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The Importance of Quarterback Play.

So how important is quarterback play in football? Only the most important position on the field. The quarterback is aptly titled the "Field General" because he touches the football on every single offensive play. It's up to the QB to be a team leader, to make throws to the correct receiver, and decide in a few seconds which player to throw to, as well as making the right decision who not to throw to, meaning not into double and triple coverage. In addition, the QB often changes the plays at the line of scrimmage when the situation dictates. The role of the field general is critical.

Who was the No. 1 pick in the most recent NFL draft? Alex Smith out of Utah, a quarterback. Stanford's John Elway was the No. 1 overall pick in 1982 and went on to win two Super Bowls, while UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman was the No. 1 overall pick in 1989 and won three Super Bowls in four years with the Cowboys. A do-it-all field general like those guys is worth his weight in gold to general managers.

GMs often build their teams around the quarterback's skills. Aikman was teamed with speedy wide receivers and RB Emmitt Smith, who had excellent hands out of the backfield. Current Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick devastates opposing defenses far better with his feet than his arm, and the Falcons have been the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL the last two seasons, with better running back depth than wideouts.

And then there's Peyton Manning, another No. 1 overall draft pick (1998). The 29-year old Manning's exploits have etched himself into the NFL record books, with an unforgettable 2004 season when he had a record 49 TDs and only 10 interceptions. He fell short of those numbers this season, but still had great stats while completing close to 70% of his passes!

In this day of salary cap and free agency, the Colts have done a very good job of keeping Manning surrounded with outstanding offensive weapons to augment his skills. WRs Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley are a receiving troika like none in football, and RB Edgerrin James had career highs in yards and TDs. This might give you the impression that an ace quarterback gives a team an edge against the spread. It's a factor that oddsmakers take into account, adjusting their numbers with respect to stats, home and away play, public perception, team defense, injuries and matchups. The QB matchup is often the most significant.

In the opening game of the 2005 season, Manning's Colts were matched up against the Ravens, a team without a quarterback. Sorry, Anthony Wright and Kyle Boller, but when the subject is Peyton Manning, he is on one end of the spectrum while you guys are on the other. In that game, Manning's Colts were a 3-point road favorite. Having a QB edge is a large part to why Indy was the road favorite, but respect was given to Baltimore because of their terrific defense and power running game. True, they had no QB, but the Colts were a poor team against the run the last few years, and Baltimore - with Jamal Lewis and a strong offensive line - was expected to be able to keep it close, even though the Colts had the big edge at quarterback.

True, the Colts won that game and covered easily, 24-7, but two weeks later Indy was a 14-point home favorite over Cleveland, a club with a journeyman quarterback, yet failed to cover in a 13-6 win. Later in the year the 8-0 Colts were 17-point chalk over 1-7 Houston and failed to cover in a 31-17 victory. The better team won, but if you liked the Colts, you had to lay a huge price, part of which was because of that significant edge behind center. Wagering lines are the great equalizer.

Notice that the Colts started the 2005 season 6-0 straight up and against the spread on the road, remarkable numbers. However, a year ago Indy was only 5-4 SU/ATS on the road and still had Manning, James, Harrison, etc. The reason they have been better in 2005 is because of an improved defense, which allowed 16 points per game on the road during that 6-0 start. The year before, they allowed 21 ppg on the road. The point is, a lot of factors come into play with respect to odds and beating the spread, not just quarterback play, even though the QB is the most important position on the gridiron.

Speaking of Peyton Manning, let's go back to that 1998 draft when he was taken No. 1 overall. You may recall there was a significant debate as to who should be the No. 1 overall pick, Manning from Tennessee or QB Ryan Leaf from Washington State. It's laughable now, of course, as Manning is an eventual Hall-of-Famer and two-time MVP, while Leaf has been relegated to the bust-bin of NFL draft day history. However, Leaf still was taken with the No. 2 pick, right after Manning, by the San Diego Chargers.

While Manning is the poster-boy for hard work and being the best you can be, Leaf was a general manager's worst nightmare, a lazy, undisciplined kid who let fame go to his head and his arm go to waste. Leaf had 2 TDs, 15 picks with the Chargers in 1998, and finished his short NFL career with 14 TDs and 36 interceptions. That's the other factor that makes a quarterback so important - work ethic. Guys like Bret Favre, Aikman, Donovan McNabb, Tom Brady, and Manning have enormous pride in their craft and work ethic.

When the Bengals played the Colts this season, there was a story about Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer and WR Chad Johnson, who got together and observed Manning and Harrison in pre-game practice. They spoke admiringly of the conduct of Manning and Harrison, the way they practiced, communicated, and carried themselves professionally. Enormous work ethic and pride is something that Patriots QB Tom Brady has, too, which has helped carry him from a sixth round draft pick to a three-time Super Bowl champion. Leaf was the No. 2 overall pick, but that doesn't guarantee any kind of success. A great quarterback needs that dedication and work ethic, just like any other craft.

Having a top-notch quarterback may be the way to build a winning football team, but it doesn't mean that a team is going to have a powerful offense, or even a team to look at going "over" the total often. Again, oddsmakers set lines depending on the team and the situation. For instance, the totals for Baltimore Ravens' games, a team with below-average quarterback play, were generally in the 32-36 range this season, while Colts' games had totals in the 46-48 range. Notice that during Indy's 10-0 start, there were 5 overs and 5 unders, the kind of perfect balance oddsmakers look for. On the other hand, the Ravens started 8-2 "under" the total with no quarterback and a great defense, so a lack of consistent QB play contributed to them going "under" often, though the Colts were not a team to look at "over" the total just because they had a great QB. Handicapping requires many different angles, looks and judgments.

Another aspect to the importance of quarterback play is that it takes time for a QB to develop. Not just several games, but several seasons, because the job requires so many skills: Timing, judgment, knowing the playbook, being able to read defenses, leadership, even play-calling. No one can grasp all that in a few games AND jump from the college to the pro game. Let's take a lot at Manning again. In his rookie season, 1998, he had an impressive 26 TD passes, but also tossed 28 interceptions. The interceptions dropped to 15 the next season, and finally to 10 in both 2003 and '04. But it took five years for him to drop his pick ratio from 28 to 10.

Another good example is Drew Brees. Brees got criticism in San Diego in 2002 and '03 when he threw 17 TDs, 16 interceptions, followed by 11 TDs, 15 INTs. Fans wondered if the Chargers had wasted the first pick of the second round in the 2001 draft on him. But in his fourth season, 2004, Brees blossomed with 27 TDs and 7 INTs, following that with another fine campaign this season. Again, this is not uncommon - it takes time for quarterbacks to develop.

Quarterback is such an important position that it's not surprising to see general managers stockpile two or even three capable signal callers on the roster - and they can pay for it by ignoring QB depth. This pro football season might go down as "The Year of the Limping Quarterbacks." Donovan McNabb, Chad Pennington, Daunte Culpepper, and Brian Griese are all big names knocked out with season-ending injuries. Several more teams had quarterback carousels for various reasons.

Which brings up the subject of depth, one of the most overlooked aspects of football, but one that is an essential ingredient to success. Players get hurt all the time because the game is so violent and physical. Good coaches and general managers actually anticipate injuries, stockpiling depth. One of the key elements of the Patriots the last few years has been stocking depth at most positions. Two years ago they lost their best offensive linemen to free agency, Damien Woody. Not matter. Backups Russ Hochstein and Steve Neal are called upon to step in. Veteran run stuffers Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton left after helping to win the 2004 Super Bowl. Doesn't matter. They draft NT Vince Wilfork and pick up veteran run-stuffer Keith Traylor for one year, ending up with another Super Bowl title.

Last year they lost DE Richard Seymour for two playoff games, but were able to plug in valuable backup Jarvis Green. The Patriots have been fortunate at the quarterback position with resilient Tom Brady, but it was interesting this season that they brought in veteran Doug Flutie as backup. A capable backup QB is something they really haven't had since trading away Drew Bledsoe. This NFL season has been unusual in the number of quarterbacks seeing action.

The New York Jets stumbled through a train wreck season, starting 2-8 SU and 3-7 against the spread. Just about all their problems have stemmed from the all important quarterback position. Losing starting QB Chad Pennington was a blow, but they had prepared for that by signing Jay Fiedler because Pennington was off shoulder surgery. However, in the same game Pennington and Fiedler were lost for the year minutes apart! That forced them to throw young Brooks Bollinger into the fire and sign washed up Vinny Testaverde, not out of loyalty to an old veteran but out of desperation.

Baltimore's Kyle Boller got hurt and Anthony Wright was forced to step in for several games. In Buffalo, kid QB J.P. Losman wasn't ready, so the Bills had to turn to veteran backup Kelly Holcomb. The Chicago Bears lost QB Rex Grossman in preseason and were forced to go with rookie QB Kyle Orton. It's no wonder coach Lovie Smith prefers to run the ball and play tough defense. The Bears started 8-2 "under" the total, partly because they couldn't open up the offense as the rookie was behind center. In fact, the Bears went 18-8 "under" the total their first 26 games since Smith became head coach.

The Steelers have had three quarterbacks this season. Ben Roethlisberger had minor knee surgery, and Pittsburgh has used Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch at quarterback - though both have also been injured at various times. Talk about a quarterback carousel! In Philadelphia, the Terrell Owens saga was dwarfed only by the devastating sports hernia to star quarterback Donovan McNabb. In a Monday night game against Dallas, McNabb finally received the hit many of us were dreading, after an interception, no less. He later went under the knife and was lost for the season, so the Eagles were forced to turn to backup quarterback Mike McMahon.

In Atlanta, Michael Vick is an electric runner who makes that offense go, though he missed some games. Backup QB Matt Schaub impressed with his passing ability, but Vick's legs are the key factor that make Atlanta's running game so deadly. Just ask the St. Louis Rams, who Vick and the Falcons crushed 47-17 in the playoffs a year ago. Atlanta had a playoff record 327 rushing yards, including 119 by Vick on 8 carries. Vick only threw 16 passes in the game.

Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper was lost for the season, but management did a good job in having veteran QB Brad Johnson as a backup. In Tampa Bay, starter Brian Griese is also gone for the year, so they've been forced to take their lumps with young Chris Simms. In Detroit, the Lions want Jeff Garcia as the starter, but injuries forced them to keep rotating him with Joey Harrington. Quarterback stability and consistency is almost as important as having a good signal caller.

No team has had more of a QB carousel than San Francisco. Before the season was at the halfway point, four QBs had started for the 49ers with Tim Rattay, rookie Alex Smith, Cody Pickett and Ken Dorsey. The rebuilding 49ers have a lot of problems to address, but it's clear their biggest hindrance to turning things around is getting a reliable signal caller behind center. That's where patience comes in, 49er fans, because it's going to take a little time to develop the next Culpepper, Brady, Brees or Manning.

by Jim Feist.
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