Through the last decade, the dominant narrative in the NFL has been that if you want to build a dynasty and win Super Bowls, you must have a franchise quarterback. Teams who use league-average bridge players at that position tend to underwhelm in the end, which is why some teams have gambled and lost on quarterbacks just high enough in the food chain to tantalize, and just low enough on the reality scale to disappoint when the time comes to validate that elite-level contract.
Two teams are paying the price for those errant decisions, both literally and figuratively. The Kansas City Chiefs rewarded former New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel with a six-year, $63 million contract in July of 2009 after Cassel helped the Pats go 11-5 without Tom Brady, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first quarter of the first game. In his nearly three seasons with the Chiefs, Cassel has never posted a DYAR efficiency ranking higher than 14th in the league through a season, and the hand injury that put him on injured reserve this season has made him all to replaceable in some eyes.
When the Chiefs upset the formerly undefeated Green Bay Packers last Sunday, interim head coach Romeo Crennel said that if backup Kyle Orton continued to play as he did, he should get a chance to be the team's starting quarterback in 2012. Given the fact that Orton's better play would increase Crennel's chances of turning his own "interim" tag to "permanent," it isn't hard to see the writing on the wall. Cassel got a $4.75 million base salary and a $7.5 million option bonus in 2011; Orton will be a free agent on the comeback trail next year.
Similarly, the Arizona Cardinals must be wondering what the heck they were thinking when they gave former Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb a six-year, $65 million contract before the 2011 season. While Kolb has dealt with various injury issues, including current "concussion-like symptoms," unheralded backup John Skelton has been making fourth-quarter magic in a Tebow-y fashion. The Cards are 5-1 in games with Skelton as their main man (4-1 in his starts), while Kolb has been underwhelming at best.
The Kolb signing was, in part, a response to the fact that the franchise had no contingency plan for Kurt Warner's retirement after the 2009 season, and Max Hall, Derek Anderson, and Skelton himself formed a crazy quilt of bad quarterback play in 2010. Wrapping up a supposed future franchise guy may have looked like a great idea in theory, but just as Cassel was dependent for success to a large degree on the schematic machinations of Bill Belichick and his coaching staff (not to mention the presence of Randy Moss and Wes Welker), Kolb was heavily reliant on an Eagles offense predicated on deep receivers opening things up for underneath routes in ways that the Cardinals can't yet facilitate.
And that's the challenge for NFL teams in need of quarterbacks who can help them out of the gutter to start, and who can take them to unimagined heights later on — it's all about realizing that those quarterbacks may be different people.
First-year head coach Jim Harbaugh of the NFC West-winning San Francisco 49ers put together the best team that franchise has known in a decade around a dominant defense, and sound rushing attack, and the kind of risk-management-based offense that allows longtime quarterback Alex Smith, a first overall pick in 2005 and a bust ever since, to play in a way that gives the pejorative "game manager" classification a more positive meaning. Smith hasn't set the NFL on fire with his play, but he's been relatively mistake-free with just five interceptions against 16 touchdowns, and that efficiency allows the team to do what it needs to do without having to make up for Smith's errors.
ESPN's Ron Jaworski, who helped call the 49ers' 20-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, said that Smith's alleged "improvement," such as It is, is based far more on the team creating the right kind of environment for a young — and decidedly average — quarterback to succeed.
"He really hasn't made a whole lot of improvement in his mechanics," Jaworski said. "But Alex has played well, and I think more importantly, the fact that he understands what his role is right now. He is the quarterback, he understands this system. He's not asked to drop back 40 times and win the game for the 49ers. You know, they're winning it with outstanding defense, they're coming off the ball and road grading people. Frank Gore is having a rock-solid year, and the other components are helping out, as well. You've got Kendall Hunter certainly is making a contribution.
"They're a two-tight-end-oriented offense. They want to play smashmouth football, and they will take their shots, and I think this is where Alex has been very good. They run the football, they'll go to the play action game, and he'll take his shots, and I think it's a good fit for where he is in his career right now, this style of offense. I applaud the way he's playing right now. He's very careful with the football.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who will see Harbaugh and Smith at Seattle's CenturyLink Field this Saturday, said on Tuesday that the way his team is handling quarterback Tarvaris Jackson is quite similar to how the 49ers are growing with Smith. It's an easier process now that Jackson has recovered from a pectoral injury.
"Yeah, we're trying hard to get that kind of play out of him, just like T-Jack's going," Carroll said. "He's on a real good run right now, I think, since he got healthy. He's going to improve through the last few games of the year here. He's going to keep getting better because he's physically okay. He was not that way. Go back to the Giants game where he started to come out and play really good ball and he got drilled.
"But the expectations of that position, I think we have a similar thought about that. We don't want the quarterback to be the guy that has to carry the whole load. There's going to come times when they do, but in general, that's not the way we want the whole football team to be part of how the ball moves and how we protect and how we throw the football and the choices that we make -- the style of passes. So that you can keep the guy clean and not put him in jeopardy. I think there are a lot of similarities there."
At best, the quarterback position is about ultimate franchise excellence, and that's for a handful of lucky and intelligent teams. For the "mere mortals" who make up a higher percentage of the league, team improvement is based on a knowledge of true quarterback value -- when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em.