Thursday October 20th, 2011

Conventional wisdom in the NFL holds that at any given time, about a third of the teams in the league have a quality starting quarterback in place, while the other two-thirds are constantly searching for one. Those seemingly never-ending quests continued this week in NFL venues as far flung as Washington, Minnesota, Denver and Oakland, with quarterback changes that dominated the news in recent days.

The situations run the gamut from two losing teams that are elevating recent first-round picks to find out if they have future franchise quarterbacks in Tim Tebow (Denver) and Christian Ponder (Minnesota), to a 3-2 second-place Redskins club that almost inevitably was going to flip-flop between veterans Rex Grossman and John Beck this year; to the surprising 4-2 Raiders believing they have pulled a rabbit out of their hat and saved their season with this week's blockbuster trade for ex-Bengals starter Carson Palmer.

The specifics might be a bit different in each case, but the motivation for the moves are the same: In the NFL, if you don't have a good quarterback, you don't have a chance. Which is why the quarterback change has come to be seen as the magic bullet of sorts, with fans clamoring for it enough to rent billboards pushing their choice of passers, the media reacting to each loss with increasingly more questions about whether a benching is in order, and the constant swirl of QB speculation obscuring almost every other issue a team might be facing.

It's a quarterbacks league, and nothing commands our attention like a midseason change under center, be it due to injury or ineffectiveness. It just so happens that this week, we've got one unfolding in almost every direction we look.

"Everybody's looking for a difference maker. Everybody knows that,'' said Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan on Wednesday, in announcing his team's switch from the struggling Grossman to the unproven Beck for this week's game at Carolina. "There's a lot of things that go into it. But everybody's looking for a difference maker.''

Some NFL teams have been looking considerably longer than others. Beck will be Washington's 21st different starting quarterback in the past 19 seasons, from 1993 on. Denver is still trying to find its next John Elway, a search that is, at least in part, being headed up by Elway himself these days, in his role as the team's top executive. Minnesota has gone through a litany of quarterbacks in the past two decades, some of whom were very good for a short while (Warren Moon, Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Daunte Culpepper and Brett Favre), and some who were not (Tarvaris Jackson and the now-replaced Donovan McNabb).

In Oakland, where Palmer's acquisition came suddenly and at a very steep price, the Raiders have had a revolving door at quarterback since Rich Gannon's career ended early in the 2004 season. Though the latest quarterback change was brought on by the broken collarbone suffered by starter Jason Campbell last Sunday in a win over Cleveland, the 31-year-old Palmer is now both the present and the future in Oakland, simply by virtue of the first- and second-round draft picks the Raiders shipped to Cincinnati in exchange for him.

Palmer's week has been such a whirlwind that he went from being retired and hanging out in Southern California on Monday to reportedly being in line to start Sunday at home for the Raiders against Kansas City, despite playing no football of any sort for almost 10 months now. Oakland wanted Palmer and wanted him badly, and folks in Denver, Minnesota and Washington are also getting what they want in this week of quarterback change.

"It's funny, because I've been on both sides of it, of a quarterback change,'' said Gannon, the one-time league MVP who is now an NFL analyst for CBS and Sirius Radio. "I've been that backup who's always a pretty popular guy, and I've been the guy getting replaced. It's a difficult situation. Generally the results aren't quite what you anticipate when you make a change. I know what the idea behind it all is, but it usually doesn't turn out quite as good as you hope it does.

"And I know this, I've never been on a team that's had a legitimate quarterback controversy and had a team that's been tight and been together, and all on the same page. It can be a very divisive factor and it can just tear apart teams. I've seen very few teams that have had that situation go on to do anything special in January. It just doesn't happen. It kind of goes back to what [John] Madden always says, that if you've got two starting quarterbacks, you really don't have one. I think there's some truth to that.''

I guess we'll see if quarterback controversies continue in Denver, Washington and Minnesota. But from the looks of it, Kyle Orton's time as a Bronco, Grossman's as a Redskin and McNabb's as a Viking can probably be measured in months, not years. The same goes for the unlucky Campbell in Oakland, who went from having a secure grip on things one minute, to being in essence out the door and yesterday's news the next.

"If you don't have a few of those notches on your belt, with some accomplishments along the way, then you don't get that patience shown any more,'' Gannon said. "Now a days, it's next guy up. But typically when the quarterback is yanked, and you go back and look at what the issues are, it's usually not just the quarterback that is the problem. You're talking about teams that aren't very good to begin with, and they're struggling to run the ball, with offensive lines that don't hold up in protections, and teams that aren't great on the perimeter.

"There are always a number of factors that play into it. Unfortunately, they don't replace the right guard or the slot receiver to get a spark offensively. They usually just take the quarterback out, because that's the easiest and quickest way to do it.''

With Tebow and Ponder, it's a classic case of "youth must be served." First-round quarterbacks have to play and play soon in today's NFL. So it was only a matter of time, and mounting losses, before the Broncos (1-4) and Vikings (1-5) turned their attention away from this season to some degree, and toward the future. Starting with Denver's game in Miami, and Minnesota's home date against Green Bay, Tebow and Ponder will begin proving or disproving the wisdom of their first-round draft slot.

It's a different story with Palmer in Oakland and Beck in Washington. Both quarterbacks are in their 30s -- though Beck hasn't started a regular season game since his rookie year of 2007 in Miami -- and the Raiders and Redskins are in win-now mode. Both clubs are just a half-game out of first place in their divisions, and still have grand designs on the 2011 season. Palmer and Beck are obviously hopeful of being their teams' future, but it's really all about the present in Oakland and Washington.

"You have to go with the philosophy that [a quarterback change] can't hurt, but it might help,'' said former Eagles, Rams and Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil, who retired from coaching for a third time after the 2005 season. "But I don't know how many times I've ever seen it really make a big difference. With Carson Palmer, the Raiders must think he's worth that price, and they must think Campbell isn't.''

When Vermeil took over as head coach in Kansas City in 2001, the Chiefs traded a first-round pick to St. Louis to acquire his former Rams backup quarterback, Trent Green, whose season-ending knee injury in August 1999 had opened the door for Kurt Warner's emergence and led to a Super Bowl championship in St. Louis. But Vermeil said he never had to pull the plug on a veteran starter in midseason to begin grooming a young quarterback for the future. That's exactly the difficult task facing Leslie Frazier in Minnesota and John Fox in Denver.

"In those situations, the head coaches have really got to be strong leaders in keeping the mindset right and the focus correct for the rest of the football team,'' Vermeil said. "Because you've got a lot of veterans on those teams, and some of them aren't too interested in next year. You've got to make sure you really work hard on keeping them focused and thinking about getting better every day and helping that young quarterback get better every day, so he can be successful and they all can be successful next year.

"It's not that those veteran players surrender, but sometimes they lose an edge of passion. We all know that football being a combat sport requires a high degree of consistent intensity and passion. And if you lose that edge, sometimes you don't play very well.''

Interestingly, three of the four head coaches making quarterback changes this week are in their first year on the job: Frazier, Fox and Oakland's Hue Jackson. In Washington, Shanahan is in year two of his Redskins tenure, and Beck is already his third starter after the failed Donovan McNabb experiment of 2010. Clearly time is short everywhere when it comes to NFL head coaches, but Frazier, Fox and Jackson all have to win enough early to ensure their regimes aren't short-lived, and Shanahan's job security was already an issue after his rocky first season with the Redskins. As a long-time NFL head coaching veteran, Shanahan isn't working under the illusion of having time to pursue a five-year rebuilding plan in Washington.

New head coaches in the league understand that they got their new gigs because the teams they took over were losing. And quarterback issues are almost always at the heart of those problems. So you make a quarterback change in the pursuit of giving your team a spark, knowing that if it doesn't work, the next change the franchise makes is likely to be at head coach. It's no coincidence that teams with stability at quarterback usually have stability in their head coaching position.

"What you really have to work for in an NFL franchise is to never put yourself in a position where you have no choice but to take a big risk at quarterback,'' Vermeil said. "Some teams wait so long to ever get the kind of quarterback they need. What did the Vikings do a while back? They went and got Brett Favre, because they didn't have anybody already developed and coming up. That's not unique. There are a lot of teams like that in the NFL.

"So now Denver's at the point where it needs to find out if drafting Tebow in the first round was a mistake in the first place? I hope not. He's the kind of kid you'd love to see succeed. But sometimes it's just a mistake you make. He's going to have to prove that he can throw the ball at a 65 percent completion ratio, otherwise he becomes the next guy in line to be replaced, and the Broncos have to go find their next guy.''

In four NFL organizations we start finding out this weekend if the answer at quarterback is already on hand. For fans of the Vikings, Redskins, Broncos and Raiders, the waiting is over, and now comes the discovery process. It's not just Tebow Time in Denver. It's Beck time in Washington, Ponder time in Minnesota and Palmer time in Oakland.

"I do games around the NFL for CBS, and I'll do a Dolphins game and it's like Miami has had 13 or something starting quarterbacks since Dan Marino was here,'' Gannon said. "I'll do Cleveland games, and it's like 19 quarterbacks since Bernie Kosar, or maybe not even that far back. And then on TV you always see that one they put up there about how many starting quarterbacks there were in the league while Favre was starting the whole time in Green Bay.

"So it's a tell-tale sign. Look at the teams that have been productive over a long period of time. What do they have in common? A really good quarterback. Tom Brady in New England. Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Green Bay has had two quarterbacks in 20 years. Pittsburgh has Ben Roethlisberger. Philip Rivers in San Diego, and Drew Brees in New Orleans. There's only a handful of them, and that's the problem.

"Of the 32 teams, there're 12 guys who do a really good job, with maybe six of them being the elite players at the position. Then you've got 10 quarterbacks below that who are either developing young players, or players who have been upper echelon guys and have fallen off a little bit. And then you've got the guys in the bottom tier, and you say, 'How are these guys even in the league?' You have a real disparity of guys playing that position, and that's why things don't always work out like teams plan.''

In other words, in the NFL, the only constant at quarterback is change.

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