- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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On Aug. 9, the Steelers' personnel office watched in amazement as Byron Leftwich and Daunte Culpepper put on a throwing show auditioning for a job. Backup Charlie Batch was hurt, and Leftwich and Culpepper were the best quarterbacks available.
The Steelers couldn't believe quarterbacks this talented were available in August. Both had strong arms. Both were healthy. Both were reasonably young. Though Culpepper won the day, Leftwich got the Steelers' job because he was willing to sign a one-year deal for $685,000.
The former Jacksonville quarterback's performance in relief of an injured Ben Roethlisberger on Monday showed that Leftwich, who's only 28, still has it as a potential starter. Culpepper, 31, signed a two-year deal with the Lions on Monday, and he could be the starter on Sunday.
It's not too early to speculate where Leftwich and other quarterbacks could emerge next season.
The 49ers, Vikings, Lions and Chiefs head the list of teams looking for quarterbacks in 2009. The Bucs could enter the market if they lose Jeff Garcia in free agency. Kurt Warner is a free agent with the Cardinals, but he wants to sign a two-year extension in Arizona. The Jets won't know until the offseason whether Brett Favre will want to play another season or if he wants to retire.
Leftwich's future obviously will depend on what coaching changes happen during the offseason. At 28, he's still young enough to be a franchise quarterback. Depending on what happens in San Francisco, he'd be a candidate for a starting job there. He's also young enough to fit into the youth movement in Kansas City.
The most interesting move could come out of Minnesota. The Vikings have a roster of big-name, high-priced players who aren't getting any younger. Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are part of a core group with a one- or two-year window to try to make a Super Bowl run.
Brad Childress dug the Vikings into a deep hole by getting off to an 0-2 start with Tarvaris Jackson as the starter. Gus Frerotte bailed them out by getting the team back to 4-4, but he's an old quarterback with no long-term future. With a short playoff window, the Vikings might be the top team to pursue Derek Anderson of the Browns in a trade. If they can't get him, Leftwich might be the next option.
The Garcia situation should also be interesting. As is the case with Warner in Arizona, the natural thought would be for the Bucs to re-sign the quarterback who has elevated them into a playoff team. Don't mess with something that works, right?
Let's dive into the mailbag:
From the inbox
Q: As a Broncos fan, I was very concerned with the Denver defense and its struggles in the 4-3 scheme. It makes me wonder if Denver should have gone and searched for an experienced defensive coordinator in the offseason. And I don't know if the offense can turn it around in time to score the points it was earlier in the season. The way I see it, I think we may miss the playoffs again. My question is, if that happens will we see more major changes in Denver (other than Mike Shanahan not leaving)? P.S. Someone please tell Pat Bowlen to hire a defensive coordinator, please!
From Ian in Phoenix
A: Honestly, it's not the coordinator who's the problem. It's the talent. Years of poor drafting and shaky personnel decisions left the team void of playmakers. I hate to say it, but this is what I expected. In many ways, I think the Broncos have made too many coordinator changes. When you change coordinators, you change philosophies. When you change philosophies, you keep changing the type of player wanted to run the scheme. When they had Jim Bates, the Broncos wanted big defensive tackles. They went to man-to-man coverage personnel, but they haven't had much speed at safety. Years ago, they wanted a better defensive line, so they brought in every former Cleveland Browns defensive lineman they could find. They've been too dependent on acquiring veterans on defense. What they need is a few good drafts to develop a homegrown defensive personality.
Q: The New York Giants have good young talent on offense. The offensive line, which is the best in football, is intact for at least the next 3-5 years. They have a defense that is filled with young players with a hunger to win. Do the New York Giants have the next dynasty in football? I think this team is better than 3 of the 4 previous Giant Super Bowl teams. The 1986 team was unbelievable.
Right now Eli Manning is better than Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler. No former Giants receiver can do what
Plaxico Burress does. I'd like to see the secondary play better because the front seven really saves them. The pass rush is unmatched even without Osi Umenyiora . Wow! Imagine what the Giants could be doing if Umenyiora was healthy.
From Colvin in Columbus, Ga.
A: I am not ready to declare the Giants a dynasty yet, but I would agree the Giants have built a special team. They are great in all the key areas. Eli Manning is a franchise quarterback. They have one of the deepest -- if not best -- running teams in football. They were so loaded in pass-rushers that they survived the loss of Osi for the season and Michael Strahan to retirement. They are deep in man-to-man cornerbacks. As far as the offensive line goes, they should have at least two or three Pro Bowlers, starting with Chris Snee and ending with David Diehl at left tackle. Colvin, just make sure these positive comments don't go to their heads. If they do, we'll just fine Plax.
Q: I just want to ask you about the quarterback position. I know Chad Pennington has a 2-year contract with the Dolphins. Do you think Miami will re-sign him? I just hope they do. He has been the best QB we have had since Dan Marino.
From Ronnie in Miami
A: I don't see any extension coming until next year, but at some point, the Dolphins need to look at Chad Henne. Not now, though. Pennington is establishing a winning attitude for this team. I had to recheck the figures when I saw he was throwing for 8.23 yards an attempt, fourth best in the league. Arm strength was supposed to be a weakness. As it turns out, he's the best quarterback in the league on first down and is getting more than 9 yards an attempt on first down. Teams may start to solve that, but until they do, he will be able to move the chains and get the ball downfield. I thought he could do something similar in New York but the Jets gave up on him. That loss is Miami's gain.
Q: Given the problems that the Steelers' offense has had versus an all-out blitz (Philly, the fourth quarter against the Giants), does [offensive coordinator] Bruce Arians get replaced at the end of this season? Despite the O-line issues and Ben holding the ball too long, the play calling has been sporadic at best; a lack of commitment to the run, receivers running deep routes against the blitz, and a dearth of screen plays have all hurt the offense this year when opponents' defenses get aggressive. The offense has regressed year over year, and the problems seem to go beyond the players.
From Tom in Pittsburgh
A: Tom, I honestly do think the offensive scheme will be under review after the season, but I don't see a coordinator change. The Steelers have had a monstrous schedule. Some of the play calling has been spotty, but I think Ben Roethlisberger believes in Bruce Arians and, because of that, I don't see a change. You knew going into the season that the Steelers were going to struggle at times playing a .598 schedule, one of the toughest in 25 years. They've done it with their weakest offensive line in more than six or seven years. The changes will be more along the offensive line than the play calling.
Q: The Seahawks have obviously not gotten it done on defense this year despite having essentially the same personnel they did last year. I've heard the argument that it is due to the offense's inability to stay on the field, but I wondered if any of this could be laid at Jim Mora Jr.'s feet? He's obviously a new addition to the defense and is coaching the secondary which has been particularly ineffective. Opinions?
From Jason in Eugene, Ore.
A: Jason, Mora can only take responsibility for what's gone wrong in the secondary, but that's it. The Seahawks have had a shaky year at safety, and Kelly Jennings has dropped off dramatically. Still, Mora gets good reviews for how he's developing Josh Wilson. I thought Wilson looked like a draft bust last year. I wasn't overly excited about him early this season. Of late, he looks like a decent cornerback. Jennings has had injuries. Marcus Trufant developed into a Pro Bowler last year in his first season with Mora. Only a limited amount to criticism can go to Mora this season.
Q: How can you say Joe Flacco has not played like a rookie and is the real deal? Have you looked at his stats? Remember when everyone thought Vince Young was the real deal because he won a few games? I think he made a Pro Bowl with a 68 [passer] rating or something, ridiculous.
From e-mailer Matt
A: Remember what the stats are for most rookies. These days a good rookie completes about 54 to 56 percent of his passes and usually gets a yard-per-attempt average around 6.4 yards or less. Flacco's completing 61.8 percent of his passes and has a 6.7-yard average. He's standing tall in the pocket against good pass-rush teams, and he's winning, something rookie quarterbacks don't do against tough schedules. But you are right about the Vince Young comment. It's way too early to say young quarterbacks such as Flacco or Vince Young have arrived.
Q: John, I've noticed you answering a lot of questions about every other team in the NFL other than my Green Bay Packers. If the Packers fail to make the playoffs this year (which I don't think will happen) is [executive vice president and general manager] Ted Thompson's job in jeopardy? If not, why?
From Josh in Melbourne, Fla.
A: Some of Ted Thompson's decisions aren't popular, but he has the full support of the Packers' board, so there will be no change if the Packers fail to make the playoffs. The board gave him the go-ahead to sign Aaron Rodgers to a five-year extension. I'm sure he has the go-ahead to sign Greg Jennings to a long-term extension. You don't get that license to do those moves if you're on the way out. Rodgers and Jennings were Thompson draft choices. He'll stay with them.
Q: During the NFL draft this past April many "experts" were shocked the Rams drafted Donnie Avery in the second round as the first wide receiver taken in the draft. What are people saying now about him? He's been looking great the past few games and looks like he may develop into a big-time game-breaker!
From Rick in Anaheim, Calif.
A: People were surprised when Eddie Royal came on as fast as he did in Denver, but he became a pretty decent rookie receiver. The same is happening to Avery. He missed a lot of camp because of minor injuries. Now, he's making some good plays downfield. Maybe the key to having an Avery-type season is to have lower expectations for a rookie. The expectations for DeSean Jackson were low as a second-round choice, but he's had the best rookie season among the wide receivers. Avery is making the downfield plays. He's got to work on the short and intermediate routes and get better on those.
Q: Question about John Beck in Miami. Could any QB have succeeded in his situation? Is he ruined? Where could he find a team where he has a chance?
From Merrill in Utah
A: Beck isn't ruined. He's untouched. The team needs to trade him during the offseason just to give him another chance. He needs to go to a team that runs the Mike Martz type of offense. He has the style of a Kurt Warner. I believe he is an accurate quarterback. If they Ravens didn't have Troy Smith and Joe Flacco, I'd suggest trading him to Baltimore during the offseason so he could be with Cam Cameron, the coach who drafted him. Unfortunately, that wouldn't do Beck any good because he would be no better than a backup in Baltimore. I'm not ready to give up on him yet.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Byron Leftwich's sterling showing in relief for the Steelers sets up interesting possibilities for his offseason prospects, John Clayton writes in this edition of his mailbag.