MAKE IT SNAPPY
Tom Brady is coming back.
Brett Favre might be. Again.
Chicago’s Jay Cutler is ready to prove he’s a difference maker; Kansas City’s Matt Cassel is itching to show he was no fluke in New England last season; and newly minted multimillionaires Matthew Stafford (Detroit) and Mark Sanchez (New York Jets) can only pray to make half the impact that 2008 rookies Matt Ryan (Atlanta) and Joe Flacco (Baltimore) made right away.
Yes, no position offers more intrigue this NFL season than quarterback, and the spotlight will be shining squarely on them as training camps open over the next two weeks.
That’s not even mentioning last season’s Super Bowl participants, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Arizona’s Kurt Warner; the Manning brothers; a rebooted Chad Pennington in Miami; a mended Carson Palmer in Cincinnati; and maybe the best quarterback in the league, Drew Brees of New Orleans.
And, hey, if any of those guys fails to produce, there’s always the Wildcat.
Ranking teams’ quarterback situations from best to worst within their division:
New York Giants: Once a disappointment, Eli Manning has reinvented himself since the 2007 playoffs and last season put together the best effort of his career, breaking the 60% completion mark for the first time and throwing for 21 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He struggled without Plaxico Burress to stretch the field, though, and now won’t have Burress or Amani Toomer. Time for the young receivers to step up.
Philadelphia: Donovan McNabb has his share of detractors, and they came out in droves last season after he admitted he didn’t know NFL games could end in ties. That said, he’s led the Eagles to five NFC championship games in eight years and has the lowest interception percentage in league history (1,500 attempts or more.) If he had a ring, they’d have already named the stadium after him in Philadelphia. Big if, of course.
Dallas: Bad news on Tony Romo’s love life could turn out to be good news for the Cowboys. His breakup with Jessica Simpson clears the way for him to focus more on football, where he has yet to win a playoff game. Despite missing three games because of a broken pinkie finger, he still threw for 3,448 yards. He needs to protect the ball better, however.
Washington: If the Redskins were looking to inspire confidence in Jason Campbell, they should have been a bit more covert in their pursuit of Cutler. Regardless, Campbell has shown promise. On the good side, his passes are almost never intercepted. On the bad, they’re very seldom touchdowns, either. He threw for 13 touchdowns last season, half as many as Romo.
Green Bay: The stage was set for Aaron Rodgers to do a spectacular face-plant last season, mostly because he was following in the footsteps of a legend. What’s more, he was playing behind a pieced-together offensive line and didn’t get a lot of help from his defense. But Rodgers played with a lot of poise, throwing for 28 touchdowns (and running for four more) with 13 interceptions. OK, it’s just one number, but his 93.8 passer rating would have ranked among Favre’s best.
Chicago: Cutler, coming off his first Pro Bowl season, might belong at the top of this list. There’s no arguing he has one of the league’s best arms. Still, he got great protection from Denver’s offensive line last season -- that, coupled with his quick release, limited his sacks to 11 -- and he was throwing to exceptional targets in Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. Can he pull that off with a team that in 2008 didn’t have a wide receiver crack the top 50 in catches?
Minnesota: Even if the Vikings sign Favre, they still might have the division’s third-best quarterback situation. He was lousy at the end of last season, and it remains to be seen how much of that was because of his arm injury. Trading for Sage Rosenfels was smart; he’s accurate enough to be a good fit there. Tarvaris Jackson wasn’t bad in limited action last season, but he’s probably gone if Favre comes aboard.
Detroit: Can Stafford make the kind of impact that Ryan and Flacco made with their teams last season? Not likely. The Falcons and Ravens were better stocked than the Lions, whose defense has finished last the past two seasons. Stafford does have Calvin Johnson, and that’s a big plus. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew also should be a comforting security blanket.
New Orleans: Brees was a blindingly bright light on a bad team. He made his third Pro Bowl by throwing for 5,069 yards, the second-most in league history. In leading quarterbacks in most statistical categories, he made a no-name group of receivers look like a collection of All-Pros.
Atlanta: The Falcons have never had consecutive winning seasons, but they now have a good chance. Ryan, last season’s offensive rookie of the year, directed the team to an 11-5 finish and a playoff berth, showing uncommon poise and consistency for a first-year player. What’s more, Falcons insiders say the former Boston College quarterback, who witnessed the Patriots’ dominance up close, has a Brady-type work ethic.
Carolina: If these rankings were based merely on a player’s most recent game, Jake Delhomme would be dead last. He accounted for six turnovers (five interceptions, one fumble) in the playoff loss to Arizona. He was adequate during the season, though, with 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. And, hey, he did get the Panthers to one Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay: Josh Freeman might be the surprise of this draft class. In fact, Seattle gave brief but serious consideration to using the No. 4 pick on him if Aaron Curry hadn’t been available. Tampa Bay isn’t a bad place for him to learn and grow. The Buccaneers have a young offensive line, a decent running game, and good receivers in Antonio Bryant and Kellen Winslow.
Arizona: Hard to write off Kurt Warner’s resurgence as a fluke. He was terrific for most of 2007, and last year led the Cardinals to their first division title in 32 seasons -- and, of course, the Super Bowl. He should be able to handle the departure of offensive coordinator Todd Haley (now head coach of Kansas City) without a hitch. After all, he’s been through a few coaches in his career.
Seattle: When he’s healthy, Matt Hasselbeck is among the league’s better quarterbacks. His ability to make the right decisions quickly makes up for what he lacks in arm strength. But he broke down in a big way last season with a bulging disk, then injuries to his knee and head. Seneca Wallace is a sometimes impressive backup.
San Francisco: The franchise that produced so many good -- and sometimes great -- quarterbacks has spent a long time searching for another one. Shaun Hill and Alex Smith are serviceable and occasionally better than that. Hill won five of his eight games in 2008, and is the club’s first quarterback since Steve Young with a winning record.
St. Louis: The Rams have plenty of issues, so it’s not fair to hang all their offensive woes on Marc Bulger. But over the last two seasons, Bulger has 22 touchdowns, 28 interceptions and four victories in 27 starts.
New England: Brady recovered with astounding speed from his season-ending knee injury, but is he sure-footed enough to pick up just where he left off? If so, opponents are in trouble. The first test -- a Monday night opener against Buffalo.
Miami: Who could have guessed Chad Pennington would have that much left in the tank? Bill Parcells, obviously. For the second time in three seasons, Pennington was named comeback player of the year. He completed an AFC-high 67.4% of his passes.
Buffalo: Trent Edwards has a full plate this season. The Bills will be expecting more from him, and they’ll be using a lot more no-huddle offense. The addition of Terrell Owens should help; he’s typically the model teammate for a year or so before things head south.
New York Jets: As promising as he looks, Sanchez started 16 games at USC and has precious little experience playing from behind. The Jets aren’t loaded with receivers, and those scrambling skills will be put to the test.
Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger actually had a mediocre 2008 season with 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions . . . until the playoffs began. Simply put, he’s a gamer who knows how to win. That was evident in the final drive of Super Bowl XLIII, when Pittsburgh became “Sixburgh.”
Cincinnati: After a forgettable 2008 season, Palmer says he’s 100% (or close) and ready to return to form. He won’t have his favorite target, though, as T.J. Houshmandzadeh signed with Seattle. He’ll be difficult to replace.
Baltimore: Flacco earned the respect of teammates last season because of his toughness and surprising poise, even though he’s not the same type of playmaker Atlanta’s Ryan is. This year, Flacco (11 fumbles) has to work on hanging on to the ball.
Cleveland: The Browns would love to go back in time and locate the Derek Anderson who threw for 29 touchdowns and 3,787 yards in 2007. Until then, their choices are Anderson or Brady Quinn, both of whom were only so-so last season.
Indianapolis: After a slow start last season, Peyton Manning and the Colts bounced back to win nine in a row. The 2008 most valuable player also threw for more than 4,000 yards for a record ninth time. How will he adjust to the greatly reduced (or nonexistent) roles of longtime coaches Tony Dungy, Tom Moore and Howard Mudd?
Jacksonville: David Garrard certainly wouldn’t frame the 2008 season to hang on his wall. He didn’t play too poorly, though, despite his career-high 13 interceptions. He was ranked in the top 10 in several categories -- and No. 1 in running for his life.
Houston: Matt Schaub has already made his first connection of the season -- he misfired a drive in a celebrity golf tournament last week, bonking a spectator on the top of the head. His 2008 season was better than that -- well, slightly. He played in only 11 games but completed 66.1% of his passes.
Tennessee: OK, so Kerry Collins deserves to be higher on this list, especially after making the Pro Bowl and helping the Titans to a 13-3 record. But the veteran is more game manager than playmaker, throwing for only 12 touchdowns and with his team averaging 176.2 yards by air. Then again, winning is the objective.
San Diego: While a lot of focus this season will be on the return of Shawne Merriman and the effectiveness of LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers really makes the Chargers go. He led the NFL in touchdown passes (34), passer rating (105.5) and yards per attempt (8.4) last season. Not bad.
Oakland: JaMarcus Russell isn’t a bust yet, but he will be if he doesn’t produce this season. The Raiders were smart in signing Jeff Garcia, who just wins. He’s the kind of player who can step in, inspire the players and knock off a few opponents in a row.
Kansas City: Cassel won’t have the same caliber of players who were surrounding him in New England, and Haley won’t have the top-shelf receivers he had in Arizona. But if quarterback and coach can manage expectations, they can pour the foundation for a turnaround.
Denver: Kyle Orton and Chris Simms don’t inspire a huge amount of confidence at quarterback, but neither is a complete slouch. The Broncos have so many issues, though, it’s hard to imagine them gathering much momentum this season.