By Steve Silverman
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The All-Star game represents a couple of important events. In addition to the “Oh wow” factor of seeing the best players in the American League and National League compete against each other, it represents the start of the second half of the season. Baseball gets serious after the All-Star break.
It has also always represented the start of the NFL season. Training camp is now just days away. By the end of the month, all of Roger Goodell’s teams will be in serious preparation for the 2012 season.
One of the undeniable factors about the NFL is that it has become even more of a quarterback’s league than it ever was. Clearly it has always been the most important position. Whether you are talking about the 1960s with Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr, the 1970s with Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach, Joe Montana and Dan Marino of the 1980s, John Elway and Steve Young in the 1990s, or Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady of the 2000s, quarterbacks have always run the show.
But the game has changed so much in recent years that it is basically impossible to succeed without top-level quarterback play. Look at the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. They are a more well-rounded team than most because they depend on a nasty and hard-hitting defense to set the tone. But in addition to their outstanding pass rush, the Giants have perhaps the most underrated quarterback in the game in Eli Manning. The Giants would not have won the Super Bowl if Manning had not been so solid in clutch situations.
As a result, all quarterbacks are under pressure to perform. But heading into the 2012 season, here are six quarterbacks who face the most pressure:
Mark Sanchez, New York Jets – When the Jets brought in Tim Tebow from the Denver Broncos in the offseason, the move had at least one positive impact: It sent an important message to Sanchez. If he didn’t know it at the end of the 2011 season, the Jets are not going to put up with any more gaffes at the quarterback position. Sanchez completed just 56.7 percent of his passes last year. That’s simply not good enough. It’s doubtful whether Tebow could even come close to that figure, but his presence turns the heat up considerably under Sanchez.
Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were not a playoff team last year. Instead of following their usual pattern of starting slowly and catching fire, the Chargers won four of their first five and then lost their way. Rivers was guilty of forcing throws last year, and he was particularly vulnerable to that issue in fourth quarters of games. He completed 62.9 percent of his passes, but his 20 interception indicated his lack of patience. Rivers has always been awkward-looking in the pocket, but he has gotten the ball where it needs to go. He has to get back to that in 2012.
Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos – Eli’s older brother is a can’t-miss Hall of Famer for his work and brilliant career with the Indianapolis Colts. However, he’s now out of his comfort zone and he’s taking over for Tebow in Denver. Manning is one of the most accurate passers in the history of the game and he’s a super play caller. However, if he does not have a good first month of the season, he will hear plenty of criticism from the fans who loved Tebow.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers – Newton opened eyes with a very athletic and surprisingly effective rookie season. However, Newton will have to take a major step up if the Panthers are going to become contenders. He completed 60.0 percent of his passes, but his 21-17 TD-interception ratio is not good enough. He struggles to find the soft spots in zone defense. Newton will have to learn how to read defenses better if he is going to avoid throwing interceptions.
Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears – The Bears are one of the league’s darlings heading into the 2012 season following the acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins. Marshall was Cutler’s favorite receiver when the two were teammates with the Denver Broncos, and Marshall is expected to give the Bears’ offense a much more explosive quality than it has had in the past. Cutler is a strong-armed quarterback with all the tools. He must put it all together in 2012 or his play may be called into question by the city’s demanding critics.
Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles – At the start of the 2011 season, the Eagles were supposed to be a dream team because of all the talent that Andy Reid had to work with. The Eagles dropped four of their first five games and were playing catch-up all season. The dream team failed to make the playoffs with an 8-8 record. There was plenty of blame to go around, but Vick committed too many turnovers. He threw 14 interceptions and he also had 10 fumbles. While he took a lot of abuse from opposing defenses, he can’t turn the ball over with so much frequency this season.