In the autumn of 2011 the Indianapolis Colts did not have a serviceable NFL quarterback on their roster. Peyton Manning was sitting out the season with a neck injury while Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins were combining for 14 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 72.2 that was third worst in the league (and 22.7 points lower than Manning's career average). The Colts won just two games in a dreadful season that would position the franchise to draft Andrew Luck out of Stanford and immediately reverse course with 11 wins and a playoff appearance in '12.
That turnaround was a distant dream when the Colts had lost their first 13 games, scoring a single touchdown or less in four of those. This futility took place in Bill Polian's 28th—and last—year as an NFL personnel executive. He was fired by the Colts after the 2011 season and now works for ESPN. Yet it was also the first time since 1985, Polian's second season in the Bills' front office, that he had been left without an effective quarterback. (That year the Bills went 2--14 as the combination of Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison threw nine touchdown passes and 31 picks; but Polian knew Buffalo had the rights to USFL quarterback Jim Kelly, who would eventually take the Bills to four Super Bowls and earn a place in Canton.)
The span in Polian's career from Ferragamo-Mathison in '85 with the Bills to Painter-Orlovsky-Collins with the '11 Colts included not just Kelly, but a much younger Collins in Carolina and Manning for 13 healthy seasons in Indianapolis. Still, the feeling of need came flooding back to him like an old injury. "You never forget what it feels like to not have a quarterback," says Polian. "Every single minute you don't have that guy, you think about it. How do I get a quarterback?"
Polian says that in 2011 he tried at least three times to work a trade with the Broncos for Kyle Orton as Tebowmania swept Denver. Polian spent hours evaluating every backup quarterback in the league and even quarterbacks who had been idle. (Collins had been retired seven weeks when the Colts signed him near the end of training camp that year.) "It's just a nightmare," says Polian. "And the real problem is, there just aren't many guys who can do the job."
As the NFL calendar flips from Super Bowl frenzy into the off-season of acquisition and change, about half the league is living Polian's nightmare, constrained by a quarterback who is not quite good enough to win or, worse, is lacking so much that he can only lose. It is a common circumstance because franchise quarterbacks have always been the most prized currency in the league. But the pressure is intensified in 2013 because of the immediate success of rookies Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson and second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Even more pointedly, while Luck and Griffin were taken first and second in the 2012 draft, the spots customarily reserved for presumptive Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Kaepernick was drafted in the second round in '11 and Wilson in the third last year.
"Right now you've got a lot of fan bases and owners asking, Why can't we go out and draft a guy like [Wilson] in the third round?" says Bill Kuharich, who was a personnel executive with the Saints from 1986 to '99 and with the Chiefs for a decade after that. "A lot of teams passed on that guy, and now that looks like a pretty bad decision."
Matt Hasselbeck, a 14-year NFL quarterback who is now slotted as Jake Locker's backup with the Titans, has witnessed handfuls of quarterback personnel scenarios in Green Bay (two years), Seattle (10 years) and Tennessee (two years). "These guys have raised the expectations for the position," Hasselbeck says. "Because of the success of Luck and RG3 and Wilson, you don't get to use that first-year excuse so easily. It used to be you could say Look at Peyton Manning's [bad] first year. Or look at Troy Aikman's [bad] first year. Or Rick Mirer's. Or Ryan Leaf's. You just can't say that now."
The influx of young quarterbacks, in concert with dynamic changes that make NFL offenses resemble college option games (which may or may not endure), has given many fans (and, more quietly, front offices) cases of quarterback envy. It was one thing to watch Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger—acknowledged superstars and likely first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks—routinely take teams to playoffs and Super Bowls. But it's more painful to watch Wilson and Kaepernick do it when you, the Kansas City Chiefs fan, are stuck with Matt Cassel.
And with the pain comes a fundamental question that is both blissfully simple and painfully complex: When do you cut loose a quarterback and start over?
Consider five quarterbacks between the ages of 25 and 32, with at least four years' experience as starters, who have never won a playoff game. Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Bills, Josh Freeman of the Bucs, Tony Romo of the Cowboys and Mark Sanchez of the Jets. Each has done enough to tease—and enough to dispirit. Cassel, Fitzpatrick, Freeman and Sanchez have pedestrian career passer ratings, ranging from 71.7 (Sanchez) to 80.4 (Cassel). These Bubble Five are the types of quarterbacks who make fan bases and front offices wonder if they can do better. (For a cautionary tale, consider the Chargers, who let Brees go after the 2005 season.)
Cassel is 30, and last year he played only nine games due to a concussion suffered in Week 5; he's missed 14 of 32 regular-season games with injuries in the last two seasons. Fitzpatrick, also 30, is 8--18 since agreeing to a six-year, $62 million contract on Oct. 28, 2011, and according to Scott Kacsmar of coldhardfootballfacts.com, is 2--11 over the last two years in fourth-quarter comeback situations. Freeman, 25, threw 25 TD passes and only six picks in his breakout season of 2010, but he's slumped badly since, with 43 TDs and 49 interceptions and an 11--20 record as a starter. Romo, 32, is still regarded by most NFL insiders as a premier quarterback (his career average of 7.9 yards per pass attempt is second only to Rodgers among active quarterbacks), but he has been sabotaged by a leaky Dallas defense and his own errors in judgment. His record as a starter since 2010 is 17--21.
The 26-year-old Sanchez, says Polian, "is the best example," of the bubble quarterback. Twice he was the Jets' starter in the AFC Championship Game. His individual statistics have been nearly identical in the two years since, but the Jets have twice missed the playoffs, and the erosion of his stature and reputation—encapsulated in the ignominious "butt fumble" this year—has made his future with the Jets the subject of near-constant debate in New York.
Decisions will be made in the coming weeks that will affect the future of these quarterbacks and the direction of their franchises. "Teams are going to say, We don't like Player X anymore," says Kuharich. "But is Player Y any better?" The success of Griffin, Luck, Wilson and, to a lesser degree, 2012 first-rounder Ryan Tannehill in Miami, will create a mighty temptation for teams to reach into the draft in search of a miracle. Players such as Ryan Nassib of Syracuse, Geno Smith of West Virginia and Matt Barkley of USC will climb steadily up the charts through February and March. A run-pass threat like E.J. Manuel of Florida State will be attractive because he reminds personnel directors of Wilson.
Of all the scenarios in which Hasselbeck has been involved, the one he endorses is stockpiling quarterbacks. "I was a sixth-round draft choice [out of Boston College in 1998, the seventh QB taken in the Manning-Leaf draft]," says Hasselbeck. "And when I got to Green Bay, I was the number 4 quarterback on the roster. [Green Bay general manager] Ron Wolf believed it was important to develop the quarterback position."
Hasselbeck sat for two years behind Brett Favre and threw just 29 passes, but in 2001 Mike Holmgren (who had taken over the Seahawks in 1999) traded for Hasselbeck. In Seattle he won the starting position, but not before proving he could be better than veteran Trent Dilfer, who had led the Ravens to a Super Bowl title the season before. "Trent Dilfer came into the room and said, 'I'm going to try to beat you out because I know you're not interested in being the best player on this roster—you want to be the best player in the league,' " recalls Hasselbeck. "That was such a mentality switch for me. But that's what you need in that room."
Hasselbeck became a civic treasure in Seattle, with 11 playoff games and a Super Bowl appearance during the 2006 season, but when coach Pete Carroll and G.M. John Schneider took over the Seahawks in '10, the old cycle repeated itself: Seattle signed Charlie Whitehurst to a two-year, $8 million contract. A year later Hasselbeck left as a free agent and signed with Tennessee, but the Seahawks kept experimenting at quarterback, signing Tarvaris Jackson from the Vikings in July 2011 and then signing Matt Flynn (Rodgers's former backup with Green Bay) and drafting Wilson a year later.
"I have tremendous respect for Carroll and Schneider," says Hasselbeck. "They invested in the quarterback position. I'm a believer in that, because I think it will pay dividends one way or the other. Maybe the quarterback doesn't become the Guy, but he's a quality player who makes your wide receivers and tight ends better in practice. Or he just pushes the guy who becomes the starter. Now so many teams only carry two quarterbacks because of the money. They figure, I'll let somebody else develop my quarterback."
Similarly, in the 2011 off-season the 49ers signed Alex Smith to a one-year contract and, with David Carr also on the roster, drafted Kaepernick in the second round. When Smith suffered a concussion in Week 10 this season, Kaepernick was ready to ascend to the job, echoing Brady's taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe and leading the Patriots to the NFL championship during the '01 season.
Regardless of development, good fortune or luck, some teams will labor for years without a quarterback who can win games with his own talent. Those teams will be stuck with a Freeman, a Fitzpatrick, a Sanchez. Yet it's not just the quarterback, especially if that quarterback is respectable but not transcendent. "It's the mix," says Hasselbeck. "It's the right play-caller, the right head coach, the right defense."
Says Kuharich, "If Arizona drafts Joe Flacco"—the Cards picked two spots before Baltimore in 2008, and selected defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at No. 16—"and he doesn't go to Baltimore with that running game and that defense, things might be really different for him. Go back to Pittsburgh taking Roethlisberger. Look how important it was for him to be with [that] franchise. Now you look at certain quarterbacks in the league, you say either We grow with him, or we build around him to support him."
In the week leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, Polian, who is now paid to offer his opinions on television rather than to keep them private in a war room, ran down his bubble list. "Is Cassel good enough?" he asked. "I don't think so, but Andy [Reid, the new Chiefs coach] is such a good developer of quarterbacks that I wouldn't rule it out. Fitzpatrick? No. Freeman? We don't know yet. And the  draft doesn't look promising. But the year after that could be the next great quarterback."
The year after that, Johnny Football awaits. Fan bases and front offices are counting the minutes together.
About half the league is constrained by a QB who is not quite good enough to win or, worse, is lacking so much that he can only lose.
It's not just the quarterback, "it's the mix," says Hasselbeck. "It's the right play-caller, the right head coach, the right defense."
Photograph by CJ GUNTHER/EPA
IMAGE ALTERED BY SI IMAGING
NO HOLDING BACK Even though Fitzpatrick (14) signed a $62 million contract in 2011, his inconsistent play has led Bills execs to say they'll look for his replacement.
DOWN DAYS Orlovsky (6) was one of three QBs who took snaps for the Colts in 2011, when they won just two games—a futility that led to Indy's getting the No. 1 pick and a reversal of the franchise's fortunes.