The Great QB Shuffle

In a wild two weeks of free-agent frenzy and big-name moves, the NFL has undergone a quarterback shake-up unlike any in memory--and it's not over yet
March 27, 2006

Shortly aftermidnight on March 11, the first day of free agency in the NFL, WashingtonRedskins vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato called the agentfor quarterback Todd Collins to arrange for Collins to visit the Redskins. Abackup with the Kansas City Chiefs for the past eight seasons, Collins was on afishing trip in the Bahamas, but the Washington brass didn't want to wait forhim to return. Cerrato told agent Brad Blank that the Redskins would send ownerDan Snyder's private plane to the Bahamas to pick up Collins. Blank said thatwasn't necessary; Collins would be happy to fly commercial. But Cerratoinsisted, so 13 hours later, Snyder's plane touched down in Freeport andwhisked Collins to Redskin Park.

Now, one canunderstand the Redskins' sending a private jet to impress a top free agent suchas wideout Antwaan Randle El of the Super Bowl--champion PittsburghSteelers--which they did--but for Collins? A quarterback who since the end ofthe 1997 season hasn't started a game and has thrown 27 passes? The tacticdidn't hurt. Less than 48 hours after Cerrato's call, Collins and the Redskinshad agreed on a two-year, $2.5 million deal for the 34-year-old journeyman tocarry a clipboard behind Mark Brunell and Jason Campbell.

Year in and yearout, no team is more aggressive in the early days of free agency than Snyder'sRedskins. But this year Washington is getting a run for its money in thefrantic race to find quarterbacks. In the first seven days of free agency 16teams changed their No. 1 or No. 2 quarterback, or both. Within an hour of eachother on March 14 two Pro Bowl passers moved to new teams--former San DiegoCharger Drew Brees signed a free-agent deal with the New Orleans Saints, andDaunte Culpepper went from the Minnesota Vikings to the Miami Dolphins in atrade. Though the Dolphins won their final six games of last season with GusFrerotte as the starter, they still dealt for the injured Culpepper; Frerottequickly signed as a backup with the St. Louis Rams. "Quarterbackroulette," CBS analyst and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simmscalled it on Sunday.

Nowhere did thewheel spin as fast as it did in Detroit. At the end of last season the Lions'quarterback depth chart read Joey Harrington, Jeff Garcia, Dan Orlovsky. Bylast Thursday it was Jon Kitna, Josh McCown, Shaun King. After four turbulentseasons Harrington was finished with the Lions, new coach Rod Marinelli sayingon Monday that the team had "made a decision to move on." The veteranGarcia was in Philadelphia, having signed as a free agent to back up DonovanMcNabb. Of last year's three signal-callers in Detroit, only Orlovsky, a 2005fifth-round draft choice out of Connecticut, remained with the Lions, to fightfor the third-string job.

Harrington, thethird pick in the 2002 draft, failed to live up to his billing--his record as astarter was 18-37, with a 68.1 passer rating--but the swiftness of his fallingout with the team nevertheless was surprising. Marinelli, who joined Detroit inJanuary, had given the quarterback a qualified vote of confidence, and asrecently as two weeks ago new offensive coordinator Mike Martz said he waseager to retool Harrington's game. But a quarterback camp convened two weeksago by Martz was not the fresh start the Lions were looking for.

ComplicatingHarrington's situation was a clause in his six-year, $36.5 million contract.With a $4 million roster bonus due on June 15, he would have cost Detroit $12million against its 2006 salary cap. The Lions had hoped Harrington would agreeto restructure the remaining two years of his deal, but Harrington balked,knowing he had leverage. By refusing to renegotiate, he would force the Lionsto pay the bonus or release him before the deadline, making him a freeagent.

It's clear thatbig roster bonuses and early free agency now make teams less patient with youngquarterbacks. "Before free agency," says Texans general manager CharleyCasserly, "there was no limit on how long you kept a guy. Now thereis."

A strugglingquarterback's high visibility doesn't help. "More than ever," Simmssays, "the quarterback is getting the brunt of the dissatisfaction fromfans and teams when a team loses. If you're unhappy, change the quarterback.It's knee-jerk." Adds Buffalo Bills general manager Marv Levy, "PeytonManning was 3-13 as a rookie. Troy Aikman was 0-11. There's no more patience.That's why I wonder if it's worthwhile drafting a quarterback in the firstround. The fans are saying, 'Get him in there. He's the answer.' And when heisn't, it's, 'Oh my gosh, what did you do? You were so stupid.' But it takes awhile to develop a quarterback."

So, like many oftheir colleagues around the league, Marinelli and Martz are starting with aclean slate. The 33-year-old Kitna, the presumed front-runner in Detroit, maynot have the physical tools of Harrington, but he's smart, tough and selfless.After having brought the Cincinnati Bengals to the brink of the playoffs as thestarter in 2003, he spent the last two seasons playing the good soldier as thebackup to Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer. Kitna didn't complain, but hewanted to compete for a starting job again, and it didn't take long for him torealize Detroit was the right place. "What I love about Rod Marinelli isthat he says the best guys will play," notes Kitna. "He doesn't careabout [contracts] or experience or anything else, and that's the way it shouldbe. If somebody else is better than me, he should play. If I'm better, I shouldplay. That's how you win."

Though the Lionsweren't as brash in their pursuit of Kitna as the Redskins were with Collins,they displayed similar verve. Kitna, a devout Christian, appreciated that whenhe had lunch with Marinelli and Lions president Matt Millen, the team chaplainjoined them. The quarterback also liked the Lions' emphasis on leadership,accountability and discipline in the locker room--all of which he attributes tothe Bengals' turnaround--and he relished the opportunity to work with youngreceivers Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams in the same way hehelped Chad Johnson become a better route runner in Cincinnati. In fact, Kitnasays he was so impressed with Marinelli that he was ready to sign with theLions after meeting with the coach for 30 minutes.

Kitna most likelywould have had more suitors if the quarterback market hadn't exploded. Andhere's the crazy part: It's not over. As SI went to press on Monday night, atleast 15 teams were still in the market for a veteran starter orsecond-stringer and four others--the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, OaklandRaiders and Arizona Cardinals--were working overtime evaluating the three prizequarterbacks in the April draft: USC's Matt Leinart, Texas' Vince Young andVanderbilt's Jay Cutler. Playoff veterans Aaron Brooks, Kerry Collins and BrianGriese all were on the street at the start of the week but were drawing plentyof interest, Collins with the Baltimore Ravens, Brooks in Tampa Bay and KansasCity, and Griese in Chicago and Cincinnati. Says Giants general manager ErnieAccorsi, who has been working in the front office for NFL teams since 1970,"I have never seen quarterback movement like this." Two factors havecontributed to the mayhem:

•High-profilequarterbacks were available, surprisingly, and needy teams pounced on them. TheDolphins, who haven't had a franchise quarterback since Dan Marino retired sixyears ago, exploited Culpepper's dissatisfaction in Minnesota, dealing asecond-round pick to the Vikings for a player who was the runner-up in MVPvoting just two years ago but is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. TheChargers used Brees's January labrum surgery as a good excuse not to offer hima rich deal and to finally give the quarterback job to 2004 first-rounderPhilip Rivers. When the free-agent signing period opened, the Saints movedquickly to land the 27-year-old Brees, and they did so with all of New Orleansapparently behind them. As Brees walked into Emeril Lagasse's restaurant in NewOrleans on the second day of free agency, the patrons stood as one and gave himan ovation. During dinner Lagasse slipped a note to Saints general managerMickey Loomis that said, "If he signs with us, tell him I'll cook him hisfirst meal when he gets to town--in his house." It's not often that a pairof top quarterbacks, albeit rehabbing ones, are on the market, and Miami andNew Orleans jumped at the opportunity to get one.

•Franchises areflush with salary-cap dough. Last year the 32 teams had a combined $180 millionto spend at the start of the free-agency period. In 2006, after the newcollective bargaining agreement with players pushed the cap from $85.5 millionto $102 million per team, the 32 clubs had a combined $530 million to burn.Brees would have gotten good money in any year, but the tripling of availablecap money helped push his deal to exactly what three-time Super Bowl champ TomBrady signed for last season: six years, $10 million a year. And Brees willearn $22 million in the first 12 months.

Whether throughintelligent redesign or panic buying, as many as half of the NFL's 96quarterback slots could turn over in the eight months from the end of the 2005regular season to Week 1 of 2006. Expect that kind of movement to becomestandard, as teams are lured by the prospect of an instant turnaround. It's aculture that Levy, who started as an NFL assistant in 1969, finds hard tocomprehend. "As important as the position is, there may be an overemphasison quarterbacks," he says. "There are 32 teams in the league. I'll betyou 25 of them have a quarterback issue. Unless you've got Peyton Manning, itseems you have a quarterback issue."

[This article contains a diagram. Please see hard copy or pdf.]









Aaron Brooks and Joey Harrington among options as backup to Trent Green.

Traded Daunte Culpepper, elevating Brad Johnson to No. 1.

Hello Jon Kitna, Josh McCown; goodbye Joey Harrington, Jeff Garcia.

Restructured contract of Chad Pennington and traded for Patrick Ramsey; stilllikely to draft one of the Big Three.

Cut Kerry Collins; will look at Aaron Brooks, maybe Joey Harrington; likely todraft Cutler or Young.

With Jon Kitna gone, need backup to Carson Palmer.

Could bring in Brian Griese as backup.

Will draft Matt Leinart, Vince Young or Jay Cutler at No. 3 as eventualsuccessor to Steve McNair.

Re-signed Kurt Warner but need backup to replace Josh McCown.

Signed Drew Brees; cut Aaron Brooks.

Exercised option on David Carr, making it unlikely they'll draft QB with No.1pick.

Seeking vet like Kerry Collins to push Kyle Boller.

Re-signed Chris Simms; in market for a backup--Aaron Brooks?--after cuttingBrian Griese.

Let Drew Brees walk; Philip Rivers takes over No. 1 job.

Awaiting Brett Favre's decision on whether to retire; Aaron Rodgers waits inwings.

Traded for Daunte Culpepper; released Gus Frerotte and Sage Rosenfels.




Pocket Ratings

When the Texanspicked up the option on David Carr in February, committing to their former No.1 pick through 2008, they cemented their status as an NFL oddity: a perennialloser that's set at quarterback. In general, stability at that position is anaccurate indicator of an NFL team's success. The chart below, arranged by 2006draft order, assigns each team a negative mark for signs of instability in fivecategories: if their projected starting QB is new to the team, is aging (34+),is coming off a significant injury, is inexperienced (fewer than 25 starts) orappears headed for a controversy. Seven of the 12 playoff teams from 2005 haveno marks against them. --Bill Syken

signs, I'll cook him his first meal when he gets to town--IN HISHOUSE."


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)