Today’s conventional wisdom holds that the key to success in the National Football League is finding the Holy Grail: The Franchise Quarterback. The pursuit of this goal—this Superhero and Knight in Shining Armor—is usually discussed as if everyone knows it is the most important factor in a team’s level of success, with no close second. But the term has been so misused, confused and abused as to become counterproductive and diversionary.
The use of the word “franchise” in this context dates back at least to the 1950s when certain great players were given the tag. By the 1970s it was fairly common for an extraordinary talent to be called, “the franchise.” The concept concerning a franchise quarterback implies several things: One who performs at a consistently high level, the undisputed team leader and the long-term face of the franchise, the one whose tremendous talent and charisma delivers the victories and the revenue. And it is on his shoulders that the fate of the team rests.
Too much hyperbole, you say? But truly, this is what much of the pro-football world has come to accept as gospel, in part because the narrative has been repeated incessantly in the high-volume, high-definition world of sports television and radio—where seldom is heard a discouraging word. In recent days on one of the local radio stations, a caller politely suggested that, when you think about these franchise quarterback types, they’re all on teams of longstanding success, with strong offensive lines and receivers and coaching staffs. He went on to say that, sure, it would be great to have a quarterback like that but you can’t sacrifice the building of the overall team in the hopes of striking gold at the quarterback position.1
In the middle of this modest plea for a reality-check, I stopped washing the kitchen floor and listened. This column was nearly finished and I began to wonder if the caller had hacked into my computer. Then to my dismay and disappointment the host of the popular daily program that covers the Browns said something like, “Yes, I believe that finding that franchise-type quarterback is always the most important item on a team’s agenda — and always will be — every year.”
End of discussion. Neither the host nor anyone sitting around with him even bothered to disagree with the caller and they certainly weren’t interested in elaborating. It was as if the caller’s ideas were filtered through some sort of software that translates dissension into the religion of the true believers: Must get franchise quarterback … no matter the cost … must get franchise quarterback … Of course, this was the same person who, a few minutes later, was bragging about how he would be the one to win a drinking contest between them.
That can explain some things but how do you explain the extremes to which some teams are willing to go to acquire an untested college quarterback. The Washington Redskins (after winning a bidding war with the Cleveland Browns) gave up their first round picks for 2012, 2013 and 2014 and their second-round pick for 2012 in exchange for the St. Louis Rams’ first pick in the 2012 draft (the second overall) in order to nab Robert Griffin III. The Rams had drafted Sam Bradford with the No.1 overall pick in the 2010 draft so they felt they already had their guy and were thus willing to make the trade. It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that neither of those guys has turned into a significant force at quarterback.
In fact, it is the rare bird, indeed, who is prophesied to be the next superstar quarterback, who actually achieves that kind of success. In fact, for all the investment of heart and soul and draft picks, for all the angst-filled maneuvering surrounding the acquisition of quarterbacks, the end result is very, very often … meh.
During the eleven years from 2004-2014, forty-six quarterbacks were drafted in the first and second rounds. Here they are:
Conceding that it’s a little early to write off the entire 2014 class, I would suggest there are only four names on the above list who can reasonably be considered “Franchise Quarterbacks: Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Flacco and Luck. And even then, Flacco is debatable and it’s still a bit early for a Luck coronation. So, that’s two, three or four out of forty-six.
One can imagine a meeting between a new owner of an NFL franchise who sits down with his front office and coaching staff and, envisioning the future of the team, looks at this list.
Owner: You keep telling me that we’ve got to have a franchise quarterback, whatever that is. But this business of drafting quarterbacks is pretty risky, isn’t it? Seems like it can really blow up in your face, especially if you’re investing a bunch of draft picks on one guy. Those are valuable assets, aren’t they, those draft picks? Our team isn’t very good right now and all this talk about franchise quarterbacks sounds like a red herring. Know what a red herring is? Something that draws attention away from the main issue.
GM: And the main issue is?
Owner: Why, winning football games. What do you think it is?
What stands out most significantly about the franchise quarterback idea and its loss of meaningful relevance is the notion that a team has to get one in order to win. Not only is this not true, it’s actually a reversal of the cause and effect of the matter. It would be far more accurate to suggest that a team has to win — has to build and sustain a winning organization with strength up and down the roster — before it can hope to have what we now think of as a franchise quarterback … or before someone on their roster can become one.
This is a theory that can be tested a number of different ways. First of all, look at the history of Super Bowl winners and you’ll find more than a few teams that have won without a so-called franchise quarterback. Super Bowls 42 (2008) and 46 (2012), were won by the New York Giants by scores of 17-14 and 21-17, respectively. In both games, the Giants, who were 10-6 in 2007 and 9-7 in 2011, and with Eli Manning at the helm, defeated the New England Patriots behind Tom Brady. Nowadays, hardly anyone is calling Eli Manning one of the elite franchise QBs but Manning was named the MVP for both of those championship games.
But look again at the scores of those two Super Bowl games, 17-14 and 21-17, and think again about the overall strength of those Giants teams — their defense — and you begin to see the MVP awards for what they are, an almost irresistible urge to focus on one person, the quarterback, at the expense of the rest of the team. In those two Super Bowl-winning years, Eli Manning had QB ratings of 73.9 in 2007 (lower than Brian Hoyer’s 2014 rating) and 92.9 in 2011. But in the two Super Bowl games his game-ratings were 95 and 103. In 2014, Eli Manning’s QB rating was 92.1 for the 6-10 Giants. What was the difference between those Super Bowl Giants and the 2014 Giants? Did Eli Manning drag his team down to that record or did the team, overall, need a reboot?
Was Eli Manning a franchise quarterback in those Super Bowl years? Is he one now? Perhaps the more important question is, what difference does it make? So you’ve got Archie Manning on your roster, but the rest of your roster are the 1970s New Orleans Saints. Whoop-dee-doo.
Super Bowl 37 in 2003 matched up two quarterbacks who certainly can’t be called “franchise” types, Rich Gannon of the Raiders and Brad Johnson of the Buccaneers. Kurt Warner won one in 2000 and lost one in 2002. Trent Dilfer quarterbacked the Ravens over the Giants, 34-7 in the 2001 Super Bowl and, following that season, Baltimore didn’t even bother to re-sign him. If you expand this search to include all the quarterbacks in Super Bowl games, winners and losers, the answer to the main question is even more obvious: Do you need a top-five, “elite,” “Hall of Fame-caliber,” “franchise-type” quarterback to reach, even win, a Super Bowl? Clearly not. But then, winning games — not finding a future Hall of Fame quarterback — is the first order of business for any NFL team.
For those quarterbacks who are currently considered among the elite, it’s interesting to ask the chicken or the egg question. Take Tom Brady. He was selected by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft with the 199th pick — a compensatory pick, by the way. The year 2000 was also Bill Belichick’s first year as head coach of the Patriots and, in his fifteen years with the Pats, he has come to be considered one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, and not just because of his game preparation and reputation as a strategist. The depth and breadth of his leadership skills permeate the entire culture of that organization. Now, Tom Brady is generally considered one of the best NFL quarterbacks of all time. But did Tom Brady carry his team to its preeminent status the last 14 years? Or is Brady just one important part — among many — of an NFL franchise, led by Bill Belichick, that has few if any peers in this era?
A generation before Bill Belichick brought the Patriots to its dominant position, Chuck Noll did the same with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was named head coach in 1969 at the age of 37 and stayed on for twenty-three years. Under his leadership, the Steelers reinvented their organization, establishing a culture dedicated to excellence. It’s fair to say that Noll was the architect of the great Steeler teams of the 1970s, winning four Super Bowls. And the Steelers are still on that course that he charted decades ago.
During Noll’s tenure with the Steelers, Terry Bradshaw made the most significant contribution to the team’s success — at the quarterback position. Bradshaw is, of course, in the NFL Hall of Fame, but given the roll of Chuck Noll and the Steeler organization and the extraordinary rosters they assembled, it’s folly to suggest that the quarterback played a determinant role. In his career, Bradshaw (1970-83) threw for 212 touchdowns, 210 interceptions and had a QB rating of 70.9. Although he was the first overall selection of the 1970 draft, he had to be brought along slowly and patiently, sometimes painfully. He had to be developed. And he was certainly not a continuous starter from the outset of his NFL career.
A fairer reading of those successful Pittsburgh Steelers teams should give the lion’s share of the credit to their defense — the Steel Curtain.
When it comes to deciding who belongs on the list of the elite handful, you could claim it’s a subjective matter. Fair enough, but take a look at this list of “elite” QBs from last year in order of their 2014 QB ratings:
Now compare the list above to that of the ten winningest NFL teams since 2000:
Seven QBs with ratings over 95 … And the top ten teams since 2000. The correlation is obvious. There’s a lot of overlap there.
The Eagles are thought to be up in the air about trying to solve their own quarterback issues but they still went 10-6 in 2014, primarily behind Mark Sanchez, who had a QB rating of 88.4. The Ravens with the sixth best record since 2000 have Joe Flacco with a 2014 rating of 91. And the Seahawks, one of the NFL’s best in recent years have Russell Wilson with a 2014 rating of 95.0.
Tony Romo doesn’t generally seem to be in the conversation about top-tier quarterbacks in the league but Dallas went 12-4 in 2014. The Cowboys had an excellent ground game and Romo had a career-best year, statistically. But all the rest after Romo are members of the winningest organizations in the NFL over the past fifteen years (and the Cowboys are not exactly the dregs of the league). These are the teams that seem to do many things well, that always seem to be in contention.
On the other hand, having an above average quarterback, say with ratings at 90 and above, doesn’t guarantee a winning record. Examples are Drew Brees for the Saints at 97.0 with a record of 7-9, Matt Ryan for the Falcons at 93.9 with a record of 6-10 and Eli Manning for the Giants at 92.1 and a record of 6-10.
Quarterbacks who are not “good” year after year are often in a position of having to explain their statistical drop-off. Consider Colin Kaepernick. He started only seven games in 2012 and went 5-2 as a starter with a QB rating of 98.3. After going 11-4-1 that season, the 49ers lost to Joe Flacco’s Ravens in the 2013 Super Bowl, 34-31. In 2013, Kaepernick became the full time starter, had a QB rating of 91.6 and the team went 12-4. But in 2014 the 49ers slipped to 8-8 and Kaepernick’s QB rating dropped slightly to 86.4. Really now, amidst all the turmoil in San Francisco this past year, do you really think the performance of their quarterback should have been the primary cause for concern? Oh, and by the way, Kaepernick was sacked 52 times in 2014. Only rookie Blake Bortles of the 3-13 Jaguars was sacked more times (55).
In general then, the best performing teams have the best performing quarterbacks. In a way, this may seem obvious. What is far from obvious, however, is how this can possibly be interpreted to suggest that higher rated QBs are primarily responsible for their teams’ success or that lower-rated quarterbacks are the primary cause of their teams’ poor performances. The quarterback may be the most ‘impactful’ player on the field, he may make a significant contribution, but he’s only one of thirty-some starters on offense, defense and special teams. There is far more logic to the notion that the best performing teams, especially those that are perennial contenders, are sculpting and fashioning their franchise quarterbacks and providing them with ample support from the wealth of their organizational assets.
Going back to that list of the forty-six quarterbacks drafted from 2004-14, it’s interesting that, of the very few from that group who are in the conversation today as franchise QBs, Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t selected in the first round in 2004 until after two other quarterbacks had been drafted. Aaron Rodgers was the first QB picked in the 2005 draft but not until the 24th selection. Joe Flacco was the second quarterback selected in the the 2008 draft with the 18th overall pick. So it’s not as if their future success was obvious to the entire nation. Of this group, only Andrew Luck was seen as a consensus can’t-miss, first-pick-overall future star who has, so far, lived up to the predictions. The other three were selected later in the first round by, who else? By the teams with the third, fourth and sixth-best overall records over the last 15 years.
New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Baltimore and those other top-ten teams have been winners for a long time. They’re not only good at scouting quarterbacks, they’re good at building their teams — their entire rosters — through the draft. They’re good at knowing better than to expect too much from a single player or to expect it too soon. They’re good at maintaining a football infrastructure that makes the success of players like Brady, Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Flacco far more likely than had they gone elsewhere to lesser organizations. (Eli Manning saw that writing on the wall when he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers. He refused to sign with them and forced a trade with the Giants for Philip Rivers. Can’t you just imagine the conversation Archie had with his son, Eli, when all that went down?)
But back to that meeting between the new owner and his front office and coaching staff …
Owner: So what I’m trying to say is, I think there should be a whole lot less talk about “franchise quarterbacks” and more talk about “franchise franchises,” if you get my drift.
- I’m paraphrasing, but not taking liberties. [↩]