- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Remember when the "Sopranos" started way back when, and the show's running gag of a mob boss seeking help from a therapist because of the job pressures he faced in the "sanitation" business was instantly acclaimed as genius? What was so arresting about it was the paradox, right? Tough guy with squishy inner core seeks help. Well, the same dynamic seems to be trending in the NFL ever since the league rejiggered its rules to favor passing offenses. Have you noticed one of the unintended results has been the rise of the neurotic quarterback?
Whatever happened to field generals with bulletproof confidence?
Jay Cutler enigmatically sulks even when the Bears win. In Carolina, Cam Newton literally wants to create a suggestion box for himself. Last weekend, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick essentially demoted himself after a mortifying loss to Atlanta before head coach Andy Reid could. It was like watching a kid give back the car keys after he drove his dad's Escalade into a ditch. Only worse. Vick uttered a few postgame remarks that strayed perilously close to "No mas."
"Obviously he's thinking about making a change at the quarterback position," Vick said. " Whatever decision Coach makes, I support it."
He supports it?
The temptation is to shout, "Will you guys get a grip?" But bless his old-school soul, Mike Ditka already has. After weeks of saying mostly complimentary things about Newton, Ditka finally had enough last weekend when asked on TV what advice he'd jot down and drop into that box for the Panthers' lost lad.
"GET OVER IT!" Ditka boomed. "You live in the past, you die in the past."
(Who said anything about dying?)
"Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift! That's why it's called the present," Ditka added.
(Ignoring the majestic, inarguable logic of all that for just a moment, I think Ditka just did a little freestyle rapping right there, did he not? History/mystery -- Yo, I can't HEARRRR y'all. C'MON!)
This is not how the quarterbacks of legend and yore acted, now is it?
Quarterbacks are supposed to be leaders of men, remorseless gunslingers, magicians with the guts of cat burglars and calmness of diamond cutters. Quarterbacks don't have glass jaws. Theirs are made of granite. Quarterbacks are supposed to sneer at pressure and imagine themselves doing great and important things. They are constitutionally incapable of taking a backward step. Quarterbacks are piñatas who fight back.
A real quarterback says what Tom Brady famously sauntered up and said to New England owner Robert Kraft after the Patriots made him a lousy sixth-round draft pick: "I'm going to be the best decision this organization ever made." It's Joe Montana uttering his John Candy joke before leading the 49ers to a last-second drive and Super Bowl win, and John Elway, in his dotage, selling out his body and pinwheeling through the air in another Super Bowl to get a first down near the goal line. It's Terry Bradshaw overcoming his own early-career bouts of insecurity and responding to Cowboys linebacker Thomas Henderson's slam that Bradshaw couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted him the C and the A by torching the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII, the third of the four championships Bradshaw won with the Steelers.
Today, the record books and paychecks suggest there's never been a better time to be an NFL quarterback. And yet, what if the flip side of that is there's never been less excuse for not being great?
If a defensive back can get called nowadays for merely forgetting to have a pregame dinner mint and then breathing the wrong way on a receiver, and defensive linemen can't smack you halfway to next Sunday like they used to, then what hope is there for an NFL passer who still doesn't get the job done? And what happens when the outsized expectations collide with inner angst?
The shame. The misery. The confusion of it all.
You get people remarking that even Brady and the Patriots aren't a sure thing anymore since Brady had the knee surgery or, alternatively, he started doing froufrou UGG endorsements. Passing-challenged Tim Tebow, last year's Miracle Man in Denver, was tweaked months before he went missing in the Jets' offense in a funny Wall Street Journal send-up about what Tebow can't do that began: "He cannot fly. He cannot see through walls He's never picked up an automobile and tossed it across the road. He's failed to publish poetry in Russian."
Down in New Orleans, the popular theory after the bounty scandal suspensions was Drew Brees would just deputize himself as the team's ersatz head coach in the absence of Sean Payton and a handful of other Saints, and then make this season another of his scintillating resurrection stories.
Brees and Vick play each other this week in what could be called the Misery Index Bowl. The loser's team is only going to plunge into more hand-wringing and caterwauling.
But stunning as Vick's postgame remarks were last week, what if there actually is an alternative explanation for how he said he'd support his own benching that has nothing to do with being faint of heart at all, and actually smacks of a little paradoxical genius itself?
What if the contradictory rumblings that also floated up saying that Vick is fed up and tired of backchannel sniping about his inability to read defenses or make the right decisions on blitz protections are instead true? Was Vick actually daring Reid to go ahead and bench him for rookie third-round draft pick Nick Foles, knowing Foles' entire NFL résumé consists of some nice performances in the preseason against other second- and third-stringers, because Vick believes he'll be able to say "How do you like me now?" when Foles flops, too, behind an offensive line now missing three starters?
Reid, who is so desperately trying to save his own job he made the highly unusual move of firing his defensive coordinator and close friend Juan Castillo in midseason, didn't swallow the hook. He surely knows benching Vick would be an admission his other biggest recent decision -- giving Vick a six-year, $100 million contract before last season -- was a bust.
Not surprisingly, Reid has said Vick will remain the Eagles' quarterback on Monday night. Reid had to, really.
If Foles ever does become the Eagles' starter, it will be for a new coaching staff. Not this one.
In that way, the plight of head coaches and quarterbacks are similar.
After "Get over it!" the only thing left to say if they don't is, "Get out."
Which is enough to make anybody run to a shrink.
We're watching the rise of the neurotic NFL quarterback. Whatever happened to field generals with bulletproof confidence?