Everyone loves a quarterback training camp battle—at least, everyone who doesn't draw a team paycheck.
For a football-starved sports world desperate for NFL action, a good training camp battle turns dog days of sweaty jumping jacks into a gripping thriller. How many reps with the ones did the rookie get? How sharp did the veteran look? Most importantly, did the coach drop any hints in today's press conference?
Fans who can't wait for the final word live and die with every beat writer's notebook post. Fantasy football owners swing blockbuster deals and overpay for free agents based on the day-to-day horse race between camp-battle combatants.
But what about the players on the field? What about the team?
Is uncertainty surrounding the most important position on the field an overwhelming negative, or does a competition at quarterback warn the rest of the roster against complacency?
There's a football saying as old as the hills: "When you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one." Going into training camp without an established starter almost always means uncertainty during the season, regardless of who wins.
At this time in 2013, the New York Jets were set up for a competition between rookie Geno Smith and veteran Mark Sanchez. A preseason shoulder injury to Sanchez handed the job to Smith, who struggled mightily in his debut campaign. Now Smith is competing with Michael Vick, who signed late in free agency.
In the same summer, the Oakland Raiders were supposed to have a quarterback battle between free-agent signee Matt Flynn and fourth-round rookie Tyler Wilson. Flynn struggled, Wilson didn't even make the team, and holdover Terrelle Pryor took the job out of nowhere with a surprisingly strong preseason.
It didn't last.
Pryor's up-and-down performances eventually got him benched for undrafted free-agent rookie Matt McGloin. Now Wilson, Flynn and Pryor are elsewhere, and McGloin is hanging on behind free agent Matt Schaub and 2014 second-round pick Derek Carr.
In Buffalo, the battle between first-round rookie EJ Manuel and veteran Kevin Kolb fizzled in preseason when Kolb suffered a season-ending concussion. Undrafted free-agent rookie Jeff Tuel and journeyman practice-squadder Thad Lewis stepped up and took turns filling in for Manuel while he struggled to stay healthy in 2013.
On the other hand, the Philadelphia Eagles' three-way race between veteran Michael Vick, sophomore Nick Foles and fourth-round rookie Matt Barkley led to tremendous regular-season success. When the winner, Vick, went down with an injury in Week 6, Foles exploded with an amazing statistical season.
A training camp battle, then, doesn't necessarily mean the team won't get good quarterbacking when the games count. So do quarterback battles have an unsettling effect on the rest of the roster? Do they affect morale, splitting team loyalties?
"Not once the decision's made." That's what Bleacher Report National NFL Lead Writer Matt Bowen told me. Bowen, a seven-year NFL veteran, explained that as long as the starter is settled before the third preseason game (when teams actually game-plan for each other), a quarterback battle in camp shouldn't adversely affect the rest of the team.
Even the wide receivers, he said, aren't really impacted by two different quarterbacks splitting first-team reps. That two quarterbacks often throw at different velocities, throw routes differently or even throw with opposite hands (causing the ball to spin the opposite way) shouldn't impact professional pass-catchers at this point in the year.
"The receivers work with these quarterbacks throughout passing school, OTAs and minicamp," Bowen said. Just huddling up with one quarterback or another should be enough for a professional pass-catcher to adjust and catch the ball.
What if aging stars (e.g., the Houston Texans' Andre Johnson) don't appreciate a young or untested quarterback winning the job? Does starting over at quarterback cause veterans to clock out?
"No," Bowen said. "You gotta help him out." Whether it's a veteran receiver like Johnson stepping up and catching everything the budding quarterback throws his way, a defense getting the ball back in the quarterback's hands over and over or special teams units shortening the field, a first-time starter should inspire everyone else to raise their game.
Sure, the offense might want one quarterback to win, and the defense another. Certain guys on the team might be rooting for or against one or the other. But ultimately, Bowen said, "You've got to trust the coaching staff has made the right decision."
Once that decision's made, the whole team rallies around the starter.
The only real mistake a coaching staff can make is trying to go with a quarterback by committee, or trying to ride whoever seems to be the hot hand. "You've gotta have someone you can turn to in the fourth quarter," Bowen said.
On the three NFL teams with first-round rookie quarterbacks in 2014, though, that's exactly what seems to be in store.
Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union, quoted by Keith McMillan of The Washington Post, called Jacksonville Jaguars veteran Chad Henne the "no-doubt starter" for Week 1. However, he also pegged a Week 8 torch-passing for No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles. For a team on the upswing in the wide-open AFC South, a midseason quarterback change could be dangerous.
In Cleveland, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport tweeted that the "best-case scenario" is Hoyer winning the starting job in camp and Johnny Manziel being used as a packaged gimmick. That sounds more like a worst-case scenario for a veteran-laden defense—not to mention a franchise and fanbase desperate for stability at the position.
The Minnesota Vikings coaching staff paid lip service to Matt Cassel this summer and surprisingly kept 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder around. For most of the offseason, it looked like Teddy Bridgewater would spend a while on the bench. In the middle of June, well-connected columnist Tom Pelissero of USA Today was still calling Cassel a "heavy favorite" to win the starting job.
Then, on July 8, the Vikings' official team site quoted offensive coordinator Norv Turner as saying Bridgewater was "a lot further along than [he] expected." Not long after, Bridgewater began splitting first-team reps with Cassel, and NFL Media's Albert Breer tweeted Bridgewater had "closed the gap" on Cassel. If so, and the Vikings want to win as many games as they can in 2014, they should give Bridgewater the reins now.
In today's NFL, with shortened training camps, no two-a-day practices and starters on strict snap counts in the preseason, first-team reps are precious. Using them to settle a quarterback battle is fine—but the decision should be made firmly, and it should be stuck to once made.
The surest way to sink an NFL team's regular season is to have two captains fighting over the rudder.