Teams keep searching for 'elite' QB

Posted Sept. 17, 2012 @ 10:43 a.m.
Posted By Hub Arkush

By now, I’m sure you know that 10 of the 32 starting quarterbacks on opening day of the 2012 NFL regular season were either rookies (five) or second-year players (five). The fact that their teams went a combined 2-8 should not be all that surprising and quite possibly isn’t really even relevant to why there are so many “Diaper Dandies” under center these days. What is relevant is that eight of the 10 were first-round draft choices, a ninth, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton was the third player chosen in the second round and only Seattle’s Russell Wilson was selected as low as the middle of the third round. This is about franchise building, not wins and losses today, and it all starts under center.

The simple fact of life in the NFL these days is you can’t win a Super Bowl without an “elite” quarterback. The last nine have been won by Eli Manning (two), Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger (two), Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (two). Where do you find one of these guys? It seems a given you start looking in the first round of the draft and almost always, very high in the first round.

Of the 32 starting QBs on opening day of this season, 23 were drafted in the first round, 19 in the top 15 picks of the first round and nine — Peyton and Eli Manning, Mike Vick, Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck were No. 1 overall picks. Four more, including Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Mark Sanchez and Robert Griffin III, were chosen third, fourth, fifth and second overall in the draft, respectively.

Among the nine starters at quarterback who were not No. 1s, Brees was the first player chosen in the second round, so he and Dalton might as well be first-rounders. Like Wilson, Houston’s Matt Schaub was chosen in the third round by the Falcons. Arizona’s John Skelton was a fifth-round pick, Brady was famously the 199th player chosen, going in the sixth round, Matt Cassel and Ryan Fitzpatrick were seventh-round choices and Tony Romo is the only undrafted free agent starting at quarterback in the NFL today. What do all but Brady and Brees in this group have in common? Every one of them but Schaub is a real long shot to win a Super Bowl right now.

The commitment by NFL teams to find their elite quarterback is one of the strongest trends in the NFL today. The last four, five of the last six, 10 of the last 12 and 12 of the last 15 No. 1 overall picks dating back to Peyton Manning in 1998 have been quarterbacks. Only OT Jake Long in 2008 and DEs Mario Williams (2006) and Courtney Brown (2000) have bucked this trend. What makes this trend so compelling is prior to Peyton Manning, four consecutive No. 1s overall, six of seven, seven of 10 and 15 of 20 players chosen were not quarterbacks. Does anyone out there doubt the NFL has become a passing game in the new millennium?

Still, the desire to find your QB doesn’t necessarily explain why so many of these kids are playing so soon, or does it? With NFL coaches now making as much or more money as many of the top players, their desire to keep those jobs makes the pressure to win now greater than ever. I’ve documented in this space several times over the last couple years the remarkable streak of teams going from worst to first in their divisions in a single season and a bunch of these guys — Peyton, Eli, Big Ben, Sanchez, Flacco, Ryan, Rivers, etc. — have been thrown to the wolves as babies and elevated their teams to regular playoff contenders almost immediately. And with more and more of these kids coming out of pass-oriented offenses in college, they are arriving on the big stage better armed and more ready to go than at any time before.

So, who will be the next signalcaller to make his team Super? Will he come from some of the middle-agers as QBs go, like Mike Vick or Jay Cutler, or perhaps Rivers, Flacco or Sanchez, who’ve shown flashes or gotten close but been unable to get over the hump? Or will it be one of the 10 toddlers highlighted at the top? This much is sure: Any one of them who doesn’t get it done soon will see his boss drafting his successor at or near the top of the first round in the very near future.