Attention is growing for the upcoming array of coaching and front office changes that are now just weeks away, but there is going to be just as much movement in the quarterback market. A third of the league is likely to make some sort of quarterback change, and many of them will involve releasing a starter.
Several quarterbacks have not performed to the level of their contracts. Injuries, age and the arrival of a younger starter have derailed others, and in the cases of teams like Kansas City and Arizona, at least two of the passers who have started for them in 2012 are unlikely to be back in 2013 (if not all three in the case of the Cardinals). Factor in impending regime changes about to take foot in coaching and front office circles and the potential for change is significant.
In this era of the passing attack, and with so many young quarterbacks starting so soon, it seems odd that so many clubs could be so unsettled at the most important position in sports. But that's precisely the case. Even with guys like Michael Vick, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mark Sanchez getting big-money extensions recently, and Alex Smith getting a decent-money extension just last offseason, and considering how many quarterbacks floated around the free-agent market just a year ago (Peyton Manning, Matt Flynn and Smith among them), who would have thunk it that we'd be on the cusp of so much more quarterback movement?
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But make no mistake, it's coming. Just consider the following candidates:
• Philadelphia, Michael Vick: $15.5M base salary in 2013, $16.9 cap number. Vick is getting healthier but the Eagles like what they see from Nick Foles and are riding him down the stretch. Coach Andy Reid is almost certain not to be back, and there is a minimal cap hit involved here. Vick could end up wherever Reid goes next, assuming that team needs roster help at quarterback. Also, at the time Vick was re-instated to the NFL, and before he signed with the Eagles, the Raiders and Bills were very interested in him. Both could need a bridge starter, and seeing Vick land with either team would not surprise me. It's not entirely out of the question that he remains in Philadelphia, even on a much lower salary. Also, Browns president Joe Banner held the same title with the Eagles at the time Philadelphia signed Vick, and has supported him in the past. Bottom line, even at his age and with how beat up he has been, Vick will have starting options elsewhere this offseason, especially with so much change afoot.
• Oakland, Carson Palmer: $13M base salary, $15.35M cap number. The Raiders are trying to get their cap in order and get younger. Though they don't have an incumbent on the roster (will they finally take a look at Terrelle Pryor for goodness sake?), Palmer has struggled this season and amassed a lot of his yardage and production after the team has fallen far behind in games. New GM Reggie McKenzie prizes the draft and would not have made the deal for Palmer in the first place. Best case for Palmer might be to take a salary hit and remain there at a much lower figure, because trading that contract is impossible.
• Arizona, Kevin Kolb: $9M base salary, $2M roster bonus due the fifth day of the league year (Cards also likely to let go of John Skelton, who lost his job to rookie Ryan Lindley). Kolb has barely played in his two years there because of injury. The Cardinals tried to upgrade from him a year ago, and after having already paid him $20 million it's hard to imagine another $9 million investment. That won't be happening. Could Kolb end up as a backup candidate wherever Reid does? Guess I wouldn't be shocked. He will be staring at a prove-it contract no matter where he lands.
• Kansas City, Matt Cassel: $7.5M base salary, $9.825M cap number (Brady Quinn likely gone, too). Cassel has lost his job to Quinn, even though current GM Scott Pioli has been a big supporter. Pioli stuck with Cassel after acquiring him and signing him to a big contract shortly after taking over in Kansas City in 2009. The fans badly want a new quarterback and whoever takes over there won't be paying Cassel. He is a tremendous kid, and, who knows, maybe the Pats find a spot for him (though I don't see them carrying three quarterbacks, and Ryan Mallett is still an intriguing candidate). If Josh McDaniels lands somewhere as a head coach Cassel might make sense as a backup.
• San Francisco, Alex Smith: $7.5M base, $1M roster bonus due third day of league year. A few weeks back this wouldn't be mentioned as much, but with youngster Colin Kaepernick now the starter there, should Smith remain the backup down the stretch and into the playoffs, this will come to a head. Smith already had bruised feelings about the pursuit of Peyton Manning last year and wants to start. Paying him $8.5 million to be an insurance policy doesn't make sense, especially in a year in which so many backup options will be available. Staying in the NFC West, going to quarterback-starved Arizona and getting two cracks at Jim Harbaugh and those 49ers sounds like something that Smith would relish, though, does it not?
• Seattle, Matt Flynn: $5.25M base salary, $7.25M cap number. Flynn never got to start with rookie Russell Wilson winning the job in camp and thriving the past six weeks. There is no significant cap hit involved with letting him go. Keeping Flynn doesn't make sense with such a young starter and with Flynn wanting to play after sitting behind Aaron Rodgers for years. As a backup, returning to Green Bay could be an option, if the price is right.
• Tennessee, Matt Hasselbeck: $5.5M base, $7.5M cap number. The Titans were near the bottom of the standings with him playing in place of injured Jake Locker. The Titans are notoriously frugal and with Locker the future, and Hasselbeck not needed as much as a bridge quarterback, this could be the end for him there. Should Ken Whisenhunt remain coach in Arizona, there is a possibility he could land there, if Smith doesn't. Whisenhunt has considered him in the past. Hard to envision a return to Seattle after some bruised feelings on the way out a few years back.
• Buffalo, Ryan Fitzpatrick: $4.25M base, but $3M roster bonus due second day of league year, $10.45M cap number. Bills GM Buddy Nix can't stop talking about his burning desire to draft a quarterback -- though he passed on that several times to stick with Fitzpatrick in the past and give him a deal some believed was ill-fated at the time. Fitzpatrick hasn't been as productive since signing it, and if Nix stays, this team, watching its bottom line, is clearly in the market for a replacement. Any GM who replaced Nix could easily balk at this contract as well. The roster bonus will force this issue early in the offseason. People I am talking to don't believe he will get that roster bonus in Buffalo.
• Jacksonville, Blaine Gabbert: Money isn't the issue here, but the reality is Gabbert's presence was a deterrent to many candidates in the head coaching search a year ago, and if this job opens up again (and even if it doesn't, frankly) this is a franchise in need of a change. Chad Henne is the starter now. Henne fared well last week and just may keep it through the end of the season. A GM who didn't draft Gabbert might be more inclined to make changes at the position as well.
• Cleveland, Brandon Weeden: Again, money isn't the issue here, production is, as is a regime change that is already afoot. More changes could come in the front office and coaching ranks. Weeden has struggled since new owner Jimmy Haslam took over, was a controversial choice in the first round prior to Haslam's arrival and league sources say the Browns are not in any way averse to making a change at this position in 2013 if need be. Even though he is a rookie, Weeden is already pushing 30, and he may not be a fit in a new offense the Browns figure to run in 2013 after changes are made.
• New York, Mark Sanchez : Even if there is a regime change with the Jets in 2013, you would expect them to want to Mark Sanchez out, but with Sanchez guaranteed $8.25 million next season, with no offset, and with that entire sum being due within 30 days of him being released, that would be a lot for owner Woody Johnson to cough up just to get someone off the roster. Still, though, it's not out of the realm of possibility. Beyond that, current backups like Jason Campbell, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Whitehurst and Colt McCoy could well be moving on. And developmental quarterbacks who have some eexperience, are being eyed by teams for signings after the season in January.
So get ready to hear plenty about quarterbacks who have done, well, little, lately.
Bears' falling fortunes could cost Lovie
Every year is seems we see a coach fired who, had we broached the topic of his job security back in the middle of the season, it would have seemed crazy. This year, Lovie Smith might be that guy.
Go back to November and the Bears are cruising and leading their division in a season in which they came in with heavy expectations. But look at the state of the team, their failings and their schedule, and this club might end up with another late-season collapse. They could end up missing the postseason entirely, especially after their troubling loss to the Vikings and with teams like the Cowboys, Vikings, Redskins, Seahawks and Rams all winning.
Smith has had a way of having his best seasons when he was about to enter his lame-duck year, but this time, with his deal set to expire in 2013, I am hearing there hasn't been much movement on extension talks, and the issue could well come to a head this offseason. The team brought in a new general manager last year and after reshuffling the coaching staff and adding Brandon Marshall, this team was supposed to be a contender.
Yet the offense is barren outside of Jay Cutler throwing it up for Marshall -- that connection has been nothing short of magical -- but Smith's defense inevitably wouldn't keep producing turnovers at the historic rate it did in the first half of the season, and its age and injury-prone nature has become an issue at the most crucial time.
The Bears face a critical game with the Packers next week, get a reprieve against hapless Arizona and finish against the Lions, who would love to play spoiler. This from a team that was 7-1 at the midpoint of the season. Since then they have topped 17 points just once in a five-game stretch, the defense often seems a step slow and playmakers (Marshall aside) aren't making too many plays. Cutler still seems too perfectly willing to haphazardly toss the ball to the other team.
It could make for an uncomfortable January around Halas Hall.
• The Ravens needed a complete game from Joe Flacco on Sunday -- they got a masterful first half and a dreadful second half. Flacco surrendered another strip-sack while holding a lead -- like in the loss to Pittsburgh -- then threw awful red-zone pick. On the next drive, Flacco failed to pick up an obvious overload from his left and failed to find his hot read, ending a drive. In his defense, Michael Oher does not look like a left tackle, again (switching him to the right and going back to Bryant McKinnie might make sense with some monster pass rushing teams left on the schedule -- Broncos, Giants and Bengals). Regardless, the Ravens may be hard pressed to win another game, which would be a stunning collapse of their own.
• Another rough patch for Jake Locker. The interception he threw in the second half Sunday, nearly from his own end zone, was unconscionable, and this still points to being a critical offseason for him. The Titans might be one year from finding themselves with Locker where the Jags find themselves now with Gabbert
• Kudos to the Vikes for being content to try to run it down the Bears' throats Sunday. They ran the ball on 14 of their first 18 plays -- not letting Christian Ponder lose the game for them -- and protected the football. AP is looking more and more like an MVP candidate each week.
• Nothing may have shocked me more this week than how the Pittsburgh defense responded to open the third quarter Sunday after the Steelers kicked what looked like it would be a big field goal at the end of the half. The Chargers owned third down all day -- stunning in and of itself -- and especially on this epic march. San Diego held the ball for about 9:30, for 17 plays, and capped it with a touchdown that set the tone for the rest of the game. For as well as the Pittsburgh defense has been playing, and with the Chargers season over, I was beyond surprised by this drive.
• Matt Ryan the last four weeks: 106 of 160, 1,161 yards, 4 TDs, 7 INTs, rating of 77.6. Can't see him winning the MVP race at this point, though at the middle of the season he had my vote.
• The Cards and Raiders are clearly the worst teams in football right now. If Arizona finishes with 12 straight losses, it's hard to imagine Whisenhunt surviving, even though the Cards would have to eat $5.5 million to let him go, which is out of character for them. If he is gone, keep in mind the job Todd Haley did there as coordinator, and the high esteem with which the Bidwills hold him. Ownership wanted Haley back on the staff for 2012, and it didn't work out. But people I am talking to in the league could see Haley back as head coach.