It is the most elusive, yet most coveted position in arguably all of sports. In case you haven't seen any telecast of a Bills game since at least 2000, Buffalo has been searching for a franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly.
That's not to say the team hasn't tried, with Todd Collins ('95 second-round pick), Rob Johnson (trading '98 first and fourth-round picks), Drew Bledsoe ('03 first-round pick), J.P. Losman ('04 first-round pick), and Trent Edwards ('07 third-round pick) costing the Bills early draft picks but yielding disappointing production.
The job description of a franchise quarterback necessitates accuracy, arm strength, poise, leadership, toughness, intelligence, consistency and being clutch in pressure situations. The difficulty doesn't lie in determining what characteristics a quarterback needs, but rather whether or not he embodies them. For that reason, identifying one is simple, but it isn't easy.
While free agency has produced a few franchise quarterbacks for select (or lucky) teams, the best chance to unearth one would be in the NFL draft. This presents teams with the opportunity to watch every snap the young signal-caller took in college in order to determine whether or not he can make the jump to the next level.
However, the physical attributes are much more evident on film than the intangible ones. After interviewing the player, his former coaches dating back to high school, teachers and acquaintances (as well as administering psychological testing), the club hopes to have gotten a good idea of the type of person he is and will become.
Of course, it is not that simple. Some players will have only one year of starting experience, leaving the team with minimal tape and forcing scouts to make a projection. Most players catch on with a combine training institute, which teaches them for how to impress during interviews and "greaseboard" sessions. Coaches, both at the high school and collegiate level, will benefit from that particular player getting drafted high. Therefore, it would behoove them to give a gushing endorsement even if the tape says otherwise. It becomes a guessing game, where only the executives and scouts with the sharpest eyes can read into a player's physical and mental makeup.
Players who can develop into franchise-caliber quarterbacks are rare commodities in the NFL. It's clearly difficult to find one, which pushes their value to the top of the draft board. The elite talents will almost assuredly go early in the first round, though there are exceptions (see Rodgers, Aaron). In addition, some will fall through the cracks until the mid-to-late rounds for a myriad of reasons (see Brady, Tom).
More often than not, though, a team will have to be picking early in order to find one, which means that teams that build on the premise of having a game-manager for the time being will most likely be stuck with one for the long-term. If the team is going 8-8, 9-7 or 10-6, it is unlikely, but not impossible, that they'll ever be able to find a true franchise quarterback.
There is an aphorism in football that states if you have a quarterback, then you have a chance. Unfortunately, this desperate need leads teams to overdraft players that aren't deserving of the consideration. I've always felt that a second-round pick should be used with the expectation that it should produce at least a solid starter. However, a solid starter at quarterback usually means that player will go much earlier than that.
Have you ever wondered why second-round picks spent on QB's seemingly never works out? The reason for this is that quarterbacks that should be second-round picks get pushed into the first frame because of the quarterback premium in the NFL. With those quarterbacks now off the board, teams manufacture value by drafting projects in the second round that should be taken later in the draft.
The media's role in this process cannot be overstated. The league is always trying to generate hope for all of the different fanbases. As a result, prospects are given buzz by media outlets such as NFL Network and ESPN in order to get fans excited when their respective team takes that highly-touted quarterback. This in turn creates unfair expectations that the player will struggle to meet.
Ryan was drafted third overall in 2008 after tackle Jake Long (MIA) and defensive end Chris Long (STL). He was the most polished quarterback in a weak class that featured the likes of Delaware's Joe Flacco, Louisiville's Brian Brohm and Michigan QB Chad Henne. He had a penchant for throwing interceptions, but also was known for coming up in the clutch (nicknamed "Matty Ice") and being a leader. Then and current GM Thomas Dimitroff said he exhibited Tom Brady-like characteristics. He was named NFL Rookie of the Year, and the media began dubbing him as the next great gun-slinger.
Much has changed since then. Many still consider him to be the savior for the franchise, carrying it out of its darkest era. Ryan has won games for the Falcons. He's taken the team back in the fourth quarter. However, both the former and the latter occur in the regular season, with the opposite happening in January. He has proven to be clutch September through December, yet hasn't gotten it done in the postseason. It isn't fair to put all the blame on his shoulders, but it does demonstrate where his upside is capped.
Ryan will never be the type of quarterback that can sling the ball 40-50 times a game and be successful. He needs to be complemented with a strong running game and a defense that will keep them in games. When a team bottles up the run or starts lighting up the scoreboard in a shootout (as has been the case for Atlanta), chances are, the Falcons aren't going to win the game.
It's not Ryan's fault that he was drafted third overall and was given enormous expectations. He has been doing everything that should have been expected of him and is an above-average starter for a club that needed one.
Similarly, Mark Sanchez has the same dilemma in the Big Apple. He also had an impressive rookie season, where he was an adept game manager. As is the case with most rookie QBs, the Jets protected their youngster with the "ground-and-pound" offense and a suffocating defense. With his play-action prowess, the Jets were playing to his strengths and made back-to-back trips to the AFC Championship game.
However, once word got out that Mark was the "Sanchise," offensive coordinator Brian Shottenheimer tried turning him into something he's not (just as Mike Mularkey had done with Ryan in Atlanta). Suddenly, the Jets threw out their successful formula and tried to become an aerial circus, bringing in big-name skill position players and ignoring the running game. As expected, Sanchez struggled, and now, fans are asking for his head. It's the same situation as Ryan, though Matty Ice is still winning in the regular season so fans aren't pining for his exit.
In the right scheme, both players are solid starters in the NFL, but can you call a player that needs so much around him a franchise-caliber quarterback? If a quarterback enables his team to compete for a Super Bowl every year, I feel that defines what a true franchise quarterback is, which brings us to the third example.
Coming out of college, I wasn't as high as the rest of the league on Sam Bradford. While most of the NFL still seems to be, I viewed him as a Matt Schaub-type prospect: accurate, good enough arm, but will probably have durability issues at the next level. If I were the Rams, I personally would've passed on him for the highest-rated prospect Ndamukong Suh for one critical reason: Bradford didn't play well in big games in college.
Therefore, if I were general manager, I'd have had to make a tough decision: 1) take a guy that I believe can be an above-average starter in the NFL, but probably won't win a Super Bowl or 2) pass and have the fans rip me mercilessly (considering the team had no QB at that time) as Bradford started and was successful for another team. As I mentioned, I would've chosen the latter, but if then-GM Billy Devaney thought similarly, it wouldn't be unthinkable to choose the first option and hope for the best.
As of now, the jury is still out on Bradford. He's been beaten down and hasn't had much to work with, so there hasn't been a great sample demonstrating what he's capable of.
Now that we've delved into the philosophic end of the football spectrum, where does this leave the Bills?
Personally, I view incumbent starter Ryan Fitzpatrick as a bridge quarterback. He's an ideal player to bridge the gap until the team is able to identify a true franchise quarterback. He's not consistent enough to be "the guy," but he is good enough to win some games. Ideally, the team could have already been developing one, but we won't go there in this particular article.
The problem now lies in where the team will go from here. Vince Young has won games and flashed ability in the past, but his accuracy woes hurt his upside significantly. It's not clear whether or not he'll end up being the long-term answer, though it wouldn't be shocking to see him starting for Buffalo at some point this season. Both Young and Fitzpatrick are inconsistent, yet Young has the physical gifts and win-loss percentage to entice Gailey into giving him the keys before the season concludes (provided Fitzpatrick struggles).
With the defense looking vastly improved on paper, the Bills look like a team that could potentially challenge for a wild-card spot. That puts Buffalo in the 8-8 to 10-6 category. If the Bills are able to bring their win total up to that mark, that would most likely take the team out of the running for any of the 2013 draft's quarterbacks. That being said, if the Bills do get to the eight to 10-win mark, perhaps Buddy Nix will feel Fitzpatrick is still the long-term answer.
At any rate, it will be increasingly challenging to find that long-term answer, especially if the rest of the team continues to improve. A stop-gap with enough surrounding tools may be able to get a team to a Super Bowl once, rarely twice, but will be hard-pressed to sustain success.
If the Bills' young corners step up and the offense finds a way to defend the blindside blitz, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that the team is unable to identify a franchise quarterback for at least a few more seasons.
Of course, if the Bills are competing for a playoff spot for the next few seasons, I don't believe too many Bills fans will be overly upset, either.