It’s late December in the NFL, a time when teams are scrambling to start someone, anyone, at quarterback. But this year it’s not just bottom-feeders that are feeding from the bottom.
The Houston Texans, fighting for a playoff spot, started a player who had never won a game in the NFL and was hunting deer last Sunday. The Arizona Cardinals, who could have clinched the Number One seed in the NFC with a win over the Seattle Seahawks, were starting a player who had never thrown a touchdown pass in the pros.
Sure, it took a series of injuries to get Houston’s Case Keenum and Arizona’s Ryan Lindley back under center, but they’re exceptions to the rule. In today’s NFL, many quarterbacks get opportunities to play not because someone got hurt, but because it hurt to watch them. No matter how transfixed we get by the influx of new talent each year, we tend to overlook one crucial point:
Most starting quarterbacks in the NFL are pretty lousy.
Just ask anyone in Cleveland. Johnny Manziel made his second career start for the Browns on Sunday, and while this performance wasn’t bad enough to create a conspiracy theory, it wasn’t good, either. Manziel was 3-of-8 for 32 yards with zero touchdowns – bringing his pro totals to 18-of-35 for 143 yards and two interceptions – before exiting the Browns’ 17-13 loss with a hamstring injury. Though, the way he was playing, Brian Hoyer probably would have replaced him anyway.
After the game, Manziel reiterated he wants to work hard to become “the guy” in Cleveland, though I’m not sure he knew just how much work he has ahead of him. Because statistically speaking, he’s probably not the guy.
Manziel became the 21st quarterback to start for the Browns since they re-entered the league in 1999. Previous “the guy’s” include Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, and not so long ago, Hoyer. None of them worked out for the Browns, nor did they go on to greater success elsewhere.
Instead, they entered the churn of quarterbacks called upon take snaps when teams go into scramble mode. But Manziel and Hoyer shouldn’t feel ashamed if they don’t turn out to be the answer for Cleveland; after all, plenty of franchises are still searching for their saviors. And two of them – the Raiders and the Bills – met on the field yesterday.
Since making it to the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, the Oakland Raiders had auditioned 17 different quarterbacks – guys like Frye (again!), Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski – before giving the nod to rookie Derek Carr, who has shown flashes of potential this year and might just be the man. Meanwhile, the Bills have started five different QBs since 2012…the latest of whom, Kyle Orton, is on his fourth team in the past four years.
Jimmy Clausen started for Chicago. Charlie “Clipboard Christ” Whitehurst took snaps for Tennessee. Geno Smith is still technically playing quarterback for the New York Jets. You get the idea.
I would say that we’ve lost the ability to scout pro QBs – a cursory glance through the past few drafts reveals busts like Smith, EJ Manuel, Mike Glennon, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Weeden and Christian Ponder – but the data doesn’t quite back that up. It seems we’ve never been good at judging talent at pro football’s most important position.
Of 45 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1999, only four have won a Super Bowl. Only 15 made a Pro Bowl, and just six of those have been to more than two Pro Bowls. Over the past 35 years, 78 QBs have been taken in the first round, and only 30 made a Pro Bowl – a list that includes Trent Dilfer, Chris Miller and Vince Young – while only four have ever been named first team All-Pro.
Did the success of rookies like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, RG III and Andy Dalton, all of whom led their teams to the playoffs in their first seasons, raise the level of expectation to unfair levels? Sure. It’s far too early to say Manziel, or Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, won’t make it in the pros, and the NFL learning curve is steep indeed. The problem is, some franchises aren’t willing to wait for their prized players to develop.
Bortles has thrown 17 picks this season. Glennon went 4-9 as a third-round rookie in 2013. Smith and Manuel’s prospect status was modest at best, but they were starting for the Jets and Bills from almost the beginning. The Titans went 0-6 this year under sixth-round rookie Zach Mettenberger. Cleveland waited on Manziel for as long as they could, but eventually Hoyer proved the old adage to be true: most quarterbacks in the league aren’t good enough to start in the league.
Blame it on the win-at-all-costs mentality of the NFL. The endless hype stirred up by ESPN. The difficulties of adapting to pro-style offenses (and defenses). Or, maybe all the so-called experts need to come out and admit this is just a crapshoot; that while the fantasy is discovering the next Manning, Brees, Brady or Rodgers, the reality is far different: You’re more likely to stumble across a Sanchez, Orton, McCoy or Fitzpatrick. Or, God forbid, a Cutler.
Tellingly, roughly a quarter of the league’s teams feature good-not-great quarterbacks – Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers – which may just be the best-case scenario. Everywhere else, there are question marks (Colin Kaepernick, Dalton, Cam Newton), and with the NFL’s elite QBs heading towards retirement, one has to wonder: When will the next great crop of quarterbacks reveal themselves? And how will we find them if they don’t?
Both the Seahawks and Colts probably feel like they have good candidates in Wilson and Luck. A few other teams know they are capable of winning the Super Bowl with their current quarterback. But many, if not most, are still scrambling. That’s just the norm. Being a good NFL quarterback? That’s anything but.