Veteran QBs will be available this offseason

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci acknowledged last week that he needs a veteran quarterback, someone who can push underachieving starter Joey Harrington to the next level of excellence or maybe even nudge him from the top perch on the depth chart.

As fate would have it, Jeff Garcia, who enjoyed three Pro Bowl seasons in San Francisco under the tutelage of Mariucci, will officially be released by the Cleveland Browns next Tuesday, when the NFL offseason moratorium on roster moves comes to an end.

So you want to wager a buck on which franchise gets the first telephone call from agent Steve Baker when Browns executives officially hand Garcia a pink slip next week? It's a pretty good bet the brainy and persistent Baker has the Lions' number on speed-dial.

Thus begins, with the strains of a calliope playing in the background, the great NFL quarterback carousel, now an offseason musical-chairs ritual in which contestants typically eclipse the number of vacant seats available. The Bills have already joined the party, with ESPN.com learning that they will announce the release of Drew Bledsoe on Wednesday.

Garcia is, or technically will be, the first veteran quarterback cast out into the unemployment line. But Garcia, despite his disappointing one-season stint in Cleveland in 2004, doesn't figure to be the last quarterback standing when the music of change stops playing later this spring.

Figure on at least three other big-name quarterbacks -- Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson, Rich Gannon of Oakland and Jay Fiedler of Miami -- being released in the near future, as well. Kurt Warner will void his New York Giants contract. The Bucs will part ways with Brian Griese, rather than pay him a $6 million roster bonus, if the sides can't reach accord on a restructured contract. Chris Chandler is likely to be bounced by the St. Louis Rams. There will be at least a few serviceable veteran quarterbacks in the unrestricted free-agent pool.

But it is the veteran quarterbacks released because the numbers on their contracts were out of whack with the numbers on their stat sheets who, over the last few seasons, have garnered the most attention. Last season, for instance, at least seven quarterbacks released in late February or even after that found jobs -- and started games for their new teams.
The same is likely to be true in 2005 for Garcia and others.

Beyond the Lions, who have grown weary waiting for Harrington to at least approximate the potential Detroit officials saw when they used the third overall choice in the '02 draft to select him, Tampa Bay probably will have some interest in Garcia. The Bucs tried to sign Garcia last spring, and nearly had a deal in place, before he bolted to the Browns. There already are rumors that the Bucs, who need a veteran to bridge the gap between the present and the start of the Chris Simms era, whenever that is, are using Garcia's release as leverage in negotiations with Griese and his agent.

While we are engaging in the kind of connect-the-dots exercise we characteristically disdain, some speculation about the potential landing spots for some of the other veteran quarterbacks soon to be seeking new jobs:

Bledsoe could wind up in Dallas, reunited with Bill Parcells, the man who made him the first overall choice in the 1993 draft.

Johnson played for coach Dennis Green in Minnesota and could rejoin him in Arizona.

Warner's agent has been talking him up in Chicago.

Fiedler might be a nifty insurance policy for teams such as Buffalo or Baltimore.

There is a feeling from at least a few teams that Garcia is salvageable, and that his short-lived, miserable tenure in Cleveland included some mitigating circumstances.

No, the six-year veteran didn't help himself or his image with his public rants about the (mis)direction of the Cleveland offensive design. His comments were perceived by the blue-collar fans of Cleveland, who took notice of his $5 million signing bonus and lack of production, as whiny and self-serving. Offseason distractions, including Garcia having to testify in a trial for his girlfriend, a Playboy Playmate who was accused of karate-kicking one of Garcia's ex-girlfriends during a fight at a downtown nightclub, didn't exactly sell well in Middle America, either.

But there were enough flashes of the old Garcia, who led his team to a 3-3 start, then nearly upset the Philadelphia Eagles in the Browns' seventh outing, to suggest to teams in need of a veteran for 2005 that the guy, even at age 35, might have something left.

Remember, with the injury-ravaged Cleveland offensive line, Garcia played behind one of the NFL's worst pass-protection units. Tight end Kellen Winslow II, the club's first-round draft choice and expected to be an offensive centerpiece, suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the year. The running game was sporadic. And despite the promises that coach Butch Davis made to Garcia when recruiting him -- that the Browns would operate from a West Coast-style offense and bring in former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh as a consultant to help hasten the transition to a new scheme -- none ever turned into reality.

It would diminish Garcia's past accomplishments, deeds that include a four-year stretch in San Francisco in which he averaged nearly 3,500 passing yards and also 26 touchdown passes, to suggest he is little more than a product of the West Coast system. What is true, however, is that Garcia certainly functions best in that offense. And was, under Mariucci, a lot more than merely functional.

Then again, being just functional might be enough to challenge Harrington for playing time in Detroit, if Garcia eventually winds up there.
Mariucci made it clear last week, in discussing the Lions' bare quarterbacking cupboard behind Harrington, that he is not opposed to importing a veteran to compete for the No. 1 job, if such a player is available. "If there is somebody out there that we can sign that's good enough to compete, terrific," Mariucci said.

One such guy, a quarterback with past knowledge of and past success in the Mariucci offense, will officially be available next Tuesday afternoon.
He figures to be followed shortly thereafter, as the quarterback carousel picks up steam and momentum, by several other veterans.