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Talent at quarterback position thin throughout NFL

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder (7) is sacked by Green Bay Packers' Mike Neal  during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Green Bay, Wis. The game ended in a tie, 26-26. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder (7) is sacked by Green Bay Packers' Mike Neal during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Green Bay, Wis. The game ended in a tie, 26-26. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Leslie Frazier shook his head and managed a slight smile when the question was posed.

How hard, the Minnesota Vikings coach was asked, has this been to have to decide so many different weeks in a season about who the starter will be at the sport’s most important position?

“It’s not a lot of fun,” Frazier said recently. “You’d like to say that this is your quarterback for 16 weeks, but we haven’t been in that situation.”

This hardly brings solace for the head of a struggling team like Frazier, but the Vikings are far from the only bunch either sputtering along without a long-term solution or needing a stronger backup for a starter who’s hurt. Minnesota is one of five teams that, for a variety of reasons, have started three different quarterbacks this year. That includes Green Bay, which has started four. Four!

Whether due to failures to successfully draft and develop the next championship-capable franchise leader or procure and produce a reliable second-stringer, the league this year has seen a clear shortage of quality quarterbacks.

“The supply and demand’s kind of out of whack,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.

Injuries are, of course, a significant factor. The Packers have won a Super Bowl behind Aaron Rodgers, and they’ll be set at quarterback as long as he continues his career. But since he broke his collarbone last month, the Packers have lost four games and tied the other.

Though not in that top tier like Rodgers, then there are quarterbacks who’ve shown promise such as Jay Cutler, Jake Locker and Sam Bradford but have been hurt often, beyond just this season.

“How many times do you keep saying on Sept. 1, ‘Okay, this is my guy,’ and then he gets hurt again? Regardless of talent, work ethic, toughness,” Mayock said. “When do you say enough is enough?”

Cleveland has started 20 different quarterbacks since their expansion rebirth in 1999, the most in the league. From Brandon Weeden to Brian Hoyer to Jason Campbell, this season has brought more instability.

The Browns have tried every avenue to find one, too, but despite a stockpile of draft picks for a well-regarded crop of 2014 quarterback prospects there’s no guarantee the carousel will stop. Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Weeden were all first-round picks who haven’t panned out.

Christian Ponder fits in that category, the No. 12 selection by the Vikings in 2011. He went two spots after Blaine Gabbert, who has been even worse for Jacksonville. Both the Vikings and Jaguars are bound to be searching far and wide again for quarterbacks when the draft takes place next May, along with at least another half-dozen teams.

“There are about 15 quarterbacks in the league that have a chance to win a Super Bowl. Let’s just tell it like it is. And then there is everybody else,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said on a recent episode of Inside the NFL on Showtime. “Now occasionally a Kurt Warner comes from nowhere and ends up being a guy you can count on.”

That’s rare, though. In this increasingly pass-driven league, the position hasn’t been any easier to master for even the best of athletes with the strongest of arms. Even Super Bowl winners like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco have struggled this year, aberrations or not while injuries and instability swirl around them on offense.

“We’re asking quarterbacks to do what I perceive to be almost super-human things on a consistent basis,” Mayock said. “We’re asking them to have a certain physical skill level: arm strength, athletic ability, foot speed, hand-eye coordination. We’re asking them to have all that kind of stuff, but on top of that they’ve got to process information like a computer. We’re putting more and more of the mental piece of this on the quarterback, and the decision-making both at the line of scrimmage and in the pocket is more complicated than it’s ever been.”

So for the teams that don’t have a Hall of Fame-bound player like Peyton Manning or a steady young standout like Russell Wilson and haven’t succeeded in the modern-era draft at finding the next franchise quarterback, will they ever have a chance to win a championship?

Well, sure. They’ll just have to keep trying.

College and high school offenses have become more complex and powerful. Summer camps and seven-on-seven leagues around the country have helped teenagers develop their skills to much-greater degrees before they reach the highest levels of competition.

The nature of the NFL makes a scenario with 25 elite quarterbacks dominating the league improbable. But there’ll always be a new pool of candidates for the job.

“It’s a good time to be a quarterback. It’s a demanding position, but one where I think kids are getting reps at a younger age and developing the necessary skills,” Denver interim coach Jack Del Rio said. “So I don’t think there will be a shortage. You always look at who’s going to be the next storied guy, who’s going to be the next Hall-of-Fame-type guy, and I think we want to crown people before they have their careers. But I think the talent will continue to come through the ranks, and we’ll continue to see really gifted players.”

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