Five quarterback questions heading into the season

   on August 29 2012 9:44 PM

With the first kickoff of the NFL's regular season less than a week away, a lot of questions have been answered.  Aaron Kromer will serve as interim head coach of the Saints.  Vince Young will be replaced by Tarvaris Jackson in the backup spot in Buffalo.  Russel Wilson will start under center for the Seahawks.  Despite all these answers, however, several questions will remain unanswered until the season is underway.  And in no area do we have more questions than the quarterback position.  Here, we will take a look at five questions regarding the QB position for the 2012 season:

1) Does the addition of Peyton Manning lift the Broncos from playoff team to serious contender?

Only the most devout of Tim Tebow fans are likely to believe that the signing of Peyton Manning doesn't represent an enormous upgrade for the Broncos.  Nobody doubts Tebow's ability to make something of nothing, and to be a great leader and teammate, but to improve from 8-8 it will take an improved offense.  Manning missed all of last season and is now 36 years old, but he's only a year removed from leading the league in completions while throwing for 4,700 yards.  He's looked very good working with Eric Decker during the preseason, while playoff hero Demaryius Thomas gives him a weapon to stretch the defense.  Along with a solid offensive line and the productive Willis McGahee in the backfield, the Broncos' offense should be much improved.

For all the improvement on the offensive side of the ball, however, it's likely not time to bump the Broncos up quite yet to contender status.  Their defense lost an excellent run-stopper in Brodrick Bunkley, and will need production from their youngsters to shore up that area.  This is a team that only ranked 22nd against the rush before Bunkley's departure, which is not an encouraging sign.  And even with Canton-bound Champ Bailey, the pass defense is no better than average.  Manning should help this offense go from 23rd in the league to a top-12 group, but it will not be enough to put the team among the league's elite.  At the very least, the Broncos will be an exciting team to watch when they have the ball.  And I'd also guarantee that while Manning may not get 10 wins out of this team, he will not have any games in which he completes only two passes.

2) Will Tony Romo cement his spot among the league's elite quarterbacks?

Romo has always been a great story.  From being undrafted, to becoming the starter for America's Team, to finally breaking the winning-in-the-playoffs jinx, Romo has overcome doubters every step of the way.  Now, however, he is at a crossroads in his career.  He's on the wrong side of 30 and hasn't made the playoffs for two straight seasons, dimming his star a little.  He had a very effective and efficient 2011 season, but what most fans remember is the Cowboys' season-ending losses to the Eagles and eventual Super Bowl-champion Giants.  If Romo wants to improve his legacy and take his place among the best quarterbacks in the game, this has to be the season. 

Romo has the talent around him in Demarco Murray and Felix Jones in the backfield, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant at the wideout spots, and long-time favourite target Jason Witten at tight end.  Unfortunately, a very mediocre offensive line was not upgraded during the offseason so Romo may be forced to throw more quickly than he would like in many cases.  Romo is one of the league's best in throwing under pressure, but it's still not an ideal situation for any quarterback.  Even with all of his weapons, it's tough to imagine Romo taking great steps forward in 2012.  The Cowboys have a tough schedule and will have to fight it out with the Eagles and Giants in the NFC East, making a playoff run unlikely.  And until he goes deep in the playoffs, Romo will remain on the outside looking in when it comes to elite QBs.

3) Will Tarvaris Jackson push Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo?

For a guy playing with a 6-year deal averaging almost $10 million per season, Fitzpatrick's second season as the Bills' starter was a disappointment.  The 24 touchdowns sound good, until you realize that he also threw 23 interceptions.  There were many cases of Fitzgerald making bad throws instead of throwing the ball away or taking a sack, and he often tried to throw the ball into tight coverage.  Bills' fans spent plenty of time in 2011 holding their breath when Fitzpatrick threw.  His performance on the whole wasn't awful, but he certainly didn't look like the franchise quarterback his contract would indicate.  Now, the Bills have upgraded at the backup position by releasing the disappointing Vince Young in favour of former Seahawks' starter Tarvaris Jackson.  So how will this shake out for the upcoming season?

Fitzpatrick's job seems secure, at least barring injury or a complete crash.  It's going to take time for Jackson not only to learn the playbook, but also to get time with the first team.  The Bills' front office also isn't going to love the idea of demoting their $60 million man without some serious cause.  And in defense of Fitzpatrick, he hasn't exactly been placed in a position to win.  Stevie Johnson would be a solid number two receiver, but he's proven to be too inconsistent to be the top guy for a team and Donald Jones isn't likely to ease the pressure on Johnson.  The Bills made some big strides in free agency and the draft, but those moves came on the defensive side with Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Stephon Gilmore.  If there's a benefit for Fitzpatrick, it's that he shouldn't have to put up big points to win every week.  Fitzpatrick should be given every chance to play up to his contract, and the odds are against Jackson pushing him out anytime soon.  Frankly, if Jackson was that good the Seahawks wouldn't have been so anxious to sign Matt Flynn.

4) Can Michael Vick stay healthy for the entire season?

According to the CEO of the company that has fitted him with a new flak jacket, the answer is, "yes."  According to the rest of us, who have watched him closely since his return to the NFL, the answer is "not likely."  Vick has played in 12, 12 and 13 games the past three seasons, and has played a full 16-game season only once in his career.  When he does play, he puts up numbers and performances that make fans and fantasy junkies drool, although those performances last year declined during the second half of the season.  When he's operating at his best, though, there isn't a more exciting player in the league.  And with the likes of Lesean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and Desean Jackson around him, the Eagles are explosive.

Unfortunately for Vick, all signs point to missing time at some point this season.  He's already been hurt in the preseason, which isn't a good sign despite his attempts to downplay the injury.  More worrying, though, is the fact that despite cutting down his rushing attempts from the previous season, Vick still doesn't seem comfortable as a pocket passer.  What makes it even tougher is that his movement - not just the running, but scrambling in and out of the pocket to make throws - also makes him effective.  So asking Vick to play a certain way in order to prevent injury is also asking him to limit his own effectiveness.  My advice would be for all football fans to enjoy Vick when he's healthy.  Sure, he might not make it injury-free through the season, but we are still lucky to have the chance to watch a once-in-a-generation athlete. 

5) Which rookie quarterback will have the best season?

At this point it looks like five rookies will be starting quarterbacks for their teams.  Andrew Luck (Colts), Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), Robert Griffin III (Redskins), Russel Wilson (Seahawks) and Brandon Weeden (Browns) will all be under center for their teams in Week One.  Coming off a season in which two rookie QBs had outstanding seasons - Cam Newton in Carolina and Andy Dalton in Cincinnati - coaches seem more confident than ever in having rookies learn under fire.  Not only are these decisions financially motivated (no front office wants huge contracts on the bench), but coaches are also given confidence by the fact that many of these kids come out of college with experience in pro formations.  It's not like these five were running the wishbone and are now having to learn new offenses.   It also presents quite a contrast from the past, such as the 1999 draft that saw five quarterbacks drafted in the first round and none of them playing in the first week.  So, who is poised to have the best season?

If we measure by winning, then               it may be the unheralded Wilson in Seattle who ends up with the best results.  He will be playing in a division that is very thin after the 49ers, he's looked outstanding in the preseason, and he'll have the luxury not only of playing outside a major market, but also of not having first-round pick expectations.  Luck, Tannehill and Griffin are all likely to put up bigger numbers and could all develop into stars, but their first-year returns may be mixed due to the lack of talent around them.  Weeden is a true wildcard.  He's obviously the most physically mature of the bunch at 28, but one has to wonder if he has any room for improvement.  Certainly, his curve can't compare to the others.  Luck would be my choice to pass for the most yards of the bunch, and RGIII should be the most exciting, but Wilson may come out of the season with the most wins.

It's tough not to be excited about the season, and the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback spots and other question marks only adds to it.  Andrew Luck could be the next Peyton Manning, but who's to say he's not the next Tim Couch?  Mike Vick could be gone in the second week, or we could be watching him hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February.  Whatever happens, the season is likely to again be completely unpredictable.  Want a sure thing at QB?  Bet on Brees, Brady and Rodgers, but best of luck on guessing anything after that.