Changing the Signal Callers

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Jul 6, 2005
LA Times,1,1519963.column

The New York Jets want San Diego’s Drew Brees to be their next quarterback.

It’s obvious, undeniable, unequivocal …

Unless, of course, they choose to pursue his backup, Philip Rivers.

Then again, Rivers could wind up with the Tennessee Titans, where he would be reunited with offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who coached him at North Carolina State …

Unless Chow and the Titans have a chance to land USC’s Matt Leinart, the likely No. 1 pick in next spring’s draft.

But if the Titans have their heart set on Leinart, they’d better get in line. Cleveland, Detroit, Dallas, Arizona and Miami probably will be in the market for new quarterbacks too. Or maybe the Titans will promote promising backup Billy Volek and send 33-year-old Steve McNair to the Jets, where he could play under former Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger.

The NFL trading deadline has passed, but the rumors are only beginning. There could be more quarterback shuffling next off-season than any in memory, with more than one-third of the league at least considering changes.

For every etched-in-stone starter in one city, there’s an etched-in-butter starter in another. For every Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb or Peyton Manning, there’s a Joey Harrington, Kyle Orton or Anthony Wright.

The first dominoes to fall could be from teams on opposite coasts with opposite roster situations. The Chargers have too many quarterbacks; the Jets have too few.

Rivers is the best-paid benchwarmer in football, a $14-million-bonus man who for the last 1 1/2 seasons has been holding a clipboard for Brees, who came to life last season and led San Diego to the playoffs. If Brees pulls off an encore — he has only one interception in the last four games for the suddenly surging Chargers — his team will be hard-pressed to let him go.

But it’s far too costly these days for a franchise to hold onto two big-money quarterbacks. Long gone are the days of Roger Staubach and Danny White, or Joe Montana and Steve Young.

So either Brees or Rivers is on his way out. And the team in most dire need is the Jets, who are limping along with 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde while the inconsistent Chad Pennington recovers from a shoulder injury that may prevent him from throwing until next spring.

This week, before the trading deadline, the Chargers swapped backup quarterbacks with Miami, sending Cleo Lemon to the Dolphins for A.J. Feeley, a more seasoned backup. It was more evidence that San Diego is planning for a future without either Rivers or Brees.

There could be changes all over the league by next season. In Detroit, things are so rough that the Lions might replace Harrington with Jeff Garcia, who couldn’t keep a job in Cleveland. In the three-plus seasons since the Lions made Harrington the No. 3 pick, they have gone 3-13, 5-11, 6-10 and now are 2-3.

Although Coach Steve Mariucci said it would “be crazy to point the finger at one person,” his quarterback has an uncharacteristically good read on this one.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out things are not going very well right now,” Harrington told reporters this week.

At least Harrington has his youth, and the chance to reinvent himself, the way Brees did. The sun is rapidly setting on several other starters, who range in age from 33 to 36: Drew Bledsoe, Kerry Collins, Trent Dilfer, Kurt Warner, Mark Brunell, Trent Green, McNair, and, of course, Brett Favre.

When a team is struggling, making a change at quarterback often seems to be the best place to start. Then again, to some, Tim Couch sounded like a good idea. So did Akili Smith, Cade McNown, Ryan Leaf …