There are two schools of thought regarding the most important position in professional team sports.
Some people believe that the acquisition of a Pro Bowl-level quarterback is the rising tide that lifts entire NFL franchises.
The rest will believe it—if and when they see it happen to theirs.
QB Theory generally holds that the elusive "franchise Quarterback" every NFL front office relentlessly pursues makes everyone around him—receivers, offensive line, running backs, defense, scouts, coaches, general managers, and owners—better.
He makes a bad team competitive, a competitive team good, and a good team great.
A team does not have to have a franchise QB to be the occasional outlier Super Bowl team (see Ravens, 2000 ) but does to become a perennial contender or dynasty (see NFL History ).
NFL executives certainly know it.
Chicago Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo knows it.
“I know that there is going to be a lot of talk about [acquiring] a No. 1 receiver,” the Bears general manager said at the time. “[But] it starts with the quarterback. It’s all about the quarterback. You don’t win because of wide receivers. You don’t win because of running backs. You win because of the quarterback.”
So does former New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi .
When the Giants traded for [Eli] Manning, a fan wrote Accorsi. "You do not understand the Giants' tradition of defense. We win championships on defense. Not with quarterbacks. This was a big mistake."
Here is Accorsi's retort:
"You won the NFL Championship in 1956 because Charlie Conerly was better than Ed Brown (Bears quarterback). You won in 1986 because Simms had the greatest day a quarterback ever had in an NFL Championship game. However, in 1958 and 1959, you had the best defense in the NFL. You had Hall of Famers Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff, and Emlen Tunnell on defense. And you also had great players like Rosey Grier, Jim Katcavage, Dick Modzelewski, and Jimmy Patton. And, you know what happened? The great quarterback—Unitas—shredded them both times. I rest my case."
Consider, if you will, the quarterbacks who have started games in burgundy and gold in the eighteen long years since Joe Gibbs retired after the 1992 season...
Cary Conklin, Rich Gannon, Gus Frerotte, John Firesz, Heath Shuler, Jeff Hostettler, Trent Green, Brad Johnson, Jeff George, Tony Banks, Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, Danny Wuerffel, Tim Hasselbeck, Mark Brunell, and Jason Campbell.
For the first time in a generation, the Redskins' starting quarterback heading into a new season will not be a journeyman, first-round bust, retread, knucklehead, or nice guy you wish like hell was as good a football player as a person.
No, in 2010, the revolving door has finally swept in the real thing.
Donovan McNabb .
Scoff if you must. The sports world is a cynical place these days—it will play well at most local bars and message boards. But the truth of the matter is that, come season kickoff, the Redskins will field the closest thing to a bona fide franchise quarterback they have had since Sonny Jurgensen .
Is Donovan McNabb still special? Are his best days behind him at 33 years old? Could be. It would be irresponsible to deny the possibility he could fall off the cliff this year and be suddenly too immobile, uncomfortable, or just plain old to get it done.
But there is as much, if not more, reason to expect he still can.
The age argument doesn't hold water. Hall of Fame QB John Elway was several months older than McNabb is now when he became new Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan’s quarterback in Denver in 1995. Two years later, the Broncos won their first Super Bowl, then went on to become one of just seven teams in modern NFL history to record back-to-back championships.
The raw numbers suggest McNabb is far from done. He is coming off a 2009 season that gives no statistical indication of a man wandering blindly towards the precipice:
2009—14 starts, 267-for-443 (60.3%), 3,553 YDS, 22 TD, 10 INT, QB Rating 92.9
(Avg/start: 19-for-31, 254 YDS, 1.57 TD, 0.71 INT)
2008—16 starts, 345-for-571 (60.4%), 3,916 YDS, 23 TD, 11 INT, QB Rating 86.4
(Avg/start: 22-for-36, 245 YDS, 1.43 TD, 0.68 INT)
2007—14 starts, 281-for-473 (61.5%), 3,324 YDS, 19 TD, 7 INT, QB Rating 89.9
(Avg./start: 20-for-34, 237 TDS, 1.35 TD, 0.5 INT)
Curious about John Elway's numbers prior to the arrival of Mike Shanahan?
1994—14 starts, 307-for-494 (62.1%), 3,490 YDS, 16 TD, 10 INT, QB Rating 85.7
1993—16 starts, 348-for-551 (63.2%), 4,030 YDS, 25 TD, 10 INT, QB Rating 92.8
1992—12 starts, 174-for-216 (55.1%), 2,242 YDS, 10 TD, 17 INT, QB Rating 65.7
Curious about Elway's subsequent years with Shanahan?
1998—12 starts, 210-for-356 (59.0%), 2,806 YDS, 22 TD, 10 INT, QB Rating 93.0 (SB title)
1997—16 starts, 280-for-502 (55.8%), 3,635 YDS, 27 TD, 11 INT, QB Rating 87.5 (SB title)
1996—15 starts, 287-for-466 (61.6%), 3,328 YDS, 26 TD, 14 INT, QB Rating 89.2
1995—16 starts, 316-for-542 (58.3%), 3,970 YDS, 26 TD, 14 INT, QB Rating 86.4
I received the following e-mail from a friend and fellow long-time NFL and Redskins fan. It reminded me how easy it has been to assimilate the fact the Redskins have a quarterback. It also struck me as a good jumping off point to invoke QB Theory, let the non-believers vent before the season gets started, and take a look at what I believe McNabb’s impact will be out of the gate.
From my good friend, Loyal Skins Fan and reticent blogger:
Okay....I'm just gonna say it now....the Redskins are gonna do very well this season. I don't think anyone out there (and I've been reading a lot of material) is really putting as much value as should be on the arrival of McNabb. Having that quality QB back there is enough to turn EVERYTHING around.
With or without Haynesworth.....this team is going to improve dramatically. The running game will benefit....the receivers will suddenly look like they belonged all along.....the defense will deliver turnovers cause they'll be fresh from not having to support the offense anymore than necessary. The OL will be vastly improved simply from having a guy back there who knows how to move around or stay put in the pocket when necessary.
I'm getting very excited.
Here was my down-and-dirty reply:
I think the Redskins will do better earlier than people think, and McNabb will be the main reason.
Defenses will have to approach the Redskins' new offense with a little respect out of the gate, given the reputations of both McNabb and [Mike] Shanahan, and won't be able to pin their ears back and sell out to rush the QB like they have in seasons past.
We saw a little of that in Zorn's first season, and the Skins' O looked pretty good as they sprinted out 6-2. Problem was, once the league started getting a book on Zorn, Campbell (and company) didn't have the gas/horses/smarts/whatever to answer, adjust and raise their game.
The league will get a book on this years' offense by midseason too... and that's when we'll see the real difference between Campbell/Zorn and McNabb/Shanahan.
The former lacked the ability to adjust on the fly and raise their games.
The latter, through their careers to this point, have proven they can and succeed over time. Whether or not they still CAN we’ll find out, but until proven otherwise, defenses will have to assume the worst … leaving fans reason to hope for the best.
So does all of this guarantee Donovan McNabb will have an extended late-career coronation march like John Elway and lead the Redskins to multiple championships? Of course not. QB Theory exists in the real world.
But here's what it does mean ...
Unless McNabb has stepped on the proverbial banana peel and gotten old over the course of this past offseason, QB Theory non-believers who follow the Washington Redskins may very well be about to have their worlds shaken up.
An entire generation of Redskins fans to whom the list of names above represent “Redskins quarterback” are about to get their first look at the difference between just-another quarterbacks and legitimate Pro Bowl-level quarterbacks. And more importantly (not to mention rewardingly), at what such an acquisition can quickly mean to their entire franchise.
The Redskins, at long last, have checked the biggest NFL box there is.
Reason to be optimistic? Damn straight.
Ask the guys who build pro football teams for a living.