QB competitions in NFL are a farce
Training camps have begun in earnest around the NFL and virtually every team has some starting jobs that are up for grabs. The left guard spot is available in Green Bay. There is competition for the starting cornerback job opposite Ellis Hobbs in New England. But nothing draws the interest of the fans and media like a quarterback competition. Heck, even the players have a special interest in finding out who will be their leader under center when the season begins in September.
Miami, Baltimore, San Francisco, and the New York Jets are just some of the teams holding full-fledged tryouts for the starting job. Add Chicago, Arizona and Atlanta to the mix and you have a veritable outbreak of the disease known as uncertainty at the most important position on any football team.
Let's be honest: No team is happy to be in this situation. Though coaches and general managers publicly will say they have faith in both guys and will be fine either way, if your starting quarterback position is available, you are clearly in the bottom half of the league at the one position you definitely don't want to be on the wrong side of the scale.
Perhaps the greater problem for these franchises is that quarterback competitions, more than any other position, are inherently flawed, for a multitude of reasons.
Practice is not real football
The idea that some organization is going to give the car keys to a quarterback based upon what he does during practice is at best flawed, at worst negligent.
Coaches involved in quarterback competitions during training camp will talk about charting every pass and switching up the rotation so that both quarterbacks get to work with different people. That's great. Without even delving into the discussion of how that affects the chemistry between quarterbacks and receivers, several things need to be pointed out.
Are they really going to pick one player over another based upon how they do in competitive drills like 7 on 7, when there are no linemen on the field? Even full team periods, when the action around them is live, don't do the trick. The problem? The quarterbacks have on red jerseys and are not allowed to get hit.
Football is a violent game and any situation in which the quarterback does not have to be wary of the consequences of that violence is problematic in determining their prowess, no matter how hard the coaches try to make it a game-like atmosphere.
If quarterbacks were judged based upon how they did in practice, guys like Rob Johnson and David Carr would still be in the league. Oh wait, the Giants picked up Carr this offseason in order to give him one last shot. Any lineman that played with Carr in Houston or Carolina can tell you how that is going to work out. It is doubtful that Carr ever ran out of bounds for two-yard losses in practice when he was off-limits to defenders. He has a penchant for doing just that in games.
For that matter, preseason is not real football
So if you can't sufficiently judge QBs based upon training camp practices because they are not facing "live bullets," at least the preseason games can sort out the battle and clearly indicate who should be the starter, right?
Wrong. It is also exceedingly difficult to truly judge a quarterback based upon how he does in the preseason.
For one thing, though coaches like the Jets' Eric Mangini insist they don't have any set timetable, conventional wisdom dictates a team would know who their starter is by the third preseason game. That would allow the quarterback to to get some extended playing time with the rest of the starting group in what is typically the last real dress rehearsal before the opening game.
That means a decision based upon two preseason games, which will likely amount to about four or five series with the starting units each if the quarterbacks rotate. That is a very small sample size for a player you expect to carry the load through a 16-game slate.
Preseason football also typically consists mainly of vanilla defenses and the quarterbacks are unlikely to see the latest blitz package or the most exotic coverages the opposing defense has to offer. Most defensive coordinators are likely to save their best material, the stuff that would genuinely test the quarterbacks, for the regular season, thus causing the organization with the quarterback quandary to miss out on an opportunity to truly evaluate their passers.
Even if quarterbacks could be adequately and objectively evaluated during these competitions, they likely wouldn't be. Though in theory the NFL should be the last professional bastion of pure, unbridled, objective evaluation, that is often not the case.
That is because the evaluations aren't really all that objective if the person making the decision has a vested interest in seeing one of the parties succeed. The closest thing to nepotism in the NFL is the affinity GMs and coaches have for those players they brought into the fold.
The coaches and GMs want to see their draft picks and free-agent signees succeed, and perhaps rightfully so. It makes them look good.
Though it should be all about wins and losses, too often it becomes more about validating one's decisions. That means Alex Smith has a leg-up on the competition in San Francisco. It also doesn't bode well for John Beck in Miami, where new football czar Bill Parcells signed Josh McCown and drafted Chad Henne. Though coaches like the San Francisco 49ers' Mike Nolan, the Dolphins' Tony Sparano, and Mangini are football guys who realize it ultimately comes down to wins and losses, it is no secret who the favorite is in all of the aforementioned quarterback battles throughout the league.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and decisions are often much more subjective than even the front office and coaching staffs may realize. Maybe it is subconscious, under the surface, and the decision-makers don't realize it. Or maybe it is blatant and obvious, and they just prefer to go through the charade of an actual competition as an appeasement to the fans and media. Neither one is acceptable.
What makes it difficult, and at times problematic for franchises going through a quarterback situation is it is very difficult to fool the players. They know which player gives them the best chance to win, and the coach will lose the locker room in a heartbeat if the bias leads the coach towards naming the inferior player. Once a franchise commits to having a quarterback competition, it must be prepared to play the better choice.
But how does a team know who the better choice is if it is hard to make decisions based upon training camp and preseason games? By utilizing those evaluations as just part of the equation. The rest of the solution is derived by looking at the quarterback's entire body of work up to that point, not just what he did in one summer.
And in the end, just ask the wide receivers how to make the decision, because they have as much of a vested interest as anyone.
As Jets wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said when asked about previous seasons and games, "You have to apply everything, take it all into consideration, and sort it out from there."
Easier said than done.