Three quarterbacks. Three franchises willing to wear their faces.
The first quarterback arrives on a stack of hype and thousand-dollar bills. The second comes to the city of stars with his celebrity already in place. The third? He is surrounded by critics and scorn.
Three quarterbacks. Three cities ready to measure their abilities.
The only question about the first quarterback is how good he can be. The only question about the second is how soon he can sign. The third? With him, everyone wonders what in heaven's name he is doing in the same paragraph as the other two.
Three quarterbacks. Three entrants in The Race To Being Tom Brady.
And now that you're thinking about it, which quarterback would you choose now?
These days, the discussion about Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman has become a three-sided argument. And if Freeman hasn't surprised the two more ballyhooed players taken in front of him, he is at least in the passing lane. And he is blowing the horn.
Stafford can't stay healthy. Sanchez can't stay consistent. As for Freeman, he has won four of his past five.
Which explains the local temptation to shout "Give me Freeman, or give me depth?"
As much as anything else, Freeman's approval rating points out how far he has come. Remember, fans howled when he was the 17th pick of the 2009 draft. They could not get over the fact the Bucs traded away a sixth-round pick to move up two slots to be sure they could land him. Look around. Do you hear anyone grumbling these days? In hindsight, does anyone miss that sixth-rounder?
There is nothing new about arguing over quarterbacks in the same draft class. That was true in 1983, when John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were all picked. It was true in 1998, when Peyton Manning was the close pick over Ryan Leaf. And it was true in 2004, when Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger all went in the top 11 picks.
This time, however, there is room to argue for each of the quarterbacks. When healthy, Stafford has shown toughness. When focused, Sanchez has shown talent. When he's in a winnable game, Freeman has shown a fourth-quarter flair.
So in the relatively small sample of their careers, who has been the best?
"I think they have all been good," said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, a former Buc. "That class of Eli and Ben and Philip is going to go down as one of the great quarterback classes of all time. If Detroit and Tampa Bay can improve, by 2013 or 2014, you're going to hear the same thing about these guys. They're really good. I don't care what order you put them in. I think all three of these guys are hits."
Push him, and Dilfer said he would rate the three quarterbacks as Sanchez, then Freeman, then Stafford.
Frankly, it's a close call. The completion percentages, the touchdowns, the interceptions, the ratings are close enough to bring out the sticks to measure.
So why would you argue for Stafford? For one thing, he is playing for the most dysfunctional organization of the three. He probably has the worst offensive line. And he has the best single game (a 422-yard effort against Cleveland last year) of the bunch.
And why Sanchez? He can be brilliant, as he was last weekend against the Patriots. He has won more games (nine) than the other two combined. He has had more games (nine) without an interception. Of course, having the best line, the best running game and the best defense doesn't hurt. Given that, Sanchez's numbers should be much better than the other two.
Why Freeman? He runs better than the other two. His third-down rating is better, his fourth-quarter rating is better, and he has more comebacks than the other two. Consider this: In his 11 games, Freeman has led his team from behind into a late fourth-quarter lead five times (in games against Miami and Atlanta, the defense didn't make the lead stand up, but it's hard to blame Freeman for that).
"You're always going to be judged against quarterbacks from your own draft class," Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "But we haven't studied them (Stafford and Sanchez). We've studied Manning and Drew Brees. That's where we're trying to get him to. That's what our goal is.
"I have a lot of respect for Stafford and Sanchez, but I can say this. We're happy with our guy."
Why wouldn't the Bucs be? So far this year, Freeman is 2-0, and he has played with a newfound maturity. Last week's victory over Carolina was perhaps Freeman's most complete game.
But still, he doesn't get an A from Olson.
"I wouldn't say it was an A game," Olson said. "There were some accuracy throws I'm sure he wished he had back."
"I won't ever get an A," Freeman said, laughing. "Maybe if I hit every one of my throws … for 400 yards … in the Super Bowl. You have to continue to want to get better all the time. You can never rest on what you did last week."
As for Stafford and Sanchez? Doesn't Freeman want to be better than them?
He pauses for a minute.
"I want to be better than everyone," he said.
From the beginning, Dilfer has been a Freeman fan. He remembers meetings at ESPN where "people would laugh at me" over his praise of what Freeman could be.
"He's got a lot of Ben in him," Dilfer said. "He has Ben Roethlisberger type characteristics and talent. The ability to extend the play with his legs. He's so strong; he's so big. He has poise, confidence, the ability to throw when he's moving. He's going to turn a stink sandwich into an ice cream cone.
"That 40-yarder he threw last week to (Kellen) Winslow was impressive, moving that direction and being accurate that far downfield. That play took trajectory, ball speed, accuracy and control. Not everyone in the NFL can make that throw. At the most, 10 guys make that throw."
Still, it is early. Freeman has a lot of growing to do.
"There are going to be some tough moments," Dilfer said. "In six weeks, we might be talking about what is wrong with Josh."
That's true. Players, like teams, are subject to a different ranking every week. If Freeman has pulled even with Stafford and Sanchez for the moment, there will be a new ranking at the end of the year, and the end of five years and the end of 10.
"I think they're all going to be successful," said Mike Mayock of the NFL network. "If they stay healthy, I think all three of them can play for 10 years and become franchise quarterbacks."
In other words, three quarterbacks who look like they have a chance to last.
The arguments over them? Those might last a while, too.