Kurt Warner has won two NFL most valuable player awards, and Rich Gannon has won one. Jeff Garcia has been to three Pro Bowls, and Kerry Collins has taken a team to a Super Bowl. Tim Couch was a top overall draft choice.
In all of sports, these guys would seem to have job security, yet each has been released by his team this offseason or is in jeopardy of being cut. In an offseason of upheaval at the sport's glamour position, the reshuffling of prominent quarterbacks isn't finished.
The NFL's annual, second-time-around free agent market opens today and, under salary-cap rules, a team can defer a portion of the cap hit for a year -- in this case, until the 2005 season -- by waiting until after today's deadline to release a player. Ordinarily, the June free agent market promises more than it delivers, but this year has been anything but ordinary.
"It really has been remarkable," said longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, known for representing top quarterbacks.
"It's been a different kind of year for quarterbacks, for sure," veteran agent Ralph Cindrich said recently.
This year's group of cuts will include Warner, who is virtually certain to be released by the St. Louis Rams only two seasons after ending a three-year run in which he won two MVPs and led the team to two Super Bowls. Warner eventually could be joined by Gannon, the 2002 MVP for the Oakland Raiders, and Couch, the top draft pick in 1999 by the Cleveland Browns. Already this offseason, Garcia signed with the Browns after being released by the San Francisco 49ers, and Collins signed with Oakland after being cut by the New York Giants.
"This is supposed to be the one position in the league where the player develops and improves over time through familiarity with his teammates and his coaches and the system, and you build your team around him," Steinberg said. "It's quite a sign of the times."
It has become a win-now league, front-office executives say. A team can go from a losing record one season to Super Bowl champion the next, and even the best clubs turn over about one-third of their roster each offseason. Patience often isn't rewarded, and quarterbacks who don't produce quickly are discarded as rapidly as coaches who don't win.
And the money just keeps getting bigger. The Indianapolis Colts used their exclusive franchise-player tag to keep quarterback Peyton Manning, the reigning co-MVP, off the unrestricted free agent market this offseason. Then, needing to lower Manning's impact against this season's salary cap, they signed Manning to a seven-year, $98 million contract that included a $34.5 million signing bonus -- $14.5 million more than the previous record, the $20 million the Philadelphia Eagles gave quarterback Donovan McNabb as part of a 2002 contract extension.
The salary explosion has trickled down to young quarterbacks. When the Giants obtained top overall pick Eli Manning, Peyton's younger brother, in a draft-day trade with the San Diego Chargers, they knew they couldn't afford to fit both Eli Manning's upcoming hefty contract and Collins's substantial, about-to-expire deal under the $80.5 million salary cap. Collins was to draw a $7 million salary and count nearly $9 million against the cap. So the Giants asked Collins to rework his contract -- not to take a pay cut, team officials say, but to restructure the deal to lessen cap impact. Collins, stung by the acquisition of Manning and suddenly able to use his cap-burdensome contract as leverage to force his exit, refused and was cut.
Three of the four quarterbacks drafted in the first round this year -- Manning, the Chargers' Philip Rivers (obtained by San Diego in the Manning trade) and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger -- have good chances to open the season as starters. (Buffalo's selection of J.P. Losman led veteran Drew Bledsoe to rework his contract to ensure that he would remain with the Bills, presumably as the starter for at least one more season.)
The Cincinnati Bengals' Carson Palmer, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Byron Leftwich, the Baltimore Ravens' Kyle Boller and the Chicago Bears' Rex Grossman, all first-round picks last year, are slated to open this season as starters. Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis switched to Palmer even through veteran Jon Kitna thrived as Cincinnati's starter last season.
"When you draft a quarterback high up now, it's not about letting him sit and wait for three years," Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Those guys have to play. They're making too much money not to play. And then if you also have a veteran guy, it's hard to have two guys on your roster making that much money because then you have too much tied up into one position. If you have Peyton Manning, your backup has to be making zilch."
Couch squandered his chance in Cleveland and the Browns, after signing Garcia to be their starter, probably can't afford to keep Couch under the terms of his contract, which calls for starter-like salaries of $7.6 million this season and $8 million in 2005. But he is only 26, and teams are eager to give him a second chance -- for a reduced price. The Green Bay Packers have been thwarted so far in their efforts to negotiate a contract with Couch as a necessary precursor to a proposed trade with the Browns.
Now the Packers, Ravens and other teams looking for a backup quarterback might wait to see if the Browns release Couch. The Ravens probably will sign former Pittsburgh and Chicago starter Kordell Stewart, released by the Bears in March, if they can't get Couch or Brad Johnson. Johnson perhaps would be made available by the Buccaneers if Gannon is cut and reunites with former Raiders coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay.
Warner, who lost his starting job in St. Louis to Marc Bulger and didn't want to rework his contract, has several clubs in pursuit but probably is headed to the Giants to help mentor Manning. He could open the season as the starter, but Manning is slated to play extensively as a rookie. Warner's best bet probably is to sign a one-year contract and hope he plays well enough to earn a more lucrative deal as a free agent next offseason. His agent, Mark Bartelstein, said Warner will sign somewhere quickly after the Rams release him.
The Raiders signed Collins to a three-year, $16.8 million contract 31/2 weeks after he was cut by the Giants. It was widely assumed around the league that the signing of Collins would lead to the June release of Gannon, who has a $7 million salary for the 2004 season and counts more than $8.9 million against Oakland's salary cap. But Coach Norv Turner said that not only would Gannon remain on the Raiders' roster, he would remain the starter.
Collins reinforced that, saying he understood that he was brought in as the backup. Collins's contract, which included a signing bonus of $1.6 million, is structured so that the Raiders could afford to have him be a backup for one season. But it remains likely that the Raiders will ask Gannon at some point to restructure his contract and lessen his cap impact, and it still seems possible that he could be released closer to the season if he refuses.
The New York Jets appear poised to release veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who seems headed to Dallas or New England.
As if all those moves weren't excitement enough for the first day of June, other notable players may be released, as well. Tennessee Titans tailback Eddie George, linebackers Jason Gildon of the Steelers and Jeremiah Trotter of the Washington Redskins, Packers defensive end Joe Johnson and Denver defensive tackle Daryl Gardener (who already has a deal with the Bengals virtually in place after being given permission by the Broncos to line up a contract elsewhere) are expected to become available.
But the focus will remain on the hot quarterback market, with few or no starting jobs being offered but a dozen or so teams still looking to add at the position.
"It's still the most important position on the team, but you also have to fit it into your salary cap," Newsome said. "It's so much about the cap now, and that applies to every position."