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Taking the air out of QB excess

What a year for quarterbacks.

The Packers' Aaron Rodgers has been unstoppable. The Saints' Drew Brees and the Patriots' Tom Brady may have had some difficulties in road games, but both quarterbacks remain on pace for 5,000-yard seasons. The Giants' Eli Manning is quietly having his best year, completing 64.7 percent of his passes and leading three fourth-quarter comebacks.

Matthew Stafford (Lions), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Bills) and Cam Newton (Panthers) are playing like elite quarterbacks, far exceeding expectations for this season.

But some of the other big-name quarterbacks aren't doing as well. It will be an important game for Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman on Sunday, when his Buccaneers visit the New Orleans Saints. Even though he's completing 61.5 percent of his passes, Freeman has thrown 10 interceptions and his offense is averaging a substandard 18.7 points a game.

Philip Rivers of the Chargers is clearly pressing. He leads the NFL with 14 turnovers and is making mistakes uncommon for a quarterback of his ability. It took shotgun formations and a rally from a 21-point deficit for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to end a five-game slump. His completion percentage is at a career-low 53.8.

Tony Romo of the Cowboys has been riding the Romo-Coaster, juggling heroic games and horrible losses.

Even though this is a quarterback-driven league, quarterbacks can't do everything. In the cases of just about all of these struggling top quarterbacks, their pass-catchers aren't stepping up. The Cowboys are third in the league in dropped passes with 16, the Bucs are tied for fourth with 15. A lack of speed among the pass-catchers in Baltimore and San Diego has forced Flacco and Rivers to hold onto the ball too long and often force some bad throws.

Also keep in mind that quarterbacks -- like all athletes in sports -- go through slumps. That's not an excuse, but it's a reality.

From the inbox

Q: When is the league (or the officials) actually going to start ejecting players from games for violent hits? I'm glad to see that the NFL is trying to crack down on dirty hits. However well-intentioned, the fines (and even threats to fine the teams themselves) don't seem to be making a significant dent in the attitude of the players who make those kind of hits. If I were a player, coach or owner, I would certainly take the issue a lot more seriously if the consequence affected my team's ability to win, as would be the case if players were ejected from games.

Joel in Boston

A: The refs did eject Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant after a head butt, but they probably could be a little more aggressive in doing that to a few others. You can see that the fines and the threats of suspensions have worked. Defensive players are changing the way they are tackling. It has led to a lot of bad techniques for some teams, but players are getting it. They may not like it, but they understand it is a different league. You'll see some ejections before the end of the season.

Q: It seems that any quarterback who gets placed into Andy Reid's system in Philadelphia does well. Yet, when they go elsewhere, they falter.
Is Reid's system largely responsible for the success of these quarterbacks?

Marshall in Austin, Texas

A: I'd say you are on to something. Reid has a great offensive coaching staff. The Eagles have great play calling. They also have great talent. Donovan McNabb's drop-off is understandable. He's getting old. Kevin Kolb's a little more confusing because he has talent, but doesn't look as comfortable in the pocket. But there's no question Reid gets the most out of his quarterbacks, which is why the Eagles would be foolish to ever let Reid go as their head coach.

Q: Who is in the best position to improve their team right away, the Bengals with all those draft picks from the Carson Palmer deal or the Colts, who will probably get the top pick and can either select Andrew Luck or make a trade?

John in Silver Spring, Md.

A: If Peyton Manning is healthy for 2012, the Colts would have the better chance to improve faster than the Bengals, just because a healthy Manning is better than a young Andy Dalton. But it will be fun watching the Bengals improve. The Colts could trade Luck and try to get playmakers -- cornerbacks or defensive ends -- on defense or grab some top receiving talent. They could also improve their offensive line. The Bengals have a decent base of defensive talent, but they can fill out holes on their offensive and defensive lines with the picks acquired for Palmer.

Q: Everyone says Luck is the most-prepared QB to come along since Peyton Manning. Then, in the next breath, they say how perfect it would be for him to sit and learn from Manning for a couple of years. If the first one is true, the other, to me, makes no sense whatsoever. Wouldn't it be best for Luck to get drafted by someone for whom he could play right away, and do his own learning by experience? What sense does it make to have him sit the bench for two-to-four years?

JonR in Wait Park, Minn.

A: Drafting Luck to sit for a year or two would be silly. He's good enough to turn a poor team into a playoff team in one or two years. Look at what happened to Manning. He went to the Colts and they went 13-3 the following season. Luck needs to play right away. He's that good. Normally, it's nice to give a quarterback time to learn an offense. But look how fast Christian Ponder, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have adjusted to the game. Drafting Luck to sit would be like winning a $500,000 car in a lottery and letting it sit in the garage. There is nothing wrong with not rushing to a trade. The team that might trade Luck would want maximum value, but Luck needs to play.

Q: Given modern-day tight ends are more athletic, more teams are moving to two-tight end sets and formations. Could this eventually lead to the elimination of the fullback?

Derek in Dallas

A: That's been happening the last two years. More teams are taking tight ends and using them like fullbacks and eliminating the fullback position. You don't see Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and New England with a fullback on their rosters. There will always be some teams that will hold to the idea of using a fullback. Those teams do better on goal-line plays with a halfback following a fullback block.

Q: Is there any way to play defense these days with the rules being the way they are? It's bad enough that refs allow WRs to manhandle DBs on deep balls, but all these personal fouls are out of control. In particular, the Bernard Pollard penalty on MNF was ridiculous. How are you supposed to defend a quick slant, stand there and let the guy catch it and run by you? Pollard led with the shoulder, hit the WR in the chest and it was still a penalty. With the way the rules are, why would you not just throw a slant pass on every play?

Mike N in Pasadena, Calif.

A: This is the toughest I've ever seen it for cornerbacks, so I agree with you to a certain degree. But you can still play good defense. The Steelers, Ravens and others are having good years. But the jobs of corners are so much harder with the way the game is changing. How does a corner cover a deep throw? If he tries to stay ahead of the receiver to stop the fade pass, the receiver can move behind him and make a back-shoulder reception of an underthrown pass. If the defender uses his hands or body too much, he gets a penalty. Teams in zone defenses have a bigger problem because officials are going to throw flags if you try to hit the receiver before his feet are set. The trend is to use more man-to-man and hope the defender wins the tough battle.

Q: I think the Rams' Sam Bradford is a better QB than people realize. He just needs more weapons, right? And is Brandon Lloyd a long- or short-term answer as the team's No. 1 WR?

Ryan in Fort Worth, Texas

A: I'm with you 100 percent. You saw how well he did last year in getting the team to seven wins as a rookie. It amazed me the Rams didn't go after Sidney Rice or a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver to give him a chance to advance. Before his high ankle sprain, he was the most-hit quarterback in the league. He was hit because he had to wait for his receivers to get open. There isn't enough separation between Rams receivers and opposing corners. Lloyd will help because he has No. 1 ability, but the Rams need more help. With decent receiving talent, Bradford can take the next step and become an elite quarterback.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter
@ClaytonESPN