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NYTimes: It’s Pass and Fail for Many Starting Quarterbacks in the N.F.L.


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Rex Grossman can look on the bright side of his benching: at least he played three games before Chicago gave him the hook last week. Charlie Frye got less than a half for Cleveland. Byron Leftwich did not even make it to opening day with Jacksonville.

Failure, injury and the occasional federal indictment have combined in the first month of the N.F.L. season to reshape the quarterback landscape with breathtaking swiftness, creating a turbulent tableau for nearly half of the 32 teams. For the most scrutinized position in sports, the leash has never been shorter, the hook never quicker. The old saw in the league is that the backup quarterback is the most popular guy in town. Now, we are seeing more of them than ever.

“Jacksonville and Cleveland are the most bizarre,” said Paul Hackett, the Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach. “You kind of go, ‘Wow!’ ”

Frye, who won the Cleveland starting job in training camp, was benched midway through the second quarter of the opener and was traded 48 hours later to Seattle. His replacement, Derek Anderson, is something of a place keeper until the rookie Brady Quinn is ready.

The former Atlanta backup Matt Schaub is starring for the Houston Texans. The Falcons lost Michael Vick to the legal system and could bench his replacement, Joey Harrington, to give the job to Leftwich, who entered training camp as the Jaguars’ starter. And what about the quarterback Schaub replaced in Houston? David Carr, the former quarterback of the future for the Texans, could start today at Carolina because Jake Delhomme is hurt.

In Arizona, Matt Leinart, a first-round pick in 2006, could end up in a platoon — if not an outright quarterback controversy — with the veteran Kurt Warner.

The carousel has spun as quickly as a tight spiral and — no coincidence — about as rapidly as coaches are hired and fired. (Half the teams in the N.F.L. replaced their coaches in the past two years.) The investment made in the starter or in a high draft pick makes a quarterback ultravulnerable. That is why so many, including the likes of Daunte Culpepper and Jeff Garcia, have moved around so much in recent years.

“There may be 10 untouchables,” Hackett said, singling out Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. “The trend is, ‘What can you do for me right now?’ The old days, what was put together for 15 or 20 years — that’s not the game anymore. Maybe it’s because of video games and fantasy football. The question is, does this continue through midseason?”

There may not be enough quality quarterbacks to go around if it does. Today’s N.F.L. conspires to make the ground beneath the quarterbacks shakier than ever. Training camp is when coaches have the best look at backups because once the regular season starts, the starter takes almost all the practice snaps. That means that the skills of the backup are sharpest and freshest in the minds of the decision-makers early in the season, which undoubtedly contributed to Frye’s rapid demise and perhaps in the Cardinals’ decision to have a package of plays exclusively for Warner

“The reality is that everybody in football realizes you better have a great backup,” said Rick Neuheisel, Baltimore’s offensive coordinator.

The former Giants quarterback Phil Simms blames coaches’ indecision, in part, for the turnover and the pressure from the news media, fans and owners to win quickly, which inevitably filters down to the most important player. And it is intensified by the brutal arithmetic of a short season. Because the league is more competitive than ever — there are fewer dominant teams and fewer doormats — coaches know there is little time to waste in the playoff race if their team starts poorly.

That was almost certainly a factor in the case of Grossman, who took the Bears to the Super Bowl last season. The Bears (1-2) are two games behind in the National Football Conference North and today begin a three-game swing through division opponents with Brian Griese at quarterback. Last season, every team that started 3-0 made the playoffs. Only one playoff team, Kansas City, started 0-2.

“I think people realize you can’t wait another week to do something,” said Gil Brandt, the former personnel chief for the Dallas Cowboys who is an analyst for NFL.com. “If you get off to a 1-3 start, your chances of getting back and making the playoffs are not as good as in 2001, when New England lost three of the first four. The league has grown closer together.”

Still, even insiders seem shocked at how quickly quarterbacks’ fortunes have changed. Simms said it was unbelievable to hear whispers that the Eagles, then 0-2, should prepare to bench Donovan McNabb and start a rookie.

Neuheisel was on the opposite sideline when Leinart struggled as he faced the superb Ravens defense for the first time last Sunday, clearing the way for Warner to run the no-huddle offense to rally the Cardinals. Arizona lost, but that did not quiet the din, particularly because Coach Ken Whisenhunt said there would be package of plays exclusively for Warner. Now the talk about a Cardinals quarterback controversy is everywhere.

“If that were to continue, then what do you do with Leinart?” Neuheisel said. “Is he a bust? That’s crazy.”

Maybe not. Ravens Coach Brian Billick left the door open last week to using the backup Kyle Boller occasionally instead of Steve McNair, even if McNair — who was brought in to replace Boller — is not hurt.

Simms said: “Maybe when I was playing, the climate was the way it is now. Maybe when I was in it, I didn’t realize it. Maybe you’re hardened to it. Now that I’m in a different world, it does seem the question marks come up so fast.”

Still, as the quarterbacks shuffle, at least someone is happy with all the upheaval.

“Fans can rejoice,” Simms said sarcastically. “They’re getting the backup quarterbacks.”

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