In American sports, no other position is as glorified or scrutinized as the quarterback. The closest comparison would be a pitcher in baseball and even they do not reach the same level of recognition that a quarterback does. He is the face of the franchise and is most likely the only player a somewhat casual fan could even name. Naturally, a lot of buzz has been going around about what Chip Kelly will do at the position. With the exception of defensive coordinator, it is the biggest decision Kelly will make this offseason.
Or is it?
Just how vital is the quarterback to success in football? In today's day and age, every football pundit and his uncle would say, "very." "It's a passing league now," they say. "You can't win in football without an elite quarterback. And the position is changing for more mobile QBs." And then they go off into their tangents on who is elite and who isn't and it gets to the point where Skip Bayless is shouting nonsense and I change the channel.
Since we all know that Billy Davis is the defensive coordinator, I'll run through some of the big talking points surrounding quarterbacks and try and sift perception from reality.
"You need an elite quarterback to win the Super Bowl." I'm taking on this one first because it annoys me the most. The word "elite" is ambiguous and it is thrown around so much these days that it has almost lost its meaning. Additionally, the argument seems to revolve around whether or not the quarterback won it all to the point that people end up contradicting themselves. Is a quarterback elite because he won the Super Bowl? Or did he win the Super Bowl because he is elite?
For the sake of the argument, let's say that there are six elite quarterbacks in the NFL: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger. Three of the guys on that list missed the playoffs this year, and only one played in a conference championship game. None of them played in the Super Bowl.
The two quarterbacks that did may illustrate my point the best. Colin Kaepernick was in his tenth career start in the Super Bowl and Joe Flacco was pretty much the poor man's Tony Romo until his playoff run this year. Neither of these quarterbacks are going to be compared to Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. This isn't to say they are bad; Kaepernick has a very rare skill set and Joe Flacco was nearly flawless in the playoffs this year. But unlike Brees or Rodgers, they are not the keystone of the offense or the team. They are role players in a bigger picture. This is the true key for a successful offense that Bill Walsh discovered when he invented the West Coast offense. You don't need an elite quarterback, you just need a system that is conducive to good quarterback play.
Here's a trivia question: If you were around in the early nineties, do you remember Steve Bono? He was San Francisco's third string quarterback who ended up playing about half the season when both Joe Montana and Steve Young were injured. And he won five straight games to keep their playoff hopes alive. In fact, he was only replaced by Young after he got injured in a game. If you can win five games with your third string quarterback, what is the real relative importance of the quarterback's ability? Sure, Bono was surrounded by a lot of talent, but that's exactly my point. The team was built and organized so well that you could simply plug someone in under center and still win. More contemporary examples could be the 2000 Ravens (Trent Dilfer), the 2002 Buccaneers (Brad Johnson) and the 2008 Patriots (Matt Cassel).
I'm not arguing against talented quarterbacks. Obviously you like to maximize talent at every position, quarterback included. But true talent at quarterback only comes around once every few years, unlike the talent at most other skill positions. It is simply bad business to hold out for that "face of the franchise" because your team might have to endure losing for several seasons. And then once that quarterback is obtained, offensive coordinates suffer the pitfall of centering the system around that person. What happens when he gets injured? Well, if you're the Indianapolis Colts, you fall apart and only win two games that year. If you're the San Francisco 49ers, your backup going into the season helps your team reach the Super Bowl. On this example, you can argue that Kaepernick has a very good skill set for a quarterback which made him a better fit for the team. This leads me to my next point.
"Mobile quarterbacks are the future of the NFL." Since Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick took the league by storm this is the new trendy talk of football experts. I'm not going to sit here and try and convince you that having an athlete at the quarterback position will never overtake the pocket passer. But I will tell you that claiming athletic quarterbacks are going to redefine the position based off of the play of three young starters over the course of one season is very superficial.
Let's break down the three big mobile quarterbacks from last season. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick had the NFL's best and second-best scoring defenses, respectively. They had red-chip running backs in Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore. They had decent offensive lines. Robert Griffin III did not have the luxury of an elite defense, but he did have a very reliable rookie running back in Alfred Morris as well as a talented receiving corps.
Simply put, these guys were put into a favorable situation (or at least, a situation that ended up being favorable). Wilson or Kaepernick were by no means running the show by themselves. Robert Griffin III came the closest to doing that and he had to sit out a few games because of injury and lost his playoff appearance... to another mobile quarterback... with a better defense.
Additionally, the offensive coordinators organized the offense to maximize the production of the quarterback. Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Robert Griffin III did not make a dull offense explosive simply by being mobile; rather, it was the other way around. Look at the NFC Championship Game. Kaepernick only threw the ball twenty-one times, but completed sixteen of those passes. He also only rushed twice for twenty-one yards. That game was won more by smart play-calling and understanding Kaepernick's strengths and weaknesses against Atlanta's defense than it was a mobile quarterback revolutionizing the position.
"The NFL is now a passing league." This is one that, for the most part, is true. Teams are throwing the ball more and the old "three yards and a cloud of dust" is long gone. It has become a big talking point in the NFL as the passing game evolves into a precise science. Is this hype around the passing game the result of teams tossing the rock more often? Or is it the cause?
At the risk of sounding metaphysical, it is entirely possible that teams are throwing the ball more not because it's the path to success in the NFL, but because they believe it is. Have teams with a great passing game won Super Bowls? Yes, but they've either had an elite quarterback, a tenacious defense, or a legitimate threat at running back. The passing game alone has not won a Super Bowl, but teams still try and cultivate it. Yes, it is still essential to having a balanced offense and there is certainly room to be creative with route design. But locking onto the idea that the passing game needs to be incredible in order to win paints the entire organization into a corner and leads to poor decisions like drafting Brandon Weeden in the first round.
Let's take a look at the top ten passing teams in the NFL in 2012, in terms of yards per game. I'll also throw in who the primary signal caller was:
- New Orleans Saints (Drew Brees)
- Detroit Lions (Matthew Stafford)
- Dallas Cowboys (Tony Romo)
- New England Patriots (Tom Brady)
- Denver Broncos (Peyton Manning)
- Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan)
- Indianapolis Colts (Andrew Luck)
- Oakland Raiders (Carson Palmer)
- Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Josh Freeman)