The irony cannot be lost on Jeff Fisher. Fifteen years ago almost to the day, in the first half of their third exhibition game, the St. Louis Rams lost their starting quarterback for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. Everyone knows how the Trent Green/Kurt Warner saga turned out in that 1999 season, with Warner coming out of nowhere to win the MVP and lead the Rams to a thrilling Super Bowl victory over Fisher’s Tennessee Titans the following January.
Now, with St. Louis starting quarterback Sam Bradford sidelined for 2014 by the torn left ACL he suffered Saturday night in Cleveland, Fisher and his Rams can only hope history keeps eerily repeating itself, with Shaun Hill as the next Warner-like hero to rise from obscurity, and Bradford cruelly cast as the onlooking Green in this year’s drama.
At least that’s the storybook scenario St. Louis must dream of this season, if lightning can indeed strike twice in the same spot. But just days away from the opening weekend of the NFL’s regular season, the Rams are just one of a handful of teams still grappling with questions and concerns at the game’s most pivotal position. This is not the time of year coaches want to be sweating out a starting quarterback injury, slump or crisis of confidence, but to varying degrees of urgency around the league, problems at the position certainly exist. Here’s a quick review of the league's concerning quarterback situations, ranked from the most pressing to the least.
1. St. Louis Rams -- The Rams say they’re all in with Hill and won’t be reaching for the panic button at any point in the immediate future. That stance is not without reason. Hill, 34, is 13-13 as a starter since going undrafted in 2002, with a solid 85.9 passer rating and 6,381 yards to go with 41 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. He may not be a latter-day Earl Morrall or George Blanda, but it bears pointing out that some of his career statistics compare favorably to Bradford's body of work since his solid rookie season in 2010: an 11-21-1 record, 7,553 passing yards, a passer rating of 80.8 and an identical 41 touchdowns to 23 interceptions.
The upside is clearly not as high with Hill in the pocket, but he’s seen as a reliable game manager who will give St. Louis a consistent level of play from week to week, and his knowledge of the offense and ability to read defenses is considered good enough to win with. After all, even with Bradford, the Rams were going to emphasize their defense and running game this season, so it’s not as if they must change their entire identity with a new face under center.
St. Louis will almost certainly upgrade its quarterback depth chart at the backup position behind Hill, because both Austin Davis and Garrett Gilbert are NFL novices and have never thrown a regular-season pass. But I don’t expect the Rams to make a move for a starting option like Mark Sanchez or Kirk Cousins, unless Hill proves himself entirely too rusty and unworthy of the No. 1 job in the opening two or three weeks of the season, having last started a game in 2010 for Detroit.
"Shaun’s our guy," Fisher said. "We brought him here. He’s got experience. We’ve got all the confidence in the world in him."
All the confidence in the world buys you at least two or three starts in today’s NFL.
2. Washington Redskins -- Just because motor-mouth Joe Theismann said it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Robert Griffin III is obviously struggling in his transition to more of a pocket-passing style of play under new head coach Jay Gruden, and backup quarterback Kirk Cousins is more familiar with and comfortable in that type of offense. How long do you let Griffin fight through his issues, and at what point might his confidence start to suffer long-term damage if he doesn’t show a growing grasp of Gruden’s approach?
The larger issue almost goes without saying: After the huge investment Washington made to trade for Griffin’s rights in 2012, what would it mean for the direction of the franchise if it does become painfully apparent that Cousins, a fourth-round pick that same year, gives the team its best chance to win in 2014? That’s a can of worms just waiting to be opened in Washington, historic home of many quarterback controversies dating back to Sonny Jurgensen versus Billy Kilmer.
Washington’s first-team offense is touchdown-less on the 10 drives Griffin has led in the first three preseason games, and in a loss to Baltimore on Saturday night, Griffin looked especially lost, going 5-of-8 for 20 yards, with a fumbled snap and three sacks. On Monday, Gruden talked about Griffin "not trusting the coverage, not trusting his footwork," and the quarterback’s need to "let some things fly. He’s just a little bit hesitant right now."
It’s too early to label Griffin’s career in Washington as at a crossroads, but RGIII’s franchise-altering magic of 2012 feels further away all the time. Gruden admitted the obvious this week, saying Washington’s offensive identity "needs to be found" and later adding, "The strength of our football team at this moment would be -- I would say -- our running game. I think we are pretty good in the running game."
Left unsaid is where that leaves Griffin and an out-of-sync passing game that was supposed to be dramatically improved this year with Gruden’s arrival and the acquisition of veteran receivers DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. This time, the weather in the D.C. area hasn’t been the problem, but once again in Washington, August can’t end soon enough.
3. Buffalo Bills -- It’s really never a good sign when a head coach says he plans to start his No. 1 quarterback in his team's final preseason game. Especially when the team is playing its fifth preseason game of the summer, and the quarterback dealt with three different knee problems as a rookie last year. But that’s where things stand for the Bills, with the doubts about EJ Manuel’s progress this preseason starting to build into a cacophony of criticism. Manuel was booed lustily in the Bills’ loss to Tampa Bay in Saturday's preseason home-opener, and second-year Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone already is lowering the bar of expectation considerably for the team’s 2013 first-round pick.
"We’re going with him," Marrone said Monday, when asked if Manuel had shown enough to convince him Buffalo can be a playoff contender. "He’s not going to turn around and be a franchise guy overnight. That doesn’t happen often in this league. We’re going to work with him. He’s working hard to progress. We’re going to stick with him. I’m going to support him 110 percent and we’re going to get him better."
Votes of confidence almost always sound hollow, but realistically, what choice do the Bills have? They’re not even happy with their backup quarterback situation, let alone their starter, having cut Dennis Dixon and Thad Lewis this week, while signing veteran journeyman Jordan Palmer. Manuel looks, talks and carries himself like a franchise quarterback. But he hasn’t played like one this summer, and patience is starting to wear thin with his penchant for playing hesitantly and trying to always throw the perfect pass, overall taking a safe-but-sorry approach to the position.
There’s talent galore in Buffalo, on defense and at the skill positions on offense. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but the Bills' quarterback play is what is holding them back. Maybe getting the start in Buffalo’s preseason finale against visiting Detroit on Thursday night will be some sort of last-minute difference-maker for Manuel. At this point, Buffalo may not have all that much to lose by taking the gamble of playing him in a meaningless game.
4. Oakland Raiders -- What’s the best of Oakland’s two bad choices when it comes to the issues facing starting quarterback Matt Schaub? If he and Raiders head coach Dennis Allen can be believed, Schaub’s sore elbow has not affected his ability to throw the ball downfield whatsoever. But if his arm strength hasn’t been greatly impacted by the soreness, is this what the Raiders can expect this season from Schaub, who this preseason has completed just two of 13 passes thrown more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage?
Oakland had better hope for the sore-arm scenario, because the other option would seem to be that Schaub’s confidence is almost completely shot and he’s afraid to take chances after his pick-six meltdown in Houston last year. That was the fear all along this offseason among many observers within the league, even as the Raiders acquired him from the Texans and boldly pronounced their starting quarterback issue solved.
Not so much. The Raiders have scored just twice on the 15 possessions Schaub has led this preseason, and his 24-of-47 passing for 218 yards has produced a mere 4.6 yards per attempt. He's no Daryle Lamonica, the Raiders legend remembered as "The Mad Bomber." Schaub has largely stuck to screens, short crossing routes and check-downs, and any pattern with depth to it appears to be a struggle for him. Now he has missed a couple days of practice, which could open the door for either rookie Derek Carr or second-year player Matt McGloin to build a case for the starting job if they look sharp in extended playing time this week at home against Seattle.
It would be a virtual repeat of last year, when newly acquired veteran Matt Flynn lost his grip on the starting job in Week 4 of the preseason to Terrelle Pryor, thanks to a sore elbow that Flynn came down with at this same point in the preseason. In Oakland, that’s not the kind of history the Raiders were hoping to dwell on this summer.
5. Cleveland Browns -- Calling the Browns' quarterback situation "fluid" doesn’t remotely describe the lack of clarity that currently exists in Cleveland, where neither starter-for-the-moment Brian Hoyer nor his celebrated backup, Johnny Manziel, seem capable of getting to the regular-season opener at Pittsburgh with any measure of momentum. Maybe that finally changes this week at home against Chicago, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Just days after anointing Hoyer his starter last week -- seemingly by default -- Browns first-year head coach Mike Pettine doubled back and acknowledged Hoyer’s grip on the job is less than vise-like. Not that it really escaped anyone who watched Hoyer’s shaky 10-for-16, 84-yard performance with a touchdown, an interception and a fumble in a blowout loss at home to the Rams on Saturday night. Despite playing into the third quarter, Hoyer led just one scoring drive, and that went for only 37 yards against the Rams’ second-team defense.
"Brian knows he needs to get better," Pettine said. "He needs more live-game reps ... We know we didn’t play well, but we can go out there Thursday [against the Bears] and get the bad taste out of our mouths."
That bad taste has been building up for a few weeks now, and Hoyer’s game seems to have regressed rather than progressed as the preseason has worn on. Pettine has declared Hoyer his guy for Week 1 against the Steelers, but I wouldn’t take anything to the bank just yet in Cleveland. If Manziel turns in a strong night of work against Chicago and Hoyer again struggles, there’s still time for this story to take one last surprising turn before Week 1.
6. Houston Texans -- The Texans don’t have a front-burner starting quarterback issue, but it’s worth wondering how quickly that may change once the regular season arrives. Houston is a modified version of the maxim that a team that has two starting quarterbacks actually has none: Bill O’Brien’s Texans appear to have three backups and no legitimate starter. Alas, I suppose it still beats another year of Matt Schaub.
Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick has won the job, but rookie Tom Savage, the team’s fourth-round pick out of Pitt, opened some eyes last week with a game-winning fourth-quarter drive at Denver. Savage hasn’t played against quality competition yet, and he was only carving up the Broncos’ third-teamers, but his 117.3 passer rating in six series of work this preseason is almost twice as good as Fitzpatrick’s 61.4 rating and tops Case Keenum’s 59.7. O’Brien may be forced to give Savage a try at some point early in the season if Fitzpatrick proves just good enough to get the Texans beat.
This situation is what the Texans bargained for this offseason in free agency and the draft, but for a team that has enough talent to win in one of the league’s weakest divisions, the quarterback depth chart still looks likely to sink the season.
7. Carolina Panthers -- Before they ruled him out this week for the preseason finale at Pittsburgh due to a hairline rib fracture, the Panthers sounded as if they intended to get starting quarterback Cam Newton some Week 4 playing time to help make up for some of the work he missed due to offseason ankle surgery. With a new group of receivers to throw to and a reworked offensive line in front of Newton, cohesion on offense has been hard to come by for Carolina this month.
That’s not likely to improve now that Newton has two health issues to nurse before a Week 1 trip to Tampa Bay. The Panthers remain confident that he’ll be ready to play in Week 1, but a rib injury can linger, and Newton’s wheels are obviously a big part of his game as well. Without a healthy Newton, whatever chance Carolina has to defend its NFC South title is all but gone.
Carolina was outclassed on both sides of the ball last weekend in a loss to New England, and Ron Rivera’s team may just be in survival mode this week against the Steelers. Finishing the preseason without another significant injury on offense should be the ultimate goal.