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NFL free agency starts Tuesday and there will be millions of words written about the impact of all the free agent signings on the league. But here’s the sad truth about the modern day NFL, if you don’t have a Hall of Fame quarterback your team has virtually no chance of winning the Super Bowl.
That’s because the NFL, for all its excitement and attention, has boiled down to one position — your quarterback decides just about everything when it comes to your team’s success. The gap between a great quarterback and a middle tier quarterback — to say nothing of the bottom 10 in the league — has become so substantial that nothing else matters. That’s why NFL teams run through quarterbacks so quickly. It’s a constant quest to figure out which guys are good enough to win the Super Bowl. And despite the fact that there are 32 teams, there are really only 12-14 guys that are actually capable of playing the quarterback position at a high level.
If your team is one of those 12-14 with a solid quarterback, congrats, you have a chance at the Super Bowl. Otherwise, there’s no point in going to the games. That’s the dirty little secret of the NFL, sure on any given Sunday any team can win. But teams that win a Super Bowl are consistently great. Every season only a few teams have an actual chance to win the Super Bowl. Look at the teams that win playoff games. Sure, it’s fantastic to have a great secondary or a solid offensive line or a talented running back, but these players only matter when it comes to winning a Super Bowl if you already have a Hall of Fame level quarterback. Otherwise, the draft and free agency and everything else associated with the NFL is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
The gap between the best running back in the league and the worst running back in the league isn’t really that substantial. The same is true of every other position in the NFL. It’s great to have the best linebackers in football, but would you rather have the best linebackers in the NFL or the best quarterback? That’s an easy call, right? No other position in the NFL has this range from top to bottom. In fact, no other position is even close.
How important is the quarterback in today’s NFL? Let’s use the two worst teams in the league as examples. If you gave the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Tennessee Titans, two teams that finished 2-14 last season, Aaron Rodgers for the next five years, I guarantee you they would make the playoffs four times and probably advance to at least one Super Bowl in the next five years. That’s because Rodgers is that good; he’d camouflage most of the team’s deficiencies. In fact, it never happens because teams refuse to let free agent quarterbacks hit the open market, but what would Aaron Rodgers be worth on the open market next season? I think you could justify paying Rodgers $50 million a year, maybe even more. I’m not even kidding about that. The quarterback is worth at least 35% of the overall salary cap. (I think the NFL is going to become like the NBA, where superstars get max contracts and lots of other guys are playing near the league minimum. The NFL, like the NBA, has become a superstar’s league).
We’ll never know what a top quarterback is truly worth on the open market because teams aren’t willing to let star quarterbacks ever hit free agency. Indeed, the only two star quarterbacks to hit free agency in the past 15 years both had significant injury issues — Drew Brees in 2006 and Peyton Manning in 2012. Both of these guys took their new teams to the Super Bowl and Brees is the only quarterback since 2002 to win a Super Bowl for a team that didn’t draft him.
Since 1992 every quarterback who has won a Super Bowl except for Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson either will be a hall of fame quarterback or is highly likely to be one. That’s 23 years of football, nearly a quarter of a century of pigskin. Look at the roster of quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls during this generation: Troy Aikman won three, Steve Young, Bret Favre, Kurt Warner, John Elway won two, Tom Brady won four, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning won two, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson. Compare that with the roster of guys who lost the Super Bowl during this same era — Stan Humphries, Neil O’Donnell, Drew Bledsoe, Chris Chandler, Kerry Collins, Rich Gannon, Jake Delhomme, and Rex Grossman. You can almost gamble on the Super Bowl without even looking at the rest of the teams, just bet based on the quarterbacks.
While it’s still early in the careers of Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, and, especially, Russell Wilson all three men are likely hall of famers. (Stop with the Flacco hate, he’s won ten playoff games, enough for top ten most playoff wins all time. Amazingly, Flacco has just one less playoff win than Peyton Manning). Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger are both also likely hall of famers since every retired quarterback with multiple Super Bowl wins except for Jim Plunkett is in the hall of fame.
The only two quarterbacks in the last 23 years who won Super Bowls and won’t be hall of famers are Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson, who had the good fortune to face Kerry Collins and Rich Gannon in the Super Bowl. But these guys are aberrations. Both men played over a decade ago, before NFL rules designed to help offenses score increased the importance of the quarterback position. What’s more, Dilfer played with the greatest defense in NFL history back in 2000 — a defense, mind you, that would have been severely hurt by modern day defensive rules — and Brad Johnson had his best year as a pro in 2002. So while Johnson wasn’t a hall of famer, he was one of the best players in the league that season. But these are the only exceptions. In order for your team to win the Super Bowl, your starting quarterback either needs to be a hall of famer, be one of the best players in the league having hsi best career season, or be playing alongside the greatest defense in the history of the game.
The sad truth is this — as much attention as we pay to all the positions in the NFL, the only one that really matters is the quarterback. Every year the NFL sells fans on the idea that their team can be the one holding the Lombardi trophy at the end of the season. For most of us that’s complete crap.
If you’ve got a hall of fame quarterback, you can win the Super Bowl. If you don’t, there’s really no point in playing the season.