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Quarterback Quandary

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Quarterback Quandary: How the Eight Remaining Playoff QBs Stack Up

By VITO FORLENZA, Comcast.net Sports Editor

January 13, 2005

It has always been the glamour position, the one most kids dream of playing, the Hollywood role of sports in which the main character calls the shots, settles the score--and then gets the girl.

Captain of the high school team. Big man on campus. The franchise player.

The quarterback.

But in recent years, even the most esteemed signal-callers were succumbing to suffocating defenses. The NFL sat idly by as point totals dropped and heavy hitters like Baltimore's Ray Lewis were leading the way to the Super Bowl.

After passing yards fell to their lowest level in 11 years last season, the NFL had enough. The league wanted more offense. So in the offseason, its competition committee mandated that officials would strictly enforce the "chuck rule."

Originally instituted in 1974, the decree orders that receivers cannot be held, grabbed, or clutched more than five yards from the line of scrimmage. The foul translates into a five-yard penalty, and, more importantly, an automatic first down.

Emphasizing the rule satisfied the NFL's lust for more offense this season. But scores weren't the only numbers on the rise. Quarterbacks became slingshot artists--12 passed for at least 3,500 yards, five of whom surpassed 4,000. Last season, only eight topped the 3,500 mark, with just two of those over 4,000.

In creating more offense, the NFL stressed the importance of the position, regardless of whether it was intentional or not. After a prolific season for quarterbacks as a whole, some of the game's best are still alive in these playoffs.

But how do they stack up against one another? Let's take a look, taking into consideration both regular-season success and postseason accomplishments:

Ben Roethlisberger opened his career with an NFL-rookie record 13 straight wins and drew comparisons to future Hall of Famer Dan Marino.

8. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

2004 Stats: 66.4 completion percentage, 2,621 yards, 17 TD, 11 INT, 98.1 rating

Ben Roethlisberger has enjoyed one of the best seasons for a rookie since Dan Marino in 1983. Since taking the reins from the injured Tommy Maddox in Week 2, Roethlisberger opened his career with a 13-0 record as a starter.

But a quarterback doesn't build his legend during the regular season alone. Those 17 weeks are merely an appetizer for the time in which legends are really made, which is why Roethlisberger is last on this list.

He has yet to take a postseason snap, while each of the remaining seven starters has won at least one playoff game. How Roethlisberger reacts to his first taste of the second season will go far in determining what his future truly holds.

The odds are stacked against the 6-foot-5, 241 pounder--no rookie quarterback has led a team to the Super Bowl. But Pittsburgh has a bevy of talent surrounding "Big Ben," highlighted by a trio of talented receivers and two seasoned running backs, plus home-field advantage, to boot.

Roethlisberger is used to breaking the mold of rookie signal-callers. No quarterback had ever won his first 13 starts. Could the first Super Bowl appearance by a rookie starter and a championship follow? With Roethlisberger behind center, the Steel City's hopes of ending a 25-year title drought are not out of the realm of possibility.

7. Chad Pennington, New York Jets

2004 Stats: 65.4 completion percentage, 2,673 yards, 16 TD, 9 INT, 91.0 rating

When Chad Pennington took over for Vinny Testaverde three games into the 2002 season, he looked a superstar in waiting. He passed for 3,120 yards and 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions. He then helped the Jets pound Indianapolis, 41-0, in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Oakland a week later.

Unfortunately for the Jets, Pennington has yet to rekindle the success he experienced that season. Injuries have played their role in his decline--he missed six games last year after breaking his left wrist in the preseason and last three more games this season with a strained right rotator cuff.

But even with NFL rushing leader Curtis Martin in his backfield, Pennington has been inconsistent the last two years. Only some of it is a result of his weakened arm--the rest from bad decisions. Pennington has been picked off a combined 21 times the last two years.

This year, Pennington became enraged when the New York media criticized him after losses to Pittsburgh and New England, saying he couldn't win big games. He responded by authoring a first-round upset of San Diego on the road. Knocking off the Steelers this weekend in Pittsburgh would refute his reputation as a choker. A subsequent victory over the Patriots or Colts in the conference title game might signify a return to form for the one-time prodigy.

6. Marc Bulger, St. Louis Rams

2004 Stats: 66.2 completion percentage, 3,964 yards, 21 TD, 14 INT, 93.7 rating

Marc Bulger has posted some prolific numbers since taking over from two-time MVP Kurt Warner in the middle of the 2002 season. But he hasn't had the same postseason success as Warner, who guided the Rams to Super Bowl appearances after the 1999 and 2001 seasons.

Bulger has racked up nearly 4,000 yards in each of the last two years and a combined 43 touchdown passes, throwing to star receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. But he has also tossed 36 picks. He continued that penchant for throwing interceptions in last season's 29-23 loss to Carolina in the wild-card round of the playoffs. This after leading St. Louis to a 12-4 record and an NFC West division crown.

This season, after the Rams narrowly made the playoffs with an 8-8 record, Bulger threw for 313 yards with two scores and one interception in last Sunday's 27-20 victory over Seattle. Bulger, however, still has a long way to go to match Warner--or most other quarterbacks on this list for that matter.

5. Michael Vick, Atlanta Falcons

2004 Stats: 56.4 completion percentage, 2,313 yards, 14 TD, 12 INT, 78.1 rating

The highest-paid quarterback in the league is also the one with the most potential. But after four years in the NFL, it's time to wonder if Michael Vick is more hype than substance.

He is by far the most dynamic quarterback left in the playoffs. A dual threat to throw or run, Vick was just 98 yards shy of rushing for 1,000 this season. His total was just 204 yards fewer than running back Warrick Dunn. But when teams contain Vick on the ground, he has yet to show he can beat them through the air--he had just two more touchdowns than interceptions this season.

Some of the blame can be placed on an inept receiving corps, led by Peerless Price, who has been anything but peerless since coming to Atlanta from Buffalo after the 2002 season. Since catching 94 balls for 1,252 yards and nine touchdowns (all career highs) in his final year with the Bills, Price has been limited to 109 receptions and six touchdowns over the last two seasons.

Vick did lead Atlanta to that stunning win over Brett Favre at Lambeau Field in the 2002 playoffs and the No. 2 seed in this year's postseason while learning a new offense. But he needs more than that lone career postseason win to sniff the summit of this list.

Often overlooked, Daunte Culpepper can join the league's elite quarterbacks with another improbable postseason win.

4. Daunte Culpepper, Minnesota Vikings

2004 Stats: 69.2 completion percentage, 4,717 yards, 39 TD, 11 INT, 110.9 rating

No NFL quarterback--no, wait--no NFL player is more underrated than Daunte Culpepper. If Peyton Manning didn't put together a record-breaking season, all the focus would be on Culpepper's remarkable year in which he would have run away with his first MVP Award.

But Culpepper is accustomed to someone stepping into his limelight; he plays with Randy Moss. This week serves as the perfect microcosm of Culpepper's career.

He threw for 284 yards and four touchdowns in Sunday's 31-17 wild-card win at Green Bay, completely outshining Favre. But his performance has been lost in the controversy surrounding Moss' phantom mooning of the Packers fans after catching his second touchdown pass from Culpepper.

The 6-foot-4, 264-pounder has flourished the last two seasons--throwing for a combined 8,196 yards with 64 touchdowns and just 22 interceptions--but Minnesota is just 17-15 during that stretch. Culpepper, who is 3-1 in the playoffs, can finally step out of Moss' shadow by hoisting the Vikings upon his broad shoulders, upsetting the Eagles this Sunday, and taking Minnesota to its first Super Bowl in 28 years.

He'd also become a permanent member of the league's upper echelon of quarterbacks.

3. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts

2004 Stats: 67.6 completion percentage, 4,557 yards, 49 TD (NFL record), 10 INT, 121.1 rating (NFL record)

Six straight seasons eclipsing 4,000 passing yards. Two straight MVP awards. A single-season record 49 touchdown passes. A single-season passer rating record of 121.1. So why is Manning only third on this list?

Postseason futility.

Manning has a reputation for coming up small in the biggest of games. The label has been pinned to his back like a kick-me sign since his days at Tennessee--when he and the Volunteers routinely lost to Florida.

Even with last Sunday's trouncing of Denver, Manning is just 3-4 in the playoffs. The biggest loss came in last season's AFC championship game when Manning was intercepted four times in a 24-14 setback to New England.

In his five losses to the Patriots since 2001, he has thrown nine touchdown passes against nine picks. But Manning has a chance to revise history against his nemesis when they meet in Sunday's divisional playoff.

A win in New England, followed by a Super Bowl victory, would be enough to vault Manning to No. 1 on this list. Even an appearance in the big game would push him up a notch. But until then, he'll be looking up through a glass ceiling at the two best signal-callers remaining in this postseason.

2. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles

2004 Stats: 64.0 completion percentage, 3,875 yards, 31 TD, 8 INT, 104.7 rating

Three straight conference championship game appearances have to count for something. It's more than anyone else on this list has (even No. 1). And no one has accomplished more with less than Donovan McNabb.

Despite the lack of a true No. 1 receiver and an inconsistent running game, the kid who was booed by Philly fans when the Eagles drafted him in 2000 has slung the franchise on his back and carried it to the brink of the Super Bowl the last three seasons. But the fact that he didn't seize any of those opportunities to play for the Lombardi Trophy haunts him.

Last offseason, the Eagles finally donated some assistance to McNabb in the form of Terrell Owens. The receiver not only helped McNabb put up the best season of his career, but also stretched the field so that running back Brian Westbrook finally had the room to showcase his talents.

But it all starts with McNabb. With Owens sidelined with a broken leg, the Eagles' hopes of reaching their first Super Bowl in 24 years fall squarely on him. If he can take it one step further, delivering Philadelphia its first championship in any sport since 1983, he becomes an all-time great in the eyes of the City of Brotherly Love.

Tom Brady (above) and Brett Favre are the only current starting quarterbacks in the NFL to have ever won a Super Bowl.

1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

2004 Stats: 60.8 completion percentage, 3,692 yards, 28 TD, 14 INT, 92.6 rating

Tom Brady doesn't have Manning's flashy statistics, Vick's dynamic game, or Culpepper's intimidating stature. But he has something no other current NFL quarterback has--a pair of Super Bowl rings. Just for good measure, he took home two Super Bowl MVP awards, too.

His postseason accolades alone are enough to get him to the top of this list. But in winning two championships over the past three years, Brady hasn't just performed in the playoffs--he's also won in the regular season.

He led New England to 21 straight wins (counting last year's playoffs) and a league-record 18 consecutive regular-season victories before a 34-20 loss to the Steelers in Week 7.

Brady closed out the season by winning eight of nine and is looking to become the first quarterback to win two straight Super Bowls since John Elway in 1997 and '98. And this time, Brady is finally sharing the backfield with a top-shelf running back in Corey Dillion. Another Super Bowl win just might pave his way to Canton.

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