By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — Pressure is a fact of life in the NFL, and no players feel it more than starting quarterbacks.
The best players in the league are charged with leading their teams to wins in the regular season and piling up enough of them so they qualify for the postseason tournament.
It may look like it’s about throwing the ball for yardage and touchdowns, but that’s not the main part of the job. An effective quarterback has to turn his team into a consistent winner.
Obviously, many of the factors that lead to victory or defeat are out of a quarterback’s control. However, if the quarterback does not do his job, it’s nearly impossible for a team to win consistently.
So every quarterback faces pressure. Whether he’s a multiple Super Bowl winner like Tom Brady, a record-setter like Drew Brees or the super-accurate Aaron Rodgers, pressure is a constant companion.
But here are the quarterbacks facing the most pressure heading into 2013. All of them have a chance to play for winning teams this year, and if they don’t, hard questions will be asked at the end of the season.
Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears – Cutler is in the final year of his contract ( $8.47 million in base salary), and the 2013 season is the turning point in his career. He’s being judged by a second-year general manager in Phil Emery and a first-year head coach in Marc Trestman. Cutler has the tools to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league. However, he’s made a lot of mistakes the last couple of seasons and his track record includes just one playoff win in six years. His passer rating has declined each of the last two seasons and it has never been higher than the 88.5 rating he put on the board as a rookie with the Denver Broncos in 2006.
While Cutler has had to contend with poor offensive lines, inconsistent play calling and a lack of talent at the receiver position, those are all seen as excuses this year. He must produce and the Bears must win. Why would Emery offer him a new deal for 2014 and beyond if he continues his stagnation? It would not make sense to go any further down the road with Cutler unless he can help the Bears climb in 2014.
Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles –The last year of the Andy Reid regime was a nightmare in Philadelphia, and it seemed that Vick was no longer the right man to have behind center. He appeared to have a very difficult time reading defenses as he would take two steps back after taking the snap and find himself under pressure. His throws were off-target and he seemed lost.
Chip Kelly is charged with turning the Eagles around and his fast-paced attack requires quickness, decisiveness and accuracy from the quarterback. Kelly has cast his lot with Vick, who has seemingly learned his role this summer. There’s a bit of a honeymoon going on between Kelly and Vick, and it’s likely to last for two games. If the Eagles attack is not percolating by late September, the heat will be on Vick.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons – Why would there be pressure on Ryan, who was one of the best regular-season passer in the league last year? Because the Falcons did not play for the NFC championship and failed in the playoffs once again. Ryan threw for 4,719 yards in the regular season and completed 68.6 percent of his passes while compiling a 32-14 TD-interception ratio. Ryan has had three straight excellent regular seasons, but his playoff performance has been poor. That creates overwhelming pressure. He will feel mind-numbing heat ntil the Falcons get to a Super Bowl.
Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers – No player improved more than Kaepernick last year. Not only did he take the starting job from a good quarterback in Alex Smith at midseason, he led the 49ers to the NFC Championship. He completed 136-of-218 passes for 1,814 yards with 10 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. His ability to run with the ball separates him from nearly every other quarterback in the league. He appears to have the full package. Now he must prove it for a full season.
There’s a huge difference between last year’s underdog status and this year’s king of the hill mentality. The expectations include winning a Super Bowl. It’s all on Kaepernick’s shoulders this year, and there’s no avoiding the pressure.
Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants – There’s a big difference between Manning and the other quarterbacks on this list. Manning has two Super Bowl rings and there’s no doubting his ability to perform on the biggest stage. Both of his Super Bowl wins came against Brady and the Patriots when the Giants had to come from behind in the late stages to earn the wins.
Clutch player? No doubt. However, he has been stagnant in the regular season. The Giants failed to make the playoffs in 2010 and 2012, and Manning’s inability to play consistently is a big reason. The media does not focus on him because of his past Super Bowl success, but he will lose his elite status if the Giants don’t make it back to the playoffs again. They may have other concerns besides quarterback, but it’s Manning’s responsibility to get the Giants back to the playoffs.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.