As the quarterback turns

It’s not particularly a deep insight to observe that quarterback is not only the most important position in the National Football League, it may be the most important single position in team sports.

This Packer season should have convinced you by comparing the Packers with Aaron Rodgers vs. the Packers without Rodgers. But for those of you who blame the (admittedly not very good) defense, consider: The New England Patriots were a dominating team last decade. The one season that quarterback Tom Brady got hurt, the Patriots missed the playoffs.

This isn’t necessarily a recent development. Consider the late 1980s Bears, who had a truly scary defense, and Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton. Yet, the only time Da Bears won a Super Bowl was with a competent quarterback, Jim McMahon. Once McMahon got hurt, Da Bears still won a lot of games, but didn’t go back to the Super Bowl in the Mike Ditka era.

Consider this news from yesterday: Da Bears signed quarterback Jay Cutler, who has exactly one win in his career over the Packers as a starter, to a seven-year $126 million contract extension, with $54 million guaranteed. (It is not correct that the Packers, which Cutler has beaten exactly once in his career, are paying part of Cutler’s Bears salary.)

The list of the unimpressed includes the Chicago Tribune:

You can’t blame Chicagoans who greeted news of Jay Cutler’s seven-year, megamillion-dollar contract with a collective, “Whaaaaat?”

They have come to know and not particularly love the Chicago Bears quarterback.

Cutler’s performance on the field doesn’t seem to justify the generous deal. In five years under Cutler, the Bears have made the playoffs once. For the 8-8 season that just ended, he completed 63 percent of his passes, threw 19 touchdowns and had 12 interceptions. He sat out five games due to injury, returning just in time for the Bears to blow a division title and a spot in the playoffs.

Compare that with journeyman backup Josh McCown, who led the Bears to a 3-2 record, completed almost 67 percent of his passes and tossed 13 touchdowns with just, ahem, one interception. Some Bears fans thought they had a new Sid Luckman.

But the fans will get Cutler, who as a Bear hasn’t made anybody’s NFL All-Pro team but would be a lock for the All-Sullen team.

Cutler’s bosses like him more than the fans do. Bears general manager Phil Emery described improvement in Cutler’s “ball security, distribution to his targets and a transformation in his demeanor as a leader.”

We’ve seen enough job performance reviews to know a “transformation in demeanor” means the employee has become less of a … oh, let’s not go there.

Well, no, we have to go there. Winning can mask a lot of character quirks. (See: QB, Punky.) Great character can mask a lot of losing. (See: Two!, Let’s play.) But when you’re missing the character and the success, you can’t mask anything. …

The alternative for the Bears, of course, was to start anew. Draft a college quarterback and hope he develops. Find a pro who’s available. (They’re usually available for a reason.) The options were limited.

[Head coach Marc] Trestman said he was disappointed the Bears didn’t win the NFC North but, “I can honestly say I have never enjoyed coaching a bunch of men more than this group.” We can honestly say the fans didn’t share the joy.

Cutler may well be the Bears’ best quarterback option, even though Da Bears have exactly one playoff berth in Cutler’s five seasons playing in the Mistake by the Lake. This is a franchise that has made bad decision after bad decision about its quarterbacks. The franchise’s best quarterback was Sid Luckman, who stopped playing in 1950. McMahon was the Super Bowl XX-winning quarterback, Billy Wade was the quarterback of the 1963 NFL champions, and Rex Grossman got Da Bears to a Super Bowl. Keith Olbermann famously called Da Bears’ quarterback quandaries of the decades “one of the NFL’s great unrecognized traditions. With brief interruptions of stability from the likes of Jim McMahon and Billy Wade, this job has been unsettled since Sid Luckman retired. There has always been a Rex Grossman, he has always underperformed, and they have always been about to replace him.” And, you’ll recall, there was great debate over whether Da Bears should play Cutler or Josh McCown, which probably hasn’t ended with Cutler’s signing.

Want to know what playing quarterback is like? Sports Illustrated named Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning its Sportsman of the Year, and described a typical play thusly:

Peyton approaches the line of scrimmage and takes a snapshot of the defensive alignment, then scans an extensive mental catalog to recall where he has seen the alignment before and what it wrought. Manning cannot predict what the defenders are going to do, but he can predict what they’re not going to do. “What will happen here?” he asks himself, hands framing his face, as if he’s peering through an imaginary camera. “I’m not sure, but I do know the linebacker over on the outside is not going to blitz. I can tell you that will not happen. I’m trying to narrow things down.” He selects the play, and orders the protection with the best chance to counter the alignment. …

When Manning was a rookie, the Colts installed a no-huddle package called Lightning, which they deployed when they trailed. One day, around 2000, [offensive coordinator Tom] Moore asked Manning, “Why are we waiting to be down 10-0? Why don’t we start in Lightning?” This question changed football. At first, Moore would call two plays from the sideline and let Manning pick one. Then Moore gave Manning four plays and let him switch from runs to passes. Finally he let him call games. “It’s always been a cerebral position, but Peyton made it more cerebral,” says former Broncos quarterback and current executive vice president John Elway. “he was the first to get in the hurry-up, figure out the coverage at the line, find the right play against the coverage and call everything himself. He really started the no-huddle. Now everybody does it.” From Pop Warner on, quarterbacks are asked to think faster because Manning showed what was possible. “He set the standard,” says the Patriots’ Tom Brady. Manning still runs Lightning in Denver, as well as a superspeed variation called Bob.

I was once told I had the proportions of a quarterback — now 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds. The problem, I said that day, is that I have the arm of a kicker, and, though I didn’t mention it that day, the coordination and athletic ability of the Tin Man. (Not to mention good enough uncorrected vision to see big blobs coming at me a fraction of a second before being embedded into the turf.)

Even had I possessed all the ability needed to be a high school quarterback of the early ’80s, I would have spent a lot of time handing off, because my high school ran the pass-every-three-weeks Wing-T, and we played at Warner Park, where the average wind speed is hurricane force. A tackle from our team played outside linebacker at Wisconsin and in the NFL, but the high school was known for basketball, not football.

(That, however, didn’t prevent this inexplicable incident: During the 1996 Packers’ season, I was getting gas one Wednesday morning in Appleton when the guy at another pump asked if I was Brett Favre. After the season, Packer president Bob Harlan agreed that I really don’t look like Favre, as if Favre would have been getting gas for a 1991 Ford Escort GT in Appleton 45 minutes before practice was to start anyway. I did ask Favre a question at the NFC Championship press conference that season, which I guess is my but-I-stayed-at-a-Holiday-Inn-Express moment of that season.)

Even in high school, playing quarterback requires a lot of ability, and not all of it physical ability. Quarterbacks are supposed to be leaders, both verbally and on the field, and be the go-between between the coach(es) and the rest of the offense. They are supposed to execute the play, whether it’s a run or (increasingly, even up here in the Great White North) pass. The latter means you have to, at minimum, find the receiver in a one-receiver pattern and get him the ball before you’re planted into the turf. In the increasingly sophisticated high school offenses, you’re supposed to find the open receiver out of up to five, or take off before you’re, again, planted into the turf.

One reason some football fans prefer college to the NFL is the wider variety of offenses, from Georgia Tech’s triple option to, well, any number of wide-open passing teams. The read option, which really is the ancient single-wing with the ability to pass thrown in, was supposed to revolutionize the NFL. The reason it hasn’t is that NFL teams are hesitant to run it because of the financial commitment teams have made to their quarterbacks. And as we’ve seen, the number of NFL-quality quarterbacks is fewer than the number of quarterbacks playing in the NFL.

How important is the quarterback position in the NFL? Bad play at that one position is enough to get coaches fired, Kevin Seifert suggests:

The mere promise of good quarterback play earns a coach the benefit of the doubt, in many cases compensating for other pocks. A quarterback mess, or even the backslide of a long-term starter, typically spurs change.

As of early Monday morning, six franchises had fired their head coach in recent weeks. Four of them — the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers — figure to have new quarterbacks in 2014. The downfall of the other two coaches could be traced at least in part to poor quarterback play. Robert Griffin III‘s regression sent the Washington Redskins tumbling to a 3-13 season, while Matthew Stafford‘s second-half collapse was one of the primary reasons the Detroit Lions lost six of their final seven games.

All six coaches had other problems, but if Matt Schaub hadn’t slumped badly this season, chances are Gary Kubiak would still be the Texans’ coach. If Greg Schiano could have found a way to make it work with quarterback Josh Freeman, he likely would be heading for a third season with the Bucs. Were it not for Stafford’s slump, Lions coach Jim Schwartz would likely be preparing for a playoff game Monday instead of cleaning out his office.

Hot-seat rumors have followed two other quarterback-thin coaches as well. If Jake Locker had remained healthy this season, coach Mike Munchak’s situation might not be as tenuous as it appears. And if Dennis Allen hadn’t flipped between Terrelle Pryor, Matt Flynn and Matt McGloin, his horizons would be brighter.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t considered the possibility of firing coach Mike Tomlin, who has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Why? Among other reasons, the Steelers always have a chance to win with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

To be fair, poor quarterback play is usually a shared responsibility. In some cases, coaches aren’t given much to work with. The Vikings’ Leslie Frazier is the most notable example. And sometimes, a quarterback fails despite the best efforts of his supporting cast. My own opinion, after watching the Lions closely over the past few years, is that Stafford should shoulder significant blame for his slump given the weapons the team provided him. Those who blame Schwartz’s offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, are ignoring Linehan’s long history in developing young quarterbacks elsewhere.

“It’s a quarterback-driven league,” Frazier said Sunday, “and if you don’t have that position functioning the way you need to, I don’t care what you need to do in the other areas of your team, you’re going to be fighting uphill.”

That is how the NFL wants it. In the late 1970s, the league liberalized the definition of offensive holding, to give offensive lines more ability to pass-protect, while simultaneously strengthening the definition of defensive pass interference. Every time the defense appears to be about to catch up, the NFL changes the rules to benefit the offense, especially in the definition of roughing the passer. NFL management has realized for a long time that pro football is one of a large and growing number of entertainment options, and the NFL assumes that the casual fan likes to see scoring over grim defensive struggles.


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