An NFL season is a trial, a crucible that grinds teams down from the heat of August until the dead of winter. When judgment is rendered, only 12 of 32 teams are freed to pursue their dreams of glory; the others are sent to the gallows.
Teams who go into the summer without a good quarterback are already on the NFL's death row—whether they know it or not.
The New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders are currently exhausting their appeals, but it's too late; they failed to get a quarterback when they had the chance, and now their fate is sealed.
The Illusion of Competitive Balance
One of the biggest drivers of the NFL's popularity is what the league calls "competitive balance." It's the idea that nearly every team has a chance of making the playoffs. All but the very worst teams stay (mathematically) alive for the postseason until the regular season is almost over, so all NFL fans stay engaged for the majority of the calendar year.
Even fans of teams that are out of division races by Halloween can daydream about their upcoming top draft pick returning them to glory.
The only threat to the NFL's engineered parity is the league's evolution into a pass-first (and -second) league. If a team doesn't have quarterback play above a bare-minimum standard, there's simply no way it can compete.
Last season, the 11 quarterbacks (with a qualifying number of attempts) who couldn't crack 80.0 in NFL passer efficiency rating went 44-85 as starters, per Pro Football Reference. This includes Andrew Luck, who completed just 54.1 percent of his passes on the way to arguably the luckiest 11-5 season in NFL history.
Passer efficiency rating isn't a perfect stat, but it emphasizes completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio for a reason: Quarterbacks who excel in those areas tend to win a lot of games, and those who don't, don't.
Teams that don't have a quarterback who can consistently convert third downs, make big plays downfield or keep turnovers to a minimum don't have a prayer.
For these teams, the entire NFL regular season is a death march, a grueling slog toward a gruesome public execution.
New York Jets
As Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman wrote, Ryan inexcusably hung Mark Sanchez—his only veteran quarterback worthy of starting—out to dry in the closing minutes of a meaningless preseason game. Predictably, Sanchez suffered an injury that will keep him out for at least this week's practice, per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, and the Jets are left with a clearly unready Geno Smith as the only option.
Ryan's problems didn't start on Aug. 24, though.
The trouble began in the spring of 2012, when the Jets correctly identified a personnel problem: starting quarterback Mark Sanchez.
In his first two seasons, Sanchez managed not to sabotage one of the league's best defenses and rushing attacks. In his third season, despite mild improvement across the board, it became clear he couldn't win on a team that wasn't flawless beside himself.
When Sanchez finished his third season without ever eclipsing 3,500 yards, 30 touchdowns, seven yards per attempt or an 80.0 passer rating, the Jets correctly decided to bring in veteran competition to push him.
The problem? The competition they brought in: Tim Tebow.
After Tebow proved himself unworthy in camp and Sanchez failed to take a step forward, the Jets again identified the correct solution to their biggest problem. They drafted one of the best quarterback prospects in the class, Geno Smith, and made sure to have a veteran on hand to steer the ship if Smith didn't hit the ground running.
The problem? The veteran they kept on hand: Mark Sanchez.
How could the Jets publicly give up on their "Sanchize" quarterback but then keep him in New York just to be kicked around? How could the Jets set Smith—who, most experts agreed, was not nearly as NFL-ready as last year's top rookie quarterbacks—up to be the starter, and then toy with both quarterbacks all summer long?
Now, because the Jets failed to cut Sanchez loose and make a move for a veteran upgrade, and also failed to go all in on Smith and his development, they have no hope of quality quarterback play this season—and no hope of a successful season.
Like the Jets, the Bills gave up on their young veteran starting quarterback. Unlike Rex Ryan, a holdover coach unable to let go of his holdover quarterback, new Bills head coach Doug Marrone released incumbent Ryan Fitzpatrick to build his offense with "his guys."
Manuel, not considered a better NFL prospect than Smith by almost anyone but the Bills, was even less likely to step in and play well.
After injuries sidelined both Manuel and Kolb, Marrone announced rookie undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel would likely start Week 1 of the regular season, per Tim Graham of The Buffalo News. According to Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com, Tuel will be the first undrafted-free-agent rookie to start a season opener since 1960.
It's hard to blame Marrone for the injuries to Manuel and Kolb—though Kolb has a history of concussions, and this latest one may be career-ending, according to Graham. However, it's easier to blame Marrone for drafting Manuel too high and backing him up with one of the most notorious trade busts of recent years.
The Bills reacted to Kolb's injury quickly by signing free-agent Matt Leinart and trading for Detroit Lions fourth-stringer Thad Lewis. Leinart, though, will likely take weeks to get up to speed (and was available for a reason). Lewis couldn't beat out lowly regarded Kellen Moore for the Lions' third-string job in camp.
The Bills are in the same boat as the Jets. Both teams will have to hope their raw rookie quarterbacks catch lightning in a bottle.
In Carson Palmer, the Raiders had something resembling stability at quarterback for the first time since Rich Gannon.
This offseason, the Raiders traded Palmer to the Arizona Cardinals, who demonstrated to the rest of league the correct way to shore up a quarterback depth chart (besides drafting a generational talent with the No. 1 overall pick).
To replace Palmer, the Raiders signed Matt Flynn, a notorious free-agent quarterback flame-out with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012.
Flynn hasn't ever shown starter-level ability, save for a defenseless, meaningless 45-41 pinball game against the Detroit Lions in 2011, but that didn't stop the Raiders from entering the preseason with Flynn named as their starter.
The Raiders wisely snagged rookie Tyler Wilson in the fourth round; a quarterback who started both of his upperclassman years in the SEC is a rare find that late. After impressing in rookie camp, though, Wilson not only fell out of the starting competition, but he's fallen behind undrafted-free-agent Matt McGloin in the third-string competition, per Jerry McDonald of InsideBayArea.com.
That leaves only Terrelle Pryor.
Pryor, as physically talented as any quarterback prospect of his generation, has struggled through a combination of poor development and poor choices.
After a 2010 Ohio State campaign that showed signs Pryor was developing into a gifted passer, he left the university amidst scandal and was disassociated from the program. Selected by the Raiders in the third round of the 2011 supplemental draft, Pryor has seen only one meaningless Week 17 start in two seasons on the Raiders roster (and he turned in a forgettable 13-of-28 performance).
Now, after his stint in the third preseason game gave the Raiders "a little bit of a spark," according to head coach Dennis Allen via the team's official site, Pryor will get the start in the fourth. Presumably, this is an audition to start Week 1. If he starts and plays well, Pryor would be the most unlikely reclamation project in years.
Jets, Bills and Raiders fans must put all their hope in Smith, Manuel and Pryor, respectively. If those three quarterbacks don't play like effective veterans—and flout nearly all prior evidence and expert opinions in the process—those three teams are already waiting for next year.
It's the cruelest fate for an NFL fan, knowing your team is one of the very few without a light at the end of the 17-week tunnel.
It's crueler yet for the players, coaches and staff of the teams that failed to secure the most important position on the field.
Unless their young starters grant them clemency with surprisingly great play, these three teams' grisly punishment will serve as strong deterrents for the rest of the NFL.
Going forward, all NFL head coaches, front offices and general managers are on notice. You cannot enter a season with an "open competition," not unless you know whoever wins will be able to execute the offense at a professional level.
As long as passing is the law of the NFL land, teams must have a true starting (and credible backup) quarterback...or be dead teams walking.