AP Pro Football Writer
NFL quarterbacks can be broken into three groups: elite, good and "can we find somebody else?"
That last group is growing considering what has gone on with the Buccaneers, Browns, Raiders and Jets already. Most troublesome, however, are the recent meltdowns by some quality passers who seem to take huge steps backward when in reach of the highest level for the position.
On Sunday, Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler and even Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco fell back into some old habits that belie their status in the upper portions of the second tier of NFL quarterbacks. And belie their hefty salaries.
Schaub's Texans were in control of their home game with the Seahawks deep into the second half. But his throw with less than three minutes left was picked off and returned for a touchdown by Richard Sherman, one of the league's top cornerbacks. The pass not only was unnecessary, it was unwise. And Schaub remained on the grass of Reliant Stadium on his hands and knees beating the ground with his fists as Sherman became the third player to return one of his passes for a touchdown this season.
That, unfortunately for the Texans, has been an issue with Schaub throughout the team's rise to playoff qualifier: poor decision making at the worst times.
"I'm the quarterback of this team," said Schaub, who was heavily booed by the home fans. "I have the ball in my hands. This one hurts real bad."
Cutler also has been plagued by that same malady, one that seemed to have disappeared under new coach Marc Trestman. It resurfaced, in full bloom, at Detroit.
The Lions, hardly a defensive powerhouse, had three picks, two of which set up touchdowns. They forced a Cutler fumble on a sack for a touchdown as they moved into a tie atop the NFC North with Chicago.
Before then, in three outings under Trestman, Cutler had been efficient rather than mercurial, hardly his modus operandi in previous years.
Cutler said he "felt good about my decision making," which is troublesome in itself. And Lions safety Louis Delmas, who had two interceptions, noted: "Although he's a great quarterback with a strong arm, sometimes we can read him and we got the better of him."
The main problem for Schaub and Cutler is that in big games, the opposition does just that, getting the better of them.
That also was the case for Flacco until last year. He was a quarterback who could get you into the playoffs, but not carry you to a championship. That shiny ring and nine-figure contract he earned show that the Ravens' QB has cast off that role.
Yet he is fully capable of a stinker now and again, precisely what he provided in Buffalo. The Bills picked off Flacco five times, the key ingredient in their 23-20 win that dropped the Ravens to 2-2.
"We had four interceptions and still had a chance to win at the end," Flacco said. "With the way I played, turning the ball over and all that, the fact that we were able to hang in there and still have a shot at the end, we did certain things well."
And certain things very poorly, such as forcing throws, something that damaged Flacco's game at various times in his first five pro seasons.
Perhaps most maddening among the miscues by the second-level QBs is what Atlanta's Matt Ryan does.
Like Schaub, Cutler and Flacco -- yeah, Flacco deserves a, uh, pass for winning a title, and he gets one here -- Ryan is supremely talented. The Falcons are treating him like a franchise quarterback, and he's taken them to the verge of major achievements.
Yet, just as in Sunday night's loss to New England, and especially in last January's NFC championship game defeat by San Francisco, that huge play that would lift him into the category of Brady, Rodgers, Brees, Roethlisberger and the Manning brothers just isn't there.
Still, Schaub, Ryan, Flacco and perhaps even Cutler if the Bears ante up on a new contract after his current one expires at the end of the season, are in better places than Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Neither has played well in 0-4 starts, but each appears to have a team crumbling around him.
The Giants and Steelers can't protect their star QBs, can't run the ball efficiently enough and no longer have defenses that can rescue sputtering offenses. That has forced Manning and Roethlisberger to gamble even beyond their norms, and it's been a recipe for defeat four times already.
Not that we will hear Tom Coughlin and Mike Tomlin complaining about their quarterbacks. All they need do is look at Jacksonville or Tampa or Oakland for some comfort.
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