In the past several years, there’s been an intense focus on the quarterback position, and such a focus isn’t unwarranted either. Teams featuring an elite passer are nearly always in the playoffs, and as anyone who has been watching the NFL for some time knows, once you’re in the show, anything can happen.
Last year, the Super Bowl was a contest between two teams featuring less-than-elite quarterbacks, something that has become a bit of a rarity in recent years. More recently, quarterback trends have shown a shift from elite pocket passers to super-athletic quarterbacks that can make plays with their feet and arm.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the shift in focus has taken place. The simple, and most definitive reason, deals with the availability of elite passers versus scramblers. Every year, there’s a few scrambling quarterbacks that have the ability to gash teams with their legs as well as down the field in the passing game.
Truly elite quarterbacks are found far less often, and there’s no precise formula for identifying future elite quarterbacks coming out of college. Sure, every once in a great while there’s a quarterback such as Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck that is almost guaranteed to be a big success in the NFL, but for each Peyton Manning, there’s at least a few JaMarcus Russells.
At first glance, it would seem obvious that an elite quarterback provides the best possible chance for any given team to win a Super Bowl. After all, it’s no coincidence that the Indianapolis Colts were able to make the playoffs just a season after going 2-14. No, Andrew Luck may not be one of the top five passers in the league, but he has that potential.
If we look a little bit deeper, however, that bit of common sense may be completely false. The Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers got to the playoffs off of solid quarterback play and sound all-around football. They didn’t win by running up the score; they won by not beating themselves and playing their own brands of football.
What if that strategy becomes the new norm in the league? Teams featuring elite passers also tend to leave themselves open to injury. The Green Bay Packers, for instance, built their entire team around the notion that Aaron Rodgers can spread the ball around, scoring points in bunches. Since his injury, the Packers’ offense has been able to do little more than set up their punter with more playing time.
The alternative strategy, employed by the Chicago Bears, is to build a team around sound football, limiting mistakes and forcing opponents into bad situations. Although these teams don’t tend to go on huge winning streaks, they do tend to be a little bit more injury proof, even at premium positions such as quarterback.
Even if a team is led to a Super Bowl victory by a sub-elite quarterback this year, it won’t change the current dynamic prevailing in the NFL. The Jacksonville Jaguars, barring some strange luck, will be drafting first overall, and they’ll likely be taking the top quarterback, a guy they will be hoping develops into an elite passer. Teams forced to pick a quarterback outside the top ten will likely try to build their teams in a different fashion.
At this point, there’s a definitive shift away from elite passers. Still, the elite passer will never be abandoned in the NFL. To win in today’s league, teams have to be able to pass the ball efficiently at the very least, and there’s room for teams featuring the best quarterbacks to drop back and throw nearly every down. There simply isn’t enough elite-level quarterbacks around to fill the league’s demand, and the byproduct of that shortage has been a focus on efficient and athletic passers. Expect that trend to continue, but don’t expect elite passers to disappear altogether.
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