Quarterbacks proving more durable
Unlike recent seasons, there has been relative stability at the quarterback position this year.
Just five games into the 2002 season, the Cincinnati Bengals had already used three different starting quarterbacks, running through the entire depth chart as head coach Dick LeBeau attempted to stem the tide of what would become a seven-game losing streak.
One year later and LeBeau's successor, Marvin Lewis, hasn't gone to the bullpen yet for the first time in his coaching tenure. Jon Kitna, who didn't even start in '02 until both Gus Frerotte and Akili Smith had taken turns demonstrating in the first four contests that neither was the answer, has been rock-solid.
It is also indicative of a 2003 season in which the quarterback carousel, so out of control in recent years, has slowed markedly.
Sure, the perception remains that most coaches have been forced this season, because of injuries and ineptitude, to change quarterbacks the way they change underwear. But the numbers suggest otherwise and, in fact, flat out belie that notion. In this case, perception is not reality, as quarterback attrition has been reduced in the first 10 weeks of the season.
When journeyman Anthony Wright takes his initial snap for the Baltimore Ravens against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon, he will become just the 49th different starter in 2003. Even with seven weeks remaining in the campaign, the relatively low figure augurs well for a position that was transformed into a whirling dervish the past five years.
From 1998-2002, the league averaged 58 different starting quarterbacks annually. Only in 2001 did the number dip below 55. In '98 and '99, there were 64 and 63 different starters, respectively. In that stretch, only two teams, Green Bay with Favre and Indianapolis with Manning, have started the same quarterback in every outing. By comparison, the alleged quarterback mastermind, Brian Billick of Baltimore, by early Sunday evening will have gone through 10 different starters in his five-season tenure.
In his defense, Billick appeared to have found his first durable starter this year, until first-round draft choice Kyle Boller suffered a lateral tear of his right quadriceps last week at St. Louis. The injury figures to sideline Boller, who underwent Monday surgery, for about four or five weeks.
But it is notable that Boller's injury is one of the few serious ones sustained during games this season. That doesn't count the fact, of course, Chad Pennington (wrist) of the New Jets and Atlanta's Michael Vick (fibula) suffered serious injuries in preseason. For the most part, since the season began, there have been few devastating injuries at the position.
Among the quarterbacks who opened the season as starters, Jay Fiedler of Miami (knee), Jacksonville's Mark Brunell (elbow), San Francisco's Jeff Garcia (ankle), Kelly Holcomb of Cleveland (fibula) and Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota (back), arguably sustained the most serious injuries during games. But Brunell probably could have played again after a short hiatus, had the Jaguars organization not used his injury as a convenient excuse to get rookie Byron Leftwich into the lineup. There is no guarantee that Holcomb, given the flip-flop regimen in Cleveland, would not have been benched for inconsistency.
Denver starter Jake Plummer broke his foot getting up off his couch. Rich Gannon of the Raiders went on injured reserve this week with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, but that injury is one that results from degeneration over time, not one big hit in a game.
Fact is, there have been nearly as many quarterback switches because of poor play this year (five) as there have been changes precipitated by injury.
"It has been, looking back, a good year (in terms of quarterback stability), especially if you compare it to some (recent) seasons," acknowledged Tennessee star Steve McNair, one of 17 quarterbacks who have started every game for their respective teams. "Some weeks, I guess, it seems like there is a lot of switching around. But I don't think that it's anything like it has been the last few years. I couldn't, though, tell you why."
The Green Bay Packers return to the scene of the crime on Sunday, with their visit to Tampa marking the first time back to Raymond James Stadium since Warren Sapp nearly ended the career of offensive tackle Chad Clifton, damaging his hip with one of the all-time cheap shots. But Sapp will be lining up most of the day against Green Bay left guard Mike Wahle, one of the NFL's best players at his position, and the odds of he and Clifton going head-to-head are remote. And even as good as the Sapp-Wahle matchup might be, it can't compare with the pending battle between New York Giants left defensive end Michael Strahan and right offensive tackle Jon Runyan of the Philadelphia Eagles, in a bloodmatch that is always entertaining. Strahan is on a roll, with 10 sacks now, including nine in the last six games. Against the Eagles on Oct. 19, he had two sacks of Donovan McNabb and beat Runyan both times. He has now sacked McNabb 10½ times, more often than he has dumped any other league quarterback. By unofficial count, Runyan has surrendered at least seven of those sacks.
Under the stewardship of coach Brian Billick since 1999, the Baltimore Ravens have never gotten through a season with one quarterback starting all 16 games, and this year will be no different. When journeyman Anthony Wright takes his first snap on Sunday, replacing the injured Kyle Boller, he will become the 10th different quarterback to start for the Ravens during the Billick era. Here's a look at the nine other starters:
Player -- Year(s) -- Starts
Tony Banks -- 1999-2000 -- 18
Elvis Grbac -- 2001 -- 14
Jeff Blake -- 2002 -- 10
Kyle Boller -- 2003 -- 9
Trent Dilfer -- 2000 -- 8
Chris Redman -- 2002 -- 6
Stoney Case -- 1999 -- 4
Randall Cunningham -- 2001 -- 2
Scott Mitchell -- 1999 -- 2
Stat of the Week
Counting their overtime playoff victory against Pittsburgh in the divisional round last year, the Tennessee Titans have won 10 straight home games. The common denominator during the streak: The Titans have amassed a large edge in time of possession in all 10 of those games. In five of the contests, they possessed the ball for 35 minutes or more.
Stat of the Weak
Dating back to last season, Oakland wide receiver Jerry Rice has now gone 13 straight games without a touchdown catch, the longest such drought of his career. In that stretch, Rice has only two 100-yard performances. His partner, Tim Brown, hasn't fared much better. Brown has only two touchdown receptions in the last 22 games and just a pair of 100-yard outings in that period.
The Last Word
"I always feel like I complicate a situation everywhere I've been. It's like, if I go out and play well, it does nothing but cause problems. I don't know how to look at it."
A computer breakdown by one NFC franchise, which charts formations, indicated that teams are using fewer "spread" sets with four wide receivers. Some coaches, like Mike Martz of St. Louis, have paid greater heed to pass protection blocking designs. Said one AFC East defensive assistant: "I haven't seen this much 'max' protection in years. Some teams just build a cocoon around their (quarterback)."
Not surprisingly, more teams continue to throw from three- and five-steps drops, which gets the ball out quicker and reduces sacks, which statistically are also down in 2003. The era of the classic seven-step dropback, with a few exceptions, is extinct. But the biggest element might be that teams, like the Carolina Panthers and the Ravens, are running the ball a disproportionate number of times.
For all the high-tech gadgetry of the passing game, NFL offenses in some precincts have undergone a de-evolution of sorts, as the game has skewed back toward the run. That is, in part, a reflection of the emphasis on being more physical, but also an indication that the talent level at the quarterback position has been leavened in recent seasons. Quarterbacks are called on more often now to manage games rather than individually win them. Few quarterbacks have complained about that hardly subtle shift.
"It's just common sense that, if you're not putting the ball up 40 or 50 times a game, then your quarterback isn't going to be hit as much," said Carolina's Jake Delhomme. "And the less hits, you know, the fewer injuries. Being able to use the same (quarterback) every week, to have some stability, is a big boost for any offense."
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that, of the 10 teams either in first place or tied for first place in the league's eight divisions, seven are clubs that have used just one starting quarterback to this point in the season. The 11 teams in or tied for last place, conversely, have averaged 1.73 different starters.
The leaguewide average of 1.5 different starters per franchise is actually very healthy in comparison to the 1998-2002, stretch, when the average was 1.87 per team. In that period, there were 30 teams forced to use three starters in a season and on two occasions, teams used four different starting quarterbacks. Only in 2001 were there fewer than five clubs that used three or four different starters.
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.