Maybe since the inception of the game, but at the very least since the league became a pass-inclined one, the quarterback has been simultaneously the most important and most sensitive of positions in the NFL.
Teams with a proven quarterback will dramatically overpay to keep him, while teams with questions will overpay for anything that even resembles an answer. Not every team has such a clear view, however. The New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts of the world are set, while the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns know they are still looking. But for those teams in between, there is still some scouting to do.
Typically, it’s the teams who have invested their future in young quarterbacks who are still developing that don’t know either way. Right now, the most talked about teams in that bracket are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won’t give Josh Freeman an extension just yet, the Tennessee Titans, who are still waiting for Jake Locker‘s best on the field and the Minnesota Vikings, who are unsure how far Christian Ponder can take them.
Of the three teams, only the Vikings have made the playoffs in the last two years. Even that took a monumental effort from Adrian Peterson before they were bounced out in the playoffs by the Green Bay Packers. Admittedly, Ponder didn’t play that game, but he had done little prior to suggest that he would have altered the result.
Rightly or wrongly, winning overshadows all flaws. For Andy Dalton, that is a blessing in disguise. For the Cincinnati Bengals, it’s the opposite.
Dalton’s record through two seasons as the Bengals’ starting quarterback is an impressive 19-13 with two successive playoff appearances. However, his team has also been bounced out of the playoffs immediately both years and his personal play on the field has been a hindrance to a very talented roster as often as it has helped them win games. The 35th overall pick of the 2011 draft is by no means the Bengals’ unquestioned leader moving into the future, nor should he be.
Nowadays, fans understand the sensitivity of the quarterback position. Unlike a plug-and-play position like a guard or defensive tackle, a large number of fans understand that the quarterback needs to be developed through training camp and weekly gameplans/practices if he is to succeed. Joe Webb may have looked like a 100 meter hurdler playing football in last year’s playoff game against the Packers, but much of that could be attributed to a lack of preparation. Webb hadn’t received the snaps that Ponder had through training camp or the regular season, so he wasn’t comfortable in the offense or on the field.
The risk of having a quarterback competition is that splitting of snaps. Taking away snaps from your starter could damage his preparation and hurt his ability to perform when it really matters. That is why the position is sensitive and that is why some fans have been very unhappy with the Bengals’ recent investment in Josh Johnson and John Skelton.
Johnson and Skelton are both relatively young and have been starters for stretches in the past. There is no argument that both have the physical talents to start at this level, but both need the right development and situations. Neither are similar to Bruce Gradkowski, the Bengals’ last backup quarterback, as he was at the point in his career where he was happy to be a backup forever. Johnson and Skelton will likely still be looking to prove themselves in the league, and Johnson in particular chose to come to the Bengals.
Also quite noteworthy is the style of players the Bengals have brought in. Gradkowski was very similar in skill-set to Dalton, so they knew he could easily fit the offense. Johnson and Skelton are not.
Johnson is a very mobile player with a big arm. He lacks the proven awareness and intelligence of Dalton and hasn’t shown the same level of short accuracy. Skelton has less mobility than both Johnson and Dalton, making him solely a pocket passer. He does, however, have a very big arm to hit deep passes, something that is Dalton’s greatest struggle.
With their strong offensive line and excellent receiving corps, it appears the Bengals are not only creating competition, but also still testing the types of quarterbacks who could get the most out of their offense.