Page 2 staff

It was the best of snaps. It was the worst of snaps.

That pretty much sums up the Year of the QB in 2004. Don't bother dusting off your preseason predictions or your fantasy football wishlist because it's just a train wreck like everyone else.

OK, we knew the Pats would be good and the Eagles looked like a force with Terrell Owens, but did anyone else pick the Steelers? What about the Seahawks? It's OK. We know a lot of you had them winning the NFC. We all did.

As they say, that's why they play the games. And with the playoff picture coming more into focus every day, our QBs bark out signals on the year that was ... and the "second season" that's going to be.





QB of Year not named Peyton: Donovan McNabb and Tom Brady Drew Brees No contest: Big Ben Daunte Culpepper Donovan McNabb
Biggest Surprise: Roethlisberger joined Krzyzewski in my spellchecker Roethlisberger Did anyone have a clue that the Steelers had drafted the best rookie QB of all time? Drew Brees Roethlisberger.
Biggest Disappointment: Matt Hasselbeck; Chicago's crossing-guard alternate uni's Marc Bulger Hasselbeck Michael Vick Joey Harrington
Most Improved: Drew Brees Brees Brees Brees Brees
Class Clown: Aaron Brooks, who should be accompanied by big top circus music Every team in NFC West and its QB Jake Plummer. That middle finger thing was, like, so mature Plummer Brooks
Needs more PT in 2005: Patrick Ramsey Quincy Carter Jon Kitna Free Jon Kitna! Drew Henson
We'll never hear from him again: Mark Brunell Luke McCown Rich Gannon John Navarre Chris Chandler
Eli Manning reminds me of ... Peyton without the experience, dome, surrounding talent Rick Mirer "Seinfeld," season one. Awful, but glimmers of promise Billy Ripken Tom Hanks in "Big," a kid in a man's body
QB you had most fun watching: Matt Schaub. Who runs into the umpire? Michael Vick Peyton Manning. Packs a lot of action into the pre-snap Tom Brady, except last Monday Favre, trailing

First down: The Chargers lost in OT to the Colts in Indy, dropping them to 2-4 against teams with winning records. Does this performance make you more or less of a believer in Drew Brees and the Chargers?

Alan Grant: I'm not any less of a believer in the kid or his team. I don't think they will win a playoff game next month, but that doesn't diminish what they've already built. Both Brees and the Chargers have enjoyed a pleasant, bubbly, and stealthy rise into our conscience. It's much like Barack Obama's rise to the Senate. And like Obama, the story will read best in the future. If L.T. is still scampering mostly unfettered, and the Chargers' quarterback (Brees? Rivers?) is having the kind of season Brees has had, then we can fondly place this, in our collective timelines, as the birth of something wonderful.

Jeff Merron: The Bolts won in every way Sunday except on paper. For the first three quarters, it looked like the Ravens' D had missed its flight to Pittsburgh and decided, heck, we'll go to Indy instead. As a result, Peyton looked, until Q4 and OT, like a great conductor who'd lost his baton. Brees was better; despite the anticipation surrounding The Record, he was much more compelling to watch than Manning. Fact is, we'd be talking about how Brees looked more at home in the dome than Manning if not for Dominic Rhodes' kickoff return.

Patrick Hruby: Give the Bolts a break. It's not their fault the AFC West is horrid -- Jake Plummer, Norv Turner and Kansas City's defense bear the blunt of the blame -- and a team can only play the schedule put before it. Should Philadelphia be held accountable for a truly, deeply mediocre NFC? (Well, yeah, but that's another matter). Brees and Co. did a fine job against a suspect Colts defense, and in a game where all things non-Peyton were supposed to be trifling subplots. The Chargers likely are too young and too shaky in the secondary to make a serious playoff run -- but like last year's Chiefs, they have enough firepower to scare anyone, probably a first for a Marty Schottenheimer-coached club. Am I a believer? No. Agnostic? Hey, you never know.

Aaron Schatz: Actually, more of a believer. Before this week, my ratings at Football Outsiders had the Chargers ranked sixth before adjusting for strength of schedule, ninth after adjusting for strength of schedule. But I was impressed by how much the Chargers had Manning off his game for the first three quarters. They were getting a serious pass rush despite rarely sending more than four guys. Donnie Edwards made a strong case for the idea that he was the biggest AFC Pro Bowl snub, not Corey Dillon or Ben Roethlisberger. On offense, I think that LaDainian Tomlinson finally looks fully healthy again, and Brees had a very good game, even if his drive for the winning field goal failed. He can't be blamed because the Chargers defense twice let the Colts march down the field in the fourth quarter, and we'll never know what would have happened if the Chargers had won the overtime coin toss.

Unfortunately, the Chargers are stuck with the same problem that the Colts have. To make the Super Bowl, they have to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh and, probably, the Patriots in New England. At least the Chargers last week proved they can in fact play in cold weather, as long as the other team is Cleveland.

Skip Bayless: It was interesting that ESPN's Ed Werder said on "NFL Countdown" that he had just spoken with Colts coach Tony Dungy, and that Dungy told him the Chargers still aren't an elite team. For three quarters, the Colts played as if they didn't take San Diego all that seriously. But when Peyton got serious, he proved what Dungy said to Werder -- Brees' team still isn't a serious threat to get to the Super Bowl.

They're still very good -- far, far better than anyone expected. But they cannot win a playoff game on the road against Indianapolis or New England or Pittsburgh. They have taken advantage of a weak schedule and surprisingly bad division, and chemistry and coaching and feel-good momentum can take them only so far in January. This year's good news has been that they have Brees at quarterback. Now, that's also the bad news.

Second down: Pennington. Plummer. Bledsoe. Two of these three QBs will most likely make the AFC playoffs. Can anyone of them actually do any damage?

Alan Grant: Each of them can do considerable damage. Of course, in the Snake's case, there's always the chance that he and/or his comrades may end up the damaged goods. But I think Bledsoe, being of relatively sound mind and (protected) body these past few weeks, is most capable of authoring that first-round upset which throws the rest of the tournament into upheaval. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the evidence of this shall manifest itself in the season finale when Bledsoe and the Bills bring Ben Roethlisberger's win streak to a blustery conclusion. The following week, Bledsoe and his mates stand a very good chance of blurring the AFC picture.

Jeff Merron: That's a leading question with lousy choices, so it's tempting to say: absolutely not.

But the real answer is absolutely the opposite. Each of the three is capable of having a big game, each can play on cold turf. And -- I gulp as I write this -- Plummer is the most likely to succeed. He's got the full beard, the altitude training, the middle-finger attitude, and, best of all, the offensive line to be great. But as we all know, after each great game, Jake turns into a pumpkin, and stays that way for weeks.

Patrick Hruby: Absolutely. Pennington might damage his reputation as a former Rhodes scholar finalist with more inane comments about the media, while Plummer could seriously dent Mike Shanahan's chances of remaining employed with the Broncos.

Oops. You mean on the field. In that case, I'll have to go with Bledsoe. Not because it's 1997 again -- heck, even Hootie and the Blowfish have a better chance of recapturing their pre-millenial form -- but because the Bills are the hottest team in football. Buffalo has scored a minimum of 33 points in each of its six straight victories, winning by at least 10 (yep, I can read wire copy). Better still, the Bills have a stingy, hard-hitting defense, a budding star in tailback Willis McGahee and a urgent manner that suits playoff football. If anything, the club's winning formula involves minimizing Bledsoe's liabilities -- slow feet, occasional, Favre-like brainlocks -- and maximizing an arm that can still hit Eric Moulds and speedy rookie Lee Evans on play-action passes. Keep the game from resting entirely in Bledsoe's hands, and Buffalo may stun someone in January, even with a head coach named Mularkey. What, coaches Poppycock and Balderdash weren't available?

Aaron Schatz: Sure, Jake Plummer could do some damage if he's having one of his "good Jake Plummer" days. If you've ever wondered what would happen if a mad scientist crossed Grizzly Adams with Batman villain Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, we finally have the answer.

As for the other two quarterbacks, Pennington is clearly still injured; if the Jets pull off an upset in the first round, it will be on the legs of Curtis Martin and Lamont Jordan. And if Bledsoe is playing the Colts in the first round we may see a new record for quarterback sacks in a playoff game.

Skip Bayless: If the Jets and/or Jacksonville and/or Denver make the playoffs -- and Buffalo doesn't -- the NFL should be embarrassed. The Jets, Jaguars and Broncos are limping toward the playoffs, while Buffalo has gone from 1-5 to 9-6. Bledsoe's Bills definitely could do some postseason damage -- but not Bledsoe. He has turned back his clock and ego and become an older version of Ben Roethlisberger.

Bledsoe appears to realize that he's at the wheel of a very good team, and that his job is simply not to run it off the road. The Bills' defense is better than any in the NFC. The Bills, in fact, could win the NFC. They ran for 226 yards at San Francisco, requiring Bledsoe to throw for only 172 -- with no interceptions. Though his passer rating is only 76.9, his team has won eight of nine. If Bledsoe's team makes the playoffs, look out.

By Aaron Schatz,

Click here for Aaron's complete rankings for all the QBs.

The QB rankings now include adjustments for the quality of defense faced. (DPAR = Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement that each QB was responsible for.)

Quarterback Skinny DPAR
1. Jake Delhomme
19/24, 214 yards
4 TDs, 0 INT
This, my friends, is how you will your team into the playoffs. 17.4
2. Tom Brady
21/32, 264 yards
2 TDs, 0 INT
Average Brady pass has come with 9.5 yards needed for first down, highest of any quarterback with at least 300 attempts. 15.5
3. Jake Plummer
21/26, 306 yards
2 TDs, 1 INT
If Denver makes postseason, whole team should grow Plummer-length playoff beards in the NHL tradition. 14.2

Quarterback Skinny DPAR
29. Byron Leftwich
6/14, 35 yards
0 TDs, 1 INT
This, my friends, is not how you will your team into the playoffs. -9.3
30. Billy Volek
8/20, 111 yards
0 TDs, 2 INT
Third downs: Four sacks, two incompletes, an interception, and only one conversion. -10.5
31. Matt Schaub
17/41, 188 yards
0 TDs, 2 INT
From preseason promise to in-season implosion faster than you can say "Michael Bishop." -15.0

Third down: Take one of your hit Quick items from above and elaborate.

Alan Grant: I want to see more of Quincy Carter. I want to see him resume the career he was erecting this time last season. Most of you may have guessed by now that yours truly has a thing for people who defy conventional thought, who in the pursuit of life, always expose the haters as the pathetic life forms they truly are. Now I don't know what Carter did to get himself so thoroughly excommunicated from the Big D. But I am glad he got a second chance in New York. I firmly believe that everyone deserves a second chance, even quarterbacks who may or may not have issues with drugs. So next season I'd like to see Quincy Carter playing somewhere, hopefully as a starter.

Jeff Merron: There's plenty of credit to go around in Pittsburgh, but here's why Roethlisberger is the biggest surprise: he simply could not have done any better. Don't take a thing away from The Bus, Duce, "Heinz" Ward, Antwaan Randle El, et al. No way the Steelers are the AFC cream without them. But Ben had the unique (and I don't use the term lightly) ability, for a rookie, to take over a veteran team from a veteran QB. He didn't make rookie mistakes. He played great at home and great on the road. He was cool when it was close, and big in blowouts. He was, in a word, consistent.

Think about it: if the Steelers were 10-5, 11-4, or 12-3, Roethlisberger would still be due some very high praise. But 14-1? Surprising doesn't quite do it. "Shocking" comes close, but that word hints at a fluke, and Big Ben's no fluke.

Patrick Hruby: Aaron Brooks let fly not one but two of the season's most dunderheaded, forehead-slapping passes, arguably the worst pair of throws in recent memory. Oh, and never mind statistical improbability: Brooks managed this feat in a season that will see Jake Plummer start all 16 games. Surely the Saints signal-caller deserves some sort of dubious sports award, or at the very least, an Espy.

Aaron Schatz: There were a lot of disappointing quarterbacks this season. Matt Hasselbeck took a big step backward. Steve McNair went from MVP to MVP (Most Vertebrae Pain). Jeff Garcia looked nothing like the quarterback who threw for all those yards in San Francisco (partly because he was completely misused, partly because of a difficult schedule). Brad Johnson and Mark Brunell got whatever you call the football version of Steve Blass disease.

But by far, the most disappointing quarterback this season was Michael Vick. To many people, that sounds like idiocy, because Vick was in the highlights nearly every week, and the Falcons went from 5-11 to 11-4. Don't we judge quarterbacks based on wins?

No, not if they make winning harder. The Falcons won 11 games this year for a number of reasons: improved defense, a strong running back committee, great special teams, luck, an easy schedule. Vick wasn't one of the reasons. Vick's great rushing plays won games that were only close to begin with because of his horrible passing. That 58-yard scamper against Arizona sealed a 6-3 game where Vick threw for a Krenzelian 115 yards. Last week, Vick had that amazing 12-yard TD run on 4th and goal to send it to overtime, but Atlanta was losing because Vick had thrown two interceptions and completed only 11 of 28 passes. Yes, he has a terrible corps of wide receivers, but he does have good receivers at tight end and running back, and it wasn't like his receivers were dropping all his passes. When you watched the Falcons, you watched Vick overthrowing guys, bouncing the ball 10 yards in front of his intended receiver, sometimes just throwing the ball right to the other team.

Skip Bayless: To me, Donovan McNabb's season has been pleasantly shocking because of a) how consistently deadly accurately he has thrown the ball and b) how masterfully he handled a guy who can turn into "Terrible" Owens at the drop of a ball. McNabb played it perfectly, making Owens his camp roommate, boosting his ego and confidence with an early pass in each game and turning TO's one sideline rant, during the loss in Pittsburgh, into a joke of a mock-tirade the following game.

That's why I can't fathom all the gloom and doom in the City of Brotherly Self-Pity. With five Pro Bowl players on defense -- Jevon Kearse should have been a sixth -- the Eagles are still good enough to win a bad conference without the injured Owens. McNabb is skilled and mature enough to turn Freddie Mitchell into a go-to guy and to make Todd "Stink"ston feel like he's in the pink again. With Levens pounding the ball, and Westbrook slashing, this offense should be adequate enough at home to at least get this team to the Super Bowl. After what McNabb has shown me this year, he's capable of pulling off his first NFC title in four tries without his new wingman.

Fourth down: What's the worst QB decision a coach made this year?

Alan Grant: Second guessing aint my strongest forte, but for the sake of conversation, I'll go with Tom Coughlin's handling of Eli Manning. It's just a matter of development -- both the team's and the quarterback's. Like I've said oh, a thousand times before, if there is no playoff light burning bright in the distance, and you want your young pup to get some seasoning, then toss him out there naked and raw. He and the team will struggle, but it may pay off. The time for such decisions is August. But perhaps Coughlin, after watching Kurt Warner rise like the Phoenix, then fall to Earth as a charred and unarmed bird, thought Eli was the logical next step. Perhaps he thought the kid, due to his name and his bloodlines, was ready to digest the entire Giants' playbook. Perhaps Coughlin thought Eli was Peyton. I think this is a case of mistaken identity.

Jeff Merron: I still can't wrap my head around Dave Wannstedt's (in)decision. The Fins enter Kickoff Weekend without Ricky Williams, and neither starting candidate -- Feeley or Fiedler -- is established enough to lead an offense without strong support from the head coach (that's you, Dave!). Whoever starts is going to be building a rep (or self-destructing), if he's practicing with the A team and it's shouted from the tower that he's the man.

Patrick Hruby: It wasn't really a coach's decision -- at least not that I'm aware -- but Chicago should have made sure to have at least one professional-caliber backup quarterback on their roster. When you're picking up 56-year-old Jeff George more than halfway through the season, something is seriously amiss.

Aaron Schatz: To me it is a tossup between Dennis Green's decision to go with Josh McCown as his starting quarterback instead of drafting Ben Roethlisberger or signing a veteran free agent, Dennis Green's decision to pull Josh McCown and replace him with a quarterback who was actually worse (Shaun King), or Dennis Green's decision to pull King and, instead of putting McCown back in, replacing King with a quarterback who was -- seriously, this was mind-blowing -- actually worse than both of them (John Navarre). And he did all this in a year when Arizona actually could have won the division. The Cardinals lost both games started by King, the game started by Navarre, and lost four of McCown's starts by a touchdown or less. With a real quarterback, Arizona might have gone 9-7 and won the NFC West.

Skip Bayless: Coughlin made the two worst quarterback decisions. First, he should have made Manning the starter from his first post-draft minicamp, with Warner as his mentor. Manning should have played a half or three quarters of every exhibition. Yes, there would have been some early growing pains -- followed by growth spurts through the season's second half. Instead, Coughlin made an early splash with Warner, who predictably began to unravel physically and psychologically. Warner suffers from cauliflower body.

Then, with the team beginning to mutiny, Coughlin threw Eli into the fire against a murder's row of defenses -- Atlanta, Philly, Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh. Any other rookie QB might have been destroyed. Not Eli. I still believe the Giants would have been in the playoff hunt if Eli had started from the start. But Coughlin blew it twice.

Best Throw of The Week:
Alan Grant: Easily Drew Brees tossing a feathery soft ball on a deep out route to Carter.The ball sailed over the defender covering the flat, and underneath a fast closing safety. Sweet.

Jeff Merron: Best pass: Manning to Reggie Wayne on 4th and 4, clutch perfection, just before 2-minute warning.

Best pass-catch: Roeth to Randle El, 10 yards, one-handed catch improvised with about a minute left in first half.

Patrick Hruby:: Jon Kitna's fourth-quarter, go-ahead touchdown toss to Chad Johnson. Kitna sidestepped a blitzing New York linebacker, rolled to his right and whipped a pass between two Giants defenders in the corner of the end zone. Nice poise.

Aaron Schatz: The record-breaker by Manning, which not only was a clutch throw that put the Colts in position to tie the game, but a beautiful threading of the seam between Charger defenders right into the hands of Brandon Stokley. I'm glad it was a good one, because the record-tying pass was really, really lame.

Runner-up: Ben Roethlisberger's two-yard lob to an open Jerame Tuman in the back left corner of the end zone to put the Steelers up 17-7. The Ravens bit so hard on the play fake they will need their tongues re-attached.

Skip Bayless: Peyton's record-breaker. Classic 2004 Peyton: He and his slot receiver, Stokley, saw the same weakness at the line of scrimmage. Stokely signaled that he was switching to a post route. Peyton dropped quickly, made a flinch of a fake to Reggie Wayne, running an out, and the nickel back and safety bit like catfish in an overstocked pond. Then Peyton cut loose over the middle before Stokley had even made his break. The safety was so fooled he fell trying to change directions, and Stokley blew right by him and looked back just in time to catch a perfectly thrown No. 49. Magnificent.

Worst Throw of The Week:
Jeff Merron: Brian Griese's toss right into the hands of Carolina DT Kindal Moorehead, right there in the middle of the passing lane, with about five minutes left. Terrible read, resulting hope-dashing TD rumble.

Patrick Hruby: Not a throw, but Matt Schaub's tackled-by-the-umpire QB keeper might have been the most uninspired bit of scrambling since OJ Simpson's pirating of DirecTV. Something tells me Schaub's run won't be part of the Mike Vick Experience.

Aaron Schatz: Joey Harrington's ridiculous blind lob over his left shoulder while Chicago's Mike Green was dragging him down, which landed right in the hands of Lance Briggs for an easy Chicago six. Joey, did you not watch Monday Night Football? If you are going to gamble with a crazy throw, you should at least be looking at your receivers so you have some idea of where the ball is going to go.

Skip Bayless: Either of Chad Pennington's interceptions, but especially the spirit-breaker he "threw" early in the fourth quarter, trailing 13-0. Pennington tossed up another of his "Hanging Chads" -- another fair-catchable floater, this one seemingly intended for any of three Patriots. Eugene Wilson intercepted it. The Jets are a solid football team with one soft spot, at quarterback. This is why they can't even beat a good team at home, after that team has lost a Monday-nighter on the road.