NFL Nation: Danny Wuerffel

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.

Heisman no longer bad omen for QBs

April, 19, 2012
4/19/12
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Sam Bradford/Cam NewtonUS PresswireSt. Louis' Sam Bradford, left, and Carolina's Cam Newton have helped change the thinking that a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback won't be successful in the NFL.
There was a time -- like pretty much the last 50 years -- when a Heisman Trophy wasn’t a very good thing for a quarterback to have on his résumé as he entered the NFL.

When Baylor’s Robert Griffin III gets taken early in next week’s NFL draft, he could be the latest piece in the trend of turning around the apparent curse on quarterbacks who won the Heisman. It has started to change only recently, but all of the sudden it’s looking like the trophy isn’t an anchor guaranteeing NFL mediocrity or obscurity for a quarterback.

Look back at 2010 winner Cam Newton. He was last year’s offensive rookie of the year for the Carolina Panthers and set all sorts of rookie passing (and rushing) records. There’s big hope in St. Louis that 2008 winner Sam Bradford can get back to the promise he showed as a rookie after struggling through a rough 2010 season. Then there’s 2007 winner Tim Tebow. He couldn’t throw spirals in Denver, but he won games. That at least created a market for Tebow to get traded to the New York Jets, where it remains to be seen if he’ll ever be able to win the starting job away from Mark Sanchez.

But there’s at least hope that Griffin, Newton, Bradford and Tebow can go on to have long and prosperous NFL careers. Before they came along, there were decades of evidence that suggested quarterbacks should just quit the game after winning the Heisman.

Remember Troy Smith, Eric Crouch, Danny Wuerffel, Charlie Ward and Gino Torretta? How about Ty Detmer, Andre Ware or Pat Sullivan?

They had little to no success in the NFL.

And remember Jason White?

I honestly did not at first. I had to go back and look up White, who won the trophy not all that long ago. He won it in 2003 while putting up some gaudy numbers at the University of Oklahoma. White didn’t even get drafted and quit football altogether after a short training-camp stint with the Tennessee Titans. He never even played in a regular-season NFL game.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jerome Miron/US PresswireRobert Griffin III threw for 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy last season.
Guys like White, Smith, Crouch, Wuerffel, Ward, Torretta, Detmer, Ware and Sullivan all had some things in common. In general, they were able to win the Heisman because they put up big statistics at programs where they were surrounded by elite players. They also had limitations -- usually in size, speed or arm strength -- that prevented them from being taken very seriously by NFL talent evaluators.

But those same evaluators also missed on some Heisman winners who seemed to have what the NFL wanted. Remember Matt Leinart?

He came from one of those football factories (USC), where he was surrounded by guys like Reggie Bush, but Leinart was supposed to be the one whose college success could transfer to the NFL. That’s why the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the first round. But Leinart was nothing short of a tremendous disappointment.

When he flopped, it looked like there really was something to the Heisman Curse.

Prior to Tebow, Bradford, Newton and Griffin, you’ve got to look at a list of 18 quarterbacks who won the Heisman before you find one who really made it big. You’ve got to go all the way back to Roger Staubach, who won it for Navy in 1963. He went on to have a great career for the Dallas Cowboys and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since Staubach won the Heisman, other quarterbacks have had to settle for just getting into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Sure, there have been a few Heisman winners to come out and have some success. Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls, but his career didn’t really take off until he landed with the Raiders after mediocre stints in New England and San Francisco.

Vinny Testaverde had an extremely long NFL career and the longevity led to some impressive career statistics. But Testaverde never had the kind of career so many people imagined when he was coming out of the University of Miami and taken No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987.

Guys like Steve Spurrier and Doug Flutie bounced around and had some success. Then there’s Carson Palmer, who has had some bright moments, but still is trying to fully live up to the Heisman hype.

But Newton, Griffin, Tebow and Bradford finally might be able to put a stop to the near-half-decade drought of Heisman Trophy winners truly excelling in the NFL.

“Cam Newton is the best thing to ever happen to Robert Griffin III,’’ former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke said as we discussed this year’s crop of quarterbacks back in February. “Just like Drew Brees is the best thing to happen to [Wisconsin draft prospect Russell Wilson]. Cam showed that a big, athletic quarterback that can run can be great in the NFL. Brees showed that a guy that’s not 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 can throw for 5,000 yards in an NFL season. We all know the NFL is a copycat league. Cam’s success and Drew’s success helps the draft stock of guys like Robert and Russell.’’

Ironically, Weinke’s name is another one on that Heisman list. His story might be the most unique of all the Heisman-winning quarterbacks. Weinke enrolled at Florida State after giving up a minor-league baseball career. He won the Heisman in 2000 and seemed to have the talent of a classic drop-back passer, but the fact he would turn 29 in his rookie training camp, pushed him into the fourth round of the 2001 draft. The Carolina Panthers took him and he started under coach George Seifert as a rookie, but never could quite won over John Fox, who took over the next year.

Weinke spent the next five seasons as a backup in Carolina and finished his career in 2007 with San Francisco.

These days, Weinke has carved a niche as a quarterback guru. He is the director of football operations at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He has worked extensively with Newton and some other quarterback prospects over the past few years.

Weinke says he’s seen the game change just since his playing days ended. Like just about everyone else, he says the NFL has become more driven by quarterbacks. He says natural talent is a prerequisite for NFL success and he points to guys like Newton and Griffin, saying they could be a new prototype. And he goes back to his point about the NFL being a copycat league.

“People are always looking for what works,’’ Weinke said. “Cam obviously had a fantastic rookie season. So people look at Robert and say he can do the same thing because the skill sets are similar.’’

For Griffin, Newton and Bradford -- and perhaps even Tebow in his own way -- maybe the skill sets are so good that it no longer matters if a quarterback is lugging around a Heisman Trophy.

Perspective on Kaepernick as No. 2 QB

September, 4, 2011
9/04/11
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The San Francisco 49ers are heading into the 2011 regular season with rookie second-round choice Colin Kaepernick as their No. 2 quarterback.

Big deal? Not really.

Kaepernick, the 36th overall choice in his draft class, is one of five quarterbacks since 2001 drafted between the 30th and 39th picks. Three of the four others spent at least some of their rookie seasons higher than third on their teams' depth charts.

A quick review:
  • 2011 Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton, chosen one spot before Kaepernick this year, enters his rookie season as the starter.
  • 2007 Philadelphia Eagles: Kevin Kolb, chosen 36th overall, entered the regular season second on the depth chart behind Donovan McNabb after veteran backup A.J. Feeley suffered a broken hand in the final game of preseason. Feeley returned to the No. 2 role, but Kolb overtook him late in the season.
  • 2002 Washington Redskins: Patrick Ramsey, chosen 32nd overall, opened the regular season third on the depth chart behind Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel. Ramsey missed 16 days of training camp during a contract dispute, setting back his efforts to beat out Mathews and Wuerffel, who had played for then-Redskins coach Steve Spurrier at Florida. Ramsey wound up starting later in his rookie season.
  • 2001 San Diego Chargers: Drew Brees, chosen 32nd overall, entered the regular season as the backup to starter Doug Flutie. He backed up Flutie all season, becoming the starter in 2002.

Every situation is different. Kaepernick did not put up impressive numbers during the preseason. Starter Alex Smith has not been durable or consistently productive to this point in his career. It's fair to question whether the 49ers should have done more to bolster the position, but there is precedent for slotting a player drafted as early as Kaepernick in the No. 2 role.

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