NFC North: Ryan Fitzpatrick
First off, the Detroit Lions (Shaun Hill) and Green Bay Packers (Graham Harrell) wouldn't seem like candidates to be in on the free-agent market at this position. But the Minnesota Vikings have acknowledged they plan to bring in a veteran to compete with Joe Webb to back up Christian Ponder, and the Chicago Bears don't have their 2012 backup (Jason Campbell) under contract either.
Cassel, Campbell and Ryan Fitzpatrick are the top three free agents available. The Arizona Cardinals' Kevin Kolb could soon join them, and as we've discussed, the Vikings and general manager Rick Spielman have a long history with Tyler Thigpen -- dating back to the 2007 draft.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the Vikings make a quick move toward Cassel, who has been a backup for four years and a starter for five in his career. Thigpen could be their backup (backup) plan. If the market continues to dwindle, the Bears might consider Cassel or, more likely, be able to bring Campbell back at a lower price than he might have been seeking.
Now that the first wave of free agency is largely over, these are the kinds of stories we'll be following.
- This season, quarterback Brett Favre has played through sharp shoulder pain, elbow tendinitis, two fractures in his left foot, 12 stitches in his chin and an illness he likened to pneumonia. So should we consider the possibility of any other outcome from his sprained right shoulder? I'm not sure yet. We all know Favre will be lobbying to play -- and extend his consecutive games streak to 298. But interim coach Leslie Frazier will face the most difficult decision of his short tenure. This isn't a quarterback hobbling around on a bum ankle. If the injury limits Favre's effectiveness as a thrower, Frazier will have to give serious thought to sitting him, ending the streak and making history. Welcome to the captain's chair, Leslie.
- Frazier showed some savvy last week in hiding the decision to get rookie quarterback Joe Webb onto the field. I guess we won't know what would have happened if receiver Percy Harvin hadn't fallen ill with migraine headaches, but Webb returned the opening kickoff 30 yards and was apparently slated to play some at receiver before a hamstring injury sidelined him. As you recall, Webb was originally drafted as a receiver/playmaker and wasn't regarded as a quarterback prospect by most NFL teams. But former coach Brad Childress switched him back to quarterback, a move that conveniently allowed him to trade veteran Sage Rosenfels, and ultimately this has been a lost year for the rookie. The chances of him developing into a multi-positional playmaker are much higher than becoming a starting NFL quarterback, and it was past time to push him in the former direction.
- In the past two games under new leadership, the Vikings defense has limited its opponents to combined 20 first downs and 455 yards while forcing six turnovers. In both games, the defensive line has absolutely throttled its opponents. Sunday, the Vikings sacked Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick once, but unofficially hit him on five other occasions. They also limited the Bills to a 3.7-yard average on 23 rushing attempts. Frazier and linebackers coach Fred Pagac, who is making game-day calls, have infused some life into this group.
Readers are flooding my inbox with hope-filled messages about backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who finished Sunday's game with an 85.0 passer rating after replacing Favre. I don't get it. I agree that Jackson made some nice throws and once again displayed his mobility in critical times. But he also threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and was assisted on both of his touchdown passes by acrobatic receiver Sidney Rice. I didn't think Jackson's performance suggested he has made significant progress during his time behind Favre, and a quarterback in his fifth season shouldn't benefit from a grading curve that allows us to overlook such mistakes in favor of the potential displayed. But I'm sure you're tired of hearing that from me.
In the span of 13 seconds on the game clock, cornerback Tim Jennings flipped the fourth-quarter momentum of Sunday's game at Rogers Centre and sent the Chicago Bears on the way to their fifth victory of the season.
The Bears trailed the Buffalo Bills 19-14 with 9 minutes, 16 seconds remaining in the game. The Bills had taken over possession at their 29-yard line when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick spotted receiver Steve Johnson with a step on Jennings down the right hashmark.
Jennings had played a double move too aggressively, and although safety Chris Harris was sprinting to help, Johnson was open for a big play. Fitzpatrick's pass was a bit late and slightly underthrown, however, and that's all Jennings needed to make a leaping and juggling interception at the Bears' 38-yard line.
Had Johnson caught the ball, the Bills would have been in position to take at least an eight-point lead. Instead, Jennings landed on his feet, turned upfield and ripped off a 39-yard return down the left sideline.
Four plays later, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw a game-winning 2-yard touchdown pass to receiver Earl Bennett.
"I was most definitely beat on that play," Jennings said. "It was a man-to-man call, and [Steve Johnson] ran a double move. I just wanted to use my safety as help so I stayed on the outside because I had inside help. He threw it inside, so I was able to run up under him and make a play on the ball.
"I had to play it kind of aggressive, because I didn't want to give up the hitch route, so I played the first move. He ran the double move and it was a great play call, but I just played my fundamentals, stayed outside and he threw it where I could make a play on the ball."
It was the decisive moment of Sunday's game.
But let’s not lose sight of the fact it was the defense -- namely Chris Harris’ game-sealing interception, and a pick by Tim Jennings that allowed Chicago to take the lead -- that actually saved the Bears from losing their fourth game in five outings.
Before getting too deep into all of that, though, here’s our quick reaction to the game:
Body-language examination: Jay Cutler appeared to cough-up the game in the fourth quarter when Spencer Johnson dropped him for a 7-yard sack and fumble that Buffalo turned into a 19-14 lead with 10:27 left to play.
Cutler slammed his helmet to the ground in front of the bench after walking to the sideline after the play. But the quarterback immediately asked the coaches for printouts of pictures of the defense from that drive as he talked to backup quarterbacks Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie.
So instead of detaching from the contest, Cutler immersed himself, which allowed him to make up for the mistake two drives later.
Operating off a drive set up by a Jennings interception with 9:03 left to play, Cutler drove the Bears 23 yards in six plays to take the lead at 20-19 on his 2-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett. Cutler added to the lead by converting the two-point conversion on a shovel pass to Matt Forte.
Cutler has showed the propensity in the past to let mistakes affect him so drastically, which diminishes his impact on any potential comeback attempt. Cutler didn’t let that happen against the Bills, and the Bears benefited.
Harris resurgence: Defensive tackle Tommie Harris says he’s been happier lately about the way he’s performing.
He’s finally showing it.
A seven-year veteran, Harris posted a sack for the first time since Dec. 13 of last season, when he dropped Ryan Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter. After starting the first two games, Harris was inactive in Week 3, and his playing time had gradually decreased prior to the last two weeks.
Idonije blocks streak: Playing in his home country, Bears defensive end Israel Idonije blocked Rian Lindell’s extra point in the third quarter Sunday, snuffing out the kicker’s streak of consecutive PATs, which was the NFL's longest to start a career.
Lindell had connected on 321 consecutive extra points prior to Idonije’s block with 3:03 remaining in the third quarter.
Run-pass ratio improves: The Bears dominated time of possession in the first half 17:52 to 12:08 by finally delivering on their promise to insert more balance. The Bears weren’t exactly productive with the running game, considering they gained 44 yards on 15 attempts in the first half.
Still, the mix of runs with play-action passes kept Buffalo off balance, likely paving the way for Greg Olsen’s 4-yard touchdown pass from Cutler in the second quarter.
The Bears called runs on their first four plays from scrimmage, and finished the first quarter with a run-pass ratio of 9 to 16.
Major Wright sighting: Having missed five games because of a severely pulled hamstring, Wright saw his first action since Week 2, when he entered the contest with 12:06 left in the second quarter.
Wright replaced Chris Harris for one 10-play series, but didn’t register any statistics. Wright didn’t return in the second half.
Blown shot: If there’s an opportunity, look for the Bears to find a way to blow it. The club demonstrated that in the second quarter when it squandered a chance to take a 14-0 lead by committing three penalties in four plays from the red zone.
Just after the two-minute warning with Chicago holding possession at the Buffalo 14, right guard Roberto Garza committed a false-start penalty. On the very next play, Cutler was called for a false start when Olin Kreutz failed to snap the ball in a timely manner, causing the officials to back up the Bears to the Bills' 24.
Three plays prior, officials called the Bears for an illegal shift.
Making matters worse was the fact that Robbie Gould -- the third-most accurate kicker in NFL history -- pushed his 42-yard field goal attempt at the end of the drive wide right, forcing the Bears to walk away empty handed.
Buffalo tied the score on the ensuing drive with a 14-yard scoring strike from Fitzpatrick to Roscoe Parrish.
What's next: Chicago returns home to host the Minnesota Vikings Nov. 14 at Soldier Field.
New coordinator Mike Martz runs a complicated offensive system that can take a while to learn. For that reason, Martz has occasionally in his career shown a preference for players he's previously coached. (See J.T. O'Sullivan).
So while no deal appears imminent, Smith sounded more than open to the possibility last week.
"It's something we discussed," Smith said. "Last year was the first year we went with two quarterbacks. It wouldn't be a bad thing if we end up with a veteran this year. That has nothing to do with Caleb Hanie. We think he is a heck of a quarterback. But when you go with two quarterbacks, it is a little scary each week.
"Whenever you can add another veteran to the group, especially a veteran quarterback because they are kind of like a second coach knowing the offense, that can be a good thing. Just having another voice to mentor all the situations is a good thing."
If you follow the trail of former Martz quarterbacks, you realize that Ryan Fitzpatrick could shake loose from Buffalo. Another intriguing possibility: St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger, whose career with the Rams could end if they draft Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford No. 1 overall next month.
I'm not sure how serious a possibility this is, and nothing that happens will change the fact that Jay Cutler is the starter. But it's worth keeping an eye on.
On Sunday, Breana of Chicago prompted this debate: If you had to pick, would you prefer a great quarterback with average receivers or vice versa? After all, that pretty much describes the situations in Chicago and Minnesota, respectively. What's the preferable arrangement?
About 500 of your closest friends jumped into the fray, with a clear majority favoring a superior quarterback over top receivers in the abstract. But there were a number of you who pointed out the limitations facing any quarterback with inferior receivers, while some noted specific instances of an otherwise middling quarterback lifted to prominence by a stellar group of pass-catchers.
Off the top, several people dismissed the premise of a deep Vikings receiving corps. Tony of Seoul wrote: "I would be ecstatic if the Vikings had elite receivers, but we do not." Nick of Portland added:
"I think it's important to note that the Vikings WR corps isn't even that good. Bernard Berrian is a serviceable No. 1, but no other WRs on that team have proven anything. Sidney Rice got 15 receptions last year, Percy Harvin has proved nothing and Bobby Wade is ... Bobby Wade. In this situation, I'd have to pick the Bears passing corps, because they have an elite player (Jay Cutler) whereas the Vikings best player has never had a 1,000-yard season, and would be the third WR in Green Bay."
But if you accept the notion that the Vikings at least have a deep group of receivers, you can continue on. Nate of Lexington, Va., put an eloquent voice to a quarterback's ability to lift an offense:
"I played wide receiver in college and the quarterback that I played with ended up winning the Gagliardi Trophy (essentially the D-III Heisman) and I was an all-conference wideout. While I was no slouch, I would have to say that without question it was because of [the quarterback] and his ability that made me and us as a group better. A good quarterback and his timing, arm strength and accuracy can make up for a lack of separation and overall talent in general. No matter how good a receiver is, if a bad quarterback can't get him the ball he is no good to an offense.
As a lifelong Bears fan it pained me to see Kyle Orton (who I like on the whole) underthrow Hester on a deep ball or miss an open receiver by just that little bit. A guy like Jay Cutler surrounded by Devin Hester, Greg Olsen, Rashied Davis and Desmond Clark will be more successful than Tarvaris Jackson throwing to Berrian, Wade, Rice and Harvin."
Tim of Kansas City notes the early success of New England quarterback Tom Brady -- before his receiving corps included Randy Moss and Wes Welker. "The Patriots had only average receivers and won three Super Bowls," Tim wrote. Akio of Tokyo concludes: "Proven quarterbacks will make receivers shine. A chicken (QB) or an egg (WR)? My vote is that a chicken comes first."
Fire up the grill!
On the other side of the debate, Brian of Sturgis, S.D., points out how a good receiver can make a quarterback look better. "I would prefer to have receivers who can catch the bad pass as well as the good ones from the suspect QB rather than receivers who miss the good ones on occasion and CAN'T catch the bad pass."
David of Austin recalls the 1998 season, when Vikings quarterback Randall Cunningham came out of nowhere to have a Pro Bowl season. The Vikings surrounded him with a deep group of skill players and a dynamic scheme, factors we haven't really accounted for in a strict debate between quarterbacks and receivers. But David makes some good points:
"Cunningham's 1998 season with Minnesota, when he had Cris Carter, Jake Reed, Robert Smith, and Randy Moss (whose explosiveness was as yet largely unanticipated and unplanned for by defenses) as offensive weapons, and a decent offensive scheme, speaks volumes about how good offensive weapons and game planning was able to turn an 81.5 lifetime average QB into a wunderkind, at least for one season. His 106 QB rating that season was 14 points higher than his next best season, eight years earlier, and 24 points higher than his lifetime average."
My take? I figured you would ask. I have always felt that quarterback is the most important single position in all of sports. It's much more difficult to find a good quarterback than it is to assemble a group of competent receivers.
But just for kicks, I looked at the top two receivers for each of the NFL's five highest-rated quarterbacks in 2008. Then I did the reverse: Who was the primary quarterback for the five most productive receivers in 2008?
Here are the highest-rated quarterbacks' top wide receivers:
And here are the quarterbacks for the top five receivers by yards:
And by receptions:
Because this is only a one-year sample, I don't know that we should draw too many conclusions from these charts. You can see that the NFL's five highest-rated quarterbacks last season had the benefit of working with four 1,000-yard receivers. You can also see that it's possible for a receiver to have a good year with a low-rated quarterback, but it wasn't frequent last season. (Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh were the only ones to make the cut.)
Finally, four of the five highest-rated quarterbacks made the playoffs last season. Three of the top receivers in yardage advanced to the postseason, but only one from the group organized by receptions. This tells us that in 2008, at least, you were better off with an elite quarterback than an elite receiver -- but we probably knew that anyway. For me, however, it also shows there is enough gray area in this question to make for reasonable disagreement in this debate.
In the specific question of Chicago vs. Minnesota, there are some mitigating factors that we avoided for the purposes of this debate. How does the relative quality of each team's running game impact the debate? And what about their defenses?
From a big-picture perspective, however, I'll always choose the quarterback ahead of the receivers. A really good group of receivers can bail out an average quarterback at times, but not to the extent that an elite quarterback can lift an average group of receivers. I'll take Tom Brady with Troy Brown and David Patten over Ryan Fitzpatrick with Chad Ocho Cinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh any day.
Sean of St. Paul is one of several readers who is surprised by; (A) Chicago's apparent lack of interest in pursuing a veteran backup quarterback and; (B) that Byron Leftwich hasn't received any interest -- from the Bears or elsewhere:
I think Byron Leftwich is a good quarterback with lots of years left in him. While he's had some ups and downs, he would be a quality quarterback to have on any team. Why haven't the Bears pursued him at this point?
It's surprising to see Leftwich sitting idle while the likes of Dan Orlovsky, Ryan Fitzpatrick, J.T. O'Sullivan and others have signed new contracts. (And Leftwich is not the only one: See the charts for this month's transactions and non-transactions.)
But when you look at it, there are at least three distinct market timings for free agent quarterbacks.
The first is just as free agency begins, when teams looking for a new starter scramble for the one or two top-tier quarterbacks available. (See: Matt Cassel.) Then there is a market for players who are strictly backups and would not challenge the team's established starter. (See: Orlovsky, Fitzpatrick and O'Sullivan.)
Then it starts getting interesting. The quarterbacks remaining on the market now must decide how long they're willing to wait. Typically, the market expands a bit late in the spring and into the summer when a handful of teams' plans change -- or are changed. Some grow dissatisfied with their depth chart after offseason workouts. Others experience an injury early in training camp or in the preseason.
Leftwich has bounced around since Jacksonville released him, but he adjusted quickly to Pittsburgh's system after joining the Steelers late in training camp last year. Waiting until the summer can be nerve-wracking, but ultimately it can put the player in better position either to get on the field or otherwise play a significant role in the upcoming season.
I don't have an explanation for why no team has pursued Leftwich to this point. Are they concerned he won't view himself as a compliant backup in the way Orlovsky, Fitzpatrick and others would? Possibly. It also should be noted that the Steelers haven't re-signed the other candidate to back up Ben Roethlisberger in 2009, Charlie Batch. At this point, Leftwich's most fruitful route might be patience.
As for the Bears, coach Lovie Smith said last month that he felt comfortable entering training camp with Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez competing for the No. 2 job behind Kyle Orton. Smith might have a different opinion after minicamp next week, or possibly after the April draft. But as long as there is a glut of free agents available, there isn't a huge urgency for the Bears to get a veteran backup onto their roster.
The only downside arises in a diminished span of offseason work. A quarterback who joins his team after minicamp and Organized Training Activities faces a steeper learning curve when training camp opens. But is that challenge worth rushing into a contract agreement for either side? I don't think so.