Four Questions: The passing hand of fate

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

Peyton Manning has his third MVP trophy. Chad Pennington captured his second Comeback Player of the Year award. Philip Rivers won his first NFL passing title. Drew Brees came within 16 yards of setting an all-time record for NFL passing yardage.

Yet each of those pinpoint passers will be kicking back in front of flat-screens this weekend, watching one of the most unlikely quarterbacking quartets ever to have led their teams into conference championship games.

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Boller (L) or Smith (C) could have started instead of Flacco (R).
(David Butler II/US Presswire)

To be sure, two-time MVP Kurt Warner, fellow Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger, perennial conference-title-game performer Donovan McNabb and unflappable rookie Joe Flacco are terrific players who earned this opportunity. It's just that each of them came perilously close to being left out of the party – and got a serious push from the passing hand of fate at the perfect time.

Let's start with Flacco, the former Delaware passer whom the Ravens selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. Going into training camp, the loose plan was to let the kid spend his first season on the Baltimore sidelines sitting and watching. Either veteran Kyle Boller, who started eight games in '07, or second-year backup Troy Smith were expected to win a three-way quarterback competition.

Yet Boller, a first-round pick out of Cal in 2003, suffered a shoulder injury in the second preseason game which was slow to heal, and he ultimately was placed on injured reserve. Smith, the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner out of Ohio State, came down with tonsillitis in late August, which later led to a blood clot in his neck and, eventually, a lung infection. By the time the bizarre ordeal was over, Smith had missed more than three weeks' worth of workouts and was 20 pounds lighter. Dr. Andrew Tucker, the Ravens' head team physician, said Smith was "extraordinarily unlucky."

That spate of bad luck made Flacco the starter by default. Given the way the strong-armed rookie has stepped up to the challenge – and if you saw that sublime 48-yard touchdown pass he threw to Derrick Mason against the Titans, you realize how special he could become – it's easy to envision him keeping his job for the next decade or more.

Last summer in Arizona, another presumed quarterback of the future, former Heisman winner Matt Leinart, was anointed the Cardinals' undisputed starter. Though Warner, 37, had outplayed Leinart in '07 even before the former Southern California star had suffered a season-ending collarbone fracture, head coach Ken Whisenhunt had proclaimed that the third-year player was his man from the beginning of the offseason through the end of August.

Most coaches consider the second-to-last preseason game to be the most important exhibition, the time when a team solidifies its opening-day lineup. The fact that Leinart got the starting nod in Arizona's game at Oakland told you everything you needed to know. Except that Leinart was so awful (4-of-12, 24 yards, three interceptions) that night against the Raiders that Whisenhunt, in a bold and somewhat stunning reversal, decided to start Warner in the final preseason game.

A few days later, Whisenhunt announced that Warner had won the starting job.

"It was a long process," Whisenhunt says, "and when it came down to it, I felt that getting off to a fast start was crucial for our team – and Kurt gave us the best chance for that."

Now Warner is the toast of the desert, and on Sunday he'll go up against another veteran quarterback whose presence in the title game – for the fifth time in eight years – is incredibly improbable. Less than two months ago, McNabb – who lives in the Phoenix area during the offseason – looked like he might be done in Philadelphia for good.

Midway through a blowout loss to the Ravens on Nov. 23, McNabb was benched by Eagles coach Andy Reid, who had one of his assistants inform his longtime quarterback that second-year backup Kevin Kolb would get the nod in the second half.

As McNabb sat glumly on the Philly bench sporting a green parka, it was easy to envision a future in which he – and/or Reid – would not be back with the Eagles. But Kolb, a second-round pick in '07, performed just as miserably as McNabb during his two quarters of action, and Reid went back to the veteran the following week.

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Will a hoisting of the Lombardi replace this lasting image?
(James Lang/US Presswire)

Having seen the abyss, McNabb was a different player upon his return. So, too, were his teammates, who seemed to have been shocked into submission by the benching of a player long perceived as the coach's pet.

"Sometimes, I think, a coach can be hardest on his best player to prove a point," says A.J. Feeley, the Eagles' third-string quarterback. "Like when you're growing up and your dad's your coach, and he comes down on you to send a message to the team. It was like, 'If that can happen to Donovan, this is serious. We've all gotta pick up our game.' "

Roethlisberger, though subtly criticized by Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin midway through the season for not getting the ball out quickly enough, never was in danger of losing his starting job. But he did suffer a scary concussion in the Steelers' regular-season finale, a meaningless victory over the Browns in which Big Ben had the back of his head bounce off the Heinz Field grass after he was sandwiched by Cleveland defenders Willie McGinest and D'Qwell Jackson.

After temporarily losing feeling in his upper extremities and lying on the cold turf for 15 minutes – on Monday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the injury was a spinal-cord concussion, a more serious form of the ailment – Roethlisberger left the field and was able to return to practice eight days later. Preparing for the Steelers' divisional-round victory over the Chargers, Roethlisberger theorized that the stadium's relatively soft, splotchy grass had spared him additional damage.

"I'm glad we weren't on FieldTurf," Roethlisberger told reporters. "That grass – you know, the soft Heinz Field – might've helped a little bit. That whiplash is always a pain."

Back in November 2007, after a nationally televised 3-0 victory over the Dolphins known as the "Muck Game," the field – with newly placed sod that was eviscerated by a drenching rainstorm, resulting in knee-deep mud – was in such horrible shape that the team seriously considered switching to artificial turf. Had they followed through, at least in Roethlisberger's eyes, it's not that far-fetched to imagine that Pittsburgh would have been forced to play the Chargers last Sunday with veteran Byron Leftwich under center.

But Roethlisberger, like his fellow title-game starters, had luck and timing on his side. It all seems so precarious, and it makes you wonder:

What if Smith had responded better to antibiotics and seized the Ravens' starting job in the preseason?

What if Leinart had been only semi-lousy in that August game against the Raiders and Whisenhunt had stuck with him?

What if Kolb had played a wee bit better in Baltimore, and McNabb never had gotten another shot in Philly?

What if the Steelers, under pressure from the NFL, had gone with FieldTurf instead of reinstalling their DDGrassMaster surface (and topping it with sod after their game against the Bengals eight weeks ago)?

Those are questions worth pondering as we prepare for what should be a terrific weekend of championship football. Here are four others, in descending order of overall team strength:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Did Santonio Holmes simply pick a great time to have a huge game, or is the dude becoming a star?

2. Baltimore Ravens: If Heinz Field becomes Hines Field on Sunday, how absolutely furious will Bart Scott and his fellow defenders be?

3. Philadelphia Eagles: The next time an opposing team faces fourth-and-short, do you suppose the play call will be something other than a run to Brodrick Bunkley's side?

4. Arizona Cardinals: Is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie quick and athletic enough to run with DeSean Jackson – and is any other rookie still in the playoffs more impressive?