Kevin Kolb and QBs coming back from major injuries

An updated version of my rough draft that turned into “Seven Get Back Up” in USA Today‘s NFL Preview mag. This was written in May and updated after the Hall of Fame game.

There is perhaps no more transformative force in the NFL than an injury to the starting quarterback.

When the signal caller sits down just as a contender begins surging, such as Jay Cutler and Matt Schaub did last year, it leaves behind the painful twinge of “what if?”

Two vertebrae in Peyton Manning’s neck transformed two franchises a thousand miles apart. After guiding the Colts to nine consecutive playoff berths, Manning watched the 2011 Colts drop to last in the NFL before joining the Broncos this offseason.

Injury can cloud whether a quarterback is the missing key or a misguided move. Matt Cassel and Kevin Kolb likely will return to take the helm, but they both must work quickly to justify the trades that brought them in. And then there’s that “winner” John Skelton to make Kolb’s return to the starting role more difficult.

Sometimes a fallen starting quarterback is spared the misery and brutality of a lost season. While it’s the most important position in the NFL, some teams can’t be saved only by strong quarterback play.

Seven of 2012’s probable starting quarterbacks spent the end of 2011 on the mend from major injuries. Here’s a look at the drop-off each man’s team suffered and at each quarterback’s current outlook, starting with the man who played to the finish.

Ben Roethlisberger

While he only missed one game, a high-ankle sprain robbed Roethlisberger of the mobility on which the Steelers depend.

Roethlisberger has made a career of extending plays by rolling, wriggling, and wrenching away from pressure, which usually broke into the backfield quite quickly for the Steelers. But once his leg folded awkwardly on Dec. 8 against the Browns, his team never quite looked the same.

The Steelers stumbled into a wild-card upset one month later. The 241-pound behemoth quarterback—typically a pass rusher’s greatest chore—looked like he was dragging a bear trap as Denver doubled its season sack average, taking down Roethlisberger five times.

Roethlisberger has proven as tough as any during his NFL career, playing while breaking his nose and reportedly winning a Super Bowl with broken ribs. However, the high-ankle sprain proved far more limiting to his physical capacity. Pittsburgh averaged eight points in Roethlisberger’s two starts before the shocking first-round playoff exit.

Now, a healthy Roethlisberger could rejoin the AFC’s most dangerous young receiving combo in Antonio Brown and, if he signs, Mike Wallace. Protection should also improve with the Steelers finally investing in the offensive line by snagging the draft’s top guard in David DeCastro and second-round tackle Mike Adams.

Sam Bradford

After topping 3,500 yards on his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2010, Bradford would probably like to forget his sophomore follow-up. Expected to contend for the NFC West title, St. Louis instead struggled out of the gate before Bradford suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 6. As a result, he was in and out of the starting lineup.

The Rams’ 1-9 record last year with Bradford as starter can’t be pinned on him; he was getting battered behind a porous line and suffered the worst drop rate among quarterbacks who took at least half of their team’s dropbacks.

Perhaps new head coach Jeff Fisher can right the ship, though he comes from a defensive background. To catalyze Bradford’s development, he brought in two Brians: Schottenheimer and Quick.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has been a hot name in head coaching searches. But last year he presided over a Jets offense that finished 25th in the league.

The Rams drafted wide receiver Brian Quick at the top of Round 2, but had been projected to take the top receiver on the board, Justin Blackmon, at pick No. 6. Instead, the Rams traded down and went defense in the first round before taking Quick and running back Isaiah Pead in the second round.

What started so well in 2010 followed with a 2-14 season and a battered franchise quarterback. Bradford will experience his third offensive coordinator in three years as the Rams’ new management tries to avoid Jason Campbell-ing their young signal caller.

Matt Cassel

Cassel transitioned from Tom Brady’s backup with the Patriots to starter for a division champion instantly. Following his efficient 2010 campaign, the Chiefs quarterback struggled to open up the offense or protect the ball before a season-ending hand surgery in Week 11.

This led to Kansas City’s entrance into the Peyton Manning sweepstakes this offseason along with a private workout with 2012 first-rounder Ryan Tannehill. It now appears the Chiefs are set for at least one more year of Cassel.

This figures to run more smoothly with the recovered ACLs of running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki. Since trading for Cassel the Chiefs are 10-6 in games when Charles has at least 10 touches and Cassel is playing at quarterback; 7-10 in other games.” (Lost the one game Cassel missed in 2010 and went 7-9 in 2011 with Charles injured at beginning of Week 1.).

Cassel will try to regain his 2010 regular-season form (he threw 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions) while leaning on the ground game with Charles, Peyton Hillis, and Dexter McCluster. The addition of arguably the league’s best right tackle in Eric Winston upgrades an offensive line that was consistently demolished last year at right tackle.

Jay Cutler

The argument could be made that, around the time he broke his thumb trying to prevent a touchdown on an interception return against the Chargers in Week 11, Cutler’s play had elevated him to a perch on the tier below the league’s elite quarterbacks.

His numbers don’t do him justice but with underrated mobility, improved decision-making, and the best arm in football, Cutler truly made a leap as the Bears ascended to 7-3.

The Cutler-less Bears lost five out of six and missed the playoffs.
Losing Matt Forte also contributed to the season-ending slide, though it’s impossible to ignore how much Cutler opened up that offense during the Bears’ five-game winning streak after a 2-3 start.

Since arriving in the Windy City, Cutler’s dealt with terrible pass protection—he’s been sacked 110 times in 41 games—peculiar play-calling and a dearth of receiving talent. The moves the Bears made this offseason—offensive coordinator Mike Martz resigning, drafting wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Evan Rodriguez, and trading for Brandon Marshall—give a healthy Cutler the chance to go all Luke Skywalker in “Return of the Jedi” on the NFL.

The Bears welcome back 2011 top pick Gabe Carimi, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2, at right tackle. This would move Lance Louis back to his natural spot at guard.  The best hope is that offensive line coach-turned-coordinator Mike Tice sets up this unit for success.

Kevin Kolb

Aug. 6 Update: (Yes, he was terrible during his first few plays before getting injured in the Hall of Fame game. I just believe the Cardinals are definitely not a playoff team if John Skelton is the starter, but has a slight chance if Kevin Kolb is the starter and remains healthy. Have been producing my “Team Kolb” t-shirts now awhile now.)

The enigma acquired from Philly must prove his keep. In games where he took a majority of snaps last season, Kolb finished 2-6. Due to Kolb’s injuries, John Skelton stepped in and went 6-2 in the other games. Even Coach Ken Whisenhunt acknowledges there’s a quarterback competition.

However, the Cardinals defense allowed 30-plus points four times during Kolb starts, and zero times for Skelton. Also, Kolb’s quarterback rating was higher (81.1 to 68.9). The improvement of the defense and a shocking 228-yard rushing performance from Beanie Wells accounted for the record reversal more than Skelton’s 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions did.

The two are embroiled in a position battle with Kolb having recovered from a concussion that ended his season after nine games, the second major instance of his career. There were questions about Kolb’s pocket poise when he came to Arizona, and he did not change that perception last season.

The Cardinals also struggled mightily in pass protection, particularly on the right side. Bobby Massie’s drop to them in Round 4 could shore that up instantly. Drafting Senio Kelemete further shows Arizona’s determination to bolster its offensive line and they also added ex-Niner starting guard Adam Snyder, though his play last season left much to be desired.

The Cardinals also addressed the under-producing wide receiver spot opposite Larry Fitzgerald by taking Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd in the first round, and second-year tight end Rob Housler could emerge.

While no longer in the friendly confines of Andy Reid’s offense, Kolb should be stepping into a much less difficult role than last season. But it’s now or never for Kolb with the Cards.

Peyton Manning

Tim Tebow stood behind center for most of a season in which the Broncos finished 31st in passing offense. He will be replaced by a man who ranks close to the top in nearly every career and single-season passing category. How drastically this aerial attack improves will depend on how Manning holds up post-spinal fusion.

After a 2-14 sans-Manning campaign the Colts moved on with Andrew Luck, but that reflects far less on what’s left in Manning’s tank than the several teams that courted him this offseason. He will sport a solid pair of tight ends in former Colts comrade Jacob Tamme and ex-Texan Joel Dreessen, along with promising young receiver Eric Decker and postseason hero Demauryius Thomas.

The Denver Broncos reached the playoffs for the first time since 2005 under Tebow — behind rather poor protection and without proven weapons — yet jettisoned him the moment Manning said “yes.” The 36-year-old quarterback is reportedly four neck surgeries removed from his last playoff win, which leaves wonder if he’s one hit away from the end of his career.

One thing is certain: John Elway and the Broncos are A-OK with the risk-reward involved with this future Hall of Famer.

But gone are the days of taking snaps from and feeding signals to keen stalwart Jeff Saturday; his current options at center our J.D. Walton — probably the league’s worst starting center last season — and fourth-round rookie Philip Blake.

Matt Schaub

The Texans had won four consecutive games by an average of 22.5 points and led the AFC when they lost Schaub for the season to a Lisfranc injury. Schaub wasn’t lighting the world on fire but, with Arian Foster and an effective zone-blocking scheme, he didn’t need to. His efficient 2.5-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 248 yards per game provided ample support.

Then backup Matt Leinart was lost for the season in his first game as starter.

T.J. Yates performed admirably for a rookie fifth-round draft pick—but often looked like just that. Yates went 2-3 as starter to finish the regular season and helped Houston reach the divisional round, though that was almost completely the running game and defense’s doing. In seven starts, Yates threw for more than 200 yards only twice. Schaub had managed that in 18 of his previous 21 starts.

When Schaub left in Week 11, the ability to threaten defenses in the pass game left with him. The veteran quarterback’s presence coupled with a healthy Andre Johnson restores Houston as Super Bowl contenders.

While the foot injury Schaub incurred can be career threatening, the quarterback says he expects to enter training camp at 100 percent. He’ll take snaps behind a new-look offensive line that thrived with continuity in recent years.

Eric Winston will be missed after playing right tackle among the league’s best last year, and right guard Mike Brisiel also left via free agency. Houston did finally shake up the underwhelming receiver crop outside Johnson by drafting DeVier Posey with its second-round pick.

Paired with my article in the magazine is a great piece by Greg Cosell evaluating the NFL’s best quarterbacks. If I didn’t get you lunging for a copy of the 2012 NFL Preview, perhaps these names will.

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