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Cassel is 30, and last year he played only nine games due to a concussion suffered in Week 5; he's missed 14 of 32 regular-season games with injuries in the last two seasons. Fitzpatrick, also 30, is 8--18 since agreeing to a six-year, $62 million contract on Oct. 28, 2011, and according to Scott Kacsmar of coldhardfootballfacts.com, is 2--11 over the last two years in fourth-quarter comeback situations. Freeman, 25, threw 25 TD passes and only six picks in his breakout season of 2010, but he's slumped badly since, with 43 TDs and 49 interceptions and an 11--20 record as a starter. Romo, 32, is still regarded by most NFL insiders as a premier quarterback (his career average of 7.9 yards per pass attempt is second only to Rodgers among active quarterbacks), but he has been sabotaged by a leaky Dallas defense and his own errors in judgment. His record as a starter since 2010 is 17--21.
The 26-year-old Sanchez, says Polian, "is the best example," of the bubble quarterback. Twice he was the Jets' starter in the AFC Championship Game. His individual statistics have been nearly identical in the two years since, but the Jets have twice missed the playoffs, and the erosion of his stature and reputation—encapsulated in the ignominious "butt fumble" this year—has made his future with the Jets the subject of near-constant debate in New York.
Decisions will be made in the coming weeks that will affect the future of these quarterbacks and the direction of their franchises. "Teams are going to say, We don't like Player X anymore," says Kuharich. "But is Player Y any better?" The success of Griffin, Luck, Wilson and, to a lesser degree, 2012 first-rounder Ryan Tannehill in Miami, will create a mighty temptation for teams to reach into the draft in search of a miracle. Players such as Ryan Nassib of Syracuse, Geno Smith of West Virginia and Matt Barkley of USC will climb steadily up the charts through February and March. A run-pass threat like E.J. Manuel of Florida State will be attractive because he reminds personnel directors of Wilson.
Of all the scenarios in which Hasselbeck has been involved, the one he endorses is stockpiling quarterbacks. "I was a sixth-round draft choice [out of Boston College in 1998, the seventh QB taken in the Manning-Leaf draft]," says Hasselbeck. "And when I got to Green Bay, I was the number 4 quarterback on the roster. [Green Bay general manager] Ron Wolf believed it was important to develop the quarterback position."
Hasselbeck sat for two years behind Brett Favre and threw just 29 passes, but in 2001 Mike Holmgren (who had taken over the Seahawks in 1999) traded for Hasselbeck. In Seattle he won the starting position, but not before proving he could be better than veteran Trent Dilfer, who had led the Ravens to a Super Bowl title the season before. "Trent Dilfer came into the room and said, 'I'm going to try to beat you out because I know you're not interested in being the best player on this roster—you want to be the best player in the league,' " recalls Hasselbeck. "That was such a mentality switch for me. But that's what you need in that room."
Hasselbeck became a civic treasure in Seattle, with 11 playoff games and a Super Bowl appearance during the 2006 season, but when coach Pete Carroll and G.M. John Schneider took over the Seahawks in '10, the old cycle repeated itself: Seattle signed Charlie Whitehurst to a two-year, $8 million contract. A year later Hasselbeck left as a free agent and signed with Tennessee, but the Seahawks kept experimenting at quarterback, signing Tarvaris Jackson from the Vikings in July 2011 and then signing Matt Flynn (Rodgers's former backup with Green Bay) and drafting Wilson a year later.
"I have tremendous respect for Carroll and Schneider," says Hasselbeck. "They invested in the quarterback position. I'm a believer in that, because I think it will pay dividends one way or the other. Maybe the quarterback doesn't become the Guy, but he's a quality player who makes your wide receivers and tight ends better in practice. Or he just pushes the guy who becomes the starter. Now so many teams only carry two quarterbacks because of the money. They figure, I'll let somebody else develop my quarterback."
Similarly, in the 2011 off-season the 49ers signed Alex Smith to a one-year contract and, with David Carr also on the roster, drafted Kaepernick in the second round. When Smith suffered a concussion in Week 10 this season, Kaepernick was ready to ascend to the job, echoing Brady's taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe and leading the Patriots to the NFL championship during the '01 season.
Regardless of development, good fortune or luck, some teams will labor for years without a quarterback who can win games with his own talent. Those teams will be stuck with a Freeman, a Fitzpatrick, a Sanchez. Yet it's not just the quarterback, especially if that quarterback is respectable but not transcendent. "It's the mix," says Hasselbeck. "It's the right play-caller, the right head coach, the right defense."
Says Kuharich, "If Arizona drafts Joe Flacco"—the Cards picked two spots before Baltimore in 2008, and selected defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at No. 16—"and he doesn't go to Baltimore with that running game and that defense, things might be really different for him. Go back to Pittsburgh taking Roethlisberger. Look how important it was for him to be with [that] franchise. Now you look at certain quarterbacks in the league, you say either We grow with him, or we build around him to support him."