Matt Cassel Winning Starting Job Continues Trend of Conservatism in QB Battles

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistAugust 25, 2014

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel throws a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half of an NFL preseason football game in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The Minnesota Vikings have decided the Teddy Bridgewater era can wait—at least for a little bit. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer named veteran Matt Cassel his starting quarterback for Week 1 on Monday. 

"We will hold the quarterback position to the expectation that we hold all positions. If you perform, you'll play," Zimmer told reporters after practice.

The move was largely expected. Zimmer, in his first season with the Vikings after taking over for Leslie Frazier, gave Cassel the edge heading into training camp. Despite a strong push from Bridgewater—both during practice and in Minnesota's three preseason games—Cassel has performed well enough to earn the job. He's completed two-thirds of his passes, compiling 367 yards and two touchdowns with one game remaining.

That Cassel won the job shouldn't be much of a surprise. He's a former Pro Bowler battling against a player who, according to the order they went off the board, was the third-best quarterback in his class. With veteran running back Adrian Peterson harnessed for his workhorse role and a defensive guru in Zimmer preparing to coach up a mediocre defense, starting Cassel is the risk-averse early strategy to see if this team has Wild Card hopes.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

What the move confirms, though, is a far more interesting (albeit probably anomalous) trend. 

Barring injury, no team will come into Week 1 with a rookie starting quarterback for the first time since 2007. Given that five quarterbacks (Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo) were drafted in the first two rounds this May—four of whom entering situations with replacement-level or worse quarterbacks already in place—this seems odd. 

Though once common practice in the NFL, teams have increasingly shied away from the bring-them-along-slowly approach of developing quarterbacks. Since the merger, there have been 14 quarterbacks who have started all 16 games during his rookie season. Nine of them have come since 2008, when Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan burst onto the scene.

We've seen an even greater emphasis on thrusting quarterbacks into the lineup early since the establishment of the rookie wage scale in 2011. In the first three seasons of the new CBA, 13 quarterbacks have been selected within the first 64 picks. Five of them started every game as a rookie, eight of them were under center for at least three quarters of the season and seven were under center Week 1.

Keep in mind: Only eight rookie quarterbacks in the entire 1990s started at least three quarters of their team's games. We matched that number within two years of the new collective bargaining agreement's ratification.

The reasoning in the switch is an amalgam of obvious statements. Passing in the NFL is much easier today than it was two decades ago. The collegiate and professional game, once two different animals only similar in the material with which the ball was made, have grown closer—and are nearly identical in some cases. 

More importantly, the rookie wage scale gives teams an opportunity to use the salary cap to their advantage. Because contracts given to rookie quarterbacks are much less onerous—remember: Sam Bradford, the top pick in the 2010 draft, was given the highest guarantee in NFL history at the time—teams drafting near the top are able to use the money saved elsewhere.

John Froschauer/Associated Press

The Seahawks are much less likely to win the Super Bowl if Russell Wilson is making Peyton Manning money. Once the bulk of Colin Kaepernick's extension kicks in next season, the 49ers will have to start making difficult roster decisions. 

And the Rams? Take it away, Bill Barnwell: "Russell Wilson will make about as much this season (in terms of base salary) as Sam Bradford will by the end of the third quarter of St. Louis’s game against Minnesota in Week 1."


All of this again begs the question: Why are these teams—not just one, but all four—deciding to not take advantage of this market inequality right away?

Like many teams with rookie quarterbacks, each are currently deploying what can nicely be described as "caretaker" quarterbacks. Cassel, Matt Schaub, Brian Hoyer and Chad Henne will each start Week 1 for the same reason: They're not good enough to win their job, but not bad enough to lose it.

Tom Lynn/Associated Press

Though their resumes differ, they're all essentially the same player at this point. They'll all be between 29 and 33 by mid-October. Each have prototypical quarterback size and are generally considered conservative, pocket passers. The closest thing to an anomaly in the group is Hoyer, who doesn't turn 29 until October and stands 6'2". (All the others are 6'3" or taller.)

Using Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, the foursome ranked between the 23rd and 33rd best quarterbacks in football last season. They're good enough players to make a playoff run with good surrounding talent but just bad enough that a Super Bowl run is out of the question. They are the very definition of replacement-level.

Allowing for some historical blip on the radar, it's safe to say each of the aforementioned veterans have probably peaked. Chase Stuart at Football Perspective ran a study last year that indicated quarterbacks tend to peak at age 29. Their growth overall though is much more of a typical bell curve, with a player's prime being from 26-30 and slowly descending from there. 

The pure, unadulterated mediocrity of these players in the past is a predictive representation of their future production.

If you're sitting here reading and still wondering how we get to the point where no rookie will be under center for Week 1, well, samesies. 

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

Noticing that Zimmer, Mike Pettine, Gus Bradley and Dennis Allen are all coaches with defensive backgrounds, I wondered whether a general predilection toward conservatism from defense-first guys could get me somewhere.

Nope! Of the 10 rookies who have started 75 percent or more of their team's games since 2011, seven have been under coaches with defensive backgrounds. Defensive coaches who select quarterbacks within the first two rounds have also been more likely (5-of-7, 71.4 percent) to heavily utilize their young signal-callers than coaches with offensive backgrounds (3-of-6, 50 percent). 

The sample size here is obviously too small to take at face value. We'll have to see how early Manziel, Carr, Bridgewater and Bortles get their opportunity, but it's possible 2013 swings the statistical pendulum all the way back in the favor of offensive coaches. An 0-for-5 strikeout (including Bill Belichick) would take defensive coaches below the 50-percent mark. Curiously, no coach with an "offensive-minded" top dogs took a quarterback in high-priority rounds this year.

All of this is to say there's no one factor these teams all have in common. It seems each assessed their individual lots in life and decided their mediocre caretaker is ostensibly a better option than their supposed face of the franchise.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

For Allen, the reasoning is simple: He and general manager Reggie McKenzie are getting fired this offseason without considerable improvement. Bradley and Jaguars general manager David Caldwell came to their agreement on Bortles before even drafting him, having watched enough film on the UCF star to come to a similar conclusion as most: that he's a year or two away.

Bridgewater and Manziel are much more curious cases, for which there is no obvious answer. Manziel did not dazzle in the preseason the way he did at Texas A&M, but Hoyer has been just as mediocre if not worse in game situations. Though Cassel played well, Bridgewater matched him throw for throw and was considered by most evaluators as the most pro-ready quarterback in his class.

Based on their public quotes and what I know about Zimmer and Pettine, I'm comfortable theorizing a conservative mindset played a part in the decision-making. Both are old-school thinkers—especially Zimmer, who at 58 is finally getting the opportunity he's desired his entire life. 

It's an understandable mindset. Recent history just says it might not be the most prudent use of resources.


Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

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