Since the NFL initiated a 16-game schedule in 1978, 918 schedules have been played out. From ’78 through 1994, there were 28 teams. For the four seasons from ’95 through ’98, there were 30 teams. For two years, there were 31, and then since 2001, 32 teams have played a 16-game schedule.
Only once in those 918 seasons has a team gone unbeaten, the 2007 Patriots being the exception when they went 16-0. The following year, the Detroit Lions became the only 0-16 team.
This year, amazingly, we’re on track to see an unbeaten team and a winless team in the same season, and it’s because of the quarterback position that they are where they are. Undefeated Green Bay has just Kansas City on the road, then home games against Chicago and Detroit left to complete a perfect regular-season. They should be able to pull it off. The Packers, of course, were Super Bowl champions last year. They brought back a bevy of injured players this year, and didn’t have any changes to their coaching staff. Perhaps as importantly, the Packers got full rest during the offseason. They were one of the few teams that didn’t work out during the lockout. But the key has been the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has turned in a transcendent season at the most important position. The Packers have a great group of receivers, they’ve overcome injuries on the offensive line, and are on a roll.
There’s no reason to believe that the Packers won’t win their remaining games, and roll through the playoffs. They’re the best team in the NFL, and will be the Super Bowl favorites. Rodgers may be having the best season any quarterback has ever had, and he’s the main reason for a 13-0 start.
Opposite Green Bay is Indianapolis. While the Packers are getting great work from Rodgers, the Colts are getting terrible play from the quarterbacks replacing the injured Peyton Manning. Indy has home games against Tennessee and AFC South champ Houston, before wrapping up the season at Jacksonville. With the way the Colts play defense, having allowed a league-high 382 points, it’s hard to imagine them stopping one of those three teams, especially with Jacksonville scoring 41 against Tampa on Sunday. The Colts also have the fourth fewest points in the league, so they have a great chance to go 0-16. It would be stunning if they would win two games and miss out on the first pick in the draft.
Injuries to Manning and Kerry Collins forced Curtis Painter into action. Now Dan Orlovsky, who played much of Detroit’s winless season, is the Colts’ starting quarterback. Dreadful play at quarterback has doomed the Colts, and put them in position to draft Stanford’s Andrew Luck with the first pick in the draft.
Another team being greatly affected by quarterback play is Denver. For the seventh time yesterday, Tim Tebow brought the Broncos from behind to win. The Broncos lead the AFC West at 8-5. It was interesting to hear Chris Berman, Tom Jackson and Trent Dilfer dance around the religious element of Denver’s success, suggesting that “there’s a higher power at work, but I don’t know what it is.”
What it is, is faith and belief. Led by Tebow, the Broncos believe that regardless of the circumstances, they’re going to win the game. Marion Barber goes out of bounds on a second-down play to stop the clock. Barber fumbles in overtime, spoiling a Chicago field-goal chance and giving Denver the ball back.
I quit on Denver before the two-minute warning. But they never quit competing, and they took advantage of their opportunities. Whether it’s a higher power or serendipity, it’s happening for the Broncos. That’s all we need to know, is that they believe. They have faith. Tebow leads the way, but there’s no reason for his teammates to not believe. When they give him the chance to win, he wins. It’s amazing. It’s great theatre. And maybe Tebow’s way of life and popularity will make the world a better place.
Finally on the quarterback front, how about Houston’s T.J. Yates? The rookie from North Carolina took over for the injured Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart and has led the Texans to back-to-back wins, including a come from behind win in Cincinnati on Sunday that wrapped up the AFC South. Yates is completing nearly 55 percent of his passes, with three touchdowns and just one interception. He’s proving once again, like Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder, that rookie quarterbacks can play right away in the NFL.
It’s a quarterback driven league, and everything that’s happening this year will cause more teams to draft kids they think can lift them to the next level. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Matt Barkley, Landry Jones and Ryan Tannehill have a lot to look forward to. They’ll be high draft choices next spring, and have a chance to play early in their NFL careers.