NFL Handicapping: Quarterback Competitions
by Trevor Whenham - 8/18/2009
As with every NFL Preseason this year's version is marked by serious quarterback competitions going on in several cities. Before today I counted five teams that had wide-open competitions for their starting job (I don't put Detroit on that list because the ascension of Matthew Stafford is inevitable and will probably happen sooner rather than later, and everyone from the team on out seems to see it that way), but the re-emergence of Brett Favre has certainly taken Minnesota off the list. The Rams may join that list now that an injury to Marc Bulger has opened the door to Kyle Boller for a couple of weeks, but we'll wait to see how that develops before calling it a race. That leaves the Jets, Niners, Browns, and Bucs as teams with open and interesting quarterback competitions that don't necessarily have a clear outcome. Here's a quick look at each one.
New York Jets - In a lot of ways you could put the Jets in the same category as the Lions - it's just a matter of time until they hand the reins to their young superstar. The big difference, though, is that the Lions will be irrelevant regardless of who is behind center, while the Jets have a chance to be competitive this year. That means that they need to put their most competitive selves forward right from the start.
By all reports the race is still wide open, though there are signs that rookie and first-round pick Mark Sanchez is gaining an advantage - most notably that he was named to start the second preseason game 10 days before the game. Beyond that, there are a couple of good reasons to suspect Sanchez will get the nod. First, it's not exactly like Kellen Clemens is a great player. He essentially sat out the whole year last year, and he was far from overwhelmingly effective the year before in his 10 appearances. In his career he has five touchdowns and 11 interceptions - hardly an ideal ratio.
It would make sense to start a veteran and ease in the rookie if the veteran was any good, but that's doubtful here. More significantly. coach Rex Ryan had a front row seat in Baltimore last year to see rookie Joe Flacco start all 16 games, look good doing it, then become the first rookie ever to win two playoff games. Sanchez is no less prepared at the outset than Flacco was, so it seems unlike that Ryan would be scared off by the prospect of trusting a rookie.
San Francisco - The Niners have bigger problems than not having a clear quarterback - they are on to their seventh offensive coordinator in the last seven years. That's a laughable revolving door. Given that, it's amazing that the team hasn't been worse offensively. They have run the ball well, and they will continue to. Though there is more involved than this, the race basically boils down to Shaun Hill and Alex Smith.
Smith, the former No. 1 pick, is trying to fight back from both an injury and some personal issues. Hill started 10 games last year, but didn't distinguish himself enough to keep the job without a fight. Because Smith hasn't played in so long he clearly needs to significantly outplay Hill to get the nod. So far, he hasn't done that. Through training camp and into the first preseason game the players were virtually indistinguishable. That means that Hill is probably in command in the race.
The nice thing for fans of the team is that the race is close because both players are doing very well. Smith has looked as strong as he ever has in camp, and he is more relaxed and focused than he has been in the past. Hill is also stepping up his game, playing as well as he can. My brain says that Hill will start the first game, but my sentimental side s pulling for Smith.
Cleveland - The Brady Quinn era has been a rumor for years now, so will we finally get to see it? Perhaps, though it isn't entirely clear yet. The competition between these two is close. Too close, really, f you consider all the hype Quinn came into the league with. He seems to have a slight edge, but he shouldn't be proud of it - he was better than Derek Anderson in the first preseason game, but that doesn't mean much when you throw an interception and your team loses 17-0.
Neither player has yet to look totally comfortable, and neither has proven unequivocally that they want or deserve the job. My bet is that Quinn is going to get the nod in the end. I'm more confident, though, that it won't matter. Neither quarterback is in a position to shine this year with the team around him, and this is going to be a rough year for the Browns regardless of who starts.
Tampa Bay - The Bucs are, by far, the biggest mess on this list. They have all sorts of options, and none of them are particularly attractive right now. In the short term, it seems to be a two-horse race between Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown. Whoever wins that race is likely just biding time until rookie Josh Freeman is ready to take over. If neither veteran asserts himself then Freeman's time could come sooner than most expect. New coach Raheem Morris has close ties to Freeman - he was defensive coordinator at Kansas State in 2006 when Freeman became the only true freshman to lead his team to a bowl game that year at the school. Morris is a big fan of Freeman as a result.
Leftwich was once promising, and he showed signs of life last year in Pittsburgh, but it's hard to imagine him as a starter again in the league for the long term. McCown is a career backup who has had ample opportunity to establish himself in Tampa Bay in the past and has failed to do so. If I was betting I would guess that Leftwich would get the nod to start the sign, but Freeman will be there to mop up as soon as things go badly - and things are going to go badly early and often for this dismal team.
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