"If you don't have one, take one."
For years, when NFL draft and scouting circles have talked about quarterbacks, that's what they've said. Now, more than ever in the history of the NFL, your team can only be a consistent winner if you have a franchise quarterback to build around.
But how can you tell if your team has one?
They come in different shapes and sizes, with different strengths and weaknesses—but a quarterback a team can truly be built around always has a few defining qualities.
With the NFL draft nearly upon us, it's time for every NFL team to take stock and see if it "has one" or if it needs to take one.
Performance Under Pressure
In today's NFL, defenses are dealing with ever-more aggressive passing offenses by counterattacking. Instead of trying to cover every option, defenses are beefing up defensive lines and sending blitzers up every gap.
A franchise quarterback—the kind that will be successful year after year—can execute in the face of this pressure. Pro Football Focus keeps track of statistics under pressure (subscription required), including what they call "accuracy percentage." That's completion percentage PFF adjusts for throwaways, drops, etc.
If you check the top five and bottom five for under-pressure accuracy percentage, you'll see just how clearly the wheat separates from the chaff:
Yes, Andrew Luck gets a pass here. He was the fourth-most pressured quarterback in the NFL and had the seventh-lowest sack percentage, all as a rookie on a team that went 2-14 the season before.
Of course, there's more than one way to perform under pressure. The New England Patriots' Tom Brady takes the Zen approach: He keeps his eyes up, looks downfield, feels pressure without looking and and makes just enough movement to get away from the rush:
The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger uses the exact opposite approach. When he feels the rush, he uses his size and athleticism to escape and finds receivers in open space. Sometimes his escape acts rival Harry Houdini:
There are two important reasons why quarterbacks have to perform under pressure: It makes them much harder to defend, and it helps them avoid injury.
True franchise quarterbacks have to be relied upon game in, game out to perform. It doesn't matter how talented or skilled they are if they're on the bench.
An NFL quarterback has an almost inhuman amount of information to process every time he steps to the line. From the play call, to the pre-snap read of the coverage, the pre-snap read of the pass rush, the protection package and the route trees of all the receivers.
Then, the ball is snapped and all of that information clashes with what's actually happening in a furious instant.
The ability to consistently make sense of it all, find out who's open—or, more accurately, who's about to get open—and get them the ball downfield is rare. The ability to consistently make good decisions quickly is even rarer.
"Making good decisions" doesn't just mean avoiding interceptions. Any quarterback can go out there and hit his checkdown on every play. Franchise quarterbacks can slice up defenses with aggressive plays downfield and still avoid their routes being jumped or their deep balls sailing into safeties' arms.
The most remarkable thing about the young breakout stars of 2012 (Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick) is that they had excellent completion percentages and touchdown-to-interception ratios while keeping their average yards-per-completion figures high.
Elevating the Play of Their Teammates
Ultimately, the true test of a franchise quarterback is whether he makes his teammates better. When young quarterbacks are still struggling in their second or third season as a starter, those with a vested interest in their success start pointing out flaws in the supporting cast: lack of a running game, no true deep threat, no big target, poor pass protection or an inadequate defense.
Franchise quarterbacks don't need teammates to make them better. They make their teammates better.
Andrew Luck started elevating his teammates practically from day one. With Luck throwing him the ball, Reggie Wayne looked like he found the fountain of youth. Unheralded rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton gashed defenses for huge plays, and rookie tight end Dwayne Allen blossomed into a go-to target toward the end of the season.
If a quarterback has two full seasons' worth of starts under his belt and the excuses are still flying, he's not a franchise quarterback.
Don't Have One? Just Take One
If your team's quarterback doesn't possess each of these qualities, don't fret.
It's possible for a team to be a title contender without a franchise quarterback; the New York Jets made back-to-back AFC championship games with Mark Sanchez in his rookie and sophomore years.
The problem is, "hiding" a quarterback like that is almost impossible. The Jets had a top-six-ranked unit in scoring defense and rushing yardage in both of those two seasons.
I've written before that over-drafting a mediocre quarterback prospect is the quickest way to the NFL's basement (Sanchez is a perfect example). Rather than reach for a middling talent in the first round, teams looking for new blood at the position (and not drafting in the top few picks) should take a mid-round player whose strengths fit the system.
That player may not develop into a franchise quarterback, either, but teams should take a shot every year.
If your team is strong on both sides of the ball, consider a trade. The Kansas City Chiefs are putting together a very impressive offseason under new head coach Andy Reid, and they made an aggressive move to solve their chronic QB problem: trading two high picks for former San Francisco 49ers starter Alex Smith.
Have One? Take One Anyway
The New England Patriots have shown that drafting and flipping mid-round quarterbacks behind your franchise starter is a very profitable business. If you do have a franchise quarterback on the roster, you should likely take one anyway. The position is at such a premium these days, it's worth it.
The San Francisco 49ers are going to re-stock a roster already brimming with talent, thanks in part to the Smith trade. They'd be wise to take another quarterback with one of those picks and try to flip that player in another two or three seasons.
Whether or not your team's quarterback has all the qualities required of a franchise cornerstone, there's no good reason not to take one anyway.
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