Slim pickings

Charles Robinson
Yahoo! Sports

Walt Harris let out a deep sigh. If allowed, the San Francisco 49ers cornerback would have submitted his Pro Bowl ballot with only one NFC quarterback. But the voice on the other end of the phone was prodding him to fill out his entire field. And that meant plucking three distinguished quarterbacks from a conference that has seemingly only produced one clear favorite.

"Drew Brees," Harris said.

"Annnnnnnnd. …"

Harris stopped, and let out another deep sigh.

He's not alone. It's been a common point of consternation for players who take the voting seriously. With the Pro Bowl rosters set to be announced Tuesday, the NFC's quarterback spot has once again become the most uncertain race, largely thanks to a rash of injuries (Green Bay's Brett Favre, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb and Tampa Bay's Chris Simms) at the position. While the AFC might have five worthy QBs (depending how you feel about Steve McNair), the NFC has only one shoo-in. After conducting a straw poll of six defensive backs from the NFC, the only agreement was that New Orleans' Brees was a lock. After that, every other player had flaws to consider. Which means come Tuesday, it's anyone's guess.

"I think you have to go with Marc Bulger, even though St. Louis isn't having a great season," Harris said. "As for that third spot, man, I don't know. My initial thought would be [Seattle's] Matt Hasselbeck, but because of injuries this year, his stats probably aren't where they need to be. It's tough this year, really. You've got a lot of guys that have had some ups and downs in the NFC. Another name that comes to mind is [Atlanta's] Michael Vick. He started off great but then there was a string of some bad games. And now he's beginning to come around again."

Added Arizona Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, "It's a tough call, but in my opinion, the vote is determined by favorites anyway. That's how I see it. I feel like I got robbed last year because of the favorites that are out there. Hopefully everyone will take into account the entire field rather than just voting for the names."

Of the candidates, only Brees and Bulger have put up top-notch numbers as full-time starters. Dallas' Tony Romo had cooled significantly over the previous two games before playing well against the Falcons on Saturday night. Overall, Romo has a 98.4 quarterback rating and a 6-2 mark as the starter.

As for the rest of the field, it leaves plenty to be desired. With that in mind, here is a breakdown of the candidates, based on a poll of six NFC defensive backs – Harris, Wilson, Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall, and three others who asked to not be identified. Five of the six players also revealed their choices at quarterback. The number of votes received by each quarterback is in parenthesis.

THE LOCK: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (received 5 out of five votes)
Why he'll get in
Not only is he leading the NFL in passing yardage (4,240), touchdowns (25) and quarterback rating (98.2), he's played relatively well against some of the league's top passing defenses. He's got eight 300-yard passing games, and went for 510 in a loss to Cincinnati. Players have been most impressed with his arm. Despite a so-called lack of strength and past shoulder issues, he's been able to make all the throws, and has maintained his level of play despite recent injuries to wide receivers Joe Horn and Marques Colston.

"He's taken the NFC by storm. You look at him and you think you've probably got to reserve a spot for him for the next five or six years," Hall said.

Why he won't get in
Someone would have to hijack the ballot boxes and dump them into the Gulf of Mexico.

THE NUMBERS GUY: Marc Bulger, St. Louis Rams (3 of 5)
Why he'll get in
Simply put, he's got Pro Bowl numbers: 19 touchdowns against only eight interceptions, a 63.3 completion percentage, and the third most passing yards in the NFL (3,528). Like Brees, he's had several 300-yard passing games (7) and some success against top-notch defenses. What has impressed opponents the most, Bulger has remained efficient despite getting sacked a career high 44 times (with three games still left in the season).

Why he won't get in
Two players said they were reluctant to vote for Bulger because of his team's 5-8 record in a relatively weak division. But even that didn't stop others from selecting him.

"It's all about individual performance in some cases," Harris said. "If they perform well – if they're having a great year – that's what's important to me. Some people like to look at the team's success, but personally, I like to do it by individual stats. To me, when it comes to the Pro Bowl, that tells the story right there. I don't care about a team's record. You're voting for a player when it comes to the Pro Bowl, not a team."

THE CAREER VOTE: Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks (3 of 5)
Why he'll get in
Luckily for Hasselbeck, most of the ballots were cast before Thursday's loss against San Francisco, which was one of his worst games of the season. Some players said they were willing to give Hasselbeck a mulligan this season because of the knee injury that sidelined him. One player said he was actually more inclined to vote for Hasselbeck after seeing him push to get back into the lineup after missing four weeks with a sprained knee. And despite his up-and-down play, some voters still see him as the guy who threw 24 touchdowns last year and led his team to the Super Bowl.

"You've got to grandfather some guys in," Hall said. "Their teams might not be having a great season, but you still know the guy is a hell of a ballplayer. Hasselbeck falls in that category. We had that discussion in our locker room. You know you're getting Drew Brees and probably Marc Bulger. Then for that third spot, it's a toss-up. You have a guy like Hasselbeck who is a proven guy. Obviously he's been banged up and missed a lot of games, but at the same time, I feel like he's a game-changer. So he got our third and deciding vote."

Why he won't get in
His numbers aren't all that impressive, particularly the 57.7 completion percentage and touchdown to interception ratio (1.3-1). He's also run hot and cold over his 10 starts, and looked terrible in an early blowout loss to Chicago that set the tone for the season. And at the end of the day, it's hard to see a guy with barely 2,000 passing yards and a 78.8 quarterback rating being a Pro Bowler.

THE BEST ATHLETE: Michael Vick, Atlanta Falcons (2 of 5)
Why he'll get in
Because he's Michael Vick and he's previously made the Pro Bowl on reputation. But it's not just fans punching the ballot for him based on highlights. Players tend to attach a high value to him based on his overall skill level. That said, when you consider his impact as a rusher, his numbers stack up solidly with the rest of a lackluster field. With two games left in the season, Vick will likely eclipse 2,500 passing yards and rush for over 1,000 for the first time in his career. And though his passing numbers are relatively mediocre, he remains one of the toughest and most exciting players in which defense base their game plans.

"Win games. That's what a quarterback's main job is," Wilson said. "Regardless what people say about him, he wins games and he's the No. 1 option on their team. That's what Pro Bowl players are all about – being that guy that teams have to worry about. For me, having played against Vick, he's the factor in that game. He changes games all by himself."

Why he won't get in
He's completing only 51.8 percent of his passes – a career low for Vick in a non-injury shortened season and his quarterback rating is once again near the bottom of NFC passers (14 out of 16). One player even admitted to feeling a Vick hangover after watching Vick struggle through a mediocre season in 2005 and still getting a Pro Bowl nod over Mark Brunell, Eli Manning and Drew Bledsoe.

THE LATE BLOOMER: Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys (2 of 5)
Why he'll get in
He took a struggling Dallas team and has it on the verge of the NFC East title. He's also made the players around him better, increasing the production of Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, Patrick Crayton and Jason Witten. Not coincidentally, both players who voted for Romo also watched all or parts of the Thanksgiving Day game where he threw five touchdown passes against Tampa Bay.

Why he won't
All three players who left Romo off their ballot expressed reservations about voting for a player who had only notched seven starts. And his last two games to that point against NFC playoff contenders (the Giants and Saints) – in which Romo threw one touchdown and four interceptions and posted passer ratings of 58.1 and 58.8 – also gave some pause.

"Without a doubt, it's hard to fool people in a full slate, when you've been starting since Day 1," Harris said. "Sixteen weeks is a long season – with people studying you, learning what you're all about and exposing your weaknesses. When you have a person who plays 16 games as opposed to someone who steps in for a partial season, it makes a big difference. The more games you play, the harder it is to stay at the top of your position. I think you have to consider that."

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