It is hardly a secret that NFL teams cannot survive with poor quarterback play. After all, nearly every team in need of a quarterback this year found themselves picking in the top 10 picks of April's draft.
Still, as desperate as teams are to find a quarterback who gives them a chance to win every week, settling for a solid-if-unspectacular quarterback out of desperation is a trap that many general managers put themselves in, sometimes without even realizing it.
Of course, anyone would prefer a competent, NFL-caliber quarterback to the Ryan Lindleys and Charlie Whitehursts of the world, but too often is the potential of championship-caliber rosters capped because of the limitations of their quarterback. In today's offensive-minded NFL that features some of the best quarterbacking in NFL history, trotting out a run-of-the-mill passer is simply not enough to be the last man standing in February.
A New Era
Not long ago, there was a time in which it was very possible to compete for championships with a balanced team with solid, competent quarterback play.
In 2004, the Seattle Seahawks rode Matt Hasselbeck all the way to the franchise's first Super Bowl, only to be beaten at the hands of the defensive-minded Pittsburgh Steelers. Just a few months later in the 2005 draft, three of the top five picks were comprised of running backs.
Fast-forward to 2013, where it was not until the fifth pick in the second round when the Cincinnati Bengals finally made Giovani Bernard the first running back taken.
The league has come a long way since its run-only days in the middle of the 20th century, but this recent trend of video game-like NFL passing games is a relatively new phenomenon. Passing and receiving records are being broken on a yearly basis as elite quarterbacks continue to raise the standard of excellence.
For comparison, take a look at just how much passing totals have increased since 2005, highlighted by Drew Brees' 2011 season in which he broke Dan Marino's single-season record.
|2012||Drew Brees (33)||5,177||NOR|
|2011||Drew Brees (32)||5,476||NOR|
|2010||Philip Rivers (29)||4,710||SDG|
|2009||Matt Schaub (28)||4,770||HOU|
|2008||Drew Brees (29)||5,069||NOR|
|2007||Tom Brady (30)||4,806||NWE|
|2006||Drew Brees (27)||4,418||NOR|
|2005||Tom Brady (28)||4,110||NWE|
What could explain this recent spike in passing totals? For one, there are simply a lot of great quarterbacks playing the game at the same time. Not only are we still watching the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees play as well as ever, but we are also treated to a second generation of superstars in Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and RGIII.
It would be impossible to overlook the impact that rule changes have had on the game as well. New legislation against helmet-to-helmet hits and reduced contact downfield have only made it easier to move the ball more efficiently through the air.
With quarterbacks breaking passing records on a regular basis, it has become nearly impossible for the "good" quarterbacks to survive.
Modern Case Studies
The problem with building teams with an elite quarterback is that there simply are not many to go around. Without an elite signal-caller to mask a team's deficiencies, there is far less room for error when building teams on both sides of the ball.
In 2010, the Green Bay Packers lost a slew of key starters early in the season, including tight end Jermichael Finley and starting running back Ryan Grant. However, a historic late-season performance by Aaron Rodgers propelled the franchise to their fourth Super Bowl title.
Conversely, just last season, the New York Jets stumbled to a 6-10 record. Just like the 2010 Packers, they too lost two key starters in Santonio Holmes and Darrelle Revis early in the season, but they did not have the caliber of quarterback play needed to mask the team's deficiencies.
In short, it was the evaluation of one position that separates Ted Thompson as world champion and Mike Tannenbaum as a former general manager.
Last year's AFC Wild Card featured a matchup of two teams with a severe case of "good quarterback syndrome": the Houston Texans and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Both teams fielded top-10 defenses and have two excellent receiving threats in A.J. Green and Andre Johnson. Yet, both of them face the awkward situation of replacing a quarterback who is good enough to win games but incapable of winning a championship.
According to Pro Football Focus, Andy Dalton was the 25th-best starting quarterback in 2012. Dalton was just in his second season as a pro and did reach the playoffs for the second time in a row, but for a second-round selection with limited arm talent, there is a real concern that Dalton may never get the Bengals into real championship contention.
Matt Schaub ranked significantly higher at 13, but he has slowly declined since winning the league passing title in 2009. At the age of 31, Schaub's upside has been exhausted, and the team's recent ousting from the playoffs before making the conference title game has put the clock on his tenure as the team's starter.
Nonetheless, both players enter the 2013 season as the unquestioned starter for both their teams and will be favored to earn a playoff spot, but is that enough?
Getting to the playoffs is nice and buys some job security, but sooner or later, questions about a quarterback's limitations will come to the forefront if neither player makes strides next season.
To Replace, or Not to Replace?
While there are plenty of teams who would trade their quarterback situation with that of the Texans and the Bengals, these two teams are in the awkward situation of building around a quarterback who is good enough to keep his job, but at the same time, sets the franchise back because of his inability to maximize the talent of the roster.
These teams market Dalton and Schaub jerseys and tout them as their franchise player, but deep down, Mike Brown (Bengals owner) and Rick Smith (Texans general manager) likely have reservations about their ability to ever get their team over the hump.
To exacerbate the situation, these two teams are both competitive enough so that they will never be selecting high enough in the draft to land themselves the next Andrew Luck or RGIII.
So, what can these teams do to upgrade their quarterback position without blowing up their entire operation? First, most teams will try to draft a mid-round developmental quarterback who can take his time to learn the ropes, all while never letting the incumbent starter get too comfortable.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers utilized this strategy when they selected NC State’s Mike Glennon in the third round of April’s draft. Glennon has a tremendously gifted arm, but he will need to get better under pressure before he is ready to start.
Even if Glennon isn’t ready, the Bucs have sent a clear message to Josh Freeman that they are not content with his inability to reach the playoffs in four seasons as the starter.
Unlike most other jobs, running an NFL franchise with above-average production will eventually get you fired. Being a perennial contender is an impressive feat in itself, but ultimately, fans and owners will not be satisfied with anything but a Super Bowl ring.
Teams like the Bengals, Texans and Buccaneers will eventually have to make the same decision the 49ers did in the middle of the 2012 season. Alex Smith was playing the best football of his career, but as a limited arm talent, Jim Harbaugh knew that he was only delaying the inevitable and holding his team back by sending Colin Kaepernick to the bench.
As catastrophic of a move as it could have been, Kaepernick was the clear difference between an early playoff exit and a Super Bowl berth.
Moving on from these solid quarterbacks goes against conventional wisdom of hanging onto the few “good” quarterbacks who walk this earth. After all, losing in the Wild Card Round every year sounds just fine for the teams that were picking in the top 10 this year.
Yet ultimately, if these teams are more interested in establishing themselves in history, dumping their “good” quarterbacks in favor of the unknown could be the only way to do it.
Advanced stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).