For the first nine years since it was created, the AFC South was a quarterback’s division. One quarterback’s division, actually, and that one was Peyton Manning.
With the exception of 2003, when he shared the NFL Most Valuable Player Award with Steve McNair, Manning has been the most important and accomplished player in the division and has guaranteed that the Indianapolis Colts annually are the team to beat.
His absence due to injury this season coincides with a dramatic shift throughout the division as veterans Kerry Collins and Vince Young in Tennessee and David Garrard in Jacksonville were cast aside for younger alternatives and highly touted rookies.
Sunday’s game at Indianapolis is the first of three in a row for the Titans against their division rivals to conclude the season — they host Jacksonville on Dec. 24 and travel to Houston on Jan. 1. With that in mind, a look at the current quarterback situation for each of the four AFC South teams:
• The veteran: Matt Hasselbeck. He was the starter in Seattle for most of the past 10 seasons and was a high priority for the Titans once the free agent signing period started.
• The rookie: Jake Locker. He was the second quarterback taken in the 2011 draft after having started all 40 games he played for the University of Washington. Much of his appeal for the Titans was that he played in a pro style offense.
• The situation: Hasselbeck was signed so that Locker would not need to be rushed into action the way Vince Young was five years earlier. Hasselbeck has played well enough — and provided a welcome measure of leadership in Young’s wake — that there has been little, if any, call to play Locker, who has made a good showing in limited opportunities.
• The next step: Eventually coach Mike Munchak and his staff must turn over the offense to Locker, but barring any sort of catastrophic injury it seems certain that Hasselbeck will enter the offseason firmly entrenched as the starter.
• The veteran: Peyton Manning. He is a cinch to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day and likely will factor into any discussion about the best quarterback of all time for decades to come.
• The rookie: Andrew Luck (pending): In the minds of many, the current Stanford star is the most NFL-ready quarterback to come out of college since … well, Manning. Like Manning, he’s also the son of a former NFL quarterback.
• The situation: Manning has missed all season due to multiple neck surgeries and Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky all have tried to fill his shoes. There is no guarantee that Manning will play another NFL game, and at the very least the Colts must prepare for the end of his career.
• The next step: The Colts have to draft Luck first overall and let the situation play itself out the way it once did in San Francisco, when future Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young were on the same roster.
• The veteran: Matt Schaub. He’s been consistently productive in five seasons as a starter and had not missed a game in more than two years before he sustained a season-ending foot injury in the 10th game.
• The rookie: T.J. Yates. He was the ninth of 12 quarterbacks drafted in 2011 when the Texans took him in the fifth round out of North Carolina, which never had produced a quarterback who started an NFL game.
• The situation: Injuries to Schaub and Matt Leinart forced Houston to start three different quarterbacks in three weeks — the last of whom was Yates. Veterans Jake Delhomme and Jeff Garcia have been added in recent weeks as backups. With a strong running game and a top-ranked defense, there is no need for Yates or any other quarterback to carry the Texans at the moment.
• The next step: Houston is going to have to ride out the remainder of this season with Yates — unless but Schaub, at 30 years old, is in his prime and remains the long-term option.
• The veteran: Luke McCown. At 30 years old and with 316 career pass attempts in 20 career appearances (never more than five in a season), he qualifies as the most experienced quarterback — by far — on the roster.
• The rookie: Blaine Gabbert. Many considered him the best pro prospect at the position in the 2011 draft despite the fact that he did not play in a pro style offense at Missouri. Jacksonville selected him 10th overall.
• The situation: The Jaguars waived longtime starter David Garrard just days before the start of the regular season and named McCown the starter. With McCown, they beat Tennessee in the opener, but after two games coach Jack Del Rio (he’s since been fired) gave the job to Gabbert.
• The next step: The franchise is committed to Gabbert for the foreseeable future based on his draft status and the absence of any worthwhile alternative. The most important thing for Jacksonville is to hire a coach who can develop Gabbert and develop the potential that many believe he has.