And the NFL marches on. Bounty scandals, suicides, concussions, and replacement refs could not displace the king of U.S. sports. The most hyped, the most analyzed, the most commentated, and the most controversial has returned. The nature of the game calls for thousands of articles of analytics, as fans try to understand what has/is/will happened/happening/happen. Sorry, that wasn’t a very readable sentence. Storylines abound, and they’ll only continue to grow more numerous and more interesting as the season progresses.
And most of them will be about quarterbacks. Just think who has dominated headlines and commercials this offseason: Tim Tebow/Mark Sanchez, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Robert Griffin III. And that’s totally justified, as quarterbacks are really all that matter.
Only a Sith deals an absolute, right? Well then call me Dooku because ultimately that’s the reality of today’s NFL. Teams play games, quarterbacks win them. That’s not to say the rest of the team is unimportant, but they can only set themselves up to be carried to victory by the quarterback. All they can do is make the QB’s job as easy as they can. Sometimes quarterbacks fail the team, and sometimes they succeed in spite of their team. Why did the Packers and Patriots have terrific seasons last year with terrible defenses? Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady played exceptionally well. The Broncos made the playoffs because Tim Tebow did something that Kyle Orton wasn’t doing. The Colts were terrible because their franchise quarterback was out. The Texans lost to the Ravens in an evenly matched game because Joe Flacco was healthy and Matt Schaub wasn’t.
Every other part of the team plays at a fairly consistent level from game to game. They also don’t change drastically from year to year (teams who play defense well one year are generally teams who have a tradition of defense). A great linebacker can change the way a team plays, but more often than not he will be a part of an effective system. Quarterbacks are on their own.
Maybe you’re not totally sold on this idea yet, but give it some time and you’ll see that teams live and die in the end with their quarterback. Whether that means setting passing records or just doing enough to not mess the game up, the quarterback is the most variable and valuable part of any team. So before I set out my picks for how each team will finish, let’s see what the state of play is in the world of quarterbacks.
Out with the old, in with the new.
NFL teams are well aware that the most important part in building a franchise is a star quarterback. Teams will use first round draft picks on a
guy who scouts think might be okay and then start him right away to see if they’re right. Teams will see a guy play two games and put up good numbers and sign him, only to replace him before the season starts. They will see a flash in the pan and throw money at it before Week 8. They’ll even trade a king’s ransom of draft picks for a breakout college star. They’ll give Mark Sanchez a long term deal AND trade for Tim Tebow. Well, only one team would do that.
And the interesting thing with this trend is that many teams who try to secure a quarterback already have a decent one on the roster, but the rest of the team is bad so they try to start over with a new young quarterback because they know the upcoming season is a lost cause. Matt Moore would have a better year this year than Ryan Tannehill, but the Dolphins aren’t a playoff team regardless, so they’re going with Tannehill. The Bengals weren’t championship caliber with Carson Palmer, so they decided to go ahead and trade him and move forward with Andy Dalton. The Jaguars felt they were better off with Blaine Gabbert in the future than David Garrard (who is also being passed over in favor of Tannehill in Miami).
It also works in reverse sometimes. Jason Campbell was playing very well before his injury, and was finally starting to live up to his great potential in Oakland. The Raiders lost patience and traded a big haul to Cincinnati for Palmer and let Campbell go. Tarvaris Jackson was FINALLY playing at a respectable level, but Matt Flynn appeared to be the short-term solution. Kevin Kolb has been horrible as of late, but he has shown signs of promise. Regardless, John Skelton will start Week 1.
The Carolina Panthers gave Jimmy Clausen one season before they went with Cam Newton.
The problem is, finding that guy is extremely difficult to do.
The Difficult Search
There is no proven formula for finding a franchise quarterback. If all first rounders turned out like Peyton Manning, it would be easy. Quarterbacks who played well in college would be trusted as future NFL pros. Unfortunately, most first round quarterbacks don’t end up like Peyton Manning. However, a great number of today’s top quarterbacks WERE in fact highly rated quarterbacks coming out of college, mostly because of stellar college careers. Phillip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, and Matthew Stafford are examples of these easy-to-see future stars.
Then there are guys like Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger who just mess up everything. The idea of finding star quarterbacks in late rounds just freaks teams out. So teams sometimes look at what a player might be able to do rather than what he had been doing. Call it the Marvin Williams Rule. This causes future stars like Drew Brees to be overlooked on account of a minor factor like (in Brees’ case) height. This is how we get from Matt Flynn to Russell Wilson. Think about it: Russell Wilson had a stellar year at Wisconsin-Madison. He is very accurate, very smart, and he runs well. Why wouldn’t he make a fine NFL QB? It was the same story as Brees: height. Said Chris Weinke: “If he was 6-5, he’d probably be the No. 1 pick in the draft.” DO NOT be surprised if Russell Wilson has a better rookie season than Robert Griffin III. I’m sure he will have a better year than Tannehill or Weeden.
Here’s something: In their collegiate careers, Peyton Manning only threw for 38 more total yards than Curtis Painter.
Why this all matters.
So few teams have a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl, or even winning their division, because there are so few solid starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Yes, passing numbers are through the roof, but that’s just because the game has changed. Let’s compare last season with 2003. Last season, three QBs threw over 40 touchdowns, two more threw for 30 or more, and a total of 14 threw for 20 or more. In 2003, only one quarterback threw for over 30 touchdowns and 11 threw for 20 or more. Just looking at the numbers, one might think that there are more solid quarterbacks today than there were then. I’m telling you that the number of stars is about even, but the number of effective starting QB’s is drastically lower today than it was then. Here is a chart with the quarterbacks of 2003 ranked by passer rating. Notice how many of the guys in the top 15 were long-term franchise quarterbacks. Also notice how a few of the guys outside of the top 15 were only a year removed (either way) of having a terrific season.
Today, once you make it out of the top 10 or 15, there are not many respectable quarterbacks left. I would have taken most of those guys in 2003 for my quarterback without complaint. Today, I would be very disappointed if I missed out on any of the elites.
The common denominator between 2003 and 2012? The teams with good quarterbacks made the playoffs, the others didn’t.
Unfortunately for some teams, the right quarterback just doesn’t ever seem to come around. The great teams of the past years have been steady at quarterback (i.e. Patriots, Colts, Steelers, Packers). Some of the bad ones have never had a consistent, dependable guy.
So now that you’ve been educated on the state of NFL QBs, let me tell you how I think the season will play out and what the QBs have to do with it.
*denotes Wild Card
1. Packers- They’ll go as far as Rodgers will take them.
2. *Bears- Cutler has the keys to a juggernaut. Let’s hope he doesn’t throw those to the other team too.
3. Lions- Stafford needs to play big-time for the Lions to make the playoffs. Not as complete as the Bears, so he will have to make up for it.
4. Vikings- Ponder is the least of their concerns.
1. Saints- If Drew Brees can play without Sean Payton’s guidance, the Saints will go far. His offense, when rolling, is unstoppable.
2. Falcons- If Matt Ryan takes the next step, so will the Falcons.
3. Panthers- If Cam Newton improves on last year, this is a fringe playoff team. If not, they will be terrible.
4. Buccaneers- Josh Freeman 2010 or Josh Freeman 2011? It’s the difference between 5-6 wins and 3-4 wins.
1. Giants- Eli has established himself. He’s not looking back.
2. *Eagles- Michael Vick is MVP if he plays all 16 games. They need him to play at least 13 to make the playoffs.
3. Cowboys- Tony Romo hasn’t won anything yet. This team’s dysfunctionality is in part due to his abundance of stats with no wins.
4. Redskins- Look to the future with Robert Griffin III.
1. 49ers- If Alex Smith doesn’t mess things up, this is a Super Bowl team.
2. Seahawks- With Tom Brady, this team would make the playoffs. Russell Wilson isn’t Tom Brady, but he’s good for 7-8 wins.
3. Cardinals- A strong finish to last year, but Skelton can’t take them to the postseason, and Kolb might not get the chance to.
4. Rams- This team was terrible last year, in large part because of Bradford’s weak play.
1. Ravens- With a great running game and defense, this team’s fate rests with Joe Flacco.
2. *Steelers- Same story as the Ravens. If Ben Roethlisberger plays business-as-usual, this team will be in contention (as usual).
3. Bengals- They could make the playoffs if Andy Dalton plays as well as he did last year, but I don’t see that happening.
4. Browns- One of those quarterback cursed teams. But there’s also a lot wrong.
1. Texans- How this division has fallen (blame it on the QBs). The Texans are a good team with a good quarterback. If he plays great, they will be great.
2. Titans- We’ll see what Jake Locker does this year. They would be better with Hasselbeck, but I think they’re surrendering this year for next.
3. Colts- Andrew Luck could make a great start this season by adding a few wins to this team. They’re not very good overall, but he could start to change that.
4. Jaguars- Gabbert might be the worst QB in the league. Lucky for him, MJD is back.
1. Patriots- Tom Brady is still Tom Brady, right? Super Bowl contenders.
2. Bills- Second place isn’t much to be proud of in this division. They played well last year when Fitzpatrick played well, so maybe there’s a playoff possibility.
3. Jets- Their quarterback situation will destroy them.
4. Dolphins- Not thrilled about this rookie QB.
1. Chargers- This team will win this division if Phillip Rivers can finally back up his stats. Number never lie, unless you’re Phillip Rivers.
2. *Broncos- Last I checked, this team made the playoffs and won a game with Tim Tebow. Peyton Manning is better than Tim Tebow. By a lot.
3. Raiders- This team is going to sneak up on people. Palmer still has some left in the tank.
4. Chiefs- They won’t finish fourth by much if Matt Cassel plays like he is able to.
Offensive Rookie of the Year- Andrew Luck
Defensive Rookie of the Year- Morris Claiborne
Offensive Player of the Year- Aaron Rodgers
Defensive Player of the Year- Mario Williams
Most Valuable Player- Aaron Rodgers
Coach of the Year- Lovie Smith
Super Bowl Matchup- Packers vs. Patriots
Super Bowl Champion- New England Patriots
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