Since the AFC North was created during the 2002 realignment, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have been the biggest bullies within the conference. Those teams have combined for seven division titles in the past nine seasons.
With new eras beginning simultaneously for Ohio's two NFL franchises, young quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Colt McCoy will be aiming to shift the balance of power toward the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, respectively. Quarterback is the league's most important position, and if Dalton and McCoy turn out to be the long-term solutions, it could go a long way toward potentially turning the AFC North on its head.
The Steelers and Ravens have their answers at quarterback. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, 29, already has led his team to three Super Bowls, winning two, and is currently in the prime of his career. Baltimore's Joe Flacco, 26, has led the Ravens to three consecutive playoff appearances and continues to get better.
That puts an immense amount of pressure on Dalton and McCoy to catch up. Their futures directly tie into Cincinnati and Cleveland's ability or inability to close the gap within the division. If both are busts, there might not be an end in sight to the dominance by Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Neither the Bengals nor the Browns have any shot of overcoming these perennial contenders with shoddy quarterback play.
"It's horrible; there's nothing good about [inexperienced quarterbacks] facing the Ravens and Steelers," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "They're not carbon copies of each other, but their philosophy is pretty similar. They're going to take away your running game, and you're not going to outwork them in the trenches or move them. Then you're one-dimensional, and then you're in trouble."
Cleveland has had a number of quarterbacks eaten alive by Baltimore and Pittsburgh since returning to the NFL in 1999. Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn are just some of the players who were battered, beaten and couldn't maintain long-term success in the AFC North. McCoy is next in line to give it a shot this season.
Last season McCoy showed flashes of promise, but he got off to an inauspicious start against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. He went 0-3 against the Steelers and Ravens, throwing for two touchdowns and eight interceptions in those games. If McCoy has similar performances against Cleveland's biggest rivals in Year 2, he won't hold his starting job very long.
"I think he played like a rookie at times and then he far exceeded my expectations at other times," Browns president Mike Holmgren said recently of McCoy. "It coincided with the games we won and a couple games that we lost. ... Did he exceed expectations from me? I would have to say yes, because I didn't expect him to play. Is there a huge upside and much more to come? I would say yes to that, too, because he is a young man just learning to play the position in our league."
Holmgren echoes the sentiment of Cleveland's coaches and those in the front office, who remain optimistic about McCoy. But Williamson isn't convinced.
Williamson recently ranked the Browns last in his post-draft Power Rankings, leading Scouts Inc. to predict Cleveland will take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the top pick in the 2012 draft. If this scenario plays out, McCoy's first full season as a starter in 2011 projects to be a disaster.
"I really worry about the guy's arm strength. I just can't get around that," Williamson said. "When the weather gets bad, he's not going to be able to complete passes in Cleveland. I think he's a real good fit in the West Coast offense. I think he has some moxie to him and I like the way he plays. But when it's December and the Steelers and Ravens are in town, you better be able to complete a deep out."
Former No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer did have success, which is why Cincinnati is the only team other than Baltimore and Pittsburgh to win the AFC North. The Bengals won division titles in 2005 and 2009.
Palmer, who demanded a trade and threatened to retire this offseason, was particularly tough against the Ravens. He was 9-4 as a starter versus Baltimore, and the Ravens certainly won't miss Palmer if he never plays another down in Cincinnati.
That is where Dalton comes in. Barring an unexpected change of heart by Palmer, Dalton is projected to be the Week 1 starter in Cincinnati after leading TCU to an undefeated season in 2010.
Dalton, like many successful quarterbacks, comes to Cincinnati with confidence and a very competitive attitude.
"Obviously, everyone knows about the current situation with Carson Palmer," Dalton said. "As far as I know, it's open [competition]. We're trying to figure out who will be the guy, and I’m looking forward to it."
Dalton's biggest strengths are his accuracy and leadership, which will be needed in Cincinnati. Dalton recently said he models his game after some of the top quarterbacks in the league.
"Growing up and watching the NFL, I saw what Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have done. They seem to have full control over their team," Dalton explained. "You see how well it's worked out for them. Recently, I watched Aaron Rodgers even before he won the Super Bowl. He's a guy who took advantage of his opportunity when it was his time. I think those are three guys that I've watched and studied. Hopefully I can take something from each of their games."
Neither McCoy nor Dalton was a top draft pick. McCoy was a third-rounder in 2010, and Dalton was taken in the second round last month. Yet both are projected to start very early in their careers and, thus, will carry pressure similar to being a first-round pick.
Time will tell if Dalton and McCoy will eventually lead to a quarterback changing of the guard in the AFC North. But count Williamson among the biggest skeptics.
"They both won a ton of games in college, were wonderful college players, and you want your daughter to marry them," Williamson explained. "But they just don't throw the football as well as they have to be 'The Guy' in that division."