When do you quit on a franchise QB?

Teams must explore many factors before making the bold decision to start over

Originally Published: October 18, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

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t was a casual conversation between two backup quarterbacks passing time in the midst of another long workday. For Kansas City's Brady Quinn, the opportunity to finally enter a game as the Chiefs' starter loomed as a concussion had made Matt Cassel doubtful for last Sunday's game against Tampa Bay. The Chiefs' third-string quarterback, Ricky Stanzi, also knew he had to be prepared. If anything happened to Quinn, the team's fate would quickly fall on his shoulders.

Those possibilities were enough to keep both men focused on their preparation, but their thoughts eventually drifted to Cassel's plight. The eight-year veteran had been so vilified that some Chiefs fans actually applauded after he sustained the concussion in a home loss to Baltimore. That scene had led Chiefs right tackle Eric Winston to condemn the cheers in a heavily publicized postgame rant. A few days later, Quinn and Stanzi scoffed at all the venom being spewed at their teammate. As Quinn said, "It's not like we go to NASA and tell those guys how to put on space suits."

As much truth as there is in that sentiment, it's also hard to find many people who can relate to it in today's NFL. The quarterback is always the most visible player in any franchise, the man most responsible for how his team performs on game days. The franchise quarterback is even more superhuman in the eyes of many. And when he is struggling, the toughest challenge teams face is deciding how long they maintain their confidence in him.

It's not surprising that Cassel received such treatment at home. His overall record as Kansas City's starter is 19-25, and his 14 turnovers are a big factor in the Chiefs' 1-5 start. He's no different from the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez. Once treated as the second coming of Joe Namath -- partly because of his Hollywood looks and his status as the fifth pick in the 2009 draft -- Sanchez is completing just 49.7 percent of his passes this year. Along with having teammates rip him anonymously for being "lazy and content" last season, he's spent this year facing weekly debates about whether backup Tim Tebow should replace him.

The situations with Sanchez and Cassel are interesting not only because of the constant uproar surrounding them. Their problems also raise an intriguing question: Why do teams ultimately give up on a franchise quarterback?

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
AP Photo/Colin E. BraleyKansas City's situation with Matt Cassel became much more complicated by his recent concussion.

"It really comes down to when the player stops improving," said NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, who was a general manager for both the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. "That's a hard thing to judge because there's a lot of thought that goes into picking these guys. You have a body of work that was assembled to make the selection, and egos do get involved. But if you get to the second and third year and you're still seeing the same mistakes, that's when you get concerned."

Said former Baltimore Ravens head coach and current CBS broadcaster Brian Billick, "It's a difficult thing to do because it has to be an organizational decision. You have to know there is no going back and if you're the coach, you have to know it's the end for you. You can't miss on a [franchise] quarterback. If you do, you never survive."

Cassel and Sanchez are the latest franchise quarterbacks to find themselves caught in the vicious spin cycle that so many other once-promising signal-callers know all too well. The 1999 draft was supposed to be one of the most talent-rich ever, and it gave us duds like Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Cade McNown. When Houston nabbed David Carr and Detroit took Joey Harrington in 2002, there was ample buzz in those cities until both players were ushered out of town. From there the list includes other notables like Matt Leinart, Vince Young, J.P. Losman and JaMarcus Russell. They all were supposed to do extraordinary things at the position.

Instead, their respective franchises lost faith in their futures.

"You really need the perfect [situation] if you're going to succeed as a [franchise] quarterback," said Carr, who is now a backup with the New York Giants. "You need a good offensive line, weapons around you and a playcaller who knows what you do well. If you have success early, you get time. If you don't, then your time is limited."


Harbaugh-SmithCary Edmondson/US PresswireAlex Smith was on the hot seat in San Francisco until Jim Harbaugh came aboard as coach in 2011.

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asserly said there's no definitive formula for determining when to give up on a franchise quarterback, but there are some basic criteria. The first is whether the team has a better option on the roster. The second is whether the player has hit a plateau in his development or literally regressed. Finally, timing is essential. As Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry long believed, a team should know what it has in a player once three years have passed.

That's not to say such players won't eventually succeed. It's just that their odds of doing it for that franchise drop substantially.

"It's not like in baseball where you sit a slumping player for a couple games and then bring him back," Casserly said. "Quarterback is a different position because of the leadership aspect. You have to weigh confidence. You have to know if the team has lost confidence in him or he's lost it in himself."

The only player in recent memory to overcome such a plight is San Francisco's Alex Smith. The first overall pick in the 2005 draft, he languished with the 49ers for most of his career. He dealt with injuries, multiple coordinators (seven in six years) and two head coaches who didn't know how to maximize his talents (Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary). By the time the 49ers hired head coach Jim Harbaugh last season -- and used a second-round pick on Colin Kaepernick -- the consensus was that Smith was on his way to holding a clipboard in another NFL city. Even Smith thought he was done in San Francisco.

Then a strange thing happened. Smith ran into Harbaugh before last year's lockout and they started talking football. A little while later they were out on the practice field playing catch, with Harbaugh whistling passes with the same zip he displayed during his 15-year NFL career. The coach was feeling out the quarterback. The quarterback was feeling out the coach's approach.

Of all the unforeseeable events in the 49ers' 13-3 season that year, Smith's maturation from local whipping boy to leader of an NFC West champion ranked at the top of the list.

"I definitely felt like there were times in the past when I was expected to go out and win the game here," Smith said last year. "And that would lead to me forcing passes and making mistakes. Now the expectations are totally different. Sometimes it might be ugly but it's just about getting the job done."

The perception that the franchise quarterback has to be some Herculean leader is part of the problem with assessing whether a signal-caller is worth keeping. That savior mentality has been part of pro football for decades and it has fueled the public notion that one man can make everyone's dreams come true.

"The track record is pretty clear," Billick said. "If you come in as a coach and you get the quarterback right, life is good and you can sustain some things. If you bring in the wrong guy, there's a price to pay."

"I've talked to guys like Steve Young, Troy Aikman, John Elway and Brett Favre about this," said ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer. "They may not have realized it at the time but institutional support is what allowed them to develop. They made mistakes. They had their flaws. They had labels put on them. But in the end, everything in the organization was built around them succeeding. ... You can have the most talented quarterback in the world. If you bring him into a dysfunctional situation, he's going to fail."

Dilfer has firsthand knowledge of how quarterbacks get run out of organizations, because that's exactly what happened to him after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made him the sixth overall pick in the 1994 draft. The team gave him six years to develop, which was ample time. What Dilfer didn't get was access to all the resources he considered beneficial to his growth. He doesn't absolve himself of blame in the situation. He only thinks he could've been aided by more help.

For example, Dilfer once approached the Buccaneers about working with former 49ers star quarterback John Brodie in the offseason. He says the team prevented him from making such an arrangement.

"I like a lot of people in the NFL, but half the league is bad coaches and front-office guys," Dilfer said. "They have no idea how Bill Walsh did what he did or Don Coryell or why New England is doing what they're doing. They have all these titles and they're making it up as they go along."


David Carr AP Photo/Winslow TownsonDavid Carr lasted five seasons in Houston, one more than GM Charley Casserly and coach Dom Capers.

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arr went through his own misery during five years in Houston. Along with being constantly battered behind a lousy offensive line, he watched his support dwindle the more the Texans kept losing. The clock started ticking on Carr when offensive coordinator Chris Palmer approached him at halftime of an early-season loss to Pittsburgh in 2005 and said he'd likely be fired. By the end of that season, head coach Dom Capers had been dumped as well, with Casserly being ushered out a few months later.

Such a mass exodus is the major indication that a franchise is preparing to jettison its quarterback.

"They had fired the whole staff by my fourth season," said Carr. "Everybody was gone so they were running out of people to blame. That's the progression. First it's the coordinator. Then it's the head coach. And finally it's the quarterback."

Most quarterbacks who have been through that experience will acknowledge that it doesn't lead to improved play.

[+] EnlargeSanchez/Tebow
AP Photo/Seth WenigObviously, a team is more likely to replace a starter if it has a viable alternative. Are the Jets better off with Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow taking the snaps?

"At that point, you start pressing to make more plays," Carr continued. "You weren't chosen by the guy who's the head coach and it's one of those deals where you find yourself feeling like you need to have success immediately. You do start putting more stress on yourself."

That much is apparent in the way Cassel and Sanchez have performed this season. Though Cassel has tried to remain confident -- "I don't look over my shoulder," he said -- he had five interceptions and two lost fumbles in his last two starts alone. Sanchez has been hurt more by a weak supporting cast and injuries to his receivers. The Jets seem concerned enough about his confidence that they limited him to 18 pass attempts (and 82 yards) in last Sunday's win over Indianapolis.

The hardest part of enduring as much public scrutiny as these players currently face is that it only increases the pressure on the organization to consider other options. That happened when Billick coached Kyle Boller, a 2003 first-round pick, in Baltimore. Boller never developed enough to effectively lead a defense-dominated team, and the Ravens eventually acquired Steve McNair to replace him in 2006. That same year also was the beginning of the end for Carr in Houston. As soon as the locals were clamoring for the team to select Young in the 2006 draft, the court of public opinion had decided Carr's fate.

Winston happened to be a rookie on that Houston team and said the backlash against Carr hasn't compared to that hurled toward Cassel.

"I don't remember it being as bad as this," Winston said. "This seems to have been brewing for a long time. I don't think it's as much about Matt as it is about the frustration with the franchise. My first year in Houston, we were playing a lot of young guys so we were going to lose. Here the expectations were that we'd be better."

The lone saving grace for both Cassel and Sanchez is that they have had some success in the league. Cassel made the Pro Bowl in 2010, when he threw 27 touchdown passes with only seven interceptions and helped the Chiefs win the AFC West. Sanchez led the Jets to the AFC Championship Game in his first two seasons. The belief at the time was he would only continue to blossom as he gained more experience.

Looking back, those winning seasons likely have been the only reasons they've continued playing.

"Things get complicated with guys like Sanchez and Cassel because they do have track records in the league," Casserly said. "You have to ask yourself some tough questions when that kind of evidence is involved, the first being whether you have a better alternative."

For the Jets, that means considering life with Tebow under center full-time. The Chiefs already saw what Quinn could do in what became a 38-10 loss to Tampa Bay. He completed 22 of 38 passes for 180 yards and two interceptions. Once Cassel is cleared to play, there will be an even greater outcry over the Chiefs' lack of options at the position.

Dilfer believes teams could save themselves major frustration by hiring outside consultants -- a proven former quarterback or a respected coach -- to help assess a quarterback's progress. The idea would be to have somebody on staff, not in a decision-making role, whose evaluations wouldn't be muddled by politics or a desire to keep a job. Draft prospects benefit from such tutelage before their personal workouts. Maybe such insight could make it easier for players to work through their struggles.

At the very least, it could help franchises better understand how to handle the circumstances currently surrounding players like Cassel and Sanchez.

"I really don't think it's about getting rid of the quarterback," Dilfer said. "It's about whether the team has an idea about what to do with the next quarterback. If they move on and don't know what they're doing, they're only going to keep making the same mistakes."