- Kevin Seifert, NFL Nation
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Through six weeks this season, Air and Space 2.0 is a dud. Indeed, the sophomore slump of the NFC North's elite quarterback quartet weaves through the troubles of the entire division and helps explain why the Black and Blue is bruised and dragging in the third week of October.
The full explanation requires a wider net, but in a quarterback-driven league, it's impossible to overlook the dramatic drop in production and efficiency from NFC North passers. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers have already matched their 2009 interception total for the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, respectively. Matthew Stafford has thrown only 15 passes for the Detroit Lions because of a right shoulder injury, and Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has taken 18 sacks in his past three starts.
Cutler and Rodgers have already suffered concussions. Favre has taken a cortisone shot to relieve tendinitis pain in his right elbow. Stafford is hoping to return Oct. 31 against the Washington Redskins, leaving him 10 games to demonstrate why he was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft.
Let's take a closer look at where each quarterback started, what he has been through and where he might be headed. In alphabetical order:
The set-up: The Bears hoped new offensive coordinator Mike Martz would focus Cutler's downfield mentality and capitalize on his quick release. They were willing to live with some interceptions, just not as frequently as the 26 he threw last season, and believed the biggest obstacle would be a clash of their stubborn personalities.
The stumble: By all accounts, Cutler and Martz have gotten along professionally and personally. And Cutler has thrown only three interceptions in 141 attempts, tying him for the eighth fewest among NFL quarterbacks. But Cutler's career-long propensity to hold the ball, combined with Martz's blind affinity for deep drops, has totally disrupted the Bears' offense.
By the numbers: Cutler had a 121.2 passer rating over the first two games of the season, but in his past three, he has thrown only one touchdown pass and has a 74.6 rating. As a passer, Cutler has been at his worst on his most important throws. His 52.1 rating on third down ranks No. 33 in the NFL. Overall this season, Cutler has been sacked an NFL-high 23 times -- in the equivalent of just 4 1/2 games.
Quotable: "Jay Cutler was introduced to this offense last spring in organized training activities. He went through an entire training camp with it. He was force-fed all of the information by Mike Martz and shown clearly what this offense is about. They use complex protection schemes and utilize one back in the backfield most of the time. It puts a tremendous burden on the quarterback to know who's blocked and who's not blocked. Ultimately, it's Jay Cutler's responsibility, when secondary people are coming, he needs to know they're either being picked up by my offensive line and my backs, or I'm responsible for them with hot throws. Regardless of what the issue is, ultimately it falls on Jay Cutler to get the ball out of his hands and to prevent these sacks and the turnovers that come with them." -- ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer
The set-up: Favre had the best season of his career last year, posting a 107.2 passer rating, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. With his surgically-repaired biceps tendon still intact and after successful offseason ankle surgery, Favre returned for what he hoped would be a repeat performance.
The stumble: Within days of Favre's decision to play, top receiver Sidney Rice was sidelined by hip surgery. Three receivers -- Greg Camarillo, Hank Baskett and Randy Moss -- have been added to the roster since late August. Tendinitis developed last month, the same ailment that sidelined him for almost a month of training camp in 2000. Finally, Favre has spent two weeks dealing with allegations that he sent inappropriate photographs to a former New York Jets sideline reporter in 2008.
By the numbers: In five games, Favre has committed 12 turnovers, been sacked 13 times and completed only 58.7 percent of his passes. He has had a completion percentage of at least 60 percent in eight of the past nine years. And like Cutler and Rodgers, he has struggled on third down, completing only 50 percent of his throws for a 69.1 passer rating that ranks No. 26 among NFL quarterbacks in those situations.
Quotable: "The first couple games, talking with my mom and a couple family members back home, they said: 'You've got to start smiling more.' That's pressure because, I've said this numerous times, say you're down 14-7, I don't want to be on the sidelines doing cartwheels and smiling. I think that sends the wrong message. I want to win. I think sometimes it's almost that I'm too focused." -- Favre
The set-up: After earning starting honors in the Pro Bowl last season, Rodgers was a trendy preseason MVP candidate this summer. His two years as a starter had proved him to be an exceptionally accurate and careful passer, and he seemed on the verge of ascending to the highest level of NFL quarterbacks.
The stumble: The Packers lost tailback Ryan Grant (ankle) in Week 1 and tight end Jermichael Finley (knee) in Week 5, robbing Rodgers of his running game and his top pass-catching threat. In between, however, Rodgers has displayed uncharacteristic inaccuracy and has taken more chances than normal. He has already thrown seven interceptions, matching his 2009 season total, and is on pace for a career-high 18. In his past two games, Rodgers has taken nine sacks and completed only 57 percent of his passes.
By the numbers: Rodgers was lethal last season against opponents' blitzes, finishing with 13 touchdown passes and a 112.7 passer rating when facing five or more pass-rushers. Pressure has gotten to him more frequently this season, however. He has thrown four of his interceptions against the blitz and has a 77.8 passer rating against it. Meanwhile, the Packers' trio of three-point losses has raised questions about Rodgers' effectiveness in close games. In his career, the Packers are 1-11 in games decided by four or less points. And like Cutler, Rodgers has struggled on some of his most important throws. He has a 59.0 passer rating on third downs, having thrown five interceptions and completed only 51 percent of his passes in those situations.
Quotable: "It's about finding a rhythm for us. When you're not converting those third downs, there's no rhythm. So we've got to play better." -- Rodgers
The set-up: The Lions were hoping for a substantial second-year jump from Stafford, who threw 20 interceptions in 10 starts as a rookie and missed six games with a variety of injuries. The Lions believed they had significantly upgraded the talent around him and identified his biggest problem last season: forcing the ball in near-hopeless third-down situations.
The stumble: Stafford couldn't make it out of the first half of Week 1 before succumbing to injury, landing on his right shoulder following a sack by Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. He has not played since and is hoping to begin football activities during bye week practices this week.
By the numbers: More than anything, Stafford just needs to get on the field. He has missed 11 of a possible 22 career starts because of injury. Since the start of the 2009 season, 25 quarterbacks have attempted more passes than -- including fellow first-round draft pick Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It doesn't matter how strong-armed, accurate or well-intentioned Stafford is. Being available is the top requirement of any quarterback.
Quotable: "Every chance you have to play is important. Every time that you go out there you learn something. Matt's a smart guy and he's advanced beyond most rookie or second-year quarterbacks. So it's nothing that's going to hold him back over the course of his career. It's something that's gotten him off to a little bit of a slow start, not from an ability standpoint, not from a knowing what to do standpoint, but just from an availability standpoint. He'll put that behind him." -- Lions coach Jim Schwartz