Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Save the Quarterbacks! The travesty of wasted QB talent

The Carson Palmer situation in Cincinnati made me decide to write up an article that has been in the back of my head since the 2004 season.  I'll explain what happened back then a little later.

In the years I have been following the NFL I have heard many statements concerning the value of Quarterbacks.  There have been many rule changes in the last twenty years that have been made simply to increase scoring and better protect the QB.  This is not out of any humanitarian trait of the NFL hierarchy, but a simple business decision.  

Better QB play equals more scoring.  More scoring equals more fan interest.  And that means more money for everyone to play with.  That's good for everybody.

So, we have all these rules now about QBs.  You can't smash them in the head; fine.  Helmet to the knee is a no no; seems reasonable.  They now can throw the ball away with impunity; getting a little wimpy, but I get it.  You get your starter hurt and your season could be over.  Sucks for you.

You see that unintended consequence of the increasing dominance of the passing game in the last thirty years is that the owners have put a lot of eggs in the QB basket.  The QB was not near as important before all these rule changes (this is going back a ways): 

  • In 1965 running back Tom Matte filled in at quarterback and nearly led the Baltimore Colts to a NFL championship.
  • The 1968 Baltimore Colts won the NFL championship with Earl Morrall at QB for an injured John Unitas. 
  • The 1972 Dolphins navigated a season undefeated after losing Bob Greise early in the year.  Morrall happened to be involved here also.
  • From 1971 through 1974 the Dallas Cowboys were championship contenders while flip-flopping between Craig Morton and Roger Staubach.
  • The 1979 Rams made the Super bowl with journeyman Vince Ferragamo after losing starter Pat Haden during the regular season.
  • The 1987 Washington Redskins (who have a fine tradition of shared QB play) won the Super Bowl with afterthought Doug Williams after starter Jay Schroeder was deemed too inconsistent.
That most recent example is the weakest, after taking a 10-0 lead in that game it looked like the Broncos went to sleep.

So you have these examples (and I'm sure I missed a bunch more from earlier days) where teams continued on championship courses despite what would now be considered a season-ending problem.  This was possible because the running game was so much more of the offense prior to the QB-friendly rule changes of recent times.

During the 1972 Dolphins perfect regular season, Bob Greise and Earl Morrall combined for only 247 pass attempts (note that this was in a 14 game season).  In 2010 the team with the most rushing yards was Buffalo (Buffalo?  Really?), and their Quarterbacks attempted 493 passes in sixteen games.

This is how much the NFL has changed over the years.

Here are some recent examples of more recent teams who lost their starting quarterback during the season:
  • In 1991 the Dallas Cowboys lost Troy Aikman near the end of the season and ended up losing in the playoffs to the Lions.  Virtually the same team in 1992 dominates for the full season and wins the Super Bowl with a healthy Aikman.
  • Also in 1991 the Philadelphia Eagles lost Randall Cunningham in the first game of a season that many thought would be their year to win it.  They stuggled to a 10-6 season with a creaky Jim MacMahon at the helm, but despite a dominating defense they failed to reach the playoffs.
  • The 1992 Miami Dolphins streaked to a 9-2 start before losing Dan Marino for the season.  They missed the playoffs.
  • Michael Vick is injured in the 2003 preseason and is out for most of the year.  The team struggled to a 5-11 record.
  • Need I even mention the 2008 Patriots?

Of course there have been a few exceptions, Trent Dilfer won a Superbowl after being a backup behind one of the most fearsome defenses ever.  There's Tom Brady, but he is clearly better than the guy he replaced.  The same with Kurt Warner in St. Louis (and Arizona).  These last two will be in the Hall of Fame, not exactly a "next man up" situation.

I think everyone is in agreement on the fact that QBs are important.  Fans say so, teams say so, the league says so.  

But I feel that the league is falling well short of its responsibilities when it comes to doing something about it:

  • Why is Carson Palmer sitting at home playing tiddlywinks while the 49ers are playing the bum of the week at QB and trolling the waiver wire?
  • Why is Tim Tebow stuck with an organization that no longer wants him, playing a system that does not fit his unique talents when he could be in Buffalo playing for the kind of coach in Chan Gailey who would love to have him?
  • Why is it that Green Bay's Matt Flynn is not the starter in Washington or with the NY Jets where he would be a perfect fit?
  • Why is Mark Sanchez trapped in NY where they run a downfield passing offense instead of the Bill Walsh type system he needs to be in?
These are just current examples.  I said before that I have had this idea since 2004.  That would be the Jeff Garcia travesty.  Garcia was the prized free agent signing of the Cleveland Browns in 2004.  Garcia had been a regular pro-bowler with San Francisco, so why not by the dirty lake?

I'll tell you why.  Jeff Garcia was a system QB.  The Bill Walsh system to be exact. He was a short, weak armed quarterback who excelled at only two things: Throwing the ball to short distance targets with precise timing and scrambling for his life.  With Cleveland only the latter skill was employed.

You see, Cleveland ran a downfield passing offense.  The whole passing offense was predicated on the threat to the deep outside and deep middle.  Bruce Arians was the offensive coordinator there at the time (he is now the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh) and he brought the Indianapolis Colts offense with him (where he was Manning's first QB coach).  In the prior year under Arians, Kelly Holcomb (who was a former backup to Peyton Manning) started multiple games and had credible (but not fantastic stats) with virtually the same team.

When I heard about Cleveland signing Jeff Garcia I was dumbfounded.  I told multiple people that it was going to be a disaster.  But no one in the media ever mentioned that there might be a mismatch between the system and talent.  I'm sure there were some eyebrows raised among league insiders, but I never heard a discouraging word at the time.

Well, anyone who remembers that season knows that it was a total train wreck. The Browns actually cut the face of their franchise loose before the season had ended.  It does not get much worse than that.

Garcia went on to play for a horrific Detroit team, but his fortunes followed the team and he was cut loose again.  He was eventually signed by the Eagles and went on to play remarkably well backing up McNabb and then again played well as the starter for Tampa Bay.  Both of these teams ran variations of Bill Walsh's offense.

The best current example of this kind of situation is with the NY Jets where they have Mark Sanchez mismatched with Brian Schottenheimer's complex downfield passing offense.  While Sanchez is certainly doing better in Schottenheimer's offense than Garcia was with Arians, I feel he will only be able to reach his potential in a Bill Walsh style short passing offense.  I feel the Jets and Sanchez will struggle until the player and coordinator are separated.  Don't get me wrong, I think Schottenheimer is a good coordinator, maybe one of the best.  This is just not a good match.  You put Matt Flynn with the Jets and you would see that offense take off.

If the quality quarterback is to be considered a vital resource, then the league should be taking a more active role in ensuring that their resources are allocated in a reasonable manner.  Even if it has to be behind the scenes.

This is not unprecedented.  Rumors surfaced recently that the league was involved with Michael Vick choosing Philadelphia over Buffalo and Cincinnati.  I also believe the league encouraged the Packers to trade Brett Farve to the Jets after they showed no sign of blinking during that stand-off.

In Cincinnati, the only thing that Bengals owner Mike Brown understands is money.  I think that the NFL should fine him some massive amount and/or take away some draft picks for the damage he is doing to both Carson Palmer's career and indirectly to the league in denying his services to another team that would like to have him.   

I believe that Palmer would be on a direct track for the Hall of Fame had he not had the misfortune of getting drafted by the Bengals.

Additionally, Tim Tebow should be liberated from a sour situation in Denver and be allowed to go to a team that is willing to reconfigure their offense to fit his skill set.  How many more tickets would they sell in Buffalo with Tebow starting there? They have the perfect head coach in Chan Gailey to work with him.

The NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell need to get behind the idea of moving their employees out of bad situations and putting them where they may be best used.  Maybe there would be a fewer 1-15 and 2-14 records; and less of the half-empty stadiums that come with them.

Just sayin'

You might also want to check out: 
What Peyton Manning is doing (and how to beat him)


The hidden story of rookie salaries (why they got so crazy)

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