It’s a safe and established macro-concept that quarterback is the most important position in all of professional sports, and whatever you deem second place (hockey goalie, basketball point guard, or others) isn’t all that close behind it.
Last week, I wrote about the NFL’s lack of parity when it comes to end-of-season results. And though even good teams every off-season add and subtract a bunch of players, it’s generally quite easy to guess at NFL teams making the playoffs, in part, because of their structure, their culture, their head coach, and most importantly, their quarterback.
Do a quick exercise with me — tell me the quarterbacks you’re confident will make the playoffs and stop at, let’s say, eight names. We’ll probably have at least five that are the same, won’t we?
Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan… and that’s where it starts to get a bit murky. We can differ on the likes of Dak Prescott, Cam Newton and Alex Smith.
At the same point, there’s a large group of names we know no one is going to mention.
So why is it the majority of NFL teams seem to “fall in like” with their starting quarterback, and regardless of record, process or situation, lock them up as long as possible and make the deepest commitment they can in dollars and years?
Because the alternative always seems worse, I guess.
But in many cases saying goodbye is the right thing to do. I’ll give you three examples of teams that should be being far more proactive about their current quarterback scenarios:
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Drew Brees turns 39 in January and is an easy call for Canton in his first chance at eligibility. Though I feel some are currently overrating him on the all-time ranking a bit, there’s no question he’s a legend.
After a seemingly catastrophic shoulder injury, Brees went from San Diego to New Orleans, became the best player in Saints team history, was the face of the franchise through highs like winning the Super Bowl and returning to the community after Hurricane Katrina, and lows like Bountygate and their current status as regular-season also-ran in the NFC (they’ve finished 7-9 in each of the past three seasons).
But prevailing wisdom is that he’ll leave at the end of the season, and judging by their opening-week loss and the current state of the roster it seems there’s little he can accomplish in 2017.
So why not move on now?
More importantly, why have the Saints not prepared for this inevitable conclusion? They’ve drafted one quarterback (third-rounder Garrett Grayson in 2015, no longer a Saint). Their current backup is Chase Daniel, who, at the age of 30, has made two career NFL starts, and few think he should make a third.
Does Drew Brees give a lot of NFL teams an upgrade good enough to challenge for playoff spots and potential playoff wins this current season? Oh yeah.
Denver with Drew Brees. Houston with Drew Brees. Even Miami with Drew Brees, following the Tannehill injury. Wouldn’t Buffalo break their playoff drought with Brees this season? Maybe not — they are the Bills, after all — but their chances increase exponentially, whether that’s part of the plan or not.
But no, Brees will finish the season as a Saint, the franchise will be facing a barren wasteland of free-agent quarterbacks next season, and their offensive line and defensive secondary probably won’t be in any better a position to create a competitive team than it is right now.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Eli Manning isn’t what he once was — that’s pretty well established. But you know what he always has been despite the successes? Slow and turnover-prone. He’s led the league in interceptions three times.
I’m absolutely an Eli-Hall-of-Fame guy — I’m about big moments in sports, and winning two Super Bowls while going 5-1 as a road playoff QB, that’s all I need. You’re in.
But did you watch him play Sunday night without Odell Beckham Jr.? He’s done being effective in the NFL, and the Giants are done making playoff games with him at quarterback. It’s over. I know — they can’t run the ball, and they were forced into not running the ball, because they fell behind to Dallas so quickly in that game, but the evidence is obvious. Eli can’t help them anymore.
So who’s the Giants’ backup? Uh, Geno Smith. Nope, that’s not the answer. Sure, there are worse NFL backups (see the Saints above!), but Geno isn’t taking your franchise places.
All signing Geno Smith this past off-season did was take the media heat off the Giants and the question of when this year’s third-round pick, quarterback Davis Webb out of Cal, would be ready. He was the inactive third QB in Sunday’s opener.
But, bottom line, the Giants haven’t made a move that will adequately replace Eli Manning. And though I’m well aware he’d have nowhere near the trade value of Drew Brees for other teams, the Giants are another excellent example of a team looking like they’ll ride Eli until that proverbial horse can’t even walk, and then hope they get lucky and can start fresh.
Look, when it goes downhill for a quarterback, it’s usually quite a steep decline. The prevailing fear in Arizona isn’t about where things are heading for the Cards and Carson Palmer, but more like where they are already.
Was it really only 20 months ago when Palmer out-duelled Aaron Rodgers in that incredible overtime NFC divisional game in which Rodgers threw the Hail Mary to force the fifth period?
Yes, this has the potential to be a patented Week 1 overreaction here, but Palmer looked pathetic in the loss at Detroit. Three interceptions and lots of passes bouncing into the turf while under pressure and duress. Arizona plays the Eagles, Buccaneers and Rams in three consecutive weeks in October. The 38-year-old Palmer will be running for his life.
Backup quarterbacks, you ask? Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert are the Cards’ options. That’s as unimpressive to say out loud as it is to type, believe me. Arizona hasn’t picked a QB in the first three rounds since they took USC star Matt Leinart at No. 10 overall in 2006, a pick few of us thought was a mistake. Leinart turned out to be better on television as an analyst and comic foil in commercials than he was on the professional football field.
But Leinart being somewhat “busty” isn’t a good-enough reason to ignore your lack of depth at the position for going on a decade now. When Palmer was injured halfway through the 2014 season, the Cards were still deep enough to go 11-5 and make the playoffs. But they were forced to start Ryan Lindley against Cam Newton and the Panthers. Lindley threw for a grand total of 82 yards while the Cards punted nine times in the game.
So as you can see, contingency plans aren’t for everyone. Luck sometimes masks incompetence in all businesses, and pro football isn’t immune. No one really believes Jim Irsay is a great owner and the Colts are a well-run franchise, as even the most casual NFL fan is waking up to watching them play without Andrew Luck. But when you get to draft Peyton Manning and transition right into Luck, you make a lot of other NFL franchises jealous.