Former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, in an interview for an NFL Films video in the 1980s, made a telling observation: "Everyone watches the quarterback. No one watches the nose tackle except for the nose tackle's wife and mother."
Boomer was right. NFL starting quarterbacks are a special breed. They're feted and worshipped wherever they go. Because there is no position in all of sports that places so much emphasis and pressure on one athlete, the NFL quarterback is automatically the team's leader, savior and goat, all in one package. Eye-popping contracts are common for quarterbacks simply because the good ones are very difficult to find. Good quarterbacks fill stadiums over the long haul, as witnessed when Dan Marino saved Miami and Joe Montana and John Elway did in San Francisco and Denver. And remember, no one went to Municipal Stadium to see Gary Danielson or Paul McDonald.
Baltimore proved last season an average quarterback is enough to get a team to the Super Bowl only if the defense is mind-boggling dominant and the special teams are just that, special. However, history dictates that championships are most often won by great quarterbacks on great teams.
Here's a look at the 30 quarterback situations on the eve of the 2001 season. By the time you read this, a flurry or trades, signings and releases will likely have changed the situation for many teams
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Neil Lomax, where have you gone? The Cards hopes are still pinned to the erratic Jake Plummer. In uniform, he looks like Joe Montana, and occasionally plays like him. The rest of the time, he does little to remind anyone of the other "Snake" — Hall of Famer Ken Stabler. Plummer tossed 21 interceptions last season against just 13 touchdowns. Not good. Former Giants bust Dave Brown waits in the wings.
ATLANTA FALCONS: Chris Chandler is the Ty Detmer of 2001. He's keeping the center's butt warm until top overall draftee Michael Vick takes the reigns. The brittle Chandler is 35, and is a hit away from toting Vick's bags. Coach Dan Reeves says he wants to bring Vick along slowly because the former Virginia Tech star only played two seasons in college. Expect to see him as a situational substitute until Chandler gets his bell rung.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: The Trent Dilfer show drew few fans despite a Super Bowl victory, so he took his act to Seattle. Now, Elvis Grbac will try to repeat in Baltimore his 4,169-yard, 28-TD performance at Kansas City. If he can't, the aged Randall Cunningham is the backup. Former Louisville star Chris Redmond could be the future. Or not.
BUFFALO BILLS: Fan favorite Doug Flutie is gone, so Rob Johnson finally gets his chance to prove he's the man. Johnson has talented receivers in Eric Moulds and Peerless Price, but must prove he's durable enough to take 16 weeks of pounding. If not, the picture will be bleak — the marginal Alex Van Pelt is the reservist.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: Florida State rookie Chris Weinke is a year older than starter Jeff Lewis, and seemingly far more talented. Expect Weinke to quickly take over the starting job, dropping the interesting Dameyeune Craig to third on the depth chart. Steve Beuerlein was the starter last season and won't be missed.
CHICAGO BEARS: The quarterback mess in the Windy City became a little less cloudy after 1999 first-round draft bust Cade McNown was dealt to Miami. That leaves Shane Matthews and Jim Miller to vie for the affections of the Soldier Field faithful. Neither man is much beyond mediocre, but on paper they have reliable weapons in running back James Allen, receiver Marcus Robinson and rookie David Terrell.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: It took less than two seasons of starts to convince the usually thick-headed management in Cincinnati that Akili Smith is a never-will-be. Seattle failure John Kitna was given $4 million to do something, anything in new Paul Brown Stadium. With Corey Dillon in the backfield, Richmond Webb and Willie Anderson at tackle and a slew of talented young receivers like Peter Warrick, Craig Yeast, Danny Farmer and rookie Chad Johnson, Kitna has no excuse not to put up at least average numbers. If Kitna and Smith fail, the grotesque Scott Mitchell was re-signed.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: Tim Couch is back for his second season … in his third year. The former top overall draft pick missed nine games last season with a thumb busted in practice. On paper, the team upgraded its line with free agents Ross Verba and Tre Johnson, but the running back situation remains unsettled. The receivers are a group of question marks, but the team seems to have found new life in tight end signees O.J. Santiago, Ricky Dudley and H-back Mike Sellers. Couch, who's shown several sparks the past two seasons, could blossom in Bruce Arians short passing scheme. Backup Ty Detmer will be traded to the Lions, leaving Arians protégé Kelly Holcomb as Couch's main understudy. The emergency quarterback is likely Spergon Wynn, who comes far cheaper.
DALLAS COWBOYS: There may not be a team in more disarray than Dallas. Walking concussion Troy Aikman did the right thing and retired. So the Cowboys sign the occasionally talented, usually inconsistent Tony Banks. Then they released him in the preseason and gave the job to raw rookie Quincy Carter. If a weak line gives him the time, he has Joey Galloway and Raghib Ismail, both of whom are coming off knee injuries. Carter looked OK in a preseason game against Oakland, but the Raiders certainly didn't show the rookie what he'll see in the regular saeason. Anthony Wright is on sideline duty for Carter … for now.
DENVER BRONCOS: If Brian Griese's arm is healed, all is well in Mile Hile. If not, Steve Beuerlein and Gus Frerotte could play well enough not to lose games. A trio of 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield and a stable of talented receivers is deadly under Griese's direction, only very good under the other two. Griese's 19 TD vs. 4 INT ratio is proof the former Michigan Wolverine is among the league's best. Elway who?
DETROIT LIONS: Charlie Batch should benefit from an upgraded offensive line, and he must shake the injury-prone tag. New coach Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast offense will demand much from Batch, who only managed 2,489 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. If he gets hurt, veteran Jim Harbaugh, who played at nearby Michigan, is the backup. Ty Detmer is expected to arrive shortly in a trade from Cleveland. Any of the passers should be able to take advantage of a receiving corps that features Germane Crowell, Johnnie Morton and Herman Moore. Tight end Pete Mitchell gives the Lions a threat in the middle of the field. Can Batch get him the ball?
GREEN BAY PACKERS: Title Town is still Brett Favre country. Despite cooling off the past three seasons, Favre is still one of the NFL's best quarterbacks as witnessed by a 3,812-yard, 20-TD performance in 2000. Favre's Week No. 1 start will be his 142nd, extending a league record. Doug Pederson, who was a little less than awful for Cleveland last year, returns for clipboard duty.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: The Colts got a scare when Peyton Manning suffered a minor knee injury in the third preseason game. He's simply the best passer in the NFL, and the best Colt since John Unitas. Manning hit for 4,413 yards and 33 scoring passes last year. The line may be the NFL's best. As long as Edgerrin James totes the rock and Marvin Harrison catches it, the Colts are set for years. Backups Mark Rypien and Billy Joe Hobart won't make fans forget Bert Jones. Or even Mike Pagel, Jack Trudeau or hell, Art Schlichter.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Mark Brunell is slowing down, but can still play. He passed for 20 scores and 3,640 yards in 2000. Critics say Brunell is too brittle and inconsistent to be feared. The offensive line is a major question mark, and the skill players are riddled with injuries. The unknown Jamie Martin is the backup.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Elvis has left the building. All the way to Baltimore, in fact. Trent Green, the once and future king who whose throne was usurped in St. Louis by Kurt Warner, gets his chance under former coach Dick Vermeil. Green was last a regular starter for Washington in 1998, and started five games in 2000 in relief of Warner, posting good numbers. Former Brown Derrick Alexander is a legitimate stud at wide receiver. Todd Collins and the ancient Bubby Brister back up Green.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: Despite the recent addition of Chicago flop Cade McNown, Jay Fiedler is the starter. He was average last season, and will be pressured to improve with the signing of McNown and former Jet Ray Lucas. The team has a stable of decent or better receivers and a bruiser in running back Lamar Smith. If Fiedler fails to improve his 2,402 yard, 14-TD, 14-INT campaign from 2000, a quarterback controversy will erupt in south Florida. Look for the Fish to pursue a passer in the 2002 draft.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: It begins and ends with Duante Culpepper. After not throwing a single pass as a rookie in 1999, he exploded for 3,937 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2000. He also runs well for a big man, recording seven scores on the ground. However, the retirement of running back Robert Smith will force Culpepper to throw more, meaning defenses will lock onto him. Receiver Randy Moss is a TD machine, but Chris Carter is aging rapidly. After them, the roster is thin. The backup quarterback is someone named Todd Bouman. Who?
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Drew Bledsoe returns with an above-average cast of receivers and some questionable running backs. The key is the offensive line, which was terrible in 2000. If it improves, expect another decent season from Bledsoe, but don't look for him in the post season. With Bill "Satan" Belichick at head coach, quarterback capers are nothing new. He released popular backup Michael Bishop (does this sound familiar, Browns fans?) in favor of the very unproven Tom Brady. Belichick likes mobile quarterbacks, which Bledsoe isn't.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Second year surprise Aaron Brooks nabbed the job from the serviceable Jeff Blake. It will be up to Brooks to lead a team through an entire season, and he can't expect to catch anyone by surprise this time. The skill talent is there with Ricky Williams and Duece McAllister in the backfield and Joe Horn, Willie Jackson and Albert Connell. The offense line is perhaps second best in the NFL, so Brooks and Blake, who are also both mobile, have no excuses. If Brooks plays like fans hope, a deep playoff penetration is likely.
NEW YORK GIANTS: Kerry Collins has matured, and plays well enough not to get beat. He'll run the same ball-control offense that got the Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000. The running backs and receivers are as important as the quarterback in this offense. If Collins goes down, he'll be replaced by former Cowboy Jason Garrett, likely without the team missing a beat.
NEW YORK JETS: Vinny Testaverde is nothing better than average, and the Jets' receivers are the same. Running back Curtis Martin should continue to take the pressure off the passing game, but Testaverde is 38 and more and more prone to injuries. And again, he tossed more picks (25) than touchdowns (21). His glory days (or day) are long past. Ray Lucas' departure to Miami hurts, leaving the inexperienced Chad Pennington as the eventual replacement for Testaverde.
OAKLAND RAIDERS: Rich Gannon had a career season in 2000, tossing 28 touchdowns. However, he's 36 and becoming more brittle, fast. If healthy, he could put up similar numbers. The team should be able to keep the heat down thanks to a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Charlie Garner and Tyrone Wheatley. Tim Brown, Jerry Rice and James Jett, if they remain healthy and play young, will make Gannon's life easier. The offensive line is mean and effective, critical for any quarterback. The young and capable Bobby Hoying, an ex-Buckeye, is the reliever.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Donovan McNabb will be relied up to do it all. With no ground game, mediocre receivers and an average overall line, don't expect McNabb to repeat his 3,365-yard, 21-TD performance. Expect him to scramble a lot as receivers run wrong routes, fail to get open and drop balls. Backup Koy Detmer's only pass attempt in 2000 was intercepted.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Look for a typical horrible year from Kordell Stewart, only this time it will get Bill Cowher fired. In the second half of last season, Stewart lifted his game from dreadful to merely awful, but nothing to remind anyone of Terry Bradshaw, or even Bubby Brister. Kent Graham is the backup and can be expected to see a lot of action. Tee Martin, a 2000 draft pick may also get in on the action. It doesn't matter: Stewart and Cowher won't be around in 2002.
ST. LOUIS RAMS: Kurt Warner will likely never match his MVP performance of 1999, but his second-best is still better than most other quarterback's top stuff. Warner and Co. have all the weapons in place for another title run. He did begin to show a disturbing trend of pickoffs. It's possible he's on the slide, but doubtful. If Warner goes down with an injury, ex-Ohio State signal caller Joe Germaine is ready.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: This team is a mess, and the addition of Doug Flutie isn't the answer. The worst offensive line in the NFL requires a quarterback that can get out of the way. Flutie can, and San Diego has a couple of players who can help him make plays on the run, like tight end Freddie Jones and receivers Jeff Graham and Curtis Conway. If top pick LaDainian Tomlinson blossoms, it'll help the passing game. It'll still be a long year in SoCal. Draft pick Drew Brees can expect to see playing time when the aged Flutie gets hurt.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Was Jeff Garcia's 4,278-yard, 31-TD, 10-INT campaign of 2000 a fluke? Perhaps, but he'll likely still post good numbers in 2001. With no featured running back, the reliance on the pass will hurt Garcia. He has targets in Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes, but don't expect a flurry of scoring again. Tim Rattay and Giovanni Carmazzi are faceless backups. The offensive line is old but decent.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Who the hell is Matt Hasselbeck, and why is Seattle coach Mike Holmgren so happy to get him? With John Kitna spirited away to Cincinnati, the Seahawks will rely on a passer who's never started an NFL game, but is being billed as smart and as talented as the 49ers' Garcia. With local boy Brock Huard in the wings, Hasselbeck will have to learn on the run. He'll benefit from the aging but multitalented Ricky Watters, but the receiving corps is young and inexperienced. The line is solid.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Brad Johnson was handed Shaun King's job. Neither put up anything but average numbers in 2000, and that's all that's expected of them in the Bucs' conservative system. Keyshawn Johnson is the leader of the NFL's most disappointing receiving unit. Talented running backs and an excellent line will mask the shortcomings from either quarterback. If disaster strikes and both Johnson and King go down, colicky Ryan Leaf festers on the bench.
TENNESSEE TITANS: Steve McNair gets a lot of press for being average and injury prone. Occasional starter and backup Neil O'Donnell is not much less talented, and may be a bit more savvy. Eddie George and some talented receivers and an OK line keep the offense churning. Don't expect great things from the passing game, but don't expect it to lose many games by itself.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Tony Banks came in cold off the waiver wire from Dallas and shredded the improved Browns defense in the third preseason game. It could have been a fluke or a flash. Banks has been told Jeff George is the starter. George was never the answer in Indianapolis or Atlanta, and there's no reason to think he will in Washington. He'll have some great games, and some truly dreadful ones. Banks played himself out of a job in St. Louis, Baltimore and lasted only into the preseason in Dallas. Expect the Skins to chase a QB in the 2002 draft.