In NFL, youth movement in the air at quarterback

One of the first calls Kerry Collins made after he had been pushed aside for the newest college quarterback phenom was to his deposed New York Giants coach, Jim Fassel.

Fassel listened to the veteran's SOS, then offered some sage advice.

"Listen, Kerry, this is not the end of the world for you, just like it's not the end of the world for me," he said. "That's the way this business is. And it's hard for you right now, just like it's hard for me, or anybody else.

"But you're a winning quarterback; there's a team out there for you. The biggest problem you have is timing because everybody's got their guy. You're going to have to sort through some stuff this year. Next year, when the season ends and five or six teams are saying they've got to fix their quarterback situation, you're at the front of it."

Collins, the Giants quarterback, and Fassel, the Giants coach, started last season with Super Bowl expectations. Fassel lost his job at the end of an injury-marred 4-12 debacle. Collins lost his when the Giants traded for Mississippi's Eli Manning on draft day and Collins declined to restructure his contract.

Now Fassel is in Baltimore as a senior consultant to Ravens coach Brian Billick and Collins is in quarterback purgatory, along with a glut of veterans who either have been discarded or will be by June.

As Fassel told Collins, that's the nature of the business today. In an environment of salary cap backlash, several more prominent veteran quarterbacks likely will lose their jobs as NFL teams prefer youth at the most important position.

In Cincinnati, 24-year-old Carson Palmer is replacing Jon Kitna, 31, despite a career year by Kitna for the Bengals last season.

In San Diego, the Chargers are ready to launch the era of Philip Rivers, 22, and terminate that of Drew Brees, 25.

In Miami, A.J. Feeley, an unproven 27-year-old former third-stringer, is on the verge of supplanting Jay Fiedler, 32.

And in New York, of course, Manning, 23, has made Collins, 31, a free agent.

Then there's two-time Most Valuable Player Kurt Warner, soon to be 33, who lost his job to Marc Bulger, 27, in St. Louis and will be jettisoned by the Rams shortly.

At 27, Tim Couch breaks the old-to-young trend. The No. 1 overall pick five years ago is being replaced by graybeard Jeff Garcia, 34, in Cleveland.

What do the majority of these quarterbacks have in common? Economics.

The infusion of youth is in direct proportion to the soaring salary cap numbers of established veterans. Collins would have counted $8.95 million against the Giants' salary cap this season. Couch has a 2004 cap figure of $9.35 million. Even after he departs St. Louis in June, Warner will eat up $4.6 million in cap space this year and $6.7 million next year.

Couch was demoted at the start of last season, Warner lost his starting job in the second week, and Collins' campaign ended with an injury. High-paid, struggling quarterbacks are more in jeopardy than ever.

"There comes a point where it's just too big a contract and there's no way to equitably extract yourself from it, short of severing the relationship," Billick said. "Clearly, these are economic issues that are pushing these guys out in the market."

If the youth movement at quarterback is a trend, Billick's Ravens were at the forefront a year ago. In a season when Cincinnati made Palmer the first pick in the draft, Baltimore's Kyle Boller was the only rookie to start on opening day. He made nine starts before injury cut short his year.

By season's end, however, Jacksonville was starting Byron Leftwich and Chicago was starting Rex Grossman. Both were rookies.

"At the end of the day, we're finding that the conventional thinking, as we challenged it last year, is beginning to change," Billick said.

Now, Billick said, teams are gradually coming to the conclusion it doesn't pay to let a pricey young quarterback sit on the bench while another high-priced veteran delays his progress. "If you're just grooming a young quarterback for somebody else, you're paying an awful high price for it," he said.

Fassel said he knew once the Giants traded for Manning that Collins' time was up in New York. And not just Collins, but every veteran whose authority is being usurped by a young new challenger.

"Your quarterback should be the guy everybody looks up to, the leader, the answer man," Fassel said. "The minute you pull the trigger and his replacement walks in the door, it's hard for him to be that same guy."

Internet babble notwithstanding, Collins and Fassel are not about to be reunited in Baltimore anytime soon. Billick said he's currently not in the market for a veteran quarterback, saying he's perfectly comfortable with Anthony Wright backing up Boller and rookie Josh Harris of Bowling Green as a developmental player.

Collins will seek a chance to compete for a starting job, which isn't available in Baltimore. If Collins aims lower or seeks a more temporary position, the perspective with the Ravens might change.

"I won't preclude going and getting a veteran, certainly if there's an injury," Billick said. "But there's no actionable plan right now that we're going to get one. And there's no specific plan toward Kerry Collins.

"I don't know this would be a place he'd want to come to because he'd be stacked in the third position."

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