NFL Nation: Brian Griese

Rick SpielmanAP Photo/Jim MoneThe success of the next Minnesota Vikings quarterback may determine the legacy of general manager Rick Spielman.

MINNEAPOLIS -- In his 17 years as a member of NFL front offices, through a career that's spanned three teams and taken him through two convoluted power structures, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman might never have had more influence over a team than he does right now.

Vikings ownership scrapped its disjointed "triangle of authority" structure in 2012, elevating Spielman from vice president of player personnel to general manager and giving him full control over personnel decisions. The Wilf family decided not to give coach Leslie Frazier a contract extension after a surprising 10-6 season in 2012 and fired him after a 5-10-1 season in 2013. Spielman got to pick his own coach for the first time in his career, hiring well-respected former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and heads into the 2014 draft with four of the top 100 picks, including the No. 8 overall selection.

Spielman could use that pick to take the highest-drafted quarterback in Vikings history. If he does, he could also be making the selection that defines the rest of his tenure as the Vikings' GM.

The biggest hole in Spielman's résumé with the Vikings -- which includes an otherwise commendable record on first-round picks, a shrewd trade for DE Jared Allen, and what appears to be a good return on dealing WR Percy Harvin -- is his inability to find a long-term solution at quarterback. Spielman came to the Vikings shortly after the team had used a second-round pick on Tarvaris Jackson, and didn't have to devote a high pick in the draft to a QB until the end of Brett Favre's two-year run triggered a youth movement in 2011. And now the Vikings appear to be acknowledging that the decision to pick Christian Ponder 12th overall in 2011 was a mistake.

"I haven't got it right yet. We've worked as hard as we could to try to get that right," Spielman said after the Vikings fired Frazier on Dec. 30. "I wish that you could get a quarterback [easily], and it's not. It's maybe the most difficult position to fill, but we're going to do everything and use every resource we can to try to get that corrected."

Spielman will have veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner helping him this time, and the GM might rightly conclude that the best decision is to take a defensive player in the first round, come back to draft a quarterback later and let him develop without the expectations (and guaranteed money) that often drive a first-round pick into action right away. But the Vikings would have to bring Matt Cassel back on a new deal or go another route if they want to have a veteran quarterback on their roster next year, and trading for a player like Kirk Cousins or Ryan Mallett would cost the Vikings at least a midround pick while offering few guarantees. More than ever, it's incumbent upon Spielman to get it right at a position he's struggled to fill since his days in Miami.

During his five seasons with the Dolphins, Spielman initiated the first of his two trades for Sage Rosenfels, a move he'd repeat with the Vikings. Spielman had a hand in the acquisitions of Ray Lucas and Brian Griese, and in 2004 -- his only season as the Dolphins' full-fledged GM -- Spielman dealt a second-round pick to Philadelphia for A.J. Feeley, only to watch the quarterback fail to hold the starting job as the Dolphins slipped from 10-6 to 4-12.

The Dolphins' 2004 season went awry in part because running back Ricky Williams went AWOL before the season, but a clear direction at quarterback might have helped the offense weather the loss of its best player. And for all of the Vikings' defensive issues -- and running back Adrian Peterson's nagging injuries -- along the way in their fall from 10-6 to 5-10-1 in 2013, there's a convincing argument to be made that the team could have won a mediocre NFC North if it had stability at quarterback. Frazier seemed to be making that point on his way out of town, leaving some strong hints that responsibility for the quarterback situation -- and who started games there in 2013 -- should be borne by more people than just him.

Frazier, of course, is gone now, and Spielman got his chance to build a more seamless football department by picking his own coach. He has outlived his gaffe on Ponder, and he has more than $20 million of cap space with which to mold the roster this spring. Ownership seems firmly behind him, and as the Vikings move toward the opening of their new stadium in 2016, their direction is firmly under Spielman's control.

But the stigma of his misses at quarterback still follows him around, and if he can't get the position right this time around -- especially if he makes what turns out to be a bad investment with the eighth overall pick -- he likely won't get another chance to change his reputation. General managers can often survive at least one coaching change, but the best ones extend their careers by finding quarterbacks.

To his credit, Spielman seems to know he needs to fix the position. All that's on the line is all he's built for himself in his time with the Vikings.

"I have confidence we'll get this quarterback situation resolved. I really do," he said on Dec. 30. "What that answer is right now, I'm not going to have those answers until we get the coach in place. And when we sit down and delve into what we have at this position -- what is potentially out there in free agency? What is the draft class? Those answers will all come in time."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If you really want to feel what the Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders rivalry should be, what many of those who fill the seats in each city in each football weekend expect it to be, you’re going to need a few things.

Like …

Gray hair.

A good memory, as in a really, really good memory. You know, almost Mensa.

VHS.

Oh, and quarterbacks. Game-changing, rivalry-stoking quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsQB play has helped Denver dominate its rivalry with the Raiders in recent seasons.
As the Broncos and Raiders prepare to open up AFC West play for each on Monday night, these two ships will again pass in the night. The Broncos, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, consider themselves a Super Bowl contender, complete with plenty of eight-figure contracts and a parcel of off-the-field drama in tow.

The Raiders are in Year 2 of not just a re-build job, but they have largely scrapped the lot and elected to start from the ground up. With that the team's decision-makers, including general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach (and former Broncos defensive coordinator) Dennis Allen, have handed the offensive keys, at least for the moment, to quarterback Terrelle Pryor, their latest hope behind center.

The bottom line is it’s been quite some time since this long-standing, annual battle between two of the AFL’s original eight, has been a give-as-good-as-you-get rivalry. Even with all of the road the two have traveled together, the fact is they have rarely been good together, facing off at the peak of their powers.

One of the two has most often been up, flexing potential postseason muscle, and the other has basically been the welcome mat. There have been just five seasons when both the Raiders and Broncos made the playoffs in the same year. And since the start of the 1992 season, they have both made the playoffs in the same year just once -- in 2000 when the Raiders won the division at 12-4 and the Broncos were a wild card at 11-5. That’s a long way from the zenith, the 1977 season when the two didn’t just meet in the playoffs, they met in the AFC Championship with a Super Bowl trip at stake.

Or as Broncos Ring of Famer Randy Gradishar put it; “Now that’s what a rivalry looks like. If people ever want to know what it looks like, what it feels like, that was it right there."

Since, however, there’s also the Shanahan effect. When Mike Shanahan was hired by the Broncos, it was his second stint as an NFL head coach since his first stint had ended rather unceremoniously in Oakland four games into the 1989 season. Shanahan and the late Al Davis also had a long, well-chronicled tiff over some bonus money after the firing, adding some emotional hot sauce. So, needless to say, Shanahan liked beating Davis’ team and made it an organizational priority. And Shanahan did it a lot, going 21-7 against the Raiders in his time with the Broncos.

Current coach John Fox is 3-1 against the Raiders in his two previous seasons on the Front Range. The only time since Shanahan’s first season in Denver the Raiders have had an upper hand against the guy wearing the big headset for the Broncos was during Josh McDaniels’ just-under-two-year tenure when the Raiders were 3-1 against the Broncos.

But like most things in the league these days, success and failure over the long haul can often be traced back to what happened at quarterback, how the draft went and just how many ill-conceived contracts were handed out to free agents who didn’t perform.

While the Broncos have certainly had their draft/checkbook stumbles over the past two decades, they have had fewer than the Raiders. Even as the quarterback search in the post-Elway era has had some ups and downs in Denver -- seven different quarterbacks have started against the Raiders for the Broncos since Elway retired following the 1998 season -- it has gone far better than the mistake-filled search behind center for the Raiders.

Brian Griese, Jay Cutler and Peyton Manning have been named Pro Bowl quarterbacks for Denver in the post-Elway era while Gus Frerotte, Tim Tebow, Jake Plummer and Manning each started postseason games for the Broncos over the past 15 years. By contrast the Raiders have started 13 different quarterbacks against the Broncos since the start of Shanahan’s first season in Denver. And Rich Gannon is the only Raiders quarterback to have started at least five consecutive meetings with the Broncos over that span.

Sure, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey will often say "we don't like them and they don't like us," when the division games come rolling by, but Broncos-Raiders is really a remember-when rivalry right now, something maintained and nurtured because folks feel it’s the right thing to do along the way. The bones are there, though, just waiting for both teams to cooperate and make it what all involved always seem to hope it will be.

MNF preview: 49ers catching a QB break?

November, 17, 2012
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Jason CampbellMike DiNovo/US PresswireBears backup Jason Campbell's career stats are similar in many ways to starter Jay Cutler's.
The San Francisco 49ers won't have to face Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on "Monday Night Football" in Week 11.

They'll draw backup Jason Campbell instead.

This would seem to increase the 49ers' chances for victory, but based on what? Cutler has a better won-lost record as a starter. He has greater experience running the Bears' offense. But if you're looking for additional evidence, you won't find it in the traditional or advanced stats used to evaluate quarterbacks over time.

You'll see a couple of quarterbacks who have produced similarly over the past five seasons. Cutler has played more and for better teams. But his NFL passer rating since 2008 is 83.0, compared with 85.1 for Campbell and 84.1 for every other NFL quarterback. Cutler's Total QBR score since 2008 checks in at 56.5 when 50 is about average and 65-plus represents Pro Bowl-caliber play. The figure was 50.9 for Campbell and 52.0 for all others.

The point is that the 49ers might not be catching a big break while Cutler sits out the game after suffering a concussion in a 13-6 home defeat to the Houston Texans in Week 10. The Bears paid a $3.5 million salary for Campbell to be their backup because they figured they could win with him.

"We feel like he is a starting quarterback in the NFL that we have being our backup, and we feel very comfortable with him leading us," Bears coach Lovie Smith told reporters.

NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and I discussed on a recent Inside Slant podcast how aggressive the Bears should be in re-signing Cutler after the season. I had some general impressions of Cutler but was curious to see how he stacked up against the highest-paid quarterbacks the past few seasons.

Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan all had QBR scores in the 70s among regular starters over that period. Cutler was at 56.5. The figure for Cutler is 50.3 since 2009, compared with 50.5 for former Bears starter Kyle Orton and 47.7 for Campbell. Again, all the top quarterbacks were closer to 65-plus.

Cutler does have a 31-19 starting record with the Bears. That is far better than the 31-39 mark Campbell has posted for his career. But the Bears were 30-20 in the 50-game period before Cutler arrived. Orton, Rex Grossman and Brian Griese were their starting quarterbacks in that span.

Campbell's former team, Washington, was 31-39 in the 70-game span before Campbell posted the same starting record for the Redskins and Oakland Raiders. Tony Banks, Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, Danny Wuerffel, Tim Hasselbeck and Mark Brunell were the starting quarterbacks during that run.

Quarterback play matters a great deal. Teams with the higher QBR scores have won 86 percent of games since 2008. Teams with higher NFL passer ratings have won 79.7 percent of the time over the same period. Those figures outrank even the winning percentages for teams winning the turnover battle (78.5 percent, a figure related to the previous two in that QBs are leading contributors to turnover stats).

The Bears are most dangerous for their defense, however. They rank among the NFL's top five on defense in passer rating, QBR, yards, rushing yards, net yards per pass attempt, interception percentage, third-down conversion rate and points. They were built to win without great quarterback play.

So, if Cutler has been only slightly above average and Campbell plays an average game Monday night, the drop won't be as pronounced as it usually is when a journeyman replaces a big-name quarterback. And if Campbell plays poorly, well, Cutler has done that, too. He has thrown more than three picks in a game four times since 2008, a league high.

Freeman, Bucs breaking new ground

November, 15, 2012
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Josh FreemanCary Edmondson/US PresswireTampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman is directing the league's third-highest scoring offense.


This really has been true for only five weeks, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the most exciting offense in franchise history and they have a true franchise quarterback for the first time.

Start thinking about the history of this franchise because that’s a part of why I feel comfortable making those statements. We’ll run through that inglorious history in just a moment, but let’s start with the past five games.

In that stretch, Josh Freeman, who entered the season as a huge question mark, has established himself as a big-time quarterback. Rookie running back Doug Martin has become such a phenomenon that he finally might have shed that nickname he doesn’t like. And wide receiver Vincent Jackson has turned out to be worth every penny of that five-year, $55 million contract he signed back in March.

In each of the past five games, the Bucs have scored at least 28 points. When’s the last time that happened?

Never.

What’s happened in the past five games has vaulted the Bucs into the league lead in average yards per play (6.21). They’re averaging 28.9 points per game, which ranks them behind only New England (see Brady, Tom) and Denver (see Manning, Peyton). Speaking of Peyton Manning, he’s second in the league with an average of 8.20 yards per pass attempt. Freeman is No. 1 at 8.27.

Martin had a 251-yard, four-touchdown game at Oakland and has turned out to be the “all-purpose back’’ that coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik talked about on the night they drafted him.

Jackson’s leading the league by averaging 21.4 yards per reception. Heck, teammate Mike Williams is second at 18.3.

Heck, if this keeps up, we might be calling Freeman, Martin and Jackson “The Triplets’’, the way Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin used to be referred to in their Dallas glory days. At times, some people got carried away and called the Cowboys’ stars “The Quadruplets’’ because they actually thought Alvin Harper was good.

That’s a perfect way to jump back into the history of offensive football and the Buccaneers. Harper was the receiver the Bucs signed in the mid-1990s to be their Irvin. Instead, the thing most Tampa Bay fans remember about him is that he got part of his finger sliced off in a training-room accident.

For their entire existence, including the good years, the Bucs have been anywhere from dismal to mediocre on offense. They won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson as their quarterback and Monte Kiffin commanding a defense for the ages. They won a lot of games and tasted their first sustained success under coach Tony Dungy ... with Kiffin commanding a defense for the ages.

At one point in the 1990s, Tampa Bay’s bread-and-butter offensive play was having Errict Rhett run into Mike Alstott’s back and fall as far forward as possible. They later upgraded and had Warrick Dunn run into Alstott’s back and actually make a cut or two.

Even back during the first rise to prominence (1979), Tampa Bay was much more defined by Lee Roy Selmon and the defense than it was by the offense and Doug Williams.

Speaking of Williams, he was the best quarterback in franchise history -- until Freeman’s emergence. Between them, the Bucs have trotted out the likes of Steve Young (before he became Steve Young in San Francisco), Vinny Testaverde, Craig Erickson, Trent Dilfer, Shaun King, Brian Griese and Jeff Garcia.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin, Mike Williams, Vincent Smith
Matt Stamey/US PresswireA supporting cast that features receivers Mike Williams (19) and Vincent Jackson (83) and running back Doug Martin makes the Bucs' offense so fearsome.
Although Young, Testaverde and Dilfer had talent, they never had a chance in Tampa Bay because they didn’t have a supporting cast. Williams was easily the best quarterback in Tampa Bay history, but I’m not sure you can call him a franchise quarterback because his tenure lasted from 1978 until he left for the United States Football League in a contract squabble following the 1982 season.

Freeman’s not going to follow a similar route. He’s under contract through 2013, but, after what he’s shown this season, I think it’s safe to say Freeman’s going to be around a lot longer than that. Sometime in the offseason, the Bucs almost certainly will give Freeman a big contract extension.

Freeman has bounced back from the disastrous final season of the Raheem Morris era. He’s turned out to be everything Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said he would be upon their arrival. Schiano and Sullivan said they wanted to build an offense that ran the ball consistently and they wanted to take some shots downfield in the passing game.

That formula’s working. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Freeman leads the league with 19 completions on throws of 20 yards or more. Jackson leads the NFL with 10 receptions on throws of 20 yards or more.

Williams has revived a career that seemed to stall last year. The Bucs plucked receiver Tiquan Underwood off the scrap heap and he’s turning in big plays. Martin is making things happen in the running game and as a receiver and the offense is clicking, despite the fact the Bucs are without injured Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph.

For the longest time, there was a joke in Tampa Bay that the most exciting offense the region ever saw was the “Fun and Gun’’ orchestrated by Steve Spurrier and the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits, who, briefly, were more popular than the Bucs in the 1980s.

Those Bandits were wildly entertaining, but part of the reason they’re so fondly remembered is because the Bucs always were boring -- and usually bad -- on offense.

Until now.
Fans of NFC North teams might be aware of the Griese-Hutchinson-Woodson fundraising weekend, which includes a gala and a golf outing to benefit the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. The headliners include former Minnesota Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson and Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, both of whom played at Michigan along with former NFL quarterback Brian Griese.

Stafford
Stafford
Based on local reports, it sounds as if another NFC North player made a really nice charitable gesture during the Saturday auction. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford bid $15,000 for a gift that included six tickets to the Lions' Oct. 22 game against the Chicago Bears on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," according to Angelique S. Chengelis of the Detroit News.

Stafford had already donated the tickets to the event and, along with his girlfriend Kelly Hall, had been sitting with a girl named Faith Falzone, who is scheduled to have surgery this week. Stafford plans to give the tickets to Falzone and her family.

In a text message to the News, Stafford said: "They have been through so much in the past couple years, and to see how much they all supported each other and faith through their tough times was really inspiring. I wanted to give them something they could really be excited about and something I know they deserved."

Hutchinson was particularly moved by Stafford's commitment to being involved in the Michigan community. Stafford is from Texas and played at Georgia.

"Let's be honest," said Hutchinson, who is now with the Tennessee Titans. "The state of Michigan hasn't gone through the greatest times with the economy and the jobs around here. To have a guy that's from Georgia get drafted by the Lions and be a very integral part of that team turning their franchise around and then to be able to come to a U-M event that he has no affiliation with and donate $15,000 and buy his own tickets that he donated and then give them to a family whose daughter is going to have surgery in the next couple days here ... you couldn't write a better fictional story if you had to."

This is not to single out Stafford as the only charitable player in our division. As we've noted before, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson donated $1 million to the University of Oklahoma last month. Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has pledged more than $2 million to the University of Nebraska. And Woodson hasgiven $2 million to the Michigan children's hospital that benefited from this weekend's efforts.

But impact comes in all shapes, sizes and denominations. Stafford's gift will no doubt leave an intense impression on one family, giving it something to look forward to and cherish for some time.
McNabb/ShanahanMaxwell Kruger/US PresswireNo, QB Donovan McNabb's time in Washington with coach Mike Shanahan wasn't typically pleasant.
If you saw Donovan McNabb on "First Take" today, you know what this is about. If you haven't, here's the clip. McNabb, the former Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins quarterback, was asked if he thinks Robert Griffin III is a good fit for the Redskins, who are likely to take him with the No. 2 pick in the draft four weeks from today. This was a perfectly teed-up Titleist of a question for McNabb, whose time in Washington was tumultuous to say the least, and he swung hard:
"No. I say that because a lot of times, ego gets too involved when it comes to being in Washington. Here's a guy coming out who's very talented, mobile, strong-armed. We've already heard he's intelligent. Football mind. Are you going to cater the offense around his talents and what he's able to do? Or are you going to bring the Houston offense with Matt Schaub over to him and have him kind of be embedded into that?"

The last part is a clear reference to Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and the idea that he tried to fit McNabb into the offensive system he brought with him from the Texans. But there's more:
"We talk so much about Mike Shanahan and the things that he was able to do in Denver. Well, I have a couple of names for you that Mike Shanahan, quarterbacks he's coached and the lack of success that he's had. We have John Beck, who as 0-4. Rex Grossman, 6-11. Jay Cutler, who was his prized possession, 17-20. Jake Plummer, a guy who had success, led them to the AFC Championship against Pittsburgh and then benched him the next year because he wouldn't do what he wanted him to do pretty much. Brian Griese, who was supposed to be the heir apparent to John Elway and hasn't had a lot of success."

To his credit, Skip Bayless asked McNabb if he had an ax to grind. And to his credit, the first two words of McNabb's response were accurate:
"I do but I don't. The whole deal about it is, we hear so much about players who move on somewhere, how the next year will be a lot better. Give him a chance to learn the offense and understand what we do. I never got that chance. And a lot of people haven't."

My inclination is to tread carefully here, since there's obviously a far greater chance that McNabb spends this next football season in those Bristol studios than on a football field. But the plain fact is, the guy needs a mirror.

McNabb makes some fair points about Mike Shanahan and the lack of success he's had as a head coach with quarterbacks other than Elway. He makes some fair points about egos, and I don't think there's anyone who doubts that Shanahan has a big one. He himself might even admit to that. He's a head football coach. The list of men who are those and don't have egos is a pretty short list.

But McNabb this morning was using a platform to grind his ax, plain and simple. My quickie evaluation of him on TV is that he'll be an excellent NFL analyst as long as he's talking about people he hates. His breakdown of the situation in Washington as it pertained to him ignores these elements:

  • He was benched by Eagles coach Andy Reid in 2008 and traded by Reid after the 2009 season to a team that the Eagles play twice a year. Clearly, there were some issues with McNabb even before he got to Washington. You don't trade your starting quarterback to a division rival if you think the guy is still worth having.
  • Three separate Redskins people who were with the team during McNabb's only season there have told me that the issue with McNabb was that he didn't want to put in the work during the week. Yes, the system in Washington was different from the one he was used to in Philadelphia, but that McNabb's response to that was to shut down and refuse to learn or practice it. One of those three people told me Shanahan was aware, before making the trade, that McNabb had developed the reputation over his final few seasons in Philadelphia of not wanting to put in the work during the week, but that Shanahan believed he could light a fire under McNabb.
  • Shanahan was not able to light that fire, and McNabb lost his job to Rex Grossman during the 2010 season. Rex Grossman, folks. Didn't lose the job to Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana. Couldn't play or practice well enough to fend off a challenge from Rex Grossman.
  • The Redskins traded McNabb prior to the 2011 season to the Minnesota Vikings for a sixth-round pick. McNabb must not have liked the egos or the system in Minnesota, either, since he played just six games there before losing the job to rookie Christian Ponder, then demanded his release later in the season after being demoted to the scout team.
  • No one picked him up off waivers.
  • No one has signed him so far this offseason.
  • There has been not one report of any team being interested in signing him.

McNabb's career is almost certainly over, and he's clearly bitter about the way it ended. The Shanahans certainly made some mistakes in handling the McNabb situation and said some things that embarrassed a proud veteran and left him very angry. They are not blameless here. But neither is McNabb, and if he's going to sit there and say things like he said this morning on "First Take," he'd do himself and the rest of us a favor if he uttered maybe just one or two words about his own role in the way things turned out for him in Washington.

It's possible, after all, that Griffin will be excellent in Washington. There's nothing anyone's heard about the young man to indicate he's unwilling to work or learn anything new.
For years, the theme in Denver was the Broncos were searching for their next John Elway.

Leave it to Elway to finally get the job done. It’s been a windy road at the most important position on the field in Denver since Elway -- who became Denver’s top football decision-maker last year -- retired after the 1998 season and back-to-back Super Bowl titles.

The Broncos now have greatness at the position again in the form of Manning. Let’s review what has happened during the often frustrating journey between Elway and Manning in Denver:

Brian Griese

Years as Denver’s starter: 1999-2002

Comment: Griese had the impossible task of replacing Elway. He had his moments, but he was not a special player and Denver couldn’t handle seeing the dip at the position.

Jake Plummer

Years as Denver’s starter: 2003-06

Comment: Plummer was probably better than he was given credit for. He won his share of games in Denver, but, again, he wasn’t a special player.

Jay Cutler

Years as Denver’s starter: 2006-08

Comment: He is the poster boy of Denver’s frustration at quarterback in its post-Elway existence. Cutler flourished under coach Mike Shanahan and he seemed like he was on his way to being an elite player for Denver. But he famously clashed with Shanahan’s replacement, Josh McDaniels, and he was shipped off to Chicago. It changed the course of the organization that has been felt all the way until Manning’s agreement to come to Denver.

Kyle Orton

Years as Denver’s starter: 2009-11

Comment: Acquired in the Cutler deal, Orton did a nice job for Denver, but he was just a journeyman.

Tim Tebow

Yeas as Denver’s starter: 2010-2011

Comment: He was McDaniels’ parting gift to Denver. Tebow started 16 games in Denver and it was a wild scene. But Elway was never comfortable with Tebow’s ability to be an NFL passer, and now it appears Tebow will be another quarterback who will be shown the door in Denver.
Blaine Gabbert/Jake LockerAP Photo/Icon SMIBlaine Gabbert and Jake Locker are expected to be high picks in next week's draft despite concerns about accuracy during their collegiate careers.
Enough, wrote Scott of Harrisonburg, Va. Apparently I had referenced one too many times that accuracy rates among college quarterbacks typically translate when they reach the NFL. Prove it, Scott said. Here's what he dropped in the mailbag:
My first born if you compile a list of *all* the quarterbacks that rolled through the NFC North (as starters since 2000?) and rank them by their college completion rate.

I've got my hands full already, so I won't be collecting that bounty or any other reward for this post. But Scott's question intrigued me. Accuracy is the single-most important characteristic of any quarterback, especially when you expand the definition to include decision-making. After all, throwing to the right person should increase the chances of a completion.

If a college quarterback finishes his career with a relatively low completion percentage, is it reasonable to expect he can elevate it at the professional level? Research performed by actual football statisticians, most notably the David Lewin, has suggested college quarterbacks who complete less than 60 percent of their passes at least warrant closer inspection by NFL teams considering drafting them.

There are obvious 2011 angles to this theory as the Minnesota Vikings plan to draft a quarterback next week. Washington's Jake Locker finished his career with a 53.9 completion percentage, having never completed better than 58 percent of his passes in any season. Meanwhile, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert has raised questions among those who have pulled apart his college career to find he completed only 44.3 percent of his third-down throws. Last season, he completed only 38 percent of his throws that traveled at least 15 yards.

So here's what I decided to do from an NFC North angle. Using Scott's suggestion as a guide, I looked up the college completion percentages of the 31 quarterbacks who were either drafted by one of our teams since 1999 or were the primary quarterback for at least one season in this division over that stretch. (Hat tip to totalfootballstats.com for the information and to ESPN.com blog editor Brett Longdin for helping me compile it.)

I'm not a statistician, and I don't think we should consider the information below a representative trend for the entire game. I just think it's an enlightening illustration from a pool of players most of us are familiar with. First, here is a ranking of NFC North quarterbacks based on their NFL accuracy, organized to show how the division's most accurate quarterbacks fared in college.



Again, we should be careful about drawing any firm conclusions from this data. But here are some points worth noting:

  • Five quarterbacks brought their completion percentage from below 60 percent to above 60 percent, with Brett Favre forging the most dramatic path. Jay Cutler was another notable climber. I didn't include the Minnesota Vikings' Joe Webb in that count because of his small sample size. The other 11 sub-60 percent quarterbacks remained there when they reached the NFL.
  • Context is critical for evaluating college completion percentages. In his original paper, in fact, Lewin noted that Cutler's 57.2 college completion percentage was misleading given the long history of much lower rates on Vanderbilt's perennially undermanned teams in the decade before Cutler arrived.
  • The most accurate college quarterback on this list is Brian Brohm, who completed 65.8 percent at Louisville. We all know how that worked out for Brohm, who was stunningly inaccurate during his practice time with the Packers and hasn't been much better in several stints with the Buffalo Bills. Another example of college completion rates not translating is Drew Stanton, who hit 64.1 percent of his throws at Michigan State but hasn't come anywhere close to that with the Detroit Lions.
  • Overall, 12 of the quarterbacks currently have higher completion percentages in the NFL than they did in college. A total of 16 dropped and three have not yet thrown an NFL pass. I realize there are huge discrepancies between the number of throws made by, say, Brad Johnson and Matt Flynn, but those are the raw numbers.
  • It's worth nothing that the NFC North's most accurate quarterback over this stretch, Aaron Rodgers, finished his college career at 63.8 percent.

If our small sample leads us in so many directions, I think it's fair to assume that NFL teams will look well beyond the percentages. Ultimately, teams must decide what factored in to both high and low percentages. Did Locker play on an overmatched team, as Cutler did? Were Gabbert's downfield receivers substandard?

On the other side of the spectrum, TCU's Andy Dalton completed 66.7 percent of his passes last season. Was that performance the result of pinpoint throwing and smart decisions? Or is he the next Brian Brohm or even a Tim Couch, quarterbacks who benefited from a college scheme that facilitated a high completion rate?

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesBrett Favre, who had a 52.4 completion percentage in his college career, is proof quarterbacks can become more accurate in the NFL.
Once NFL teams establish that context, then they can begin examining the prospect's raw throwing skills. This is where concerns have arisen about Locker, especially. Why did he have so many passes that simply failed to hit their mark during his career?

ESPN analyst Jon Gruden made clear that "accuracy can be improved" but that Locker needs to "work hard" at re-establishing his fundamentals.

"Sometimes it's because of your fundamentals," Gruden said. "Sometimes you're out of rhythm, you're in the shotgun, you're underneath the center. Sometimes you're under duress and out of rhythm. Sometimes you're hurrying, you're playing too fast. You're anticipating congestion around you when maybe there isn't."

But Gruden warned: "Accuracy sometimes can be terminal. Sometimes you can't cure that. I think that's a big concern with Jake Locker, because he does miss some throws."

We can't conclude that Locker or Gabbert are destined for NFL failure because they sometimes struggled to complete throws in college. The necessary improvement has been made over the past decade in this division, be it from a Hall of Fame quarterback like Favre or a journeyman like Brian Griese.

But it's also a reason for pause. Based on our sample size, at least, it's more likely that a relatively inaccurate college quarterback will be inaccurate at the NFL level. Scott of Harrisonburg probably didn't need me to tell him that.
Jay Cutler and Julius PeppersUS PresswireThe Bears gave up two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder for Jay Cutler. Is he the reason Chicago is on the brink of the Super Bowl? Or does the credit go to Julius Peppers and the defense?
Let's play a game of addition.

  1. The starting quarterback is the most important player on any football team.
  2. The Chicago Bears finished the regular season 11-5, won the NFC North division title and will host the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Soldier Field.
  3. Jay Cutler is the biggest reason why.

So, in this case, does 1+2=3? Did the Bears need Cutler as their quarterback to advance this far? Was he the key to their resurgence this season? Or could they have followed the same path without making the 2009 blockbuster trade that cost them three high draft choices? In today's Double Coverage, ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson and ESPN.com NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert discuss that very question.

Kevin Seifert: Jeff, you've been covering the Bears for years. You saw them go to Super Bowl XLI with Rex Grossman as their quarterback. You've lived through Kordell Stewart, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, Brian Griese and Kyle Orton. You've seen a team win in spite of its quarterback, and you've seen quarterbacks single-handedly lose games. Let's start it off this way: How much credit do you think Cutler should get for the Bears sitting one step from the Super Bowl?

[+] EnlargeChicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) talks with offensive coordinator Mike Martz, right, and coach Lovie Smith
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears quarterback Jay Cutler has thrived in Mike Martz's offense.
Jeff Dickerson: Cutler deserves plenty of credit, Kevin. As much as we want to hammer Cutler for his mistakes -- more on that later, I'm sure -- you can't overlook the fact his quarterback rating was above 100 six times in the regular season. And you guessed it: the Bears won all six of those games.

So if the most important player on the field was arguably the best player on the field nearly half the time, I find it impossible to minimize the positive impact Cutler had on the Bears' playoff run. Is he going to run for public office after he's finished playing football? No. Does he care that we're talking about him today, either good or bad? No. But to sit back and say Cutler was simply along for the ride wouldn't be doing his contributions much justice.

And by the way, thanks for bringing up Chad Hutchinson. I was trying to suppress that memory. What's next? Are we going to break down the NFL career of Jonathan Quinn? I could talk bad Bears quarterbacks all day.

KS: Any time. How about this: Cade McNown, Henry Burris, Shane Matthews and Steve Stenstrom. That pretty much covers it for our generation, I think.

Anyway, I agree it would be wrong to overlook some of Cutler's individual performances this season. He bounced back from some early hits in Week 2 to throw three touchdown passes against the Dallas Cowboys in a 27-20 victory. He forgot about the early interception against the New York Jets and went on to throw for another three touchdowns in a 38-34 victory. His performance against the Philadelphia Eagles -- four touchdown passes, 146.2 passer rating -- was superb. And don't forget his late-game drive against the Detroit Lions in Week 13, the one that locked up the division title.

But I think the question at hand is whether the Bears would have won 11 games with, say, Orton at quarterback. To me, Cutler was not among the top two reasons for the Bears' success this season.

More important was the defense, which limited opponents to 17.9 points per game, and the best special teams in the NFL. As a result of those two factors, Cutler and the rest of the Bears' offense had the best head start in the NFL. No offense had a better average start of its drive (33.7-yard line) than the Bears'.

Do you think the Bears win those games with Orton?

JD: I must first admit to being a card-carrying member of the Kyle Orton fan club. Is there a more underappreciated quarterback in the NFL? That being said, I think you could make the playoffs with a guy like Orton, but the Bears are in a better position to potentially win a Super Bowl with a guy like Cutler.

Let me explain.

I firmly believe if Orton quarterbacked the Bears in 2009 they probably would have won three more regular-season games (against the Packers, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers). They would have finished 10-6 and perhaps earned an NFC wild-card playoff berth. Cutler cost the Bears those games because of a barrage of turnovers and terrible decisions. But that's where the ride would've ended with Orton, in my opinion.

Could Orton have beaten the Cowboys, Eagles or Jets in 2010? Maybe. But with apologies to Jim Mora, we're talking playoffs, Kevin, playoffs!

[+] EnlargeChicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireThe Bears' defense, led by Julius Peppers, gave the offense a head start on most drives.
Believe me, I know Cutler's only career postseason victory came against Seattle this past weekend, and he could easily go out Sunday and throw five interceptions against the Packers. But he could just as easily throw five touchdowns.

That's why the Bears are better off with Cutler -- because Orton hit his glass ceiling as an NFL quarterback. Cutler has not. Look at how Cutler tore up the Jets. The defense struggled, and it needed a lift from the quarterback position to beat a tough opponent. Cutler delivered. I'm not saying Orton is incapable of leading a team to victory over playoff-quality teams, but the chances Cutler can do it are greater.

Sorry, Kyle. I loved your neck beard. But I have to go with Cutler on this one.

KS: It's all fantasy talk, of course. We'll never know if Orton would have played well enough last year to compel the Bears to keep offensive coordinator Ron Turner this season. We also don't know if Mike Martz would have wanted Orton this season.

But the Bears gave up two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder for Cutler. Has he provided them enough value for those picks? Or could they have used those draft picks to improve themselves in other areas?

It would be wrong to say that Cutler hasn't had a positive impact on the Bears this season, but I'm not willing to say he was the key to the Bears' division title, either. But if the Bears go to the Super Bowl, no one is going to care about that distinction.

JD: And you know Cutler is happiest when nobody cares!

I guess it's possible Jerry Angelo would have turned those two first-round selections into starting-caliber players. But I've seen the Bears use high draft choices on the likes of Michael Haynes, Roosevelt Williams, Mark Bradley, Dusty Dvoracek, Dan Bazuin, Michael Okwo, Jarron Gilbert and Juaquin Iglesias. So to assume Angelo would've waved his magic draft wand and taken the right guys? Well, that would be misguided, to say the least. Despite all the warts, I'm happy with Cutler and feel the Bears are now in a better position to win their first Super Bowl since the 1985 season because of him.

I could talk bad Bears draft picks all day.

KS: Spoken like a longtime Bears follower. Basically what you're saying is that while Cutler has demonstrated some flaws, his acquisition nevertheless prevented the Bears from making another series of draft mistakes! Perfect. I love it.

On that note, Jeff, this has been fun. I think we can agree Cutler has made a positive impact on the Bears' run to the NFC Championship Game. Could they have done it without him? That's up for debate.

Bucs just short of playoff berth

January, 2, 2011
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NEW ORLEANS -- As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers left the Superdome a few hours ago, they remained in the playoff picture.

They did their part by defeating the Saints, 23-13. But the Bucs (10-6) didn’t get the help they needed as the Packers and Giants won their games. The Packers ended up with the No. 6 seed.

There’s no playoff berth for the Bucs even though they reached what Raheem Morris constantly referred to as “the race to 10’’ wins all season. Ten wins usually mean a playoff berth, but it didn’t happen for the Bucs.

Still, you have to look at their season as a big success. Even in the New Orleans locker room, the Bucs were receiving high praise.

“I think Raheem Morris should be the coach of the year,’’ Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said.

That’s pretty high praise from an opponent. Let’s throw out some other superlatives about the Bucs.
  • The 10-6 season following last year’s 3-13 record marks the biggest turnaround in franchise history. The previous record came when the Bucs went from 5-11 in 2004 to 11-5 in 2005.
  • Quarterback Josh Freeman threw two touchdown passes. He now has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 13 consecutive games, which breaks the 12-game record set by Brian Griese.
  • Freeman finished the season with 3,451 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. The only other quarterback in franchise history to reach 3,000 yards, 20 touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions in a single season was Brad Johnson in 2002. Freeman also finished with a 95.9 passer rating. That’s the second-best mark in franchise history. Griese had a 97.5 rating in 2004.
  • Rookie receiver Mike Williams had an 18-yard touchdown catch against the Saints. That gives Williams 11 receiving touchdowns, which is a new franchise record. Joey Galloway had the previous record, 10 touchdown catches in 2005. Williams also finished with 964 receiving yards. The only rookie to have more receiving yards in franchise history was Michael Clayton (1,193) in 2004.
  • LeGarrette Blount became only the third rookie in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Cadillac Williams did it in 2005 and Errict Rhett in 1994. Blount finished with 1,007 yards and he did it on only 201 carries. In Williams’ rookie season, he carried 290 times and finished with 1,178 yards. Rhett carried 284 times for 1,011 yards.
  • With the Bucs' victory, the NFC South finished with three teams with 10+ wins this season (Atlanta – 13-3; New Orleans – 11-5; and Tampa Bay – 10-6). It marks just the second time since realignment in 2002 that a division has had three teams with double-digit wins in the same season (also the AFC South in 2007).
Kyle Orton/Phillip RiversUS Presswire/Icon SMIBoth Kyle Orton, left, and Philip Rivers are on pace to approach the 5,000-yard passing mark.
SAN DIEGO -- We thought the Denver Broncos-San Diego Chargers quarterback drama died when Jay Cutler was shipped out of the division.

Cutler and Philip Rivers engaged in a deliciously icy relationship complete with on-field antagonism and off-field name-calling. It had potential to be a decade-long dispute. It was a letdown when Cutler was drop-kicked to Chicago by Josh McDaniels in 2009. With the feud foiled, it appeared all the intrigue of AFC West quarterback play had disappeared. What could replace the Cutler-Rivers loathe fest?

How about unprecedented quarterback play? Will that do?

Kyle Orton, the player who came to Denver from Chicago as part of the Cutler trade, may not have the feisty demeanor, but he has the ability to keep up with Rivers. In one of the more astounding storylines of the 2010 NFL season, the two AFC West quarterbacks are reaching uncharted quarterbacking territory.

Through nine games, Rivers is leading the NFL with 2,944 passing yards. Orton is second with 2,806 yards. Rivers is on pace to set the NFL single-season passing record with 5,233 yards. Orton is on pace to throw for 4,988 yards.

Only two times in league history have quarterbacks thrown for more than 5,000 yards. Dan Marino threw for a record 5,084 yards in 1984 and Drew Brees (whom Rivers replaced in San Diego in 2006) threw for 5,069 yards in 2008. There is a legitimate chance the AFC West may match history this season. We will get to see Rivers' and Orton’s march for 5,000 yards Monday night when Denver visits San Diego on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

“These are two very strong players,” former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said. "They are two very different players, but you can’t deny the season or talent either player has.”

Rivers, who’ll turn 29 next month, and Orton, who turned 28 last Sunday, have taken separate paths. Rivers has long been designated a top quarterback. The No. 4 pick of the 2004 draft, Rivers has been on the fast track since taking over the Chargers’ offense in 2006. He has the best career passer rating in NFL history at 96.9.

Orton has taken a less certain NFL road. Orton was a starter in Chicago in his rookie season in 2005 and in his fourth season in 2008 before being a throw-in on the Cutler trade. Orton made immediate progress last season under McDaniels. Orton threw for 3,802 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2009. It was a nice start in a new system. This year, Orton looks like he’s been playing in McDaniels’ system for 10 years. In addition to his load of yards, Orton is very efficient. He has 16 touchdown passes and has thrown just five interceptions.

Former Chicago teammate and current Denver radio color man Brian Griese said Orton’s arrival as a solid NFL player was a matter of leaving Chicago. Griese didn’t think former Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner (the brother of Rivers’ head coach, Norv Turner) helped Orton’s career as much as McDaniels has. Griese said he and Orton were in an "archaic" system in Chicago.

“For Kyle, it was a matter of him getting his health, being in a good system and getting good coaching,” Griese said. “I knew once he got out of that bad situation, he’d flourish. ... Anyone who flips on the film knows Kyle Orton is a good quarterback. He has a great combination of accuracy, arm strength and knowledge of the game.”

Unlike Rivers, Orton is not known for having a big arm, but both Griese and Dilfer insist Orton has an underrated arm to go with his accuracy and strong grasp of the game. There’s statistical backing for that view. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Orton and Rivers are among the NFL’s best on passes of 21 yards or longer. Rivers has completed 50 percent of those passes for 650 yards and eight touchdowns. His passer rating on those passes is 110.9. Orton has completed 46.3 percent of passes 21 yards or longer for 653 yards and five touchdowns. His passer rating in the situation is 122.2.

Dilfer laughs that Orton has not been able to shake the “game manager” label he picked up in Chicago. The Broncos have the No. 32-ranked run offense in the NFL, and the Broncos’ offensive line struggled the first half of the season.

“Everyone looks at Kyle as a low upside guy with no measurables and who at best can manage a game,” Dilfer said. “The truth is, there is no bigger quarterback-driven offense in the NFL than Denver. The burden is on him every play and he handles it flawlessly, and I don’t say that lightly.”

While Orton has been dealing with the disadvantage of having a poor running game, Rivers has had his own challenges. He has been playing without Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson all season. Jackson, who ended his holdout last month, is set to return in Week 12. Other receivers have been hurt. In Week 9, Rivers was playing without his top four receivers and without star tight end Antonio Gates. Still, Rivers threw for 295 yards and four touchdown passes in a comeback win that kept San Diego’s AFC West hopes alive. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers is second in the NFL in pocket passing with 16 touchdowns and a passer rating of 105.8.

Rivers’ success in distress doesn’t surprise Dilfer.

“Philip Rivers is one of the very elite players in the NFL,” Dilfer said. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen at playing in chaos. He doesn’t need a clean pocket. It doesn’t matter if all hell breaks loose, he makes plays. In situations where most guys crumble, Rivers will throw an 18-yard strike and it makes you say, ‘How did he do that?’"

If San Diego, which has been strapped by bad special-teams play, had a record better than 4-5, Rivers would probably be the runaway MVP candidate. He is currently No. 2 on ESPN’s MVP Watch. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. believes Rivers is the top candidate for NFL MVP.

“No one is playing better than he is this season,” Williamson said. “He’s an elite guy.”

Concluded Dilfer: “These are two great players. Everyone knows Rivers is good, but forget the label on Orton; the guy is good, too. These two are going to be around a long while in that division.”

Dolphins on 15th starting QB since Marino

November, 18, 2010
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Buffalo Bills fans thought they had it rough, trying to find a semblance of quarterback stability since their Hall of Fame quarterback retired in 1996.

With Tyler Thigpen about to become the Miami Dolphins' third starting quarterback of the season, it's time to dust off that long list of quarterbacks to have started since Dan Marino hung up that weird boxing-boot cleat after the 1999 season.

Thigpen will be the 15th quarterback to start a game for Miami since Marino retired.

Only twice in those 11 seasons has a quarterback started all 16 games. Those "perfect seasons" came seven years and 11 new starting quarterbacks apart. The Bills at least had Drew Bledsoe starting 48 straight games from 2002 through 2004.

This will be the fourth season in which at least three quarterbacks started for the Dolphins since Marino retired.

2000: Jay Fiedler (15), Damon Huard (one)

2001: Fiedler (16)

2002: Fielder (10), Ray Lucas (six)

2003: Fiedler (11), Brian Griese (five)

2004: A.J. Feeley (eight), Fiedler (seven), Sage Rosenfels (one)

2005: Gus Frerotte (15), Rosenfels (one)

2006: Joey Harrington (11), Daunte Culpepper (four), Cleo Lemon (one)

2007: Lemon (seven), Trent Green (five), John Beck (four)

2008: Chad Pennington (16)

2009: Chad Henne (13), Pennington (three)

2010: Henne (eight), Pennington (one)

Offensive linemen add substance to game

October, 14, 2010
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Thoughts after Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told his offensive linemen to end their media boycott:

Offensive linemen generally do not seek the spotlight, and vice versa, but their perspectives enrich our understanding of the game.

Anyone covering the St. Louis Rams can count on veterans Jason Brown, Adam Goldberg and Jacob Bell for insights on quarterback Sam Bradford, running back Steven Jackson or just about anything else.

Without Brown, for instance, we never would have known the story about Bradford's memorable first practice of training camp. Without Bell, we might not have known how Bradford compared to Vince Young in on-field demeanor. Goldberg can usually be counted upon for a grasp of the big picture.

Several years ago, when the Seattle Seahawks fielded the NFL's best line, no media session would have been complete without a stop at center Robbie Tobeck's locker. Perennial Pro Bowlers Steve Hutchinson and Walter Jones usually weren't as expansive, but anything coming from two of the all-time greats carried weight.

I remember speaking with Hutchinson after the 2001 season for a story about an emerging quarterback he knew from their days at the University of Michigan. Few gave New England's Tom Brady much of a chance against the Rams in the Super Bowl that year. Hutchinson knew better.

"My first year starting was '97 and I'd played with Brian Griese, and Tom really didn’t have much playing experience," Hutchinson said. "From the moment he got in the huddle (in '98), it was like he’d been there four years. He takes control of the huddle, he's always in control, a great leader -- one of the best on-field leaders I've been around."

OK, I thought. Maybe this Brady guy is better than people think. But let's have some examples.

Hutchinson recounted Brady's gritty performance against Ohio State during the 1999 season. Nothing was going right for Michigan. The Buckeyes built a lead and were coming after Brady with blitzes.

"At some point in the game, Tom comes back to huddle and his mouth is just pouring blood and it didn’t even phase him," Hutchinson said. "He just called the play. 'Damn, this kid is a cool kid from California. Some little surfer kid from California is playing with big boys and holding his own.' Just there, I respected him. Not only is he cool, but he's tough, too. A lot of guys are either/or. He's got both."

These and other stories came to mind Thursday when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told his media-boycotting offensive linemen they would have to follow NFL rules designed to promote public access to its product. There was never any doubt how this one would end. The only question was whether Carroll would have to intervene. When he did, the issue largely went away.

Most of the Seahawks' linemen seemed conflicted on the matter. Their former line coach, Alex Gibbs, had encouraged their silence in developing camaraderie and an us-against-the-world mentality. Players naturally wanted to please their coach.

When Gibbs quit before the season, two of his longtime understudies, Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts, enforced the old code. Both reportedly conveyed their displeasure Thursday while the Seahawks made available center Chris Spencer and tackle Sean Locklear for their first interviews of the season. Hamilton declined to answer questions. Pitts kept his distance.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Pitts and Hamilton rank first and second, respectively, for the most holding calls against NFL offensive linemen since the 2002 season.

Pitts has 32. Hamilton has 29.

Hutchinson has five.

Following the rules is tougher for some than for others.
The Great Debate series wouldn’t be complete this year without a discussion about Broncos rookie quarterback Tim Tebow.

Tebow is one of the most talked-about players in the NFL and he hasn’t even played in a regular-season game. The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Florida is a polarizing wonder. Tebow’s NFL future has been serious water-cooler conversation ever since Denver shocked the NFL by trading three draft picks to move up and take him with the No. 25 pick in April. Everybody has an opinion and the opinions vary.

And that is the case with ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson. Clayton is taking the stance that Tebow’s game will not translate to the NFL, while Williamson believes it will.

Let’s get started:

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
AP Photo/Chris SchneiderSome have suggested Tim Tebow's sidearm throwing motion cannot be fully corrected.
John Clayton: Bill, we were at Broncos camp at the same time, which is why I’m surprised we have come to such different opinions. Because I know you so well, I know you are an optimist. Like most people, you would like to see Tebow succeed as a quarterback. I would like to see him succeed too. At the moment, though, I don’t see it in the immediate future and when I say immediate future, I’m thinking the next two, maybe three, years.

Remember how we watched Tebow throw with the proper mechanics in warm-ups. He kept the ball high and was consistent with his release point in pre-practice. Then we watched practice and some of the old habits returned. He would throw the ball with more of a sidearm delivery. At times, there would be a little hitch in the throw. The release was slow and sometimes the passes weren’t accurate.

In sports, it’s hard to change habits. While it’s possible for him to fix the delivery in time, it’s going to take at least two years. I give Josh McDaniels credit, he recognized the dilemma and covered the organization by giving Kyle Orton a one-year contract extension. Both of us agree Orton is good, not great. It’s also nice that he recognizes that both of us respect his abilities, leadership and the way he runs an offense.

What I like most about watching Tebow is his dedication. He won’t fail because of a lack of effort. How about the extra stretching and muscle-building exercises he does at practice? Too bad we can’t find a "throw doctor’" we can send him to for a quick fix.

Bill Williamson: Mechanics is a fair enough place to start on Tebow. That, of course, is the biggest knock on him. He has an awkward delivery, there’s no doubt about it. But I don’t think it’s a sure sign of failure for a quarterback. Philip Rivers doesn’t have the prettiest motion in the league, nor did the late Steve McNair. Rivers is an elite player and McNair was an NFL MVP. They were able to adjust in time and Tebow will have time.

Even though we will see Tebow as a rookie in special formations such as the Wildcat, he probably won’t start until 2012 unless there is an injury to Orton. Rivers and McNair sat and they were better for it. Plus, Tebow already has made strides in a short time under McDaniels’ guidance. He’s a much better quarterback today than he was the day he was drafted four-plus months ago. He got better as the offseason program went on and he made improvements in training camp and in the preseason. Tebow’s delivery appeared to shorten as the preseason went on. He is working on improving himself. Imagine what is going to happen when the learning curve continues for two years?

Plus, several NFL folks I have talked to, including Rivers, say that Tebow doesn’t necessarily have to refine his entire motion, just naturally work on it and still be the player he is comfortable being. I think taking this player’s delivery and making that the premise for his ultimate failure may be a tad short-sighted.

JC: Because you covered the Broncos in Denver, you can appreciate this: Denver is one of the toughest cities to be an NFL quarterback, and I think the Broncos made a big mistake by hyping him up after the draft.

The biggest mistake was making him a first-round pick. Quarterbacks taken in the first round tread on John Elway’s turf. Those who tread on Elway’s turf get worse than turf toe. They eventually become unemployed. The worst I remember was Tommy Maddox. He came to town when Elway was still a top quarterback. He eventually had to go into Arena Football and then the Steelers to have any kind of a successful career. The quarterback expectations eventually caught up to Brian Griese and Jake Plummer.

Now, here comes Tebow, perhaps the greatest college leader of our time. By him being taken in the first round, Tebow jerseys flew out of stores. Fans expected his college skills to translate into the NFL with instant success. Columnists in town took their sides, and some of the most influential called for McDaniels to have guts and just go with Tebow. Had that happened, Tebow might be destined for the Arena League.

In Denver, as you know, good isn’t good enough when it comes to quarterbacks. Griese was kicked away because he was a 60-percent thrower but a 50-percent winner. Plummer’s time ran out because he was a 50-percent thrower and a 60-percent winner. The standard in Denver is Elway, the ultimate arm and the ultimate winner. He carried the Broncos. Tebow can’t do that right away and I’m not sold he ever will. Even if he fixes his bad throwing mechanics, he has the chance to start his career as a 50-percent thrower. Because the talent around him is suspect, Orton, who is good, is going to struggle to make the Broncos a 50-percent winner this season. That means Tebow would have better than a 50-50 chance of being a disaster.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireTim Tebow's "Friar Tuck" haircut is just one example of him being a team guy.
BW: John, I think any team that would have drafted Tebow would have pumped him up. It goes with the territory of drafting a quarterback in the first round. Select Tebow in the first round and the situation magnifies greatly. This was a great draft with several top-flight players and Tebow stole the draft. The draft was all about the No. 25 pick. That wasn’t the case last year when Miami drafted Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis at No.25.

Tebow brings electricity. It’s because he has great intangibles. I know intangibles don’t pay the bills, but they can be a great difference-maker. Tebow has special intangibles. People gravitate toward him, including his teammates.

This whole Tebow Mania deal in Denver had potential to be a disaster. Tebow’s jersey instantly became the biggest seller in the NFL and Tebow is Topic A in Denver. This is the most popular team in the state of Colorado and all anyone wants to talk about is the rookie quarterback. That could have led to jealousy and hostility. It hasn’t happened.

It hasn’t happened because Tebow immediately earned the respect of his veteran teammates by being humble and working hard. Veterans such as future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey have been wowed by Tebow’s work ethic and attitude. Remember that hideous Friar Tuck haircut Tebow's teammates gave him prior to an open scrimmage? Tebow didn’t fret. He embraced the hazing. He’s a team guy.

During the preseason, his teammates have remarked how Tebow already has controlled the huddle. The Broncos believe in Tebow just as his teammates at Florida did. Elway and John Lynch have raved about Tebow’s intangibles after meeting him. If you impress these two guys, you have something going for you.

JC: After we left Broncos camp, I watched Tebow’s first preseason game and came to another disturbing conclusion. Because Tebow is fearless, I worry about his health.

That touchdown run he had in his first preseason game was exciting, but it also reminded me of the pounding Tebow took in college trying to get Florida to be a great college power. As a college quarterback, Tebow was bigger and more powerful than a lot of the linebackers and defensive backs trying to tackle him. In the pros, he’s a target and I worry about him getting concussions or more injuries. That preseason touchdown run bruised his ribs, and the injury was a result of Tebow not playing it safe. That’s the style that made him so good in college and it’s the style that could make his career ever so short in the NFL.

As great as Tebow is as an athlete, he runs a 4.7 40, which isn’t particularly fast for a NFL quarterback. His footwork isn’t the greatest either. In many ways, Tebow looks like a combination of Steve Grogan and Joe Kapp. Sorry for going old school on you, buddy, but the point I’m trying to make is what worked for Grogan and Kapp back in the day doesn’t work now in a league dominated by great passers.

Michael Vick is a better athlete and better thrower than Tebow will ever be and I’m not sold he can be a winning quarterback in the post-2005 NFL, which is dominated by quarterbacks who are accurate and can run the no-huddle flawlessly. Vince Young is the ultimate compromise that might work because he’s a 6-foot-5 quarterback who is faster than Tebow and is always looking downfield when he rolls out of the pocket. I fear Tebow tucking the ball away and just running, absorbing a big hit.

I do think Tebow’s in good hands with McDaniels now that Orton will be the starter for the next two years. I just hope he stays healthy, which he will if they groom him to be an eventual backup and see where he is as a developmental quarterback by 2012.

BW: John, I don’t think there is any gray area. I don’t think Tebow is going to be a decent backup. He is either going to be a star or be a failed experiment. And I don’t see him failing. He is simply not going to allow himself to fail.

In one of my conversations with Tebow, he admitted that he is afraid of failure. He is afraid to let down his coaches, teammates and family. The fire burns. That’s what McDaniels saw during the famous combine meeting when the Broncos’ brass fell in love with Tebow.

I have talked to countless folks about Tebow. There are two schools of thought when it comes to whether his game translates to the NFL. One is that Tebow is so focused and so determined that there is no way he’ll fail. The other is that he already has gotten all he can out of limited ability and has peaked as a player. Two head coaches have told me that, as have a couple of general managers.

However, there are many personnel folks who think Tebow will thrive under McDaniels’ guidance. I point to the immense improvement he already has made as evidence that Tebow has not peaked. He learns from his mistakes and he gets better. He reads defenses and senses oncoming defenders better than he did a month ago. He handles the pocket better than he did earlier in camp. Tebow is an ascending player. There’s little doubt in my mind.

Henne hyperbole out of hand?

June, 7, 2010
6/07/10
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I understand why the Miami Dolphins and their fans are geared up about Chad Henne.

[+] EnlargeChad Henne
Kim Klement/US PresswireDolphins' owner Stephen Ross has made some bold predictions about Chad Henne.
For nearly 30 years -- between Bob Griese and Dan Marino, with help from Earl Morrall and David Woodley -- the Dolphins could count on a franchise quarterback. They've been searching for another since Marino retired a decade ago.

Henne looks like he might be the guy to end the parade of Marino's successors. With the exception of 2001, another new quarterback has started a game for Miami each year. In four of those 10 seasons, at least two quarterbacks who'd never started for the Dolphins before were given the nod.

But Dolfans seem to be going a little too gaga over Henne.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross made headlines over the weekend with some bold declarations, saying he thinks the Dolphins will be in the Super Bowl this season and promoting Henne's potential to be the greatest quarterback to wear the aqua and orange.

"Chad has been the greatest quarterback the University of Michigan has had," said Ross, a Michigan alum himself, "and I'm sure that I'm hoping, as is everyone else, that he goes down as the greatest quarterback in Miami Dolphins history -- and you know what that will mean."

I do know what that will mean.

Depending on your preferred measurement of success, Henne would have to either:
A) rewrite the NFL record book to be considered better than Marino, or

B) win three Super Bowls to be considered better than Griese. And maybe go undefeated for a season in the process.

It's way too soon to be talking like this, no?

"Henne can handle the pressure,'' Ross added. "That I can tell you. He started at the University of Michigan as a true freshman and was playing in front of 110,000 people and led them to the Big Ten championship.

"I think the Miami Dolphins have a great quarterback for the future and I think everybody in South Florida is excited about what Chad Henne brings to this team."

Ross is correct when he says Henne is the "greatest quarterback the University of Michigan has had" -- based on career stats.

There was a guy named Tom Brady before him. Others to pass through the program include future Pro Bowlers Jim Harbaugh, Elvis Grbac and Brian Griese. Pete Elliott, Benny Friedman and Harry Newman are Michigan quarterbacks in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Henne has a bright future ahead of him, but I don't know if Dolphins supporters are doing him -- or themselves -- any favors by ratcheting the expectations for a player with 13 starts, 12 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions in his career.

Big-play receiver Brandon Marshall certainly will help, but Henne still has a lot of growing to do before he should be compared with the best quarterbacks in Dolphins history.

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