Skip to main content

Is NFL really a quarterback league? It's not as clear as you think


The San Francisco 49ers are trying to win the Super Bowl with Alex Smith, and the Baltimore Ravens are trying to win it with Joe Flacco, which seems like trying to shower without using water. The NFL, we have been told 1,000 times, is a quarterback league. You either have a great one or you need a great one. ESPN even declared that 2011 was "The Year of the Quarterback," but sadly couldn't get that confirmed on menus at Chinese restaurants. (Imagine! 2010: Year of the Tiger. 2011: Year of the Quarterback. 2012: Year of the Dragon.)

But is the NFL really a quarterback league? Obviously, teams need competent quarterbacks, but do they need great ones to win the Super Bowl?

The evidence points in that direction. Since the Ravens won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at quarterback, 10 Super Bowls have been played. Seven quarterbacks have won. The list:


TWO TITLES: Ben Roethlisberger.

ONE TITLE: Drew Brees, Brad Johnson, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers.

Six of those seven guys have at least a chance at the Hall of Fame. The seventh is of course Johnson. Johnson was actually a pretty good passer -- he made two Pro Bowls -- but he is the perfect guy for this question. He was good but not great. Can a team win a Super Bowl with a good (but not great) quarterback?

There was a time, not long ago, when the league was not so QB-centric. I say "not long ago," because my rule is that if I remember it, it was not long ago. Go back to the 1980s. That time is mostly remembered as the Joe Montana era, for good reason, with guys like Dan Marino and John Elway chasing him, much as Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley and Karl Malone chased Michael Jordan.

But who won Super Bowls from 1980 to 1992?

SI Recommends

Well, Jim Plunkett won two. Plunkett is remembered fondly, and there is even a small (and hopeless) campaign to get him into the Hall of Fame. But that is mostly because he won those two Super Bowls, not because he was a great player. His career numbers: 52.5 completion percentage, 164 TDs, 198 interceptions. Even in that era, that was not impressive.

Jim McMahon won a Super Bowl. He is also remembered fondly, but it is worth noting that when McMahon was just 27, the Bears used their first-round pick on a quarterback (Jim Harbaugh).

The Redskins exemplified the era. They won a Super Bowl with Joe Theismann, who is also remembered fondly by people who never heard him on TV. I do think it's fair to say Theismann was a star at that point, but the Redskins won another Super Bowl with Doug Williams, a career 49.5 percent passer. Then, for kicks, they tried to win the Super Bowl with Mark Rypien -- and they did! This may explain why they thought that Rex Grossman experiment would work.

The Giants won a Super Bowl with Phil Simms, a classic good-but-not-great quarterback, and Jeff Hostetler, a career backup.

I don't mean to denigrate any of these players. But I think it's fair to say: In the '80s, you didn't feel like your team needed a star quarterback to win the Super Bowl.

The game has changed. Defensive backs are not allowed to be nearly as physical as they were 25 years ago. There are rules to protect the quarterback, the quarterback's image and the quarterback's financial advisor. Passing games are much more sophisticated. Coaches no longer fear the weather -- unless there is an apocalyptic rainstorm, they happily call pass plays.

And this has led to the feeling, at least for me, that it's a shootout game now, and you need one of the best quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl. The theory feels so correct. But it also feels like the conventional wisdom in the NBA, which is that you need a superstar to win the title.

I have a problem with that theory, for two reasons. One is that it is self-fulfilling -- we automatically assume the best player on the title team is a true superstar, and the best players on other teams are not-quite superstars. The reality is that there were probably 10 players as good as Dirk Nowitzki last year. Over the last five years, LeBron James has been the best player in the NBA, and he hasn't won a championship. Of course you need great players to win, but there are more of those than we sometimes realize.

It is even possible that, five years from now, we will decide that a great quarterback won the Super Bowl in 2012 -- and his name was Alex Smith or Joe Flacco. Smith is younger than Kurt Warner was when he shocked everybody with the '99 Rams, and while Warner bounced around before getting his chance, Smith bounced around while staying put. He has had like 17 offensive coordinators since he got to San Francisco. And Flacco seems like a caretaker quarterback, but he has a big arm and playoff experience. Maybe he will grow. (Hey, I said maybe.)

Or maybe one of them will win, then revert to mediocrity next year. And we will find out that the NFL is not quite the quarterback league it seems, but is more like the league it was ... not long ago.