FNQB: Having No Quarterback is Not an Excuse for Lack of Offensive Improvement
This article is about the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals, but really, it’s about 17 different NFL teams. This is about teams that try to win without established play from the quarterback position, and why its imperative to realize who is and isn’t being hurt by the inability to develop a quarterback.
The trends in the game strongly show that the “haves” in the game get production out of their quarterback position, while the “have nots” often do not. The correlation isn’t as perfect as some would lead you to believe, but it’s there and it’s at least very clear. The NFL’s have nots in the last decade have included the Lions, Redskins, 49ers (post-Garcia/Owens), Cardinals (pre-Warner/Fitzgerald), and the Vikings in the NFC, and the Raiders (post-Gannon), Texans, Bills, Dolphins, Browns in the AFC with the Bengals as sort of a weird Rorsach test. The evidence shows that even the most moribund of franchises come out of the doldrums with a good QB year (such as 2007 Anderson, 2008 Warner/Chad Pennington, 2009 Favre).
But far too often, we mess up the cause and effect of quarterback play and team performance. The Lions and Redskins both endured some of their worst seasons (2006, 2009 for Washington; 2004, 2008 for Detroit) with some of the best QB play in recent memory by either franchise. The problem here is that good but not great QB play is almost not correlated at all with wins and losses, but where wins are, we find ways to inflate the true performance of the QB. What was the difference between Kyle Orton and Josh Freeman’s 2010 seasons? I think Freeman was a bit better in the pocket, but one QB won 3 games and lost 10 (and his job), and the other won 10 games and lost 6. And Freeman was, at best, marginally better (though the *promise* of future dominance is a big concern here). Freeman ended up on the Top 100 list of NFL players in 2011, and Orton is possibly going to lose his job to either Tim Tebow or Brady Quinn. Is that outcome really following all the available evidence? Not until wins and losses are included, it isn’t.
There have been “have nots” with very efficient QB play in recent years: the Redskins under both Mark Brunell and Jason Campbell, the Bengals under Carson Palmer, the Vikings under Daunte Culpepper, then Brad Johnson, and later Brett Favre, and the Dolphins under Chad Henne. The Rams had a lean period from 2004-2006 with Marc Bulger still playing well. Meanwhile, teams win all the time with below average QB play. The Jets have taken Mark Sanchez to the AFC Championship game in consecutive years. Ignoring future development potential (a major consideration, I admit), the Jets would have been better off (and were with Favre and later Brunell) with any of the names listed in this paragraph above over Sanchez. They won though, making this a moot point and Sanchez a cult hero. The Giants won a bunch of playoff games including the greatest team of all time (not to win the big one), the 2007 Patriots, simply because a developing Eli Manning stopped throwing picks in the playoffs. Like people feel can happen with Sanchez, Manning DID develop. The Cowboys made it into the playoffs in 2003 with Quincy Carter at the helm. Jake Delhomme and Michael Vick both won enough games to take the AFC South in 2003-2005. The last decade of Bears and Ravens teams featured many, many playoff runs with zero year to year consistency at the QB position (Flacco may, finally, be a keeper). Getting Jay Cutler to be the franchise QB hasn’t exactly gotten the Bears any closer to the goal of winning the super bowl. They still knock on the door every year. Kurt Warner, very possibly, isn’t a hall of fame caliber quarterback if he doesn’t join the NFC West division just as it enters the leanest period since realignment. And look back on Donovan McNabb’s career through the prism of his 2010 season, and consider how long he may have lasted if the NFC East wasn’t such a pushover division before Eli Manning and Tony Romo and Joe Gibbs.
The quarterbacks who played for the “have not” teams didn’t fail to win because of any personal flaw in there game, perhaps short of simply not being transcendent players. Throughout Vince Young’s career, the relationship between his performance and playing time has been inverse. Young actually was a transcendent college player, and the more he developed in the NFL, the larger of a pain in the ass he became. For Cutler, at least it’s the opposite: he’s a pain in the ass when he’s not playing well, but a good face of the organization when he is. Matt Leinart hasn’t played…at all.
The factors at play here don’t obviously have a lot to do with the quarterbacks themselves. It seems to have more to do with the organizations. A couple specific types of organizations have failed.
Organizations that lack overall resources to succeed
You probably didn’t realize that this made any difference in the NFL where every team can spend to the salary cap if it so pleases, but a number of orgs simply don’t have a lot of their own resources. The Cincinnati Bengals, the Buffalo Bills, the Minnesota Vikings, and to a lesser extent, the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and San Diego Chargers (and for a very long time, the New Orleans Saints — though the environment there may have permanently changed for the better) simply have a bottom line that affects their football decisions. None of the teams that have won with poor quarterback play over the last decade (the Bears, Ravens, Giants, Jets) have any sort of resource problem what-so-ever. Those organizations more or less print money.
But think of the three or four most financially insoluble franchises of the last ten years. The Bengals had the first overall draft pick once and picked Carson Palmer. The Bills have never had the first overall pick. The Vikings have never picked higher than 7th in the last decade. The Raiders picked 2nd overall in 2004 taking Robert Gallery and 1st overall in 2007 taking JaMarcus Russell. And think how frequently impaired these rebuilding projects have been:
- After winning 11 games in 2005, the Bengals tried to build up a competent defense through the draft exclusively. While they were eventually successful, the 2009 playoff version of the Bengals was dealing with a damaged goods Carson Palmer at QB, losing TJ Houshmandzadeh in free agency, a declining Chad Ochocinco, and having to rebuild the entire OL on the cheap (making a rare sign-ability pick in OT Andre Smith in 2009). More directly, the Bengals have long tried to find a Moneyball-style market niche in players that other teams avoid due to character concerns. These moves haven’t often paid off. The approach has cost them their franchise QB to retirement. This does NOT happen to franchises with resources.
- The Buffalo Bills have never picked higher than third in a recent NFL Draft, and never once were able to offer anything resembling a trade up to position themselves for a quarterback since 2004, when they traded their 2005 first round pick to draft…JP Losman. The 2004 Bills were the best Bills team since the Jim Kelly days, so they ended up trading the 20th overall pick in the 2005 draft, which could have easily been Aaron Rodgers. Since Losman busted, that’s really not all that relevant. Here’s who the Bills HAVE passed on since 2004 at QB: Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler, Brady Quinn, Joe Flacco, Josh Freeman, Jimmy Clausen, Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder. Would any of those players have prevented the Bills from being another resource-limited franchise that cannot develop a QB? Each player on that list outside of Quinn and Gabbert would have been considered a reach when the Bills selected, and the Bills have done a good job of being selective regarding their quarterback in the current market conditions. They just haven’t drafted well enough to improve outside of the QB position.
- The Minnesota Vikings push the limits of the salary cap every year, which they can do because of revenue sharing, and has allowed them to maintain a number of defensive superstars such as Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, and Antoine Winfield, while still drafting very good players on that side of the ball such as Chad Greenway and EJ Henderson. DC (now HC) Leslie Frazier has generally made very good decisions on his side of the ball. But the limited resources of the Vikings — which includes a sale of the franchise and the inability to land a new stadium — have cost them offensive stars such as Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper, who actually have been adequately replaced in the short term with Nate Burleson and Brad Johnson. Then those guys left and what was left was some sort of bastardized west coast offense build by Brad Childress that both featured and refused to feature Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. The Vikings should have been dominating the NFC North between 2005 and 2009, between the primes of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, but the Chicago Bears in many ways just out-resourced the Vikings for that opportunity. There’s no other logical reason that the team with the best offensive and defensive players in their division in 2007, 2008, and 2009 won the division just twice and won just a single playoff game.
- There are no question the Oakland Raiders often acted erratically under Al Davis over the past decade, and rarely have they built anything positive, but the Raiders have done a far better job of resource-limited franchises of spending to win based on their scheme. Even the Raiders, however, departed from wise spending during the Lane Kiffin era, not allowing Kiffin to pick his QB in the 2007 NFL Draft, and then unjustly spending on defensive players Kiffin asked for to save a job in 2008 that Davis was hardly committed to. The Russell mistake is well documented, as is the Randy Moss error, but why did the Raiders go after DeAngelo Hall and Gibril Wilson in 2008 free agency when the team had done nothing but draft players in the secondary over the drafts leading up to this one? And worse, when the Raiders released Hall after jettisoning Kiffin, they moved back to a man coverage scheme where Hall could have excelled. The Giants could have overcome such a waste, but the Raiders just are right now. The Raiders regathered their resources after that season and have seemed to have gotten it right: no team in the NFL is loaded like the Raiders are now, although to this day, the Michael Huff pick in the 2006 draft is going to set the franchise back as much or more than the JaMarcus Russell pick as the team passed on a transcendental DL in Haloti Ngata who fit the Raiders scheme.
Meanwhile in 2009, the Lions and Bucs both started streamline rebuilding projects that have produced far improved organizations who use their resources wisely. The Chargers, for all the crap that general manager AJ Smith takes, have been doing this for years and are still a model organization. The point is that you can win with limited resources in the NFL, but conventional wisdom is almost always designed to get teams off track. And as the next section proves, even having resources doesn’t ensure success once a team has a quarterback
Organizations that are Poorly Managed
This is where it makes sense to introduce the cases of the Washington Redskins, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Miami Dolphins. Even when these organizations hire good people (Bruce Allen, Marvin Lewis, Bill Parcells), they cannot seem to sustain any sort of meaningful gain from it. Because for these three organizations, hiring good people is the abberation, not the rule. And so short term gains remain just that, short.
Parcells, prior to leaving the Miami Dolphins, was able to restock his team’s roster at quarterback by picking up Chad Pennington and adding Chad Henne in the draft, and doing so in a manner that allowed him to add Jake Long with the first overall pick in 2008 to bookend Vernon Carey as the AFC’s top offensive tackle tandem. Ignoring the high efficiency backs that Miami already possessed, the Dolphins were flat handed the structure of an elite offense and an attacking 3-4 defense that had all meaningful parts in place, could develop talented, low-cost role players, such as Cameron Wake, and had high efficiency receivers in Davone Bess and Brian Hartline who went undrafted, and provided punch to the Dolphins offense without cost.
So you tell me: how did that team end up closer to the resource-less Bills in overall results than the AFC playoff bound New York Jets? After the sale of the team from Wayne Huizenga to Stephen Ross, and the departure of Parcells (who wouldn’t have helped the ‘get over the hump’ process anyway), the Dolphins have managed to sink to one of the worst run organizations in football. Sparano has voluntarily taken the ideal QB situation of Pennington-Henne and has added Tyler Thigpen to the mix, not-so-inadvertently (but completely unnecessarily) making QB a question mark in 2011. The team traded for Brandon Marshall in 2010, who cost them two second round picks — which the Dolphins treat like candy on Halloween anyway — and Marshall hasn’t done anything to improve the offense while undermining his quarterback.
The Dolphins have at least managed to not sabotage their infrastructure: that defense looks like the early favorite for the best in 2011. But the offense is a mess despite every advantage one could possibly have, and I can’t see the Dolphins winning in 2011 even if they feature the leagues best defense. It will all be put on Henne, but the criticism belongs higher up. On Ireland and Ross.
The Cincinnati Bengals have something to prove in 2011, that they can win without Carson Palmer at quarterback. But they’re not just fighting common perception that teams can’t win in the NFL without an established quarterback, they’re also fighting their own organization. It is possible that the Bengals turned over a new leaf starting with the 2011 NFL Draft, picking AJ Green and Andy Dalton with their first two picks. But the team is proving unwilling to turn it’s most valuable asset, Palmer, into picks and players that can help the Bengals win in future season. Meanwhile the team is all too ready to do exactly that what it won’t do with Palmer with star receiver Chad Ochocinco, but Ocho has virtually no value as a trade piece.
It’s very clear looking at the Bengals roster that they plan to rebrand themselves as a ground-first team, which is a good idea, but it also seems like the team is just waiting for the end of the lockout to make 28 year old RB Cedric Benson the highest paid player on their offense, which is a terrible idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that Benson is a 28 year old RB. The team may not be able to afford Jonathon Joseph at corner, who is an impending free agent. The resource limited Bengals are just poorly managed enough to seriously consider spending the balance of those resources on Benson. They may be able to win in 2o11 behind a strong offensive line and a renewed passing game, but I don’t know if the trigger man of the offense can be either Jordan Palmer or Andy Dalton this year. I think they need a third party. And I don’t know if the Bengals have a plan to win in 2011. Which is expected, because these are the Bengals.
Remember: the Bengals did not win when they had a quarterback (and a passing game). As good a pick as AJ Green is, keep that in mind when evaluating the career potential of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.
Really though, this point is about the Washington Redskins. It’s about Mark Brunell and Jason Campbell. It’s also about Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman, and John Beck. It’s about Dan Snyder, Vinny Cerrato, Jim Zorn, Mike Shanahan, and Bruce Allen. It’s about the quarterback “excuse.” The defeatist Dolphins complain that not having a quarterback is holding them back, and have for a decade, save 2008. The Bengals have their finger on the button, ready to pull the same excuse. But no team has been worse than the Washington Redskins at pulling the quarterback excuse to place the blame anywhere but on themselves.
Like the Dolphins, an ownership sale really did hurt the team’s ability from a resources perspective to lock up that quarterback situation. The year was 1998, and the Redskins — for a couple of critical months, at least — were resource limited. The quarterback in question was Trent Green, who signed in St. Louis as a free agent, and followed around Dick Vermeil for the rest of his career. So the Green thing fell apart for the Redskins because of a resources situation. And as written above, teams should get a pass, within reason, for being resource limited. And it cost the Redskins Green.
What then, is the excuse for: Brad Johnson, Patrick Ramsey, Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, and Donovan McNabb? Because it’s now 2011. And the Redskins are still using the same “quarterback barren” excuse that died after Johnson replaced Green in 1999 twelve years later. And five physically capable quarterbacks have walked through the doors in Washington, enjoyed a successful-mini career, and mind you, the Redskins organization is in no better shape than the day they brought Jeff George in to “solve” the problem that never existed in the first place. Johnson, Ramsey, and Campbell all cost the Redskins first round picks. McNabb cost a second and a fourth. Brunell cost a third and a fourth. None were apparently worth a commitment. And the product of those ten years were a lot of losing, three playoff games, and an offseason debate as to whether John Beck or Rex Grossman is more deserving of succeeding McNabb.
You could argue that no team has had more resources than the Redskins under Dan Snyder, and it’s almost inarguable that no team has done less with it’s available resources than the Redskins. This proves that while teams lacking resources are always struggling to sustain, teams with resources will be no less likely to fail if managed poorly. I’m trying to think of any other team that has the sheer quantity of quarterbacks come through that would either go on to enjoy more wins (Johnson, Campbell), or had come from very successful programs with no real success (Brunell, McNabb). Tampa Bay, maybe? They had Freeman, Garcia, Johnson, and…Griese/Gradkowski? Chris Simms is too much of a stretch. What about Denver? Griese, Plummer, Cutler, Orton, Tebow? The Giants had Kerry Collins and Warner, and culminated with Eli Manning.
It is somewhat fitting that the 2010 Washington Redskins’ front office was comprised of the personnel guys for the only two other teams not able to establish quarterbacks with a comparable level of talent coming through the organization at the position. It’s fitting really. And it leads me to the big point: under no circumstance is instability at the QB position ever a good excuse for not making offensive improvement. It never is. Good quarterback play, by itself, never solves organizational issues. Organizations that turn themselves around typically do it with the combination of good quarterbacking and something else. If the Saints, perhaps the most recent example of an organization that turned itself around, had made the NFC Championship game in 2006, but failed to hire Gregg Williams in 2009 and had languished any further on defense, it’s not clear if Sean Payton would still have a job and if Drew Brees would still be worth an enormous salary. The Saints found offense, but they also controlled the next step in becoming a super bowl champion when the organization stopped shooting itself in the foot. The Jaguars, who did not bother to retain Williams after the 2008 season, have declined on defense since.
I would almost be wasting my time to remind you that when the Redskins made the playoffs twice in three years in the middle of this decade, Williams was calling their defense, and the Redskins were using their considerable resources to get him pieces. Unfortunately, a poor year by the defensive unit in 2006 caused the Redskins to…get this…blame it on the quarterback (Brunell), and make a change there. The Redskins blew up shortly after Williams left as an organization, and Jason Campbell was left with the task of picking up the pieces.
Teams that have resources, in particular, should win. The Redskins should win. The Dolphins should win. The Cowboys should win. The Bears should win. The 49ers should win. The Titans should win. The Broncos should win. The Texans should win. It’s the natural order of professional football. Whether these teams have a quarterback or not, or are simply in between quarterbacks, it’s not an excuse. Twelve teams make the playoffs each year, and not all of them do it with great quarterback seasons. However, for organizations that don’t do very much well, they typically find fault with the QB position very quickly relative to other positions. But having an abundance of resources means that if you address all your issues at once, there is enough time and money and coaching and scouting to go around to create a winner. Teams like the Bucs and the Chargers have to streamline operations specifically because there aren’t enough resources to do everything at once like a large market team can do. But when teams like the Redskins and Dolphins push past a decade of incompetent decision making, despite the ability these teams have to error and recover quickly, you do have to glance over and chuckle when people want to point out that the quarterback situation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.