The rampant quarterback reshuffling of the offseason now gives way to widespread quarterback intrigue on the field as NFL teams open their training camps this week.
Clubs begin reporting to camps on Tuesday, and every team will be in camp within eight days. The teams will be preparing for a 2004 season in which there will be a premium on passing, with the NFL's decision-makers having pledged to have game officials clean up clutching-and-grabbing tactics used by defensive backs to impede wide receivers. That should be a recipe for throwing success around the league, but at least seven teams open their camps uncertain about who their starters will be.
Dallas, Miami, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Washington, the New York Giants and, apparently, Oakland have their starting quarterback jobs up for grabs. The Giants signed two-time league most valuable player Kurt Warner after he was released by the St. Louis Rams to help mentor top overall draft choice Eli Manning, obtained in a draft-day trade with the Chargers. Like the other members of the draft's Big Three quarterbacks -- the Chargers' Philip Rivers and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger -- Manning has a chance to emerge as his club's opening-day starter. But, also like the other two, he has yet to sign a contract to ensure that he'll report to camp on time, and a late start to camp by any of the three could undermine his chances of starting.
The Giants are scheduled to report to camp on Thursday and practice for the first time Friday. General Manager Ernie Accorsi said by telephone last week that he's hopeful of completing a deal with agent Tom Condon soon despite salary-cap restrictions that, because of the trade, have the two sides trying to craft a complex contract that squeezes first-pick money for Manning into a Giants' rookie-pool allotment that was based on them having the fourth pick in the draft (which they used on Rivers before trading him as part of the package for Manning).
Having Warner in the fold alleviates some of the anxiety associated with attempting to get Manning on the field in Albany, N.Y., for the opening practice of camp, Accorsi said.
"If we wouldn't have gotten Warner, it would have" been more of a concern, Accorsi said. "We signed Warner for a lot of reasons. That's not the only reason. But it's one of them. There's always a chance of a delay in trying to sign your draft picks, and we have a veteran quarterback. He's signed. He's with us."
Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer will have to choose between Rivers and holdovers Drew Brees and Doug Flutie. Steelers Coach Bill Cowher has declared an open competition between Roethlisberger and veteran Tommy Maddox, who had a brief contract spat with the club after Roethlisberger was drafted before signing a new deal.
It doesn't take a prized rookie, though, to create a quarterback tussle. Many prominent veterans changed teams in the offseason, and some of them walk into competitions for starting jobs. The Redskins traded for Jacksonville's Mark Brunell to vie with youngster Patrick Ramsey for playing time under new coach Joe Gibbs.
The Cowboys signed Vinny Testaverde after he was released by the New York Jets, and many in the league expect him to emerge as the Dallas starter even though Quincy Carter quarterbacked the team to 10 wins and a playoff appearance last season.
The Dolphins traded for Philadelphia backup A.J. Feeley to go with Jay Fiedler, and the Raiders signed Kerry Collins after he forced his release by the Giants by refusing to rework his contract in the wake of the acquisition of Manning. New coach Norv Turner has said that incumbent Rich Gannon remains the Raiders' starter entering training camp. But Collins has the arm to implement the sort of down-the-field passing offense that Turner and owner Al Davis favor, and 2002 league MVP Gannon is coming off shoulder surgery and has a $7 million salary this year that leaves him still in danger of being cut if he won't restructure his contract and the Raiders decide to go with Collins as the starter.
Even teams that don't have quarterback competitions have quarterback issues. The San Francisco 49ers promoted Tim Rattay to their starting job after releasing Jeff Garcia. But Rattay suffered a torn groin muscle in the first practice of the offseason and underwent surgery. The 49ers hope that Rattay will be healthy in time to start the regular season opener, but Ken Dorsey is the starter for now.
Second-year pros Rex Grossman in Chicago, Byron Leftwich in Jacksonville, Kyle Boller in Baltimore and Carson Palmer in Cincinnati move into starting jobs. Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis switched to Palmer, the top overall selection in the 2003 draft, even after Jon Kitna thrived last season. New Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green is going with third-year pro Josh McCown.
Garcia gets a new beginning in Cleveland, and fellow veterans Drew Bledsoe in Buffalo and Brad Johnson in Tampa try to hold on to starting jobs. Young stars Michael Vick in Atlanta and the Jets' Chad Pennington come back from injuries that kept them sidelined much of last season, and Carolina's Jake Delhomme and the Rams' Marc Bulger attempt to live up to the lucrative contract extensions they received in the offseason after their first season as NFL starters. Even reigning co-MVP Peyton Manning, Eli's older brother, has something to prove after throwing four interceptions in the AFC title game and then signing a new contract with the Indianapolis Colts in March that included an NFL-record signing bonus of $34.5 million.
There is always pay before play, and the focus for teams in the coming days will be getting centerpiece rookies like Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger under contract in time to avoid potentially career-damaging absences from their first training camp.
"The rookie negotiations are on their usual glacial pace," veteran agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents Roethlisberger, said by telephone last week. "The NFL has the most amazing ability to respond with frenetic activity under deadline pressure. This is a system of institutionalized chaos. It's been handed down for generations . . . Last year was really the most efficient and peaceful year on record. Last year saw the greatest number of on-time signings and the greatest number of pastoral negotiations in the last 20 years. I would guess that this year would probably follow suit."