Finding Mr. Right, or Stuck with Mr. Wrong
Sustained success in the NFL almost always correlates to stability and security at quarterback. It provides front offices vital planning and strategic advantages, with value far beyond the players’ on-field talents. From my admittedly spoiled perspective after nine years in the Packers’ front office from 1999 to 2008, having the game’s most important position covered for the short and long term is perhaps the most comforting feeling an NFL executive can have.
Spoiled Part I
Brett Favre may fill a couple chapters in my book one day with his trove of stories. From a business perspective, however, his incomparable reliability made all our jobs in roster management much easier. If there is one trait that teams look for beyond talent and work ethic, it's availability. With complete security at quarterback, we could focus acquisition efforts—draft, free agency, trade, etc.—on other positions, only addressing quarterback if a unique situation presented itself. With Favre in place, we never needed to carry three quarterbacks on the roster, and often joked that we didn’t even need to carry two.
Spoiled Part II
I will never forget watching our draft board during the 2005 first round, seeing all our first-round graded players fall off except for one: Aaron Rodgers. While then keeping Aaron and his agent on hold for an excruciating 12 minutes to see if an offer came that we could not refuse, I heard grumbling in parts of the room. They sensed we were about to take a player at the same position as Favre, the most durable quarterback in NFL history. In the end, we “trusted the board” and picked Aaron.
Following that selection, between 2005 and ’08, the question I received most from fans and media was: Is Aaron really going to take over for Brett? You’re going to go get a veteran, right? I told anyone who would listen: Aaron’s the guy.
Thus, one reason for the Packers' recent success was due not only to the unusual fortune of other teams passing on (and not offering to trade for) Rodgers, but also from a front-office mindset to avoid addressing an immediate need in order to anticipate a future one. It allowed the rare transition from one franchise-defining quarterback to another, securing consecutive generations of excellence at the game’s most important position.
The majority: non-spoiled
As every team executive knows, once finding a quarterback becomes a priority, other positions in player evaluation take a back seat, putting a team further behind in stocking talent. It is a vicious cycle, and many teams are forever looking for a franchise QB.
A couple of situations with New York teams illustrate the issue. The Bills—after investing a first-round pick and several million dollars—benched E.J. Manuel, their once-promising future at the position. While Kyle Orton mans the position for now, the Bills’ long-term search continues. The Jets also have, for the moment, put the future on hold. They replaced Geno Smith, their erstwhile quarterback of the future, with the indefatigable Michael Vick. Smith is the preferred choice of forward-focused general manager John Idzik, but Rex Ryan—with the short-term focus of a coach—has reshuffled the deck for the present.
Other teams continue to search, after recently thinking they had their guy. Three of the top 12 selections in the 2011 draft—Christian Ponder, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert—were starting by 2012, yet now the Vikings, Titans and Jaguars are starting quarterbacks picked in the 2014 draft.
It's worth nothing that there does appear to be one team immune to the desperate search for a quarterback. The Eagles and Chip Kelly seem to be able to put any quarterback in an optimal position to succeed. A column on Kelly’s quarterback whispering and other refreshing ideas, however, is for another day.
Beyond the personnel side, quarterbacks become the focus of the contract side of the organization as well, often being paid at overvalued rates. Teams will decide what they have is better than what else is out there. In this calendar year the Bears, 49ers, Bengals and Chiefs rewarded Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton and Alex Smith with multiyear extensions rather than choosing to continue to evaluate them for another year before investing. The teams knew the flaws of each player but, without a clear alternative, made the outlay, as if to say, Hey, he’s not ideal, but he’s better than what would be out there if we lost him.
Luckily for NFL teams, the team-friendly nature of football contracts allows them to “get out” after no more than two years with no future cash obligations, albeit some remaining Cap proration.
Rodgers’ three-year apprenticeship to Favre was a luxury of patience that most owners and coaches don’t have, and he took full advantage. Aaron worked with the “ones” during the offseasons—as Favre avoided the winter chill of Green Bay—impressing us with his obvious skills and natural leadership abilities. I will never forget one offseason practice when he threw on the run to Donald Driver in stride 60 yards downfield. I locked eyes with Ted Thompson, whose usually stoic face beamed: the future was secure.
Among the biggest issues for quarterback development is that offseason development has diminished as a casualty of the 2011 CBA. The NFLPA had a worthy objective of preserving careers and removing players from overzealous coaches—although that was an easy “give” from the owners—yet all players are not equal regarding need for development. Perhaps offseason restrictions could have been—and perhaps still could be—adjusted to further the development of younger players with, say, a two-tiered offseason with players having three years or less of experience allowed supplementary off-field coaching.
Finally, speaking of quarterbacks, what a turn of events it has been in recent years for Carson Palmer.
Three years ago last month, Palmer tried to force a trade by “retiring” from the Bengals. General manager Mike Brown, never one to be leveraged by a player, called Palmer’s bluff and placed him on the Reserve/Retired list, content to let him languish there indefinitely. Then, magically, fate smiled on both Brown and Palmer as the Raiders sent a first-round and second-round pick for the “retired” Palmer.
Two uninspiring years later, the Raiders worked a deal with the Seahawks for Matt Flynn (Russell Wilson had quickly bypassed Flynn in Seattle), leading to a fire sale for Palmer, traded to Arizona for an NFL version of a ham sandwich. And last week, after leading the Cardinals to the best record in the NFL halfway through the season, Palmer was rewarded with a $50 million extension containing $20.5 million guaranteed (adding to $118 million in career earnings). Two days later, Palmer suffered an ACL injury, ending his season.
Palmer might still write more chapters in a roller coaster of a career, but he is already one of a precious few players to win in the business of football, one most often tilted towards management.
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