So what makes a great NFL quarterback? Is it arm strength or accuracy? What about the ability to read and diagnose defenses? Is it having awareness or pocket presence? Is it being multidimensional as a threat to run or pass? What about years of experience, injury history, or composure? Is the most important element the ability to ‘carry’ the team? In all my years working in the NFL, I have learned that the one key element that every elite NFL quarterback exhibits is THE ABILITY TO MANAGE THE GAME.
Managing the game goes beyond simply getting up under the center and running the called play. The quarterback needs to know how to read the defensive alignment, decide when/if to change the play, watch the play clock, see shifting defensive players, look past defensive rushers, hand the ball to the running back cleanly, decipher which receivers might be open, and decide IF he should throw the pass. Notice I didn’t say “make an accurate throw” or “zip the ball in there in front of the defensive player.” For every strong-armed thrower, there is an equally adept defensive back baiting the quarterback to throw the ball, deceptively lurking such that a receiver only appears to be open. And for each ball slinger that could hit any moving target right on point, there is a group of receivers that cannot get open.
The decision of this sole player single-handedly directly affects the team’s chances of winning or losing. The quarterback position is the highest paid position in professional football because of this obvious importance. He is the player that touches the ball on every play and makes the critical decisions. Quarterbacks have little room for error.
The real value of a quarterback is derived from decision making. Don’t make the mistake that will cost your team the game. How often in any level of football do you see a quarterback leading his team down the field, only to instantly have the chance of scoring instantly dashed when he throws an interception? In those cases, the quarterback forced the throw. Instead of accepting an incomplete pass or a sack for just one play, he felt the obligation to gain positive yardage on the play. He felt compelled to make a play, every play. He felt the need to carry the team.
Quarterbacks get into trouble trying to do more than their skill-set allows. This can occur if they try to force throws into coverage, scramble away from speedy blitzing linebackers, or run a play that does not optimize what the defense is giving them. They embrace the fact that they are leading the team and must do everything and anything possible to help the team win. Sadly, this “carry the team on my back” approach works for A VERY SELECT FEW quarterbacks. (see Brett Favre) In most cases, it results in tremendous mistakes that are crippling to the chances of winning games. I’ve witnessed it firsthand.
The Quarterback Quandary
The availability of reliable quality starting quarterbacks at any given time is quite low. Teams are sure to re-sign their own quarterbacks if they have any value before they ever get to free agency. If a team has more than one quarterback it believes could start, it will try to acquire something in a trade before it just lets one of them leave. Teams know they can always receive compensation for quarterbacks because of the premium put on the position.
If a team gets the quarterback right, it can make a big difference in wins and losses. That is why you see quarterbacks get numerous chances. It is also why you see such a small number of quarterbacks available via free agency. This position is the exception to the leverage rule in which other teams wait for a team to release a player. Even without leverage, a team can still solicit draft picks for a solid quarterback that everyone in the league knows must/will be released.
If a team in need has the opportunity to acquire a starting caliber quarterback, it needs to pounce. The alternative is looking for a quarterback in an annually “dry” free agent market for the position. This desperate need outweighs the leverage lost by the team looking to get rid of the player. So the only real options are to trade for that player or wait for the NFL Draft.
Hopefully you now understand why there are not typically big name free agent quarterback signings. Even in the case of Peyton Manning, his injury and age presented a substantially clear risk. It should be apparent now why there have been numerous quarterback trades recently. Less supply mandates trading in order to acquire a starting caliber quarterback.
This off-season has been the perfect example of quarterback change, as teams search for the best available men to lead the team and manage the game!
Next week I will explore some cause and effect of the quarterback changes this off-season. I hope everyone had a blessed Easter, and I continue to welcome your feedback.