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In the autumn of 2011 the Indianapolis Colts did not have a serviceable NFL quarterback on their roster. Peyton Manning was sitting out the season with a neck injury while Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins were combining for 14 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 72.2 that was third worst in the league (and 22.7 points lower than Manning's career average). The Colts won just two games in a dreadful season that would position the franchise to draft Andrew Luck out of Stanford and immediately reverse course with 11 wins and a playoff appearance in '12.
That turnaround was a distant dream when the Colts had lost their first 13 games, scoring a single touchdown or less in four of those. This futility took place in Bill Polian's 28th—and last—year as an NFL personnel executive. He was fired by the Colts after the 2011 season and now works for ESPN. Yet it was also the first time since 1985, Polian's second season in the Bills' front office, that he had been left without an effective quarterback. (That year the Bills went 2--14 as the combination of Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison threw nine touchdown passes and 31 picks; but Polian knew Buffalo had the rights to USFL quarterback Jim Kelly, who would eventually take the Bills to four Super Bowls and earn a place in Canton.)
The span in Polian's career from Ferragamo-Mathison in '85 with the Bills to Painter-Orlovsky-Collins with the '11 Colts included not just Kelly, but a much younger Collins in Carolina and Manning for 13 healthy seasons in Indianapolis. Still, the feeling of need came flooding back to him like an old injury. "You never forget what it feels like to not have a quarterback," says Polian. "Every single minute you don't have that guy, you think about it. How do I get a quarterback?"
Polian says that in 2011 he tried at least three times to work a trade with the Broncos for Kyle Orton as Tebowmania swept Denver. Polian spent hours evaluating every backup quarterback in the league and even quarterbacks who had been idle. (Collins had been retired seven weeks when the Colts signed him near the end of training camp that year.) "It's just a nightmare," says Polian. "And the real problem is, there just aren't many guys who can do the job."
As the NFL calendar flips from Super Bowl frenzy into the off-season of acquisition and change, about half the league is living Polian's nightmare, constrained by a quarterback who is not quite good enough to win or, worse, is lacking so much that he can only lose. It is a common circumstance because franchise quarterbacks have always been the most prized currency in the league. But the pressure is intensified in 2013 because of the immediate success of rookies Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson and second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Even more pointedly, while Luck and Griffin were taken first and second in the 2012 draft, the spots customarily reserved for presumptive Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Kaepernick was drafted in the second round in '11 and Wilson in the third last year.
"Right now you've got a lot of fan bases and owners asking, Why can't we go out and draft a guy like [Wilson] in the third round?" says Bill Kuharich, who was a personnel executive with the Saints from 1986 to '99 and with the Chiefs for a decade after that. "A lot of teams passed on that guy, and now that looks like a pretty bad decision."
Matt Hasselbeck, a 14-year NFL quarterback who is now slotted as Jake Locker's backup with the Titans, has witnessed handfuls of quarterback personnel scenarios in Green Bay (two years), Seattle (10 years) and Tennessee (two years). "These guys have raised the expectations for the position," Hasselbeck says. "Because of the success of Luck and RG3 and Wilson, you don't get to use that first-year excuse so easily. It used to be you could say Look at Peyton Manning's [bad] first year. Or look at Troy Aikman's [bad] first year. Or Rick Mirer's. Or Ryan Leaf's. You just can't say that now."
The influx of young quarterbacks, in concert with dynamic changes that make NFL offenses resemble college option games (which may or may not endure), has given many fans (and, more quietly, front offices) cases of quarterback envy. It was one thing to watch Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger—acknowledged superstars and likely first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks—routinely take teams to playoffs and Super Bowls. But it's more painful to watch Wilson and Kaepernick do it when you, the Kansas City Chiefs fan, are stuck with Matt Cassel.
And with the pain comes a fundamental question that is both blissfully simple and painfully complex: When do you cut loose a quarterback and start over?
Consider five quarterbacks between the ages of 25 and 32, with at least four years' experience as starters, who have never won a playoff game. Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Bills, Josh Freeman of the Bucs, Tony Romo of the Cowboys and Mark Sanchez of the Jets. Each has done enough to tease—and enough to dispirit. Cassel, Fitzpatrick, Freeman and Sanchez have pedestrian career passer ratings, ranging from 71.7 (Sanchez) to 80.4 (Cassel). These Bubble Five are the types of quarterbacks who make fan bases and front offices wonder if they can do better. (For a cautionary tale, consider the Chargers, who let Brees go after the 2005 season.)