Textbook approach isn't right for all teams
By Steve Muench
Scouts, Inc., for ESPN Insider
Wednesday, May 12
Updated: May 12
10:31 AM ET
Baseball closers and hockey goalies can afford to have an occasional bad game. With just 16 regular-season games and a one-and-done playoff system, NFL quarterbacks don't have the same luxury.
One bad day could cost them a critical game or even the season. Teams bent on winning can't afford to be complacent about their quarterbacks.
Finding a difference-maker to be the No. 1 quarterback and building quality depth behind him is critical. But there's no single strategy for filling out a QB depth chart. In recent seasons, teams have taken several approaches to finding the right mix.
The first and most popular option would be to have a perennial All-Pro -- a Brett Favre or Peyton Manning or Donovan McNabb. Any team would love to be in that situation, and those that are generally have a veteran backing him up. They can then fill the No. 3 slot with a developmental prospect.
Philadelphia is a textbook example. McNabb has gone to the last four Pro Bowls, and backup Koy Detmer is a seven-year veteran with excellent experience in the Eagles' offense. Philadelphia drafted Andy Hall in the sixth round and signed undrafted rookie free agent Scott McMullen to compete for the No. 3 role vacated by A.J. Feeley, who was traded to Miami.
McNabb is clearly the man in Philly, but the Eagles are prepared in the event of injury.
If McNabb goes down, as he did in 2002, the Eagles are confident Detmer can keep them competitive. The two rookies could develop into Detmer's replacement as the No. 2 guy or into tradeable commodities, as Feeley did.
Teams without a franchise quarterback usually look to draft or develop one. The New York Giants and San Diego Chargers are going with talented but untested rookies and hoping they adjust quickly. Although the Giants understand Eli Manning is going to experience some growing pains, they believe the trial-by-fire experience will make him a better QB in the long run.
When a team opts to start a rookie, it generally signs a proven veteran to back him up and, ideally, expedite the learning process. With St. Louis expected to release Kurt Warner next month, the Giants already have had discussions about bringing Warner to the Meadowlands. In some respects it's a perfect fit. There's no question Manning could learn a lot from Warner, and if Manning struggles, Warner has enough experience and ability to step in and run the team.
But Warner, like any other good quarterback his age, wants to start again, and he has been a vocal about it. A team starting a rookie might not want to create any room for a QB controversy. Cincinnati is walking that fine line by naming second-year man Carson Palmer its starter but keeping Jon Kitna, coming off his best season as a pro, as the No. 2.
Some teams try to avoid that situation by looking at veterans like Neil O'Donnell to back up their young, potential franchise QB. O'Donnell, who turns 38 in July, has shown he can still get the job done over a short period of time, but he also knows his limitations and accepts his role as a reserve.
That's the same approach the Falcons took when they signed Ty Detmer, who hasn't thrown a pass since 2001. With Michael Vick the clear starter, Atlanta needs someone to help Vick learn the West Coast offense, which the team is installing this year, under new head coach Jim Mora Jr. And if Vick suffers another injury, Detmer can step in and manage things capably until he returns. Detmer also will serve as tutor and mentor to Matt Schaub, the Falcons' third-round pick out of Virginia, where he also ran the West Coast system.
While the Giants and Chargers are likely to hand the keys to their highly regarded rookies, most teams are hesitant to throw first-year guys into the fire and instead will give them some time to develop. Cincinnati kept Palmer, the No. 1 overall pick last year, on the bench his entire rookie season. The Bengals had the luxury of leaving the job in Kitna's hands, and he rewarded them with a near playoff berth. The Bears didn't have an incumbent starter to hold the fort while rookie Rex Grossman developed, so they brought in a veteran looking for another opportunity to start in Kordell Stewart.
Jon Kitna's Comeback Player of the Year award has earned him a spot on the Bengals' bench.
If the veteran performs, as Kitna did, this approach can be highly effective. Players like the Jets' Chad Pennington have benefited from spending time on the sideline early in their careers. But, as noted above, if the veteran performs too well, it could create a different problem.
Although Kitna won the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award, Palmer will enter training camp as the Bengals' No. 1 quarterback. Winning is everything in the NFL, and head coach Marvin Lewis won't want to take a step back in his second season. If Cincinnati gets off to a slow start, or if Palmer struggles, Lewis will be staring directly in the face of a QB controversy.
In 2001, Seattle signed Trent Dilfer, fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Ravens, to take some pressure off Matt Hasselbeck, then an untested former backup whom head coach Mike Holmgren was trying to develop into a starter. Hasselbeck did start 12 games that year, but he lost his starting job to Dilfer before the start of the 2002 season. Then Dilfer missed the season-opener because of a knee injury. Hasselbeck played well in his place, but Dilfer was back under center in Week 2.
Though Hasselbeck no doubt benefited from having a veteran mentor, the situation created an atmosphere in which Hasselbeck was looking over his shoulder. Last season, with Dilfer as the clear No. 2, Hasselbeck appeared more confident in the pocket and made better decisions. The result? He was named to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement.
Of course, there always will be teams that take chances when filling out their QB depth chart, opting not to build in some insurance and hoping against hope things don't go terribly wrong. Case in point: The 49ers.
San Francisco made veteran Jeff Garcia a cap casualty during the offseason, leaving the starting job to Tim Rattay, who won two of his three starts last season as Garcia's backup. But the move left the team with two backups who hadn't thrown a single regular-season pass -- Ken Dorsey and Brandon Doman -- and a seventh-round pick this year in Cody Pickett.
There's not a lot of margin for error when your depth chart is that thin on experience, and the 49ers are facing that reality now after Rattay tore a muscle in his groin in mini-camp. Now the 49ers must decide whether to sign a veteran or hope Rattay makes it back in time for the regular season. If they stand pat and don't sign another potential starter, they run the risk of Rattay needing more time to come back than thought or even re-injuring himself in an effort to make it back for opening day.