selecting outside linebacker Shawne Merriman and kicker Nate Kaeding, and until recently, the trade looked like total highway robbery. (Eli's Super Bowl MVP may herald his emergence as a totally different player, or it may herald him getting on the mother of all lucky streaks. Time will tell). Rivers eventually was signed to a 6-year, $40-million deal, but this took so long, and he was off holding out, that the Chargers gave recently-profiled Drew Brees the chance to start another season while Rivers was counting zeros and cackling diabolically, probably calling Brady Quinn and giving him advice on what to do when he hit the big-time. Either that or since his signing bonus was $14.5 million, Rivers was too busy selecting a personal yacht and would not be bothered until this delicate operation had concluded. Naturally, this didn't do wonders for his playing time, as he saw action in only two games, neither starts, in 2004, in which he completed 5 of 8 passes for 1 TD and 0 INT, resulting in a TEH AWESOME passer rating of 110.9.

Philipotamus again only saw 2 games, no starts, in 2005, completing 12 of 22 passes for no TD and 1 INT, rating a 50.4 and getting most of his action after Brees suffered the season-ending shoulder injury against Denver. Since the Chargers didn't re-sign Brees after that, Rivers finally took over the starting quarterback job in 2006 and did (ulp) quite well, completing 284 of 460 attempts (a 61.7 percentage) for 3,388 yards, 22 TD, 9 INT, and a 92.0 rating. But since he had the 2006 MVP LT on his team, you have to wonder to whom all the offensive credit really goes. Rivers did indeed play well, and showed that he could back up his big NCAA numbers with success in the NFL, but as of February 4, 2008, both Roethlisberger and the much-maligned Manning have won a Super Bowl, leaving him the only member of the highly touted Class of '04 that has not. (Get on that! No actually, don't, definitely don't, it's all right if you never do). Rivers didn't exactly improve on his strong showing this year, however. While he still threw for 3,152 yards and 21 TD, he added 15 picks and a 10-points-lower rating (82.4) while listing his hobbies as jawing at everybody from Jay Cutler to old ladies, mailboxes, and vending machines, along with promoting celibacy and AAAAASSKING SOMEBOOODAAAY. However, to give credit where credit is due, he did play the AFC Championship Game on two bad knees (and supposedly without an ACL in one) so although he may not be able to walk when he is 45, he is doing his best at staking a claim to Brett Favre-like Tuffness. He is undergoing surgery this offseason and hopes to be ready for an all-new campaign of blinding Bolting awesomeness this 2008, coming to a Qualcomm near you.

All right, I've had enough of writing about Marmalard. My favorite team tomorrow, and my favorite player! Expect a novel. If I can get up the ambition, and the memory, to actually get down everything I want to say, which can always be an issue.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Atlanta Falcons

Now this is an easy one, if only because I don't have to really write about any guy in particular; the Falcons are in a state of Armageddon at quarterback. Also, can I be the only one that thinks their logo looks like a llama, not a falcon? I swear, the claw looks like a llama head, the actual falcon looks like its little topknot, and every time I see the damn thing, I'm reminded of Kuzco from the Disney cartoon The Emperor's New Groove. Also, funny note: I once had a dream that Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich (former Falcons quarterback, I should say, since they cut him a few days after the Super Bowl) did not like one of my books, and was getting all up in arms about it. I must be an insecure writer indeed, if I'm dreaming of Byron Leftwich's displeasure. Byron Leftwich, people. I'm serious.

Atlanta Falcons (4-12): Whichever Summabitch Wants The Damn Job

Now that Ron Mexico... excuse me, Michael Vick, is enjoying the comforts of the federal penitentiary system following his extremely well-publicized trial and conviction for running a dogfighting ring, the Falcons have been left with no successor behind center. They tried all sorts of bit parts -- Matt Schaub, Byron Leftwich, Joey Harrington, yo momma -- and since they won the third overall pick in the draft on a coin flip, they almost have to take either Boston College's Matt Ryan or Delaware's Joe Flacco, a pair of QBs from slightly smaller schools who created a lot of buzz at this week's just-concluded scouting combine. Ryan is projected to be the first QB off the board, is as close to a finished product as is available, and Flacco has physical size, arm strength, confidence, and all the other qualities you'd want in a young QB to re-build the franchise around. Since the Falcons don't pick again for some time, all the best options may be gone by then (unless they can take advantage of a Colt Brennan/Andre Woodson/John David Booty-type slipping to the later rounds, as may happen with any or all of those three).

Either way, quarterback is by far the Falcons' biggest need in the draft, and once they choose somebody from the above list, I'll come back in April and give them a proper preview. In the meantime, it's just not worth profiling any of their internal options, as clearly those aren't the answer. So, I shall issue an IOU on the Falcons for now, conclude the NFC South, and move onto the AFC West tomorrow. Which means our star will be... brace yourself... Philip Rivers! YOU BETTA ASK SOMEBODDAAAYYYY!!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: New Orleans Saints

(Fuck it, Firefox tries to open some stupid "anti-spyware" program -- read, spyware-installing program -- freezes, and loses everything I had thus far. At least it wasn't too much, or I'd be spitting tacks -- effing computers). Just the Saints and then the Falcons to go, and then I'll be into the division I know best, which is the AFC West; after that, there's just one division to go until I'm done. (Small note: How the hell were the Saints once in the NFC West and the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC East? Did somebody get their directions backwards or what?) If you aren't watching the Academy Awards, or are checking later, here's the latest installment.

New Orleans Saints (7-9): Drew Brees

The Saints' quarterback is better than the team's record indicated this season, as they took a tumble to a sub-.500 showing a year after making the NFC Championship game. They probably should have won, if you ask me, since a) it was a good story to come out of New Orleans after the devastation of Katrina, and b) who really wanted the Bears in there anyway? But they didn't, and instead finished third in the South this year despite another strong showing from Brees. With star running back Reggie Bush under investigation for allegedly accepting over $300,000 in endorsements while at USC -- a big no-no under NCAA rules -- it falls to Brees to bear the most scrutiny as the chief component of the offense in the meantime. It wasn't an entirely terrible offense, as 23.7 averaged points a game ranked 12th, and 361.2 yards a game ranked 4th, but that was far and away generally due to Brees, as the 269.6 passing yards a game for the Saints ranked a surprising third, only behind the Patriots and Packers. The run game, meanwhile, languished at a 28th-ranked 91.6 (hey, thanks a zillion, Reggie) and a great deal of the Saints' problems can be attributed to their porous defense -- they were ranked 25th in points allowed with 24.2 on average, 26th in yards allowed with 348.1 on average, 30th in pass defense with 245.2 on average, and a slightly more respectable 13th in run defense with 102.9 allowed on average.

Born in Austin, Texas, Brees attended Westlake High School and as a senior, led them to a 16-0 season (see, if he can do it in high school, it's not such a big deal for the Patriots, right? Heh). He garnered offensive MVP honors for Class 5A with 3,528 yards and 31 TDs, and ended up going all the way to Indiana for college, where he enrolled at Purdue, majored in "Industrial Management" (does that mean he's going to work with the "Steelers" when he's done with football? Heh, heh, heh, all right I'll cut it out) and set Big 10 records left and right for the Boilermakers, including passing yards, (11,792) completions (1,026) attempts (1,678) touchdown passes (90) In his sophomore year, he got the unranked Boilermakers to upset #4 Kansas State in the Whosi Whatsit Bowl (actually the Builders Square Alamo Bowl, but I think my name fits better -- I wonder how they pick bowl names, anyway -- stick their hand in a fishbowl of corporate names and see what comes out?) He came in fourth and third in Heisman voting in 1999 and 2000, and in his senior year, was named Academic All-America Player of the Year, so evidently he was very good at whatever Industrial Management actually entails. He capped it all off by beating powerhouse Ohio State to get Purdue to Pasadena (read: Rose Bowl) for the first time since 1967. Unfortunately, that didn't help them against the University of Washington Huskies, who beat them 34-24, but it was a great accomplishment for them nonetheless.

Brees was taken with the Chargers' first pick in the second round of 2001, ending up alongside LaDainian Tomlinson, who he had played against in college (Tomlinson was on the TCU Horned Frogs). Together, they decided to whip an underachieving San Diego team into shape. Brees spent 2001 on the sidelines behind then-starter Doug Flutie, but got his chance in 2002, when he started all 16 games. He threw for a 60.8 completion percentage, 3,284 yards, 17 TD but also 16 INT, and a a 76.9 rating in his first pro season, and the Chargers finished 8-8, but that was better than the next. The Chargers went 4-12, Brees started 11 games and Flutie started 5, and Brees finished with a career-low 2,108 yards, 11 TD/15 INT, and 67.5 passer rating. However, Brees made a remarkable rebound in 2004 with a breakout season; he still holds the highest single-season rating for a Chargers QB because of it. He started 15 games and completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 3,159 yards, 27 TD, 7 INT, and a 104.8 rating, earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. But after that, he was a free agent, and the club had just pulled off the Manning/Rivers trade the year before to send Eli to Jersey and bring Phyllis to San Diego. In fact, Rivers might have been the starter that year if he wasn't too busy pulling a Brady Quinn-style holdout (who's surprised?) which gave Brees the chance to keep his job.

However, he didn't leave San Diego just yet, as the Chargers franchise-tagged him and paid him $8 million for the 2005 season. And he started 16 games that year, letting Rivers sit and think about whatever he was planning to do with his signing bonus. Brees, meanwhile, set career highs (for then) in passing yards with 3,576, throwing for 24 TD/15 INT and an 89.7 rating. A highlight of that year was leading the Chargers into Gillette in Week 4 and dumping the Patriots' home winning streak on its ass with a thud; 41-17 was the final. Brees had a 137.5 rating for the game, with 19 completions in 24 attempts, 248 yards, 2 TD, and 0 INT. But at the end of 2005, he was injured in a game against the Broncos; while trying to recover a fumble that John Lynch had helped him along with, he was leveled by Denver tackle Gerard Warren and suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder, along with rotator cuff damage. The injury was quite serious, and it eventually led to Brees' departure from the Chargers; although they wanted him back, they were concerned that the shoulder would never be at full strength again. They offered him a reduced-rate deal to re-sign, but Brees demanded franchise-quarterback-type money and the two sides couldn't come to a compromise.

The Dolphins and the Saints expressed interest, and Brees ended up signing with the latter for 6 years and $60 million on March 14, 2006. It was a sound investment for New Orleans, as Brees surpassed his career passing yards-high with 4,418 to go with a 64.3 completion percentage, 26 TD, 11 INT, and a 96.2 record in leading the Saints to a 10-6 record (first in the South). They beat the Eagles in the divisional playoffs, 27-24, and moved on to meet the Bears. Although Brees threw for 354 yards and 2 TD, he also turned the ball over three times, and the Bears beat them handily, 39-14. All was not lost, as Brees did finish second in MVP voting behind former Chargers teammate LT, but surely he'd have liked a chance to face the Colts in Miami just a bit better. The Saints had the popular sentiment behind them after Katrina, but it didn't pan out. (To his credit, Brees has also been invested in restoring his adopted hometown, donating generously to hurricane-relief charities and renovating a historic home in the Uptown district of New Orleans).

Brees continued to be successful this year and took every snap, with 28 TD and 18 INT; he again threw upwards of 4,000 yards with 4,423, his highest career total by 5 yards over last year's. He had an 89.4 rating and completed 440 of 652 attempts, but failed to galvanize the Saints to a repeat playoff appearance. Nor was Reggie Bush the dynamic difference-maker he was in college, with 157 carries, 581 yards, and only 4 TD. And of course, the defense was a problem. But with Brees under contract for the next three years and only 29, it's not likely they need to go quarterback-hunting in the draft. What they should do is go fishing in the deep defensive pool instead.

(Sheez... it's 11:46... that took forever).

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Carolina Panthers

Yes, well, I missed last night. Occasionally it happens... sometimes, clearly. I've been reading a lot of stuff about the combine, and was debating writing a post about all that, but decided against it... I'll definitely have some stuff closer to the draft. In the meantime, the Panthers, who may very well be looking for one of the quarterbacks from that draft, get their day in the sun today.

Carolina Panthers (7-9): Jake Delhomme/Matt Moore

Carolina, the other feline-themed expansion team introduced in 1995 (aside from the Jaguars) had terrible trouble keeping one guy behind center for 16 games; they ended up using a combination of four. Starter Jake Delhomme suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3, David Carr was ineffective, Vinny Testaverde was old, and Matt Moore, a rookie installed in Week 15, at least managed to win two of three, although doing so with a certain amount of bumps. However, if Delhomme is healthy following Tommy John surgery (more common in baseball) he projects to be the starter. This is a big if, as it's a finicky procedure to come back from in the best of times and Delhomme is already 33. Moore is 10 years younger at 23, but not a finished product, and Carr and Testaverde have been shown the door, probably to the relief of Panthers fans. The organization can't count on Delhomme coming back and being the same as ever, nor Moore suddenly stepping up and being ready for full-time duty, so I imagine they'll be checking out what's on the board quarterback-wise at some point in April.

Jake Christopher Delhomme, despite his very whitebread-sounding name, is actually the son of two Cajuns; his last name translates to "the man," which is what he is to Panthers fans. Born in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, he grew up very immersed in Cajun culture -- he has 21 first cousins who form a cheering squad for him and has the support of his hometown for being proud of his heritage; Breaux Bridge has plenty of products and signs supporting Jake and the Panthers. Jake and his father take a keen interest in horses, and once he's finished with his playing days, he'll go home to Louisiana and continue raising them. Delhomme attended private Teurlings Catholic High School in Lafayette, and although Peyton Manning was playing high school ball at Isidore Newman in New Orleans at the same time, the two future NFL pros didn't face each other.

Delhomme played defensive back in addition to quarterback and got named All-State -- but on defense, not offense. But as a senior, back to his original spot, Delhomme threw for over 3,300 yards and 32 yards; he parlayed this momentum into enrollment at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). He was the starter as a true freshman in 1993, the only Division I freshman starter, and finished with a winning record three of the four years he was taking the snaps for the Ragin' Cajuns. Despite finishing as the all-time leader in yards and TDs, and playing 43 straight games (before his injury problems showed up) he went undrafted in 1997. This, however, was not all to the bad, as it enabled the New Orleans Saints to pluck the hometown kid out of their backyard and send him to play in the (now-defunct) NFL Europa after a brief taster on their practice squad.

Delhomme found himself overseas playing one season for the Amsterdam Admirals, back to Louisiana to play on the practice squad, and then back to Europe with the Frankfort Galaxy. He was allowed to see much more playing time in Frankfort than he had in Amsterdam, and after putting up a line of 1,410 yards, a 67.3 CP, 12 TD, and 5 INT in their World Bowl-winning season, the Saints decided to bring him back home for full-time third-stringer duty. Delhomme certainly would have preferred to be playing, but waited for his opportunity and didn't ultimately get it in New Orleans. He played in four games in 2002, none starts, and became a free agent that offseason. Ultimately, the Saints cut and reinstated him five times; Delhomme must have felt a bit like a ping-pong ball.

Still staying close to home in the South, he ended up signing with the Panthers, hoping to help the team improve on what had been a grueling 1-15 showing the year before, back when they were playing the part of the 2007 Miami Dolphins and set a record for consecutive losses. Starter Rodney Peete played just one half of one game, the season opener against their fellow big cat Jaguars, and with the Panthers down 17-0 at halftime, Delhomme got the call. He proceeded to lead them to a comeback victory with three touchdown passes, including one on fourth down with 16 seconds remaining in the game, and thereafter was firmly installed as the starter.
He steered the team on an improbable run through the playoffs, and got them all the way to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where the plucky but doomed Panthers were beaten on one of Adam Vinatieri's three Super Bowl-winning field goals, 32-29. (What generated much more clucking than the actual game was the fact that this was the Super Bowl where "wardrobe malfunction" entered the American lexicon, and the puritanical viewing public went to town with their caterwauling hysteria). It was a remarkable and meteoric turnaround for a team that had been a punchline just a year before to get to the big game, and they seemed to suffer from a bit of a letdown the next season. Injuries ravaged the Panthers' O-line, contributing to a 1-7 start, but Delhomme got the ship righted by winning six of their last eight games.

The Panthers missed the playoffs in 2004 (ironically, thanks to Delhomme's old employer the Saints) but made it back in 2005, getting all the way to the NFC Championship game again before losing to the Seahawks (who later lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl). That was the year Delhomme had one of his most successful personal seasons to date, as he completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 3,421 yards, 24 TD, and 16 INT, and a 88.1 rating. He had similar or better numbers in 2004 -- 58.2 completion, 3,886 yards, 29 TD/15 INT, and an 87.3 rating, but pushed the team farther in '05. But in 2006, his injury demons started to show up; it was his eighth pro season and he was already 32, and despite starting 47 of 48 contests in the past three seasons, he injured his thumb and had to sit out for three games. He was still statistically successful, if not quite what he'd accomplished before -- 61.0 CP, 2,805 yards, 17 TD, 11 INT, and 82.6 rating, and was preparing to improve on those numbers this year before the elbow injury, incurred in Week 3 against the Falcons, ended his season. Until then, Delhomme had come out of the gate like a gunslinger, with 8 TD, 1 INT, 624 yards, and a 111.8 rating to start out the season, winning two of his first three games.

Delhomme signed a 5-year, $38 million extension with the Panthers in 2004, meaning that he's under contract for this and next season, but his long-term prognosis with the club is uncertain due to his age (he'll be 35 when it's through) and his suddenly uncertain status injury-wise. In his absence, the team tried a whole roulette of replacements, and finally settled on Matt Moore as the most suitable one. The two have several interesting things in common. Also like Delhomme, Moore played both quarterback and defensive back at William S. Hart High School in Newhall, CA, although when he got named to All-State, it was on the offensive side of the ball. He steered his high-school team to an undefeated record as a senior and opted to become a UCLA Bruin, where he also was a true-freshman quarterback starter. He started four of eight games for UCLA his sophomore year, but after being injured, ended up transferring to community college in Santa Clarita, which did not have a football team. When he returned to football, it was a decision between Colorado State and Oregon State; he ended up at the latter and got the Beavers to the Rose Bowl. He averaged 271.1 yards a game, second in the Pac-1o conference behind (no surprise) USC's Leinart. In his senior season, 2006, he led the Beavers to a Sun Bowl win over the Missouri Tigers.

Also like Delhomme, Moore was not drafted out of college, but signed as a rookie free agent; in his case, it was by the Dallas Cowboys. He performed well for them in preseason, but was waived anyway, and the Panthers, perhaps foreseeing the quarterback mess that was going to result shortly, picked him up off the wire. Moore got his first taste of starter action in Week 5 against (ironically) New Orleans, who the Panthers beat 16-13. He entered the game after Delhomme's first replacement, David Carr, got hurt after a sack, and completed one of two pass attempts for 43 yards. However, Carr returned shortly thereafter, and Moore was consigned to the bench until Week 15, in which the Panthers had finally run short of patience with Carr's timid incompetence and Testaverde's advanced age.

The 23-year-old Moore got the call against the Seahawks, and completed 19 of 27 passes for no touchdowns or interceptions, 208 yards, and a 92.8 rating. A Week 16 20-13 loss against the Cowboys saw him finish only 15 of 28 against a strong defensive unit, with one TD and interception and a 70.8 rating; it also saw him get sacked five times. But he recovered to lead the Panthers to victory in their final game of the season, a 31-23 triumph against the playoff-bound Buccaneers, with 15 completions in 24 attempts, 2 TD/1 INT, and 174 yards to go with a 94.8 rating. His final numbers were 3 TD/5 INT (twice earlier in the season, he was inserted in the game for a few pass attempts -- 2/5 with a pick, and 0/1 with his only attempt being picked), 730 yards, and a 67.0 rating despite his passable success as a starter.

The Panthers finished 7-9, second in the relatively soft South, and will certainly be hoping that Delhomme is ready to go back to work; healthy, he's among one of the better QBs in the league. Their offense could use some help across the board, as it ranked 27th in points scored (16.7 average) 29th in yards per game (284.9 average) 29th in pass yards (170.9 average) and 14th in rushing yards (114.0). Their defense ranks about the middle of the pack -- the four categories named above see them neatly lined up 15th-16th-17th-18th. Their top receiving threat, Steve Smith, had 87 receptions for 1,002 yards and 7 TDs, but behind him by a fair margin were Drew Carter (38 catches/517 yards/4 TD) and Jeff King (46 catches/406 yards/2 TD). Running backs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams combined for 391 touches, 1,593 yards, and 7 TD (and Foster was just released). But since the Panthers lagged behind their opponents in almost every offensive category in '07, they'll want to work on improving their attack. If Delhomme is healthy and back to his old self, great, but don't count on it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This quiz is a few hours later than normal, since I was busy doing homework. Getting to sleep in very, very late today was also nice, I ran about, and once I got back from dinner, I had to tend to other things. No matter, I didn't forget. Here we are, a hot-off-the-presses QB Quiz, starring.... Jeff Garcia! (Although not his wife, or T.O.).

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7): Jeff Garcia

The NFC South is a bit of a weak-sauce division. The Bucs, in fact, are the only team to have won a Super Bowl (in 2002, against the Raiders, which earns them kudos from Broncos fans from stopping the Silver & Black Heart Attack from picking up any more titles than necessary). While the Saints made it to the NFC championship game last season, they got beaten by the Bears, the Panthers have only been around for 12 years, and the Falcons are rapidly becoming much more of a punchline than they would like, what with Michael Vick's arrest and their head-coaching shenanigans. The Bucs made it to the playoffs this season, but got bounced on their home field by the eventual champion Giants, 24-14. With less-than-overwhelming competition around them, they will be eying a return to the postseason. Getting them there is likely to fall on the shoulders of Jeff Garcia. Former starter Chris Simms suffered a season-ending and serious injury in 2006, and although he re-signed with the Bucs thinking he would start, he ended up on IR for the rest of the year in October. Garcia took over the reins, and going into this season, is penciled in as the Bucs' starter after finishing with a 94.6 rating, the third highest of his career. Still, he's 37, Simms became inexplicably terrible even before he was hurt, and third-stringer Bruce Gradkowski has struggled, posting a 3-8 record as a starter. The Bucs may be checking out what's available in the draft.

Born in Gilroy, California, Garcia attended Gilroy High School and lettered in football and basketball (only two sports? What an underachiever). He attended San Jose State University, playing quarterback for the Spartans -- he had 6,545 passing yards, 48 TD, and a 129.4 passer rating, but went undrafted by an NFL team and instead got his start with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. He was a backup for the first few seasons, but in his three years as primary starter, led them to records of 13-5, 10-8, and 12-6. (The CFL season is 18 games long and there are some minor rule differences -- the Canadian field is 110 yards long instead of the American 100, with much larger endzones. There are twelve men on the field in the Canadian style of play, instead of the famous eleven in American, and the tight end is an American innovation that generally isn't seen in the CFL. There is more pressure on Canadian teams to make immediately successful plays, as they only get three downs as opposed to the American four, so they don't have the luxury of wasting downs or only going for short gains. The faster pace is shown also in the fact that CFL teams have 20 instead of 25 seconds in between plays to re-assemble at the line of scrimmage and run another set. The CFL doesn't have a fair catch rule, the NFL does, and the CFL doesn't have false start penalties, as the entire offense is allowed to be in motion at the time of the snap. They also have a whole different set of clock-management rules past a certain time in the game, and only allow one timeout per team per half, resulting in a much different use of clock strategy. CFL players can have a catch called with only one foot in bounds, where in the NFL it takes both. Players such as Garcia who transition between the leagues can easily be thrown off by these changes before they adapt).

Anyway. Garcia led the Stampeders to a Grey Cup victory (the CFL's Super Bowl) in 1998 and from there made the transition to the NFL, where he was signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 1999. After starter Steve Young suffered a concussion in the early going, Garcia stepped in and made 10 starts for the rest of the year, throwing for 2,544 yards, 11 TD and INT, and a 77.9 passer rating. Keeping the first-string job after Young retired, he improved drastically the next year, where he enjoyed a breakout season -- 4,278 yards, 31 TD, 10 INT, and 4 rush TD to go with a 97.6 rating and a Pro Bowl selection. Despite this, the Niners finished only 6-10, but rebounded to make the playoffs in both of the next two years -- Garcia made three consecutive trips to Hawaii as he was also elected as a Pro Bowler in '01 and '02. He led a massive late-game comeback against the Giants in a playoff game in 2003 -- down 38-14 with 3 minutes left in the third quarter, he engineered drives that led to 25 unanswered points and an eventual 39-38 victory. Garcia's performance that year, otherwise, was deemed poor -- 2,704 yards, 18 TD/13 INT, a 80.1 record, and a well-publicized spat with his mouthy wide receiver Terrell Owens, who famously insinuated that Garcia, er, liked men. (Garcia later married a Playboy Playmate to prove that he didn't).

The 49ers let him go and he signed in 2004 with the Cleveland Browns, with whom he spent one season, starting 10 games. His Pro Bowl game had taken a bit of a hit, as he ended up with 1,731 yards, 10 TD, 9 INT, and a 76.7 rating, numbers that led to his release by the club at the end of the year. Becoming a bit of a pinball after his initially successful career, he signed with the Lions in 2005, starting five games with 937 yards, 3 TD, 6 INT, and a poor 65.1 rating. (He should have just blamed Matt Millen, everyone else does). The Lions understandably weren't impressed with his showing and Garcia was turned out on his ear again, resurfacing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006 to back up McNabb. This surprisingly rejuvenated his suddenly fading career -- after McNabb suffered his annual season-ending injury, Garcia stepped in to start 6 games, throwing 10 TD to only 2 INT and recording a 95.8 rating, his highest since his standout 2000 season. He won five consecutive games and helped the Eagles clinch the NFC East title with a 10-6 final record; they beat the Giants again in wild-card play, but lost in the divisional round to the Saints. Although both Garcia and the Eagles were left satisfied with the services of the other, they opted to let him move on yet again and sign younger backup Feeley to be McNabb's primary replacement.

Garcia caught on with the Bucs before the 2007 season, where he came in expecting to compete with Simms. The Bucs had gone a lowly 4-12 the year before, so when Garcia got the starting job and led them to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth, it was a nice change. In starting 13 games, he finished with 2,440 yards, 13 TD, 4 INT, and a 94.6 rating, which was good for 7th in the NFL. However, they weren't able to make it three straight wins over the Giants in the postseason, as they lost the first game they played. Garcia got the call to replace Brett Favre in the Pro Bowl when Favre pulled out, making his first appearance there since 2002. Somewhat amusingly, he threw a TD pass to old foe Owens in helping the NFC with their 42-30 victory; maybe not seeing each other for a few years helps with the enmity, or maybe it's just Hawaii and you're there to play a backyard scrimmage and get some money. Or, more likely, they just avoided the subject.

Competing in a weak division, the Bucs will hope to carry over their improved play from this year into next. Garcia's contract is up after this year, so their quarterback situation will be unsettled; Simms and Gradkowski aren't looking like long-term answers. The Bucs have a very solid defensive unit, rating third in points allowed, 2nd in yards allowed, and 1st in pass yards allowed (although their run protection lags behind at 17th). Their offense is only middling, so they'll go hunting for some new scoring weapons in April. Given their other options, that will probably at some point include a signal-caller too.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Houston Texans

The good news? My class got canceled this morning. The bad news? I found out after I'd already gotten out of bed early and gone to the classroom and was sitting there for 15 minutes, so I didn't even get to sleep in. What did I do instead? Tooled around, ran errands, forgot to fax important papers, and wrote the first page of an essay. What does this have to do with the Houston Texans? Absolutely zippo.

Houston Texans (8-8): Matt Schaub/Sage Rosenfels

The Texans, aside from having an unimaginative name (Houston Steers? Houston Hurricanes? Houston Republicans? C'mon, there's got to be something) are the baby of the NFL; founded in 2002, they've only had three starting quarterbacks, two if you count Rosenfels as the backup taking over when Schaub got injured. David Carr was the quarterback for five seasons, but he was eventually traded to the Panthers, tried to fill Delhomme's absence, and generally failed. The Texans' baby steps were difficult too -- they have gone 4-12, 5-11, 7-9, 2-14, 6-10, and this year, made it all the way to .500 at 8-8. Next step: Have a winning season. The responsibility for this task falls on Schaub, and Rosenfels if Schaub gets injured again. In a tough AFC South, the Texans' main accomplishment thus far has been stealing offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak from the Broncos to be their head coach. (The Broncos have not been the same since, as I get this feeling that Shanny has decided to do all the playcalling himself-- favorite being: "Give it to the little guys and run smack up the middle into all those big guys." I also think that Shanny forgets he has a quarterback that can execute the passing section of the playbook, as he was so used to Jake Plummer routinely becoming a soggy pile of fail. But this is the Texans quiz, not the Broncos).

Matt Schaub, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, got started at East High School in West Chester and, like several other quarterbacks we've examined, played basketball and baseball in addition to football. He was captain of the football team, All-County, and All-State, in baseball he was All-Area and Chestermont League Sophomore of the Year, and in basketball, he was Top 5 on the scoring list. In other words, a quintessential jock who was probably extremely popular with his classmates and less so with teachers. (I have no evidence to back up that assertion). He chose to attend the University of Virginia, where he set Cavalier records for starts at quarterback (40) completion percentage (66.9%) passing yards (7502) touchdown passes (56) and completions (716). For his efforts, he was named the 2002 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and his name even turned up as a candidate for the Heisman. For the first half of his college career, he ran an effective two-quarterback system, switching off with Bryson Spinner, which prevented undue wear and tear on both of them. But Spinner transferred to the University of Richmond, which left Schaub in full command of the signal-calling duties. A shoulder injury derailed his senior season, but he still finished with 2,952 yards, 18 TD, and 10 INT that year.

Schaub was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the third round of the 2004 draft, 90th overall, where he saw limited time, averaging 52 attempts a year in 38 games, but only 2 starts. (He did, however, play in all 16 games in both 2005 and 2006, seeing a lot more time than your average backup... but then again, it was Michael Vick in front of him. He's an unstable fellow). Schaub was traded for draft picks to the Texans, which considering the fact that the Falcons immediately afterwards found themselves in something of a quarterback pickle, was another suspect move on the part of a quarterback-challenged team (they, if you'll recall, also ran Brett Favre out of town, but I suppose that's a case of 20/20 hindsight). But Schaub got off to a good start in Houston, winning each of his first two starts (against the Chiefs and the Panthers) completing over 70% of his passes in each game and attaining a quarterback rating over 100. He ended up starting 11 games, with 9 TDs, 9 INT, 2,241 yards, and a 87.2 rating, before being knocked out December 2 against the Titans with a separated shoulder. This opened the door for Rosenfels.

Rosenfels, born in Maquoketa, Iowa, decided to do his future fellow quarterback one better -- he lettered in football, basketball, baseball, tennis, and track at Maquoketa High School, making All-State in the former three. One wonders how he had time to do anything else with all those sports he was playing, but he enrolled at Iowa State, majored in marketing, and was a four-year starter for the Cyclones in the Big 12 Conference. He finished with 4,164 total yards, 19 TD and 26 INT, and 3o6 completions on 587 attempts (52.1%), in addition to showing an ability to move the chains on the ground -- he had 660 rush yards and 14 rush TDs on 164 carries, 10 of those coming his senior year. These numbers, although modest, were enough to warrant a fourth-round, 109th-overall pick by the Redskins in 2001, but he saw no playing time in the one season he spent with Washington, as he was third on the depth chart. He moved to the Dolphins the next year and played in four games (no starts) finishing with zero completions on three attempts. He didn't get a start until 2004, one of three games he played in with Miami again, but when he became an unrestricted free agent after the 2005 season, he signed with the Texans.

His first season in Houston red went well, as he completed 27 of 39 passes (69.2%) for 3 TD and 1 INT, playing in four games but starting none of them. His opportunity to start more than one game in a season finally came with Schaub's injury in Week 13, so he took over in Week 14 against the Buccaneers and won, 38-14. (He also beat the Broncos in Week 15, 31-13, but I prefer not to think about that. Firstly, it was due to the fact that the Broncos' O-line, as has been proved by filmed evidence, did not even give Cutler 4 seconds to throw before Mario Williams and the rest of the Houston defense was allowed to bust through and sit on his head. This was not due to anything Rosenfels did, unless he spiked the Broncos' Gatorade with Ambien). Still, he finished 4-1 as a starter against Schaub' s 4-7, and the one loss came to the Colts. Then again, beating the Raiders, Buccaneers, and Broncos isn't terribly difficult, but he did however help the Texans shellack the playoff-bound Jaguars 42-28 in Week 17 -- even though Quinn Gray, starting for the Jags in place of Garrard, threw 4 touchdown passes.

The Texans defense, led by sack machine Williams, isn't as formidable as you'd think from watching that Broncos game. They allowed an average of 24 points a game (22nd in the NFL) 344.2 yards a game (24th) 230.1 passing yards a game (25th) and 114.1 rush yards a game (19th). Their offense was somewhat better, averaging 23.7 points a game (12th) 333.6 total yards (14th) 234.4 pass yards (11th) and 99.1 rush yards (22nd). For a team still in diapers and one that's never had much success, they still need a leader and a star performer. Schaub might eventually fit the bill, or he might not -- first he needs to stay healthy in his second year with the team and hope Kubiak keeps working his wizardry. (And we let him go. Thanks billions, Shanahan). The Texans may not get to their first-ever winning season next year, but they seem content with their QBing options for now.

And with that, I finish my 20th Quarterback Quiz and the AFC South -- only the NFC South and A/NFC Wests to go, 12 more teams in all. I'll probably post some stuff about the NFL Combine, now taking place in Indianapolis, and after that, go back to the Quizzes. In the meantime, I am still warming up for baseball blogging by reading, surprise, loads of baseball blogs. My current site of choice is It Is High, It Is Far, It is... Caught. Although this blog is run by (gasp!) diehard Yankees fans, it is also Yankees fans with the rare ability to make fun of themselves and who hate the Red Sox just as much as I do. Plus, it's hysterical.

Happy Vince Young Day, everyone!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Tennessee Titans

I have thus far spent the evening typing up what I hand-wrote of my latest story in my notebook, checking to see if there is any homework I can avoid doing, and reading fantasy baseball previews in great depth, even though I am not a fantasy person myself (not enough time). All of this has combined to make me start slavering for the start of the baseball season, but even though I generally leave my blogging tasks undone, not this time. (Applause). We continue with el Quizzos.

Tennessee Titans (10-6): Vince Young

The Titans made it to the postseason this year, even if their means of qualifying didn't really count. A Browns loss earlier in the day meant that Cleveland took the final spot if Tennessee lost; if the Titans won against the Colts, they were in. After playing Peyton Manning for precisely 16 pass attempts, the Colts appeared to say, "Screw it, we'll make Cleveland hate us," and put in their hapless backup Jim Sorgi -- when faced with such un-terrifying competition, the Titans won the game 16-10, sewing up the AFC's sixth seed and their first trip to the postseason since 2003. They finished third in the strong AFC South despite a 10-6 record, behind the 13-3 Colts and 11-5 Jaguars; the South was the counterpart to the NFC East in supplying three playoff participants. Facing the third-ranked Chargers in wild-card play, they took a 6-0 lead at halftime thanks to the strong right leg of All-Pro kicker Rob Bironas, but couldn't get into the end zone after that and had to watch Phyllis Rivers and his band of yahoos take a 17-6 victory. (In the Titans' defense, maybe they just didn't want to face the Patriots. Also, during that game, Young became the well, youngest Titan quarterback to start a playoff game at 24 years and 233 days -- his birthday is May 18, 1983). The Titans will have to keep stepping it up if they want to have any chance of ousting the favorite Colts and returning to the postseason, and while their running game is a sparkling 5th-ranked 92.4 average, they'll want to see if former Heisman runner-up Vince Young can improve on what have been rather lackluster personal numbers in his two completed seasons in the NFL.

Born in a tough neighborhood in Houston, Texas, Young was almost killed at the age of six when he was struck by a van while riding his bicycle; the accident left him hospitalized for a lengthy period of time and prompted a local TV station to make a spot about bicycle/vehicle safety featuring him. His mother and grandmother, who raised him, helped to steer him clear of the street gangs that ruled the turf (they and his sisters also supposedly helped develop his personal sense of fashion and style, and he wears #10 to mark his mother's June 10 birthday). Vince attended Madison High School, where he compiled over 12,000 yards of offense; a highlight came in beating the previously undefeated Galena Park North Shore Mustangs before 45,000 spectators in the Astrodome. He threw for 3,819 yards and 59 touchdowns that year (his senior season) and earned All-America and top-prospect distinction. A complete athlete, Young also competed in track and field (earning three letters) basketball (earning four letters and averaging over 25 points a game) and baseball (two years, pitching and playing outfield). But although he excelled in all sports, he chose to focus on football, and opted to attend the University of Texas in 2002 along with an exceptionally strong crop of Longhorns. (Broncos running back Selvin Young was among his teammates, as were New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross and Young's own current Tennessee teammate, cornerback Michael Griffin).

Young was an unstoppable force in the NCAA. After redshirting his freshman year, he took over as a sophomore and skippered the Longhorns to an 11-1 record, a Top 5 ranking, and a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan. He rushed for almost as many yards (1,189) as he passed (1,849) earning a reputation as a true dual-threat QB like Florida's Tim Tebow. But Young outdid himself the next year, going 13-o without a loss and cementing the Longhorns as the #2 pick behind perennial powerhouse USC, which at the time was sporting a shiny pair of Heisman winners -- quarterback Matt Leinart and running back Reggie Bush. (Young had finished second in 2005 behind Bush). However, Young won the Rose Bowl yet again, beating the Trojans 41-38 -- his own 9-yard scramble with 19 seconds remaining being the difference-maker. He finished that year with the #1 QB rating among all eligible quarterbacks, and there was simply no college program that could hope to contain him, or the burnt orange as long as he was in the backfield. Young posted a 30-2 mark as a starter, a Texas record, and understandably, the media was swooning for him -- he was repeatedly named as one of the best college football players ever, and at one point, had the Longhorns on a 20-game winning streak. His career .938 winning percentage is sixth in Division I history.

Young decided to enter the NFL draft in 2006 rather than playing out his final year of eligibility. Maybe he was so busy playing that he forgot to study, as there was a flap about his Wonderlic test scores -- the test, commonly administered to football prospects, is supposed to measure "cognitive ability" but is really just the SAT wearing pads. There was a pre-draft scandal in which it was reported that Young scored a six out of a possible fifty -- an impressive accomplishment, since a score of 10 supposedly indicates the player is literate. Everybody associated with it immediately denied, denied, denied (I think he probably did and they decided to get him a re-test pronto) and he was allowed to take it again, in which he scored a still-not-impressive 16. But nobody cared if he could do word problems if he could beat USC's blitzes, and Young was picked third overall by the Titans, the first quarterback taken in the draft ahead of Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler. (The former taken by the Cardinals and the latter by you-know-who). This came after a mad fluctuation of his draft stock, but the Titans were undoubtedly pleased, as they'd just snagged one of the top performers in NCAA history.

The transition to the big time, however, did not go quite as smoothly. After signing a five-year, $27 million pact, Young took the reins from Steve McNair, and although he established the rushing record for rookie quarterbacks with 552, he had his ups and downs. (McNair has served as Young's tutor and mentor, and Young sometimes jokingly refers to the 35-year-old as "Pops." They are close friends). In starting 13 games in 2006, he did at one point lead the Titans to three straight fourth-quarter comebacks, and had a six-game winning streak, but won-loss records for quarterbacks are a finicky statistic due to the number of other factors in a football game. However, his passer rating (66.7) rated 30th of 31 qualifiers, he threw for more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12) despite partway redeeming himself with 7 rushing touchdowns. He had 2,199 yards and a very low 51.5 completion percentage, leading to questions being raised if he was the NFL version of the "AAAA player," meaning a player that is too good for every other level and yet not good enough for the pros. Other prospects have learned it's a big leap from the NCAA to the NFL, but despite this, Young wangled a Rookie of the Year selection, more likely due to voters' memories of his standout Texas career than his actual performance. Still, the Titans finished 8-8, four games ahead of their doleful 2005 showing, so there was definite improvement.

Young had another statistically suspect season this year as well. In starting 15 games, he recorded a 71.1 rating (26th out of 33 qualifiers, and below entrants such as Joey Harrington, Eli Manning, Brian Griese, Kyle Boller, and Damon Huard). His knack for being picked showed up in full force, as he was intercepted 17 times against only 9 TD passes, and he passed for 2,546 yards and a better (62.3%) completion percentage than his rookie year. His rushing attack was somewhat muted, as he picked up only 395 yards and 3 ground TDs, and he fumbled 10 times, losing 3. And although Titans camp opens in March, Young won't be there until May; he elected to go back to college this spring in order to complete his degree in liberal arts. He is quite literally a rock star in Texas (as a matter of fact, tomorrow, February 20, is official "Vince Young Day" in the state, so hollah) and I'm sure they'll be glad to see him on campus. While Young is doing homework, he'll also be studying the playbook and aspiring to prove the truth of the idea that you must have patience with elite prospects. While the Titans may have gained an unfortunate notoriety as being the team with either saintlike patience or deep stupidity to put up with Pacman Jones' continuing shenanigans, Young is hoping to change that impression and lead them to a repeat postseason appearance.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Jacksonville Jaguars

Raining here again, does it ever stop? Then again, as I plan to go to Oxford next year, I suppose I should get used to it. As I've already whipped off my art homework and don't have much else to do, I figured I should keep on with the quizzes. If any of you read my baseball blog, I'll start the Around the Horn previews there soon as well. After a long offseason, I have to get my baseball-blogging muscles back into gear, but the more I think about it, the more excited I get. If only it felt more like spring.... it was warm here today, so baby steps.

Anyway. The Jaguars.

Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5): David Garrard

The Jaguars, founded in 1995, have been a much stronger expansion entry than, say, the Devil Rays. Although they went 4-12 their inaugural year, they boosted it up to 9-7 the next season and took it from there, going 12-4 in both 1997 and 1998 to win consecutive AFC Central titles. In 1999, they did themselves one better, going a blitzing 14-2, but went only 7-9 the next year. They had a few off-years in the early oughts, but climbed back into contention with a 9-7 2004, a 12-4 2005, a 8-8 2006, and then this year, 11-5 to win the fifth AFC seed and even upset the AFC North-winning Steelers in wildcard play. Crucial to that victory was a 32-yard scramble on fourth down by one David Garrard, which set up the winning margin in the form of a field goal. The Jaguars won 31-29, and were even talked about as having a possible shot to knock off the Patriots due to their turbo-charged running game. That didn't happen, of course, but Garrard, the author of that play (which was apparently his own idea, as he didn't like the playcall from the sidelines) gets his chance to go under the microscope today.

Born in New Jersey and raised in North Carolina, Garrard played high school ball for Southern High and made All-America during his time there; scouts marveled at his strong arm and his mobility despite his size (standing just 6'1" against his 245 pounds, Garrard can look more like an offensive lineman than a quarterback). He attended East Carolina University, where he took over the reins of the Pirates as a redshirt freshman and didn't skip a beat for the next three years, making every start through 1999, 2000, and 2001. He led the Pirates to a Bowl win (no, I swear to God, I swear to God, I am not making that up, you knew there was a bowl game for everything in creation and that just proves it) against the Texas Tech Red Raiders, and in his last game with ECU, faced off in the GMAC Bowl against Byron Leftwich of Marshall University, who would eventually be his Jaguars teammate. Marshall and Leftwich eventually won that, but not before double-overtime and the highest-scoring bowl game in history had taken place -- the two teams scored a combined 125 points, 61 of those by the Pirates. (I think it's safe to say the defenses didn't actually show up for that one). Finishing his collegiate career with over 9,000 pass yards and 1,000 rush yards, Garrard graduated from ECU with a degree in sports management, so perhaps he'll take over the business side of the operation once his playing days are over.

Both Leftwich and Garrard were taken in the 2002 draft, Leftwich seventh overall and Garrard 108th overall. Leftwich immediately supplanted Mark Brunell as the Jaguars' starter and Garrard played backup, starting only three games from 2002-2004. (In 2004, Garrard underwent a different kind of test, as he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and underwent surgery to remove 12 inches of his intestines; he played that year anyway). Leftwich's late-season injury in 2005 allowed him to start the final five games; he did adequately, with 1,117 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, and an 83.9 rating. He saw more playing time the next year in 2006, starting 10 games after being named the starter by head coach Jack Del Rio in place of the oft-injured Leftwich. (The Jaguars fired Tom Coughlin, currently the head coach of the Giants, in 2002 after a 6-10 record, and hired Del Rio instead; he still holds the position). Garrard's record in those 10 games was only 5-5, as he put up totals of 1,735 yards, 10 TD, 9 INT (four came in one game against the Texans) and a 80.5 rating. However, Del Rio again named Leftwich the Jaguars' starting QB in February of 2007, but that quickly came to an end when Garrard outplayed him in the preseason and got named the starter just before the opener of the 2007 season. (The Jaguars released Leftwich; the former first-round draft pick saw his stock fall dramatically as he managed to sign on with the Falcons and take his turns with Joey Harrington at filling Michael Vick's shoes. This proved ineffectual, and he was released only a few weeks after the 2007 Super Bowl).

Garrard started 12 games, with fourth-year backup Quinn Gray starting the other four. But he made the most of his time, throwing for 2,509 yards, 18 TD, and 3 INT, recording a 102.2 passer rating -- good for third in the NFL behind Tom Brady (117.1) and Ben Roethlisberger (104.1). But while the Jaguars surprised with the strength of their offense (25.7 ranked 6th in the NFL, 357.7 average of yards per game ranked 7th) a great deal of that came from the terrifying twosome of their miniature running backs, Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor. Well, Taylor isn't so miniature, standing an average 6'1"/228 lb, but Jones-Drew, at 5'7" and 208, is a little fireplug that can plow through a pile of men twice his size. The Jags' run game ranked second in the NFL behind the Vikings at 149.4, and it was precisely this strength that led a few talking heads to speculate on their ability to beat the Patriots, as the Patriots hadn't showcased a dominant run defense yet that year. (They hadn't lost yet either, and didn't lose to the Jags, so it didn't matter very much).

The Jags' D is generally solid, rating between 10th and 15th in points, yards, pass defense, and run defense, and as you will have noticed if you watched any of their playoff games, every man on the O-line is a giant. (That wasn't quite as helpful as it could have been, as they still let Garrard get sacked 21 times in 12 games and Gray 10 times in 4 games). But Jones-Drew developed into a kick-return threat almost as dangerous as the Bears' Hester (he returned 31 kicks for 811 yards, an average of 26.2 yards a return, including one 100-yard, full-field return for a touchdown). The Jaguars are a fairly similar club to the Vikings in terms of the strong run game and lesser passing game, but Jacksonville is hoping that Garrard continues to be a solid (very solid, evidently) presence for them, and since he can rush as well as pass (which can help account for his low yardage totals) he fits in well on a ground-based offensive club.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Indianapolis Colts

I have no excuse for skipping last night aside from sheer laziness, but since now it's Sunday night and my only other option is to do my politics homework (this is a familiar routine, as I constantly cannot find the ambition to do the reading, decide I won't do it, and then give in and do the reading, complete with notes, before class on Monday morning) I decided I'd do a quiz for everyone's favorite pitchman. That said, I really do like the Mannings, so this won't be much of a chore.
Indianapolis Colts (13-3): Peyton Manning

Even if you don't follow football, it's likely you know who Peyton Manning is, as he's that goofy-looking guy with a southern drawl attempting to sell you everything from Sprint to Mastercard, Sony, DirecTV, and all his various other endorsements -- not to mention the Double Stuf Racing League, dear god. The second-born son of Archie, and elder and better brother of Eli, Peyton has made a name for himself both on the football field and in front of the cameras. (His Saturday Night Live appearance after he won the Super Bowl, in which he did a faux United Way commercial, is still one of my favorites. Also check out the literacy ad in which Archie reads a bedtime story to his three eager, grownup sons -- complete with Eli tormenting Peyton, who has the top bunk all to himself -- and then, after they're asleep, shuffles out mumbling, "They've gotta get their own place.") But however accomplished he may be as a pitchman, and the fact that he will probably will endorse every product ever made before he retires aside, Peyton has that star power because of his achievements on the field. He comes from a famous family, true, but he's widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation and will probably be a first-ticket entrant to Canton when he hangs up the spikes.

Peyton, born and raised in New Orleans, attended Isidore Newman School, where for a time his older brother Cooper was his wide receiver before a spinal condition ended his football career. (Like Jon Kitna, Peyton was also a tri-sport athlete, as he started at shortstop for the baseball team and played basketball for two years). Luckily for Colts fans, he decided to concentrate on football, as if he could do anything else with his pedigree. In his senior year of high school, the team compiled an unbeaten 10-0 record, and it was widely assumed that Peyton would take advantage of his famous father's legacy at Ole Miss. Instead, he chose to attend the University of Tennessee, where he entered as the third-stringer behind Jerry Colquitt and Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. (Peyton was rooting for the Rockies last postseason because of the presence of Todd on the team. I knew there was a reason I liked him). But both of them promptly got injured, elevating Manning to the role of starter in a game against Mississippi State. He never looked back, becoming the Vols' all-time leader in career passing yards (11,201) completions (863) season passing yards (3,819) lowest season and career interception percentage (1.05% and 2.39%) and touchdown passes (89) just to name a few, while compiling a 39-6 record as a starter in the tough Southeastern Conference. Peyton set 28 records while at school there, and graduated cum laude in three years with a 3.61 GPA and a degree in speech communication, but elected to return and play his senior season anyway. When he finished, it was a hot debate as to whether he or Washington State's Ryan Leaf was the top pick. (Sorry to any Chargers fans I may have just knocked out of their seats). The Colts chose Peyton with the first overall pick of the 1998 draft, the Chargers chose Leaf with the second. One had success, and the other um.... did not.

The success did not come right away. The Colts finished 3-13 in 1998, Peyton's rookie year, as he threw for 3,739 yards and 26 TDs, but had a whopping 28 picks and a 71.2 passer rating. At the time, the Colts were still in the AFC East, so they came in solidly in the bottom (interestingly, the next highest entrant was the Patriots, at 9-7, the Bills and Dolphins both went 10-6, and the Jets won the division at 12-4. Looooong time ago). But that was the last time it would happen. The next year, the Colts finished atop the East at 13-3, and Peyton threw for 4,135 yards, 27 TD/15 INT, and a 90.7 rating. They finished 10-6 the next year, a not-so-stellar 6-10 the year after, and in 2002, joined the newly formed AFC South with the realignment of the leagues and the introduction of the Texans. Along the way, Peyton was just doing his thing -- since joining the team in 1998, he has not missed one of their 160 games, starting all 16 contests each season. The only season aside from his rookie campaign in which he did not throw for 4,000 yards was 2005, where he "only" racked up 3,747, due to sitting out the last few games with the top AFC seed already clinched. He enjoyed one of the finest seasons for a quarterback in history the year before in 2004, throwing for 4,557 yards, 49 TD (the record broken by Tom Brady this year) 10 INT, and a 121.1 rating; for his efforts, he garnered an almost-unanimous NFL MVP selection. However, the Colts couldn't get past the Patriots again that year, as New England had become their personal hex and the Indianapolis season ended 20-3 in Foxborough. For all his skill, Peyton couldn't beat the Patriots (at the time, it was his seventh straight loss in Massachusetts) and even in Tennessee, he hadn't led his team to the championship game. That was what helped fuel the talk that he couldn't win the big one.

The chance to put the doubters to rest finally came in 2006. The Colts started a white-hot 9-0, slowed down at the end to finish 12-4, then beat the Chiefs and the Ravens in the AFC wild card and divisional playoffs -- yes, times have really changed, as both those sad-sack entries this year were in title competition last year. However, the big story was the Colts vs. Patriots with a trip to Super Bowl XLI on the line, the one team that Manning had not been able to beat, against the "other" best quarterback in the game. The Colts trailed 21-3 at one point, and it looked as if it would be the same again, but Manning put together a game-winning 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter to take a 38-34 lead. The Patriots got the ball back with one minute remaining, and Brady led them to the Colts' 45-yard line, but Indy defensive back Marlin Jackson ended any chance of a comeback by intercepting Brady with 17 seconds remaining. The Colts had finally vanquished their greatest foe, went to Miami to meet the Bears in the Super Bowl, and won that, 29-17, with Peyton being named MVP for his 25/38, 247-yard, 1 TD/1 INT performance. (Of course, a scant year later, his little brother won the same honor after the same game... seems like a long time ago, huh?) That finally put to rest the talk that Peyton was unable to win the big one, and cemented the Colts' place as an AFC dynastic power.

This year, Peyton finished with 31 TD to 14 INT (the Chargers helping him out with six of those in Week 10) 4,040 yards, and a 98.0 rating, which nonetheless was his lowest since 2002 (88.8). The Colts, finishing 13-3 as the AFC second seed behind the Patriots, faced off against the Chargers in divisional play, but got upset 28-24 by a tough San Diego team, ending the Colts' chances for a repeat far sooner than they would have liked. But there's little doubt they'll be back in the playoffs next year. Peyton holds a whopping 48 franchise records, and his unique style of play means that Indianapolis' offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, has much less to do than on other clubs, as Peyton's astounding football sense and knowledge of the game are consistently allowed to show through on the field. The Colts are well known for eschewing the typical huddle offense -- instead, they assemble at the line of scrimmage without a play being called, Peyton studies the opponents' defense, and calls an audible according to what he thinks will be the most successful. To prevent the opponent from figuring out the signals, he even includes nonsense in the call that doesn't change the actual play. Since the defense has only a second or two to adjust to the formation and the defensive leader doesn't get a chance to reposition his players before the ball is snapped, the Colts are consistently one of the NFL's most prolific offenses.

The Colts have made the playoffs eight years of Manning's ten, and the difference when he plays and when, say, Jim Sorgi plays, is pretty amazing. In the game against the Titans this year that decided whether Tennessee or the Cleveland Browns got the final AFC spot, Sorgi took over early on, and upon seeing him "playing," the announcers commented, "They should just give Peyton a raise right now." Peyton, however, doesn't need a raise, as he signed a $98 million contract in 2004 and has made an additional $13 million or so with all his endorsement deals. Like fellow pass-happy teams Dallas, New England, and Green Bay, Indy can occasionally struggle with the running game, but they were ranked a serviceable 18th this year and brought in LSU product Joseph Addai in 2006 to help create a more balanced attack; he finished this season with 261 carries, 1,072 yards, and 12 TD. But at the end of the day, this is Manning's team through and through, and he'll be making commercials and leading the Colts to the playoffs for several years to come.

* Funny story: Peyton was a Pro Bowler this year, of course, and on AOL Sports, there was a story about how AFC coach Norv Turner was trying to lead practice with a bunch of bored guys who were really more interested in taking in the sun. Except for Peyton... who was busy listening attentively, making eye contact, and then running the exact play Norv wanted. It might have been a totally meaningless exhibition, but it shows how much he cares about the game and doing well. You don't think he got here by accident? Even funnier, Norv is the coach of the Chargers, the team that flipped the Colts earlier this year in the playoffs. That's just Peyton for you.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Chicago Bears

Sorry about skipping last night, as I was out at my friend Matt's theater production. Seeing as I am currently unattached, there was nothing much else to do for Singles Awareness Day, and I got back too late to really want to do a quiz; I needed to half-assedly finish up some actual homework and hit the sack. But I am back in the saddle now to examine the Bears, and I have to say, it's a great tragedy that Rex Grossman may be leaving. The world is now a little less sexy. Sob. I'm sure, however, what with so many unsettled quarterback situations, the Sex Cannon will find another field on which to unleash his mighty Throwgasms if he doesn't stay at Soldier.

Chicago Bears (7-9): Kyle Orton/Brian Griese/Rex Grossman

Now that Rex's contract has expired and he is off to jizz up some other doleful joint, the job of filling his shoes (and other parts, I'm sure) is left up to third-year player Kyle Orton and veteran Brian Griese (who was briefly considered as Elway's Heir in Denver before Jake the Snake came along). However, Grossman has expressed a desire to re-sign with the team, so although he's an unrestricted free agent, he may not be gone just yet. He's been with the Bears for five years, yet in the first three of those, he started only 7 of 48 games due to a mixture of injuries and incompetence. He started all 16 games of the Bears' 2006 NFC-winning campaign, where he played the part of Eli Manning and had the same result -- minus the Super Bowl ring at the end, as the Bears got beat by the other Manning's Colts. Rex's numbers were a 54.6% completion percentage, 3,193 yards, 23 TD, 20 INT, and a 73.9 rating, which were almost exactly identical to Eli's 2007 line of a 56.1 CP, 3,336 yards, 23 TD, 20 INT, and 73.9 rating.

Playing at the University of Florida, Grossman lost the Heisman by a whisker to Nebraska's Eric Crouch in 2001, threw 77 TD passes for 9,164 yards and a 146.77 rating, was drafted 22nd overall by the Bears after his junior year, and yet he became, well, a running NFL joke. (This should serve as a cautionary tale to current star Gator QB Tim Tebow). Amusingly enough, Grossman won the Ed Block Courage Award in 2006, which is given to an athlete embodying "sportsmanship, spirituality, and professionalism" and who serves as an "ideal role model." Evidently, all the top-tier quarterbacks had busy schedules. Grossman's "Fuck It, I'm Going Deep" tagline comes from his desire to emulate his mentor Brett Favre, who also consistently likes to go for long passes, but needless to say, Grossman doesn't do this quite as well and as such struggles with shorter passes. This is a bit of a problem, as consistently airing it out leads to the picks that Grossman constantly amasses, and short, high-percentage completion schemes tend to work better than always unleashing bombs. Yet it offers amusement, so why stop him? Shhh.

A various assortment of injuries and lackluster play derailed Grossman's promising career, however, and in 2007, he started with a 45.2 rating and 10 turnovers through the first three games. Lovie Smith gave him the boot and installed Griese instead, but Griese promptly got injured in November and gave Grossman the job back. Yet, continuing this entertaining roulette, Grossman got injured as well, Griese replaced him, and then they both yielded in favor of backup Kyle Orton. As you can imagine, a number of Bears-affiliated personnel have expressed their desire to get the passing game stabilized, and since none of their options immediately inspire much confidence, the Bears may be very well be looking to target a quarterback at some point during the upcoming draft.

If Grossman leaves, they'll be left with Griese and Orton, and it's very unlikely that they'll be able to compete over the course of a season with those two seeing the majority of playing time. Their hated rival, the Packers, will be the power in the division again if Favre comes back and will still be formidable with Rodgers, the Lions will be the Lions, and the Vikings will offer a stiff challenge, so the Bears don't have the luxury of sitting pat. They finished last in the North, 7-9 (they lost both head-to-head matchups against the Lions) a year after their NFC-championship 13-3 season. Their 15th-ranked passing game (210.1) wasn't as much the problem as was their 30th-ranked running game (83.1) but either way, they still want to make a choice, stick with it, and ideally have the same guy back there for all 16 games. They can't count on Devin Hester running back every single damn kickoff for a touchdown, as much as that seems to happen (or maybe it's just because it is Bad Memories for a Broncos fan).

Griese, who made it to the 2000 Pro Bowl as a member of those same Broncos, has also seen time with the Dolphins and the Buccaneers (interestingly, his successor as Michigan's starting quarterback was none other than a fellow named Tom Brady). He signed a five-year contract with the Bears in 2006, and has put up ratings of 62 (6 games, 0 starts) and 75.6 (7 games, 6 starts) in his two years thus far. This year, the 75.6 was supplemented with 10 TD, 12 INT, 1,803 yards, and a 61.5 completion rate. Griese has his moments, and has shown he is capable of starting a whole season, but that is already several years behind him. He, like Grossman, is prone to interceptions, and he has below-average arm strength as well. Still, due to his experience and contract situation, he'll certainly be in the mix for the starting job next year.

Kyle Orton is a 25-year-old backup who was drafted by the team in 2005 after an impressive collegiate career at Purdue. He started four consecutive bowl games (Sun, Sun, Capital One, Sun) tied ex-Boilermaker (and current Saints starter) Drew Brees' record of 522 passing yards in a game, and was rated as the third All-American quarterback behind Matt Leinart (now with the Cardinals) and Jason White (now out of football). In 2004, Orton started the team out 5-0 with 18 TD and no interceptions, but was injured and missed the rest of the season. He was nonetheless taken by the Bears next year, and got immediately into it, which is rare for a just-out-of-college prospect, but ol' Rex was injured again and Orton started 15 games as a rookie. But he didn't precisely impress -- finishing just 51.6 percent of his passes with 9 TD, 13 INT, and a 59.7 rating must have made the Windy City faithful want Grossman back, which is hard to do. However, the Bears coaching staff asked the rookie to let his defense and his rushing take most of the grunt work instead of trying to establish an aggressive passing game, and they won 10 of those 15 games, so it could be counted a success anyway.

With Griese's signing to be the second-stringer and Grossman's return, Orton failed to see a snap throughout the 2006 season. His start on December 17, 2007, was his first in almost two years, was serviceable from a personal standpoint (22/38, 184, 0/1, 59.5) but not as good for the team, as they were dropped 20-13 by the Vikings. But he redeemed himself the next week by leading a 35-7 massacre of the archrival Packers at Soldier Field -- completing 9 of 15 passes for 1 TD, no INT, and a 103.2 game rating, in arctic conditions that Brett Favre (unsuccessfully) tried to blame for his own poor performance. (Um, Brett? You play in Lambeau. Yes, thank you). The Bears closed out their season with a Week 17 win over the Saints, 33-25, in which Orton finished only 12 of 27 passes but also came up with a pair of touchdowns, one interception, and a 77.7 rating, which left his overall 2007 tallies at 3 TD, 2 INT, 478 yards, and a 73.9 rating in three starts.

As they look to get back to contender status next year, the Bears will have to take all of this into account. They have Hester, who excels at returning kicks but still can use some work on being a full-time wide receiver, as he's prone to dropping passes. They also, ironically, have a running back named Adrian Peterson, but he's not as good as the Vikings model, finishing with 151 carries, 510 yards and 3 TDs against Purple Jesus' 238 carries, 1,341 yards, and 12 TDs. The Packers are good, the Vikings are tough, the Lions are bad, and the Bears are going to have to figure out where they fit in, either by making a commitment to one of the guys named above and seeing if he can be trusted to get them through a whole season, or by shooting their fortunes with the talented quarterback class available this year. They need help across the board on the other side of the ball, with a 27th-ranked pass defense and 24th-ranked run defense, but don't be surprised if Chicago goes quarterback-hunting either.