Thursday, August 9, 2012

Under Pressure: Quarterbacks Feeling the Heat

A long time ago, Brandon Tierney and Eric Davis of The Drive on 95.7 The Game had an interesting debate on which Bay Area quarterback had more pressure, Carson Palmer or Alex Smith. Now that most of the offseason traffic has subsided, I thought I'd revisit the topic of NFL quarterbacks and the pressures they face with the upcoming 2012-2013 season.

Jay Cutler
I think Jay Cutler may be the quarterback with the most pressure this next season. Ever since da Bears acquired him in 2009, fans have heralded Cutler as the first true quarterback since Jim McMahon. The excitement surrounding the trade was palpable practically coast to coast. However, as hypercritical fans led by the Debbie-downer media figure Jay Mariotti, the honeymoon was over as his faults came to light. Now, I will admit that he faced the most criticism during the 2011 playoff game against the Green Bay Packers when he appeared to have given up on the game due to an injury which most argued wasn't that serious. With that scrutiny, Cutler turned his critics around when he organized training camps during the lockout and played with heart throughout the season. No one ever uttered a skeptic murmur when he was out with a finger injury. (For those who don't know, it sounds weak, but his finger required surgery.)

Those who stayed true from the beginning and continued to trust pointed out that Cutler is very talented (which I wholeheartedly believe) and never had any true receivers. (Yes, Cutler did have Matt Forte, one of the best running backs in the league, but the NFL has become a passing league. If you want to truly succeed and be a contending team, you need a strong passing game.) As Gisele pointed out to football fans everywhere, "My husband can't f***ing throw the ball and catch it too." (If you have no idea who I'm talking about, seriously consider coming out from under that rock A LOT more often.) If Brady can't be blamed, how can we blame Cutler? So in the 2012 offseason, the Bears signed Cutler's former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall. With this trade, comes a silent, "No more mistakes, prove yourself." Now, it should be pointed out that Cutler never made any statements or insinuated that the team didn't have the talent. He didn't have to anyway, considering the media was doing it for him once they came around to the fact that the guy can play.

Although the acquisition of Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell was not an effort to create competition for the position, Cutler probably feels a small bit of pressure to perform well since he could easily be replaced. Is Campbell that talented to steal the number one? No, absolutely not. Campbell lacks the skill to be a true star in the NFL, but that isn't to say that he couldn't lead a team to a winning record and even a postseason. Campbell didn't lose his job in Oakland because of lack of talent. For those who don't remember, he suffered a broken collar bone around the midpoint of the season which lead coach Hue Jackson to make a deal with his former Bengals to get Carson Palmer in an effort to salvage the season. If that deal had not been made, Campbell may very well be preparing for another season with the Raiders. However, his presence in Chicago is most likely a response to the numerous injuries to quarterbacks in the 2011-2012 season, including Cutler. The Bears learned then that they had no viable backup, and they cut Caleb Hanie loose. Unlike the Texans who found some luck with Matt Leinart and T.J. Yates, the Bears weren't able to push threw to make the postseason. Campbell offers that depth, but at the same time, Bears fans have a short attention span and are known to chant for the backup when the quarterback has a bad game (which happens to everyone). I highly doubt to see Campbell get quality time on the field unless Cutler becomes injured, but it is something that might linger in the back of his mind. He's going to have to watch his back because I do not think there is a backup in any position who is not gunning to prove they deserve the number one position.

Peyton Manning
One of the biggest stories of this offseason was the health and future of Peyton Manning. Thanks to Rob Lowe who started the hoopla with a tweet questioning retirement for Manning, the sports world was running wild about the story. While the biggest story should have been the Super Bowl, the Manning saga appeared to be on the forefront of everyone's minds. After missing the 2011 season due to injury, there became speculation that it was more serious than initially believed, and it was not long before reports confirmed that Manning had had not one, not two, not three, but four neck surgeries. It was unsure whether the Colts would be honoring the contract they had with the quarterback, and there were conflicting reports between the team doctors and Manning's own personal doctors on whether he was set to play. Soon the question of his health allowed an "out" for Jim Irsay, owner of the Colts, to part ways with Manning, and he became the hottest commodity on the market.

There is absolutely no way that any team was NOT interested in the quarterback, but several teams put themselves in the forefront. The Miami Dolphins put an aggressive campaign to recruit the quarterback, even though his name is not Chad, and fans even paid for a billboard welcoming Manning to the city hoping he would choose them to play. The media considered this a viable possibility because Peyton owns a home in Miami or somewhere nearby, and their lack of a viable quarterback is no secret as evidenced by the 2011 season. However, it had been rumored (and later confirmed) that Manning desired to finish his career with a team that would be making a Super Bowl appearance if not winning it. Given his age and the fact that his younger brother is fresh off winning his second Super Bowl which one-ups him, it is no surprise that the very competitive Peyton would make this a priority. Now, the Dolphins 2011 season probably indicated they had more problems than just at quarterback to make a real push for the championship. They were the last team in the league to have a win, and although they looked better toward the end of the season, there is no guarantee that the same troubles will not return. And they did not look that good to be a Super Bowl contender.

The Tennessee Titans invited Manning to a workout, and he obliged. Again because he wanted to end up with a team that would be in contention for, if not winning, the Super Bowl within the next few years, even with the upgrade at quarterback, the Titans most likely have a few too many holes to make a real shot at going the distance. In all likelihood, he may have been doing the due diligence to see the facilities and hear what the team could offer before making a firm decision.

The last team that made a late push for Manning after being unable to sign their own quarterback before the deadline was the 49ers. Despite the fact that the team made a public statement that they would not be pursuing Peyton Manning and would be sticking with Alex Smith, it became an entirely new ball game when there was no signed contract. The 49ers most likely made the statement because like several  other teams, they did not want to publicly go after the quarterback, and when unsuccessful, have to then go back to their quarterback and pretend that they believed in their guy from the very beginning. I would speculate that the 49ers might have delayed putting Smith's papers in order before the deadline so that they would have an excuse to pursue Manning. Just days before the deadline, Smith stated that he and the team were close to an agreement and that it was just a matter of hammering out a few last details. Since contracts often are signed just within the final ticks of the clock, fans did not seem to worry much. However, as time elapsed, the 49ers were quick to invite Manning to a workout, and Smith was on a flight to Miami to workout for the Dolphins.

Now, the team that did end up with much sought after quarterback is the Denver Broncos. You would think that fans would be overjoyed, but that was not quite the reaction. What clouded the enthusiasm? Well, Broncos fans were already under Tebowmania. Although a divisive sports figure, he did turn a disastrous start to the season under Kyle Orton into one that took the team to the playoffs. John Elway was instrumental in bringing in Manning despite the impression he made that Tebow would remain the starting quarterback. Peyton will be entering the season with having to win over some fans who might still be bitter about losing Tebow.

He'll also have to prove that he is still the quarterback he was before his four neck surgeries and taking a year off to recover. And with all the back and forth medical reports about whether he was clear to play, he will have to stay healthy and be the athlete that everyone remembers him to be. No matter how much he works out or practices with other players, you cannot replicate game play. He can be prepped to play, but his timing and some mechanics may not be quite right to produce the plays he had been making prior to his injury. And I'm guessing with the neck there may be some mobility issues that Manning would have to work through or overcome in order to have the confidence to stick his neck out, so to speak, because the position can be vulnerable. I'm not saying that he can't or won't do it because I think he can. Bottom line is, he's going to have to show everybody that he isn't injury-prone or hindered by his injury and can still play at the NFL level.

When Peyton signed with the Broncos, he confirmed my sinking suspicion that he really likes horses. Okay, not really. But when he joined the team, there was also a sense that he was looking to play for a team that would win the Super Bowl in the next few years because at his age he will only have a few years left to play. Being in the AFC West that includes the Oakland Raiders, the San Diego Chargers, and the Kansas City Chiefs, this division is up for grabs and no one quite knows what to expect. However, if Peyton Manning returns as the elite quarterback that we have all known him to be, the Broncos will probably be the favorite to win the AFC West. But we will all just have to watch and wait to see what unfolds.

Mark Sanchez
Up until a surprising turn of events during the offseason following the Manning signing, Sanchez would not have been on this list. However, the astonishing addition of Tim Tebow to the team has created a buzz around the New York Jets. Now, it would be far from the truth to say that Sanchez is a future hall-of-famer or an NFL star quarterback. Although he had a disappointing season last year, I think his years with the Jets has earned him the right to continue as the undisputed number one quarterback for the time being. As long as the Jets aren't acquiring a quarterback who is definitively better than Sanchez, he should be the quarterback.

Although I would like to see Tebow succeed in the NFL, I don't think he has quite proven that he is any better than Sanchez. Tebow still has some development before he can break through to become that star his believers feel that he can be, but he has that allure that keeps his name in the mix. Tebow has made numerous statements that he is happy to the backup, but what else is he really going to say? After leading the Broncos from a dismal beginning of last season in which he started as the backup to ousting Kyle Orton for the number one spot and making an incredible playoff run, he's a had a taste for the limelight. Considering with the way things ended for him in Denver, I'm sure that Tebow has even more drive to prove to everyone that he can be that guy, that all-star that we're all waiting for him to become.

New York might just give him that chance, which is why Sanchez is under the hot seat. It is not unfathomable to think that Sanchez could drive the team down to the field, and when close enough to the end zone, they then might put in Tebow in a wildcat to score. In this scenario, you've got Sanchez throwing for several thousand yards but Tebow with all the touchdowns. When you look at the stats sheet, then what do you do? It could be a formula for success in terms of wins, but do you really have a number one quarterback? And this is probably the better of the scenarios that could play out.

On the other hand, Sanchez is under a high-powered microscope with Tebow waiting in the wings. I'm sure it won't take much for fans to start chanting for Tebow. Sanchez really has to be spectacular to keep the press and fans from critiquing his play, and it might be a matter of time until the team crumbles to the pressure and puts in Tebow. Sanchez is in an unenviable position in the sense that every small mistake is magnified, as the team has a viable backup. He probably has to be near perfect to keep his job.

Alex Smith
I am including Alex Smith mostly because of the intense pressure that is now on the team. After making it to the NFC championship game last season, the 49ers are now even more focused on becoming a consistent Super Bowl contender and winning it in the next year or two. Now, Smith is in no way a star quarterback, but under Coach Jim Harbaugh, he has tightened up his game and not have made the mistakes he used to make. He has not become a star overnight, but in simpler terms, he doesn't suck the way he previously had. Outside of a couple games that he really put on a stellar performance, he's a mediocre quarterback. If Smith can play the way he did against the Saints in the playoffs last year consistently, he would be a top five quarterback, or at least close to it. And a large part of the 49ers success has been their defense, but if the offense vastly improves, this is a team to really watch.

And that's exactly what the 49ers did during the offseason. A hole in the offense was the wide receiver position, and they acquired Mario Manningham from the Super Bowl winning Giants team. This vastly improved the team instantly. Randy Moss might be an improvement to the team as well, but there are questions to his joining the organization, but this could be the right team for him. Moss has had some personality issues with previous teams, but Harbaugh has been phenomenal at getting players to give him everything they can. I don't see Moss quitting on the 49ers like he did in Oakland under Harbaugh's watch. Depth at running back was also a concern, so GM Trent Baalke acquired Brandon Jacobs from the Giants. Gore will still be the undisputed number one back, but Jacobs adds another option and will be able to step up should Gore suffer an injury.

Now, with these improvements on offense, Smith is going to have to continue the progress he had made last season. He's given a lot of tools, so he has to be able to make those plays. He doesn't necessarily have to be better, but he does have to prove that he is not going to regress into the quarterback he had been until Harbaugh. He needs to show that he is not a one-season-wonder, so to speak. Smith has a lot of pressure because not only has the team improved on offense, but he also has to take the 49ers farther than last year, meaning to a Super Bowl appearance. This is a team can say that the end goal is the Super Bowl and really make good on it.

One other aspect that might play into pressure on Smith is the fact that this is a team that missed out on Peyton Manning. Remember, Manning worked out for the team but ultimately signed with the Broncos. Although Smith flirted with the Miami Dolphins during the time the 49ers courted Manning, nothing came of either situation. If Smith's return to the 49ers is not what fans expect, they may begin wishing he left for Miami or Baalke had made a better run at Manning. This might not be a big piece of pressure, but it's probably in the back of fans' minds who aren't shy about letting players know how they feel. At the same time, this was the first season that fans actually expressed something other than hatred for Smith, so I doubt he really cares what fans have to say.

Andrew Luck & Robert Griffin, III
Eyes will be on both rookie quarterbacks who were the top two picks of this year's draft. Andrew Luck had been a highly regarded college quarterback who was the most NFL ready. He will be the new face of the Indianapolis Colts as they enter into a new era without Peyton Manning. I don't think that he will be expected to do what Manning has done over his career, but fans will be looking to see if he is worthy of that number one pick in the draft. Although there is some pressure for him to do well his first year, I think that there is also the understanding that you never really know how a player will do without a few years of experience under the belt.

The same goes for RG3 with the Washington Redskins. This is a struggling team that is hoping to turn things around starting at the quarterback position. He's reported to be the most athletic quarterback, rivaling Cam Newton, but those are just projections until he hits the field. The Redskins traded up to get the second pick from the Rams, and fans will want to see that this was worth it with his performance on the field.

Drew Brees
With the whole Bounty Gate scandal (and if you have no idea what I'm referring to, you might need to get out from under that rock more often), Coach Sean Peyton has been suspended from the team for the year. Joe Vitt will be the interim coach, but he will miss the first couple games to serve his own suspension. Fans and players will probably be looking at Brees even more to provide leadership for this team. Some people think that Brees will serve as the coach of the offense and in a way head coach for the team, but I don't buy into that. If quarterbacks were to be the head coach of a team, why have a head coach? I think players will be looking to Brees more now than in previous years, but in no way is he going to be a coach. Yes, with all his years of experience, he will be calling plays, but I don't think it will be any different than business as usual. He will have to be the rock for the team, after the rubble that the Bounty Gate scandal has left.

Although I started this blog based on a discussion on whether Carson Palmer or Alex Smith had more pressure, I ultimately decided not to include Palmer because I don't think the pressure is on him. The Raiders have gone through a lot of changes since the passing of Al Davis. The change is far more than just a new general manager and head coach. Davis had been a visionary, and his approach to his team was rather unorthodox. He ran things his way, but with his son, Mark, taking the reins, the Raiders are entering a new era. The approach is completely different, and we are all waiting to see what the future holds. I think there is a lot of optimism for the team since they had a fairly successful season last year. But the AFC West is a division with a lot of unknowns, and the Raider is a big piece of that. Reggie McKenzie is a first-time general manager, but he did play for the Raiders under Al Davis. People aren't sure what to expect from him quite yet, and head coach Dennis Allen had been the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos is a first-time head coach. No one knows what to expect from him either. Because people aren't sure what to expect, I think some pressure is taken away because they aren't necessarily seen to be a true Super Bowl contender. It could happen but it's not something that would make the season a disappointment should they not make it. Palmer is a big piece of the offense since former head coach Hue Jackson was a large part in acquiring the quarterback after Jason Campbell broke his collarbone. But I think Palmer's success will depend largely on the leadership and system that Allen and McKenzie put in place. For those reasons, I did not include Palmer.

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