Quarterbacks proving more durable

Just five games into the 2002 season, the Cincinnati Bengals had already used three different starting quarterbacks, running through the entire depth chart as head coach Dick LeBeau attempted to stem the tide of what would become a seven-game losing streak.

One year later and LeBeau's successor, Marvin Lewis, hasn't gone to the bullpen yet for the first time in his coaching tenure. Jon Kitna, who didn't even start in '02 until both Gus Frerotte and Akili Smith had taken turns demonstrating in the first four contests that neither was the answer, has been rock-solid.

The resurgent Kitna has taken every offensive snap. Yep, all 587 of them, the lone NFL quarterback to hold that distinction just one game into the second half of the season. To this point, at least, Kitna has been good enough to keep Carson Palmer, the top overall pick in this year's draft, tethered to the bench, His mini-iron man act, pales in comparison to longevity streaks of colleagues such as Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, is nonetheless a significant factor in the improvement of one of the league's historically worst teams.

It is also indicative of a 2003 season in which the quarterback carousel, so out of control in recent years, has slowed markedly.

Sure, the perception remains that most coaches have been forced this season, because of injuries and ineptitude, to change quarterbacks the way they change underwear. But the numbers suggest otherwise and, in fact, flat out belie that notion. In this case, perception is not reality, as quarterback attrition has been reduced in the first 10 weeks of the season.

When journeyman Anthony Wright takes his initial snap for the Baltimore Ravens against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon, he will become just the 49th different starter in 2003. Even with seven weeks remaining in the campaign, the relatively low figure augurs well for a position that was transformed into a whirling dervish the past five years.

From 1998-2002, the league averaged 58 different starting quarterbacks annually. Only in 2001 did the number dip below 55. In '98 and '99, there were 64 and 63 different starters, respectively. In that stretch, only two teams, Green Bay with Favre and Indianapolis with Manning, have started the same quarterback in every outing. By comparison, the alleged quarterback mastermind, Brian Billick of Baltimore, by early Sunday evening will have gone through 10 different starters in his five-season tenure.

In his defense, Billick appeared to have found his first durable starter this year, until first-round draft choice Kyle Boller suffered a lateral tear of his right quadriceps last week at St. Louis. The injury figures to sideline Boller, who underwent Monday surgery, for about four or five weeks.

But it is notable that Boller's injury is one of the few serious ones sustained during games this season. That doesn't count the fact, of course, Chad Pennington (wrist) of the New Jets and Atlanta's Michael Vick (fibula) suffered serious injuries in preseason. For the most part, since the season began, there have been few devastating injuries at the position.

Among the quarterbacks who opened the season as starters, Jay Fiedler of Miami (knee), Jacksonville's Mark Brunell (elbow), San Francisco's Jeff Garcia (ankle), Kelly Holcomb of Cleveland (fibula) and Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota (back), arguably sustained the most serious injuries during games. But Brunell probably could have played again after a short hiatus, had the Jaguars organization not used his injury as a convenient excuse to get rookie Byron Leftwich into the lineup. There is no guarantee that Holcomb, given the flip-flop regimen in Cleveland, would not have been benched for inconsistency.

Denver starter Jake Plummer broke his foot getting up off his couch. Rich Gannon of the Raiders went on injured reserve this week with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, but that injury is one that results from degeneration over time, not one big hit in a game.

Fact is, there have been nearly as many quarterback switches because of poor play this year (five) as there have been changes precipitated by injury.

"It has been, looking back, a good year (in terms of quarterback stability), especially if you compare it to some (recent) seasons," acknowledged Tennessee star Steve McNair, one of 17 quarterbacks who have started every game for their respective teams. "Some weeks, I guess, it seems like there is a lot of switching around. But I don't think that it's anything like it has been the last few years. I couldn't, though, tell you why."

There are several reasons posited by coaches and general managers for the slowdown of the quarterback carousel in 2003, including the NFL's continuing emphasis on protection at the position, but most of the elements are on-field components.

A computer breakdown by one NFC franchise, which charts formations, indicated that teams are using fewer "spread" sets with four wide receivers. Some coaches, like Mike Martz of St. Louis, have paid greater heed to pass protection blocking designs. Said one AFC East defensive assistant: "I haven't seen this much 'max' protection in years. Some teams just build a cocoon around their (quarterback)."

Not surprisingly, more teams continue to throw from three- and five-steps drops, which gets the ball out quicker and reduces sacks, which statistically are also down in 2003. The era of the classic seven-step dropback, with a few exceptions, is extinct. But the biggest element might be that teams, like the Carolina Panthers and the Ravens, are running the ball a disproportionate number of times.

For all the high-tech gadgetry of the passing game, NFL offenses in some precincts have undergone a de-evolution of sorts, as the game has skewed back toward the run. That is, in part, a reflection of the emphasis on being more physical, but also an indication that the talent level at the quarterback position has been leavened in recent seasons. Quarterbacks are called on more often now to manage games rather than individually win them. Few quarterbacks have complained about that hardly subtle shift.

"It's just common sense that, if you're not putting the ball up 40 or 50 times a game, then your quarterback isn't going to be hit as much," said Carolina's Jake Delhomme. "And the less hits, you know, the fewer injuries. Being able to use the same (quarterback) every week, to have some stability, is a big boost for any offense."

Indeed, it should come as no surprise that, of the 10 teams either in first place or tied for first place in the league's eight divisions, seven are clubs that have used just one starting quarterback to this point in the season. The 11 teams in or tied for last place, conversely, have averaged 1.73 different starters.

The leaguewide average of 1.5 different starters per franchise is actually very healthy in comparison to the 1998-2002, stretch, when the average was 1.87 per team. In that period, there were 30 teams forced to use three starters in a season and on two occasions, teams used four different starting quarterbacks. Only in 2001 were there fewer than five clubs that used three or four different starters.

This season, only the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders have used three starters and the number may not increase markedly in the second half of the campaign.

Around the league

  • The season-ending shoulder surgery for Rich Gannon certainly magnifies the reality of the Oakland Raiders' dismal quarterback situation, not just for the remainder of the year, but, more significantly, for the long-term. A depth chart where the top two guys are Rick Mirer and Rob Johnson, guys who define the term "journeyman," speaks for itself. But the loss of Marques Tuiasosopo to season-ending knee surgery means the Raiders staff didn't get sufficient time to look at him, time needed to make a decision on whether he qualified as the team's quarterback of the future. Surgeons seem confident that Gannon will make a complete recovery from the operation to repair his torn labrum. But there are no guarantees with such surgery, especially for a player who will be 38 next month, and who didn't have the greatest arm strength before this injury. And there is also the matter of Gannon's contract. The 16-year veteran is due a base salary of $7 million in 2004 and has a salary cap charge of $8.92 million. His deal will almost certainly have to be redone for him to remain with the club. Then again, the Raiders really don't have any viable alternatives and therein lies the problem. Look for Oakland to be involved in attempting to land one of the several veterans who will be cut loose or traded in the offseason, like Mark Brunell or Kurt Warner, and to explore a potential deal for Drew Henson. The point is moot but, on Henson, it's now official he cannot play in the league this year. The NFL collective bargaining agreement stipulates that if a drafted player doesn't sign with a club before the Tuesday following the 10th weekend of the season, he is basically frozen out for the year. No big deal, in the case of Henson, but notable anyway. Henson is still waiting for Nov. 20, when the New York Yankees must set their 40-man roster, to see what the baseball franchise plans for him.

  • Warren Sapp, as we all know, is a lot of things. One thing the Tampa Bay defensive tackle isn't, however, is remorseful about the cheap shot he laid on Green Bay offensive tackle Chad Clifton last season. To his credit, Clifton this week termed the hit, which resulted in a career-threatening pelvis injury, as "ancient history." It clearly has been purged from Sapp's memory banks as well. Sapp acknowledged this week that he never attempted to contact Clifton about the play. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Sapp explained lamely. "I never called Jerry Rice in the hospital (after a 1997 tackle that resulted in a knee injury), never called Jerry Rice one time in my life to speak to him about it. And I got a flag on that play. And Jerry Rice is not the one trying to cut me and roll up on me. I hit an offensive lineman, legally, and now I'm the dirtiest player ever to play this game? You've got to be kidding me." The old "QBKilla," (the name for his web site) has just three sacks this year and Sapp draws Packers guard Mike Wahle, a Pro Bowl-caliber player on Sunday afternoon. Should make for an interesting battle.

  • Incredible how one bad loss at Jacksonville last Sunday could stir so much griping from some Indianapolis players, but both wide receiver Marvin Harrison and tailback Edgerrin James moaned afterwards about not getting the ball enough. Say what? Harrison is yearly one of the NFL's biggest targets, and once again ranks in the top five in 2003 for passes directed at him. James has averaged 26.3 "touches" per game this season. His career norm is 26.8 "touches" per outing. Guess than half-touch reduction in James' workload really is getting him down, huh? Well, James should get his wish this weekend. With Harrison sidelined by a hamstring injury, James almost certainly will be the focal point of the Colts offense, especially since the New York Jets still have one of the NFL's poorest defenses versus the run. Harrison, by the way, has more touchdown catches than the rest of the Indy wide receivers combined. Harrison and Peyton Manning, for all their shared success, have never been particularly close. They'll miss each other, however, this weekend.

  • Two weeks ago, we espoused on the subject of NFL teams dipping into the college ranks to fill head coach vacancies for 2004. But the reverse is true, as well, as some assistants in the league are taking a hard look now at college head coach openings. Cincinnati Bengals defensive line coach Ricky Hunley, we have learned, is campaigning hard for the job at the University of Arizona, his alma mater. An All-American linebacker for the Wildcats, and one of the top players ever turned out by the program, Hunley is said to have solid support from some insiders. But might face competition from University of Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris (for whom the grass always seems greener) and Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. And ESPN.com has learned that New York Giants defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn, a onetime Arizona assistant, is definitely in the mix as well. Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Marc Trestman is very interested in the Duke University job. Army is said to have interest in Bengals tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes and St. Louis special teams coach Bobby April. Eastern Michigan could look to former Michigan State coach, and current Lions receivers aide Bobby Williams, to fill its job vacancy. There are a number of current league assistants, too, who are snooping around the Clemson situation, with the assumption Tommy Bowden will be canned.

  • On the flip side, the success of Bill Parcells in Dallas this year is certainly going to benefit some former NFL coaches currently out of work. Case in point. A few weeks ago, sources close to former Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin assumed he would have to go back to the college ranks (perhaps to Penn State) before resurfacing in the league. "But there are going to be some people," opined one owner who figures to be looking for a new coach, "who will want the (candidate) who has already been in the NFL and enjoyed some success. Coughlin and (Dennis) Green certainly are in that group. What Parcells has done, believe me, means some (owners) will want the low-risk coach over the college guy who has never done it at our level."

  • Whatever grievances Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis and his staff had with Kevin Johnson, and there apparently were many, certainly didn't scare off suitors, as an amazing 16 teams put in waiver claims for the talented wide receiver. Veteran personnel officials to whom we regularly speak can't remember that many waiver claims on any player, at least in the last decade or so, and that number is indicative of Johnson's skill and also how many teams need a receiver of his ilk. The Philadelphia Eagles, whose receivers have underachieved most of the year and who feature former Johnson college teammate Donovan McNabb, put in a claim. Ditto playoff-caliber teams like Indianapolis, Seattle, Tampa Bay, New England, Minnesota, Miami. Completing the list: Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Denver, Jacksonville, New Orleans and the New York Jets. By being awarded Johnson, the Jaguars now have a fairly representative wide corps for the rest of this year and perhaps the future. Notable is that the Jaguars got two pretty good receivers in the past month, Troy Edwards and Johnson, without surrendering anything in return. Most teams felt that getting Johnson would be like landing an additional high-round draft pick, just for basically assuming the balance of his contract. Johnson lacks the speed to be a true "lead" receiver, but would be a splendid No. 2 wideout in virtually any offense in the league. As noted during the week, most coaches who have seen him play feel Johnson possesses the best hands in the league. In a Wednesday morning conversation, Davis told us that keeping an unhappy Johnson around would not have been good for the younger players in the locker room. One of those youngsters, Quincy Morgan, sided with Browns management, suggesting that Johnson had two years under the current regime to play up to the standards expected of him. By the way, Davis knew that Johnson would be a hot commodity on the waiver wire. When he spoke to us Wednesday, about five hours before the waiver period on Johnson expired, Davis guessed that "at least 10" clubs would put in claims. In fact, Davis gave solid recommendations on Johnson to several personnel men who called about the five-year veteran.

  • In the wake of the blockbuster extension signed by wide receiver Chad Johnson on Wednesday evening, the Cincinnati Bengals are garnering mixed reviews, more for the timing of the deal than anything else. Some league observers have wondered why the club didn't complete the deal sooner, before last Monday's deadline for being able to push a part of the salary cap hit into this season. Others question why Cincinnati acted now, with Johnson still having another season beyond this one remaining on his original contract. A few have privately ripped the Bengals for the size of the deal. But no one is criticizing the player or agent Jerome Stanley for jumping on an offer that represented one of the biggest deals ever signed by a veteran with more than a year remaining on his contract. As first reported by ESPN.com on Wednesday, the contract is worth $26.05 million in so-called "new money." The signing bonus isn't quite as big as what was cited but, the combined total of the signing bonus and a second-tier option bonus is $10.5 million. Johnson will get $7 million on the signing bonus and $3.5 million on the option bonus. His base salary for 2003 remains untouched, at $426,500. For 2004, the final year on his original deal, the base salary escalates by $25,000, to $526,750, and he can earn a $250,000 workout bonus. After that, in the extension part of the deal, the base salaries are: $1 million (for 2005), $2.75 million (2006), $3 million (2007), $3.4 million (2008) and $3.6 million (2009). There are annual workout bonuses of $250,000 for those extension seasons and a $250,000 roster bonus in 2009. In terms of immediate cap impact, Johnson's charge for this year rises by $1.007 million, to $1.817 million. But the cap charges are relatively palatable for the next few seasons, $2.142 million for 2004 and $2.96 million for 2005, before jumping to $4.7 million in 2006. As noted here in the past, Johnson certainly has emerged as a big-time talent. Since the beginning of the 2002 season, Johnson has 117 catches, 1,973 yards and 10 touchdowns. Over the same period, his more celebrated cousin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Keyshawn Johnson, has posted 118 receptions, 1,654 yards and eight touchdowns.

  • One young wide receiver who doubtless took notice of Johnson's deal, and likely will try to use it as a "comparable" for his own negotiations, is Steve Smith of Carolina. A former third-round draft pick, chosen 38 spots below second-rounder Johnson in 2001, Smith is in the final season of his original three-year contract and earning the minimum base salary of $389,000. (Johnson signed a four-year, $3.09 million deal in '01). Carolina officials have approached Smith and his representatives with an extension proposal, but the mighty-mite receiver, in one of his typically emotional rants, criticized the offer. The Panthers can probably assure that Smith, a pending restricted free agent, doesn't get any offer sheets next spring by making him a high qualifying offer. Their preference, though, is to lock him up for the long-term. But the Johnson deal probably means Smith is going to raise the ante and, no matter how reasonable the Panthers' offer given the wideout's level of play and his experience, this could be a tough negotiation. To his credit, Smith in the past 1 ½ seasons has emerged as more than just a No. 3 receiver and return specialist. He has started 18 games since the beginning of the 2002 campaign and, in that period, has 106 catches, 1,517 yards and eight touchdowns. Smith also continues to return punts and has a 12.8-yard average this year. But before Smith hits the jackpot, he'll have to continue his current level of play and keep making strides toward maturity, and put behind him the hair-trigger temper that has gotten him into trouble in the past.

  • A nod in the direction of Jets third-year veteran Santana Moss, who has finally developed into the big-play threat New York officials felt they were getting when they selected the former University of Miami star with the 16th overall choice in 2001. With Wayne Chrebet out of the lineup, and now out for the balance of the season because of post-concussion syndrome, Moss has stepped up and blossomed into a "go to" receiver. In the last four games, he has 27 receptions for 474 yards and six touchdowns, with a scoring grab in five straight games. Three of the four games produced more than 100 yards and, in all four, he had at least 96 yards. In that heady stretch, he is averaging 3.4 yards more per catch (17.6-14.2) and has two more touchdowns than the other wide receiver with the "Moss" surname in the league. OK, we agree that it is ludicrous to compare any wide receiver to Randy Moss but, given the progress that Santana has made in 2003, the recent statistics are at least notable. The junior Moss in nine games has already exceeded all his receiving numbers for the first two years of his professional career. "He seems more confident in himself now," said one Jets official. "With the way that things have played out, all the injuries and stuff, Santana became the guy, and it was like he suddenly (embraced) his role." One other element of Moss' newfound success: He has learned to tolerate the little nicks, become much better at playing hurt, than he did in past seasons.

  • Finally, in this long string of wide receiver-related items, there was a quiet but fairly intriguing move made by the Tennessee Titans this week, in signing Marquise Walker to their practice squad. Tennessee feels it might be able to bulk up Walker to about 240 pounds by next season and bring him to camp as a tight end or H-back. Walker was the third-round pick of the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2002 but never played a down for the team in its Super Bowl season. This spring, he was traded to Arizona, in the deal for tailback Thomas Jones, but was released by the Cardinals in training camp. Several teams have auditioned Walker, a big receiver (6-feet-2, 218 pounds) with great speed, but all viewed him as a potential free agent signee in the offseason. But the Titans, realizing veteran Frank Wycheck may never return from the concussions that have sidelined him for the entire season, viewed Walker through a different prism. Given how much the Titans use two-tight end alignments, it's a pretty interesting gamble, and one that costs Tennessee very little investment at all.

  • It's never too early, some teams believe, to begin scrutinizing the unrestricted free agent class for the following year. With that in mind, one guy getting a lot of attention right now is Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse, who seems fully recovered from the foot injury that limited him in 2002. The Titans have suggested they won't allow Kearse to escape and that is probably the case. But a few personnel directors feel Tennessee is so cap-strapped for 2004 that it might not be able to afford Kearse's demands. There is also talk that, given his lofty cap number for '04, tailback Eddie George won't be back with the Titans unless he takes a paycut.

  • Once again the Denver Broncos this week will start a pair of undrafted free agents, Lenny Walls and Kelly Herndon, at cornerback. During the week, the Broncos signed veteran cornerback Ryan McNeil off the street, and there is a chance that he will play in "nickel" and "dime" coverages against San Diego this weekend. All of this is notable because, in 2000 and 2001, Mike Shanahan used his first-round choices to select a pair of cornerbacks, Deltha O'Neal and Willie Middlebrooks, respectively. Things aren't going too well for Middlebrooks, who has bounced back and forth between the cornerback and safety spots, but has started zero games in three seasons. O'Neal, solidly entrenched in the Shanahan doghouse, hit a new low this week. In one last shot at salvaging his career, the Broncos quietly moved O'Neal to wide receiver. Uh, not exactly a ringing endorsement and there seems little way that O'Neal, who can't even get on the field in "nickel" spots now will be back in 2004.

  • Tampa Bay brass tried to make a lot of excuses this week for Kenyatta Walker, the former first-round offensive tackle who drew four major penalties against Carolina last week, but it's just posturing. Sure, it's been tough on Walker moving from the right to the left side, to replace the injured Roman Oben. But he played the left side as a rookie in 2001, so it isn't as if he has no experience there. Opponents have complained all season about Walker's blocking tactics, his penchant for getting his hands in a defender's face, and last week he was flagged three times for that. He was also hit with a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Little wonder Walker was fined $5,000 by the league earlier this week. Bucs assistant Bill Muir is one of the premier line mentors in the game, and it's hard to believe he can tolerate this. In addition, Tampa Bay simply isn't good enough on offense to absorb so many major penalties.

  • We're not big in this space on book reviews, basically because we never have much time to read during the season, and our tastes aren't exactly multi-dimensional. But if you are a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, you might want to snatch a copy of "Always a Steeler," the latest work of hometown guy Jim O'Brien. No author has done more to nicely sustain in print the legacy of the great area teams than O'Brien, with his "Pittsburgh Proud" book series. As usual, Jim's most recent effort is filled with great anecdotes and the chapters on Hall of Fame center Mike Webster are especially poignant. O'Brien can be reached by phone (412-221-3580) or e-mail (jpobrien@stargate.net).

  • Punts: Seattle coach Mike Holmgren opened up the offense in practice this week and publicly acknowledged he now expects more big plays from the inconsistent unit. One player who needs to rebound is wide receiver Darrell Jackson, who leads the league with 14 dropped passes through nine games. . . . Steelers tailback Jerome Bettis, for years a player who always secured the ball, has three fumbles in his last 43 carries. Before that, he had just one bobble in 981 attempts. . . . Although the timetable for his return to the lineup is still probably a Nov. 30 game at Houston, there is a chance that Michael Vick will work a series or two in Atlanta's game against Tennessee a week earlier. . . . The Indianapolis Colts have scored on all 30 forays into the "red zone" this season, with 15 touchdowns and 15 field goals. . . . The aggressive 3-4 front used by coach Dom Capers in Houston was supposed to create sack opportunities. But the Texans have now gone three straight games without a sack and have just eight for the season. The Texans had 35 sacks in 2002, their inaugural season, and are on pace for just 14 in 2003. . . . Look for Kendall Newson, elevated from the Miami Dolphins practice squad last week, to take playing time away from Derrius Thompson.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.