Quarterback instability wrecks projections

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Jay Cutler saga in Denver shows how fragile even the most promising quarterback situations can become.

If the Broncos couldn't make that relationship work -- and if the Packers and Brett Favre ultimately couldn't get along -- no team can take its quarterback situation for granted.

No team in the NFC West can, that's for sure.

The issue came to mind after blog contributor Patrick made a bold prediction via our Facebook profile:

"I think no matter what happens in the NFC West this season, in about 2-3 years, it will be one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. Each coach is building their own tough-minded, physical brand of football. We should be right up there with the NFC East and AFC South. The NFC West is on the rise!"

Three years is forever in the NFL. I have a hard time predicting this division that far out because all four teams could have vastly different quarterback situations by then. Three of the four teams are breaking in new head coaches this season. New head coaches tend to want their own quarterbacks, sometimes sooner than later, as Cutler found out.

The 49ers aren't sure which quarterback will start for them in three months, let alone three years. They've paid more than $20 million to Alex Smith over the last four seasons, receiving 19 touchdown passes in return. That type of imbalance generally leads NFL teams to file for divorce, but not the 49ers. They remained unsettled enough at quarterback to bring back Smith at a discount and let him compete with Shaun Hill for the starting job.

The 49ers' long-term starter might not even be on the roster. He might not exist anywhere if the last few years are any indication. And if we don't know which quarterback will lead the 49ers into the future, it's hard to grasp what that future might bring -- even if Mike Singletary otherwise succeeds in establishing his program.

The Cardinals enjoy the most favorable quarterback situation in the division, but Kurt Warner probably won't be the quarterback three years from now. He'll be 40 by then.

Like the 49ers, Arizona has paid millions to a first-round draft choice without receiving much in return. Matt Leinart's long-term future with the team appears cloudy. The team's recent $1 million commitment to third quarterback Brian St. Pierre came with a promise: St. Pierre could compete with Leinart for the No. 2 job behind Warner.

Expect the Cardinals to keep building under coach Ken Whisenhunt, but life changes once Warner is finished. The Steelers pounded him in the Super Bowl. A few other opponents last season, notably the Cowboys, also roughed up Warner. Will he hold up well enough physically to start the next two seasons? Hard to say.

In St. Louis, the Rams should know by season's end whether Marc Bulger can break his two-year slide. The $6.5 million salary he's due this season jumps to 8.5 million in 2010 and $9 million in 2011 and 2012. It's tough to envision the Rams, also with a new head coach, paying that type of money if Bulger throws more interceptions than touchdowns for a third consecutive season.

And if Bulger isn't the answer, the Rams will have to look elsewhere for his successor. Their current backups -- Gus Frerotte and Brock Berlin -- aren't the future [note: The Rams' expected deal with Frerotte fell through and the sides agreed to postpone talks until after the draft]. What then?

Seattle benefited from the best quarterback situation in the division over a five-year stretch ending last season. That era could be a fading memory.

Matt Hasselbeck's back trouble has subsided. He might have a few more strong seasons remaining, but the Seahawks can't necessarily assume so. They'll probably draft a quarterback for insurance while hoping Hasselbeck can bounce back at age 34 (he is 33 until September).

Good luck predicting all four NFC West opening-day starters for 2010, let alone 2011 or 2012. The future of the division remains similarly cloudy.