- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
A funny thing happened to Jeff Garcia once the 49ers released him, but it wasn't so funny if you were Garcia. The phones didn't ring off the hook for opportunities.
Here was a 33-year-old quarterback who went to Pro Bowls following the 2000-2002 seasons. In this age of year-round conditioning, being 33 isn't considered old. It should be considered prime time. Yet, Garcia found quarterback free agency in the new millennium isn't all that great even though it was his decision not to go back to the 49ers at a $5 million salary.
"No question, we went into free agency knowing there was a very limited job market," said Garcia's agent, Steven Baker.
To everyone's surprise, the Cardinals, Cowboys and Steelers expressed no interest. The Falcons were willing to pay big money for Garcia to be Michael Vick's backups. Jon Gruden wanted Garcia in Tampa next to Brad Johnson, but Gruden wants every quarterback. The Browns saved Garcia by giving him a four-year, $20 million and more than $5 million this year.
And now, Tim Couch is facing an even more limited market as his agent, Tom Condon of IMG, calls around trying to either promote a trade or set up a contract once the Browns release him for salary-cap reasons.
What's happened to the quarterback job market?
Every expert and general manager who follows this game knows more teams are committed to long-term quarterbacks than ever. The Cardinals, Steelers, Chargers, Dolphins and Cowboys were the five teams most projected to be active in this somewhat limited quarterback market. They weren't.
Of those teams, only the Dolphins made a move to get a new starter for next season. They traded next year's second-round choice to Philadelphia for Eagles third-stringer A.J. Feeley. But it's not 100 percent that Feeley will be given the starting job. Jay Fiedler tested the potential quarterback market when he was given permission to shop and re-signed for less to stay in Miami.
The Cowboys' move surprised everyone who doesn't understand Jerry Jones' belief in Quincy Carter. Instead of going for the experienced veteran such as Garcia, the Cowboys traded for another quarterback of the future, Drew Henson. With former baseball players Carter, Henson and Chad Hutchinson, the Cowboys may have better baseball prospects than the Rangers, but they don't have that solid 60-percent passer that is needed to be a winning team.
Perhaps the biggest surprises of this quick, relatively thin quarterback market is two teams acquiring new starters in their 30s even though they seemingly had guys in place. The Redskins traded for Mark Brunell. New coach Joe Gibbs wanted a one-two punch at quarterback headed by a veteran such as Brunell and he wanted his good young quarterback being Patrick Ramsey. The Browns, following a two-year debate between Couch and Kelly Holcomb, ended all quarterback controversies by signing Garcia.
Heading into next season, 22 projected quarterbacks are going to be in their 20s and only 10 in the 30s. The position is getting younger and places have to be found for four potential first-round choices -- Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers and J.P Losman.
But let's study closely what happened to the five teams that were supposedly most in the market for quarterbacks.
Miami Dolphins -- General manager Rick Spielman spent weeks doing in depth studies of quarterback trends. He looked at stats: preseason and regular season. He watched tape. He compiled evaluations. His mission was to rate the young quarterbacks who have been understudies on teams before they moved on to be starters. What was it, Spielman thought, did the Panthers see in Jake Delhomme that allowed him to be a Super Bowl quarterback?
The lists were extensive. He even went back as far as looking at Fiedler before he became a Dolphin. Once he had the data, he acted quickly. Brunell was his top choice, but the Redskins moved aggressively and got him in a trade. Ramsey was the next option or so he thought. Redskins owner Dan Snyder and coach Joe Gibbs met with the agent for Ramsey, Jimmy Sexton, and told him that the Redskins wouldn't trade Ramsey under any circumstance.
From his list, Spielman then went to Feeley of the Eagles. He wasted no time in making a trade and giving him a five-year, $21 million contract.
"We're pretty confident in A.J.," Spielman said. "We look at A.J. the way we looked at Matt Hasselbeck a couple of years ago."
Three years ago, the Dolphins were willing to surrender a first-round choice to the Packers for Hasselbeck, who was Brett Favre's understudy in Green Bay. Former Packers coach Mike Holmgren beat out the Dolphins and acquired Hasselbeck, who became a Pro Bowler in this third year with Seattle.
Like Hasselbeck, Feeley is athletic and well-coached. Spielman's stats and tape show he should blossom like Hasselbeck given the chance. To make it easier, Spielman is surrounding Feeley with a talented cast of offensive threats -- Ricky Williams in the backfield, Chris Chambers and David Boston at receiver and Randy McMichael at tight end. With four changes along the offensive line, the Dolphins will be younger, but it's not known if they will be better there.
The only problem with Feeley becoming the next Hasselbeck is that Matt struggled until the middle of the second season before settling comfortably into the Seahawks starting job. The Dolphins need to win now, so Feeley can't delay his rush toward success.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- The Steelers have said "no" to every quarterback opportunity that cropped up -- Brunell, Ramsey, Henson, Couch, Garcia, etc. Anyone doubting the organization's faith in Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch aren't in tune with what the Steelers are thinking. Maddox is the starter. Batch will compete from the backup job.
The Steelers offense is undergoing a change now that coordinator Mike Mularkey is in Buffalo as head coach of the Bills. The Steelers ranked 22nd offensively averaging only 299.5 yards a game, two thirds of it through the air. Bill Cowher plays power football, so the signing of Duce Staley and the retention of Jerome Bettis signifies a move back to the ground game. The Steelers averaged only 93 yards a game on the ground. No more. The Steelers will pound it next year and that means more handoffs by the quarterback.
Maddox is a good decision maker. He gets rid of the ball quickly and he's got a great group of possession receivers to make plays once they catch the football. It's not out of the question for the Steelers to draft a quarterback, but it's not a lock they would take Rivers with their first-round pick. For now, the Steelers aren't looking for their quarterback of the future. They want to concentrate on the present.
Arizona Cardinals -- Dennis Green stunned everyone by expressing his confidence in unknown Josh McCown. McCown finished the season for Dave McGinnis as the starter and he really didn't do too bad. He's an impressive athlete with a good arm and decent running skills. Remember, Green put together a lot of playoff teams in Minnesota using a different quarterback every season. He has a quarterback friendly offense, and McCown intrigues him. It's not out of the question the Cardinals could take Eli Manning or Roethlisberger if receiver Larry Fitzgerald is selected second by the Raiders.
Green knows having a great quarterback and a bad team doesn't win games. So, Green's plan to get the positions outside of the quarterback better. He picked up a pass-rusher (defensive end Bertrand Berry) and a cornerback (David Macklin) and might add a linebacker (Brandon Short of the Giants). The Cardinals have a high paid offensive line, and they've drafted heavily at the receiver position.
For now, the plan is to develop McCown and have Shaun King as a backup.
Dallas Cowboys -- The plan came into focus as soon as Jerry Jones pulled the trigger on the Henson trade, acquiring him from the Texans for a third-rounder next year. Carter is the starter. Henson will report to the offseason program next Monday and will work as hard as he can to be the backup. If that doesn't work, the Cowboys can sign Vinny Testaverde after the Jets release him in June. That would make Henson the third quarterback developing for a chance to compete for the starting job next year. And don't forget Hutchinson, although he may be all but forgotten. Hutch is in NFL Europe trying to do something with his career. If he succeeds, maybe he will have a chance as the backup.
But that won't do much for him in the long run. Carter is the quarterback of the present. Henson is the quarterback of the future. How quickly Henson learns the system will determine how the timetable will go.
San Diego Chargers -- Face it, the Chargers really don't want to use their first pick on a quarterback. They really don't. They have too many needs. But it's clear they want to improve at the position. Drew Brees didn't work out in his second season as the starter and is destined to be replaced. The question is who will replace him and no one knows the answer. Brunell was the only veteran quarterback who appealed to general manager A.J. Smith, but the Redskins made that move. That leaves the Chargers looking at Manning and Roethlisberger. The evaluation process for those two and Rivers begins next week. The Chargers will attend their workouts and have individual sessions.
It seems inevitable that the Chargers will end up with one of those three quarterbacks. To do so, though, they might just trade down and feel satisfied with the second or third best quarterback in the draft as long as they can stockpile draft choices.
For now, Brees is the starter, but his days in that capacity are numbered. It's not out of the question for him to go into the season first string, but someone else will take over at some point. The question is who.
Oakland Raiders -- This team is being added as a bonus study only if Rich Gannon's shoulder isn't right after offseason surgery. So far, Gannon has been ahead of schedule and everyone anticipates he will be the starter. He might have to adjust his $7 million salary, but all signs point to Gannon starting. The interesting part of the Raiders quarterback position is Norv Turner wants to throw the ball more downfield. That's not Gannon's best skills. He's a short-yardage specialist who dishes the ball out like a point guard. Don't expect the Raiders to take a quarterback with the second pick in the draft unless Gannon suffers a setback from his shoulder problems.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Even though questions remain for some teams, available quarterbacks are finding this to be a rough market.