5 Quarterbacks Set for a 2014 Decline
There's a line from a rap rune that says: "You may go down in history, but everything goes down eventually." That's as true in pro football as anywhere else. Gravity eventually wins.
In 2013, we watched quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning take big steps back from their 2012 performances, and their teams' fortunes sank along with them.
As we approach the new season, which QBs are primed for a drop-off in 2014? What follows is a roll call of the likeliest candidates. Some of the names may surprise you.
No. 5: Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
He is now 34. His completion percentage has ticked down every year since 2010. His yards per attempt touched a career low last season (7.2). If Tony Romo quit today, he'd be forever remembered as a dashing musketeer who came up big when it mattered the least.
Patton used to say that pressure makes diamonds; it will also pop balloons.
From here it can go one of two ways for Romo: He can magically develop a late-career mettle, a sudden grace under pressure that allows him to finally manage big-game tension and carry Dallas deep into the playoffs. In religious circles it's known as an epiphany. Seeing the Light.
Alternatively, he'll ramp up his own internal urgency, eyes on the draining clock, clenching down harder on the ball and forcing things where they don't belong. Now or never football. Mad as hell and kicking at the door.
We all know that pressure hasn't been Romo's friend in the past. It's taunted him forever. The two likely won't start shaking hands now.
No. 4: Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Smith's quarterbacking produced 11 wins, but it was a heavily padded gauntlet. The schedule makers had been good to him. Of all those victories, only one came against an opponent with a winning record (10-6 Philadelphia). The balance came from the plush-toy aisle, where Smith really did his shopping.
This year, the landscape is harshly different. Dark, muscular clouds are gathering. The KC schedule features Seattle, San Francisco, New England and Pittsburgh, plus trips to improving Miami and Arizona.
You can't safety valve those teams to death. Add in divisional bullies Denver and San Diego, and 2014 will be a rough test for Smith. He'll need to deliver the big throw for the Chiefs to survive. It's been a problem for him in the past.
No. 3: Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
He's been around the league since 2004, but somehow it feels twice as long. The Raiders paid heavily to pry Palmer away from Cincinnati, a well-needed scenery shift, and he rewarded them with good numbers but just eight wins over two seasons.
Last year in Arizona, his interceptions jumped to a career high (22), but the Cardinals kept it together and chipped out a surprising 10-6 record, including a late-season win over eventual champion Seattle.
Head coach Bruce Arians maintains Palmer is his guy for the near term, despite the quarterback's shaky mobility and teetering age (34). "There is no doubt he has plenty of juice left in the tank," Arians told The Arizona Republic. "He’s in great condition. I would think he could play until 36, 37 easily."
But it's a rough neighborhood the Cardinals live in. San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis—all defensive heavies. All big pass-rush clubs.
Meanwhile, Arizona's run game is essentially a commercial break. Arians wants the ball in the air. Attack, attack, attack. Pressure the cornerbacks, overload the safeties.
Last season, Palmer put it up 572 times; this year the total could breach 600. That's a heavy strain for a quarterback who's never shown he can handle the full load by himself.
No. 2: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
It was a low-cost gesture by the Bengals, choosing Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron with their fifth-round pick. But it was a way to send a message without really sending a message: Andy Dalton, you're our man, but we'd like to introduce you to someone who really knows how to deliver the brass. No, don't go reading into it. We're just bringing A.J. in, you know, for a look-see.
Of course, McCarron's not coming to camp looking for a handshake. He wants Dalton's job. He knows he can complicate things for the Bengals staff if given the chance.
And after that miserable performance in last year's AFC playoff, the 27-10 home loss to San Diego, Andy Dalton is not football's most confident quarterback. It was his third postseason flop in a row, which has people now wondering, how much upside does he really have left?
2014 will be a very telling year. McCarron will be monitoring his progress.
No. 1: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
On Wall Street they call it a blow-off top—an exhaustion move, when a stock delivers a final burst to the upside before the long decline sets in.
Last season, Peyton Manning had a blow-off top kind of season. He led the world in completions and passing yardage, and he blew out the record for TD throws in a season with 55. There was a special glow around the Broncos, and they ran all the way to the big Bowl, where they got blown out themselves.
The wise money knows Manning can't continue at that pace. The body won't allow it. Time won't allow it. Manning turned 38 last March, yet the things he's continued to do at quarterback are bordering on supernatural. But the drop-off is certainly coming; we've just witnessed the exhaustion move.
Here's an old quote from baseballer Satchel Paige, who played his game until age 46: "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?" Manning has been living that line for years.
Here's a different piece of wisdom, courtesy of the markets: Buy on the cannons, sell on the trumpets.
For Peyton Manning, the brass has never blown louder.