This NFL season could change some perceptions we have about quarterbacks, and their importance.
We’ve been inundated with the notion that you need a franchise quarterback to win a Super Bowl. To make that narrative work, we retro-fit quarterbacks with that title after they’ve won a Super Bowl (Eli Manning, Joe Flacco) or ignore things like Peyton Manning being Peyton Manning in name only for the 2015 Broncos (he had a 67.9 rating that season). But teams don’t necessarily need a great quarterback to win big, though it helps. There are different paths to win a Super Bowl. This weekend’s quarterbacks prove that.
Tom Brady is actually the outlier. He’s the MVP, the all-time great, and we expect guys like that to show up on conference championship weekend. Before this season, had you predicted any of the other three quarterbacks would be starting a conference championship game, you’d have been institutionalized — Nick Foles and Case Keenum started the season as backups, and people wanted the Jacksonville Jaguars to bench Blake Bortles for Chad Henne. Yet here they are.
If your team doesn’t have a great quarterback, there’s hope. There will be some future Hall of Famers sitting home watching Bortles, Foles and Keenum battle to make a Super Bowl this weekend. Here are a few lessons we can take from this:
Coaching matters: The Philadelphia Eagles’ divisional-round playoff game was a clinic in coaching overcoming quarterback deficiencies. They put Foles in comfortable positions to succeed, let their other offensive players carry a heavy load and the defense was fantastic against the Falcons. The same could be said for the Jaguars last week: By having Bortles come out passing on three of the Jaguars’ first four plays, and giving him defined reads to get him comfortable on those plays, the Steelers couldn’t tee off on the run. That opened up everything on the offense. The Vikings have done a great job all season as a coaching staff, building up Keenum to become an efficient, mostly mistake-free quarterback. There’s a reason it seems Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will get the Giants’ head coaching job.
It’s not a eureka moment that great coaching can win games in the NFL. But we talk about this probably 10 percent as much as we discuss quarterbacks.
If you don’t have a great quarterback, get a great everything else: The Jaguars and Vikings have two of the best defenses we’ve seen in many years. The Eagles also have a top-five defense. While “go build the Jaguars’ defense” isn’t exactly an easy plan to pull off, it’s always going to be easier to sign guys like A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell than it will be to find an established, great quarterback in free agency.
Good players around the quarterback on offense also help. The Vikings have a fine receiver tandem in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. In 2017 the Eagles added Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi — they did so to help Carson Wentz, but it has benefited Foles too. The Jaguars invested the fourth overall pick in Leonard Fournette, and that has clearly taken pressure off of Bortles.
The quarterback market has ballooned into its own separate economy, and it’s not particularly efficient. Going by average per season, the top 14 contracts in the NFL are held by quarterbacks according to Spotrac. Ryan Tannehill makes more per year on his deal than any non-quarterback in the NFL. Perhaps the counter-punch to that over-adjustment is to allocate resources to the rest of the roster. You’d prefer to have an Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, but there aren’t many of those guys walking the earth. Perhaps while other teams pay an exorbitant tax to keep their middle-of-the-road quarterbacks, it’s more efficient to spend money on defense and a good supporting cast on offense. This weekend’s games at least prove it’s possible to win big without a star at the position.
There’s value in a good backup: Case Keenum signed for one year and $2 million. Nick Foles signed what amounts to a two-year, $11 million deal, with $7 million is guaranteed. Do you think the Green Bay Packers wish they had invested a bit more in backup quarterback, rather than rolling with Brett Hundley ($615,000 base salary)?
It’s hard to find 32 competent starters and it’s hard to find 32 good backups too. But we saw plenty of teams struggle in a big way after their starters went down. The Vikings were fine even after Sam Bradford got hurt. The Eagles are a different team with Foles replacing Wentz, but if you ignore a meaningless Week 17 game, they’re 3-0 with Foles as their starter including a playoff win. Many teams feel their season is over if their starter goes down, but that doesn’t have to be the case. You just need to have the right backup, as challenging as that is to find.
With all of this said, Brady and the New England Patriots are favored to win the Super Bowl. If you’re choosing a path, the one with the all-time great quarterback will always be the shorter one to a championship. But if you don’t have one of the truly elite quarterbacks, there’s still hope. Just look at the other three guys lining up under center this weekend.
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