In the NFL, where the franchise quarterback label has been bestowed entirely too liberally this decade, I can't recall a year in which more hope has been invested in more would-be quarterback saviors than exists as we approach the dawn of the 2009 season.
And I'm talking franchises with some long-standing quarterback searches of historic proportions and epic failure. Not just your run of the mill instances of a team drafting a Patrick Ramsey, or a Rex Grossman or a J.P. Losman and calling him its franchise QB, or a Houston trading for a Matt Schaub and installing him as its guy for the foreseeable future.
If you know your NFL history, you know the Lions have been looking for their next great quarterback since trading Bobby Layne to Pittsburgh in 1958. In the ensuing 50 years, Detroit has compiled the worst winning percentage in the league and won just one playoff game. On to that particular minefield, with Detroit fresh off the first 0-16 season in league annals, steps rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford, the first-overall pick in April's draft and, coincidentally, a graduate of Layne's Highland Park High in Dallas.
In Chicago, Jay Cutler's new NFL address, they've heralded the acquisition of the ex-Bronco as nothing short of the franchise's finest quarterbacking option since Sid Luckman led the Bears to four league titles in a 12-year career that spanned 1939-1950. Sid Luckman. For a little perspective, keep in mind the U.S. has had 11 different presidents since Luckman retired, and Alaska and Hawaii were still almost a decade shy of becoming states at that point. Welcome, J.C.
In New York, where the Jets perennially loom in the shadow of the more successful Giants, rookie first-round pick Mark Sanchez doesn't have a thing to live up to except the legacy of one Broadway Joe Namath, whose trademark white shoes the Jets have been unable to truly fill since he left for that one, last forgettable season in Los Angeles in 1977. No pressure, kid. Just get around to becoming iconic at some point. Soon.
And then there's Kansas City, where fresh hope abounds after last year's 2-14 debacle. Much of it centers on $63 million man Matt Cassel, the ex-Patriots backup quarterback whose stock has continued to go up ever since Tom Brady went down. Cassel's task is simple. He has to create visions of Len Dawson for Chiefs fans, and make them forget that since Dawson retired in 1975, the Kansas City faithful has been subjected to the likes of Mike Livingston, Bill Kenney, Steve Fuller, Todd Blackledge, Elvis Grbac and Brodie Croyle at the game's most pivotal position.
Sure, Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana and Trent Green won some in K.C., but they didn't win it all like Dawson did, and that's Cassel's charge. It's a big job for a guy with 15 career starts -- counting both college and the NFL -- to his credit.
All in all, it should make for some fascinating Monday morning quarterbacking this season in those four tradition-laden pockets of the NFL map. There are certainly other QB dramas to keep track of as well -- the Vikings, Browns, 49ers and Bucs leap to mind -- but if 2009 is remembered as the year in which the Lions, Bears, Jets and Chiefs all found their franchise quarterbacks, after decades of trial and mostly error, what a story it would be.
Cassel, Cutler, Sanchez and Stafford. Their sagas are bound together by the hope they represent, and their potential to break their franchise's cycle of mediocrity with greatness. Odds are they won't all be the one, the guy who ends the long wait at quarterback. But any day now, we get to start finding out which of them really deserves the franchise quarterback label they have been given, and which are temporary occupants to the throne.
Based primarily on the situations those four step into this season, here's how I rate their chances of first-year success with their new teams. One season, of course, will only offer us an opening snapshot:
1. Jay Cutler, Chicago -- Easily the most accomplished of the four, Cutler has the game to change the dynamic for the defensive-led Bears and elevate their offense into the league's upper third. He has a dearth of front-line receiving help to deal with in Chicago, but after his days in Denver ended so dismally, he also has plenty to prove and that should keep him motivated.
2. Mark Sanchez, N.Y. Jets -- I predict the Jets are poised to make some noise in the AFC East under ultra-confident rookie head coach Rex Ryan, and Sanchez will be firmly in the middle of that resurgence, with Ryan trying to duplicate game plans that mirror Joe Flacco's role in Baltimore's playoff run last season. If the Jets do indeed have defense and a running game to lean on, Sanchez will be just fine.
3. Matt Cassel, Kansas City -- The decision to lock up Cassel in a six-year, $63 million contract even before he had proved himself in Kansas City was a gusty move by new Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli. And I reserve the right to change gutsy to risky and unnecessary if Cassel turns out to be more of a product of New England's successful program than his own star potential. Let's see if he can come close to replicating his Patriots production without Randy Moss and Wes Welker to throw to, or Josh McDaniels calling the plays. Discovering just who the real Matt Cassel is will be the league's most intriguing quarterback situation of the season.
4. Matthew Stafford, Detroit -- I'm not making a top of the head judgment on Stafford's long-term NFL potential, but given the Lions' arduous road back to respectability, he's got the highest probability of facing first-year struggles. In essence, Detroit may be akin to an expansion team this season, starting over and building from the ground up under new head coach Jim Schwartz. The Lions should be content with baby steps in Stafford's rookie season.