Winning in the NFL isn't hard in theory, but it's tremendously difficult in execution. The easiest way to field a winner is to find yourself a franchise quarterback, a man capable of leading your team to victory week in and week out. Franchise quarterbacks are hard to come by, but the vast majority of the NFL is on a constant lookout for their next field general.
You'd be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of sure-fire franchise quarterbacks in today's NFL; the fact that so many teams have young, unproven players (or washed-up veterans, as the case may be) at the quarterback position is indicative of a watered-down league full nearly to the brim with mediocre teams.
In that light, the vast majority of NFL teams will be fielding starting quarterbacks with plenty to prove this season. Finding the five players with the most to prove is a strenuous, highly subjective task, and should certainly spark a little debate. Great arguments can be made for a large number of quarterbacks that don't appear below, but no matter which way you slice it, these five players are under a lot of stress entering 2010.
5. Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia Eagles. It might not be wholly fair that Kolb is under a heap of pressure in his first year as a starter, but that's what happens when the team you play for trades the best quarterback in franchise history to a division rival.
Eagles fans may have disliked their team's draft-day selection ofin 1999, but McNabb proved his doubters wrong during his ten seasons as Philadelphia's starting quarterback. He is the Eagles' franchise leader in career wins (92), completions (2,801), yards (32,873), and touchdowns (216). He helped lead the Eagles to playoff appearances in eight of the past ten seasons, which unfortunately only resulted in one Super Bowl appearance, which is perhaps the most legitimate gripe regarding McNabb's illustrious career. It's not every day that you see a player with that much on his resume dealt to a division rival for a couple of draft picks - neither in the first round - when that player is still only 33 years old. That's not young, but it's certainly not ancient, either.
Now, the onus is in Kolb to commandeer an Eagles aerial attack that has ranked in the top ten in the league in each of the last six seasons. A fourth-year pro drafted out of Houston, Kolb has just two NFL starts under his belt, having put up big numbers (718 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT, and a rush TD) in a blowout loss to New Orleans and a blowout win over Kansas City last season, when McNabb was injured. With McNabb in Washington, the NFC East features three quarterbacks with excessive playoff experience, including one with a Super Bowl ring.
The division is still wide open, and Philly has more than enough offensive talent to keep Kolb afloat while he gets his feet wet as a player. But Kolb has to prove more than simply whether or not he can lead the Eagles now and in the future; he's got to prove that Andy Reid and company were correct in trading the best quarterback Philadelphia has ever seen to get Kolb onto the field.
4. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals. Once upon a time, Carson Palmer was considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league. In helping to break a 15-year playoff drought by leading Cincinnati to the playoffs in 2005, Palmer placed himself in the "elite quarterback" discussions in just his second year as a starter with 32 touchdowns and 3,836 passing yards in an 11-5 campaign.
The Bengals, however, slipped to a sub-.500 record (15-17) over the next two seasons, even as Palmer continued to put up first excellent, then respectable, numbers. His 20 interceptions in 2007 were cause for some concern, but Palmer still topped 4,000 yards passing in each of those seasons, and was one of the most productive passers in the league. That came to a screeching halt in 2008, however, when Palmer appeared in just four games - snapping his consecutive-start streak of 51 games in the process - before being shelved for the season with a partially torn ligament in his throwing elbow.
Palmer returned to the field in 2009 and helped guide the Bengals to another playoff appearance as AFC North champions. There aren't many NFL teams that would turn down Palmer's '09 production (21 TD, 13 INT, three more rushing TD, 3,094 yards and 60.5% completions), but despite the playoff appearance, Palmer was not the Palmer of old, and the Bengals' passing offense ranked a dismal No. 26 in the league. Their inability to hurt defenses deep led to predictability on offense, and ultimately, an early exit from the post-season.
Cincinnati spent its off-season bringing in receiving talent to help complement Palmer's only true weapon,. is the new second receiver, and two rookies - tight end and slot receiver - are expected to contribute immediately, as well. The team still has a strong running game and an underrated defense. But Palmer is 30, will be 31 this December, and if the Bengals are going to make a title push - let alone win a playoff game - with their franchise quarterback, they'll need to move sooner rather than later. Whether or not Palmer can re-establish himself as one of the league's elite throwers will be one of the more intriguing story lines league-wide this season.
3. Matt Leinart, Arizona Cardinals. It's hard to believe, but at one point, Matt Leinart supplanted Kurt Warner as the starting quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals. Seriously - try to wrap your mind around that one. The year was 2006, Leinart was a rookie that missed much of training camp due to a lengthy holdout, Warner wasn't injured, and now-UFL coach Dennis Green was the man behind the decision. Leinart was largely mediocre in leading Arizona to a 4-7 record that season, and ended the season on Injured Reserve.
Ken Whisenhunt became Arizona's head coach in 2007, and though he started Leinart at the outset of his first season, by the time Leinart again landed on IR with a fractured collarbone, he'd already been in and out of the lineup in lieu of Warner. The most unlikely possible Hall of Fame story in league history threw for over 3,400 yards and 27 touchdowns in leading Arizona to an 8-8 record that season, and Whisenhunt named Warner the starter entering 2008. The next two seasons were two of the best in franchise history, as the duo of Whisenhunt and Warner led the Cardinals to 19 regular-season wins, two division championships, four playoff victories, and a close, incredibly entertaining four-point loss in Super Bowl XLIII.
During that time frame, Leinart rarely saw the field, though he did find time to add four interceptions to his career total (in 106 attempts). Warner has retired from the game of football, and Leinart re-assumes the reigns of the franchise for the coach that benched him three seasons ago. He's 27 years-old, is still surrounded by excellent offensive talent, and must prove not only that he's capable of leading that franchise as the No. 10 overall pick in 2006, but that he can keep the Cardinals from returning to the league cellar after Whisenhunt and Warner brought them out of the depths. Something of a playboy, Leinart's managed to stay in the public eye thanks to commercials with the Manning family and appearances in feature films, but the real work is only beginning for the former USC star.
2. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears. Selected just one spot after Leinart in '06 by Denver, Cutler was the focal point of the single biggest off-season move between 2008 and 2009. Then-rookie head coach Josh McDaniels shipped Cutler out of town after a very public dispute over trade talks involving McDaniels' pet project in New England, Matt Cassel. Cutler was traded for two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and quarterback Kyle Orton.
Cutler looked like an up-and-coming elite signal-caller under the tutelage of Mike Shanahan, who coached him for his first three pro seasons in Denver. After supplanting Jake Plummer as Denver's starter during his rookie season, Cutler enjoyed a three-year window in which he passed for over 9,000 yards and 54 touchdowns (with 37 interceptions). The Broncos, however, could only manage a .500 record in those three seasons, and after a three-game losing streak to close the 2008 season cost Denver a playoff spot, Shanahan was fired, and Cutler's trade was made a little less than three months later.
His first season with Chicago, however, was a disappointment. Cutler still threw for 3,666 yards and 27 touchdowns, but the Bears were just 7-9, missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season, and Cutler's 26 interceptions were by far the most in the league (and six more than the 20 that rookies Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez each threw).
In each of his four professional seasons, Cutler has elevated his touchdown total, with the 27 he threw last year being a career high. His interception totals, however, have also increased on a yearly basis, and as a result, he's been a far less effective player each year he's taken the field as a starter. At age 27, Cutler is still in his prime, but players that are supposed to be elite signal-callers would be pushing it by throwing half the number of interceptions Cutler threw in 2009. His decision-making remains suspect, and until he can cut down the mistakes and prove to be a better leader, Chicago will have trouble competing in an NFC North division that looks to be excellent over the long haul.
1. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers. You'll be hard-pressed to name three current NFL quarterbacks that are more accomplished on the field of play than Ben Roethlisberger is. In six seasons as Pittsburgh's starting quarterback, he's won 60 regular season games, eight post-season games, been responsible for 139 touchdowns, appeared in the Pro Bowl, and most importantly of all, he's got two Super Bowl rings. There's little doubt that purely from a football standpoint, Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks playing the game today.
Things have to be really, really bad off the field if a player with Roethlisberger's talents and production is mentioned in the same galaxy as the word "trade." Needless to say, Roethlisberger's off-field actions of late can be described as "really, really bad," along with a laundry list of other adjectives.
Roethlisberger was suspended for six games by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell this past April for violating the league's personal conduct policy. He was also ordered to undergo a "professional behavior evaluation," and could land himself in further treatment stemming from that activity. The punishment, of course, stems from two separate sexual assault allegations - one which occurred in 2008, and the other just this past March. If you somehow missed the details of that entire fiasco, this here StoryStream will catch you up just fine.
His behavior has been deplorable, and his public apologies need to stand the test of time before they mean anything. The Rooney family, widely regarded as some of the best owners in the business, were none too happy with their star quarterback, and reportedly briefly entertained the idea of trading Roethlisberger before ultimately deciding against it. The Rooneys will have Roethlisberger on a short leash, as will the court of public opinion. Big Ben doesn't have much to prove on the field, but more than enough to prove off it to not only put him atop this list, but to make fans seriously question how much longer he'll be a Steeler. He's got teammates, employers, and a city to win over; that might be harder to do than winning another ring.