Which NFL quarterbacks are facing the most pressure this season?
To answer that, we have to look at the different kinds of pressure for an NFL signal-caller. First, there is the immediate down-after-down pressure of opposing defensive fronts, sidestepping the rush while trying to navigate down the field as evil-mad-genius defensive coordinators come up with new ways to stop them. Clearly, that's not the kind of pressure we mean.
Second, there is the pressure for a quarterback to keep his job—a concern which at least 10 different NFL starters may be facing at some point in the 2012 season.
Last—and most importantly—there is the pressure to win. Every starting quarterback in the NFL feels the pressure to win, but let's not kid ourselves that some quarterbacks have more pressure to win than others.
People expect Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers to win more games than, say, Blaine Gabbert, Josh Freeman and Christian Ponder. While Ben Roethlisberger may not be as concerned about keeping his job as John Skelton, the pressure to win in Pittsburgh, year in and year out, is far greater than the pressure to win in Arizona.
How each quarterback handles the pressure of his specific situation will go a long way in figuring out how far his team can go this season. Here are the 10 quarterbacks facing the most pressure as the 2012 NFL season kicks off.
Tony Romo certainly passed his first pressure test with a stellar performance over the New York Giants to open the 2012 season. Romo was 22-of-29 passing for 307 yards and three touchdowns, connecting with seven different receivers while handling the vaunted Giants pass rush with aplomb behind a rebuilt (and somewhat makeshift) offensive line.
Heading into the first week, given how 2011 ended for the Cowboys, there may not have been a quarterback in the entire NFL who felt more pressure than Romo. That said, after his Week 1 performance, on the road in prime time, Romo passed quite possibly his biggest test of the season with flying colors.
The pressure won't let up all year, and it will only intensify if Dallas can finally make it back to the playoffs, but Wednesday night's game sure was a positive start for Romo and the Cowboys.
Cam Newton's rookie campaign was a dream for any NFL quarterback. He threw for over 4,000 yards, completing 60 percent of his passes while registering 35 total touchdowns through the air and on the ground. He was a one-man wrecking crew for Carolina.
But—there had to be a "but"—his personal success didn't necessarily translate to wins on the field.
Carolina won just six games in 2011, starting the season 1-5 despite an astounding 2,053 yards of total offense and 13 total touchdowns from Newton in those six games. Ironically enough, the only game Carolina won in the first six last season was Newton's worst game statistically, when he recorded under 200 total yards in the Panthers' 16-10 win over Jacksonville.
Newton was amazing last year, but he has to be feeling the pressure of becoming more than just a fantasy owner's sleeper keeper. Elite quarterbacks can somehow figure out a way to pull the rest of their team along for the ride to make that jump from personal greatness to team glory.
To be fair, it's not like Newton can line up on defense—I'm sure he could, and maybe Carolina should think about that at some point—so there is only so much the quarterback can do. But this season, he will need to do it all again, and better than last year.
There are 11 quarterbacks starting the first game of the 2012 campaign with no more than one full season's worth of experience in the NFL. Still, with all that youth under center, none are more surprising than Russell Wilson starting in Seattle.
Wilson beat out high-priced free agent Matt Flynn for the Seahawks starting job, putting an enormous target on his back should he falter early in the season. There is an incredible amount of pressure on head coach Pete Carroll this season, as he enters his third year in Seattle with two losing seasons to his name (despite making the playoffs in his first year with a 7-9 record).
Carroll has entrusted the reins to Wilson this season, at least for now. It will be impossible for the rookie to play this year without looking over his shoulder at Flynn holding the most expensive free-agent clipboard in recent memory.
Forget about the pressure to win, no starting quarterback—not even his opening-day opponent John Skelton in Arizona—can possibly feel as much pressure to keep his job as Wilson.
Despite finishing the season 8-8 in 2011, the Chicago Bears are pegged as one of the favorites in the NFC this season, with Super Bowl odds in Vegas placing them below just Green Bay, San Francisco and Philadelphia in the NFC.
Before Jay Cutler got hurt last year, the Bears were 7-3, looking like a lock for a wild-card spot in the playoffs. After Cutler went down, the Bears won just one of their last six games, ending a suddenly disappointing year in tradition-rich Chicago. Of course, none of that was really Cutler's fault if he was hurt and couldn't get out on the field, but that is precisely why he comes into 2012 with more pressure than most NFL starters.
Is Chicago a Super Bowl-caliber team? Shoot, can it even compete with the two playoff teams in its own division? It all rides on Cutler's arm, and his health.
Does the amount of pressure for Peyton Manning even need to be explained? Manning probably has put more pressure on himself this season in Denver than anyone in the Mile High City has put on him. Still, Denver did win the division last season—albeit at 8-8—and won a playoff game in miraculous fashion riding the arm, yes, arm, of Tim Tebow.
Can Manning adequately replace such an important Broncos legend? I couldn't even type that with a straight face, but still, the point remains that however he got it done, Tebow did get Denver to the second round of the playoffs.
This year, it will be up to Manning to get the offense up to the same quality as the Broncos defense if they expect to make a deep run into the playoffs this season.
More than that—more than whether Manning can even get Denver back into the playoffs at all—is the pressure Manning must feel to be his old self again. He missed an entire season of football at a late stage in his career. Can he physically handle the rigors of an NFL season anymore? Can he be as productive as he was in Indianapolis?
Is Manning still a Hall of Fame-quality quarterback on the field, or is this trip to Denver just a rest stop before retirement for the first-ballot legend?
Joe Flacco talked a lot this offseason about how he is an elite quarterback and wanted to be paid like an elite quarterback. The problem is, he hasn't been much more than a good quarterback his whole career. On the list of 32 starters in the NFL, there may be 20 that would be more coveted than Flacco. They may not be better than Flacco, but certainly at least a dozen-and-a-half signal-callers would be in higher demand.
Flacco has the benefit of a great running back in Ray Rice and a fantastic defense led by a host of future Hall of Famers. He really hasn't been asked to win games by himself at any point in his career. That said, this year could be different. The defense is still great, but it's getting older by the snap. While Rice is in the prime of his career, defenses will surely key on him more than ever, leaving the game in Flacco's hands.
This Baltimore team should make another deep run into the playoffs this season. If Flacco wants to be considered an elite quarterback, he needs to take the next step and get Baltimore to a Super Bowl.
No pressure, pal.
Alex Smith may be sharing a rowboat with Flacco this postseason if the starting quarterbacks for Jim and John Harbaugh, respectively, don't make it to the Super Bowl.
Another quarterback who has heard nothing but criticism in his professional career, Smith was nearly replaced this offseason and now must figure out a way to better the career year he had in 2011, when he led San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game before losing in overtime (by no fault of his own).
The NFC title game was kind of Alex Smith in a nutshell: He was 12-of-26 with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He didn't do anything to specifically lose the game, but he completed just one pass to a wide receiver all game, leaving fans to wonder if he did enough to actually win the game.
Is "not losing" games enough for the starting quarterback in San Francisco? With that defense and running game, it might be. But if Smith wants to keep his job beyond this season, it may be Super Bowl or bust. All the other pieces are in place.
There is so much pressure on Mark Sanchez in New York this season that it's almost as if there is none.
If you can figure that out, maybe you can figure out what in the world the Jets are going to do on offense. They have refused to show their hand in the preseason, holding back all their cards for games that count.
Will Tim Tebow be the savior in New York? Will Sanchez be the only starter in the NFL to take fewer snaps per game than his backup? Will the guy with the 55.3 percent completion rate and just four more touchdowns than interceptions in his career suddenly become more accurate and more adept as he lines up in the same stadium as the reigning Super Bowl champs and gets dressed in the same locker room as Tebow?
Maybe all of that chaos and drama and pressure can actually settle Sanchez down. Maybe the Giants winning the Super Bowl and Tebow coming to town will be good for him. Or maybe not. It's going to be fun to find out, that's for sure.
The Redskins weren't that bad last year, despite finishing last in the NFC East. It feels like it has been that way for quite some time.
Washington won as many games over the last three seasons as Green Bay won last year alone. If the Redskins think they can compete for future Super Bowls, they needed to get better at the quarterback position.
When Washington traded up to get Robert Griffin III, he instantly became the savior of the franchise.
Since being drafted, RGIII has become a Washington, D.C., icon before even taking a snap. He has to be the next Cam Newton or Matthew Stafford. He may even have to be better than that.
He just can't be a guy who won't pan out; Washington may not survive if he doesn't.
While Andrew Luck was drafted first in this year's draft and may be the better long-term prospect, nobody came out of the NFL draft a bigger star than RGIII. Now, right off the bat in D.C., he has to shine.
Michael Vick published a book this summer. During his book tour, he was asked about the Eagles' chances this season.
When I look at our football team and what we have on paper, I think about when I was growing up and the great San Francisco 49er teams, the great Green Bay Packer teams, and the great Dallas Cowboy teams, how they just positioned themselves to compete and be one of the best teams out there, Vick said.
I think we have a chance to be that. I think we have a chance to develop a dynasty.
Clearly, Vick knows the Eagles need to walk before they can run and run before they can fly. They need to make the playoffs before they can win a Super Bowl, and they need to win one championship before they can win enough to be considered a dynasty.
Unlike the idiotic Dream Team comment by backup quarterback Vince Young last season in Philadelphia, Vick's comment actually makes a little bit of sense. Vick was saying the Eagles have the talent to become a dynasty, but it's up to them to fulfill that promise and deliver on that potential. Vick isn't saying they are the team to beat in the NFC, more that it has the talent to beat those teams that are.
Was it brazen? Certainly, but it wasn't as stupid as some people think. Heading into the first week of the season, it still doesn't seem so crazy.
Vick's biggest problem will be staying healthy enough to lead this team back to the playoffs to start this dream of a dynasty on the right track. He needs to stay on the field.
Still, in a town seemingly constructed on top of one great, big, giant hot seat, Vick's comment best not become an albatross for the Birds this season. If it is, there probably won't be a next season for a lot of them.