Arguably the biggest cliché in football these days is that it is an increasingly quarterback-driven league. With the rules shifting toward a system in which the safety of quarterbacks is more important than establishing a clear and realistic approach to deterring helmet-to-helmet contact by defensive players when tackling, this particular cliché carries more truth to it than most. The numbers don’t lie either. Peyton Manning just shattered the single season record for touchdown passes this past season, and looking at all the teams that qualified for the postseason last year, all had quarterbacks who were playing extremely well, and had been to one if not multiple Pro Bowls recently.
Passing statistics continue to improve at an unprecedented rate, with most defenses struggling to keep pace. And although the Seahawks were able to win the Super Bowl by shutting down and almost shutting out Peyton Manning, they also had a quarterback in Russell Wilson who set his own record for winning percentage as a starter in his first two seasons, and seemingly never threw an interception in the critical moments of a game. While the position is deeper now than it has been in past years, the demand for dynamic young quarterbacks that can change the face of a franchise still exists. At least four teams drafted so-called quarterbacks of the future in the 2014 draft, and the future may be now for some of them. Early success at the quarterback position was taken for granted after the hugely successful rookie campaigns of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Wilson in 2012, but most young QBs go through constant growing pains as they learn to play at NFL speed.
In many instances, the success a quarterback has early in their career is tied to the strength of their team and supporting cast on offense. Cam Newton, for example, was the first pick of the 2011 draft so he joined a team with little holdover talent as is often the case with high draft picks. Although he put up impressive numbers, the team’s record caused many to wonder whether he was worth the first overall pick in a deep draft. But by his third year, the talent around him improved and he silenced the critics by leading the Panthers to a 12-4 record and NFC South division title. Several quarterbacks are in a similar position coming into this season. Others are returning from injury, unrealized expectations or repeated playoff failure. But all have something to prove, and this may be their last season to do so.
Honorable Mention: Jay Cutler got a huge contract extension early in the offseason, against the wishes of plenty of Chicago fans, but he is a known commodity at this stage of his career. Although he has only done it once, he has proven he could take the Bears to the playoffs. He has proven he is able to take a pounding and keep on ticking, and now that Marc Trestman’s schemes and an improved offensive line will keep him better protected, Cutler can unleash his cannon of an arm and throw anywhere on the field to his elite pair of receivers, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Cutler will do his part, with the occasional head-scratching interception, but it is the defense that will determine the fate of the Chicago Bears in 2014.
Jake Locker is coming off yet another injury-plagued season and will need to stay healthy for the majority of 2014 to prevent the Titans from finding another quarterback, as many thought they would in this past draft. If Locker struggles, don’t be surprised if new coach Ken Whisenhunt turns to new backup Charlie Whitehurst, who he coached in San Diego last season.
Tony Romo has been a mainstay on this list for years, and with his huge contract, his injury no-show in the NFC East-deciding season finale at Philadelphia, and the Cowboys passing on home-state hero Johnny Manziel in the draft, Romo does have a lot to prove in 2014, again. But he has always been a skilled stat collector and his legacy at this point is tied to nothing more than winning, and he has not led Dallas to the playoffs since 2009. So similar to Cutler, the Cowboys will go as far as their defense takes them, and right now that unit is looking like one of the worst in the NFL.
Ryan Tannehill – The Dolphins drafted Tannehill in 2012 with the eighth overall pick after making a strong push for Peyton Manning as well as trying to trade up in that draft to take Luck or RGIII. He had some flashes of brilliance in his rookie year and appeared to be taking a big step forward late last season as the Dolphins overcame the locker room bullying scandal to win three straight games in December and control their own playoff destiny. But late losses to the division rival Bills and Jets cost them a playoff appearance and Tannehill played poorly in both games.
He did still finish the season with over 3,900 passing yards, 24 touchdown passes and a completion rate just over 60 percent, solid for a second year pro. But he will need to raise his game this season and help his team change the balance of power in the AFC East, which has been dominated by New England since Tom Brady has been their quarterback. While he might be able to compete with Brady in the hot wife department, taking back the AFC East could be a taller order. But if the defense keeps improving and the offensive line could open some holes for the running backs, then they might have a chance.
Sam Bradford – The first overall pick of the 2010 draft has struggled since a promising rookie season. Although he has gotten somewhat of a pass for his lack of receiving weapons and a traditionally weak offensive line. Last season, the Rams finally addressed the lack of skill position talent by drafting Tavon Austin with their first draft pick, and his late emergence along with Zac Stacy at running back gave their offense some life, even after Bradford was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Bradford himself was playing well prior to the injury, and if he returns to that form, the offense could make some noise. Over his last season and a half, Bradford has 35 touchdowns compared to just 17 interceptions. But in a tough NFC West, the defense will have to step up as well for this team to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Andy Dalton – His numbers keep improving, and Dalton himself compared his accomplishments in the first three years of his career to some of the all-time greats, but his playoff ineptitude to this point cannot be ignored. As if his 0-3 record was not bad enough, Dalton has thrown exactly one touchdown pass in those three games, to go with six interceptions. That is a far cry from his 4,293 yards and 33 touchdown passes during the regular season. His offenses have put up a total of 33 points in those three games, including a home loss to a Chargers team whose defense was not exactly dominant.
The talent around Dalton continues to improve, with the emergence last season of all-purpose rookie running back Giovani Bernard, along with Marvin Jones who proved to be a solid complement to superstar wideout A.J. Green. But the Red Rifle lost a few games by himself last season due to some ill-timed and inexplicable interceptions. Furthermore, the coaching staff lost both coordinators to head coaching positions, so the pressure is squarely on Dalton to not only get his team back to the playoffs, but win a game or two. Another offensive clunker in the postseason could mean the end of the Dalton era in Cincinnati.
Matthew Stafford – The first order of business this offseason for the Lions was bringing in a head coach that would bring out the best in Stafford, a former first overall pick in 2009. Clearly Jim Schwartz, his only coach during the first five years of his NFL career was not helping Stafford reach his enormous potential. So the Lions turned to Jim Caldwell, former coach of the Colts and offensive coordinator of the Ravens who has had success in the past. Sometimes it is necessary to shake things up to get players to re-focus, and that is what Detroit fans are hoping for after last season’s collapse after Thanksgiving.
Stafford has racked up the passing yardage since 2011 averaging over 4,800 yards per season, mostly throwing it up to his all-world receiver Calvin Johnson, but he has also averaged over 17 interceptions, and his completion percentage has steadily dropped. Adding Golden Tate in free agency and tight end Eric Ebron in the first round of the draft should make an immediate impact on an already explosive offense, but the biggest question will remain how well Stafford clicks with Caldwell and his offensive system and cuts down on his game-changing mistakes.
Robert Griffin III – Coming off an electrifying rookie campaign and a devastating, if not unnecessary, knee injury in the 2012 playoffs, RGIII was the talk of the offseason last year. He struggled early and often in his return, clearly being slowed down by a bulky knee brace and his tarnished relationship with former head coach Mike Shanahan. He was eventually shut down for the season when the Redskins were eliminated from playoff contention, despite his desire to continue playing.
The second season back from a torn ACL is typically considered the point by which all inhibitions are forgotten and a player returns to pre-injury form. Griffin may never be the same runner, but his accuracy should improve as he is able to step into his throws more than he was last season.
The addition of DeSean Jackson won’t hurt either, as he creates a trio of explosive targets for RGIII along with Pierre Garcon and speedy tight end Jordan Reed. New coach Jay Gruden will have to find creative ways to utilize the talent on hand, but RGIII will also have to prove that he is a team player focused on winning first, not the image-conscious media darling that he became after the scrutiny of his roller-coaster rookie season.