Cold, Hard Football Facts passer assessor
As we learned from ESPN's Emmitt Smith last season, "You cannot change the stripes of a leopard."
But it seems that even quarterbacks who have earned their stripes can lose their starting spots.
The all-time rushing champ – and grammatically challenged metaphor mixologist – would probably concede that change do happen at that position. In fact, few starting QBs in the NFL have true job security. The preseason provided numerous examples, as high-profile veterans switched teams (Brett Favre, Chad Pennington) and high-drafted rookies were handed the reins (Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco).
While some quarterbacks immediately inherit the No. 1 role, others land the assignment the old-fashioned way: by winning an open competition. This summer, the training camps of the 49ers, Bears and Cardinals all featured a battle to see who would emerge as the starting signal caller. And the results were quite unexpected.
In every instance, the presumptive favorite was a highly touted first-round draft choice who had once been dubbed the "QB of the future." Each of these top picks had opened last season as the starter and was expecting to do the same in 2008. Yet, by the time the calendar turned to September, all of them were relegated to being backups.  
Somewhat surprisingly, draft status had absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the quarterback derbies in San Francisco, Chicago and Arizona. For each, let's examine the pigskin pedigrees of the main competitors:
Favorite: Alex Smith (1st round, 2005)
In 2004, Smith led Utah to a perfect 12-0 season and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. After being selected first overall by the 49ers the following spring, he made an inauspicious starting debut in Week 5, posting a putrid passer rating of 8.5. Smith showed improvement in 2006, when he became the first San Francisco quarterback to take every snap for an entire season, and he has now started a total of 30 games.
Challenger: J.T. O'Sullivan (6th round, 2002)
Despite playing at UC-Davis, a Division II school, O'Sullivan attracted enough attention to be a late-round pick of the Saints. He never threw an NFL pass – for them or any of the other five teams with which he signed – until making one relief appearance for the Lions last season. His only starts as a professional came during two different stints with the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe.
Favorite: Rex Grossman (1st round, 2003)
As a sophomore at Florida, Grossman was probably deserving of the Heisman Trophy, but he finished as the runner-up in the closest vote since 1985. (The bias against sophomores was finally overcome by another Gators quarterback, Tim Tebow, last year.) The Bears made him the 23rd pick in 2003, and he guided them to the Super Bowl less than four years later. Largely due to injuries, Grossman has been limited to 30 regular-season starts.
Challenger: Kyle Orton (4th round, 2005)
Although a three-year starter at Purdue, Orton wasn't one of the first 100 players chosen in the draft. He was expected to be brought along slowly, but a preseason injury to Grossman forced Chicago to start the rookie for 15 games. After watching from the sidelines during a subsequent playoff loss and the next season's Super Bowl run, Orton made three more starts in last year's 7-9 campaign.
Favorite: Matt Leinart (1st round, 2006)
The Heisman Trophy winner as a junior, Leinart led USC to two national championships. Had he not returned for his senior season, he would likely have been the top overall pick instead of Smith in 2005, but he fell to Arizona at the 10th spot a year later. With 11 starts as a rookie and another five last year before breaking his collarbone, Leinart has played the equivalent of one full NFL season.
Challenger: Kurt Warner (undrafted, 1994)
After starting only as a senior at I-AA Northern Iowa, Warner drew little interest from the pros – unless you count Arena Football. But he has gone on to tremendous NFL success (something that distinguishes him from fellow challengers O'Sullivan and Orton). Warner was the league's MVP with the Rams in 1999 and 2001, reaching the Super Bowl in both of those seasons and winning it once. He has started 85 regular-season games and ranks third in career passer rating (93.2).
For many teams, a franchise quarterback can be as elusive as a striped leopard. The draft routinely proves to be an inexact science, and some of the best players at the position have emerged from obscurity. But finding that field general – and, of course, keeping him healthy – should be seen as absolutely imperative.
The correlation between quarterback continuity and team success almost can't be overstated. Only eight teams are expected to have the same opening-day quarterback for the fourth consecutive year, and all but two of them have played in a recent Super Bowl. Here's the rundown:
  • Peyton Manning will make his 11th straight opening-day start for the Colts.
  • Donovan McNabb will make his 9th straight opening-day start for the Eagles.
  • Matt Hasselbeck will make his 8th straight opening-day start for the Seahawks.
  • Tom Brady will make his 7th straight opening-day start for the Patriots.
  • Marc Bulger will make his 5th straight opening-day start for the Rams.
  • Jake Delhomme will make his 5th straight opening-day start for the Panthers.
  • Carson Palmer will make his 5th straight opening-day start for the Bengals.
  • Eli Manning just made his 4th straight opening-day start for the Giants.
Had Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger not missed the 2006 opener because of an emergency appendectomy, he would likewise be starting for a fourth consecutive season. And if that were the case, the above list would include every quarterback from the past five Super Bowls except one: Grossman.
Volatility at the quarterback position has been especially pervasive over the last year. In all, 12 teams – constituting move than a third of the league – are expected to open the season with a different player under center than they did in 2007.
Starting QB in 2007 Opener
Starting QB in 2008 Opener
Alex Smith
J.T. O'Sullivan
Rex Grossman
Kyle Orton
J.P. Losman
Trent Edwards
Charlie Frye
Derek Anderson
Matt Leinart
Kurt Warner
Damon Huard
Brodie Croyle
Trent Green
Chad Pennington
Joey Harrington
Matt Ryan
Chad Pennington
Brett Favre
Brett Favre
Aaron Rodgers
Josh McCown
JaMarcus Russell
Steve McNair
Joe Flacco
Losman is another QB fitting the profile of a first-round pick who lost his job to a less-heralded replacement. Edwards, a third-rounder from Stanford, took over the position as a rookie last season and led the Bills to five of their seven victories.
The situation is also familiar to Harrington, the third overall pick in 2002. He was twice benched in favor of the undrafted Jeff Garcia while with Detroit, and he has now squandered starting gigs in both Miami and Atlanta as well.
Change is inevitable in the NFL, and the quarterback position provides a telling testament. When you don't produce, your team will quickly find someone who does. For last year's starters who now find themselves holding clipboards, the explanation is simple: They were outplayed.
Or, as Emmitt would say, "debacled."