Is The Quarterback Position In The NFL Dangerously Over-Inflated?
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By: Eric Thomas
Colin Kaepernick signed one of the most lucrative deals in the history of the NFL yesterday, a six-year deal which will earn him up to $126 million, with $61 million guaranteed. His contract represents the new ceiling in the NFL for quarterbacks, and that ceiling will only escalate as time passes. As the salary cap slowly increases, signal-callers will only command more because the position itself is the most celebrated in all sports. No one gets more TV time than the quarterback; every eye is on him; the success or failure of a team is ultimately his responsibility regardless of any other mitigating factors. Fans clamor for a good one and excoriate those whom they think unworthy.
Is Kaepernick worthy of the money? In economics terms, yes. He got market value. In fact, the contract Kaepernick signed is great for the 49ers; they can pull the plug on him if he gets hurt or proves ineffective in the early years of the contract for a relatively low amount of money. The tougher question is this: is the quarterback market inflated? As fans and the media put all of their available attention on that single position and ignore everything else, the answer is absolutely yes.
The common cliché is that the QB in football gets far too much credit and far too much blame, but even that cliché fails to capture how far out of whack it’s gotten in terms of attention. The vast majority of former players in commentator roles played quarterback; the others are mere tokens to make things more even. The success or failure of an NFL team is largely measured in terms of the quarterback.
We focus on the quarterback with intensity. We study his every mannerism, comment, and minute by minute achievement; he is only as good as his latest snap or statement. While we expect QBs to have a short term memory, fans will never let them forget even the slightest trespass, and we do this to the detriment of our football teams in general. The importance of a quality quarterback, especially in the NFL, is hyper-inflated, especially when we look at the evidence available right under our noses.
A quarterback is the reflection of the quality of the team he plays on, and Kaepernick is the easiest example of this. He’s mobile, capable of tearing off long runs at any time; he has ample arm strength and can survive in the pocket if he needs to. In making those observations, we forget that the ability to do those things is a reflection of the players around him. Would his pocket ability be the same if he didn’t have the best offensive line in the NFL? Would he be able to tear off long runs if the defense didn’t have to adjust to Frank Gore? No on both counts, but Kaepernick gets the millions.
All quarterbacks benefit or suffer from “bottom line” analysis, one of the most ridiculous metrics in sports. Judging a quarterback or any other individual player on the record of wins and losses ignores volumes of other available evidence, along with the other players on the field. An offense needs blocking, catching and ball security to be effective and the quarterback is only responsible for one of those attributes SOME of the time.
What is the attraction of “bottom line” analysis? Do we, as fans, seek refuge in its simplicity? Do we need facts boiled to a proper temperature and cut into pieces so that they are easier to swallow? Shouldn’t we, as people who analyze these things, seek all available data when attempting to make a decision? What’s the harm in allowing a wide range of information?
Tom Brady is among the most celebrated quarterbacks in NFL history, and it’s easy to explain why. He was ignored at when he was a Wolverine for the most part, as plenty of fans saw him as mere obstacle to Drew Henson’s ascension when he was at the school. He was so dismissed that he famously considered transferring. He went on to be selected deep in the draft, and forgotten after he joined the Patriots, until he came off the bench and won the Super Bowl. Brady and the Patriots racked up epic numbers of wins in a dynasty that netted them three rings, and Tom Terrific became a legend. It’s a great story.
Lost in all the Brady lore is that the Patriots boasted probably the most innovative and dynamic defense in all of football during that time. They also benefitted from one of the easiest schedules in football by playing in the AFC East, playing franchises like the Bills and Dolphins and Jets who’ve been in perpetual free fall for decades, with the exception of only a few isolated seasons. We ignore that the Patriots won eleven games and only narrowly missed the playoffs with Matt Cassell under center, who was traded the following season to the Chiefs and subsequently proved himself an extremely average player.
For all the hosannahs heaped on Peyton Manning, did he honestly make the Broncos that much better in terms of results? Tim Tebow, largely considered one of the worst pure quarterbacks ever to play at the pro level, won a playoff game in Denver the year before Manning won none. Manning’s year of absence from the Colts was blamed for that team’s nadir of 2011, when they only won two games, but his contract was as much to blame as anything else, which sapped the franchise’s ability to acquire talent to fill the void. Manning has long worn the goat horns of a person who “couldn’t win the big games” but all of his woes in the playoffs were against teams with a superior defense. For all the pomp and circumstance that came along with those classic “Manning versus Brady” showdowns, the team with the superior defense won the day.
Here in Detroit, the early conversation about Matt Stafford centered around Mark Sanchez, who was drafted a few spots below in the 2009 Draft. Sanchez was largely considered superior because of “bottom line” analysis; he’d won a playoff game and shown a great degree of success against the Patriots. Of course, Sanchez benefitted from the same division where Tom Brady thrived, playing the Dolphins and Bills twice a season. That debate has been largely settled and forgotten as the Jets slowly disintegrated as a team. Stafford himself had great returns in 2011, leading an offense seemingly capable of scoring at will. In Lion’s lone playoff game that occurred in the 21st century, Stafford threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns, but the game is remembered as an outright failure because of “bottom line” analysis.
Is all this to say the quarterback position is irrelevant? No; it isn’t that black and white. The quarterback position, and its importance in terms of pro football, is inflated to ridiculous levels. The college game is far more even handed, as quarterbacks like AJ McCarron are explained away as products of a superior team despite the historic number of wins. That’s probably the far better analysis, but the glitz and glamor of the NFL needs superstars like oxygen, and it’s more lucrative for the league if those superstars also get the most camera time.
Fans and media should know better, and yet the band plays on. We know that Russell Wilson is the product of his surroundings, but many credit him for the recent Super Bowl win. We know that Dan Marino is superior in terms of talent to Trent Dilfer, and to suggest so is ridiculous, but we continue the “bottom line” analysis anyway.
Wilson is especially valuable because his salary was held in check by the rookie salary cap, leaving the Seahawks available to build a talented team around him. In the future, will that be the paradigm? Will quarterbacks, like running backs before them, be commodities that teams look for in the draft because young signal-callers command smaller salaries?
As quarterback salaries continue to command higher percentages of the salary cap, we should probably ask ourselves the following question: do the cap resources commanded by top quarterbacks make a talented player more of a liability than a merely average one?