Questions at quarterback

Eight NFL teams, including the Ravens, are banking on unproven QBs as camp opens.

Nfl Training Camps

July 30, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Dissatisfaction and free agency sent NFL quarterbacks scurrying to new ZIP codes in a frenetic offseason of change.

Now comes the training camp melodrama.

Will new millionaire Eli Manning beat out fallen hero Kurt Warner to win the New York Giants' quarterback job?

Can the Cincinnati Bengals' Carson Palmer, with no starts under his NFL belt, out-perform veteran Jon Kitna, who has 76?

And does Vinny Testaverde, with 11 starts the past two years, have enough passes left in his 40-year-old arm to unseat Quincy Carter, 26, who took the Dallas Cowboys to the playoffs last season?

The answers won't arrive for another month, but of this we can be certain: Controversy is just around the corner.

Nearly half the teams in the league will sweat out the starting quarterback position this summer. If history holds form, only a handful are likely to be rewarded for their perspiration. The rest are going down.

Consider it instructive that of the eight teams banking on unproven quarterbacks at the start of training camp, only the Ravens -- with second-year man Kyle Boller -- are viewed as a legitimate playoff team.

The other teams climbing out on that precarious limb are the Arizona Cardinals with Josh McCown, the Chicago Bears with Rex Grossman, the Bengals with Palmer, the Jacksonville Jaguars with Byron Leftwich, the Miami Dolphins with A.J. Feeley, the San Diego Chargers with Philip Rivers and the San Francisco 49ers with Tim Rattay.

While the league is skittering through a salary cap-inspired youth movement at quarterback, two teams that went after established veterans appear to have taken the biggest strides.

Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs opted for experience (Mark Brunell, 33) over promise (Patrick Ramsey, 25) upon his return to the team. Brunell, traded after nine years with the Jaguars, still must prove he has got enough left to hold off Ramsey, who made 16 starts his first two seasons.

In Cleveland, Browns coach Butch Davis finally waved off the Tim Couch era and signed Jeff Garcia, 34, a cap casualty with the 49ers. With the arrival of tight end Kellen Winslow and a capable cast of receivers in place, the Browns figure to be more potent on offense than they have been since returning to the league in 1999.

Davis has raved as much about Garcia's intangibles as his tangibles.

"Everybody is excited about the fact that he has been to an NFC championship game and won [CFL] championships as a player," Davis told reporters before camp. "His charisma and work ethic are the kinds of things that other players recognize and appreciate."

On the flip side, the Dolphins, 49ers and Giants all appear to be worse off for the change at quarterback.

The Dolphins traded a second-round draft choice to the Philadelphia Eagles for Feeley with the idea he'd replace Jay Fiedler. But Fiedler, 32, is 35-17 in four years with the Dolphins, and Feeley, 27, has been slow to pick up the offense.

There was enough pressure on Feeley before Ricky Williams announced his retirement. Now there's a sense of desperation.

The 49ers watched Garcia depart in a salary cap purge that left them with Rattay, 27, and Ken Dorsey, 23, a pair of former seventh-round draft choices who have three starts between them.

Worse yet, Rattay, who started three games for an injured Garcia last season, tore a groin muscle in his first minicamp practice as the starter in May. His recovery from surgery has been good, but he might not play until the second or third preseason game.

The Giants, meanwhile, signed Warner, a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player who was released by the St. Louis Rams, after Neil O'Donnell turned down the chance to be Manning's tutor.

Whether Warner, 33, can regain his MVP form with the Giants -- the rap is he's become skittish in the pocket -- is problematic. The job ultimately will fall to Manning, who collected a cool $20 million signing bonus yesterday to make it to camp on time.

If Manning and fellow rookie Rivers start in New York and San Diego this season, it means at least six players with two years' experience or less will be thrust into action.

The Ravens started Boller as a rookie last year, and although an injury shortened his season, coach Brian Billick said it was the right move.

"`If you go too early, you're going to ruin the kid,'" Billick said of the criticism he heard. "That was the big debate with us and Kyle Boller. `How can you put the kid in that early?'

"But now we're a year removed from it, and I'm sure glad we did. I think you're going to see more and more of these quarterbacks thrown into the breach."

Not everyone can survive the plunge, though. The Chargers drafted Manning and then traded him to the Giants for Rivers this year because Drew Brees has disappointed in two years as San Diego's starter.

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