Why are two big-name quarterbacks on the sideline with training camp only a month away?
Daunte Culpepper and Byron Leftwich would love to know the answer as both former first-round draft picks wait patiently for another opportunity. The Chiefs, Bears, 49ers, Dolphins, Ravens and Jets are a few of the teams that have issues at the quarterback position. Yet, the phone has been eerily silent for both former starters.
Both entered the league with plenty of hype and their play during their early years showed they could be capable of exceeding expectations. Culpepper, in fact, had one of the most productive years in NFL history with the Vikings in 2004, when he passed for 4,714 yards with 39 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. Though he has failed to reach that level of play in subsequent years, his career completion percentage (63.8) and passer rating (89.9) rivals those of perennial Pro Bowlers Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer. However, a series of injuries have left Culpepper and Leftwich at a crossroads and opinions are mixed on whether either will get another chance to fulfill their promise.
"[Culpepper] was one of the best quarterbacks in the league at one point, but he can't get a job in this league?" said an AFC scout. "Sure, he's been injured, but his arm strength and ability to play the game hasn't changed."
After a contract dispute with Minnesota, Culpepper was traded by the Vikings to the Dolphins in 2006. His rocky, injury-plagued tenure in Miami lasted until the Dolphins released him before the 2007 season. The Raiders picked him up during training camp while they haggled with first-round pick JaMarcus Russell over contract terms. Oakland and Culpepper parted ways after a season in which he started six games, throwing five touchdowns and five interceptions.
Leftwich, on the other hand, was cut Sept. 1 by the Jaguars, who made a surprising decision to go with David Garrard late in training camp. Atlanta signed Leftwich three weeks later to try to shore up their shaky QB situation in the wake of the Michael Vick suspension. Leftwich started only two games and was released by the Falcons in February.
As a starter, Leftwich has a winning record (24-22) and did lead the Jaguars to a playoff berth in 2005. He has proven he can manage an offense and lead a team to victory. "He is really sharp on the board," says an AFC scout. "He understands where all of the pieces fit, and doesn't need many reps to get it."
But another AFC scout contends that Leftwich's injury history and quirky delivery have overshadowed his contributions as a starter. "It's a quick game and his mechanics are all screwed up," the scout said. "His long windup limits his ability to function in a quick, rhythm offense and his lack of mobility make him a sitting duck in the pocket. It would be hard for him to fit into most offenses."
Moreover, teams don't want "true competition at the position," said an AFC scout. "If you have a young guy in line to be the starter, you're afraid to bring in a big-time talent who is capable of overshadowing the youngster in practice. If he outperforms the anointed guy, he puts the team in an awkward situation."
"There is a lot of pride and ego involved in the decision," added an NFC scout. "[Coaches and general managers] want to be right, so they are reluctant to bring in a top-tier talent to directly challenge the starter."
And then there's the issue of whether Culpepper or Leftwich are cut out to be a backup. Backup quarterbacks only see a handful of snaps at each practice, so the majority of the preparation for each game is handled through watching film and taking copious notes during meetings. "Your backup needs to be smart because he has to deliver at a moment's notice," said an AFC scout.
Teams point to intelligence as a key factor, but identifying the guy who has the right attitude is even more critical. Not to say that Culpepper and Leftwich are prima donnas, but there is a significant difference in being "the guy" and being a backup. Scouts often question whether a former starter can take a lesser role on the team. "Sometimes a big-time guy can't do that," says an AFC scout. "It's hard for a former No. 1 to maintain the discipline that it takes to be a quality backup.
"You have to know what kind of guy he is. Will he stay sharp mentally without getting several reps? Can he keep his weight down? ... Those are the things that backups must do and you wonder if either guy can handle that role long term."
Culpepper and Leftwich can certainly point out that they did so last year. But what they'd really like to do is prove it again this season, wherever that might be.