In 2013, the consensus top two teams in the NFL (Seahawks, 49ers) were led by young quarterbacks on their rookie contracts. In 2012, the Super Bowl contestants were led by young quarterbacks who hadn’t yet signed monster extensions (Ravens, 49ers).
Contrary to popular wisdom that says the key to winning a Super Bowl is a star veteran quarterback, recent history is filled with examples of young, inexpensive quarterbacks leading their team to victory: Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger (his first championship), Tom Brady (his first championship, though Drew Bledsoe was on the roster), and Kurt Warner.
The key reason for this phenomenon is obvious: the cheaper the quarterback, the more money available to pay the remainder of the roster. A team with a decent, cheap quarterback has the best of both worlds: they have quality at the most important position on the field, but also have more cap freedom than teams with established quarterbacks. The Seahawks and 49ers both exemplified this point. Both quarterbacks were on rookie contracts. The remainder of each roster was loaded with stars. The offensive and defensive lines of both teams were dominant. Each had a star running back. The 49ers had all time great group of linebackers and a solid secondary, while the Seahawks had a solid set of linebackers and an all time great group of defensive backs. Both had expensive, dangerous pass catchers. And the quarterbacks played great – Wilson making the correct decisions and key plays to win a Super Bowl, and Kaepernick at times putting his offense on his back. More relevant to this conversation, the young quarterbacks played in systems that were designed to capitalize on their strengths and which did not rely primarily on them throwing a multitude of traditional drop back pocket passes each game.
The cautionary tale for what can happen after a Super Bowl victory is the Baltimore Ravens of 2013. Fresh off of their championship, Joe Flacco commanded a salary ($120 million) commensurate with other Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. This salary in effect pushed his most dependable target – Anquan Boldin – out the door. This was one key reason why the Ravens finished their Super Bowl defense at 8-8, 3rd in their division, and missed the playoffs.
The Seahawks won the Super Bowl with an all time great defense, a strong running game, and a young quarterback on his rookie contract who made key throws and did not make mistakes. They will soon need to pay that quarterback. It is no coincidence that they let key Super Bowl contributors walk in the offseason, such as Golden Tate, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald, and Breno Giacomini.
Of course, most teams feel “stuck” to pay such a quarterback, at the expense of the rest of their roster.
But what if an NFL team decided against doing so? What if they refused to pay a quarterback more than any other position on the field? Is it possible that a coach and organization would say, for example, that we will never pay a quarterback more than $10 million per year? That we will build a superior team and system, so that we are confident in our ability to win without a traditional “franchise” quarterback? That we can create a system where the quarterback is easily replaced, and that the fortunes of our team will not rest so heavily on one position?
At first glance, this seems unlikely. But the NFL is changing. College systems and coaches were not supposed to succeed in the NFL. Yet in the last two years, the pistol offense (Redskins, 49ers to some extent) and its variation of the veer option (which is often mislabeled as the “read” option, and differs in that the first man on or outside the play side tackle is the option key, as opposed to a backside defender on the read option) has thrived. The 49ers scored 3 touchdowns on the veer scheme in the 2011 NFC Championship against the Falcons, while Robert Griffin III excelled in his rookie season primarily operating out of the pistol. Next, Chip Kelly brought his hurry up spread offense to the NFL. It proved effective with two quarterbacks who contrast one another in almost every way – Michael Vick and Nick Foles – as the Eagles exceeded expectations in making the playoffs.
We know that the rarest commodity in football is the top flight drop back passer. In any given season, there are 10-15 men on the planet who prove capable of successfully operating a traditional NFL passing offense as the focal point of that offense. Installing an offense that can take advantage of a non traditional, interchangeable quarterback would be a huge risk. But perhaps the bigger risk is continuing to hit one’s head against the wall, when decades of evidence show that operating a “pro” style offense requires a commodity that less than half of the teams possess at any given time. And even the teams who do possess a competent quarterback are one injury away from disaster.
In part two, we will look at the systems and coaches who could work with a cheaper, “interchangeable” quarterback system, from Chip Kelly’s zone blocking spread to Gus Malzahn’s wing t spread to Jim Harbaugh’s power scheme to the pistol to a variation of the split back veer to the run and shoot and the Air Raid craze.