The Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers, instant successes as expansion teams, are learning how fickle life can be in the NFL.
Both teams made it to the conference title games in their second seasons last year, and both lost their young quarterbacks Saturday night - Carolina's Kerry Collins for six weeks with a broken jaw; Jacksonville's Mark Brunell, perhaps for the season, with a knee injury.
"It's sad, I hate it. But I don't know what more we can do to protect the quarterbacks," said George Young, chairman of the NFL's competition committee, which has made several rule changes this decade designed to protect quarterbacks.
"You reach a point where you have to say it's a collision game and these things happen."
Young, general manager of the New York Giants, was at Giants Stadium Saturday night when Brunell went down. The hit came when Brunell planted his right leg and was struck by Jessie Armstead after the Giants linebacker was blocked to the ground on a blitz and crawled toward the quarterback.
Collins was hit in the face mask by Denver's Bill Romanowski while releasing a pass.
The NFL is reviewing Romanowski's hit but not Armstead's, although tapes of all plays involving injuries are sent to the league office.
"Any plays involving helmet-to-helmet hits on quarterbacks in the pocket have to be reviewed for possible discipline," league spokesman Greg Aiello said Monday. "Those are explicitly against the rules."
Legal or illegal, it's been a tough preseason around the NFL.
John Elway, Denver's 37-year-old quarterback, has torn biceps in his right arm, although he's resumed throwing and should be ready for the start of the season.
Miami has lost a raft of players, including wide receiver Yatil Green, their top draft pick, who is gone for the season with a knee injury, and middle linebacker Zach Thomas, who has a broken leg but expects to play the opener.
This weekend was a major blow to the league's two newest teams, although Carolina seems better fortified at quarterback than Jacksonville.
For one thing, the Panthers should have Collins back a quarter of the way through the season.
For another, their replacement is Steve Beuerlein, who has started with the Raiders and Cardinals and been a competent backup in Dallas and Carolina. In 1991, he replaced an injured Troy Aikman and led Dallas to an 11-5 record and its first playoff berth under Jimmy Johnson. He was Jacksonville's first starting quarterback - and the first pick in the 1995 expansion draft - but moved on to Carolina after one season.
The Panthers put less pressure on their quarterback, depending on defense and special teams for turnovers and field position. The quarterback's job is to avoid mistakes. Rarely does he have to win a game by himself.
"We were in a similar position last year, and Steve did a very capable job for us," coach Dom Capers said. "He is a player who has played well in big games, not only for us but throughout his career."
But the loss of Brunell, whose future won't be determined until arthroscopic surgery Friday, could kill Jacksonville.
Last year, he led the NFL in passing yards (4,367) and rushing yards for a quarterback (396), becoming the first player to do that since Johnny Unitas in 1963. His 4,763 total yards was the fifth-highest ever by an NFL quarterback .
Right now, the Jaguars are going with Rob Johnson, a third-year man who has thrown only seven regular-season passes - all as a mop-up man in a 37-0 loss to Detroit.
Johnson was 5-of-7 for 170 yards and two touchdowns when he replaced Brunell on Saturday night, but that was against backups in an exhibition. Behind him are Todd Philcox, rarely more than a third-stringer in parts of six NFL seasons, and free-agent rookie Lance Funderburke.
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