Commentary

It's a good time to have a proven QB

Originally Published: March 9, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The NFL is evolving into a sport of haves and have-nots for quarterbacks.

The situation will be even worse if there is a lockout because teams such as Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona, Washington and others can't re-sign their quarterbacks, make a trade or sign a quarterback from another team.

Although both sides say a deal will eventually get done and no regular-season games will be lost, the quality of the game will suffer immensely if a deal isn't struck reasonably quickly. Teams with established starters and established leaders will dominate an offseason-shortened season.

The Tennessee Titans, for example, normally concede the AFC South to the Indianapolis Colts, but imagine how gross the difference will be if the Titans have to throw a quarterback into the mix at the last minute to compete against Peyton Manning. The Colts' quarterback has enough control of his teammates to gather them for offseason throwing sessions to get their timing set for the season. Tom Brady would do the same thing with his New England Patriots teammates.

[+] EnlargeVince Young
Kim Klement/US PresswireLingering labor woes might make the Titans think twice about giving up on Vince Young.

Maybe the Titans would have to consider keeping Vince Young for continuity, even though they've already announced he's a goner. Kerry Collins is unsigned. Rusty Smith, a rookie in 2010, would be the only option until a collective bargaining agreement is reached and roster transactions are allowed.

The Seahawks tried and failed to re-sign Matt Hasselbeck before the end of the 2010 business year. Although they hope to sign him once a CBA is reached, their entire offseason is in peril without him. All of a sudden, the Rams' Sam Bradford could have a big edge in winning the NFC West because he's the division's only starting quarterback who's established enough to prepare his skill players for the regular season.

If the labor problems linger, the strike-shortened 1982 season could offer some clues as to what will happen in 2011. If you look at the 1982 teams that came out with the best regular-season records, you'll see a pattern: Established quarterbacks dominated. Jim Plunkett of the Raiders and Joe Theismann of the Redskins were 8-1. Ken Anderson of the Bengals was 7-2. Dan Fouts of the Chargers was 6-3. An aging Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers was 6-3.

If no deal is reached before the start of the preseason, you'll see a 2011 season controlled by Manning, Brady, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and all the top established quarterbacks. I know they dominate the league anyway, but the gap between the teams with those quarterbacks and the ones without those quarterbacks will be monumental.

Another problem is that new head coaches and offensive coordinators can't even meet with their quarterbacks or go over the new offensive playbooks until a labor deal is struck.

Finally, the lingering labor crisis is taking away from one of the most exciting, most defining quarterback offseasons in recent memory. Speculation about possible trades of Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer and others has brought interest to a lot of fans in cities whose teams are looking for quarterbacks.

Their possible availability comes at a time when eight to 10 organizations could make quarterback decisions that impact the futures of their franchises. Hasselbeck is the best free-agent quarterback available, but he's winding down a great career. If he doesn't re-sign in Seattle to be a bridge to the next Seahawks starter, he could be a short-term fix in Minnesota, San Francisco or Arizona.

Kolb to Arizona or Kolb to Minnesota is a big story in those cities. Should the Broncos keep or trade Orton knowing that it's going to take time to develop Tim Tebow? Is Mike Shanahan being unfair to McNabb if he doesn't trade or release him before the draft?

And remember, drafted quarterbacks can't sign or talk to teams until a labor agreement is struck.

An offseason of thrills could turn into a spring and summer of gloom if the owners and players fail in their efforts to agree to a CBA. One thing won't change: Tickets won't be refunded by franchises that are left short for quarterback talent.

The NFL always will tilt the rules to help the quarterbacks. That's good business and good football. A damaged offseason will tilt the game too much to the top quarterbacks. Forget about parity in that case.

Pity the teams with unanswered questions at quarterback.

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