For Most Quarterbacks, It's Under Center and Under the Gun
We don't have to look very far to find the pivotal characters, the people around whom the 2009 professional football season will revolve. The most important, most glamorous and most pressurized position in American sports -- quarterback -- seems to be at the center of most team's uncertainties as the NFL season begins this week.
It's probably easier to count the quarterbacks who aren't in some kind of drama to start the season; there are so few. Okay, the Manning Boys are fine. Well, except that Peyton has a new head coach and folks are expecting a Tony Dungy-less Colts team to fall off the face of the earth even if Peyton is near the top of his game. Otherwise, let's see, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers aren't in any sort of make-or-break season. Throw them in with the Mannings and that means there are, what, maybe a half-dozen quarterbacks in the NFL who don't enter Week 1 with some kind of firing-squad urgency?
We could go division-by-division, but instead let's start at the top of the QB pyramid. It's nice that people love Tom Brady so, so, so much they think he can just step in after having a knee blown out and resume being the Golden Boy. Here's the problem with the scenario that has the Patriots picking up where they left off two years ago.
It ain't the same team. Donte' Stallworth and coordinator Josh McDaniels are gone from the offense. Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison are gone from the defense. If we go all the way back to when the Patriots actually won the Super Bowl (following the 2004 season), also gone are Willie McGinest, Corey Dillon and Ty Law. Okay, the offense still has Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Benjamin Watson catching the ball. The offensive line is intact.
Still, you don't just waltz back in and play it problem-free once you've had the kind of injury and surgery Brady did. Neither Carson Palmer nor Trent Green ever reached the point of being "good as new." And now Brady is supposed to carry an even greater share of the load?
The Steelers have won two Super Bowls since the Patriots' last one, which somehow is reduced to a footnote to the people drooling over the Patriots again.
Palmer, speaking of quarterbacks still trying to make it all the way back, may be at that point where he makes it all the way back this year from his gruesome knee injury. It was all taken away so quickly, it seems like some cruel dream that the Bengals were on the verge, with Palmer leading the way, of being a serious contender.
Not everybody is dealing with serious health issues. The player under the most scrutiny in the league at the moment is probably Jay Cutler, a quarterback who didn't win in college and has never reached a playoff game in the NFL, yet is thought highly enough of that folks (including my friend Peter King of Sports Illustrated) think he can lead the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl.
Problem is Cutler has no proven receivers to throw to, the once-vicious defense is on the slide and both the division and schedule are killers.
It's not often you see three viable quarterbacks in the NFC North all at once. But the primary story lines there are all QB-related. The Vikings appear to have the best personnel in the NFC, but the season will depend on whether Brett Favre can keep it together for the entire season, which he couldn't do with the Jets last year. My pick for the league's MVP is Aaron Rodgers, who threw 28 touchdown passes to only 13 interceptions last year for the Packers, and who will demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that Green Bay did the right thing in letting Favre go as long as Ryan Grant is over his hamstring issues.
The old man we ought to be watching as closely as Favre at this point is Arizona's Kurt Warner, who's won just as many Super Bowls as Favre (one) and played in one more (three). If Warner stays healthy, which at this point is a stretch, the Cardinals can go deep into the playoffs again. If he can't, we'll find out about another college QB who hasn't done anything yet, Matt Leinart, who almost unthinkably considering what he did at USC has had no pro career whatsoever to this point.
The Cowboys, as they have been since Jimmy Johnson's team expired in the mid 1990s, are always overrated and Tony Romo, while he has none of Cutler's arrogance, still is light in the postseason résumé. Forget about who he's dating; aren't we at the point where Romo actually has to close or find his job in jeopardy?