Commentary

Why are high-priced QBs losing?

Giants, Falcons, Steelers off to terrible starts for multiple reasons

Originally Published: October 9, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

With an NFL-record 24 fourth-quarter comeback victories in the first five weeks of the season, there is no question the NFL is a quarterback-driven league.

But something is off center. Eli Manning, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger are three of the best quarterbacks in the league. Their combined records are 1-13. Because they are among the highest-paid players in the league, some might point to the cost of keeping them as a problem, but that can't be the case.

Drew Brees makes $20 million a year, and Peyton Manning makes $19.2 million a year. Their teams are a combined 10-0.

But how teams are structured with high-priced quarterbacks might have to be investigated as the post-mortem is performed on the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons. Based on the first five weeks, a theme is starting to emerge from these teams.

Each team regressed along the offensive lines. The Falcons tried to get younger and cheaper, and that didn't work out. The Steelers have tried to rebuild the line through the draft, but it hasn't worked. Mike Adams, a 2012 second-rounder picked to be the left tackle of the future, was demoted to third string. The Giants have had age issues along the line for years, and the young tackles drafted to help haven't worked out yet.

It's also easy to see that the cap impact of having high-priced quarterbacks whittled away the depth of these three teams. The Falcons lost five starters to injury in Week 3, added Julio Jones and Roddy White to the infirmary Monday night and have fallen flat.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Bill FeigDrew Brees' big contract hasn't prevented the Saints from building a winner this season.

What might be learned from the first five weeks from the Falcons, Giants and Steelers is the importance of maintaining a good offensive line. Sean Payton might be holding his breath every time Charles Brown takes a snap at left tackle, but the Saints are good from guard to guard and Brees gets rid of the ball quickly. Brees survives. Manning's release and quick decision-making have allowed him to survive the loss of a franchise left tackle and two centers. Tom Brady may not have much at the receiver position, but he has a line that blocks for him well.

Defenses may not win championships like the old days, but teams with high-priced quarterbacks can't let their defenses decline to the point where they can't get opposing offenses off the field. That's happened with the Giants and Falcons.

Which brings us to the Matt Schaub problems in Houston. Texans general manager Rick Smith has maintained a good offensive line. He's assembled one of the most talented defenses in football. Schaub makes $15.5 million a year, but has lost three games in a row and has four consecutive games in which he's thrown a pick-six.

Smith has sacrificed depth and other things to work around paying Schaub, who deserves credit for making the Texans an annual playoff contender. He's an accurate passer and fits well within Gary Kubiak's offensive system. But the Texans can't afford to go another year with Schaub if he can't get out of this interception funk.

Schaub's base salary goes from $7.25 million this year to $11 million next year. His cap number goes to $17 million. If the Texans are winning, it's worth the sacrifice of keeping him. If they aren't, the Texans can't keep working the cap around him.

Eli, Ben and Matty Ice aren't going anywhere in this quarterback-driven league, but Schaub is heading out of Houston unless he turns things around.

From the inbox

Q: I have the trade that will never happen but, should: Tony Gonzalez to the Chiefs. Atlanta clearly has some problems this season. The Chiefs are starting to hit their stride. Tony would take K.C.'s short passing game to the next level. What a better way for him to finish his career than a playoff run in K.C.?

Seth in St. Louis

A: That would be a great story, but the Chiefs would have barely enough cap room to fit in Gonzalez's contract. If the Falcons want to absorb some of his salary as a gesture of thanks to him, such a trade could happen. It would be great for the Chiefs. They have been down to their third- and fourth-string tight ends for two weeks. It would give Gonzalez one last shot at the playoffs. The only problem is what happens to Ryan. He's possibly lost Jones for the season. White could be out indefinitely with a hamstring injury. The offensive line is still bad. Without Gonzalez, Ryan would be a standing target to get injured in the pocket.

Q: I've been a fantasy football player for around six years now, and it seemed to me that the NFL running back class of 2013 is really underperforming. So I looked up some rushing statistics, and from 2002 to 2012 there was an average of 17 players per season over 1,000 rushing yards, with lows of 15 in 2011 and 2009. Then I looked at the yards per game of players this year, and only 14 were above 62.5 (the average needed to reach 1,000 yards in a 16-game season). That number also assumes all 14 of those players makes it through a full 16 games, which isn't likely with 11 or 12 games left for each team. Looking at those numbers makes it seem like this is a very weak year for running backs. Would you most attribute the poor numbers to the pass-happy offenses, running back committees, better run defenses or something else like an early-season statistical lull?

Josh in Orwigsburg, Pa.

A: This is more of a football question than a fantasy question, but it's a good one to bring up. In many ways, it's going as expected. There are some good young runners who will have good careers as starters. But you also have to understand where they fit in the scheme of NFL offenses. To win, you need some running success but you can survive without a great ground game. The New Orleans Saints are an example of that. More teams are accepting the thought that is it better to have two role-playing backs as opposed to just one featured back. Last year, there were only five backs who averaged 20 carries a game. Trent Richardson has 20-carry potential, but the Cleveland Browns traded him after 18 games. Such is the state of running backs.

Q: How much of Schaub's struggles so far this season are really on him, and not a product of the combination of predictable offensive play calling and defenses doing their homework by seeing something on film and being able to jump routes? Is Schaub tipping the Texans' offensive hand at all, or is something mechanically wrong with his delivery? Hard to imagine a QB like him with the weapons he has available is suddenly making more questionable decisions than ever before.

Norb in Cortland, N.Y.

A: Kubiak has to take some of the blame for the play calling, but it's Schaub who will ultimately take the fall. The scouting report on him is he can be rattled if you get him off his spot with a big rush. That's no sin. A lot of quarterbacks have the same tendencies. The decline now is because teams have figured out where he is going to go with the ball while under pressure. Corners are jumping his routes. That indicates he's not doing enough pump fakes and he's looking at his targets too long. Self-scouting could fix some of that, but I fear his recent slump has ruined his confidence. Schaub made his $15.5 million-a-year contract because of his accuracy and his decision-making. He's still accurate but he's making bad decisions, and that has the Texans facing a long-term decision on him.

Q: I am really upset with my Carolina Panthers' performance. We have two solid running backs, a solid defense and a good quarterback in Cam Newton. I look for Ron Rivera to be fired. What improvements do we need to win the close ones? Something is missing.

Bob in Houston

A: I'm a big fan of Rivera, but it's starting to appear that his fate is sealed. This was supposed to be the season the Panthers went over the top. They haven't. At 1-3, it's hard to think the team can get to nine or 10 wins, which is the number it might take for Rivera to get another year. I felt the team had too many holes coming into the season. It neglected getting more weapons for Newton at wide receiver. I never figured out what the Panthers were doing in the secondary for personnel. They were so short for starters and depth, they were grabbing guys off the street and off the practice squad to start. It's a shame. Newton has the talent to be a nine-win quarterback. Rivera has assembled a formidable front seven, one of the best in football. The team needs to invest heavily at the receiver position and in the secondary.

Q: Kiko Alonso is on track to record 141 tackles and 13 interceptions. Right now I think he is the unquestionable Defensive Rookie of the Year. What does he need to do to get more recognition?

Derek in Denver

A: I would agree. Normally, a linebacker emerges as the top defensive rookie in the vote unless there are pass-rushers who can get more than a dozen sacks. I don't see a pass-rusher doing that this year. I predicted the Chargers' Manti Te'o because I thought he would get more than 100 tackles as a three-down linebacker, but he missed three games with a foot injury. I think the Bills' Alonso has jumped into the lead.

Q: With the increased specialization of kickers, you'd think rather than booming a kick into the end zone for a touchback, they'd learn to kick the ball higher for more hang time and have it land at the 1-2 yard line, forcing a return and a likely tackle near the 15-yard line. Have you heard any kickers practicing this approach?

Bob in Philadelphia

A: I haven't heard of any one kicker doing that, but I'm sure it's on the minds of a lot of special-teams coaches. Only 303 of 804 kickoffs were returned in the first five weeks of the season. That's down 94 from the previous year at this time. Good returners feel as though they have the edge if they can get a kick 6 yards deep in the end zone. It would be hard for a kicker to hang the ball up for 72 yards and have the special-teams coach confident his coverage team would be there in time. But if teams start finding kickoff specialists with great hang time on 72-yard kicks and they are consistent, they would try them.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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