“Elite” isn’t the issue. And as Joe Flacco taught us in the first two months of 2013, it never really was.
Sure, prior to Flacco’s flabbergasting run through the post-season, the club of Super Bowl-winning winning QBs had an exclusive membership of just six current NFL signal callers. Those players are of course:
Tom Brady (3 Lombardis)
Ben Roethlisberger (2)
Eli Manning (2)
Aaron Rodgers (1)
Drew Brees (1)
Peyton Manning (1)
Correct me if I’m wrong, but –- regardless how you’d rank those half-dozen names amongst each other –- we can agree they’re the NFL’s six best QBs overall. (I know, I know: you aren’t positive I’m right. Think it through, though, and you’ll realize I am. Go ahead … take your time. I’ll wait.)
All set? Good. So, like I was saying, there aren’t many active quarterbacks who can claim they’ve won “the Big One.” Flacco, however, now can — and that raises a whole new question for NFL GMs to consider as free agency and the draft loom on the horizon. It isn’t whether a quarterback can win a Super Bowl. It’s whether he can’t.
When my mother hunts and pecks on her laptop in search of a website, she still types “www” into the address bar, even though I’ve repeatedly explained it’s no longer necessary. Likewise, an NFL GM desperate at any cost to land an “elite” QB might be looking to employ an outdated device to get his team to the Promised Land.
Joe Flacco proved that. Twice, as a matter of fact. Remember, only Lee Evans’ hands and Kyle Williams’ knee kept us from having either Flacco or Alex Smith as an unlikely* Super Bowl-winning QB a year earlier.
*Sorry, quick detour for potentially angry Ravens fans who think I’m diminishing their QB: “unlikely” is not synonymous with “bad.” I don’t think Flacco is a subpar QB, he’s just not a great one… but he certainly doesn’t make the list of “Worst QBs to Start A Super Bowl.” Here’s who does:
» David Woodley –- Out of his depth vs. Joe Gibbs’ first Super Bowl team (4 for 14, 97 yards … and that was with a 76-yd TD pass!)
» Rex Grossman — Even during the Bears’ Super Bowl run, he threw 20 picks
» Stan Humphries –- 1994 aside, a completely forgettable career
» Neil O’Donnell -– Never had double-digit INTs in a season … which made his two horrible picks in Super Bowl XXX sadly ironic
» Trent Dilfer –- Worst QB to win the big game
» Craig Morton –- Worst stats for any QB who started at least two Super Bowls (16/41, 166 yards, 1 TD, 7 INTs)
» Kerry Collins -– Playing for a long time does not equal playing well for a long time
» Joe Kapp –- Too small a sample size for longtime CFLer
» Mark Rypien –- Couldn’t sustain level of play after sublime 1991 season
» Brad Johnson -– Had a nice career, but was on his last legs by the time the Buccaneers’ D carried him to a ring
A couple weeks ago, I spoke with Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who shared a thought with from his imminently quotable head coach, Mike Tomlin: “There are only so many quarterbacks who can win games for their teams by themselves.” In other words, most QBs can’t. And there’s plenty of merit in Tomlin’s sentiment. Seven of the last ten Super Bowls have been won by three guys: Brady, Eli and Big Ben.
Yes, the Lombardi Trophy keeps fast company. I’m not attempting to make a case to the contrary. Of course it’d be a terrific luxury to have one of the so-called “elite” guys. Problem is, they don’t grow on trees. Reaching in the first round on guys like Geno Smith or Matt Barkley isn’t going to magically make them worth that draft slot, nor does paying Matt Cassel tens of millions of dollars make him the equal of Tom Brady. Thanks to Flacco, though, that fact should be a lot less depressing today than it was a year ago. More GMs can now reasonably say, “If Flacco can win it all, maybe our guy can, too!”
Notice I didn’t say all GMs. The league’s QBs outside the top six we listed at the top fall into one of two groups: ones who are effective enough to not lose games, and ones who can’t consistently meet that minimum standard. In other words, don’t worry about things you can’t control. Deal with the things you can control.
Like what, you ask? How ‘bout these three items?
Arm strength. Might sound obvious, but it’s no coincidence almost every guy who’s won a Super Bowl over the last two decades has an above-average hose. JaMarcus Russell proves a big arm isn’t enough by itself, but it’s an essential trait among almost every Super Bowl-winning QB of the last two decades. Forget the hooey and applesauce about “being a winner.” You know what earns you the ‘winner’ tag? Winning. Period.
A great offensive line. Look at the teams who’ve played in the last conference championship games the last two seasons: New England; Baltimore; San Francisco; Atlanta; New York Giants. The quality of each team’s QB varies; what doesn’t is the caliber of the guys upfront. (Yes, I know the Niners have given up more than their share of sacks the last couple years, but that’s mostly attributable to Smith’s propensity for holding onto the ball).
Age. Sorry, Broncos fans, but history suggests it’s highly unlikely Denver will win a Lombardi with 37-year-old Peyton Manning. Only two guys – Johnny Unitas (who threw all of nine passes while splitting time in Super Bowl V with Earl Morrall) and John Elway (who benefitted from the running of Terrell Davis in back-to-back Super Bowls) – have started and won it all at such an advanced age.
Should we stop here … But why wait for others to do what we can take care of right now? We’ll divide ‘em into two groups categories: Quarterbacks Who Can Win A Super Bowl; and Quarterbacks Who Can’t.
NFL QBs WHO CAN WIN A SUPER BOWL
Is it crazy to say he’s the best QB to not yet win a Super Bowl? Small sample size, but it’s tough to dispute he was the key factor in taking a 2-14 team to the playoffs the following season.
Obstacles: Lack of surrounding talent makes Luck’s rookie season far more impressive than, say, Roethlisberger’s (who stepped into a ready-made contender)… but with all that cap room, GM Ryan Grigson can address roster; more difficult, though, will be filling the void of QB Sherpa Bruce Arians.
Funny how quickly everyone turned on this guy and turned their attention to the 2012 rookies. I know his demeanor displeased the more judgmental among us, but he’s still the most physically complete QB to come into the league over the last few years (at least).
Obstacle: Lack of talent around him. Look out if/when he ever gets another passcatcher to go along with Steve Smith.
Going into 2013, he’ll be under center for the league’s most complete team. Easy to see him winning one sooner rather than later with Jim Harbaugh, who may be the sport’s best coach.
Obstacles: His funky javelin throwing motion is worrisome… and if the league’s d-coordinators really do solve/slow the read-option during the offseason, Kaep would suffer more than almost any other QB.
Robert Griffin III
I feel like people have taken RG3’s new ad to heart and forgotten all about his rookie season. Don’t. It was the Greatest Rookie Season of All-Time. He had better numbers than Newton did in 2011, and actually won games while he was at it. For the sake of argument and Dan Snyder’s emotional well-being, let’s assume RG3’s knee will be okay.
Obstacle: Long-term health (like every other quarterback)
Behind that line, with that great running game, complemented by that dominant D, Wilson can definitely win a Super Bowl (and just might have this season if they’d snuck past Atlanta).
Obstacles: The Niners aren’t going anywhere soon; sorry to be a buzzkill, but while Wilson was 2012’s feel-good story for diminutive fans, his height would be an serious issue behind anything less than a top-flight o-line.
Just before QBs who could pass and run became all the rage, there was first-overall pick & Rookie of the Year Bradford. Big season coming up for him, but the team showed a lot of promise (3-1-1 vs. the 49ers and Seahawks) with Jeff Fisher steering the ship.
Obstacles: NFC West competition (and to think just two years ago, a 7-9 team won the division); lack of top-tier passcatcher
Under the radar because of his fellow rookies, Tannehill had a really nice first season… and that was with Brian Hartline as his top weapon. Don’t rule out the possibility he could end up with the best career of any QB from the 2012 draft.
Obstacles: Lack of pass catchers… for now. Jeff Ireland’s intention to add a WR or two via free agency (and maybe the draft) is not a well-kept secret. As Tom Brady enters the last act of his career, the Fins are the top candidate to take over the East.
It’s been six years since Romo became a star in Dallas (and in the pages of ‘Us Weekly’), the same amount time Schaub’s been under center in Houston. A few years ago, Schaub emerged as an unlikely fantasy star (thanks to weekly shootouts brought on his team’s weak defense). Now, he’s more likely to hand off to Arian Foster and rely on what’s become one of the AFC’s better Ds… but can still get it downfield to Andre Johnson.
Obstacles: Improving on 2012 playoff experience (the games vs. Cincy and NE were the first two of his career); could use a “clutch” win or two
Now that the injuries he dealt with his first couple seasons have curtailed, there’s no doubt the Lions are happy they took him over the other QB with the initials M.S. in the 2009 draft. He’s 25, has averaged 5,000 yards/season the last two years, and has the luxury of arguably the best WR ever to throw to.
Obstacles: Coaching; troubled locker room; tough division; his team’s lousy defense, which isn’t his fault… but it is his problem.
Making the playoffs won’t be enough anymore… especially on a roster with very few question marks besides QB.
Obstacle: Time to win the North and/or a couple postseason games. Otherwise, the heat will be way up on the capable but unspectacular Horned Frog. We’ll stay optimistic, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him backing someone else up two years from now.
He’s got the best pair of WRs in the league, he’ll only be 28 next season, and he was one throw away from the Super Bowl. Problem is, hosting two playoff games is a rare opportunity… and Ryan’s team failed to cash in. Because I’m feeling generous, I’ll keep him in the “can” column.
Obstacle: That nagging feeling just about almost everyone outside the Ryan family has about his lack of… hmm, what is it, exactly, that he’s lacking? I can’t put my finger on it, but my gut tells me something’s missing (and isn’t just lunch).
He’s just 28 years old, which is weird for a guy who’s been in the league for 26 seasons… or maybe it feels that way because of the two distinct phases to his career, the latter of which was remarkably successful until — well, you know what happened. Now, with a head coach who’s got a habit of making QBs looking good, plus a ton of offensive talent, Smith has a chance to take the AFC West in his first season.
Obstacle: Pressure of expectations to be the franchise savior
Big-armed guys who can run around are all the rage, and the Titans possess a potentially good one… if he could just stay healthy. Too soon to give up on that dwindling possibility.
Obstacles: His health; the quality of foes in the AFC South
Tricky for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the small sample size, especially considering his playing time came while the Eagles were circling the drain. He’s got a big arm and is young, and those are good places to start.
Obstacle: Chip Kelly’s offense – Foles needs to get out of Philly; Arizona, the Jets & Cleveland would all make more sense
Like a young Ben Roethlisberger with a better arm… but lesser results. With Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams & Doug Martin, there’s no excuse for this offense not to roll in 2013. (Sidenote: The Saints, Falcons & Panthers should also have explosive offenses and fair-to-crummy defenses — look out for some NBA scores in the NFC South next season.)
Obstacle: The division’s gonna be tough for at least the next few years; consistency (or is it inconsistency?)
The Norv Turner & AJ Smith debacle is finally over, which means the growing questions about Rivers’ throwing mechanics and rising INT totals get kicked down the road. For now. If new coach Mike McCoy can’t turn around Eli & Big Ben’s draft buddy around by the end of next season, the leash on Rivers will be real, real tight. In honor of all he accomplished in his first half-dozen years, we’ll keep hope alive… but it’s close.
Obstacles: No top tier WRs and an aging Antonio Gates; team’s mercurial results can no longer be blamed on coach or GM
NFL QBs WHO CAN’T WIN THE SUPER BOWL
Forget the hooey about his allegedly sullen personality. There’s little evidence to support the charge beyond that NFC title game melodrama. Besides, there are lots of real problems to worry about. How is was statistically possible for Brandon Marshall to have the season he just had while Cutler finished with such pedestrian numbers? And how did Cutler’s offense not produce enough to get into the playoffs when the D performed like it did for most of ’12? A glass half-full Bears fan will point to Cutler & Flacco’s similar career completion percentage and rate of TD passes/season, but while Cutler’s never thrown fewer than 14 picks in a full season (avg 18 per season), Flacco’s never thrown more than 12 (11/season).
Obstacles: Perennially atrocious pass protection; the regressing D; in Aaron Rodgers’ division; did I mention the interceptions?
His legions of defenders will say I don’t know what I’m talking about. They’ll point to his team’s crummy o-line, dicey decision makers & inconsistent would-be stars. But it’s enough already. Six seasons is a pro football eternity. And the fact is, Romo hasn’t come through with any of those half-dozen seasons hanging in the balance. The irony is, I think the Cowboys will win the NFC East in 2013. I just don’t believe Romo can string together (at least) three straight games without throwing one of ‘em away. And as a reminder, that’s what we’re talking: winning it all.
Obstacle: A career’s worth of choking
He’s had his shot. If it weren’t for the 4-1 start in ’11, it would seem downright silly for him to still be an NFL starter. I could make a lengthier argument against him, but I’ll spare you. We both already know I’m right –- and so do the Bills.
Obstacle: He’s Ryan Fitzpatrick
After a few seasons of looking dead-armed, he was spinning it on otherwise atrocious team in 2012. Very easy to throw him on the scrapheap but if he’d gone to say, Kansas City, I could see him having a magical month. Fact is, he didn’t go to KC – and even worse, he’s still in Oakland.
Obstacle: He’ll be 34 by season’s end; the sands in the hourglass are running out.
I’m not buying him as anything more than a guy who can produce so-so results.
Obstacles: Almost no pro experience; couldn’t beat out a short rookie for a job he was essentially handed when he signed last year’s megadeal
Not even Vick can delude himself into believing he’s anything more than a placeholder in new coach Chip Kelly’s system.
Obstacle: Inaccuracy; slowing foot speed; never-ending string of injuries
Getting to the playoffs was a sweet fairytale, but Adrian Peterson was the Cinderella of that story. A sequel is highly unlikely.
Obstacle: Proving he can do more at the position besides receive the snap and hand it off to the guy behind him
He showed some glimmers in 2012, but he’s more likely to be the team’s sacrificial lamb while Rob Chudzinski starts the latest rebuilding project in Cleveland.
Obstacle: Winning over new Browns staff or finding a new team looking for a team a inexperienced QB on the wrong side of 30
Here’s hoping the guy gets a shot somewhere else. He’s a serviceable QB who’s got two double-digit win seasons and a divisional crown in his hip pocket. A needy team can do worse.
Obstacle: A needy team can do better
No chance. None.
Obstacle: I can throw a ball farther than he does.
The stunner isn’t that he started two title games; it’s that he was the Jets’ best offensive player in both games. Butt – I mean but – those January heroics seem like a very long time ago. It’s tough to imagine the new Jets’ brass trying to sell a deflated locker room on Sanchez for another season.
Obstacles: The bums of his teammates
Other guys who ain’t winning a Super Bowl include:
Blaine “Blame” Gabbert
So that’s that.
Apologies if I put your quarterback in the “can’t” column, but remember these things:
1. There’s only one Super Bowl a year, which means lots of quality QBs will never get a ring (including most of the guys I listed in the “can” column).
2. I’m just speculating.
3. Maybe my lack of faith will light a fire under your QB. When he reads my thoughts, he’ll get a chip on his shoulder and carry it all the way to a Super Bowl victory just to prove me wrong. In other words, you’re welcome.
Follow Dave Dameshek on Twitter @Dameshek