Beyond leading the league in passer efficiency rating, however, three of the four have at least one other common denominator. And now, it seems, Pennington is about to join Cunningham, Warner and Griese as recent passing champions who have been kicked to the curb.
In what has become as much a part of free agency as Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's revving the engines of his private jet and breaking out his checkbook, it's time to cue the calliope, as the annual quarterback carousel swings into gear. In recent years, the quarterback market has been swelled beyond its projected parameters, increased both quantitatively and qualitatively by some considerable roster pruning in advance of the free-agency signing period. On average over the last five springs, 4.4 quarterbacks have been added to the available veteran talent pool, players who were not scheduled for free agency but who were lopped off rosters for a variety of reasons.
"By the time you get to the actual list of [available] quarterbacks," Arizona head coach Dennis Green said, "it's always different than the group you were studying a month earlier. That's just how it has been lately. It's to the point where everybody knows there are going to be two or three [quarterbacks] in free agency you weren't originally counting on being there."
Green should know. His primary starter last year was Warner, who in addition to twice leading the league in passer efficiency was also a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player and the MVP in Super Bowl XXXIV. None of those impressive résumé features, though, could keep Warner from also being twice nudged into the free-agent market, by St. Louis after the 2003 season and by the New York Giants after the 2004 campaign.
Warner last week gained some modicum of security by signing a three-year, $15 million contract extension with the Cardinals, a deal that will pay him a $3 million signing bonus and base salaries of $4 million each for 2005-07.
That new deal aside, you still can't blame Warner or some of his quarterback brethren for walking around with their heads on swivels. Because the league's springtime quarterback shuffle, a high-stakes game of musical chairs, is set to commence again.
The only difference between this year and some other recent offseasons is that the contingent of quarterbacks jettisoned by franchises before the start of the free-agency period on March 3 might have an even higher aggregate profile than its predecessors.
Because of the "three I's" -- incompetence, injury and insufficient cap funds (or, in some cases, a combination of two of the three) -- the group of free-agent quarterbacks is likely to have a pretty good collective recognition factor.
There is no denying the group will include damaged goods. But it also figures to be an intriguing group of accomplished passers who were pretty good before they were damaged. And they will merit a high curiosity level.
Said one head coach whose team is seeking to upgrade at quarterback, and who prefers that the improvement come from a veteran acquisition (not through the 2006 draft): "You might have to have your [team orthopedist] on 24-hour call. There's going to be a lot of due diligence. You've got guys coming off shoulder [surgeries], blown-out knees and whatever. They're all compelling guys, but a lot of them have asterisks attached. But having those guys in the market, if it's true they're all going to get whacked, makes it a hell of a lot more interesting."
Indeed, consider the compilation of quarterbacks who were originally scheduled for unrestricted free agency because their contracts have expired. Beyond San Diego's Drew Brees -- who almost certainly would have been kept off the market with the franchise designation for a second year in a row, or with a long-term contract, had he not suffered a shoulder injury in the season finale -- the pool is a shallow one.
Maybe the most intriguing of the bunch is Arizona's Josh McCown, a promising four-year veteran, just 26 years old, and with eight performances of 250-plus yards and three outings of 300 yards or more in 22 career starts. After him, the free agent list is full of such guys as Jon Kitna, Chris Weinke, Jeff Blake, Charlie Batch, Sage Rosenfels, Jamie Martin and Vinny Testaverde. Anyone very excited by those names?
But add to the mix the several veteran quarterbacks who, for various reasons, could be lopped off rosters in the next week or two, and there clearly are some attention-grabbers.
If the Jets can't come to some contract accommodation with Pennington -- the two sides are set to huddle at the combine in Indianapolis this week -- he might be released before he is due a $3 million bonus on March 3. The Vikings are dangling Daunte Culpepper in trade talks and, if they can't strike a deal, might cut him rather than pay a $6 million bonus in mid-March. Chargers general manager A.J. Smith announced Monday that San Diego will not use either the franchise or transition tag to keep Brees off the market. Tampa Bay likely will cut Griese -- who is due a $2.6 million roster bonus next month that boosts his salary-cap charge to more than $7 million -- if he doesn't restructure his contract. Even though new Raiders coach Art Shell has indicated that Kerry Collins will return to Oakland in 2006, keeping him around will probably entail a contract adjustment.
And there's more: New Orleans probably will part ways with the talented but flawed Aaron Brooks, who has 82 career starts and five straight seasons of more than 2,800 yards. Brooks averaged 24.5 touchdown passes in the four seasons preceding 2005, when he was benched in the final month of the campaign. The Redskins are expected to purge former first-round pick Patrick Ramsey from the roster, either by trading or releasing him.
Teams looking for a veteran backup will be able to consider Tommy Maddox, who threw for 6,250 yards in 2002 and '03, then lost his starting role in Pittsburgh to Ben Roethlisberger (and now figures to lose his roster spot altogether). The Jets might release Jay Fiedler who, like Pennington, is coming off shoulder woes.
Certainly the roll call of free-agent quarterbacks, always swelled by last-minute cap casualties and other cuts, is going to be an impressive one.
"There's the potential for a lot of talent to suddenly be out there," said agent Ralph Cindrich, who represents Griese, about to be released for the third time since the end of the 2002 season. "It's not all that unusual to see [quarterbacks] getting cut like this, because it's happened in most years recently, but not necessarily this caliber of player."
Nearly one-quarter of the league's QB starters in 2005, seven of 32, had been released or traded at least once in their careers. That quota could increase for the 2006 season.
The caveat, though, is that many of the quarterbacks who will be jettisoned in the next week or two will have to prove themselves physically viable to land long-term contracts commensurate with their skills set. Pennington and Brees are rehabilitating from shoulder surgeries, while Culpepper and Griese are both recovering from torn knee ligaments. In the case of Culpepper, the injury was a catastrophic one, as he tore three ligaments.
So the speed of the quarterback carousel, unlike during most recent offseasons, might be dictated by the pace of recovery for some of the players involved. Not even the injuries, though, will blunt the avid interest level certain to be generated by the several quarterbacks soon to be added to the free-agent market.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.