- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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In this quarterback-driven league, change happens.
For the first time since 2005, the conference championship games go on without at least one of the Big Three -- Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees -- participating. Manning, Brady and Brees are the essence of success in the NFL. They are pocket passers with quick releases and quicker minds, but each was one-and-done in the playoffs.
More is being asked of quarterbacks, and Manning, Brady and Brees had to do more with less this year. Manning lacked a complete inside passing game without Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez and Austin Collie, not to mention the lack of a running attack. Brady adjusted from a big-play offense with Randy Moss to a two-tight-end, move-the-chain offense that stalled against the Jets. Brees lacked a running game and had to adjust to more defenders dropping into coverage.
The mistake is to think there is decline in those quarterbacks' games. But it's clear that a little more mobility was asked from quarterbacks this season. Aaron Rodgers was the Green Bay Packers' second-leading rusher with 356 yards. Jay Cutler's second-half surge for the Chicago Bears was aided by the use of more rollouts. Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers does some of his best work while on the run. Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets was seventh in the league with 65 attempts outside of the pocket.
Does that mean the NFL is trending toward the Michael Vick-running model of quarterback? Quite the contrary. Vick was able to return to the franchise quarterback level because of the improvements he made as a pocket passer. But the ability to run has helped quarterbacks advance this season.
The pass-run ratio this season was 56.9-to-43.1, highest since 1999. Games are still won with the arms of the quarterbacks, but it sure helped to have some mobility.
From the inbox
Q: As a longtime Bears fan, your article about the Cover 2 scheme took the words right out of my mouth. Certainly an 11-5 record with a division crown gives Lovie Smith some job security, but you still have to believe his career is at a philosophical crossroads. Do you see him stubbornly sticking to his guns or do you expect him to sit down with [Bears defensive coordinator] Rod Marinelli and update his outdated scheme?
Bob in Boca Raton, Fla.
A: I think he'll make adjustments. I wouldn't be surprised if he starts to look at incorporating some 3-4 principles into his defense and use it a little like Raheem Morris does in Tampa Bay. Smith is a good coach. He was smart enough to hire friends such as Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli to help him fix what was wrong with the offense and defense. In the next year or two, he can sit down with general manager Jerry Angelo and figure out what to do with the defensive roster to make adjustments with his scheme. It was smart to stay with the Cover 2 as a base defense knowing he still had Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and others playing at a high level, but change is needed for the future. He'll make the necessary adjustments.
Q: With the (supposed) retirement of Brett Favre and the (hopeful) departure of Tarvaris Jackson, are the Vikings looking to free agency to solve the quarterback problem or do they plan on drafting one with their first pick?
Kevin in Grinnell, Iowa
A: I would suggest that getting a veteran quarterback would be their preference over a first-round pick. This is a team that is built for the short term. Although this is a deep year for draftable quarterbacks, it might not be a great year. With Andrew Luck staying in school, there doesn't appear to be a quarterback who can improve a team dramatically in his first season. The Vikings have to win now. They have older players. They are in the last year of their lease. I think Minnesota will be more in the market for Donovan McNabb, Kyle Orton or Kevin Kolb.
Q: I understand the arguments for re-seeding the playoffs to avoid teams like Seattle getting a home game, but aren't they already being disadvantaged by being a playoff team from a weak division? They are still a 7-9 team that will be drafting no better than 25th in the draft, while other teams with similar records are drafting in the top half.
Pete in Niagara Falls, Ontario
A: Winning has its price. For the Seahawks fans, players and coaches, they enjoyed more thrills in the playoffs than the Falcons and Patriots, who lost their first home playoff games. But the price of drafting 25th could cost them a chance at getting a top pass-rusher, cornerback or even a quarterback. Had the Seahawks lost their regular-season finale, they would have received the No. 8 pick in the draft. But it's not all about high draft choices. Pete Carroll won credibility from his players by winning a playoff game. The team bonded. For the Seahawks, it was worth that one-year draft sacrifice.
Q: It seems to me the Seahawks still need two offensive linemen and at least one defensive tackle. How do you see the team's needs?
Scott in Federal Way, Wash.
A: The first order of business is finding a way to get a quarterback in the first round. There are four or five first-round quarterbacks in this draft, and if one or two slip past Jacksonville at No. 16, one or two will fall to Seattle at No. 25. I think the Seahawks need to sign the best left guard available in free agency to play next to left tackle Russell Okung. From the second round, they need either a cornerback or a defensive tackle. It might be hard to get that pass-rushing defensive end in the second round as low as the Seahawks are drafting. They drafted well last year and need another good draft. But not all of their holes are going to be answered in the draft, so they need some moves in free agency or in trades.
Q: Did the Chiefs' easy schedule this year give all of us false hope for next year? I saw the road schedule for '11 already and it is brutal. Do you think the Chiefs are improving at a rate fast enough to compete for the playoffs, with a hard schedule, again next year?
Keith in Olathe, Kan.
A: I wouldn't call it false hope, but deep down the Chiefs knew they were a 10-win team because of their schedule this year. Todd Haley hasn't tried to deliver false hopes. He's been honest all year in saying the Chiefs were a work in progress. General manager Scott Pioli is building the team the right way, and Kansas City can be a contender every year. This year's draft was sensational. Herm Edwards left them a great draft in 2008, and Pioli is making sure those top players are locked up with contract extensions. The Chiefs went 2-4 against teams with .500 records or better. They'll face 10 teams with .500 records or better (based on 2010 records) next season. I can see them finishing 8-8 or 9-7 and still being a better team.
Q: I'm curious if TCU QB Andy Dalton goes in the first round. Dalton, to me, has all the qualities of a franchise quarterback, but I know that some would disagree with that.
Gary in Middlebury, Ind.
A: I could see the Jaguars taking him at No. 16. He has all the makings of a good quarterback prospect. The Dolphins and Vikings probably will go the veteran route. They are trying to win now. I'm not sold the Redskins would take him. For quarterbacks, though, this draft seems very intriguing.
Q: All these teams keep hiring coaches and switching to the 3-4. Wouldn't it make more sense to hire someone to coach a defensive style representative of the personnel on a team's roster already? Last mailbag you mentioned the Texans and possibly trading Mario Williams [if] the 3-4 doesn't work with him. Does it really make sense to trade your best player away and replace him with a coach?
Brandon in Toronto
A: I'm with you, Brandon. Too many teams are switching to the 3-4 when they have no business making that switch. Those are examples of the system being more important than the talent, and this is a talent-driven league. I still think new Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can pull off the switch to a 3-4 because he's more flexible than most 3-4 coaches. He's going to try to make Williams a 3-4 defensive end. You watch, though. You'll start seeing teams switch back to the 4-3 in about three or four more years.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Passing is still paramount, but it's clear running ability has helped the four QBs who are still alive in the playoffs, John Clayton writes in his latest mailbag.