Commentary

Elite QB play is good business for NFL

Originally Published: October 7, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Ray Lewis is right. The excessive number of flags being thrown against defenders who barely touch quarterbacks goes against the nature of real football. Officials have gone overboard.

But that was the mandate from the league. Quarterbacks are the most valuable commodity on an NFL team. Even if it doesn't look like football, officials have to do their best to keep as many quarterbacks upright as possible.

The number of roughing-the-passer calls isn't up significantly this season. In 62 games, 21 infractions have been called versus 18 at this point last season. Believe it or not, roughing-the-passer calls were more prevalent from 2002 to '05, when officials called between 108 and 135 a year. Over the past two seasons, the roughing calls dropped to 62 and 60.

The NFL is enjoying one of its best seasons for quarterback play. The elite level of quarterbacks has grown, and about a third of the league's signal-callers can turn the final four minutes of a game into a show. Fourth-quarter comebacks are more commonplace thanks to the way the good quarterbacks execute two-minute offenses.

As much as fans love the thrill of a good hit on a quarterback, the league rightfully feels its shouldn't subject fans to a season of backups. As good as the quarterback play is at the top, few teams have backups capable of playing at a high level.

From the inbox

Q: With the possible prospects of Jim Zorn being on the outs in Washington, and the chance that it might happen during the season -- what are the chances that Dan Snyder hires one of the elite coaches who are currently taking a year off? Would Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren or Mike Shanahan take a job in midseason without any preparation?

David in Alexandria, Va.

A: The Redskins' hiring of Sherman Lewis as an offensive consultant pretty much indicates there won't be a regular-season change at coach. Snyder realizes he's been too quick in firing head coaches. He's going to do everything possible to give Zorn the entire season to turn this team around. Plus, a top-level coach like a Shanahan, Holmgren or Cowher isn't going to take over a team without a training camp. I do think Shanahan has a great chance of being the coach of the Redskins. Nothing will happen during the season. Plus, the schedule still allows the Redskins to put up enough wins to stay in the playoff race.

Q: How do you think the Broncos are going to fare? I'm a lifelong fan, but like you, I gave them a 3-13 record.

Thad in Fort Collins, Colo.

A: I misread the Broncos. They have a chance to win the AFC West. The win over Dallas was exceptional. Their defense has been well coached by Mike Nolan. Kyle Orton has done a nice job of managing the offense and making key plays. The mailbag has been loaded from loyal Broncos fans gloating about the 4-0 start. I'm not going to rain on the parade. Without forecasting a record, I think the Broncos are in contention to win the AFC West. Congrats.

Q: Has DeSean Jackson established himself as the best WR in the NFC East? Roy Williams can't get it done, Santana Moss has lost a step and the Giants have two unproven guys. What are your thoughts?

Zaavan in Philadelphia

A: If Jackson isn't the top receiver in the NFC East, he at least is the most exciting. What he is doing is similar to what Steve Smith did in Carolina. Smith was drafted more for his return ability than his receiving skills. His fierce, competitive nature allowed him push the coaching staff for more playing time at receiver. Now, Smith is one of the best receivers in football. Jackson was selected as much for his explosiveness as a returner as he was a receiver. Once Andy Reid saw him on the practice field, he realized he had a quick receiver with great potential. Jackson has only 12 catches in three games, but he has a 21.6-yard average and two touchdowns. Maybe he's a little under the radar, but he stands out in the NFC East. Good call.

Q: With all the talk about Drew Brees, the Mannings and Brett Favre, it seems Aaron Rodgers has gone virtually unnoticed. Statistically, he is one of top QBs in the league.

Drew in Asheville, N.C.

A: The only thing missing from Rodgers' game is wins. Monday night's game was a classic example. Rodgers threw for enough yards, but he didn't win. Favre did. Rodgers has had only 20 starts, but he has already established himself as a 4,000-yard quarterback. He has one of the best arms in the league. He's recognized, but his record as a starter is 8-12. Much of the losing record isn't his fault. Last year, he didn't win the close games because young quarterbacks must learn the two-minute drill to be successful. Now, he looks to be a good two-minute quarterback. The stat that would put Rodgers up with the elite quarterbacks is winning percentage.

Q: Quarterbacks -- Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, for example -- are having more success early in their careers. My theory is the QBs who have been brought up in the technological age (computers, Madden video games, etc.) have an advantage. Do you buy that?

Rob in Hazard, Ky.

A: I don't buy the idea that if you play a computer game, you can play quarterback, but I do think you are on to something. Quarterbacks coming out of college today are more sophisticated throwing the ball. Young quarterbacks have a sense for throwing the football and making quick decisions. Maybe the computer games help to a certain degree. When Kurt Warner broke through in 1999, a lot of people credited the Arena League-style of play for his quick decision-making. Anything that helps a quarterback make quick, correct decisions is an asset. Your thought is a good one.

Q: I'm a Jets fan with a strong, lingering love for Chad Pennington. With it looking as though his career could be over, where do you see him going? I've always felt he would be an excellent coach, but maybe he's looking to the booth or something else entirely.

Bryan in Rockland, N.Y.

A: I'm with you. I'd hate to see Pennington get away from the game. He won with smarts and leadership. Those are qualities that make a good coach. He still has a chance to come back from his surgery, but let's look ahead. Most players want to spend a few years away from the game after they retire. They also know the long hours of coaching take time away from their family life. After two or three years of retirement, Pennington could come back for a coaching internship program that will eventually lead to his being a quarterback coach.

Q: Every year everyone talks about how good the Chargers are going to be. Then the team starts out shaky before making a late run. Does this maybe happen because the Chargers are really just an average team and not that big a threat? I know injuries have hurt them, but there seems to be a pattern with these guys.

Kenneth in San Diego

A: What seems to be clear this season is that the window is closing on the Chargers' defense. The loss of Jamal Williams (triceps injury) was huge. I know he was an older nose tackle with knee problems, but his loss seriously damaged the Chargers' ability to stop the run. Shawne Merriman, who's coming off knee surgery and is currently battling a groin injury, isn't playing lights-out football. Their cornerback play has been inconsistent. It's pretty clear their offense can put up points on everybody. That the Chargers have been in the playoffs the past three years says they are above average. What they have to do is fight through the injuries and defensive problems and prove it again.

Q: Can you tell me why no one has signed Matt Jones? I know he has had his problems, but he can still make a difference for a lot of teams.

David in Fort Smith, Ark.

A: Few teams are signing veteran wide receivers who haven't been in a training camp. Maybe they fear the receiver will come in and pull a hamstring. Maybe they worry about a receiver's ability to pick up an offense quickly. Jones is one of the best receivers on the street. But it's probably too late for any receiver on the street to come to a team and make an impact. You must figure someone will give him a chance before the end of the season. Injuries happen, and the pool of replacements is thin. Jones has had off-the-field issues, but I think the biggest knock on him is his reputation for not working hard in practice.

Q: Why has Brandon Jacobs been incapable of consistently picking up 4 yards this season? In 2008, Jacobs was almost guaranteed to get 4 yards every run. Do you think it is the absence of Derrick Ward, the O-line, or something else?

Doug in New York

A: You probably read Jacobs' comments last week that he admitted he was playing with a sore knee. Sometimes physical backs take a month or so to get on a roll. I wouldn't worry much. You know the Giants as a team can run the ball and that Jacobs is still one of the more powerful backs in the league. Physical backs may punish defenses, but they also punish their own bodies. Michael Turner had a great first year in Atlanta, but he's off to a slow start this year after wearing his body down. Also, sometimes it takes a month for an offensive line to get into a flow for run-blocking. I don't see any significant decline in Jacobs' skills. He'll be fine.

Q: John, I'm hearing a lot of grumbling about the lack of pressure the Steelers' front seven (especially OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley) is generating. So far this season it seems teams are using more three-step drops to get the ball out quickly so the pressure doesn't have enough time to get to the quarterback. It's exactly what the Patriots always did against the Steelers early this decade, and it always gave Pittsburgh fits. But I feel the shorter routes and quicker dropbacks (to go with some bad luck) are more to blame than anything the Steelers are doing wrong. Your thoughts?

Terry in Boulder, Colo.

A: You've written the right scouting report. In the first four games, the Steelers have faced Kerry Collins, Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers. They all get rid of the ball quickly. Expect the sacks to start picking up against the Lions and Browns over the next two weeks. The opening schedule for the Steelers was tough. Except for the Titans, three of their opponents are serious playoff contenders and Tennessee is coming off a 13-win season. Sacks go in cycles and it's hard to generate pressure when quarterbacks are making quick throws out of three- and five-step drops. The good news for Pittsburgh's defense is that it gave up only 19.5 points a game during that stretch. Expect Harrison to be the first to break out. Woodley should follow next. Getting Troy Polamalu back also will help with the coverage.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer