NFL

USC keeps churning out bad QBs

I'll Pass, Matt Leinart
Matt Leinart, cut by the Cardinals, is now with the Texans.
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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
   
 

Maybe Ken Whisenhunt just beat the rush.

It made for splashy headlines when the Cardinals released former USC star and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, but in light of the Week 1 performances of the other former Trojans QBs, perhaps Whisenhunt’s move should start a trend.

Carson Palmer put the Bengals in a 24-0 hole by failing to convert his first three third downs and then throwing a pick-six before spackling his numbers in garbage time.

The Chiefs managed to win Monday night despite Matt Cassel’s 10-for-22, 68-yard stat line. That’s 3.1 yards per wobbly attempt (as depressed Dwayne Bowe owners can tell you).

Mark Sanchez? Zero touchdowns, six first downs, countless checkdowns in an embarrassing, hyper-conservative, 10-9 home loss to the Ravens.

USC now stands for Underperforming Signal Callers. Having a Trojan in your pocket might make you feel safe and secure, but it won’t help you score.

Despite some incredible field position thanks to three Ravens turnovers, including Joe Flacco’s lost fumble at his own 11, Sanchez could not put the ball in the end zone all night. In fact, the Jets’ hard-hitting defense consistently looked like the bigger threat to score.

Which isn’t to say New York’s quarterback play was entirely wretched. Brad Smith ran for 27 yards on two carries as the change-of-pace QB. But otherwise, the Jets offense just ran in place with Sanchez at the controls.

It’s not really accurate to call what Sanchez did in the opener “checking down.” Checking down would imply he was actually looking up the field before checking down to his release valves. But Sanchez was bailing on the play before wide-outs Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery even reached the second level.

Astonishingly, despite constantly dumping the ball off for a paltry 7.4 yards per completion average, Sanchez managed to complete fewer than half his passes (10-for-21). The Jets finished with 60 total passing yards. (Tom Brady had 59 and a touchdown on the Patriots’ first drive of the season.)

At lunch on Monday, several hours before Jets-Ravens kicked off, a buddy asked me: “What’s the difference between Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart?”

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A few things:

Mark “Checkdown” Sanchez is right-handed. Matt “Checkdown” Leinart is a lefty.

On 385 career passes in the NFL, Sanchez has a putrid 62.7 passer rating. On 595 career passes, Leinart has a merely pathetic 70.8 rating.

Oh, and Leinart, safely sequestered behind a clipboard on Sunday, didn’t cost his team a victory in Week 1. (Coincidentally, Leinart’s signing by the Texans cost another USC QB, John David Booty, the No. 3 job in Houston.)

In order to be truly committed to the vertical passing game, a quarterback has to be willing to get hit. Post patterns and double moves take time. Sometimes giving receivers time to get free means getting blasted.

One has to wonder if pretty boys Sanchez and Leinart have the guts to step into a throw if it also means stepping into the path of a blitzing missile.

On Monday, Sanchez looked positively Leinart-esque in his hasty, hot-potato abandonment of his downfield options.

The Jets are hoping Sanchez’s apparent regression was just a momentary setback. As for the Chiefs, they’re hoping Cassel’s entire 2009 season was a glitch and he’ll return to his ’08 form this season.

No such luck in the opener. Cassel averaged a sub-Sanchez 6.8 yards per completion against the Chargers, and when you throw in a 6-yard loss on San Diego’s only sack, the Chiefs mustered 2.8 yards per pass attempt. Oh boy.

Unlike Palmer and Leinart -- both of whom he sat behind at USC -- and Sanchez, Cassel was not a top 10 pick. The Patriots took him in the seventh round with the 230th pick.

But with his remarkable 2008 season in New England -- 3,693 yards, 21 touchdowns subbing for Brady -- he looked like the real deal. (As it stands, Cassel is the answer to this trivia question: Who was the last Patriots QB to throw for 400 yards in game?)

As Scott Pioli tries to replicate the recipe for success he enjoyed as GM in New England, he’s mixing in familiar ingredients: Cassel, linebacker Mike Vrabel, right tacke Ryan O’Callaghan and coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel.

After Pioli traded for Cassel, he signed him to a six-year, $63 million extension with $28 million guaranteed. (That’s $27,999,998 more than fantasy owners valued him at auction.)

But since coming to Kansas City, Cassel has been a shadow of the one-year wonder he was in Foxboro. Monday night marked the eighth time in 16 starts for the Chiefs that he had thrown for fewer than 6 yards per attempt. It was the first time in those eight games the Chiefs won the game.

So far, the Chiefs have five wins and a 69.8 passer rating to show for their huge investment in Cassel. The Jets are 8-8 in the 16 regular-season games started by their $50 million ($28 million guaranteed) “Sanchize.” And the Cardinals may have gotten out from under a big 2011 balloon payment for Leinart by releasing him, but not before seeing tens of millions swirl down the drain of the hot tub.

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Which leaves Palmer, the most accomplished and therefore most vexing case of the bunch.

In 2005, Palmer’s second year in the league, he shot into the elite handful of NFL quarterbacks with a 32-TD, 12-pick, 101.1 rating season.

After winning the AFC North with an 11-5 record, he connected for a 66-yard TD with Chris Henry on his first playoff pass against the Steelers. Looking back, that may have been the peak of Palmer’s career.

It was also the low point. After that throw, Steelers d-lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen crumpled Palmer’s knee.

Palmer made it back for opening day in 2006 and had another excellent season, throwing 28 TDs to 13 picks, but the Bengals went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

In 2007, the TDs fell off another notch to 26, while the interceptions rose to 20 and the rating fell for the second straight year to a pedestrian 86.7 as the Bengals went 7-9.

In 2008, the Bengals were the Bungles again, standing at 0-5 when Palmer suffered a season-ending ligament injury in his throwing elbow. In four seasons, his rating had gone from 101.1 to 93.9 to 86.7 to 69.0.

Last year was a new chapter for Palmer, as he “managed” Cincy’s now-conservative, run-dominated attack. He threw 21 touchdowns and was picked off 13 times, posting an 83.6 rating that ranked 16th in the NFL.

But the Bengals won their division and hosted a playoff game, which is where the whispers about Palmer’s limitations grew louder. The meaningless blowout loss to the Jets in Week 17 could be ignored, but when the Jets repeated the beatdown the following week in the playoffs, holding Palmer to 146 yards on 36 attempts (4.06 yards per attempt), the former No. 1 overall draft pick looked every bit like an aging dink-and-dunker who had suffered two major injuries.

Week 1 won’t make the whispers go away. Yes, Palmer finished with 345 yards and threw some perfect strikes, but he did so against a team protecting a huge lead with virtually no pass rush (one sack in 55 dropbacks).

In Week 2, Palmer gets the Ravens D that so exposed Sanchez.

It might be time for the Bengals, Chiefs and Jets to follow Whisenhunt’s lead and start ruminating on their next QBs of the future.

Hey, Matt Barkley is just a couple years away.

Tagged: Bengals, Chiefs, Patriots, Jets, Ravens, Texans, Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel, Matt Leinart, Brad Smith, Mark Sanchez

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