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Coaches show confidence despite unsettled quarterback situations

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Rex Ryan is the son of Buddy, the former longtime NFL coach who was known for his straight talk and never-back-down attitude. So it came as little surprise this week when the younger Ryan was ready for some verbal sparring when it came to questions about his quarterback situation with the Jets.

"Everybody seems to think that we have major issues at that position," Ryan said at the owners meetings at the St. Regis. "I don't think the situation is what people think it is. I think we're going to be just fine."

Mind you, the two guys competing for the job since Brett Favre retired are Kellen Clemens, who has eight career starts, and Brett Ratliff, who has never played in an NFL game. (A third, Eric Ainge, is thought to be a long shot.) Combined, they have three career wins. Yet Ryan believes a strong offensive line, a productive running game, a couple of capable pass catchers and solid coaching will be enough to silence critics.

Perhaps he's right. But I'm told that even though Ryan says one thing, he is not as firm in his conviction as he'd have you believe. One of the big things for him will be an April 16-18 minicamp, which falls the week before the draft. Ryan wants to see how Clemens and Ratliff perform, how they command the huddle, how their teammates respond to them.

That's critical because players have to believe in the person at that position. Paraphrasing Falcons coach Mike Smith, game knows game. Players don't need videotapes, press clippings or significant time to know whether someone has the goods. "Sometimes the players know before the coaches," Smith said.

If Ryan comes away with a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, the Jets likely will opt for Plan B and pursue another quarterback through free agency, a trade or the draft. Until then, they will accentuate the positive.

"These young men have a lot of ability, they just haven't had an opportunity yet to really showcase what they can do," Ryan said. "Kellen Clemens was a second-round pick. I saw him up close a couple of years ago [when Ryan was] with Baltimore. We had a big lead and he brought that team back; if it wasn't for a dropped post route they would have tied the game against us late in the fourth quarter. I certainly know what his capabilities are.

"As far as Brett Ratliff, all I can go by is what I saw on tape. He had a 122.5 quarterback rating in the preseason, and that's hard to do against air. He's going to get a great shot at it. Out of those two guys, hopefully we'll get us a guy that we feel really comfortable with."

Ryan recalls his final season with the Ravens as reason for optimism. The team drafted QB Joe Flacco 18th overall and anticipated bringing him along slowly. But in a matter of days at training camp Kyle Boller sustained a shoulder injury and Troy Smith came down with an illness that resulted in a prolonged absence. There was no legitimate alternative than to go with the rookie.

"Joe Flacco is the starting quarterback and we made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game and were close to beating Pittsburgh," Ryan said. "... We might have the next superstar right in our own building right now. You've just got to give him an opportunity."

That statement sounded a lot like something Ryan's father would have said. It was bold, out on a limb, a thumbing of the nose at conventional wisdom. Asked if he truly believes that Clemens or Ratliff has the potential to be as good as Flacco, Ryan said: "Everybody is different. But I truly believe that whoever our quarterback is, he is going to experience the same success that Flacco had. Because when you look at the success that we had in Baltimore, it was based on the team. It wasn't based on one position. That's what we're building here in New York."

The Ravens had an established defense led by two first-team All-Pros (linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed) and two second-teamers (nose tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs). The Jets had only one such player last season: second-team nose tackle Kris Jenkins.

Ryan wasn't the only coach at the meetings trying to put an optimistic spin on what appears to be a tough situation. Rookie Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris was equally adamant that the landscape is not as barren as people perceive.

See a list of unsettled quarterback situations in the NFL.

"We've got two unproven guys: Luke McCown started six games, won one, has a bunch of talent that we see every day that you don't," Morris said. "We've got a [second-year] guy, Josh Johnson, should have been a second-round pick, absolutely bombed at the combine and became a sixth-round pick. He improved all season, stuff you didn't see. We've got a guy, Brian Griese, who has played in a bunch of games, been a part-time starter, been a fulltime starter. We want to add one more for competition. Nobody is proven. We're going out there and letting them battle. They're putting their cleats in and may the best man win. We've got one bone for four dogs at the end of the day."

The fourth quarterback has yet to be determined. There is speculation he could be Kansas State's Josh Freeman, should the Bucs decide to use the 19th pick on him. Morris recently compared Freeman to Steelers two-time Super Bowl-winning QB Ben Roethlisberger, who is big enough to shake off defenders and agile enough to avoid the rush. And it should be noted that one of Morris' close friends is Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin.

So might Morris be a proponent of building the team in the mold that has been so successful for Tomlin?

The wild card in all these situations is Broncos QB Jay Cutler, who was requested a trade and is at odds with new coach Josh McDaniels. McDaniels might not have helped the situation this week when, during a media interview, he repeatedly referred to Cutler as "the player" instead of using his name. Denver reportedly has been contacted by at least 10 teams regarding a trade for Cutler, and it's likely the Broncos, should they decide to move the Pro Bowl signal-caller, will wait until the eve of the draft to see if they can drive up the price.

If Ryan is unhappy with how his minicamp goes, and if the Bucs ultimately decide they're unhappy with their situation, it's not inconceivable that one or both will attempt to make a deal.

To quote the Falcons' Smith: "It's definitely a quarterback league, and the teams that are successful usually are the ones that have a quarterback who plays efficiently."

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