Quarterback purgatory is destroying parity in the NFL. A league that prides itself on how all 32 teams have a realistic chance at making the playoffs actually has close to 15 irrelevant franchises every season, mostly because they can’t solve the most mystifying position riddle in all of sports.
The 49ers look like the latest team headed for that black hole. They might be the worst team in the NFL in 2015, and by benching Colin Kaepernick late Monday night for Blaine Gabbert, the Niners are fully admitting that they no longer have a legitimate starting quarterback on the roster.
Kaepernick’s plunge to the bottom was unforeseeable just two seasons ago. When surrounded by a tormenting defense and a top-flight coach, the now 27-year-old was regarded as the most promising young quarterback in the NFL. Kaepernick’s blend of athleticism, instincts and arm strength were thought to be revolutionary; teams around the league fantasized about what he would look like in their uniform. Remember, this is a guy who had the 49ers in position to win a Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens.
This season the 49ers have scored a league-low 10 touchdowns in eight games, and it’s become indisputable that Kaepernick is having trouble reading defenses and pulling the trigger on decisions in a new offensive scheme. San Francisco’s off-season was full of stunning retirements and a head-scratching coaching hire in Jim Tomsula, both of which certainly have contributed to Kaepernick’s and the team’s overall regression.
As he wonders what’s to come in his career, Kaepernick may not be alone. If there’s a team that has actually been worse than the 49ers this season, it’s the Lions, who fired team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew on Thursday. Could Detroit also be entering quarterback purgatory, with Matthew Stafford?
An opposing AFC scout told me that the Lions should be frightened that Stafford is turning into the next version of Jay Cutler, an expensive leech responsible for the internal bleeding in Chicago, which is on pace to miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. The Lions could be paddling upstream in the same boat, and they owe their quarterback $44.5 million over the next two seasons.
Like Cutler, Stafford’s statistics can rival the best, his arm strength has never been an issue, and he has the competitive moxie you want in your leader. He’s arguably the most productive and stable quarterback the Lions have had in team history. But the 27-year-old’s 41 touchdowns and 5,038 yards from 2011 created a fictitious narrative that he could one day catapult himself to become an Eli Manning-Drew Brees type of championship-caliber gunslinger. Now in his seventh season, tied for second in the league with 11 interceptions, Stafford’s trapped in a dark forest of uncertainty.
To be clear, a makeshift offensive line, a laughable attempt at a running game, disastrous play calling and a lack of impact playmakers on defense have given Stafford a grocery list of excuses regarding Detroit’s current debacle of a season. But it was rather telling when Mayhew went on a blitzkrieg defense of Stafford last week, calling his quarterback a potential Hall of Famer. What was one of the most preposterous interviews of the year provided a chilling signal that Mayhew knew his fate was tied to the struggling former No.1 overall pick from 2009. But now that Mayhew and Lewand are gone, the new general manager/coaching combination in Detroit probably won’t feel so warmly about Stafford.
Still, if you suggest the Lions and Niners should just unload their incumbents, you aren’t fully aware of the NFL’s ongoing catastrophe at the position.
Look at Cleveland, Washington, Buffalo and Houston, which are a combined 11–19 through Week 8 of the NFL season. Each club has perpetually struggled to find any type of consistency at the quarterback position , and would have walked on fire to acquire either Stafford or Kaepernick before the 2015 season began. There are other franchises with equally troubling histories at the position. Meanwhile, Sam Bradford, who has been very up-and-down in Philadelphia this season, headlines a hideous 2016 free agency class at the position, so teams that are struggling won't have an easy option to add.
Because they’ve shown their situation is absolutely dire, San Francisco likely will have to play roulette in the 2016 NFL Draft by selecting a quarterback with its probable top-five pick. Thanks to a team-friendly contract, the 49ers can cut Kaepernick before April 1 without heavy salary-cap implications. It's not as simple in Detroit, where Stafford is owed big money for the next two seasons after this one, and he continues to tease with his ability. A change in command in the Motor City may be the catalyst for a longer look at the position, though.
Quarterback is a fickle beast. It's possible that Stafford can recapture his best form, or that Kaepernick just needs some time with an established QB guru to fix the problems that are ailing him. Neither, though, may see that happen in their current location. Two seasons ago, Stafford and Kaepernick were the foremost reasons Detroit and San Francisco were two of the NFL’s most appealing and dangerous teams. Now the 49ers look well on their way to making a change, and this dreadful Lions season could have larger long-term ramifications than could have been imagined just a couple of months ago.