Since 2006, the Chicago Bears have featured six different starting quarterbacks. Coming close to matching that record are the Denver Broncos with five starters lining up under center. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans have had just four over the past six seasons leading up to their first-ever playoff victory in franchise history.
The Broncos, Bears and Texans are three tough teams that tend to struggle if their franchise signal-caller ever hits the injury list for an extended period of time.
We saw this happen last season with Chicago after Jay Cutler broke his thumb, which was followed with a season-ending injury to Matt Forte just two weeks later. Houston handled the loss of Matt Schaub well with T.J. Yates at the helm, but came up short down to the wire 17-13 against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs.
This list is somewhat amusing but telling. It contains forgotten names such as Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and David Carr. Of course, a handful of guys are still floating around like Caleb Hanie, Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton.
Let’s take a look at three of the league’s best quarterbacks who are each returning from injury and trying to answer the question marks that surround them.
Jay Cutler: Perhaps coming into the 2012 campaign looking the best of the three QBs, the 6-3, 220-pound Cutler only broke his thumb, remember, and at that point in 2011 (Week 11), the club was still soaring high with a 7-3 record. However, the Bears by far have the most to prove as a team.
Lovie Smith has a red dot on his back, and bringing in Brandon Marshall to fulfill Chicago’s longtime lust for a decent wide receiver has only heightened expectations. Cutler clearly has a much easier life in Chicago now, though.
Jeremy Bates is his new mentor as quarterbacks coach, and Mike Martz’s “my way or the highway” system as offensive coordinator has been replaced with Mike Tice’s unpredictable style. In all, we can expect to see a much more comfortable Cutler under center. His sack numbers may never improve, but where he has developed is in goal-line situations.
In 2009, he threw six picks in the red zone. Last season, Cutler managed to stay perfect within the 20-yard line prior to hammering his thumb. You can expect that progress to stay the same in the upcoming season. Four of Marshall’s six scores were in the red zone in 2011, so combine that with Cutler and the Bears have some serious chemistry to look forward to right next to Earl Bennett.
Peyton Manning: Health, a new team, a new playbook, etc. Everything about Manning is currently a huge question mark. Many would like to see the old Peyton come out in Bronco orange and accomplish big things.
Chances are that will happen soon. But don’t be surprised to see a more humble, cautious Manning emerge in Denver. After missing every snap of the entire 2011 season, Manning will inevitably be rusty.
Training camp and practices are cool, but it’s hardly the same as a real-life, fast-paced game where the hits are three Mississippi’s away. John Fox’s playbook can sometimes be tricky, too. It took Tim Tebow all year to master it, and there are still no solid go-to receivers in Denver to cushion the blow for Manning, unlike in Indy.
The likelihood of the 2012 season for Manning is this: a decent year, but nothing like we’re used to seeing. Even before his injury prior to 2011, Manning was always a cautious quarterback. He dived and ducked to avoid hits and would rather take a sack than force a pass…not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Following a neck surgery and a year on the coach, Manning may even be more hesitant to take a whack.
Don’t forget he is now in the AFC West, a division that features the Oakland Raiders, a team that recorded 39 sacks in 2011. There’s no reason for his accuracy to suffer, but if teams deliver constant pressure, the outcome could be ugly with no reliable receiver. It’s not a knock on his potential in Denver, but everyone remembers Tom Brady‘s return from a knee injury, right? Even he was rather rusty initially.
Matt Schaub: Almost in as much of a favorable position as Cutler, the 6-5, 241-pound signal-caller looks to make his first trip to the postseason in the upcoming season. With the offense finishing second in rushing yards last year, it’s hard to see Schaub having a quiet campaign in 2012.
Obviously, the Texans have the wide receivers to do bigger things. They’ve also got a sturdy running game and defense to go with it—go figure. Perhaps what has let Schaub down in the past, though—especially when it comes to the “elite” quarterback discussion—is the misconception that he can’t compete with the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Twice in his career, Schaub has smashed the 4,000-yard mark, and his interception numbers have never exceeded 15. Sure, he’s not great on his feet and probably never will be, but his arm is one of the most unnoticed in the NFL.
On the downer, Schaub isn’t always as consistent as he should be. In his healthy year of 2010, he threw only one touchdown in the first quarter of the entire season. And for a quarterback of his experience, he passed for zero touchdowns between the Texans’ 21- and 50-yard lines.
Things could change this year, though. Aside from having a mediocre schedule (three of their toughest games come against the Broncos, Packers and Patriots), Schaub has less on his plate.
He no longer needs to be leader or the heart and soul of the offense. With Arian Foster set to presumably finish in the top five in rushing yards yet again and Ben Tate primed to continue to be more involved, the workload continues to decrease.
People still say Schaub can’t win when it counts. True, he did throw two interceptions last year when the Texans were within seven points. However, the pressure is finally no longer to lead the team to the playoffs, but to break the mold as one of the “greater” quarterbacks in the league.