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Change of signals

It's getting harder to become a star QB in the NFL

Posted: Thursday September 28, 2006 11:32AM; Updated: Thursday September 28, 2006 3:04PM
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Ben Roethlisberger is the picture of the modern NFL QB: more of a game manager than a classic star.
Ben Roethlisberger is the picture of the modern NFL QB: more of a game manager than a classic star.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI

Although it's hard to draw any definitive conclusions after only three weeks of the NFL season, it does seem safe to make one prediction -- it's going to be another season of mediocre quarterback play. That's nothing new, of course. Top-flight quarterbacks have been getting increasingly difficult to find for years now.

The days when it seemed like at least half the teams in the league had a first-rate signal-caller -- the era of Bradshaw and Stabler and Griese, et al. -- are long gone, as you've no doubt noticed. We're left with an NFL in which a few fortunate teams have an established top-notch quarterback and the rest are searching frantically for one, switching starters constantly, sometimes due to injury but often due to incompetence. Look around the league and you won't find many teams who have what the unbiased observer would consider a star quarterback. The Patriots have one with Tom Brady and the Colts with Peyton Manning, and the Eagles' Donovan McNabb belongs perhaps a notch below those two, but after that, there's not a single QB in the league who could be called a star without getting a serious argument.

To be fair, there are a few candidates out there who could save the species from extinction. Carson Palmer may eventually reach elite status and Manning's little brother, Eli, has shown promise. But for the most part, NFL teams are either making do with good-but-not-great quarterbacks (Steve McNair and Matt Hasselbeck, for instance), young hopefuls (such as Phillip Rivers and Matt Leinart), past-their-prime passers (Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Drew Bledsoe) or the dreaded game managers (such as Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna and yes, even Super Bowl QB Ben Roethlisberger).

It's not exactly the golden age of quarterbacks, but that's not so much a knock on the men who play the position as it is a commentary on the evolution of the game. It's harder now to play quarterback than it has ever been, and it's not going to get any easier. The game has changed so dramatically over the last 10-15 years that the quarterback position simply hasn't been able to keep up.

It starts with the speed of the players on the other side of the ball. Defenses feature linemen and linebackers who are as fast as running backs, which makes it tougher for QBs to avoid the pass rush -- think Fran Tarkenton or even the young John Elway would have been as effective scrambling against defensive ends who run 4.5 40s -- and gives them less time to get the ball to a receiver.

Beyond that, the rise of situation substitutions make it tougher to find mismatches, much less take advantage of them. On third-and-10 a defense can bring in pass-rushing specialists, replace run-stuffing but slow-footed linebackers with speedier ones who are better at pass coverage or bring in a fifth or even sixth defensive back. Quarterbacks of earlier eras never had to deal with this level of specialization from defenses.

Consider what it takes to be a quarterback these days. A successful QB has to have an arm strong enough and accurate enough to zip passes into tighter spaces, because of the quickness of the defenders. He has to be big enough to withstand major pounding and tall enough to see over gigantic linemen, yet agile enough to avoid the rush. He has to be quick-minded enough to recognize a myriad of coverages, smart enough to know what adjustments to make at the line of scrimmage, brave enough to keep his eyes downfield while behemoths advance, decisive enough to pick the right receiver and confident enough to be a leader for his teammates.

That's a set of qualifications that's nearly impossible to meet every Sunday, which is why the league is filled with quarterbacks who might look like solid players for a week or a month, but has precious few who can do it year after year. Guys like Manning and Brady are the exceptions that prove the rule, the one-in-a-million rarities that let us know that although the star quarterback is an endangered species, he's not extinct just yet.

Perhaps the young quarterbacks now entering the league, such as Leinart, Vince Young and Jay Cutler, will reverse that trend and lead a renaissance at quarterback, but don't bet on it. It's more likely that they will eventually become competent, but not exceptional. In today's NFL, it's hard to expect more than that.