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Offseason notebook: Still armed and dangerous

A year ago, there were so many certain quarterback proclamations. Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich and Houston's David Carr were going to come into their own. Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck was going to take his place among the league's elite offensive players. And of course, San Diego's Drew Brees was walking the plank for the Chargers.

Every offseason, we feel like we have a pretty good read on the league's quarterbacks: who's showing promise, who's fading and who's ready to explode. And every year, the players send our quarterback certainties to the paper shredder. No QB did so with more force than Brees last season. Yet we always manage to cobble together our lists of washouts – guys who we've written off as mostly dead weight.

But with so much uncertainty at the position, someone always manages to surprise us. Whether it's Brees or Jake Delhomme or Rich Gannon, someone we didn't count on has an unexpected flourish. And while there don't seem to be many candidates likely to come out of nowhere to lead a Super Bowl run – or put up astronomical numbers, for that matter – the NFL has a healthy share of quarterbacks who could have a bigger impact than expected.

So in the spirit of the annual NFL resurrection, here are five quarterbacks who enter 2005 in the twilight of their careers or on the verge of being tossed aside by their teams (or both). All of them could end up playing a major role in their team's 2005 fortunes.

Tim Rattay, San Francisco 49ers
Could this be Brees and Philip Rivers all over again? Not exactly. The future of this team belongs to rookie Alex Smith all the way, and the 49ers aren't going to make a shocking playoff run. But Rattay could provide some intrigue before he's dangled as trade bait next offseason. Make no mistake, Smith is far from polished, and that's precisely what will give Rattay his window this season.

Many people forget that we're only a year removed from a time when it looked like Rattay had the makings of a good young quarterback with room to grow. He was coming off a 2003 when he threw seven touchdowns and two interceptions and had won three of his four starts while filling in for Jeff Garcia. Granted, he had better receivers to work with (Terrell Owens, Tai Streets, etc.), but he showed promise. Even last season, when Rattay wasn't struggling with injuries, he had several productive starts, including three straight in October when his quarterback rating ranged from 88.9 to 99.8.

Rattay should end up starting the season as San Francisco's No. 1 quarterback. And he has the talent to succeed when he's not getting pummeled behind an injury-plagued offensive line. If he can keep himself healthy – and that's a pivotal if – he could play well enough to hang on to the top job all season.

Jay Fiedler, New York Jets
The best thing Fiedler has got going for him is that he's playing behind league China doll Chad Pennington. Odds suggest that eventually, Pennington will stay healthy for a full season. But reality always seems to be hovering overhead like a funnel cloud, ready to suck Pennington onto the disabled list. Even now, nobody has been allowed to watch Pennington throw this offseason, and there isn't anyone who is certain how his surgically repaired shoulder is holding up. The Jets can't even be sure he'll be 100 percent on opening day.

That tilts the scales toward Fiedler getting some starts at some point this season. And while he's had his own health issues for three straight years, he's efficient enough to be plugged in and throw for 200 yards and a touchdown or two while handing the ball off to Curtis Martin and Derrick Blaylock 40 times a game. While Fiedler isn't anything but a solid backup for Pennington, don't be surprised if injuries push him into the lineup late in the year and he ends up being the starter in the playoffs.

Jeff Garcia, Detroit Lions
There was a point last season when Garcia looked simply awful with the Cleveland Browns, and you had to wonder whether he was in the first stages of a rapid decline that afflicts some quarterbacks. But he's back in his comfort zone with coach Steve Mariucci and offensive coordinator Ted Tollner.

Garcia isn't any long-term answer, but the Lions and Mariucci are restless and want to win now. Starter Joey Harrington has had three years to develop and still hasn't found a way to lead Detroit to consistent winning. Now he has an amazing complement of talent surrounding him, including quite possibly the best set of young offensive skill players in the NFL (wide receivers Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, and running back Kevin Jones).

If Harrington struggles early, Garcia exists specifically to give Detroit the alternative that Mike McMahon didn't offer last year – a solid veteran who has had success in the system. Garcia is old (35), but he's got enough left to pressure Harrington. As Garcia told the Gilroy (Calif.) Dispatch last weekend, "It's Joey Harrington's job to lose. But I'm going to be right there nipping on his heels." Asked what will happen if he gets the starting job, Garcia added, "I don't plan on giving it back."

Mark Brunell, Washington Redskins
Everyone in the NFL assumes Brunell's career is in cobwebs, but don't be so sure. Yes, he was overwhelmingly ineffective last season. And yes, his arm looked tired at times. But there may not be a coach in the NFL more desperate to win games than Joe Gibbs. And as much as Gibbs wants to say Patrick Ramsey is his No. 1 quarterback, that's a statement that will be only as robust as the team's victory total.

As has been chronicled by every media outlet in the D.C. area, Ramsey is no sure thing. He has a fine arm, but he still makes bad decisions and seems erratic mentally. If he struggles early, this could be a situation like Harrington in Detroit, and Gibbs could move quickly to his alternatives. Even though the Redskins drafted Jason Campbell in the first round, they aren't going to win any more games with a rookie at the helm than they are with Ramsey. That, and the familiarity new quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave has with Brunell, should be enough to earn him one last shot if Ramsey struggles.

Gus Frerotte, Miami Dolphins
Not only does it look like Frerotte is going to get his shot at the starting job, but it also appears like he has a healthy lead over incumbent A.J. Feeley. Throughout the offseason, Frerotte has gotten positive reviews from new coach Nick Saban and Dolphins players. And he's got an edge working under offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who also coached him in Minnesota.

Still, it's not a done deal. Feeley has the youth factor working in his favor, and Saban isn't going to just roll over on this one. Feeley can make up any lost ground in training camp, and he still could end up being the starter on opening day. But Saban isn't the most patient person in the world, and he won't waste any time going with Frerotte, a veteran whom he knows can produce solid results.

WIND SPRINTS

  • How weird is this story about New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft losing his Super Bowl ring to Russian president Vladimir Putin? Obviously the ring didn't become a "gift" until it became an international story and began toeing the line of international incident. But didn't that look like one of the most awkward television moments ever? There's Kraft handing Putin the ring, then seemingly looking confused when Putin puts it on, takes it off and then palms it. When you think about it, how do you tell a Russian president that you want your iced-out Super Bowl ring back, particularly in front of a bunch of reporters?

Too bad this didn't happen to Al Davis. Half the Kremlin would have been moving to Oakland in a legal settlement. Thankfully, Kraft is smart enough (and wealthy enough) to avoid an international incident over a piece of jewelry. Besides, it could have been worse. Imagine if the Patriots owner had left the ring at home and brought Tom Brady instead.

  • It's hard to gauge at this point – especially without knowing the injury factor that inevitably will sweep the league – but the Browns have to be the favorite to finish with the worst record in the NFL in 2005. Aside from having the league's most brutal schedule next season, word has gotten out from the offseason programs that a successful defensive adjustment (both in talent and picking up the 3-4 scheme) is going to be a process of years, not months.

While there are pieces to build upon, the Browns may be looking at sweeping out 90 percent of the 2004 roster by the end of the 2006 offseason. One area that doesn't bode well for the next two seasons is quarterback. The early plan is to have Trent Dilfer and Doug Johnson 1-2 on the depth chart in 2005, then move rookie Charlie Frye up to the No. 2 spot in 2006 before taking over in 2007.

  • Don't be surprised if Troy Hambrick is released by the Arizona Cardinals in the coming months and isn't picked up by another team. He still has the skill to be a serviceable running back for a club in an injury pinch, and he might get a cursory look from whichever team that loses out on the Travis Henry sweepstakes. But Hambrick has earned himself a poor reputation since joining the Cardinals.

Coaches are furious over his absence at the team's "voluntary" offseason programs, especially with Marcel Shipp and rookie J.J. Arrington listed ahead of him on the depth chart. It's looking like Hambrick is going to get his walking papers in training camp.

  • A source close to USC defensive tackle Manuel Wright – the top talent in next month's supplemental draft – said Wright has been given a guarantee by an undisclosed AFC team that he will be selected in the third round. Speculation has it that the team is either Cincinnati or Miami.
  • Keep an eye on Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers. After reviewing his offseason work, Panthers coaches think he is ready to break away from the league's other defensive stars and become uniquely dominant – a la Ray Lewis earlier this decade.
  • Word came from Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor this week that the team didn't accurately disclose the depth of his knee surgery last season. While the team announced Taylor had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery, Taylor said in an interview with a Jacksonville radio station that he had actually undergone a "full cut" and repair on two torn knee ligaments.

The Jaguars had no comment on Taylor's admission, but Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio looks like a total hypocrite after recently complaining that the local media doesn't put out enough positive coverage about his team. That can be tough to do when a coach lies to reporters and hangs a player out to dry by making his injury seem less severe than it truly is.

  • A gigantic development went mostly unnoticed last week when a federal magistrate ordered the NFL to turn over a mountain of financial data to attorneys who have filed an antitrust lawsuit against the Cincinnati Bengals. The order is significant because it eventually could expose closely guarded revenue and profit information for NFL teams over the last 15 years and reveal exactly how much money owners across the league have been making.

That would be a huge blow landed for several state governments – like Louisiana – that have been trying to force NFL teams to open their books before negotiating leases, stadium construction or renovation projects. The suit against the Bengals contends the team used a monopoly to force an unfair stadium lease in 1997. The NFL is expected to appeal the ruling that it must turn over its financial data.