NFC South: 2011 QB Watch

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
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Aaron Rodgers and Drew BreesBrian D. Kersey/Getty ImagesAfter a shootout in Week 1, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, right, and New Orleans' Drew Brees remained on top of their game throughout the 2011 season.
This will be this season’s final edition of QB Watch, a weekly project I’ve enjoyed tremendously this season. With that in mind, we will make this our awards edition.

Here are the awards:

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers. He carries Green Bay and is more valuable to the Packers than any player on any team. He also seems to have the ability to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. We all should enjoy what may be the golden age of quarterbacking. We know all about Tom Brady, who may be the greatest ever and is still outstanding, but he might be only the third-best quarterback in the league.

Best quarterback: Drew Brees, Saints. Rodgers will win the MVP award and he should, because without Rodgers, the Packers would be the Colts without Peyton Manning. But Brees is setting all sorts of records and the Saints are having a great season. You could argue Brees gets to play in one of the most quarterback-friendly offenses in history and has as many weapons as any team ever has. But it’s tough to imagine another quarterback running the New Orleans offense as efficiently as Brees.

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
AP Photo/Gregory BullMatt Moore has been solid for the Dolphins this season.
Best surprise: Matt Moore, Dolphins. If the Dolphins had turned things over to Moore a bit earlier, their season might have been respectable. Moore’s been efficient without a lot of weapons around him. Whoever is coaching the Dolphins next year has to at least consider keeping Moore as the starter.

Worst surprise: Josh Freeman, Buccaneers. I truly believed we’d see greatness out of Freeman this year. His 2010 season, his first as a starter, was filled with all sorts of promise. But 2011 has been a disaster. Freeman deserves some of the blame, no doubt. But his supporting cast has been dismal and that’s made him look even worse. The Bucs have to do something dramatic or else they’re going to ruin this kid.

Worst injury: Jay Cutler, Bears. Before he went down, the Bears were on target for the playoffs. Once Cutler went down, they fell apart.

Best non-injury: Matthew Stafford, Lions. For the first time in his career, Stafford has been healthy enough to start every game. It’s no coincidence the Lions are in the playoffs for the first time in a generation.

Best response to injury: After starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart went down, the Texans turned to rookie T.J. Yates. He led them to victory in his first appearance and won his first two starts. The Texans have stumbled and lost the past two games, but Yates did enough to get the Texans into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Best fullback playing quarterback: Tim Tebow, Broncos. Let’s be honest. Despite all the miracles, Tebow does not throw like an NFL quarterback. But he can run and he can buy so much time that it sometimes doesn’t matter if his passes are fluttering toward receivers.

Best rookie quarterback ever: Cam Newton Panthers. The numbers say it all. He’s already broken the rookie record for passing yards and has a chance at 4,000. He’s also run for more touchdowns (14) than any quarterback in history. He’s also turned around a franchise that had absolutely no hope a year ago.

Cam newton
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhCam Newton has helped make Carolina Panthers football exciting once again.
Best rookie if this had been a normal season: Andy Dalton, Bengals. Carson Palmer has been forgotten in Cincinnati. Dalton (along with Newton) is just one of five rookie quarterbacks in history to throw for 20 touchdowns.

Worst rookie: Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars. Jacksonville threw this rookie in long before he was ready, and it showed. Gabbert’s completed just 50 percent of his passes. While Newton and Dalton have shown they can be the answers for the Panthers and Bengals for the long haul, the Jaguars -- and whoever their new coach ends up being -- are going to have to decide if Gabbert really has a future or if they should look for an alternative.

Best recovery: Alex Smith, 49ers. He’s never going to live up to his 2005 draft status, but the arrival of coach Jim Harbaugh has finally allowed the 49ers to get something good from Smith. He’s not a great quarterback, but he’s shown he can be a very efficient one on a very good team.

Strongest sign that it’s time to hang it up: Donovan McNabb, formerly of the Vikings. Mike Shanahan benched him in Washington last year. The Vikings benched him in favor of Christian Ponder this year. McNabb asked for his release at a time when Chicago and Houston had major injuries at quarterback, but nobody signed him. That should tell McNabb something.

Biggest decision ahead: The Indianapolis Colts. Do they bring back Manning and hope he’s fully healthy? Or do they draft Andrew Luck?

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Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
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Cam Newton, Andy DaltonUS PresswireThe Panthers (with Cam Newton) and Bengals (with Andy Dalton) are two examples of teams that successfully used the draft to fill a void at quarterback.
In the past few months, we’ve seen the Panthers, 49ers and Bengals discover they’re just fine at quarterback. In those same few months, we’ve seen even more teams discover that they’re not in great shape.

That’s why the 2012 draft and free-agency period could provide a shopping spree for teams looking for starting quarterbacks. I’m looking around the league and seeing that roughly a quarter of the 32 teams could change starters in 2012.

Maybe they'll find solutions in the draft, as the Panthers did with Cam Newton and the Bengals with Andy Dalton. Or maybe they'll take a guy who has been around for a while, put him in the right situation and find out he can play, the way the 49ers did with Alex Smith.

But neither method is foolproof. Drafting a quarterback early doesn’t always work. That’s why I’m putting the Vikings and Jaguars on my list of teams that might look for a starter in the offseason. Bringing in a veteran, as the Cardinals did with Kevin Kolb, didn’t bring any dramatic changes, and that’s why Arizona also is on my list of teams with uncertain quarterback futures.

Let’s run through the list, in no particular order.

Redskins. Who really thought it was a good idea to go into a season with John Beck and Rex Grossman as your only options? Owner Daniel Snyder and coach Mike Shanahan must realize now that they’re going nowhere with journeyman quarterbacks. That’s why they have to find someone who can be a franchise quarterback.

Seahawks. Same story as the Redskins. Pete Carroll generally had more talent and depth in his quarterback groups at USC than he did when he decided to go with Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. Letting Matt Hasselbeck go wasn’t necessarily a bad move, but heading into a season with guys who never have been and never will be any good made no sense.

Dolphins. The tandem of Chad Henne and Matt Moore was as uninspiring as what the Seahawks and Redskins brought to the table. That’s why the Dolphins will be looking for a new coach. Moore has played pretty well at times, but ownership seems intent on making a big splash to bring some life back to this franchise. The quickest way to make waves is to add a high-profile quarterback, but keeping Moore around as a backup is a nice insurance policy.

Colts. Had Indianapolis had a backup like Moore, this season wouldn’t have been so disastrous. Everything fell apart as soon as it became apparent that Peyton Manning wouldn't play because of a neck injury. The Colts could get a healthy Manning back, or they could draft Andrew Luck. But, if they let Manning go and draft Luck, they should go out and get a backup who is capable of starting.

Vikings. They tried to use Donovan McNabb as a bridge to first-round draft pick Christian Ponder. The bridge quickly collapsed, and Ponder was thrown in over his head. Ponder may eventually turn into a decent starter, but we’ve seen no solid evidence that will happen. That’s why the Vikings need to have an alternative.

Jaguars. You can put Blaine Gabbert in the same category as Ponder. The jury is still out on him. Like Miami, this is another franchise that will hire a new coach and try to energize a fan base. Just a thought here, but there’s a hometown guy who could sell out the stadium every week, if he somehow becomes available. (See below.)

Broncos. Tim Tebow has pulled off miracles by putting the Broncos in playoff contention. The guy has all sorts of intangibles, but he doesn’t throw like an NFL quarterback. That’s why it looks as though John Fox and John Elway are forcing smiles every time Tebow leads them to an awkward victory. You get the sense that, deep down, Fox and Elway would rather have a conventional quarterback.

Cardinals. The Cardinals thought they found their franchise guy when they traded for Kolb. He hasn’t played like a franchise quarterback, but the Cardinals don’t necessarily have to go outside on a shopping trip. John Skelton has played pretty well in relief of Kolb. Come training camp next summer, let Kolb and Skelton compete and settle this thing once and for all.

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December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
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Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning Getty ImagesIs it time for the Colts to move on from Peyton Manning and look to their future with Andrew Luck?
Tim Tebow aside, the biggest quarterback story in the league this year might be one that’s really about next year.

What should the Indianapolis Colts do?

They almost certainly will have the first pick in the 2012 draft, and Stanford’s Andrew Luck, perhaps the best quarterback prospect to come along in the past decade, will be sitting there. At the same time, Peyton Manning, perhaps the best quarterback ever, is expected back from a neck injury that has sidelined him all season.

The draft is more than four months away and Manning’s 36th birthday will come in a little more than three months. Already, there is a ton of speculation about what the Colts should do.

The three choices being thrown about: Manning? Luck? Or both?

All those are on the table, but I think the Colts would be making a big mistake if they go with both. Sure, it sounds great to pair the greatest quarterback of this generation with the guy who might be the best quarterback of the next.

But that’s in theory. Reality is a different story. If Manning comes back to stay and Luck is the draft pick, the Colts are asking for trouble.

The thing we, as a society, tend to forget is that you don’t get to be an NFL quarterback without being extremely competitive and at least a little selfish. Manning wasn’t put on this earth to be a glorified quarterbacks coach. If he comes back to the Colts, he’s coming back as the starter, not a mentor.

This whole scenario reminds me of a story I did soon after joining ESPN.com. In March 2008, Brett Favre announced his retirement (for the first time). I called heir apparent Aaron Rodgers, who had been drafted in the first round in 2005, for reaction and was a little stunned by what I got.

"Obviously, when a team drafts a quarterback in the first round, that's a pretty big statement," Rodgers said. "At that time, Brett felt like he still had plenty left in his tank and those are some pretty difficult terms to come in under. That first year, we were just teammates."

For perhaps the first time ever, Rodgers admitted that Favre didn’t welcome him with open arms and there was trouble in paradise (or at least the land of the Cheeseheads). That’s not an uncommon phenomenon.

Kurt Warner wasn’t ready to hand the ball to Matt Leinart when the Cardinals drafted him in 2006. Drew Brees wasn’t overjoyed when the Chargers brought in Philip Rivers in 2004. Heck, you can go even further back. It’s common knowledge that Joe Montana and veteran Steve Bono didn’t treat Steve Young like a close friend (and I’m being very generous with the wording here) when they were together in San Francisco in the 1990s.

That’s because guys like Montana, Favre, Warner and Brees are so competitive. All of them fought for their jobs and, at least initially, kept it. The eventual passing of the torch from Favre to Rodgers worked out fine for the Packers, but it definitely caused a rift in the short term.

You could argue the Chargers and Cardinals made mistakes by bringing in replacements for Brees and Warner before they were ready to even think about being replaced.

That’s why, no matter what Archie Manning says on any given day about his son and Luck coexisting, any thought of that coupling is a formula for problems.

The Colts really can’t afford to have both Manning and Luck -- and we’re not talking about the salary cap. We’re talking about a situation that would be unhealthy for the players and the team.

The Colts can bring Manning back for the quick fix and trade the pick. (Bill Polian did that in 1995, when he was with the expansion Carolina Panthers.) Or the Colts can trade Manning to clear the way for Luck to start with a clean slate.

It’s one or the other. You can’t have both.

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Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

December, 7, 2011
12/07/11
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Tim Tebow Greg Smith/US PresswireQuarterback Tim Tebow has helped lead the Denver Broncos to five consecutive victories.
When John Fox walked into the hotel lobby at the NFL owners meetings in New Orleans in March, I knew I'd seen this guy before.

He was tan, relaxed and constantly joking, just like the Fox I first met when he was interviewing for the Carolina Panthers' head-coaching job back in 2002. Nearly a decade had passed, but Fox looked young and loose again -- so much different than in his last few years in Carolina.

That's because Fox had recently become head coach of the Denver Broncos. Sometimes change can be a wonderful thing.

Fox and John Elway might be wise to keep that in mind as they ponder what seems like a complex future for the Broncos. In fact, Fox and Elway might be making that future much more complex than it really needs to be.

Looks to me now like Fox's escape from Carolina was only a temporary escape from a permanent position as one of the most conventional coaches in the NFL. He and Elway, the team's executive vice president of football operations and perhaps the best stereotypical drop-back passer of all time, seem to be having a hard time embracing quarterback Tim Tebow.

There's talk the Broncos could go out and draft a more conventional quarterback. Or they could sign one in free agency. I can't guarantee anything, but I'm pretty sure Jake Delhomme and Kyle Orton will be available in March.

Is that really what the Broncos need?

No. Fox and Elway need to forget convention and stereotypes and fully commit to the quarterback who has helped them win six of their last seven games, including five in a row. If nothing else, Tebow has shown uncanny intangibles, and all those wins at the University of Florida didn't come by accident.

Look, I'll be the first to admit I didn't think Tebow was an NFL quarterback. To start with, he doesn't throw the ball anything like an NFL quarterback. He's a running back, fullback or tight end lining up at quarterback and somehow making things happen.

Fox and Elway need to do Tebow and themselves a big favor. They need to accept Tebow for what he is and not bash him for what he is not.

Sure, go ahead and add somebody who was bred as a pocket passer (word is Jimmy Clausen could be available) as an alternative for next year. But Tebow has earned the right to open next season as the starter, and to do it in an offense that's suited to his skills.

Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is a bright guy who has a much more open mind than Fox and Elway. Whenever this season ends -- and that might not be for a while if Tebow continues his magic -- Fox and Elway should let McCoy disappear for a month.

When he comes back, McCoy should be allowed to hand Tebow a playbook that can put him in consistent positions to succeed. The guy deserves that because he's done a nice job of putting the Broncos in a nice position by simply winging it.

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November, 30, 2011
11/30/11
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Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron RodgersGetty ImagesDrew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are within striking distance of Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a single season.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season is that it has lasted this long.

But the 27-year-old record isn’t going to make it to 28. Eleven games into the season, two quarterbacks are on pace to shatter Marino’s record, and a third is just behind them.

The fact New Orleans’ Drew Brees and New England’s Tom Brady are putting up yards at a faster clip than Marino, and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is almost with them makes what the former Miami quarterback did in 1984 that much more impressive.

[+] EnlargeDan Marino
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireDan Marino threw for 5,084 yards during the 1984 season. It's an NFL record that still stands.
In just his second NFL season, Marino threw for 5,084 yards. He led the Dolphins to a 14-2 record and they lost to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.

Marino’s record has stood as the Holy Grail of quarterback numbers for nearly three decades, but it would be only fitting if three guys pass it this season. The league has changed dramatically since early in Marino’s career.

The changes have become even more obvious in recent years as rules have been adjusted to make life easier on quarterbacks. They’re more protected due to rules installed for their safety, and their receivers have advantages the guys in Marino’s era didn’t. Defenses can’t guard receivers aggressively, and passing numbers around the league have increased, especially in the past few years.

Yet only Brees has come close to Marino. Brees threw for 5,069 yards in 2008, when the Saints were just mediocre.

This time around, the Saints are much better than mediocre. They’re 8-3 and atop the NFC South. Brady’s Patriots have the same record and lead the AFC East. Rodgers and the Packers are the only undefeated team in the league.

The next five weeks are going to be way better than the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home-run derby. This is going to be like a pennant race and a chase for one of the game’s most glamorous records all rolled into one.

The talk of Marino’s record falling has really just started. Brees has admitted he’d like to break the record.

“Absolutely," Brees said. “But only in the framework of winning."

The framework is going up in New Orleans, New England and Green Bay.

Brees currently has the lead. Through 11 games, he’s on pace for 5,366 yards. Brady is on pace for 5,276 yards. Rodgers is only another big game away from getting on pace to break Marino’s record. At the moment, he’s on pace for 5,055 yards.

There’s no doubt Marino played by different rules, and that makes his record all the more impressive. As Brees, Brady and Rodgers move closer to the record, there will be some talk about them playing in a “juiced-ball" era.

The rules changes give some credence to that. But if all three quarterbacks pass Marino’s record, the quarterback-friendly rules aren’t going to diminish the milestone.

If Brees, Rodgers and Brady all pass Marino’s number, it will come within “the framework of winning." We won’t be talking about the chase for the record. We’ll be talking about the chase for the Super Bowl.

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November, 23, 2011
11/23/11
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Leinart/HanieJim O'Connor/US PresswireBecause of injuries to Matt Schaub and Jay Cutler, Matt Leinart, left, and Caleb Hanie, right, will take over the starting quarterback job for their respective teams.
Don’t feel too sad for the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears.

Sure, they each have lost their starting quarterback to injuries. But the Texans still might be on a path to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history even without Matt Schaub. The Bears were in the playoffs last season, but, at least in the short term, they’ll have to go on without Jay Cutler.

Schaub suffered a foot injury that’s likely to keep him from playing again this season. Cutler reportedly will have surgery on his thumb Wednesday and the Bears say there is some hope he could return sometime around the end of the regular season.

Earl Morrall
AP Photo/Steve StarrEarl Morrall (15) filled in for an injured Bob Griese during the Miami Dolphins' 1972 Super Bowl run.
If you’re thinking the Texans and the Bears will fall apart with Matt Leinart and Caleb Hanie as their respective starters, you might be wrong. There’s a moral to this story. It’s the story of Earl Morrall.

This story of a backup stepping in for a long haul and the team not missing a beat would not apply to just any team. But the Texans and the Bears fit the profile quite nicely because they’re already 7-3.

Morrall wasn’t the most talented backup in the history of the world. He got traded several times, started and backed up, but never really did much of anything until finding the perfect landing spot -- twice.

In 1968, Johnny Unitas got hurt and Morrall stepped in and led the Baltimore Colts all the way to the Super Bowl before losing to Joe Namath and the Jets. Don Shula was the coach of that Baltimore team and was coaching the Miami Dolphins in 1972 when he spotted Morrall’s name on the waiver wire. Shula spent $100 and claimed Morrall.

"I happen to have a good memory," Shula said at the time. “I remember what Earl did for me in 1968."

When Bob Griese went down in October of 1972, Morrall stepped in and helped the Dolphins complete an unbeaten regular season. Morrall started a couple of playoff games before Griese returned to lead the Dolphins to a Super Bowl victory.

The best news of all for the Texans and Bears might be that Schaub and Cutler certainly never will be confused with Unitas. Maybe not even Griese. They’re decent quarterbacks who’ve looked good this year because they have good teams around them.

Leinart and Hanie could be confused with Morrall, who, when it came right down to it, was “just a guy." Morrall worked his magic with excellent players all around him.

You could even draw parallels to when Jeff Hostetler took over for an injured Phil Simms late in the 1990 season and led the New York Giants to a Super Bowl win. Hostetler also was “just a guy" who suddenly found himself playing quarterback for a good team.

It’s not all that difficult to imagine Leinart taking the Texans into the postseason. He’s got Arian Foster to hand off to, and Foster’s presence means that Leinart, who hasn’t thrown an NFL pass since 2009, should get some wide-open shots at Andre Johnson. Plus, Houston’s defense isn’t going to give up a lot of points. Even if the Texans go 3-3 the rest of the way, they probably make the playoffs.

Hanie faces a similar situation. Although he has only minimal NFL experience, he can rely on running back Matt Forte and a very good defense.

Leinart and Hanie don’t have to carry the Texans and Bears. They can hop on the backs of their teammates and, as long as they hold on, everything could work out just fine.

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Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

November, 16, 2011
11/16/11
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Josh FreemanCliff Welch/Icon SMIWhile his statistics may not reflect it, Josh Freeman says he's a better quarterback than he was a year ago.
Moments after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got thumped 31-9 by the Houston Texans on Sunday, quarterback Josh Freeman shared this thought with the media:

"I think I'm a better quarterback than I was last year," Freeman said.

OK, are you done laughing yet?

I’ll gladly give you some more time -- and a few statistics. Through nine games, Freeman has thrown 13 interceptions (the second-highest total in the league) and just nine touchdown passes. That comes after Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions all of last season.

And he’s now a better quarterback than he was last season?

This is where the laughing should stop. There’s been nothing funny about Tampa Bay’s 4-5 start because this was a team that went a surprising 10-6 last season and was supposed to be very much on the rise. Freeman’s claim may sound delusional, but it’s not.

I’ll take the Freeman of this season over the Freeman of last season. Seriously.

He’s a year older and a year wiser than he was in his first full season as a starter last year. The statistics don’t show improvement, and I’m not going to suggest that Freeman has taken a big step forward. But I will say I don’t think he’s regressed. The rest of the Bucs have, though, and that’s the problem. Some of Freeman’s teammates, and maybe even the coaching staff and front office, have done the quarterback an injustice and that’s why the statistics and the team’s record aren’t very pretty.

Go ahead and put some blame on Freeman. And it is fair to wonder about that thumb injury that had the New Orleans Saints so excited a few weeks ago. Freeman might not look like the same quarterback he was a year ago, but I think that has a lot more to do with the team around him more than anything else.

The Bucs found out they had a franchise quarterback last season. But the mistake they made -- and this goes to the coaching staff and the front office -- were that they also thought they found a big-time No. 1 wide receiver and a true feature running back.

That’s Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount, and I have no problem saying each of them has taken multiple steps back from last season. They were two players who fell in the 2010 draft, Williams to the fourth round and Blount all the way out of the draft.

There were reasons for that and they’re playing out now. The coaches and front office people might have let the performances of Williams and Blount last year go to their heads. Williams and Blount might have done the same thing.

When the rest of the offensive skill-position players were working out together in Tampa during the lockout, Williams frequently was hanging out at his home in Buffalo. Now he’s playing more like a No. 3 or 4 receiver and no one else has stepped up. His route running hasn’t been precise and he’s tied for third in the NFL in dropped passes. The Bucs lead the league in drops.

But that’s not the only problem. Blount may be the player most responsible for throwing Freeman and the offense off kilter. Blount came in and rushed for 1,000 yards in half a season as the starter last year. He did that with Cadillac Williams helping out as the third-down back.

The Bucs let Williams leave in the offseason, largely because they thought Blount was ready to become an every-down back. That hasn’t happened. Blount has crippled the offense because he hasn’t shown he can be an effective pass-protector. If you're one of the biggest and strongest running backs in the league and you can't figure out how to pass block by the second half of your second season, it probably never is going to happen. The Bucs used Earnest Graham in passing situations until he suffered a season-ending injury and now they’re going with Kregg Lumpkin.

That’s made Tampa Bay’s offense incredibly predictable. Defenses basically know that the Bucs will run the ball when Blount’s on the field and throw it when Lumpkin’s in the game. That takes away the play-action game and it has made Freeman look bad.

But the fact is Freeman’s pretty close to the same player he was last year. It’s just not showing because the guys around him are nothing close to what they were last year or what the Bucs thought they could be this year.

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November, 9, 2011
11/09/11
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Rivers & Brady & PalmerUS PresswirePhilip Rivers, Tom Brady and Carson Palmer put up big passing totals Sunday but none of them won.
Every week, it seems we hear about how passing numbers around the NFL are at an all-time high. For the past couple of years, we’ve heard coaches, front-office personnel and media experts talk about how it’s now a "quarterback-driven league."

The numbers support the theory in most ways. But I’m starting to wonder if throwing the ball all over the field every week really is a good thing.

I’m looking at the three quarterbacks with the highest passing totals in Week 9. Philip Rivers threw for 385 yards. Tom Brady had 342. Carson Palmer threw for 332 yards in just his second game with the Raiders.

Guess what? Rivers, Brady and Palmer all lost Sunday.

They all threw at least 35 times, with Brady attempting 49 passes. They combined for nine touchdown passes, but also combined for eight interceptions. Rivers and Palmer each threw three interceptions.

All this leads me to believe it’s not so much about quantity but quality when it comes to quarterback play.

Yes, there’s no doubt you have to throw the ball to win in the modern NFL. But there’s some sort of fine line out there. If you cross it, you’re asking for trouble. When you’re throwing too many times, you’re opening yourself up to too many mistakes.

You’re also making your team one-dimensional, and that’s never a good thing. Balance on offense is a wonderful thing.

So where is the line between enough passing and too much?

It’s not that difficult to spot. Let’s just go back to the stats from Sunday’s games. Let’s use Dallas’ Tony Romo and New Orleans’ Drew Brees as models.

Their numbers were a little bit less than what Rivers, Brady and Palmer turned in. But here’s the crucial difference -- Romo and Brees won.

Romo attempted 31 passes and completed 19 for 279 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Brees completed 27 of 36 attempts for 258 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

There’s a very common thread here. Unlike Rivers, Brady and Palmer, Romo and Brees had plenty of help. It came from their running games.

Dallas’ DeMarco Murray rushed for 139 yards. New Orleans’ trio of Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory combined for 175 rushing yards.

Take the New Orleans model back another week. In Week 8, Brees attempted 44 passes and had 269 yards. In that game, the Saints had virtually no running game. They lost to the previously winless St. Louis Rams and came home intent on putting more balance in their offense.

Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. Yes, it is a quarterback-driven league. But the Week 9 statistics show us that you should keep a quarterback’s throws somewhere between 31 and 36, and you need to be able to run the ball (and maybe play a little defense).

If the quarterback is driving the car all by himself, the team is not going anywhere.

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November, 2, 2011
11/02/11
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Ryan Fitzpatrick AP Photo/David DupreyQuarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has led the Buffalo Bills to the top of the AFC East standings.
It’s real easy to say Tom Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick never should be mentioned in the same sentence. But that’s not accurate right now.

Brady’s New England Patriots and Fitzpatrick’s Buffalo Bills each are 5-2. If you want to get really technical, the Bills currently hold the tiebreaker in the AFC East because they won the first head-to-head meeting this season.

So how and why in his seventh season has Fitzpatrick suddenly become a good quarterback? Why are Buffalo fans suddenly convinced they’ve got the second coming of Jim Kelly? And why did the Bills just go out and sign Fitzpatrick to a six-year contract extension worth $59 million?

“I’m really not all that surprised," said Tony Softli, who joined the personnel department of the St. Louis Rams in 2006, the year after the team used a seventh-round draft choice on Fitzpatrick. “Everything I’m seeing now, I kind of saw when he was in St. Louis. The problem was he didn’t get the chance to show it other than in preseason games. As far as I’m concerned, he was the best No. 3 quarterback that’s been with any of the teams I worked for.

“I thought he could develop into something. But [former St. Louis coach] Scott Linehan didn’t think Ryan could develop into an NFL starter. Ryan’s bounced around, landed in the right situation with [Buffalo coach] Chan Gailey and now he’s really blossoming."

Fitzpatrick has completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 1,739 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He showed some signs last season when he started 13 games and threw for 3,000 yards, but the Bills weren’t winning.

This year, the Bills have been winning, and Fitzpatrick’s been a big part of the reason for that. In the last two wins (Sunday against Washington and Oct. 9 against Philadelphia), his stat line has been the same -- 21 completions on 27 attempts. That’s 77.8 percent, and you can’t ask for much better than that.

“What you’re seeing is Chan Gailey and Fitzpatrick are a good marriage for one another," Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson said. “Buffalo’s offense relies on a lot of pre-snap reads and they spread the field a lot. They’re really good with their route combinations and scheming. You need a bright quarterback for that and that’s Fitzpatrick."

“Bright" is a word that always come up when Fitzpatrick is talked about. He lasted until the seventh round of the draft and followed his time in St. Louis with a stint in Cincinnati before landing in Buffalo because he didn’t have the physical pedigree of the big-name quarterbacks. What Fitzpatrick had, however, was the mental pedigree.

He went to college at Harvard and had a perfect score on the Wonderlic test.

“His best asset is his head," Williamson said. “Well, that and the fact he’s tough. His teammates love him and he’s an excellent leader."

“Even when he was the No. 3 guy in St. Louis, Ryan had as much respect and leadership ability as anyone in the locker room," Softli said. “The guy just needed a chance in the right situation, and he finally got that."

But does Fitzpatrick really belong in the same sentence as Brady if you’re talking about anything other than the current AFC East standings?

“He’s a nice player and he’s helped make it an exciting time in Buffalo, but I can’t call him elite," Williamson said. “And I don’t think he’s ever going to become elite. His physical tools are average and his intelligence makes him a slightly above-average starting quarterback. He fits nicely in their system and he has great intangibles. All that is wonderful, but I’m not sure he ultimately is the guy who can get you where you want to go."

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Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

October, 26, 2011
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Rivers, Bradford, FreemanUS PresswireAt the beginning of the season, Philip Rivers, Sam Bradford and Josh Freeman were among the quarterbacks expected to join the elites in the league.
This was supposed to be the year Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers got company.

Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford or Josh Freeman -- or any combination of those four -- was supposed to join the club of truly great quarterbacks. Instead, that club has become even more exclusive.

With Manning out with a neck injury, Brees and Rodgers have been playing better than ever and Brady has been Brady. The gap between those three and the rest of the league has widened.

Sure, there’s still the upper-middle class of Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, guys who can take a very good team to the Super Bowl without being asked to do everything on their own. But what happened to the nouveau riche?

The guys who were supposed to jump right over Roethlisberger and Eli Manning suddenly have had their pockets emptied.

In Bradford’s case, the pocket has simply collapsed. The St. Louis offensive line has allowed so much pressure that Bradford has looked like a rookie in his second season -- something he never did in his first. Bradford’s been hit so much, he couldn’t even play Sunday, and the Rams are winless.

Rivers, the one guy who already seemed to have a foot in the door to the clubhouse of great quarterbacks by throwing for at least 4,000 yards each of the past three seasons, seems to have stepped back.

Rivers had been the guy who could put up huge stats, but just needed to show he could win big before earning full initiation. But Rivers isn’t even putting up the stats this year. Through six games, he’s thrown seven touchdowns and nine interceptions, and he had one of the most anemic games of his career in Sunday’s loss to the Jets.

Freeman, who looked so poised last year in his first full season as a starter, has turned into an interception machine. He threw four Sunday against the Bears in London and has 10 interceptions for the season, after being picked off only six times last year.

Ryan supposedly got the missing link when the Falcons traded up to draft Julio Jones. But, much like Bradford, Ryan’s offensive line has exposed him to a huge amount of hits. At times, Ryan has appeared more flustered than at any point in his first three seasons.

Can Bradford, Ryan, Freeman and Rivers bounce back? Sure. In each case the talent is there. Any of them can get back to ascending to greatness if some problems can be fixed. Maybe that comes in the second half of this season, maybe next year or maybe it never happens.

If it doesn’t, who’s the next great quarterback?

Detroit’s Matthew Stafford is starting to run into injury problems again and there’s not much beyond him. Brees, Rodgers and Brady might get company when Peyton Manning returns.

If not, they might have to wait for Carolina rookie Cam Newton or Andrew Luck, who is still in college.

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Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

October, 19, 2011
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DaltonFernando Medina/US PresswireWhile his numbers aren't off the charts, Andy Dalton has helped lead his team to a 4-2 start.
With Carolina’s Cam Newton, there’s been shock, awe and a lot of losing. With “the other’’ rookie quarterback that’s been starting all season, there simply has been a lot of winning.

That’s Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, who, very quietly, has his team off to a 4-2 start. Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert was tossed into the starting role after opening the season on the bench, and the same is about to happen with Minnesota’s Christian Ponder.

Newton’s had 400-yard passing games and turned heads with his feet. That’s great, but the only rookie quarterback who is winning regularly so far is the guy who was drafted in the second round. Dalton was taken with the 35th overall pick at a time when it still looked as if Carson Palmer might return and the rookie could develop slowly behind him.

Instead, Palmer stuck to his demand to be traded or released and stayed away from the Bengals. That cleared the way for Dalton to be the No. 1 quarterback right away. The numbers haven’t been quite Newtonesque, but Dalton has had games where he threw for 332 and 298 yards and the Bengals have won their past three games.

It’s not like Dalton was thrown in as a game manager and the Bengals are winning in spite of him. This was a team that couldn’t win with Palmer last season and Dalton has come in and made an immediate difference.

“The quarterback, he is our centerpiece, and we develop offense through Andy,’’ Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “Everything we do comes through Andy. People asked me, ‘How are you going to be with a young quarterback?’ Well, a young quarterback is going to be our offense and he is going to be what our offense is. You can see what we do and we do it through him. That’s why we felt so good about this guy.”

What Dalton did at Texas Christian was throw accurate passes and win. After an 8-5 record as a freshman, Dalton was 34-3 the next three seasons.

It’s been more of the same since Dalton took over the Bengals. He’s completing 62.4 percent of his passes. Tight end Jermaine Gresham and rookie receiver A.J. Green have made Dalton look good by catching some passes that weren’t exactly where they were supposed to be. But there haven’t been off-target throws.

But the best thing the Bengals might have done for Dalton was to pair him with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. A longtime Arena Football League coach, Gruden puts an emphasis on getting rid of the ball quickly.

That helps limit the pressure on Dalton and eliminates room for potential mistakes, and Dalton’s only getting better. In the past two games, he’s thrown just one interception and been sacked twice. In Sunday’s victory against Indianapolis, Dalton completed a season-high 78.1 percent of his passes and he’s singing the praises of Gruden.

“There is a lot of give and take,’’ Dalton said. “We don’t know anything different. With he and I coming here at the same time, we were both going to have new people around us. It has been great. He’s done a great job calling plays.”

It’s all worked out so well with the arrival of Dalton and Gruden that the Bengals finally put Palmer in their past. They traded Palmer to Oakland on Tuesday because they already had moved on so nicely without him.

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October, 12, 2011
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Kevin Kolb, Donovan McNabb and Michael VickUS PresswireBig offseason splashes at the quarterback position haven't paid off for Arizona (Kevin Kolb), Philadelphia (Michael Vick) or Minnesota (Donovan McNabb).
Aside from the drafting of Cam Newton, the biggest quarterback news of the offseason was the trade of Kevin Kolb to Arizona, the trade of Donovan McNabb to Minnesota, and Michael Vick signing a new six-year contract with Philadelphia.

How are those moves working out for the Cardinals, Vikings and Eagles?

In one categorical word: Disastrously.

Each team is 1-4, and each quarterback has been a big reason his team has struggled. Consider it proof that even if a guy has played well -- in limited or unlimited experience or has had success in a current system -- the buyer should beware when handing out huge currency for quarterbacks.

The Eagles gave Vick a contract worth $100 million, including $40 million guaranteed. The Vikings voided the remaining four years on McNabb's contract with the Redskins, but still agreed to pay him at least $5.05 million this season. McNabb also can earn an extra $2.25 million if certain playing-time and statistical incentives are met. Once the Cardinals got Kolb, they handed him a $10 million signing bonus and an extension through 2016 that averages $12.4 million per year.

But we're talking currency, not just money, when adding up the full tab on these three quarterbacks. The Cardinals shipped cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and their second-round draft pick in 2012 to the Eagles. The Vikings sent the Redskins their sixth-round pick in 2012 and a conditional sixth-round pick in 2013. In the case of Vick, the Eagles didn't have to give any player or draft-pick compensation to keep a player already on their team, but they invested a ton of salary-cap room at one position for six years.

What are they getting in return? Not much. Vick, who was better than he's ever been while starting 12 games last season, has been dreadful since leading the Eagles to a season-opening win against Baltimore. Through five games, he's committed 10 turnovers. All last season, he had nine.

Vick has put coach Andy Reid on the hot seat for putting all his eggs in one basket. But McNabb and Kolb seem to be doing their best to make their former coach look smart.

In 2009, McNabb, Vick and Kolb were all property of Philadelphia. Before last season, Reid decided to trade McNabb, his longtime starter, to Washington. He kept Vick and Kolb, and Vick emerged as the starter. That made it seem like Vick was the answer and the Eagles traded Kolb as soon as the lockout was lifted.

Reid knew McNabb better than anyone else and he shipped him off to Mike Shanahan, who knows a thing or two about quarterbacks. Shanahan quickly decided McNabb was washed up. But new Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier didn't heed the warning signs from Reid and Shanahan. He brought in McNabb to be a bridge until first-round draft pick Christian Ponder is ready.

McNabb's a bridge over troubled waters. He's thrown only four touchdown passes, been intercepted twice and sacked 11 times. But McNabb's looking like a gem compared to Kolb. In their head-to-head meeting Sunday, Minnesota defeated Arizona 34-10 in a game that had a lot more to do with Adrian Peterson and Minnesota's defense than McNabb.

Kolb threw two interceptions and was sacked four times. That's nothing new. In Arizona's first two games, he threw for four touchdowns and one interception. In his last three games, he's thrown for one touchdown and been intercepted five times.

The Eagles, who once seemed to have an embarrassment of riches at quarterback, simply have been an embarrassment. So have the Vikings and Cardinals, who aren't getting anything close to what they paid for.

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Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

October, 5, 2011
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Stafford/Freeman/SanchezUS PresswireWhile Mark Sanchez, right, got off to a fast start as a rookie, it's Matthew Stafford, left, and Josh Freeman who have gotten off on the right foot in 2011.
There's an old saying in NFL front offices that you can't truly judge a draft until two or three years down the road.

Makes plenty of sense because some guys flash early and then disappear. Other guys take a while to bloom.

But now that the statute of limitations on the 2009 draft has expired, let's go ahead and start the judging. That draft featured three quarterbacks in the first round -- Matthew Stafford at No. 1 overall to Detroit, Mark Sanchez at No. 5 to the New York Jets and Josh Freeman at No. 17 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Sanchez flashed quickly, starting right away and taking the Jets to the AFC Championship Game, but a quarter of the way into his third season, one thing has become very clear.

“Sanchez is a distant third to those other two guys," said Tony Softli, who worked in the personnel departments of the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams.

The Jets are off to a 2-2 start and Sanchez has put up anemic numbers (six touchdowns, five interceptions and 1,005 passing yards).

“He's holding that team back now," said Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson, who previously worked in Cleveland's front office. “People say I'm a Sanchez hater now. But the funny thing is, I liked him the best of the three before that draft because I thought he had 'it.' When he went to the Jets, I stopped liking him so much because I don't think he has the physical ability to play in the kind of weather you get in New York."

But Sanchez had to be doing something right to get to those two AFC Championship Games, didn't he?

“Sanchez fell into a situation where he came to a team that had a good running game and good receivers," Softli said. “He just had to manage a game, and now things seem to have changed. I don't think he's a guy that can win on his own and win big. Can he develop into that? Probably yes. But he's not there yet."

Funny, but Stafford and Freeman, who started much more slowly, have soared right past Sanchez. Freeman, who showed lots of promise in a 2010 season that was his first as the full-time starter, has the Bucs sitting at 3-1 and tied with the New Orleans Saints for first place in the NFC South. Stafford, who dealt with injuries in his first two seasons, is healthy and that's a major reason the Lions are 4-0 for the first time since 1980.

So who's the best quarterback from the Class of 2009?

“You're splitting hairs on that one because they're both the kind of guys you want to build a franchise around," Williamson said. “There are probably six elite quarterbacks in the league right now and Stafford and Freeman can get there. I'd take them over guys like Michael Vick, Tony Romo and Eli Manning. I love them both, but I'd say Stafford right now. Stafford might throw the ball better than anyone in the league other than Aaron Rodgers. He's got velocity, he's on target and he can do it with people all over him. I take him because he's a little more pin-point than Freeman."

Softli's high on Stafford as well, but said he thinks Freeman is the best of the Class of 2009.

“Josh has freakish size and athletic ability," Softli said. “But, in the 15 years, I said in interviews and meetings with quarterback prospects, Sam Bradford was the smartest guy I ever saw and Josh was a very close second. I mean, Matt Ryan, Tim Tebow and Joe Flacco are in my top five in that department, but Josh and Sam were clearly above them. So much of playing quarterback is about intelligence. That's why I'm going with Freeman. He's got more fourth-quarter comebacks. He's also a runner, a great leader and he's remained healthy throughout. His will to win is absolutely exceptional."

Sounds like we might have to bend that rule of thumb a bit and give Stafford and Freeman a little more time to sort things out before claiming a winner from the Class of 2009.

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September, 28, 2011
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Manning/FitzpatrickUS PresswireNew York's Eli Manning, left, and Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick both helped their teams snap long losing streaks against divisional foes this past Sunday.
Back in the New Orleans Saints’ 2009 championship season, coach Sean Payton repeatedly told his players that if they wanted to go somewhere they’d never been before, they’d have to do things they never did before.

That philosophy helped the Saints win the first Super Bowl in franchise history, and it looked like some quarterbacks around the league were borrowing that motto recently. Week 3 of the NFL season was a time for quarterbacks to stop some unpleasant streaks.

Ryan Fitzpatrick helped the undefeated Buffalo Bills snap a 15-game losing streak against the New England Patriots. That streak dated back to 2003. Eli Manning had beaten the Philadelphia Eagles earlier in his career, but not recently. That changed Sunday when Manning and the New York Giants broke a six-game losing streak against their division rivals.

Speaking of ending bad streaks against division rivals, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman helped the Bucs break a five-game skid, dating back to 2008 when Jon Gruden was still coaching the team, against the Atlanta Falcons. Finally, Carolina rookie Cam Newton got his first NFL victory as the Panthers defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars.

With the streaks off their backs, all four quarterbacks let out sighs of relief. The role reversals showed that things might be changing for the better for the Bills, Giants, Buccaneers and Panthers.

“It’s huge," Freeman said. “It’s about time one went our way. They’ve been really close games. Since I’ve been here, they’ve won the first four [plus one before Freeman arrived], and they’ve all been close. I can think back to my rookie year. We went in to Atlanta, and had the lead down to the very end of the game. And [Chris] Redman [playing for an injured Matt Ryan] came in and hit it on a fourth down. They’re a great divisional opponent. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys, offense and defense. They’re a good team. We’ll get to see them again. I’m looking forward to that."

Fitzpatrick was the only one of the four streak-busting quarterbacks to have a truly huge day. In a game similar to what he did against Oakland the week before, Fitzpatrick rallied the Bills after they fell behind 21-0 in the third quarter. He threw for 369 yards and helped set up Rian Lindell’s game-winning field goal as time expired.

Manning didn’t have a big yardage total (254), but he did throw for four touchdown passes against Philadelphia’s highly paid and highly hyped secondary. Freeman only threw for 180 yards and was intercepted twice, but he scored the first rushing touchdown of his career and got plenty of help from a defense that probably played its best game since coach Raheem Morris took over in 2009. Newton threw for a career-low 158 yards (he threw for more than 400 in each of his first two starts), but he threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Olsen with four minutes and 20 seconds remaining on a day when heavy rain made throwing the ball difficult.

Newton won’t have to face the Jaguars again this season, unless Carolina and Jacksonville somehow end up meeting in the Super Bowl. But Fitzpatrick will have to face the Bills again, Manning will play the Eagles later and Freeman and the Bucs will have to go up to the Georgia Dome.

They won’t be carrying the burden of those ugly streaks and that may help them get to more places they’ve never been before.

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September, 21, 2011
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Tony Romo and Josh Freeman Getty ImagesTony Romo, left, and Josh Freeman both led fourth-quarter comebacks in Week 2.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from Week 2 of this NFL season, it might be the more you smack a quarterback around and the deeper a hole you put him in, the more danger you’re in.

Take the cases of Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman. All three were battered, Romo to the point at which he had to leave the game with a fractured rib. Freeman was bleeding from his mouth and Ryan was flailing on the turf of the Georgia Dome at one point.

Yet, all three were part of what was a great week for quarterback comebacks. In all, there were five fourth-quarter comebacks in Week 2. Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick and Washington’s Rex Grossman also led their teams to victory after being down in the fourth quarter.

This is nothing new for Ryan. In defeating former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, Ryan notched his 10th fourth-quarter comeback since the start of the 2009 season. No other quarterback has had more fourth-quarter comebacks in that time. Peyton Manning and David Garrard are tied for second with nine.

Ryan, who took a lot of hits in the game, was rocking back and forth briefly after taking a hit early in the fourth quarter with the Eagles leading, 31-21. Soon after Ryan got up, he seemed to get into rhythm. He promptly led two touchdown drives to give the Falcons a 35-31 victory.

“I thought our quarterback really showed his toughness,” coach Mike Smith said. “He took a number of shots and he kept going. When you’ve got guys like that, you’ve got a chance to be successful.’’

It was kind of a similar scene in Minnesota, where Tampa Bay fell behind 17-0 in the first half. Freeman was getting knocked around pretty good, but he never lost his composure and led the Bucs back into the game and on to victory.

"He looked me right in the face, 'We got this; we're OK,'" coach Raheem Morris said. "I'm looking at my quarterback's mouth bleeding. It's kind of a situation you don't want to look at too often. He got things rolling for us and able to come back in the fourth quarter. It's becoming a signature move for him."

In the same time span as Ryan’s 10 comebacks, Freeman is tied with Drew Brees and Jay Cutler with eight fourth-quarter comebacks. There’s a bit of a catch here. Freeman didn’t get to play until halfway through his rookie season. Freeman has had 27 career starts and his eight comebacks are the most ever for a quarterback in such a span.

As impressive as Ryan and Freeman were, Romo’s comeback might have been the best of the week. Romo left the field after taking a shot from Carlos Rogers and was replaced by Jon Kitna.

A Kitna interception helped the 49ers take the lead, and that’s when Romo came back into the game. He promptly threw a touchdown pass to Miles Austin, then drove the Cowboys for a field goal to send the game to overtime.

Romo ended the game by hitting Jesse Holley for a 77-yard gain to set up the winning field goal.

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