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Armando Salguero: Four AFC Teams About To Dominate Conference And Where Your Team Stacks Up

This is an important day in NFL history, although no one announced it because the league that had us glued to our televisions and press box seats and bleacher seats over the weekend doesn’t love to announce terrible news.

And, without doubt, Monday brought terrible news to 12 cities with AFC teams.

This is the terrible news: Joe Burrow, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes play in the AFC. They’re all 26 years old or younger.

So those 12 teams must come to terms with the fact they have approximately zero chance of winning a conference championship in the next, say, decade — or until they get an elite quarterback of their own to battle those young gunslingers.

This applies to every team in the AFC outside Buffalo, Kansas City, Cincinnati and probably Los Angeles.

I’m throwing the Chargers in there, despite the fact they didn’t even get in the playoffs this year, because they’ve got Justin Herbert and he’s in the same company with Burrow, Mahomes, and Allen. Or soon will be.

Every other quarterback in the AFC?

Not elite right now.

Sorry, also-rans.

Sorry, social media. Your young demographics thinks it knows everything so you’ll come up with myriad reasons “proving” these 12 teams without an elite QB can do things to overcome the undeniable truth that elite QBs are the thing.

My answer is see you in a decade when Mahomes, Burrow, Allen or Herbert have continued to dominate trips to the conference championship game. Sad face emoji for you.

This presents a dilemma in great AFC outposts such as New England, Denver, Miami and others.

The answer to this dilemma is not going out and hiring a new head coach who helped make those elite quarterbacks elite. Those new coaches are gifted, but they’re basically sculptors.

And they can’t deliver a statue of David without clay.

The elite QB is the clay.

So Brian Daboll sounds like a great potential hire. But he’s not bringing Josh Allen to the Giants or Dolphins or anywhere else.

Nor is Nathaniel Hackett bringing Aaron Rodgers to Denver or Byron Leftwich bringing Tom Brady wherever he ends up apart from Tampa.

Adding those coaches might be a good move. But giving them only an elite quarterback would make it a great move.

Making your defense great as well is not the answer.

Don’t get me wrong, great defense is awesome. But the Patriots had the NFL’s second-leading scoring defense this year and Allen hung 47 points on them in the playoffs. And the Bills had the best scoring defense in the NFL this year, and on Sunday, Mahomes carved them up as if he was armed with a Ginsu knife.

Great defense and great coaching are the add-on to a championship recipe. The elite quarterback is the lead ingredient.

So where are the 12 also-rans in their search for an elite QB to compete with Mahomes, Allen, Burrow and Herbert?

Consider:

Baltimore Ravens: Assuming Lamar Jackson recovers from his ankle injury, which he didn’t do his final month of the season, and figures out how to beat zero blitz, which he didn’t do the final four games he played, he’ll get back to giving the Ravens hope he can continue to develop. The problem is 2021 was not just a detour in that development but a full traffic snarl because Jackson got progressively worse as the season went along, even when he was healthy. And here’s the problem: He’s not a pure passer but rather succeeds as a dual threat QB who’s a better runner than passer. The sustainability of that is questionable, considering Steve Young was the last such QB to enjoy championship success doing it.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns are in limbo because they’re sort of committed to Baker Mayfield but shouldn’t be. Mayfield regressed last season and while that happened, his salary and salary demands have increased. The Browns are scheduled to pay Mayfield $18.5 million on his fifth-year option in 2022, but he’s coming off a shoulder injury that required surgery this month, his standing in the locker room is good but not great, and he’s a former No. 1 overall pick in a division where Cincinnati’s No. 1 overall pick is head and shoulders better.

Denver Broncos: Drew Lock is young, but if the Broncos believe he’s got elite QB potential, their looming coach hiring will actually be a hiring of their next ex-head coach. Lock is not it and that’s clear based on his inconsistent accuracy, decision-making and processing. The Broncos, to their credit, will be quarterback shopping this offseason.

Houston Texans: This is really a sad joke because the Texans have a proven elite QB who in one playoff game carried his team to an improbable victory over the Buffalo Bills. But Deshaun Watson still doesn’t want to play in Houston, last we heard, because of a broken relationship with ownership or something. And he’s got that enormous legal issue hanging over his head. So what could be a great QB situation here is perfectly terrible at this stage.

Indianapolis Colts: Carson Wentz has so much potential and ability, but despite all this, what he puts on tape is inconsistency — fabulous followed by frustrating. And so he’s good enough to give everyone hope but bad enough to make everyone wish they never trusted him. The Colts will likely convince themselves they can continue to develop Wentz, but only a lightning strike will raise him to consistent elite level. He might be able to put together an elite run some day that leads to temporary success, but it’s hard to imagine him delivering elite play over seasons.

Jacksonville Jaguars: There’s hope here and unlike other places such as Miami, it’s not a false hope because Trevor Lawrence still checks every box any NFL team wants from an elite quarterback candidate. Lawrence was put in a rough situation his rookie season because he basically had to take leadership of the team when players began to turn away from coach Urban Meyer. And it was bumpy and painful both on the field and off, but Lawrence played his best game of the year in Jacksonville’s season finale against Indianapolis. That performance and the expectation the club will hire a serious and capable coach and coaching staff leave the door open that Lawrence still has a bright future.

Las Vegas Raiders: Derek Carr is very good. He helped get the Raiders to the playoffs in a year so much else went wrong out in the desert. The problem here is Carr, at age 31 next season, is a step down from elite, and he’s likely reached his ceiling. And he plays in the same division with Mahomes and Herbert. To overcome that, the Raiders would have to be head and shoulders better than those other two teams in multiple other positions to make up for them having better quarterbacks than Vegas. Good luck with that.

Miami Dolphins: You have Tua Tagovailoa and although he was drafted after Burrow and before Herbert, he doesn’t belong in their company. He might become a solid quarterback if he’s surrounded by a lot of complementary talent. But your general manager is Chris Grier, who blew the pick on Tagovailoa, is doubling down on believing in Tagovailoa, and has never proven he can surround anyone with enough complementary talent to win — just look at the failed offensive line decisions the six years he’s been the GM.

New England Patriots: The local media in New England and national media (except for OutKick) seemingly anointed Jones as the second coming of a young Tom Brady when he beat out Cam Newton for the starting job. And he did have some moments of clarity, such as the games against Cleveland and Tennessee. But that’s where the comparisons with Brady should end because Brady got progressively better during his first year as a starter and actually directed a game-winning drive in the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams with 1:30 to play. That was a picture of things to come. Jones wilted at the end this year and his play suggests he’s more likely to hit game manager than elite QB status.

New York Jets: You remain hopeful because you’ve got a young QB of your own in Zach Wilson and a ton of draft picks (including two in the first round and two in the second round of the 2022 draft) to surround him with more talent. But Wilson is a question mark. He has a great arm talent but awful mechanics. He stopped turning the ball over as often late in the season but still had accuracy and decision-making issues that led him to complete less than 60 percent of his passes in four of his final five games. The idea Wilson can mature into an elite quarterback is not outrageous. But it’s far from a certainty.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger is gone and the Steelers will soon understand exactly how good they’ve had it since 2004 when he arrived. The Steelers say they’ll explore every option — draft, free agency, trade, in house — to find a replacement. Some believe Mason Rudolph is that guy. And he might indeed be the next Steelers QB. But with his plodding dropback and average accuracy, he’ll be more in the company of Tommy Maddox and Bubby Brister than Roethlisberger or the elite quarterbacks on other teams.

Tennessee Titans: If you still think Ryan Tannehill can get you to a Super Bowl victory, then you haven’t been paying attention. Tannehill is a complementary player who needs great talent around him on the offensive line and in the receiver room to make the passing game seem merely good. That’s his ceiling — good. He’s never been dynamic and never will be. The best the Titans can hope for out of him is he suddenly gets unexpectedly hot in the playoffs, like Joe Flacco once did, and everything works out for maybe a three-game stretch. But elite? Nope.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

2 Comments

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  1. Good analysis. I would say the one exception can be if a team has a competent game manager who protects the ball and a spectacular, I mean spectacular defense. I’m thinking a scenario like the recent Eli/NYG. I know he had his moments but the defense won both of those Super Bowls. Or like an ‘85 Bears. Or even a 2020 Niners. Problem is a spectacular defense requires many healthy and happy players, and after success free agency comes calling. So I could see a NE or Cleveland maybe breaking through for a year, but that’s it.

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