Having a good quarterback is one of the most important components for a winning team in the NFL. Recently, teams have been locking up what some call “mediocre” quarterbacks to long-term deals. Dave Archibald takes us on the NFL QB merry-go-round to show that teams may be wise to keep what they have instead of finding out that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers signed a contract mid-August that included the most guaranteed money of any player in the game. The contract with the second most guaranteed money in the game is the deal Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson inked earlier in the summer. Now, New York Giants QB Eli Manning is pushing for a deal to make him the highest-paid player in the game. None of these players is the best quarterback in the game; arguably, none are in the top five. These contracts join several exorbitant deals handed out to second- and third- tier quarterbacks in recent season: Carolina’s Cam Newton, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, Chicago’s Jay Cutler, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, and Dallas’ Tony Romo, among others.
In a vacuum, it’s easy to criticize these moves. If Rivers isn’t the second or third best quarterback in football, logic suggests that he shouldn’t be paid like it, especially given that he’s no spring chicken at 33. This logic ignores that rising revenues – and accordingly, a larger salary cap – mean that the numbers on these deals can’t be compared so simply. It also ignores the counterfactual: what are these teams going to do if they don’t re-sign their quarterbacks? There are 32 teams, and the unfortunate reality is that there aren’t 32 capable NFL quarterbacks. Teams rarely let franchise quarterbacks get away, and the supply of quality QBs can’t meet the demand. The chart below shows all the quarterbacks who started a game in 2014 who have played for multiple franchises:
This is a list dominated by retreads and journeyman backups, with few quality starters. Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are future Hall of Famers, but both had serious injury concerns when they changed teams. Michael Vick is a former wunderkind who had a resurgence on a second team after going to prison for organizing dog fighting rings. Carson Palmer, Alex Smith, and Jay Cutler have been useful starters.
That list pales in comparison to the list of quarterbacks who have never changed teams. Obviously players still on their rookie contracts haven’t had the opportunity to go elsewhere, but veterans Tom Brady, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, Tony Romo, Russell Wilson, and Cam Newton are all still playing for the teams for which they first suited up. Of the 32 teams, 21 or 22 figure to start a quarterback who has never played for anyone else.
What happens when teams do let their star quarterbacks leave? There are a few options:
Waiting in the Wings
If a GM already drafted a star quarterback in the first round and he’s ready to step in as soon as the current starter leaves, no problem. That was the case for the 2008 Green Bay Packers, who had drafted Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick three years earlier. Rodgers had thrown just 59 passes through his first three seasons behind durable legend Brett Favre, but burst on the scene in his first extended playing time with more than 4,000 yards and 28 touchdown passes. Few teams show the patience to draft quarterbacks they don’t need and sit them, and even then they don’t always pan out. This approach has the cleanest results but is very rare; since the expansion to 32 teams in 2002, only Rodgers and Rivers, who took over for Brees, were able to transition so smoothly.
Having a smooth transition is so rare that most team’s fans would be happy with just a one-year bump. The most dramatic example is the 2011-12 Colts. Then-four-time-MVP Peyton Manning missed the entire 2011 season with multiple neck surgeries, and the Colts were stuck with a cadre of disastrous backups ‒ Curtis Painter, Kerry Collins, and Dan Orlovsky, none of whom ever started another NFL game ‒ that combined to go 2-14, netting Indianapolis the first pick in the draft. They used that pick on Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who has been impressive leading the Colts to three playoff appearances in his first three seasons.
The Falcons had a similar transition from long-time starter Vick to Ryan. When Vick went to prison in 2007, Atlanta started first-round busts Joey Harrington (10 games) and Byron Leftwich (2) along with veteran backup Chris Redman (4), en route to a 4-12 finish and the third pick in the draft. That was enough to nab Ryan, the draft’s top QB, out of Boston College. The Falcons went on to have five straight winning seasons.
The danger here is that rookie quarterbacks, even high picks, are no sure thing to be good, especially right away. The 49ers found that out when they released veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia after the 2003 season and went 2-14 in 2004 behind the duo of Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey. They tabbed Utah’s Alex Smith with the #1 overall selection (over Rodgers, the other top QB candidate), but Smith took a long time to develop and San Francisco didn’t see the playoffs again until 2011. The Rams had a similar experience transitioning from Marc Bulger to #1 overall selection Sam Bradford, ultimately dealing Bradford this past offseason after five straight losing seasons. Things can almost always get worse ‒ blow a high pick on Joey Harrington, Blaine Gabbert, or JaMarcus Russell and you can find your franchise in the doldrums for years.
Examples: 2003-4 Steelers (Tommy Maddox to Ben Roethlisberger), 2007-8 Falcons (Michael Vick to Joey Harrington to Matt Ryan), 2007-8 Ravens (Steve McNair to Kyle Boller to Joe Flacco), Panthers 2010-11 (Jake Delhomme to Jimmy Clausen to Cam Newton), 2011-12 Colts (Peyton Manning to Curtis Painter to Andrew Luck)
Drafting a quarterback is an uncertain proposition, so some teams elect to forego rookie growing pains in favor of a safer veteran. The New Orleans Saints, lovable losers for most of their franchise history, had the most success with this approach, inking Brees to a 6-year, $60 million dollar contract when he became a free agent in 2006. Brees was recovering from a shoulder injury so severe that prospective suitor Miami failed him on his physical, but the gamble paid off for New Orleans. The Saints have gone 87-56 with Brees at the helm and hoisted the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl XLIV.
Most veteran quarterback acquisitions don’t go as smoothly. Aside from Brees, no quarterback has won a Super Bowl with his second team since Brad Johnson with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in 2003. The Kansas City Chiefs epitomize the benefits and drawbacks of the veteran approach, having spent most of their history importing quarterbacks from outside. Trent Green followed Dick Vermeil over from St. Louis in 2001 and manned the position until 2007, when the Chiefs turned to former Patriots backup Damon Huard. Before the 2009 season, they traded a second-round pick for Matt Cassel, another former New England backup. After four seasons, they dealt another second-rounder, this time for the 49ers’ Smith. Collectively, Kansas City’s veteran quarterbacks have helped lead the team to a six winning seasons and four playoff berths since 2002, a respectable record, but at no point during that time period were the Chiefs a serious contender for a Super Bowl berth. Kansas City famously hasn’t used a first-round pick on a quarterback since Todd Blackledge in 1983, who stands, amazingly, as the last QB the Chiefs have drafted to win a game. Of their draftees since 2002, only Brodie Croyle has started a game for them, losing all 10 of his starts between 2007 and 2010.
Examples: 2002 Bills (Drew Bledsoe), 2003 Broncos (Jake Plummer), 2007 Texans (Matt Schaub), 2009 Bears (Jay Cutler), 2009 Chiefs (Matt Cassel), 2010 Raiders (Jason Campbell), 2011 Raiders (Carson Palmer), 2013 Chiefs (Alex Smith), 2015 Eagles (Sam Bradford), 2015 Rams (Nick Foles)
The Last Hurrah
A variant of the veteran approach, where a team signs a free agent quarterback, but one whose age suggests he is nearing the end of his career. Peyton Manning has been the most successful version of this, setting passing records and leading prolific offenses in three seasons in Denver. Those seasons have ended with the Broncos offense sputtering out in the playoffs amidst health questions for Manning, which is not atypical of this archetype. Brett Favre led the Vikings to a 12-4 record and the number two scoring offense in 2009, but he threw two interceptions in the NFC Championship game. When he returned in 2010, he struggled with injuries and interceptions and Minnesota dipped to 29th in points scored and a 6-10 record. Signing a quarterback in his late 30’s is a reasonable strategy for a team with a lot of other pieces in place, but it can backfire.
Examples: 2004 Cowboys (Vinny Testaverde), 2005 Cowboys (Drew Bledsoe), 2006 Ravens (Steve McNair), 2007 Buccaneers (Jeff Garcia), 2008 Dolphins (Chad Pennington), 2008 Jets (Brett Favre), 2009-10 Vikings (also Favre), 2011 Vikings (Donovan McNabb), 2011 Titans (Matt Hasselbeck), 2012 Broncos (PeytonManning)
The Merry-Go-Round of Suck
This is the boogeyman lurking in the closet that makes general managers sign guys like Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton to $16 million dollar a year contracts or trade second-round picks for Alex Smith. GMs sit around the campfire telling ghost stories, and the scariest tale of all is that of the Cleveland Browns. Since their modern inception in 1999, the Browns have been unable to find a competent signal-caller. They used the #1 overall pick that year to select Tim Couch, but went just 22-37 with Couch at the helm. Since then, they have rotated from disaster to disaster:
It’s an ugly group, a kind of greatest hits of failed first-rounders (Couch, Weeden, Quinn), washed-up vets (Garcia, Dilfer, Delhomme), and cast-off misfits (Hoyer, Anderson, Holcomb). It’s too early to give up on Manziel after just two starts, but those two games went about as poorly as they could have, and he may lose the starting job to proven mediocrity Josh McCown.
Other teams have seen things go nearly as poorly. The Titans figure to start rookie Marcus Mariota this season; he will be their sixth starter in as many seasons, during which they’ve gone 30-50 to date. The Raiders have been unable to find a long-term signal-caller since Rich Gannon started 16 games in 2002, the year of their last playoff appearance. In the interim they’ve turned to Rick Mirer, Kerry Collins, Andrew Walter, Aaron Brooks, Josh McCown, Daunte Culpepper, JaMarcus Russell, Jason Campbell, Carson Palmer, and Terrelle Pryor before Derek Carr last season, perhaps a long-term answer. The Miami Dolphins had nine primary starters in ten seasons from 2004 to 2012, tabbing Jay Fiedler, A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, Matt Moore, and finally Ryan Tannehill, who has solidified things. Tannehill isn’t a great player, but after seeing that lineup (which doesn’t even include busts John Beck and Pat White) it’s understandable why Miami locked him up to a 6-year, $95 million dollar contract rather than spin the wheel again.
Examples: 2002 – 14 Browns, 2003 – 14 Raiders, 2004 – 9 Buccaneers, 2004 – 11 Dolphins, 2009 – 14 Titans
A general manager isn’t going to feel great about signing a slightly-above-average quarterback to a deal where they consume a huge fraction of the salary cap, but he’s going to feel worse about not having anyone remotely competent. Few quality players ever make it onto the free agent or trade markets, so teams are competing for retreads, backups, and players on the verge of retirement, or they have to spin the wheel of rookie quarterback fortune. It’s easier, and probably smarter, to go with the devil they know. We can expect to see more of these deals in the future – solid but non-elite quarterbacks signing contracts that would have seemed unthinkable just a few seasons ago. It’s either that, or risk the franchise becoming the next Cleveland Browns.
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