Every year is a lifetime for an NFL quarterback. Fortunes rise and fall, legends grow, statues topple, favored sons become pariahs, prodigal sons are redeemed, outcast and redeemed again. Charles Dickens could not cram as many reversals of fortune into a Victorian novel as the typical quarterback experiences in 12 months.
Some of the drama is real. Much of it is manufactured. Too often, tales of heroism become tragedies in the retelling. We forget the best parts while dwelling too much up on the worst.
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New Year's Day, 2013
Robert Griffin is the brightest young star in the NFL. He just led the Redskins to a win over the Cowboys, capping a seven-game winning streak to propel his team to the playoffs. RG3 is seen as not just as a great player, but as a harbinger of an era when rookie quarterbacks are immediately successful and newfangled offenses take hold of the NFL.
Joe Flacco's future is in doubt. His team just limped into the playoffs, so desperate for offensive consistency that they fired their offensive coordinator. In the final days of his contract, Flacco has maxed out as a big-armed, slow-footed lug, good enough to lumber into the postseason but not good enough to lead his team through the Brady-Manning championship ceiling. His next playoff defeat for the Ravens is expected to be his last.
Geno Smith's two safeties in a loss to Syracuse, in front of a New York audience, raised the eyebrows of both critics and draftniks. A Heisman favorite and the talk of the college football world in September, Smith endured a five-game losing streak that sparked questions about his abilities, maturity and leadership. His bowl-game loss offered the wrong kind of answers.
Matt Schaub just completed the most successful regular season of his career: 12 wins, 4,000 yards, his third Pro Bowl berth. No one mistakes Schaub for a Hall of Famer, but he led his Texans to winning records three times in four seasons, throws for more than 4,000 yards whenever healthy, and orchestrates a balanced offense that's easy to predict but hard to stop. Schaub is preparing for a home playoff game; a few crisp passes and a break or two, and he could reach the Super Bowl.
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Television producers call it "speed plotting." Viewers are too busy and distracted to wait for a storyline to slowly unfold, so the writers give them a dozen storylines per episode, with wraps and twists every week, lest the audience leave for YouTube or PlayStation. Yesterday's villain is a now reluctant hero, the love interest is kissing the sidekick, the good guy from Season One has returned as a double agent with a dark secret. Don't worry if you forget the twists and turns. All that matters is now, the thrill of the hour, the story that generates sizzle.
We've speed-plotted quarterbacks for years. The pace only gets faster. Three great weeks made Andy Dalton a main character; a dry spell returned him to the fringe of the stage. Two months of competence made Josh McCown the hero of the latest Jay Cutler melodrama. Or is he the foil? There is still some juice left in the tale. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning get to be Antony and Caesar, Batman and Superman. Everyone else just tries to survive the sweeps.
On-field performance drives speed plotting only to a degree. Frequent heroics cannot keep Tony Romo from portraying the comic villain. Vince Young's career pratfalls generate more buzz than Philip Rivers season-long comebacks. Josh Freeman becomes the martyr of a passion play, despite a few self-hammered nails. And Tim Tebow is the Weather Channel: Everyone tunes in when the thunder claps.
The characterizations don't have to make sense. Few of the pieces really fit together. As long as the story keeps moving and the plot keeps twisting, it's easy to forget how much is false, how much is silly, and how much we have seen before.
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Early Spring, 2013
Robert Griffin's knee is the most important body part in one of the most important cities in the world. Injured in a playoff loss, Griffin mounts a rehabilitation effort that becomes the inspirational story of the football world. Everyone praises his effort, attitude, and recuperative prowess: his doctor, his team owner, his head coach. Between workouts, Griffin prepares to marry his college sweetheart; eager fans discover the bridal registry and send gifts to the young superstar and his bride.
Joe Flacco is a world champion and Super Bowl MVP. He's also the highest paid player in the NFL, albeit briefly, with a reported $120-million contract. While Flacco counts zeroes, his Ravens face a budget crunch. Familiar faces leave town as the Ravens jiggle the salary cap levers to accommodate a now-Super Bowl-proven quarterback. The elation of February's Super Bowl fades fast; fans grumble that Flacco's "greed" will keep the Ravens from defending their title.
Geno Smith is an "overhyped product of the system lacking the football savvy, work habits and focus to cement a starting job and could drain energy from a QB room," according to a scathing Pro Football Weekly scouting report. The criticism is inflammatory and racially barbed, comparing Smith to failed black quarterbacks of 15 years ago while accusing Smith of laziness and trouble with cold weather. But a churlish, insensitive scouting report is not necessarily a wholly inaccurate scouting report. Smith tanks some team interviews, gets involved in an agent scandal and briefly goes AWOL when he slips through the first round of the draft.
Matt Schaub and his Texans gear up for another season. They lost in Foxborough in the playoffs, but they creep closer to a championship each year. Free agency brings legendary safety Ed Reed. The draft provides electrifying receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Meanwhile, salaries and injuries are tearing the Patriots apart. Schaub's Texans get some Super Bowl notice.
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Quarterbacks are not our heroes. Heroes get a little benefit of the doubt. They get to fail in the second act so they can triumph in the third. Quarterbacks can fail simply by not succeeding as often, or as easily, or as humbly as we like.
Slight shortcomings are unforgivable sins. A handful of interceptions. A reputation, often invented, for big blunders in fourth quarters or cold weather. A stray remark. A cocky sideline sneer, or draped towel and slumped shoulders. A new contract with more digits than we think are justified. It doesn't take much to cast a quarterback as an overrated, overpaid, disappointing jerk.
We don't treat our heroes that way. We don't treat loved ones, friends or pets that way. We don't even treat cars or large appliances that way. We treat quarterbacks like smartphones. We stand in line every year for the latest models, grow impatient with the initial glitches and patches, complain about limits and interruptions, grow bored with before we discover all the features, then chuck them in the back of the drawer so we can drool over the next generation.
The quarterbacks, like the smartphones, get better and better: stronger, faster, more versatile, more reliable. Yet we become harder to satisfy. Watching quarterbacks more and enjoying them less? It might be your short-term memory playing tricks on you.
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Sept. 9, 2013
Robert Griffin takes the field before a jubilant home crowd. His recovery, according to the most renowned medical professional in America, was "superhuman." The event feels like a coronation. A sloppy loss to the trendy Eagles is just a minor setback.
Joe Flacco lost his rematch against Peyton Manning in the season opener four days ago. It wasn't close. The Ravens don't look like the team that stunned the Broncos, Patriots and 49ers in the playoffs.
Geno Smith returned to New York as the starting quarterback of the Jets and led an 18-17 win over the Buccaneers yesterday. Underachieving energy-drainers don't usually win season openers.
Matt Schaub threw for 346 yards and three touchdown passes, leading the Texans back from a 28-7 deficit for a 31-28 win against the Chargers. It was a fine start to a season of high expectations.
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Four quarterbacks form the backbone of our little end-of-year essay. It could have been 40. A legend like Peyton Manning is not immune to 12-month saga-spinning. Why did he kneel? Can he win in the cold? Can he beat Brady? A Tony Romo or Jay Cutler, Michael Vick or Cam Newton can generate a year's worth of drama while doing nothing they have not done before. Cautionary tales like Matt Flynn and Blaine Gabbert enact long, Shakespearean death throes that span weeks or months. It doesn't take much imagination to turn Christian Ponder into a season-long story arc; the template is pre-written.
The never-ending telenovela is a fun part of the sports experience, but quarterbacks are humans, not actors. The truth does not confirm to the script, and the characters don't always hit their marks. The guy we're talking about -- the hero, choke artist, hotshot rookie, overpaid jerk, undisputed champion of champions -- bears only a passing resemblance to the person who walks planet earth, plays football on television on Sunday, sits in an ice bath to soothe injuries and kisses his daughter on the forehead the moment he steps off the plane.
I tell quarterback tales for profit. You read them for entertainment. But this isn't fan fiction. It's real: real wins, losses, dollars, bruises, ligaments, wives, reputations, legacies. The stakes are monumental, the spotlights searing. We forget that sometimes. We jeer too readily, like we are watching wrasslin' villains. We demand more perfection from our quarterbacks than our employers, our government, ourselves.
And when a pedestal starts to crumble, we have an unlovable habit of gathering around it, cheering its fall, and forgetting that we're the ones who erected it.
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Robert Griffin calls his team's performance "disheartening." Teammates criticizes him about the criticism. Fans lobby for backup Kirk Cousins on local radio shows. Mysterious leaks suggest coach Mike Shanahan preferred a different quarterback all along. The Redskins cannot tackle a punt returner or stop a forward pass, but only Griffin is in the crosshairs.
Joe Flacco, struggling with sacks and interceptions, complains about his team's "high school offense" when forced to trade snaps with a speedy backup. "Joe Flacco is a high school quarterback," respond the quipsters on a thousand message boards.
Geno Smith throws no touchdowns and eight interceptions in five weeks. Rex Ryan benches Smith, then claims to have faith in him. The player accused of an inability to handle pressure faces devastating pressure for it.
Matt Schaub jerseys burn in effigy outside Reliant Stadium. Police come to Schaub's home when angry fans show up in his neighborhood. Schaub did not take steroids, kill dogs or even criticize team management to provoke this response. He just threw a few interceptions.
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Quarterbacks are paid large sums of money to throw footballs 16-to-20 hours per year for our amusement. They are famous, and many lead glamorous lives. Criticism and boos are factored into the compensation. Our passion makes them wealthy, and our expectations, frustration, and anger are wrapped up in the passion. It's our right to get mad at interceptions, dumb mistakes and self-serving comments. The other stuff -- the "who's elite, who chokes, who should be dragged behind a truck for throwing an interception" chit-chat -- does not hurt quarterbacks much. They're grownups.
So are we. Our time is precious. We should not have to watch overpaid, overhyped or otherwise unworthy quarterbacks. So why do we keep stamping them with those labels?
The roller coaster of quarterback mythmaking used to be a rickety wooden thrill ride. Now it hangs upside-down, plunges under water, loops backward and lurches into free fall. It can be exhilarating, but it can also leave us with stiff necks and sour stomachs. As the ride accelerates, it becomes a queasy blur. Who cares who is at the top when we're all just bracing for the next careen to the bottom?
We can control the throttle, the brakes, the altitude and the pitch. We can boo the pick-six and laugh at the butt fumble, yell at the television and lobby for the backup around the water cooler. But we owe it to ourselves to slow down a little, to look around, to remember the ups before we brood over the downs.
Life is too short to spend Sundays resenting the players we made time to watch. We must remember what makes them worth watching, even when they are having unwatchable moments. We owe it to ourselves to enjoy the ride.
Robert Griffin, savior of the franchise, prospect without blemish, has been benched. His coach smears innuendo over the young quarterback's fragile legacy on his way out the door. Fans who spent their summer wondering what color napkin rings would look good next to RG3's wedding cake now wonder how the Redskins rebuild, and a few wonder if RG3 really is the man to rebuild around.
Joe Flacco's Ravens are desperate for offensive consistency as they try to limp into the playoffs. Still big-armed, slow-footed and capable enough to lumber through wins in the Baltimore snow, he looks like the same guy he was last year, despite the new ring and eight-figure salary.
Geno Smith hangs by a professional thread, yet offers moments of hope. Perhaps his doubters were too doubtful and his supporters to supportive. Perhaps the real player -- and person -- exists in the unexplored territory between the extremes.
Matt Schaub brought his coach and organization down on top of him when he fell, an ordinary 32-year old NFL quarterback vilified for being ordinary and 32-years old.
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Schaub is gone, but others are eager to take his place: Nick Foles and Teddy Bridgewater, Brian Hoyer and Jameis Winston. New names, updated stories, tweaked character arcs, fresh grist for the mill. It's a good thing most quarterback careers are short, because no one could stand them to be any longer. We have new heroes to crown, new scapegoats to blame.
We don't know who we will be lionizing or condemning this time next December, but let's make a better effort of remembering what we thought of those quarterbacks today.