Most alarming, however, has been the impact of injuries and ineffective play on the quarterback position. Even though leaguewide passing numbers remain up, this season has revealed a stunningly thin pool of qualified candidates. The effect has been cascading over a number of years, according to Sage Rosenfels, who retired this year after 10 seasons as an NFL backup.
"The best coaches I ever had always said that a team goes by the way of its quarterback," Rosenfels said. "If he practices well, it's a good practice. If he practices bad, it's a bad practice. So when starters go down, the quality of play is going to be worse."
The relatively recent trend many teams have adopted of putting the No. 3 quarterback on the practice squad, Rosenfels said, has stunted development and left teams with fewer quality options when injuries strike. The Buffalo Bills, for example, were so barren after injuries to starter EJ Manuel and backup Kevin Kolb that they promoted Thad Lewis from their practice squad to start three games and then used undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel when Lewis was injured.
"So many teams have eliminated the third quarterback spot on the active roster," Rosenfels said. "It was a development position, not so much to find a new starter but to at least have a competent backup in a few years. Being on the practice squad is not the same as being the third quarterback, and I don't think people recognize that. Not dressing for games, not going through the weekly routine the same way, being part of the action on game day, that's a big deal. And it's all because teams are looking for one extra roster spot. It's hard to understand."
That's exactly what the Packers have done behind Aaron Rodgers in recent years, but this summer they gave up on the backup they had been grooming behind him. Graham Harrell was released just before the season began, sparking a personnel scramble that has contributed to the Packers' 0-3-1 record since Rodgers fractured his collarbone.
Head coach Mike McCarthy is known as one of the NFL's best quarterback teachers, but for two years he has bemoaned the loss of his famed offseason "Quarterback School," which the new CBA rendered inert. During the offseason, McCarthy campaigned to have the rules relaxed for specific cases.
"You'd like to see [that] adjusted because the opportunity to train quarterbacks should be starting in March," McCarthy said. "That's a different position; the responsibilities, the volume of it is a lot more than any other position."
Bills coach Doug Marrone, whose team has almost as many starting quarterbacks (three) as it does wins (four) this season, is resigned to his fate. He recently quoted Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who said, "Growth comes with experience." Added Marrone, "Someone told me that, and I was thinking to myself, 'That's exactly right.'"
There might be no better symbol for the NFL's decaying quarterback depth than the 2013 journey of Freeman, who opened the season as one of perhaps a dozen so-called franchise quarterbacks in the league. His clash with Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano led to a Week 5 release, and within days he signed with the Vikings -- who seemed eager to end their three-year project of developing Christian Ponder.