49ers, Bills look wise for standing pat
Teams that changed starting QBs in lockout-marred offseason are a combined 12-28
Fast starts don't guarantee successful seasons, but they sure help.
So five weeks into the season, it's interesting to see how quarterback decisions have affected how teams started. The 49ers' Jim Harbaugh and the Bills' Chan Gailey are off to 4-1 starts, in part, because they stuck by their quarterbacks from last season.
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Few in San Francisco wanted Alex Smith back, but his efficiency has the 49ers in a good spot to win the NFC West. Many in Buffalo thought the Bills should have gone for Vince Young, but that was never going to happen. Gailey liked Ryan Fitzpatrick and how he worked Gailey's version of the spread offense Plus, he thought Fitzpatrick's numbers would jump in Year 2 in the system. They sure have. Mike Shanahan stuck with Rex Grossman, and the Redskins are 3-1.
As for the eight teams that changed quarterbacks, only the Tennessee Titans, who signed veteran Matt Hasselbeck, got out of the gate quickly. Hasselbeck's experience coupled with a good offensive line helped new coach Mike Munchak win three of their first four games. Andy Dalton is 3-2 for the Bengals, who have benefited from a soft schedule. The lockout hindered many teams from bringing in new quarterbacks, and so far, sticking with the incumbent seems to be the right move.
The combined record of the eight teams with new starting quarterbacks is 12-28. The switches to Kevin Kolb in Arizona and Donovan McNabb in Minnesota produced 1-4 starts for each. Cam Newton has been the Rookie of the Year so far, but the rest of the Carolina Panthers haven't caught up to his level of play, starting the season 1-4.
Dumping David Garrard hasn't done much to save Jack Del Rio's job. The Jaguars benched Luke McCown after two starts and rookie Blaine Gabbert is also struggling. Tarvaris Jackson and the Seahawks are 2-3. And with no Peyton Manning, the Colts have sputtered to an 0-5 start.
Some decisions to stick with the status quo didn't work. The Dolphins stayed with Chad Henne. Now they are 0-4 and Henne is lost for the season. The Broncos maybe should have traded Kyle Orton. They are 1-4 and will be starting Tim Tebow after the bye.
From the inbox
Q: Will this season add a whole new dimension to the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady discussion? When Brady went down the Patriots were still an 11-5 team, competing for the playoffs. The Colts, on the other hand, are 0-5 and destined for a three- or four-win season. Thoughts?
Sebastian in Hamburg, Germany
A: I've been trying to come up with some type of formula that proves how many wins a quarterback is worth. I think it's pretty clear Manning is worth about eight or nine wins a year for the Indianapolis Colts. Don't minimize Brady's impact, though. You do know the Pats didn't make the playoffs when Matt Cassel filled in for Brady, right? In that year, the Patriots and all teams in the AFC East were playing the NFC West and the AFC West, when neither division was very good. This is the year we will get a full value of Manning and other top quarterbacks. The Colts play hard and have lost four close games, but Manning is the one who gets the team over the top to get the victories.
Mike in Destrehan, La., wants teams to use more four-receiver sets at the goal line. I'm seeing that in Miami and other places more than ever and I think it's held back some touchdown drives. Because teams are spreading the field from 20 to 20, they aren't developing enough run-blocking power to push the ball over at the goal line. It's the old run-and-shoot argument. Heinrich in Manassas, Va.: Yards per attempt is the simplest of formulas. You take yards and you divide them by the attempts. Those who average less than 6.4 yards per pass attempt aren't throwing the ball downfield effectively. As for Colt McCoy, his 5.7-yard average per attempt means he needs to make more plays downfield. Maybe that's why rookie Greg Little has moved into the starting lineup as the split end. More downfield speed. John in San Antonio reacted to last week's item about tight ends being bigger factors this year. He wonders when defenses will make adjustments. The answer is immediately. It just might take time for them to figure out the solutions, but defensive coordinators usually do. Speaking of tight ends, Lou in Sacramento notes the 49ers have been running successful two-tight-end sets before the Patriots started doing it a few years ago. Lou notes the 49ers do it with Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis. The reason I cited the Patriots is because they use two-TE sets more than any other team in football and they have unique wrinkles to theirs. Two-tight-end sets have been around forever, but they're evolving. I give the Pats credit for taking the concept to new levels. Justin in Brooklyn, N.Y., understands it's still early in the season, but he's ready to bail on Mark Sanchez, whom he says isn't carrying the weight of the team. Don't give up on the Jets yet. I still think part of the problem with Sanchez is that the Jets' offense got older and slower on the outside.
Q: If you take into account team stats and sheer grit and perseverance, the Carolina Panthers are playing just as well as any team out there and continue to be a threat to elite teams like the Packers and Saints. DeAngelo Williams finally had a good game against New Orleans. Cam Newton looks comfortable and continues to be angry whenever the team falls short. What's your take on Carolina?
Zack in Durham, N.C.
A: The Panthers are playing well, but the players who are not named Cam Newton are making the mistakes that are costing them games. If they clean up those mistakes, the Panthers will start getting some victories. The Panthers also have a brutal schedule, which isn't making it any easier. The addition of Newton gives them the chance to win and compete against the best teams. They made the right move in drafting him. I compare the Panthers to what we saw of the Detroit Lions last year. It took the Lions until the final four weeks of the season to figure out how to win. Once they did, they haven't lost since.
Q: I don't understand why everyone rips Mike Brown. I know the franchise has been down for over a decade now, but the man has principles. Carson Palmer doesn't deserve to be traded; he bailed on his team. Why reward him? And I don't understand why everyone keeps calling them a joke. I believe they have a solid shot at finishing 9-7. Thoughts?
Jason in Albany, Ga.
A: Brown has always stood on principles. He learned that from his father, Paul Brown. While I wish Palmer was back in the league because he's a good quarterback and a good person, this was the most predictable non-trade you'll ever find. Palmer knew that when he decided to not show up. Next Tuesday is the trade deadline, and when Palmer isn't traded, you'll see Brown wasn't bluffing. Also, Brown won't gloat if the team gets off to a 5-2 start, which it has a decent chance to do. He's old-school.
Q: It seems ridiculous to me, borderline hypocritical even, that the NFL is fining players for hits that weren't even penalized during the games in which they took place. How exactly can the NFL front office justify punishing a player for something that officials during the game deemed completely legal?
Scott in Gresham, Ore.
A: Like it or not, the NFL wants its players accountable for their actions. Plus, officials might not see everything that takes place on the field, and don't have the benefit of replay when it comes to penalizing players for illegal hits. The league wants to change the way defenders make tackles. The only way to remind players what not to do is fine them and fine them heavily.
Q: So yet another week has passed and I still have no idea what to make of the Saints' defense. Are good offenses simply unstoppable or are my Saints still just mediocre on defense?
Will in New Orleans
A: Though the games have been exciting, the New Orleans defense has put Saints fans on a roller-coaster ride. We do know that the Saints are at their best when the defense creates turnovers, and it's generated only four in five games. I wouldn't get too alarmed with the passing yards allowed. The Saints have faced some pretty good quarterbacks in four of the five games -- Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matt Schaub and Cam Newton. The stats may be a little off this year because the Saints' schedule is loaded with good quarterbacks. From the way things have started, though, I think it's clear that the Saints have played better than the Bucs and Falcons and have the best shot to win the NFC South.
Q: Two questions: 1. Do you think Donovan McNabb's struggles thus far are making Mike Shanahan's claims last year look legit? 2. If Matthew Stafford can continue to play near his current level, where do you see him ranking next season on your list of quarterbacks?
Drew in Detroit
A: So far, McNabb hasn't made Shanahan look bad for letting him go. It sure didn't help McNabb that Vikings coach Leslie Frazier came out and said McNabb needed to work on his throwing mechanics. McNabb's accuracy has been off in his transition to the Vikings. I still think the play calling has been a little too conservative in Minnesota, though. Stafford would need to play the entire season to advance to the elite list. One season doesn't make a career, but he's played like an elite quarterback in his first five games. You'd almost like to wait two seasons before giving Stafford elite status, but he's beginning to win me over.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN