Let’s say you’re the new general manager of a team. (Congratulations! We’ve already moved your bed into your office.) Your current starting quarterback is two or three seasons into his professional career. Despite an ugly winning percentage, his early numbers aren’t terrible; an about-even number of touchdowns and interceptions, a completion percentage a point or two below 60.
He seems acceptable — he could start for your team this season. You guys could go 9-7, maybe 10-6 with this kid at the helm one day if you give him the necessary pieces. But in a league that has finally shed its deepest historic principle — establish the run; ESTABLISH THE RUN — one nasty blemish won’t disappear, no matter how hard you squint. This kid isn’t Super Bowl-caliber. If he ever gets a ring, he’s going to do it by holding a clipboard, not throwing a football.
So what do you do? The free-agent pool contains nothing of interest: old, old, unproven, old, mediocre, unproven, old, Favre. With all the available passers, the big problem remains the same: it isn’t that he can’t win a Super Bowl this year; it’s that he can’t win a Super Bowl ever. He just doesn’t have that potential. And if you’re not threatening to win a Super Bowl, you’re not keeping your job for too long.
You know who does have Super Bowl potential? Every rookie.
So the draft rolls around, and you take a QB in the first three rounds, maybe higher than he was projected to go. And then you bench your OK-to-good incumbent and start the rookie immediately.
That’s the story of the 2012 NFL: when it comes to quarterbacks, potential trumps performance. In all likelihood, for example, the Browns’ Brandon Weeden isn’t and won’t ever be a better quarterback than the guy that he’s replacing, Colt McCoy. But he hasn’t proven it yet. (Though he really tried in Week 1, throwing four picks.) Four rookie starting quarterbacks in addition to Weeden took their teams’ first snaps of 2012: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, and Russell Wilson. On top of the five rooks under center, there are five sophomores: Minnesota’s Christian Ponder, Carolina’s Cam Newton, Tennessee’s Jake Locker, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, and Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert, whose last name should be pronounced as though he were a 19th-century French trapper. Twelve rookies have taken their team’s first snap in the last five years; that’s as many as did so in the twenty-five seasons before 2008.
By my count, five of the rookie starters from this year and last beat out competitors who would likely be better than them this season. But in no universe does anyone think that Matt Moore, McCoy, Sage Rosenfels, Chad Henne, or Matt Flynn are capable of winning Super Bowls in 2012 or beyond. NFL front offices want to know sooner rather than later whether their signal-caller could be a Super Bowl-level guy. Once a passer reveals that he isn’t — and most of them will — he’s given a headset and a spot on the bench, and then it’s the next kid’s turn. Over the last 20 years, of the 13 different QBs who have won Super Bowls, only two — Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer — were not guys who are in, or likely bound for, the Hall of Fame. You can see the game change around the time Troy Aikman won his first Super Bowl: in the 12 seasons prior to Aikman’s XXVII win, only one champion franchise had a Hall of Fame QB, the 49ers (Joe Montana).
I spoke to a former NFL general manager with decades of experience in the league about the changing attitudes toward the position in front offices. He stressed that the conventional wisdom he learned about managing quarterbacks is all but dead.
“I think Mark Rypien, Doug Williams, Phil Simms, I don’t know if you can win Super Bowls with those guys in today’s game,” he said. “You can’t play great defense anymore — the rules have really prohibited the defense from doing the things that they used to do. Defense keeps you in games, but offense wins them now.”
With the start-a-rookie strategy having seemingly worked out for the Falcons, Lions, Bengals, Panthers, and, as of this week at least, the Jets and Ravens (St. Louis, you’re still up in the air), it’s no surprise that it’s caught on. What used to be the only measure of success — wins, and therefore proximity to a Super Bowl — has been discounted in favor of promise, because of this belief that you can’t win a Super Bowl without a franchise passer. “Desperate thinking has really taken hold at the position,” the former GM said. “These kids are getting drafted way too high — Weeden, Tannehill, Ponder.” With a head coach knowing that he’ll get the axe if he can’t illustrate a future for his bosses, the GM says, it’s become a crutch: “We don’t have hope with anyone else; let’s start the process now.”
One of the NFL’s most prominent characteristics historically is its parity — if you’re a fan of a terrible team, you only need wait one or two years and that team will be good again. But the more that teams throw young, unprepared QBs directly to the wolves, the more the league will divide into top and bottom tiers. (“If the Browns would’ve played McCoy on Sunday, they would’ve won the game,” the former GM noted.) And make no mistake: even though college offenses operate more like NFL offenses than ever before, it seems to me that there are fewer NFL-ready rookies this year (two) than 2004 (three) and 1983 (three). Front offices might try to claim that their college preparation is the reason for guys playing earlier, but that only applies to the quarterbacks actually talented enough to be NFL starters — it has nothing to do with Weeden, Tannehill, and the like.
Right now, the NFL’s upper-middle class — where teams like the Ravens reside, riding defense and a solid running game to perennial playoff appearances — is an unfashionable place to be. At least, that is, until Alex Smith’s 3,000 yard season “carries” the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory, and 25 GMs suddenly decide that their teams need maniac ex-college coaches, a killer front seven, and more fans who own their own vineyards.