Fastest Way to the NFL's Basement? Overdrafting Quarterbacks
In today's NFL, jobs ride on a quarterback's arm.
Quarterbacks are the biggest factor in whether a team wins, coaches are judged on how many game their team wins and general managers are judged on the performance of the coach they hire.
No player touches the ball more, no player has a bigger impact on his team's performance and no other player is seen as a team leader just because of his position.
With the right quarterback in place, a team can contend year-in, year-out for a decade or more. Without a difference-maker under center, NFL teams can't win consistently.
It's no wonder NFL scouts, coaches and general managers spend their whole careers searching for the signal-caller that will keep their kids in the same school district for a while. However, desperate moves to acquire a long-term quarterback solution are putting NFL coaches and executives on long-term unemployment.
The Lottery Ticket
One of the enduring mysteries of football is how NFL quarterback prospects become starting NFL quarterbacks. With widespread competitive parity in college football, and the variety of offensive systems run at all levels of the game, success in college doesn't translate to success in the NFL. So many "can't-miss" prospects miss.
Quarterbacks with rocket arms, sprinter speed and linebacker strength have failed in the NFL. Quarterbacks with high school physiques who can't zip the deep ball or run away from the incoming tide have succeeded.
Sometimes, it seems players that win many games and rack up postseason awards in college are almost less likely to succeed than quarterbacks who had to do everything themselves.
So, it seems, there must be a magical element, an X-factor that makes quarterbacks succeed. Teams whose scouts, coaches, and front office aren't working together effectively are overdrafting quarterbacks more and more often—spending a high draft pick on a guy who vaguely looks the part and hoping he turns out to be loaded with that ineffable X-factor.
But hoping is not scouting.
The Death Sentence
Not long ago, coaches looked at highly-drafted quarterbacks as job security. If they drafted a quarterback in the first round, the thinking was they couldn't be fired during the player's critical developmental seasons.
Now, a coach taking a quarterback just to save his job is dooming himself to the bread line.
Even under the NFL's new CBA and its reduced rookie contracts, drafting a quarterback in the first round means a team is committing a lot of guaranteed money. Moreover, drafting a quarterback in the first round means not drafting for any other position.
Fans and owners want to see immediate returns from the investment of a first-round pick. A running back, linebacker or lineman might be able to make an impact right away, but very few quarterbacks are difference-makers on day one.
Still, the pressure on NFL teams to win now is so intense, quarterbacks are rarely afforded the traditional two or three seasons of bench-riding and film-watching. Coaches bowing to that pressure—almost all of them—will throw rookie quarterbacks out there immediately, and be judged on whether the kid sinks or swims.
Most of them sink.
When big investments don't pay dividends, coaches get fired. When coaches get fired, general managers get fired. When general managers get fired, entire franchises have to change direction, and years of scouting, drafting and team-building go out the window.
Then, when a new staff comes in, what's the first thing they do?
Draft a quarterback.
The First-Round Quarterback Death Spiral
NFL teams are desperate for quarterbacks, so they're digging deeper for quarterbacks.
By digging deeper for quarterbacks, they're drafting more quarterbacks earlier.
By drafting more quarterbacks earlier, quarterbacks less prepared to start in the NFL are getting drafted higher.
By drafting less-prepared quarterbacks higher, more quarterbacks are "busts."
And by more quarterbacks being "busts," teams remain desperate for quarterbacks.
It's a vicious cycle.
All of these quarterbacks had obvious holes in their game—deficiencies in their skill sets, unimpressive college résumés, or both. The only quality any of them possessed that made them "first round quarterbacks" was the fact that they were drafted in the first round.
Tebow was the death of the coach that drafted him, and may have tag-teamed with Sanchez to earn his second coach the guillotine. Freeman has already seen the coach that drafted him run off, and his replacement's seat is already getting hot. Weeden, Gabbert and Locker have all but sealed their coach's fates.
Ponder's nonexistent "development" hasn't put his coach out of a job, but only because his running back is having one of the greatest seasons of all time.
Picking The "Right" Quarterback
No position affects an NFL team more than the quarterback—but no team is affected more by his team than the quarterback. A good quarterback is integral to any team's success, but a rookie quarterback can't rise above a failing franchise.
Stories like Kurt Warner's and Tom Brady's don't mean teams are somehow overlooking surefire, can't-miss studs in their exhaustive draft research. Those players prove successful quarterbacks are a product of personnel departments working hand-in-hand with coaching staffs to fit a player to his teammates and system.
Not every draft contains the kind of outstanding prospect that would excel anywhere, and those always go in the first few picks of the draft. Teams need to find signal-callers that fit what they want to do on offense or, as Mike Shanahan and the Washington Redskins did with Robert Griffin III, adapt their offense to fit what the quarterback does well.
Teams need to take their finger off the "franchise quarterback" trigger. There are very few franchise quarterbacks; drafting a second- or third-round prospect in the first round doesn't magically elevate their talent or skill to that level.
Teams should draft quarterbacks years before they are needed. In doing so, teams will have the freedom to pick a quarterback that is a perfect fit—not just the next-highest overall graded prospect—and have the time to develop him naturally.
Then, instead of entire franchises betting their future on whether or not a single draft pick happens to be a perennial Pro Bowler, they are slowly building a franchise around its most important block.
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