Last year, a bar-room hypothetical came to life as Tom Brady got a pro-bowl receiver and Peyton Manning had to make do with a strong defense but few weapons. In the process, Brady answered the accusations of being a "system quarterback", seemingly for good. This year, that hypothesis gets tested again; only this time, Brady isn't part of the experiment, and it'll be New Englanders hoping it is just the system.
Ever since Super Bowl XXXVI, when they poured onto the Superdome field as a unit rather than being introduced individually, the Patriots have done their best to emphasize that football is a team sport. While some commentators consider Bill Belichick's all-for-one, no-distractions style of management as something akin to Stalinism, it has produced three rings. Unhindered by egos, the players embrace the roles defined for them by their coaches, resulting in a football machine much bigger than the sum of its parts.
Now, the biggest part of that machine, quarterback Tom Brady, is broken.
Why the biggest part? While the other ten men on offense follow orders, it's the quarterback's job to first give them those orders, then adjust them based on what the defense is showing, and finally keep track of twenty-one moving parts, analyzing risk vs. reward, and make the correct decision.
The Patriots still have the same coaches giving the initial orders, and a quite literal fantasy squad of receivers and backs to carry them out. But make no mistake, Brady has excelled because of his decision-making ability, adjusting plays at the line of scrimmage, and checking down until finding the open man. In a sport increasingly dominated by strategy, Brady has the rare combination of physical and mental skills (and work ethic) absent in so many 1st-round-pick workout-wonders with rocket arms and not much else.
It's also a set of skills that separates QBs from every other position in team sports. Basketball is the only major sport that puts as much emphasis on teamwork as football, and one dominant player can carry a mediocre team much further than a great quarterback. But that player could be a center or shooting guard just as easily as a point guard—there's no one position that's as important as the football player behind the center.
Hockey goalies on a hot streak can bring home the Cup, but they have a single role that doesn't lend itself to teamwork or strategy (apart from when they get pulled).
Similarly, starting pitchers don't have the option of handing off to a running back, or dinking and dunking their way down the field. If they can't get the ball over the plate and past hitters, their offense has to be on a par with the 1927 Yankees or 2003 Red Sox to even stand a chance. In that sense, they are far more important to a team's success than QBs. A good defense can help a pitcher, but it can't save him: there's simply not enough strategy and teamwork in baseball to make up for the pitcher's shortcomings.
On the other hand goalies run hot and cold, with all but an elite few eminently replaceable, and plenty of MLB teams have several top starters. In the salary cap era, keeping two experienced, top level quarterbacks on an NFL roster is prohibitively expensive, so losing the starter pretty much always means diminished production and/or strategic adjustments.
There's also a lot fewer options in the NFL; only a handful of studs can be counted on to consistently produce big numbers, and barely a dozen more can reliably manage a game. There is no science for finding them. If there are measures for peripheral vision acuity and decision-making prowess most teams don't seem to use them. QB development is difficult given the scarcity of playing time, and many teams opt for a sink-or-swim approach.
Whether it's a scarcity of talent or of available experience, the result is that you should pray for the health of your team's starter on a nightly basis. The Patriots, for example, are currently weighing a career back up against kid without a spleen and Tim Rattay.
So while the quarterback doesn't have as much impact on any one game as a starting pitcher or goalie, they have a much more significant relationship to the overall success of the team on the field, and are extremely scarce. But does that mean you need a good quarterback to win?
With all the praise heaped on Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, it's easy for fans to forget that recent Super Bowls have been won by teams starting Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer (and Eli Manning). However, you can be sure that Bill Belichick hasn't forgotten the championship he helped win in 1991 with the Giants—and Jeff Hostetler at quarterback. Indeed, if there's anyone in football who knows how to do more with less, it's Belichick.
That's good news for the Patriots, and Matt Cassel. Much to Tom Jackson's chagrin, nobody's going to be running it up on New England this year (incidentally, it's worth noting that many of the same talking heads who dismissed Brady as a "system quarterback" are now dismissing the Patriots after his injury). The defense is too old in spots and too young in others, but their front line still dominates, and the unit as a whole is still capable of a goal-line stand when necessary (see Sunday's game against the Chiefs).
On offense, they can emphasize a four-headed running game, with LaMont Jordan and a healthy Sammy Morris to complement Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk. Randy Moss will still draw a double-team no matter who's throwing to him, leaving Welker, Washington, Gaffney or Watson wide open. The two questions facing the Patriots are whether Matt Cassel can find the open man, and if the makeshift offensive line can provide enough time for him to get the ball off. The line is probably the biggest under-reported story here; while you can't blame them for the injury to Brady, they collapsed last February in Arizona, and will need to provide plenty of protection if Cassel is to succeed.
So with the juggernaut down, who's the favorite?
The Chargers still have LDT—but they're also still coached by Norv Turner, still led by Phillip Rivers, and still seem so impressed with their own individual talent that actually playing the games is kind of an afterthought (oh, and Shawn Merriman's knee).
Tony Dungy has finally crafted a dominating defense, but between an aging Harrison's return, Addai showing fragility and Bob Sanders' knees, there are simply too many things that could go wrong to anoint them just yet.
Dallas has enough talent to beat an all-pro team, but Wade Phillips is their coach. C'mon. He's not quite Marty Schottenheimer or Herm Edwards, but he's pretty awful.
Green Bay is a particularly interesting possibility. With one of the best defenses in the NFL, one wonders what would have happened if Aaron Rodgers were on the field against the Giants last January. A quarterback capable of managing the gameplan instead of sabotaging it may be the missing piece for the Packers, and Rodgers certainly looked capable in Week 1, completing 18/22 with a touchdown and no interceptions.
These teams make up the contenders. All have clear strengths, and a few weaknesses, and unless Matt Cassel does better than expected in a role he hasn't held since high school, they'd probably all beat the Patriots at least six times out of ten. But at the moment, they're no more than contenders.