By RALPH VACCHIANO
Donovan McNabb took a seat last week, perhaps putting an end to his stellar NFL career. He was a shell of his former self, but more importantly the Vikings are 1-5 and they have a fresh, young quarterback collecting dust on the sidelines.
Scenes like that play out all the time in the ever-changing world of the NFL, where it’s always been a young man’s game and the next great generation is always just around the corner. That’s certainly been true for quarterbacks, where it seems a new bumper crop is produced every few years. It’s been more than eight years now since the 2003 draft gave us Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers and Matt Schaub.
Once the new, hot fresh faces of the NFL, now they’re all smacking hard into 30.
Even Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco are “veteran” quarterbacks now, which tells you how quickly the winds can change. The next generation is already warming up in the bullpen with players from the 25-and-under set started for nine of the 32 NFL teams. From Cam Newton, to Matthew Stafford, to Mark Sanchez, to Colt McCoy, there’s a new crop ready to be harvested.
Here’s a look at the kids – all the under-25 staring quarterbacks in the NFL at the moment -- and how they rank among themselves as they begin what they all hope will be long careers in the league:
1. Matthew Stafford, 23, Detroit – He’s shaken off two injury plagued seasons to fulfill all his promise so far. In six games he’s 5-1 with 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Last year he had six TDs and one interception in three games, so that mistake-free football isn’t an aberration or a surprise. He’s arrived, and as long as he’s healthy the Lions will be tough to beat.
2. Josh Freeman, 23, Tampa Bay – He finds a way to win (4-2 this year) even though he doesn’t have the most talented team around him. It’s a bit alarming that he’s only thrown five touchdowns (and six interceptions) this year, but in the last there games he only had two picks, so maybe he’s settled down. He’s big, tough and accurate. Maybe the most underrated of the bunch.
3. Cam Newton, 22, Carolina – So much for rookie quarterbacks struggling with no offseason, huh? Two 400-yard games, another at 374, a completion percentage near 60 (58.5). He still throws way too many interceptions (nine through six games), but he’s just getting started. He’s strong and confident in the pocket. He can run. He’s really on his way to erasing all doubts.
4. Sam Bradford, 23, St. Louis – He’s taken a somewhat alarming step back after last year, in part because of the dismal team around him. Still, it’s a quarterback’s job to figure out a way to win and the Rams are 0-5 and Bradford has only thrown three touchdown passes so far. The needle is still pointed up, but even though he’s taking a beating behind a porous line, he’s got to do better than a 53.1 percent completion ratio.
5. Mark Sanchez, 24, New York Jets – He may be young, but he’s in his third year which means the learning curve should be over. Yet despite two trips to the AFC championship game, he’s still shown few signs that he can carry his team. His completion percentage sits at 56.1 percent and he’s got just nine touchdown passes in six games despite some talented receivers. He was supposed to be so much better by now. So is this all there is?
6. Andy Dalton, 23, Cincinnati – Another rookie who is defying the odds, when it first looked like he might spend the season watching and learning. The Bengals are a surprising 4-2, he’s got a 62.4 completion percentage and has more touchdowns (7) than interceptions (5). Another good start for a rookie who had no time to learn.
7. Colt McCoy, 25, Cleveland – They sure are letting him throw a lot – 217 times in five games. And he’s still avoiding mistakes, which is impressive. He’s thrown only three interceptions so far, putting him way ahead of the nine he threw in eight starts last year. The competition hasn’t been the best and the Browns are only 2-3, but he’s already exceeded some expectations.
8. Blaine Gabbert, 22, Jacksonville – He looks most like a rookie, of all the rookie quarterbacks. He’s also on a bad team and got off to a late start. So don’t be alarmed by a completion percentage under 50 (48.8) or only four touchdown passes. It could be worse. He’s only thrown two interceptions, which is far ahead of the usual rookie rate.
9. Christian Ponder, 23, Minnesota – He mopped up last week, going 9 of 17 for 99 yards and gets his first start this Sunday. For now he’s at the bottom of this list only because his grade is incomplete.
By RALPH VACCHIANO