Friday September 19th, 2008

Maybe it's a case of trying to connect too many dots, but I'm starting to believe there's never been a worse time to be a highly drafted quarterback in the NFL. Going in the first or second round may get you paid like you're one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but it sure doesn't guarantee that you'll get to play. At least for long.

As 2006 second-round pick Tarvaris Jackson gives way to veteran journeyman quarterback Gus Frerotte in Minnesota's lineup this week, it occurs to me the Vikings' move merely continues a trend that has been unfolding for quite a while now.

Last week it was Tennessee turning things over to veteran backup Kerry Collins, then making it clear first-round pick Vince Young won't just walk back into his starting job once his knee sprain heals. Before that, it was San Francisco's Alex Smith and Arizona's Matt Leinart -- top 10 picks in 2005 and 2006, respectively -- getting passed over in favor of onetime sixth-round pick J.T. O'Sullivan and the undrafted Kurt Warner.

Even earlier this preseason, Chicago made the same basic choice, benching 2003 first-rounder Rex Grossman in favor of Kyle Orton, a fourth-round choice in 2005. Last season, Buffalo decided rookie third-round pick Trent Edwards had more upside than 2004 first-rounder J.P. Losman, Cleveland cast its lot with former sixth-rounder Derek Anderson at the expense of first-round rookie Brady Quinn, and Jacksonville bid farewell to 2003 top-10 pick Byron Leftwich in order to hand the reins to David Garrard, a fourth-round selection in 2002.

And you know what? In most cases, bypassing the high draft pick in favor of the guy without the first or second round label affixed to his name appears to have been the smart call. Is there any doubt that Cleveland's Anderson, Buffalo's Edwards and Jacksonville's Garrard were significant upgrades for their teams last season?

Though it's still early, can't we say things look like they're going a little better with Warner under center in Arizona, Collins taking over in Tennessee, Orton on the job in Chicago, and even O'Sullivan at the helm in San Francisco? And I'd be willing to bet Minnesota won't regret turning to the steadier Frerotte for this week's must-win against Carolina either.

The heralded quarterback Class of 2006 is certainly front and center in the trend toward teams going with their second choice at quarterback, rather than their more celebrated high draft pick. Of the five quarterbacks who went in the first two rounds, only one remains as his team's unquestioned starter: Denver's Jay Cutler, the 11th overall choice. The other four were Young (3rd overall), Leinart (10th), the Jets' Kellen Clemens (second round), and Jackson (second round).

Given Young, Leinart and Jackson's recent struggles, you can't help but wonder if some day we'll look back on the Class of 2006 and mention it in the same breath as 2002's disappointing crop of quarterbacks, when David Carr (No. 1), Joey Harrington (No. 3) and Patrick Ramsey (No. 32) were the only passers taken in the draft's top two rounds. Carr and Ramsey are both hanging on as backups for their third different NFL team, and Harrington just signed with the Saints as a No. 3 QB on Friday, his fourth NFL address.

Obviously the recent trend is relative, because Cutler isn't the lone first-round success story league-wide. Nobody's talking about benching Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer or Aaron Rodgers any time soon. Washington's Jason Campbell for now has quieted the faction calling for Redskins backup Todd Collins, Chad Pennington is merely a transitional quarterback until Miami feels rookie Chad Henne is ready, and young passers such as JaMarcus Russell, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco are first-round picks who are just now getting their first few career starts.

But can anyone recall another time when there were so many young and highly touted quarterbacks who have hit a roadblock in their development as starters? Jackson, Leinart, Young, Smith, Grossman and perhaps even Losman will all be No. 1's once again for some team at some point, and Quinn is still awaiting his first starting shot. But for now they're all watching and waiting while someone else plays the position they were drafted to play.

• I talked Hochuli-gate with Falcons president Rich McKay this week, because in his role as the co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee, McKay knows referee Ed Hochuli's blown call that wound up deciding the San Diego-Denver game will spur plenty of rule-changing discussion next spring. But not surprisingly, McKay cautions it won't be a simple fix to make sure the officials can review such a play as Jay Cutler's fumble, and then rule in favor of a change of possession even though an inadvertent whistle had ended the play.

"Any time you get a high profile play like that one was, you're going to have a new round of discussion,'' McKay said. "But what people may not realize, that play has historically been discussed a lot, meaning the ruling of an incomplete pass in what otherwise would be a fumble. The reason that play was not included in the revision where we made down-by-contact reviewable in 2007 had to do with issues relating to player safety and some other implications.

"The play we saw with Cutler, where the quarterback loses control of the ball out of the pocket and in space, was not typically the play you get in this situation. He's usually in the pocket, with a lot of bodies all around him, and in the process of starting the throwing motion. So that's where the rule regarding the throwing motion and the whistle being blown gets complex, due to the concerns over the quarterback's safety in that situation.''

In other words, the league will likely find it difficult to try and balance its desire for player safety at the game's glamour position -- quarterback -- with the ability to rectify every potential eventuality regarding plays that involve the use of replay to settle questions of a fumble versus an incomplete pass.

"That's correct,'' McKay said. "The focus of the plays we've studied in the past is whether the ball was coming forward or not, and whether it was an incomplete pass. So the whistle blows as the ruling of incomplete is made in that case, because now you've got the quarterback somewhat defenseless as everyone's coming close to hitting him. There's just some complexity in this situation that will necessitate some further study.''

Further study, of course, is a staple of the NFL's competition committee.

• As obviously wrong as Hochuli got the call, and as damaging as it was to San Diego, which would have won the game without his mistake, I wasn't the only one surprised by the NFL's decision to let one of its best referees to very publicly twist in the wind this week.

First, there was NFL spokesman Greg Aiello on Monday saying: "Officials are held accountable for their calls. They are graded on every play of the game. Ed has been an outstanding official for many years, but he will be marked down for this call. Under our evaluation system, an official's grades impact his status for potentially working the playoffs and ultimately whether or not he is retained.''

Wow. A not-so-backhanded mention of termination dropped into that rebuke. That was followed by NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira on Wednesday, who didn't quite come across as sympathetic when he said: "I've tried to be as supportive as I can be (to Hochuli), but he's devastated, as he should be....We've talked probably seven or eight times since that game and my whole goal is to try to get him back on the horse and work again this weekend. He's too good of a guy, too good of an official to keep off the field over this critical mistake he made. I think he'll be all right, but he's really been affected over this mistake he made.''

And did we mention Hochuli made the mistake? The league didn't add that last zinger, but it might as well have. People within the NFL that I talked to were surprised at just how far the league went to publicly flog Hochuli, one of its most respected referees. The reasoning? Probably making sure that the Chargers and their fans got a little salve for their wounds, given how blatantly wrong the call was, and how bad it looked for the league to not be able to rightfully award the ball to San Diego in that situation.

Folks, never, ever underestimate the NFL's acute attention to all things having to do with getting the public relations angle right.

• Here's all you need to know about how misleading the NFL's quarterback rating formula can be: Last Sunday in the Metrodome, the Vikings' Tarvaris Jackson finished Minnesota's inexcusable 18-15 loss to the crippled Colts with a higher passer rating than Indy's Peyton Manning, who led his team to the stirring comeback victory. Jackson had a 73.3 rating to Manning's 72.6. He also had the loss, and wound up getting demoted this week.

• Here's our mandatory mention of how statistically difficult it is to make the playoffs after an 0-2 start. As we told you last week, in the 18 seasons since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, just 19 teams have overcome an 0-2 start to reach the postseason. Going back 30 years to 1978, when the NFL went with to a 16-game schedule, only 27 teams starting 0-2 have made the playoffs. And this decade, from 2000 on, only six of 68 teams that began 0-2 rallied to qualify for January's Super Bowl tournament.

Of the 10 teams currently at 0-2 (Houston is 0-1), the only club I see as having a great chance to beat the odds this year is San Diego. Remember, the Chargers were 1-3 last season and still made it all the way to the AFC title game.

• Inversely, there are 10 teams currently at 2-0 (Baltimore is 1-0). Of those, the clubs that I think are the most likely to buck their own set of odds and miss the playoffs: Arizona in the NFC, and Denver in the AFC. The Cardinals haven't made the postseason in 10 years, and the Broncos were also 2-0 last year before finishing 7-9. They also started 5-1 in 2006, but missed the playoffs at 9-7, which is considerably harder than the 2-0 but home for the postseason trick.

• Raise your hand if you had Denver receiver Eddie Royal winning the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year honor. That's what I thought. Nada. But through two weeks, the elusive Virginia Tech talent is showing up as much as any NFL freshman. His 14 catches and two touchdowns lead all rookies, and nine of his catches have produced Broncos first downs. And of course he had a rather momentous two-point conversion catch in Denver's eventful 39-38 conquest of San Diego last week.

Only DeSean "Too Soon'' Jackson of the Eagles has more rookie receiving yards, with 216 on 12 catches, and, ahem, no touchdowns.

• Perhaps thoughts that San Diego's Antonio Cromartie was ready to emerge as one of the league's elite cornerbacks were a bit premature. The Chargers third-year veteran was penalized three times last week in trying to cover Denver receiver Brandon Marshall. In reality, no one covered Marshall last week, given his 18 catches for 166 yards -- the second-highest one-game reception total in league history.

• Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw have started calling themselves "Earth, Wind and Fire.'' Jacobs, the bruiser in that trio, is obviously Earth. But Ward and Bradshaw reportedly have not yet settled on who is Wind and who is Fire.

Do you think Tom Coughlin has given it any thought whatsoever?

• Last year the offense obviously did all the heavy lifting in New England. But there's bad news for Patriots-haters who at least believe that magic carpet ride ended when Tom Brady went down with a Week 1 knee injury. New England's defense is back. The Patriots defense has allowed just 20 points through the first two games, the lowest total of the nine-year Bill Belichick era in Foxboro.

• Think about this: In one recent six-day span, we saw Aaron Rodgers replace Brett Favre in Green Bay's lineup without a hiccup, and Matt Cassel take over for Brady in New England without the Patriots missing a beat.

Legends, schm-egends.

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