Sunday was all about the quarterbacks. Most weeks are. But this was one of those memorable weeks of football where what we saw at quarterback was fairly incredible.
For good, for bad and for bizarre. And not necessarily the ones we expected. Considering that Drew Brees had kicked off the week with a five-pick game against the Falcons, we should have known to expect the unexpected.
But to have …
- Andrew Luck rallying the Colts from down 12 points at his own 15-yard line with 4:02 remaining.
- Russell Wilson bootlegging and slinging his way to 136 passing yards, two TDs and 67 rushing yards in the second half and overtime, beating the Bears on their field, where Luck and many others have failed before.
- Mark Sanchez leading all passers in New York — with 97 yards — and then getting benched. The week Tim Tebow was inactive. With the Jets turning over to Greg McElroy. Wow. And we thought the circus was just about wrapped up in New York.
- Colin Kaepernick looking like a phenom the past two weeks and a phantom of himself in an error-marred loss at St. Louis that suddenly opened the NFC West back up.
- Nick Foles matching Tony Romo nearly throw for throw and appearing to have his Eagles on the march for their first victory since baseball season (September actually) when fellow rookie Bryce Brown fumbled the ball away.
- Charlie Batch, three days from his 38th birthday, emotionally hugging Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin after what probably was his final NFL start: a 276-yard, one-TD, one-pick gut check, outplaying Joe Flacco and winning in Baltimore, where the Steelers have won only two of their past seven trips.
- Cam Newton playing like the 2011 Newton … and the Panthers losing to the Chiefs.
- Brady Quinn, who hadn’t thrown a TD pass since Dec. 6. 2009, nearly three years ago, leading the grief-stricken Chiefs to a victory on a field a few hundred yards away from where their former teammate, Jovan Belcher, shot and killed himself just minutes after he murdered the mother of his three-month-old son.
… well, words fail to explain all of that.
Two rookie quarterbacks winning at Chicago and Detroit and becoming the first pair of first-year QBs to each throw a game-winning TD pass in the final minute of regulation or overtime is enough of a major story for one day.
Luck’s road struggles have been well-documented, and he added three interceptions to his total this season. That’s 13 picks and four lost fumbles now for the season away from Lucas Oil. It appeared over when he was picked with 6:49 left in the game, down 12 points. But Luck and the Colts got it back with 4:02 left and went to work. He engineered drives of 85 and 75 yards in a combined 19 efficient plays and sent the Colts home a winner with his fourth-down, walk-off throw to Donnie Avery for a score.
Luck has been mostly great this season, and he’s on pace to blow away Newton’s rookie pass-yardage mark from a year ago. But until Sunday, he really hadn’t reached Wilson’s level of rabbit-from-a-hat victory in a late-game situation.
Of course, Wilson’s third act wasn’t so bad, either. No rookie since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger has done what he has, throwing a game-winning TD pass three times in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime.
It was his elusiveness and movement in the pocket that really confounded the Bears. By game’s end, they looked whipped. Wilson had four rushing yards in the first half, 67 after halftime.
“He was able to get out (of) the pocket and buy some time,” Bears CB Kelvin Hayden said. “Anytime the quarterback gets out of the pocket, coverage breaks down, and he made the plays. You have to remember, this guy is a rookie. So, hats off to him. He’s making the plays. They made plays, and we didn’t.”
Entering Week 13, many said that Robert Griffin III was the clear Rookie of the Year favorite. Now the talk is of Luck being in the MVP conversation. Shouldn’t we make Russellmania part of the discussion, too?
Wilson’s 19-8 TD-INT ratio is better than Luck (17-16), Matthew Stafford (16-11), Romo (19-15), Newton (14-10) and Eli Manning (15-11, entering Monday). The latter four all were 4,000-yard passers last season. Throw in Wilson’s 298 rushing yards, his three late-game thefts and his 7-5 overall record (for a team that was 7-9 a season ago) and Wilson merits some award talk, be it Rookie of the Year or MVP or whatever.
Quarterback shuffle might be in motion soon
Now let’s get to the Sanchez-McElroy-Tebow dynamic. What does all of that tell you about the Jets’ future?
With all due respect to McElroy in New York, Quinn in Kansas City, Batch in Pittsburgh and other placeholder quarterbacks — they all did some great things Sunday but they all have no chance of holding down the starting job for very long.
The Steelers will turn back to Roethlisberger. The Chiefs will bring in a quarterback, either through the draft, free agency or trade, and maybe by two of those three methods. You could see them going for Alex Smith or Matt Moore with the veteran route and a first- or second-round pick with the rookie quotient.
But what do the Jets do?
The bad news? They have Sanchez locked up at (a guaranteed) $8.25 million next season. There’s no trading that; dumping him achieves little. McElroy isn’t a long-term solution unless he improves significantly, and even then he probably isn’t a legitimate option.
It’s tough to spend a high first-round pick on a quarterback — and the Titans (Jake Locker) and Vikings (Christian Ponder) might be in the Jets’ shoes in a year or so if they don’t improve — and hit the point where you realize it’s just not going to work. Heck, the Jaguars might have arrived at that juncture already with Blaine Gabbert, especially if there are changes in the front office or to the coaching staff.
The number of teams suddenly looking shaky at QB is startling considering how many young ones are starting around the NFL. You probably can throw Philip Rivers on that list, too. Flacco is an impending free agent next season who has yet to play at an elite level in 2012. We’ve got the Cardinals, Bills and Eagles — plus the teams mentioned above — without clear-cut solutions at the positions.
You also have some interesting veteran names to float out there in what appears to be a deep but hardly great QB draft class. Smith is still younger than Brandon Weeden. Michael Vick is still younger than Drew Brees and Tony Romo. Moore could vie for a starting spot.
It’s never too early to think about the quarterback carousel for next season. It should spin around a few times, and with a few interesting turns.
Harbaugh sticking with Kaepernick — and he should
Kaepernick struggled in the 49ers’ loss to the Rams, and it was a few unsettling mistakes that undid him and his team.
First, he was guilty of intentional grounding in the endzone, two points for the Rams in the third quarter when they previously were being shut out by the Niners’ strong defense. Then Kaepernick tried to pitch the ball to Ted Ginn Jr., but the backwards pass was tantamount to a fumble and was returned by Rams CB Janoris Jenkins for what would become a game-tying score, after a two-point conversion.
After Kaepernick’s scintillating 50-yard scramble set up what should have been the game-winning field goal, he made a mistake by not staying in bounds on a third-down run before the kick. Had he done so, the Rams at least would have burned their final timeout and not been able to set up Greg Zuerlein’s game-tying field goal at the end of regulation with it.
Overall, he struggled outside the pocket and throwing under pressure, two areas he excelled at in his 2-0 opening foray as a starter. It just was a wholly uneven performance from start to finish in which he never appeared to get settled.
Kaepernick will learn from this experience, though. Critics might be ready to bench him for Smith, but it shouldn’t happen. What kind of message would Jim Harbaugh he sending if he flip-flopped now? He hasn't now, saying after the game that he was staying the course, and it's the right call. Harbaugh might play coy with the media, but you can be sure he’s straight-talking in the locker room to his players.
And if you look back at some other QB controversies, the replacements often had a game like this. Tom Brady threw for 86 yards in his second start and had four INTs in his fifth. Aaron Rodgers lost three straight early in his first season starting, including a three-pick, three-sack stinker at Tampa. Troy Aikman didn’t have more TD passes than INTs in a game until his eighth start.
The point is: Even with tougher matchups ahead (at New England Week 15, at Seattle Week 16), this is no time to panic.
On Quinn, the Chiefs and sorrow
Brady Quinn probably isn’t the quarterback of the Chiefs’ future. He might be little more than a footnote in the team’s history.
But that footnote came on a strange, dark day in Kansas City, and Quinn did the most he was capable of in a game that, frankly, many players were not even sure about playing in the first place.
Quinn’s career has been a disappointment to this point, but he played very well in only the Chiefs’ second victory of the season. More importantly, he stepped up amid the chaos and the odd silence that cloaked Arrowhead Stadium following the murder-suicide that happened just a few hundred yards away and a mere 28 hours prior.
A man who just happened to be a football player killed the mother of his child, shooting her several times in front of his own mother, and then later turned the gun on himself in front of his coach and general manager, leaving a three-month-old daughter without her parents.
It’s disgusting and surreal.
There’s nothing that football — this game or the game itself — can do to change that awful fate or heal those lifelong wounds for the child, the family and everyone else seeking answers where there are none.
Quinn is not a team captain; his backup, Matt Cassel, was one of six Chiefs captains who voted to play the game when they were given the option to postpone it. And play, meaningless as it all seems, they did.
The Chiefs won. They were focused and precise on offense, spirited and tough on defense. It’s a combination seldom seen in these parts. But that’s the part we’ll forget.
All Quinn did was quarterback. He did that well. Quinn had (in one of the more incredible stats you’ll read) thrown TD passes in only four of his 15 career starts, but threw for two Sunday and was nearly perfect otherwise: 19-of-23 passing in the 27-21 victory over the Panthers.
But he also did the little things that leaders do between the time Chiefs players were summoned for an emergency team meeting on Saturday and right up until the game ended.
Quinn talked with his teammates when needed. He listened when called for. He stepped to the forefront and spoke extensively to the media when few others, understandably, felt like doing so after the game.
Most importantly, he brought us back to what’s most important: The little girl who was orphaned before she ever really knew her parents. The team has set up a fund for the girl and her family, and Quinn was the one urging people to help donate.
He also reminded us that we sometimes can be disconnected from reality and that athletes’ problems are no different from anyone else’s; if anything, money and fame can compound those issues, and certainly the pressure and fame of being a football player are forces that work in two directions.
Quinn wondered aloud if he couldn’t have done more for his troubled and fallen teammate.
“It was tough,” Quinn said. “I think it was an eerie feeling after a win because you don’t think that you can win in this situation. The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people. I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently.
“When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.
“Hopefully people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”
And with that, Quinn capped off what I suspect will have been his finest NFL hour. He was great during the game, and brilliant before and afterward when he was needed even more.