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Saturday, December 29, 2007
Number of starting QBs reaching non-strike season high

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

The NFL quarterback carousel, which has spun at breakneck speeds in 2007, will reach historic proportions in this final weekend of the season.

At least two quarterbacks -- JaMarcus Russell of the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco's Chris Weinke -- will start their first games of the year in their respective teams' season finales.

For Russell, the overall top selection in the 2007 draft, the meeting with the San Diego Chargers represents the first start of his professional career. For Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy winner who was out of football until two weeks ago when the injury-depleted 49ers signed him, the game at Cleveland marks his first start since Christmas Eve, 2006.

And for the league, the addition of Weinke and Russell to the lengthy 2007 roll call raises to 63 the number of different starting quarterbacks employed by teams this season.

That is the most in a non-strike season since the NFL implemented the 16-game schedule in 1978.

There is also a good chance that Pittsburgh star Ben Roethlisberger, nursing a sprained ankle and sore right shoulder, will sit out the Steelers' season finale at Baltimore on Sunday to rest up for the playoffs. If that is the case, veteran Charlie Batch will start for the first time since the 2006 season opener, when Roethlisberger was recovering from an appendectomy, and the number of starters will go to 64, an average of two per team.

The previous high for starters, since the adoption of the 16-game schedule, was 62, in both 1998 and 1999. There were 87 starting quarterbacks in 1987, but that was a strike year, one in which the league played three contests during the work stoppage by the NFL Players Association, and the numbers were swelled by replacement players.

Last season, NFL teams used only 50 different starting quarterbacks, the fewest since 2001. Since 1999, which marked the second year in a row with 62 starters, the average has been 55.0 starters.

"There aren't many teams this year who have had the luxury of lining up with the same guy every week," Carolina coach John Fox, whose Panthers have employed four different starters in 2007, said a few weeks ago. "It's just been one of those years where it seems like every week there has been a lot of change."

If Roethlisberger sits out the season finale, as anticipated, it will reduce to 11 the number of franchises that used the same starter for all 16 games. Nine teams used at least three starters this season and Oakland would become the 10th with Russell's start Sunday. Carolina and San Francisco will have employed four different starters each.

Last season, half of the league's 32 teams used the same starter for all 16 games and only two clubs, Miami and Tampa Bay, used three starters.

It isn't only the large number of starters, however, but also the changes made overall, which have reflected the instability and lack of continuity at the game's most critical position this year.

In the 15 weeks since the opening weekend of the season, there have been 67 quarterback switches, an incredibly high average of 4.5 per week. There figure to be four more this weekend. For all of 2006, by comparison, there were only 26 switches. There hasn't been a single week yet this year in which every team in the league returned its starting quarterback from the previous weekend. And in six different weekends this season, there have been five or more changes at starting quarterback.

For Week 11, there were 10 changes, the most in any weekend in at least the past seven seasons. There have also been weeks of eight (Week 9) and seven (Week 15) changes, the second- and third-most, respectively, in the past seven years.

Not all of the changes this season have been a result of attrition. There have been 19 quarterback switches this season that were coaching decisions, not based on injury, but rather performance. There were only seven changes in 2006 in which the switch was made for non-injury purposes.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.