NFL Nation: Bernie Kosar

Johnny ManzielRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesIs Tony Romo's back enough of a concern for the Dallas Cowboys that they'd take a flier on the media circus that would come with drafting quarterback Johnny Manziel?

IRVING, Texas -- Johnny Manziel is the most polarizing player in this draft, so naturally people believe he will end up with the Dallas Cowboys, the most polarizing team in the NFL.

With the first round coming fast, ESPNDallas writers take a roundtable look at what a union of the Cowboys and Manziel would mean.

SportsNation

Should the Cowboys take Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel with the 16th pick if he falls to them?

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Discuss (Total votes: 16,137)

Todd Archer: Let's make an huge assumption here that Manziel will be available at No. 16 when the Cowboys pick in the first round. I ask this question first: Should the Cowboys pick the Texas A&M quarterback? We'll get to "Would the Cowboys pick him?" in a second.

My take is, yes, the Cowboys should take him, and I'm not even thinking about the marketing opportunities and off-field stuff that Jerry Jones thinks about. From a football standpoint, I'd argue it would be a great value pick. There is no way the Green Bay Packers thought they would get Aaron Rodgers in 2005 late in the first round, but they took him even when Brett Favre was playing well. Tony Romo is 34 and coming off two back surgeries. I think he'll be fine and return to form, but what happens if he doesn't or he takes a big hit in Week 8 and is down for the year?

Jerry always tried to find a quarterback on the cheap after Troy Aikman retired and he never found a guy until Romo. And that was lucky. I think he'd be lucky again if Manziel were there at No. 16.

Calvin Watkins: I don't believe the Cowboys should take him. No. 1, I don't believe he'll fall to No. 16 or even out of the top 10. If he does fall to No. 16, the Cowboys should either bypass him or trade down. This team has bigger holes to address such as secondary and defensive line before quarterback. There are quarterbacks later, such as Aaron Murray from Georgia, who can be taken in the second or third round. Yeah, I know Romo is coming off back surgery and he's 34 and all of that. It's a back injury and you never know about backs. However, getting Manziel at No. 16 isn't worth it to me. You can find a good quarterback to groom in the later rounds.

Tim MacMahon: Heck, yes. If you can get a guy you feel is a franchise quarterback in the middle of the first round, you do it, especially when the fate of your franchise rests on a 34-year-old back that has been operated on twice in the past year. This isn't about trying to run Romo out of town. It would be a chance to extend the window of having a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback another decade or so, an opportunity the Cowboys shouldn't pass up after navigating that rickety bridge from Aikman to Romo. It would be complicated for a couple of years because of Romo's massive contract and the potential chemistry issues that Roger Staubach mentioned, but it would be well worth it if Manziel can make plays in the NFL like he did in the SEC.

Jean-Jacques Taylor: No. No. No. A thousand times no. This team has way too many holes to draft a quarterback in the first round to sit behind Romo for at least three years. That makes absolutely no sense. When Green Bay drafted Aaron Rodgers and let him sit, they were a contender. They could afford to do it. There's a good chance Jason Garrett gets fired at the end of next season if he's not in the playoffs. Do you think he wants to take a first-round pick and stash him for the next coach? Heck, no. This was the worst defense in the universe last year. Are they really going to miss out on a chance to help it to draft a quarterback who may or may not be a star?

Archer: OK, let’s move on to the second part of the question: Would the Cowboys take Manziel if he is there at No. 16?

I believe they would. We always talk about how the Cowboys should draft a quarterback every year, so now when they could do it, we’re going to say, "No, not that guy?" I don’t think the next Cowboys quarterback will be developed by this team. In other words, a middle-round pick who sits for a few years and takes over. Almost all of the top quarterbacks come from the first or second round. The Cowboys would have Manziel ready to go without the burden of having to carry the franchise early on. He is skilled. He has ability. And he is a draw. I do think it would be incumbent on the coaches to manage this thing the right way because the second Romo throws a poor pass, fans will be calling for Manziel. You can't operate that way.

Watkins: Say the Cowboys do take him, which I doubt, can you imagine if Romo has a bad game? He has been known to have them from time to time. Garrett would be under pressure to send Manziel into the game when he's not ready. Then if he does use Manziel, you've got a media and fan circus. The Cowboys have endured their own type of drama from Terrell Owens, Pacman Jones, Romo's own issues, Jerry Jones and how he runs the franchise among other things, but a quarterback drama isn't fun for anybody. Having Manziel around isn't fun. But if Jerry drafted him he wouldn't care, it would be about the business of marketing and not the business of football.

MacMahon: Well, that might depend on who gets the last word in with GM Jerry. I can’t imagine Garrett, a head coach fighting to keep his job as he enters the last season of his contract, would be thrilled with the idea of using a first-round pick on a guy who might be holding a clipboard and still drawing a media horde as a rookie. But Stephen Jones seems just as enamored with Johnny Football as his father is. I don't think Jerry could help himself if Manziel were available when the Cowboys are on the clock. A strong football argument can be made for Manziel as a fit, and it’d be a home run for the marketing department. And we all know the Cowboys' GM cares about marketing almost as much as he does about football.

Taylor: Jerry loves collecting baubles. We know this. Dez Bryant was a bauble. So was Terrell Owens. And Rocket Ismail. He loves any marketing aspect that added more cash to the family treasure trove. I can absolutely see Jerry using the force of his personality to persuade Garrett and vice president Stephen Jones the right move to make is adding Johnny Football to the roster, even though he's going to sit for multiple seasons and wouldn't make an impact on the team unless Romo was hurt. Hey, at least the preseason games would be sold out.

Archer: Let's be honest, he won't be there at No. 16 and I think we all believe it would cost too much to trade up to get him, so who takes Manziel and why is he a better fit there than with the Cowboys?

I’m going with Jacksonville. They need a quarterback and they need a draw. It’s probably not the most sound football decision to think of it like that, but the Jaguars have no juice. Manziel would give them some juice. And the Cowboys will see him at Wembley in November. Perfect.

Watkins: It's interesting, but when I read Ourlads' mock draft, it didn't have Manziel going until No. 26 to Cleveland. But when I look at the top 10, I can see six teams taking him. I think Cleveland takes him at No. 4, but you have to wonder about the weather in the AFC North. Manziel hasn't played in that on a regular basis in college. Can he produce in cold weather in Pittsburgh and Baltimore in November and December? Oakland seems logical as well at No. 5. Matt Schaub should start in 2014 and Manziel would get his chance the following year. It's just no easy place for him to go. Houston, I don't believe, thinks Manziel is better than the two defensive players. So, I guess to answer this question, I think Cleveland takes him at No. 4.

MacMahon: I think the Browns take him at No. 4. The Browns have been searching for a franchise quarterback since cutting Bernie Kosar, and drafting Manziel would fire up a rabid fan base desperately searching for a reason to be optimistic. Strange as it sounds, I also see Cleveland as a team that would give Manziel a chance to succeed early in his NFL career. Josh Gordon just led the NFL in receiving yards as a 22-year-old despite dealing with a QB rotation. Tight end Jordan Cameron is coming off a Pro Bowl season as a 25-year-old. The Browns have two Pro Bowl offensive linemen -- left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack -- who are in their prime. And Cleveland addressed its need for a running back by signing Ben Tate. Add an electrifying quarterback, and the Browns might actually have one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses.

Taylor: On the surface, Jacksonville should be really intrigued by Johnny Football because they need a quarterback and they need someone to put butts in seats. They're going to be bad again, so they need a playmaker on offense. That said, coach Gus Bradley is a defense-minded dude, so he'll probably go defense and take Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. That leaves Johnny Football to Cleveland. The Browns have a really good, young defense. They have a young star in receiver Josh Gordon. What they need is a triggerman. Since 2002, the Browns have had 10 different players lead them in passing, which is not a positive. If he's the star some project, Johnny Football will turn that franchise around and he'll own the city.


Bernie Kosar hit all the high notes with the community in a statement he released saying he wanted back on the Cleveland Browns' preseason broadcast team.

He also took the decision to another level by saying he was taken off the preseason broadcasts because of his slurred speech impairment, which is “a direct result of the many concussions I received while playing in the NFL.”

That simple sentence fragment on the decision by the Browns and WKYC-Channel 3 had to raise the eyebrows of many, including concussion attorneys, the NFL and the team. Because Kosar is now saying that concussions led to problems that are keeping him from staying in a job.

Serious stuff.

And well beyond the decision to remove Kosar, though that alone caused some ripples in Cleveland and among fans -- a reaction that should surprise absolutely no one.

The decision no doubt can be attributed in part to the combination of Kosar making some harmless but critical statements of the Rams in 2013 -- which angered coach Jeff Fisher and the outrage police -- and a DUI that Kosar received in October of 2013. (He pled not guilty.)

The team could be thinking if there is an issue, then perhaps the next mistake Kosar makes on the air could be more serious.

But in sacking Kosar and bringing in Solomon Wilcots, the team did not really recognize the local audience. Instead of adding an ex-Brown who connects to the community, the team went the “national” route when another ex-player might have eased the sting.

Browns fans enjoyed having Kosar on the broadcast, for his acumen and his insight into the game. Kosar was adept at breaking down a play before the play, and explaining what went right and what went wrong. Fans also liked him because of who he is; Kosar’s popularity in Cleveland remains strong.

Kosar played right into that popularity with his statement, which in part read:

“I believe that this decision stems from my slurred speech impairment, which is a direct result of the many concussions I received while playing in the NFL. This is very unfortunate, as I believe my football acumen and ability to describe what is happening on the field, has been well received by Cleveland Browns fans. I love to put the personal touch, the pride in the Browns, and the pride in our Cleveland community into the broadcast.”

He added that “I still bleed Brown and Orange.”

Call it Kosar’s version of a two-handed backhand down the line.

The response from the TV station was that there was no going back, the decision was made, and it was made because as the Browns change the broadcast should change.

In most cases a change like this would draw a yawn.

But not when it comes to Kosar. Not in Cleveland.

Which is why it doesn’t seem like a change was really necessary. The Browns had a guy who connected with the community, who was insightful and football savvy, and they replaced him with a guy with no connection other than he’s connected to the league.

Bottom line: For whatever reason, the Browns and the station clearly decided the risk-reward ratio with Kosar was no longer in their favor.

You might have noticed ESPN's Skip Bayless suggesting the Seattle Seahawks would challenge within the AFC this coming season. The Seahawks left the AFC for the NFC in 2002, of course. Bayless went on "First Take" and said the AFC reference was a sarcastic comment pointing to overblown expectations for Seattle, as if Seahawks fans thought their team would be good enough to threaten in both conferences, not just its own.

Bayless, Chris Broussard and Danny Kanell discussed the NFC West in general, including Bayless' affinity for the Arizona Cardinals, and it's all there in the video above. Kanell brought a quarterback's perspective on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and San Francisco 49ers counterpart Colin Kaepernick. Kanell thinks Kaepernick has more to prove. He thinks Wilson is the better quarterback and explains why in the video above. Bayless sides with Kaepernick, pointing to physical advantages.

All in all, there was a lot there for NFC West fans, but no mention of the St. Louis Rams. Perhaps Jeff Fishier can add this video to the motivational file to go with recent addition Bernie Kosar.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher projects a confidence born of experience and a competitive nature. His response in March to a question regarding the San Francisco 49ers' and Seattle Seahawks' high-profile offseason moves captured this dynamic.

"They've gotta play us, too," he said then, without needing to mention the Rams' 2-1-1 record against those teams.

So, when Fisher thought former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar unfairly criticized his team while offering color commentary on a recent preseason game, he did not defer meekly. Fisher even got personal when he alluded to "issues" that have been "well documented" regarding Kosar.

These are your Rams under Fisher: confident, unapologetic, nobody's lovable underdog. Consider this the latest reminder that the NFC West goes more than two deep.

Fisher angered by Kosar's criticism

August, 10, 2013
8/10/13
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Working as the color analyst for Cleveland’s preseason television broadcast, former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar did not hold back with his observations and opinions during Thursday night’s game against the St. Louis Rams.

Through the course of the broadcast, Kosar was regularly critical of the Rams, focusing much of his ire on the team’s wide receivers and backup quarterback Kellen Clemens.

[+] EnlargeJeff Fisher
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceJeff Fisher said he isn't fretting over the high amount of penalties that his Rams committed during the preseason.
Asked about it on Saturday, Rams coach Jeff Fisher first noted that he believes the Browns to be a “first-class organization” before making it clear he was none too pleased with Kosar’s idea of color commentary.

“I guess I’m a little disappointed,” Fisher said. “I feel bad for them that they had someone doing the broadcast who would feel the need to speak that way about players, specifically on our team, and coaches for that matter. I’m just surprised that Bernie has such a lack of respect for players and for this game. So I lost a lot of respect for him."

Kosar didn’t waste much time in trashing the Rams, and did so repeatedly throughout the evening.

After an incomplete pass intended for Tavon Austin: “I really think that he didn’t overthrow him and that Austin has to make that catch in the NFL. I see why Sam [Bradford] has been struggling watching how bad these receivers have been for him.”

After Nick Johnson dropped a pass: “This is actually not a bad throw. These St. Louis receivers are horrible. That’s a drop there.”

When play-by-play man Jim Donovan asked Kosar what he’d think if he knew that some of the Rams receivers' parents were watching, Kosar said he “would be embarrassed.”

Kosar then turned his attention from to receivers coach Ray Sherman.

“I’m checking through the itinerary here of guys and coaches to see who the receivers coach is to make sure I don’t know who this guy is because he’s not doing very good either,” Kosar said.

[+] EnlargeBernie Kosar
AP Photo/Mark DuncanA former quarterback, Bernie Kosar said particularly harsh things about Rams QB Kellen Clemens.
Kosar did offer praise to Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, but he didn’t feel the same way about Clemens. In fact, many of Kosar’s comments came off as though he held a personal vendetta of some sort against Clemens. When Donovan told Kosar, who had been asking for the use of a telestrator throughout the evening, that he might get one if he were on his best behavior, Kosar responded with a seemingly out-of-nowhere shot at Clemens.

“I must not be because the next quarterback in, me and him haven’t done too well with each other, too,” Kosar said.

Clemens wasn’t in the game at the time.

Later, when Clemens entered the game, Donovan relayed a story about Clemens giving an autograph to Pope Benedict XVI. Kosar said he didn’t think he’d ever want it, and then took another shot at Clemens.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Kosar said. “I have to watch him the whole fourth quarter.”

On Saturday, Fisher said he didn’t believe Kosar had studied the Rams well enough to be making such sweeping generalizations.

“I didn’t think they were justified,” Fisher said.

Some notes from practice:

  • As expected, Joe Barksdale got the bulk of the reps with the first team at right tackle in place of Rodger Saffold. Barksdale held up well against defensive end Chris Long in one-on-one pass-rush drills and again during the team period. Saffold watched practice from the sideline but was out of the sling he was wearing at the end of Thursday’s game.
  • With Sean Hooey not practicing because of an ankle injury, rookie Barrett Jones moved over to right tackle after spending the first couple of weeks working exclusively on the interior. Jones handled reps at right tackle in one-on-ones as well as team drills. Chris Williams, who has spent most of his time at left guard, also took some reps at right tackle during one-on-ones.
  • Running backs Zac Stacy and Terrance Ganaway, defensive end Eugene Sims and safety Matt Giordano did not practice. Receiver Andrew Helmick was back in uniform but didn’t do much of anything.
  • Fisher said defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo (foot) is out of his boot and closer to a return.

In the middle of a cold January night, the Chicago Bears hit a brilliant home run. Either that, or they struck out wildly. I just don't see much gray area in their decision to hire Marc Trestman as their next head coach, a man who was once a hot coaching candidate but was so thoroughly rejected by NFL teams that he fled to the CFL five years ago.

The Bears were so excited about hiring Trestman as their next head coach that they announced it in a press release issued at 4:07 a.m. local time. His arrival is either a stroke of genius for general manager Phil Emery, who clearly sought an offensive guru for this role, or a classic case of overthinking a process in hopes of finding the perfect candidate in an imperfect world.

There was a time when Trestman was the Mike McCoy of the NFL -- the league's top young offensive assistant with an impressive résumé of success who seemed destined for a head coach's job. That time, quite frankly, was more than two decades ago and predates the teen years of most players on the Bears' roster.

[+] EnlargeMarc Trestman
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul ChiassonMarc Trestman led the Montreal Alouettes to three appearances in the Grey Cup, including consecutive championships in 2009 and 2010.
Trestman's offenses were explosive and innovative and loved by the quarterbacks who ran them. In recent days, some of those quarterbacks have advanced the cause of a coach they feel was unfairly passed over. We've heard from Rich Gannon and Steve Young, among others. They've spoken of Trestman's work with them, along with his success in developing a long list of other quarterbacks that include Bernie Kosar, Jake Plummer and Scott Mitchell. And Trestman's biggest benefactor might be former Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant, who hired him with the Minnesota Vikings in the mid-1980s.

You would be excused for a double-take after reading those names. Grant retired for good in 1985. Kosar has been out of the NFL for 17 years. Young's last season with Trestman was 1996. Mitchell last played in 2001. Today's NFL players probably view Gannon, the league's MVP in 2002, as a television analyst more than a contemporary.

In an industry in which teams are always looking for the next great head coach, Trestman was passed over repeatedly and without fail. His NFL success dates back to a long-gone era in a fast-moving league.

So in my view, Emery has either plucked a savant with exceptional ability to adapt over time or he has hired a relic based on a profile -- smart, innovative with head-coaching success -- whose window closed a long time ago. As we noted earlier this week, men of Trestman's age (57) almost never get a chance to be a first-time NFL head coach. Fair or not, general managers and owners value recent success and surely connect it to understanding the latest trends in the league.

Trestman's run as an NFL assistant began in 1985 -- when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was 2 years old -- and ended around 2002. His last NFL job, before he returned to the college ranks and later moved to the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, was in 2004. Eight years is a long time to be away from the day-to-day workings of an industry.

To be clear, that alone doesn't make Trestman a bad hire or even over the hill. It means he is unique relative to the way NFL teams have typically done business in recent years, and it's why I think his chances to be a brutal strikeout are just as high as the possibility that he is a monster home run.

Living in Minnesota for the past 13 years, I can't tell you how many people I've heard speak reverentially about Trestman, a native of the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park who played at the University of Minnesota. Those people range from Grant to Gannon to people Trestman went to high school with. They all believe he is a brilliant offensive strategist and quarterback guru, one whose professorial and quiet demeanor perhaps clouded the view of NFL teams who questioned his ability to command a room and lead an entire team. His name has been championed for every head-coach opening the Vikings and the University of Minnesota have had since I've lived here, and yet he has never received serious interest.

In terms of profile, Trestman fits everything you would imagine a general manager such as Emery would want. He has previous success in developing quarterbacks and has the capacity to elevate Cutler's game if the quarterback buys in. His ego is small enough, by all accounts, to trust the front office with all personnel moves. He was humble enough to take a CFL job and good enough to win two Grey Cups in the process.

But any skepticism is completely understandable. That previous NFL success is in many cases decades old, with schemes whose popularity have waned and with quarterbacks who haven't played in a long time. His success in Canada is better than the alternative, but the CFL is undeniably a different game at a lower level of competition with players of dissimilar mindsets than those in the NFL.

Without question, hiring Marc Trestman was a courageous decision. There are plenty of people who consider it brilliant and decades in the making. The bottom line, however, is that most of the NFL rendered its judgment on him -- right or wrong, fair or otherwise -- a long time ago. Are the Bears smarter than everyone else? We'll soon find out.
Jim Harbaugh Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh, left, says former coach Lindy Infante, right, had a huge impact on his career.
Jim Harbaugh's reverence for Bill Walsh has been palpable since the San Francisco 49ers named him head coach this offseason.

Harbaugh has sought to round up old coaching tapes featuring Walsh installing game plans. He has embraced Walsh's offensive philosophy, pledging to run a similar version of the West Coast system. He has paid homage to 49ers tradition. Before Walsh died in 2007, he backed Harbaugh at Stanford, where Walsh was twice head coach. Walsh even spoke to players at Harbaugh's first spring practice.

Harbaugh has also been around the NFL long enough to know the league has produced a long list of outstanding coaches, even if few match Walsh in terms of success and overall legacy.

Lindy Infante was one of those coaches in Harbaugh's eyes.

"Lindy doesn't get near the credit that Bill Walsh does," Harbaugh said this offseason, "but in many ways they are equals in terms of football minds. I never played for Bill Walsh, but there's no question in my mind."

This statement struck me as profound, but context is key. Harbaugh wasn't comparing their careers. He was comparing football acumen. One of the things Harbaugh admires most about Infante, who coached him in Indianapolis and is now retired, applies directly to Harbaugh's current challenge with the 49ers.

"It would be the ability to make a quarterback really play well," Harbaugh said.

Not just any quarterback, but quarterbacks with limitations.

"I went to the Pro Bowl playing for Lindy and up until that point, I wasn't thought of as a good quarterback at all," Harbaugh said. "But coaching made a difference."

Bernie Kosar and Don Majkowski enjoyed their best statistical seasons with Infante coaching them.

[+] EnlargeDon Coryell
Photo by George Rose/Getty ImagesThe passing concepts taught by longtime NFL coach Don Coryell influenced the coaches who influenced Jim Harbaugh.
All of this came to mind Thursday during our blog discussion measuring Don Coryell's impact on Walsh and, by extension, on the 49ers.

Coryell never won a championship as a head coach, but he affected modern football tremendously through his innovative scheming.

Walsh served as Coryell's offensive coordinator before landing at Stanford and, two years later, with the 49ers. Though Walsh and Infante never worked together, Coryell influenced both. Infante expanded upon Coryell's innovations while serving as offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals during the early 1980s. The concepts became staples within offenses around the league, including the one Infante taught to Harbaugh while both were with the Colts during the 1990s.

Infante, reached by phone at his Florida home, spoke specifically of the option routes Coryell used in San Diego to make Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow more dangerous.

The way Infante tells it, he was studying the Chargers' offense under Coryell when something unusual stood out on film. San Diego would run what appeared to be the same play from the same formation, but Winslow seemed to be acting on his own.

The first time, Winslow might run 12 yards and break toward the outside right. Ten or 12 plays would pass, and then the same play would come up again, but this time Winslow would run a tight hook to the inside, getting open for a first down. A quarter might pass and the same play would appear, with Winslow breaking across the field to his left.

"I kept writing these things down and diagramming them and I sat back and said, 'It looks to me like they are giving Winslow the right to go where he wants to go,' " Infante said. "We started playing around with what we call the 'Y' or tight end option. The first day out on the practice field, we had a full scrimmage and I said, 'Here goes, we're going to find out whether this thing is going to work.' "

It worked.

"By about the third or fourth time we ran it, Kenny Anderson and the tight end, Danny Ross, ended up on the same timing-type situation, but the quarterback got to the point where he could tell where the receiver was going to go way before he went," Infante said. "He was trying to get the ball there early and we had the ball hit Danny Ross in the face because he couldn't get turned around fast enough. We had to do some on-the-job training, but that is what got us thinking."

If the tight end could make such adjustments, Infante thought, why couldn't wide receivers do the same? If wide receivers could do it, why not the running backs? Before long, receivers could have as many as five options on a particular route based on the coverage, blitzes and the other factors.

Ross caught 71 passes for 910 yards and five touchdowns in 1981. He was on pace for even bigger numbers a year later, finishing the strike-shortened 1982 season with 47 catches for 508 yards in just nine games. Ross went to the Pro Bowl that season.

"It evolved to the point where we were doing a lot of option-route running, a lot of route adjustments after the snap of the ball and the quarterback would have the right to change certain plays if certain things were going on," Infante said. "It was exciting because it was inventive and you had to feel free to go and try to invent something. When I started coaching with Harbaugh, they brought me in to Indianapolis and the idea was I would bring my offense with me."

Harbaugh finished his playing career under Ted Marchibroda (Baltimore Ravens), Mike Riley (San Diego Chargers) and Marty Mornhinweg (Detroit Lions). He coached under Bill Callahan in Oakland before becoming a head coach at the University of San Diego and then Stanford.

The lockout has prevented Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman from installing their offense with the 49ers. The coaching staff has used the time to refine exactly how they'll present information to players once the lockout finally does end.

Players might not know it, but former coaches will influence the process, at least indirectly.

"For this offense, there's a lot of Lindy Infante principles," Harbaugh said, "but I don't think it's exclusive to this offense. You talk about the option routes. The smash route now is a universally run route, but that was Lindy Infante.

"From a quarterback standpoint, I learned from him that there were more ways to read a route than just through a progression. I learned how to throw people open from him, that covered did not mean covered. That is a huge part of football now. The whole option game, the option routes, the smash concepts -- all those things I learned from him. He was very technical, very detailed. Just a different way to understand the passing game is what I learned from him."
Hillis/Flacco/SmithUS PresswirePeyton Hillis, Joe Flacco and Andre Smith are among the AFC North players with the most to prove.
The offseason is a time to reflect and evaluate. The NFL remains a constant proving ground. These seven AFC North players -- who face questions ranging from consistency to becoming a franchise quarterback -- have the most to prove this upcoming season:

No. 7: Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 3,622 yards, 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 93.6 passer rating

Proving point: Flacco is a unique case, because he doesn't have much to prove in the regular season. The third-year quarterback has improved every year and won an average of 10.7 games per season in Baltimore. But Flacco's proving ground starts in the playoffs, and that is the next step in his maturation process. Fans in Baltimore expected better postseason play right away from Flacco and now are voicing their displeasure. Despite his putting up career highs in yards, touchdowns and passer rating last season, Baltimore's second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers still stings for a Ravens team many expected to get to the Super Bowl. Flacco has a 4-3 postseason record, which isn't bad. But he's only played great football in one of his seven career playoff games. Is Flacco going through the normal growing pains of a young quarterback? Or is he simply not clutch? Next season will go a long way toward answering that question.

No. 6: Ziggy Hood, DE, Steelers

2010 stats: 20 tackles, three sacks

Proving point: Hood took advantage of a luxury not many first-round picks have in the NFL. He was a backup for about a year and a half and was allowed to learn in Pittsburgh before being forced into the starting lineup. Hood became a starter after Pittsburgh veteran defensive end Aaron Smith was lost for the season with a triceps injury. The 2009 first-round pick stepped in admirably, and the Steelers finished with the NFL's No. 2 defense and top-rated run defense. Can Hood be a full-time starter? With Smith returning, it will be interesting to see how the Steelers handle this. Smith, 34, is the prototypical 3-4 defensive end and is still a good player when healthy. But Hood also is a budding talent who looks ready to step up.

No. 5: Michael Oher, LT, Ravens

2010 stats: 16 starts

Proving point: Is Oher a left tackle or right tackle? After two seasons, the Ravens are still trying to figure that out. Oher followed up a stellar rookie campaign on the right side with a so-so 2010 season at left tackle. Baltimore had contract and health issues last offseason with Jared Gaither and decided to make the switch, which is often challenging. Oher had issues protecting Flacco's blind side (no pun intended) at times and suffered too many pre-snap penalties. But Oher remains Baltimore's best offensive lineman. So there is potential to improve on the left side in his third year. Chances are, Oher will get another shot to prove that in 2011 if the Ravens cannot find a better option via the draft or free agency.

No. 4: Jerome Simpson, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

[+] EnlargeJerome Simpson
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeCan Jerome Simpson keep the momentum going from the end of last season?
2010 stats: 20 receptions, 277 yards, three touchdowns

Proving point: After three mostly uneventful seasons, Simpson ended the final two weeks with a bang by posting back-to-back 100-yard games and three total touchdowns. Was the late surge a fluke or a sign that Simpson has finally turned the corner? Injuries to veterans Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens gave Simpson an opportunity to play. Now the Bengals have to figure out if Simpson is worthy of a larger role -- perhaps as a starter -- in 2011. Outsiders have their doubts. Most mock drafts have Cincinnati taking Georgia receiver A.J. Green with the No. 4 overall pick. If the Bengals take Green, that would show a lack of confidence in Simpson and their current group of receivers. Ochocinco also could become trade bait this offseason.

No. 3: Peyton Hillis, RB, Cleveland Browns

2010 stats: 1,177 rushing yards, 61 receptions, 13 total touchdowns

Proving point: Is Hillis a one-year wonder? Following a breakout 2010 season, that is the question Browns fans want answered. Hillis exploded on the scene by leading the Browns in rushing and receiving last year. He was by far the team's MVP. But Hillis needs another great season for the Browns to have a chance in the AFC North. His numbers dipped toward the end of the season, as teams keyed on Hillis and he suffered through some nagging injuries. Expect defenses to be more aware of Hillis from the start next season. It will be interesting to see whether Hillis gets the same number of opportunities. Browns rookie head coach Pat Shurmur is changing to a West Coast offense. So Cleveland is expected to pass the ball a lot more than it did under former coach Eric Mangini. Hillis has good hands and could fit in the system. He's always been productive when given the opportunity, and posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the first time would be a solid achievement for Hillis.

No. 2: Andre Smith, RT, Bengals

2010 stats: Four starts

Proving point: After two years, many have already written Smith off as a draft bust. Cincinnati took Smith No. 6 overall, despite many red flags and have gotten little out of its investment thus far. The Bengals had high hopes for Smith in his second season but injuries and inconsistent play led to just four starts. Now Cincinnati is considering moving Smith to guard to see if his play improves. The Bengals also have to decide on Smith's contract later this offseason. Cincinnati has to decide whether to keep his contract at four years or pay him for two additional years, which included a $4.75 million option bonus. Based on the first two seasons, it would be surprising if the Bengals paid Smith the additional money.

No. 1: Colt McCoy, QB, Browns

2010 stats: 1,576 yards, six touchdowns, nine interceptions, 74.5 passer rating

Proving point: There is no player in the AFC North with more to prove next season than McCoy, who received a surprising amount of playing time as a rookie. Cleveland intended for McCoy to learn from the sidelines last season. But injuries to veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace led to early playing time. McCoy then performed better than expected and secured the job after eight starts. The quarterback of the future is now the quarterback of the present. The Browns' front office and coaching staff are 100 percent behind McCoy as he tries to become Cleveland's first legitimate franchise quarterback since Bernie Kosar. There is a long list of failures at the position over the past dozen years. If the Browns have any chance of turning the franchise around and competing in the AFC North, McCoy has to be the answer.

Panthers now must focus on offense

January, 10, 2011
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It looks like Ron Rivera will be the new head coach in Carolina, but he might not be the most important hire the Panthers make.

The Panthers believe that who they hire as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach will be almost as important as who they hire as the head coach. They feel so strongly about this that team officials might try to steer Rivera toward hiring certain offensive coaches, and one name you should keep an eye on is Marc Trestman.

He’s been coaching Montreal in the Canadian Football League, but Trestman has a long history as an NFL coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Although this logic didn’t apply with Bill Cowher, there’s another reason Trestman might be on Carolina’s radar. He has a home in the Raleigh area and lives there during the CFL’s offseason. Trestman did a stint at North Carolina State before heading to Montreal.

Carolina owner Jerry Richardson has made it very clear he expects the new coach to improve an offense that was dismal last season and predictable throughout much of the John Fox era. With Andrew Luck electing to stay at Stanford and not enter the NFL this year, it’s unlikely the Panthers will use the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on a quarterback.

They could draft one later or they could target a quarterback in free agency. The Panthers realize they can’t sit still at quarterback, although there are people within the organization who believe that Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike still have the potential to develop into decent NFL quarterbacks. The belief is that Clausen and Pike didn’t have a chance to succeed as rookies because they weren’t getting great coaching and were in an offensive system that didn’t give them a chance to prosper.

Through his career, Trestman has worked with Bernie Kosar, Rich Gannon and Jake Plummer in seasons where those quarterbacks put up big numbers.

Tom Brady is the clear-cut MVP

December, 26, 2010
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BradyAP Photo/Mike GrollTom Brady has thrown for 3,701 yards and 34 TDs with four interceptions this season. His rating is 109.8.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As I approached New England Patriots running back Fred Taylor at his locker stall, I prefaced a question about Tom Brady by wondering if anything new can be said about one of the greatest quarterbacks in football history.

Taylor shrugged with an expression that indicated he doubted there have been praises left unsung. There wasn't much more to add.

And then Taylor compared Brady to a super robot from a Japanese science-fiction cartoon.

"I've played with a lot of quarterbacks in my career," Taylor said. "If you put all of them together and form a Voltron, they might be as good as he is."

So apparently Brady can keep pushing the limits of description.

Brady wasn't prolific but was nonetheless in command Sunday, guiding the Patriots to a 34-3 pillaging of the Buffalo Bills in snow-sprinkled Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Patriots clinched their eighth AFC East title in 10 seasons, and Brady cemented himself as the league's most valuable player ahead of Michael Vick.

By any measure, the MVP discussion comes down to Brady versus Vick. True enough, Vick is enjoying a magical season, the best of his career. His controversial history, however, is what sets him up as an inspirational story of redemption that skews the debate.

"He's having a pretty good season, but it's been magnified because of the stuff that he's done," Taylor said. "He's handled himself well, though."

Brady's campaign could rank as the most impressive of his decorated career. He's not approaching the obnoxious stats he posted in 2007, but circumstances are what set this season apart for the three-time champion and five-time Pro Bowler.

Brady's the conductor of the NFL's most dominant offense. They've flourished minus Randy Moss and with Wes Welker's knee still in recovery for much of the year. And then there's rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and castoff running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.

The Patriots aren't that dynamic spread offense that operates out of the shotgun anymore. They've morphed into another team.

"There wasn't any lapse," Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "The transition was seamless from one right to the other.

"When they had Moss, you had to worry about him so much as the deep threat. Now, the Patriots pick you apart a little at a time, working their way down the field."

And that's the scariest part. If you're a New York Jets, Miami Dolphins or Bills fan waiting around for the Patriots to go through a rebuilding phase, then you've already missed your chance. It happened this year.

Brady has carried a team with a flawed defense to the league's best record and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots rank at or near the bottom of the NFL in several defensive categories and have one of the all-time worst third-down defenses.

The Patriots are on pace to allow 5,987 yards. Comcast SportsNet New England reporter Tom E. Curran pointed out this week that teams that have allowed 6,000 yards since the turn of the century have gone a combined 80-179, with no winning records or playoff appearances among them.

Why are the Patriots the anomaly?

Brady.

Green-Ellis and Woodhead moved the offense Sunday. They rushed for a combined 197 yards and one touchdown.

But there was no doubt who was in control. Brady's numbers were modest because they didn't need to be garish. The Bills committed seven turnovers.

Brady left the game one possession into the fourth quarter and with the game locked up. He completed 15 of his 27 passes for 140 yards and three touchdowns -- two to Gronkowski -- with no interceptions.

Brady has completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,701 yards and 34 touchdowns with four interceptions. He owns a 109.8 passer rating.

Brady broke Bernie Kosar's 19-year-old record for consecutive attempts without an interception. Brady is at 319 passes and counting since he threw a pair of interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 17.

He has gone nine straight games without an interception, and the Patriots have gone an NFL-record seven games in a row without a turnover of any kind. He has notched at least two touchdown passes and no interceptions in an NFL-record eight straight games.

"What he does, nothing is shocking," Patriots center Dan Koppen said.

Brady has thrown fewer than eight interceptions only twice in his career: his rookie season when he played in one game, and in 2008 when he threw 11 passes before undergoing reconstructive knee surgery.

With nothing left on the line, Brady likely won't air it out in the regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. He should finish with the second-lowest interception percentage in NFL history. He's at 0.84 percent. Damon Huard holds the record at 0.41 percent (one interception on 244 attempts) in 2006.

You probably could throw Huard into that Voltron assembly of Taylor's and it still wouldn't measure up to Brady.

"Sometimes you have to choose your words right when you talk about him," Taylor said. "He's just special."

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 34, Bills 3

December, 26, 2010
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The New England Patriots mopped up Ralph Wilson Stadium with the Buffalo Bills, wringing them 34-3.

What it means: The Patriots clinched the AFC East championship and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Bills suffered their worst loss of the season after winning four out of their previous six games.

Hero: Local boy Rob Gronkowski had four catches for 54 yards and two touchdowns. Gronkowski's performance was more notable because tight end Aaron Hernandez, who had a pair of touchdowns in last week's victory over the Green Bay Packers, was deactivated because of a hip injury.

Goat: Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick committed five turnovers -- three interceptions and two fumbles. The Patriots converted the first three into 21 points. Fitzpatrick had a fumble and an interception in the Patriots' red zone in the first half. Fitzpatrick's streak of games with a touchdown pass ended at 15, three short of Jim Kelly's franchise record.

Brady bumps Bernie: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady broke Bernie Kosar's 19-year-old record for consecutive attempts without an interception. Kosar's record was 308 straight. Brady is at 319 and counting.

What's with Wes? Midway through the third quarter, possession receiver extraordinaire Wes Welker had three drops and two receptions for 12 yards. Welker's first two drops were in the Bills' red zone in the second quarter. The other should have converted a third down in the third quarter.

What's next: The Bills will wrap up their season against the New York Jets at the Meadowlands. The Patriots will welcome the Miami Dolphins to Gillette Stadium.

Halftime thoughts from Patriots at Bills

December, 26, 2010
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Some halftime thoughts from Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the New England Patriots lead the Buffalo Bills 24-3:
  • New England has 163 rushing yards. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead each have at least 66 yards already.
  • The out-of-town scoreboard isn't helping the Bills much. The New York Jets lead the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, maintaining the Patriots' importance for beating the Bills.
  • The Bills have had their moments, but didn't seize opportunities. On an impressive opening drive, the Bills had to settle for a field goal. Ryan Fitzpatrick made an astute audible call and lobbed a nice pass into the end zone for Steve Johnson, who couldn't get his feet down in bounds. Johnson also failed to come down with what would have been a nice catch on the next play.
  • Bills running back Fred Jackson has eight carries for 61 yards, with 27 coming on the first play.
  • Fitzpatrick demonstrated his risk-reward tendencies on the third drive. Rather than take a first-down sack at the Patriots' 20-yard line, Fitzpatrick fumbled while trying to unload a pass. The Patriots recovered and eventually converted the turnover into seven points for a 14-3 lead. Fitzpatrick threw a bad interception right before halftime.
  • Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton had the strip sack. He's compiling a nice season and has stepped up with rookie starter Brandon Spikes suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
  • Rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski knows how to stage a homecoming. The suburban Buffalo native had a 23-yard reception and scored an 8-yard touchdown on a drive early in the second quarter. He should've had a 77-yard touchdown on the Patriots' first play of the game, breaking wide open up the seam. Tom Brady underthrew him for an incompletion. Gronkowski, who played in Pittsburgh his senior year of high school, had three TD catches at Heinz Field in Week 10.
  • The Patriots are holding off the Bills' pass rush just fine without right guard Dan Connolly (concussion). Brady has 23 seconds to pass every time he's in the pocket.
  • Woodhead, the greatest player out of Chadron State since former Bills receiver Don Beebe, ripped a 29-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
  • Brady avoided throwing an interception on his 15 attempts. He needs three more to break Bernie Kosar's record of 308 consecutive passes without an interception.

A look at Brady's no-interception streak

December, 19, 2010
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How long has it been since Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw an interception? The Jets were considered the team to beat in the AFC.

If that seems like a long time ago, you're right.

Brady
Brady hasn't thrown an interception since Week 6 against the Ravens, a stretch of 268 attempts. That ranks sixth all-time.

He would climb into second place with 27 more interception-free attempts Sunday night against the Packers.

Here's the list of longest streaks:
  • Bernie Kosar, 1990-91 for the Browns -- 308
  • Bart Starr, 1964-65 for the Packers -- 294
  • Jeff George, 1993-94 for the Colts and Falcons -- 279
  • Rich Gannon, 2001 for the Raiders -- 277
  • Jason Campbell, 2007-08 for the Redskins -- 271
  • Tom Brady, 2010 for the Patriots -- 268

Brady has tied the NFL record with six consecutive games of at least two touchdown passes and no interceptions. In his past eight games he has 19 TDs, zero interceptions and only two ratings under 100.

The Patriots have a league-leading plus-18 turnover ratio and haven't committed any in five straight games, which is an NFL record.

Thoughts on Sam Bradford and the Rams

August, 22, 2010
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What to make of Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams following their 19-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns during the second week of the 2010 exhibition season:

  • Hard rains made game conditions sloppy. Both teams' offenses bogged down in the conditions. The exception was when A.J. Feeley was at quarterback for the Rams. Feeley's command of the offense separated him from the other quarterbacks in this game, particularly early. He was able to run the Rams' offense more precisely. It helped, too, that Steven Jackson was in the game for the one drive Feeley led. Quarterbacks for both teams had trouble securing the ball from center in the wet conditions, throwing off rhythm right away.
  • [+] EnlargeSam Bradford
    AP Photo/David RichardSam Bradford completed 6 of 14 passes for 24 yards in the rain against the Browns.
    Feeley's experience helped him take what the Browns' defense was giving him. That meant throwing underneath to tight ends Billy Bajema and Daniel Fells.
  • The Rams' pass protection showed improvement from last week. The Browns do not rush the passer as well as Week 1 opponent Minnesota rushes the passer. That accounted for part of the difference. The Rams' offensive tackles also showed improvement. The Browns got pressure on blitzes, which is easy to do during the exhibition season because offenses aren't game-planning nearly as much.
  • How much better was the Rams' pass protection? Bernie Kosar, providing commentary on the Browns' broadcast, at one point said, "Fantastic job of pass protection by the St. Louis Rams." There never would have been a chance to utter that sentence a week earlier.
  • The Rams got what they wanted from a couple key veterans they added in free agency. On defense, tackle Fred Robbins had a sack and a fumble recovery. On offense, Feeley ran the system effectively before -- and even immediately after -- suffering a thumb injury, but the Rams took him out of the game after the opening drive to a touchdown. Giving Feeley time to heal could work to the Rams' favor in the long term. Feeley already knows the offense. He doesn't need as much work. Starting Bradford during the third exhibition game could make it easier for the Rams to start Bradford in Week 1 of the regular season.
  • Bradford isn't yet playing fast enough. That will change as he gains more game experience. The conditions made it especially tough for Bradford to function quickly and efficiently. Bradford has yet to play a game with Jackson in the backfield. That should change next week. Jackson is the one Rams player defenses fear. Bradford needs him. Bradford could also use more help from teammates. Bajema dropped a third-down pass early in the game. I wasn't seeing many open receivers, either.
  • Mardy Gilyard made three Browns miss during a 23-yard punt return early in the game. Gilyard enjoyed a strong week of practices, easily his best as a pro.

Overall, the Rams needed to see better pass protection in this game, and they got it. They wanted to see Bradford get into a rhythm and move the offense, but it didn't really happen. That will come with experience, better conditions and a little more help. Bradford never faced a third-down distance shorter than 8 yards. His third-down distances in order: third-and-8, 9, 9, 10, 14, 17, 8 and 8. Getting Jackson onto the field would help bring down those distances for Bradford, putting him in better position to succeed.
Sam BradfordG. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesIt remains to be seen how the Rams will handle quarterback Sam Bradford during his rookie season.
The St. Louis Rams need not look far to see what can happen when an overmatched NFL team mishandles a quarterback drafted first overall.

The division-rival San Francisco 49ers are still trying to recoup their investment in 2005 first overall choice Alex Smith.

The Rams probably will not change offensive coordinators every year for the next five seasons, as the 49ers improbably did in Smith's first five, but they still need to be careful with rookie No. 1 overall choice Sam Bradford.

Early indications suggest the Rams would like to follow the plan Philadelphia took with Donovan McNabb back in 1999, when Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was coaching the Eagles' tight ends. Doug Pederson opened as the Eagles starter that season, allowing McNabb to ease into the starting role. McNabb got some reps off the bench before taking over as the starter in November.

In setting expectations for Bradford, I looked at production by rookie quarterbacks since 1970. The list featured several older players, some with experience in the CFL or USFL. I filtered out those players by focusing only on quarterbacks who were 25 or younger as NFL rookies. A quick look at them by games started:

16-game starters

There were only five, in part because the NFL season spanned only 14 games until 1978.

Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Rick Mirer and David Carr pulled it off. All but Flacco, chosen 18th overall by Baltimore in 2008, were drafted among the top three overall choices in their class.

The ones who took the most sacks as rookies -- Carr (76) and Mirer (47) were the only ones to absorb more than 32 -- had the poorest careers. That might suggest the players had a hard time recovering from the beatings they took early in their careers. It also might reveal something about the quarterbacks' ability to process information quickly enough to get rid of the football before trouble arrives.

Offensive lines tend to take disproportionate blame for sacks, in my view. Quarterbacks are often responsible for them as well.

11- to 15-game starters

None in this group threw even 20 touchdown passes in a season (Manning and Dan Marino are the only rookie quarterbacks since 1970 to reach that barrier as rookies).

We should expect modest production from Bradford even if he starts most of the Rams' games.

Ben Roethlisberger was a rarity among this group by completing at least 60 percent of his passes, but rookie completion percentage wasn't a reliable indicator for career success overall.

Some quarterbacks ranking lower played when teams ran higher-risk offenses and rules made it tougher to complete passes.

6- to 10-game starters

Hall of Famers Marino, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw and Dan Fouts fell into this group.

This group featured a solid middle class headed by McNabb, Eli Manning, Bernie Kosar, Jim McMahon, Neil Lomax, Steve Beuerlein, Pat Haden, Doug Williams and Rodney Peete.

There were a few disappointments -- Ryan Leaf, Cade McNown, Kyle Boller and the 49ers' Smith, who still has a shot at redemption -- but this seems like a reasonable number of starts for a quarterback drafted early.

Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman fell into this category last season.

3- to 5-game starters

Some high picks fell into this category, including Bert Jones, Vinny Testaverde, David Klingler, Tony Eason, Rex Grossman, Akili Smith, Jay Cutler, Tommy Maddox, Jim Everett and 1984 supplemental choice Steve Young.

This group produced relatively few true stars, however. Young was an obvious exception. Boomer Esiason was a good value.

In looking at the list, though, my sense is that a really good quarterback -- particularly one chosen early -- will start more than five games if he gets a chance to start at all in his first season.

2 or fewer starts

Hundreds of rookie quarterbacks failed to start a game and 69 did not attempt a pass. The latter group featured Tony Romo and in-the-news quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Charlie Whitehurst, but Daunte Culpepper, the 11th player chosen in 1999, stood out as a rare high draft choice among the group.

Unlike Carson Palmer, who sat out his rookie season as a high choice in Cincinnati, Bradford is going to play as a rookie unless he gets hurt.

It's reasonable to expect Bradford to start at least half the games, putting up modest numbers. He'll probably struggle some, and that is OK, but it's a bad sign if the Alex Smith comparisons apply by season's end. Smith tossed one touchdown pass with 11 interceptions as a rookie. He wasn't ready and his supporting cast gave him little chance. That's a bad combination.

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