Friday December 5th, 2008

As the Cardinals and Titans close in on playoff berths, they are in the remarkably similar situation of being led into January by their former backup quarterbacks, who happen to be playing in the final year of their contracts.

Neither the 37-year-old Kurt Warner in Arizona or the soon-to-be 36-year-old Kerry Collins in Tennessee were expected to be a starter at the beginning of training camp, but they eventually emerged as the best options, with Warner earning the No. 1 job in late August and Collins assuming control in Week 2.

There is one more obvious correlation, of course, in that they displaced highly touted third-year quarterbacks who were selected in the top 10 of the 2006 draft: Arizona's Matt Leinart and Tennessee's Vince Young. Both teams realized, quite correctly, that the future is now.

So while Arizona is poised to win the franchise's first division title since 1975 and Tennessee is steamrolling toward the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed and the most successful regular season in Oilers/Titans history, all their winning doesn't disguise the risky quarterback questions looming ahead:

Do the teams make sizable financial commitments to players on the other side of 35 and who, in all likelihood, won't continue to play up to their standout 2008 levels for much longer? Or do they turn back to their younger quarterbacks in 2009, taking the very real chance of messing with the successful formulas that worked so well this year?

I think conventional wisdom holds that the Cardinals must re-sign the resurgent Warner, whose play has generated MVP talk this season and conjured up memories of his Super Bowl glory days in St. Louis. And if anything, the sentiment in favor of the re-born Collins is even stronger in Tennessee, where his steady quarterbacking skills seem perfectly matched to the Titans' strengths and style of play -- much more so than the erratic Young's.

Though the Cardinals and Titans are flush with success this season, I would offer one cautionary tale I witnessed first-hand. Ten years ago this very month, I watched as the Minnesota Vikings, basking in the magic carpet ride that was their record-breaking 15-1 1998 regular season, faced a very similar decision in regards to their 35-year-old former backup-turned-starting quarterback Randall Cunningham.

You couldn't have had a more spectacular renaissance season than Cunningham enjoyed that year. After taking over for injured starter Brad Johnson in the second half of a Week 2 win at St. Louis, Cunningham went on to catch lightning in a bottle like I've never seen any other QB do. He threw for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns, posted an NFL-best 106.0 passer rating and helped Minnesota shatter the single-season scoring record with 556 points (since broken by the 2007 Patriots).

With rookie receiver Randy Moss exploding on the NFL scene, and Pro Bowl talents such as receivers Cris Carter and Jake Reed and running back Robert Smith surrounding Cunningham, the Vikings looked like a scoring machine that would roll over opponents for years to come. So on Christmas Eve of 1998, the Vikings got pro-active, replacing Cunningham's modest backup contract with a five-year, $25 million deal that would take him all the way to age 40. And there was much rejoicing in Minnesota.

At least, that is, until Cunningham's somewhat shaky performance contributed mightily to the 16-1 Vikings 30-27 overtime loss to visiting Atlanta in the NFC title game. So much for mojo.

Having committed their future to Cunningham, the Vikings, in the spring of 1999, unsurprisingly traded Johnson -- who was only a 30-year-old, third-year starter in 1998 -- to Washington for a package of picks. Within four seasons, Johnson had won a Super Bowl ring as a starter for the 2002 Bucs, and today, at 40, he remains in the NFL, as a reserve quarterback in Dallas.

As for Cunningham, his follow-up to his career year featured a descent as rapid as his remarkable resurgence had been. In 1999, playing poorly and looking like a shell of the player he had been the previous season, he was benched at halftime of Minnesota's sixth game, with the Vikings falling to 2-4 and turning to veteran Jeff George as their starter.

It was said Cunningham lacked the guidance of Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick, who had been hired as Baltimore's head coach that January. Also missing was the relationship he had with Minnesota quarterback coach Chip Myers, who had died of a heart attack in February, and Johnson's helpful insights in the backup role. Cunningham never started another game for the Vikings; they released him in June 2000 after he refused to tear up his contract and play for little more than the veteran minimum of $440,000 that season. He played two more years, as a backup in Dallas (2000) and Baltimore (2001), and then retired.

There's no way to know, of course, whether Warner's or Collins' fate will be similar to Cunningham's. But before the Cardinals and Titans pony up the big money in a rush of playoff-season goodwill, they'd do well to realize that signing a quarterback to a mega-bucks deal in his mid-to-late 30s is inherently a risky proposition. Especially when the move is based on the results of some out-of-the-blue, late-career magic.

The thing about magic is, now you see it, and now you don't.

• By some estimates, it's going to be a double-digit year in terms of NFL head coaching changes. But if there's any silver lining to all that impending turnover, it's that teams looking for an upgrade at defensive coordinator might find an unbelievably deep buyer's market to choose from.

How so? Well, consider the potential defensive coordinator prospects if there's a bloodbath in the head coaching ranks: Wade Phillips, Romeo Crennel, Marvin Lewis, Rod Marinelli, Jim Haslett, Dick Jauron, Herman Edwards and Mike Singletary are all ex-defensive coaches who are thought to be in varying degrees of jeopardy.

And then there are the current defensive coordinators who could be free if the head coach they work for gets canned: Oakland's Rob Ryan, Philadelphia's Jim Johnson, Cincinnati's Mike Zimmer, Minnesota's Leslie Frazier, Kansas City's Gunther Cunningham, and San Diego's Ron Rivera. Throw into that group one more name: Ex-San Diego defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who was fired and replaced by Rivera in October.

• These are some tough times for former New England coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. The pair were on top of the football world when they left Bill Belichick's staff in February 2005, after helping the Patriots to their third Super Bowl title in four years. But it has been mostly downhill since they became head coaches.

Crennel looks like a long shot to hang on for a fifth season in Cleveland, and Weis has been a human piñata of late, left to twist in the wind until Notre Dame announced earlier this week that he will be retained for the 2009 season.

In his four seasons thus far in South Bend, Weis is 28-21. In his four seasons thus far in Cleveland, Crennel is 24-36, with four games remaining this year. That's a combined 52-57 record for the duo in their head coaching tenures. By comparison, in their last four years together in Foxboro, Crennel and Weis went 57-16 with the Patriots.

• The NFL doesn't have a Coordinator of the Year award (yet), but if it did I'd split my vote on the offensive side. I'd go with two former AFC East head coaches who have done outstanding work despite being asked to accomplish one of the toughest feats in the game: Winning with a rookie quarterback.

Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron know each other well; Mularkey, the former Bills head coach, served on Cameron's Miami staff in 2007, where they both endured that 1-15 debacle in Cameron's only season with the Dolphins. This year, each has been instrumental in the respective success of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, both 8-4 as a starter and with an excellent shot of reaching the playoffs.

Said one league source of Cameron this week: "All I know is that he's a great offensive coordinator in Baltimore. I had heard that he was not a great head coach. Not so great on personnel decisions, and could be hot headed and a little hard to work for. But he really knows what he's doing as an offensive coordinator. This is the best offense Baltimore has ever had.''

• What a melodrama the Chargers have become. To watch their destruction of the Raiders on Thursday was to realize just what San Diego has been missing for most of its underachieving 2008 season: The drive to put an inferior team away with an avalanche of early points, erasing any possibility for another one of the Chargers' patented last-minute losses.

Yes, it was the Raiders that San Diego looked so dominant against, and that must be considered. But the Chargers had more talent than almost every team they took the field against this season, and that didn't keep them from somehow losing eight of their first 13 games.

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