Home > Draft, FNQB, NFL > FNQB: Developing and Benefiting from Elite QB Seasons

FNQB: Developing and Benefiting from Elite QB Seasons

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 12: Drew Brees  of the New Orleans Saints looks to throw the ball during the game against the St. Louis Rams at the Louisiana Superdome on December 12, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

To start this exercise, I went through and denoted every elite quarterback season betweeen 1993 and 2010, using the DVOA metric as my primary tool of evaluation.  My criteria for inclusion was that a player must been within reasonable standard error of a 30.0% DVOA season, and must have had at least 1,100 DYAR on the season (this prevented David Garrard’s 2007 from being lumped with elite QB seasons.  Garrard threw 350 times that season, compared to Ben Roethlisberger who threw 417 times this year and is on the list).  This is quite a lofty achievement: any player with two or more “elite” quarterback seasons since 1993 will be in the hall of fame some day: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Kurt Warner, and Brett Favre.

Brett Favre went 14 years between elite passing seasons, the most of any player.  Drew Brees went four years between elite passing seasons.  No other player went more than 3 years between elite passing seasons.  Brees and Favre are also the only two guys to have elite seasons for two different teams in this timeframe.

So, we’ve established a mark to reach for elite passers, and in the last 18 seasons, there have been 38 qualifying passing seasons.  The mode of any year was 2009, when there were seven such seasons.  The preferred way to achieve elite quarterback play in the last 6 to 8 years appears to be to spend a first round pick on a passer you like, insert him into the starting lineup early, let him play his whole prime for your team, and try to capitalize when said player is in his prime.  That was the effective strategy in about half of all cases of elite quarterback seasons in the last 18 years.

Here’s the issue: out of the 19 elite seasons had by first rounders in their primes (6th year-12th year in NFL) or formative primes (3rd year-5th year in NFL), the vast majority of players played a long, above average to great career, and had just one season among the league’s elite.  The 1995 Cowboys won the super bowl in Troy Aikman’s career year.  But that was their third super bowl.  They were already a 1-time winner when Aikman emerged from his formative years.  That team didn’t have to time up Troy Aikman’s prime, they built a dynasty that peaked when Aikman did.  The next first round quarterback to reach the plateau of the elite for the team that drafted him was Chad Pennington in 2002, the only year of the decade the Jets won the AFC East.  Pennington had a number of other great seasons leading his teams to the playoffs three other times, but that was the one year he qualified as elite.  That Jets team fell to Rich Gannon’s Raiders.

The next two years featured two other one-time elite quarterbacks: the late Steve McNair when he split the NFL MVP with Peyton Manning, and Daunte Culpepper the very next year for the 2004 Vikings.  All three of those teams: the 2002 Jets, the 2003 Titans, and the 2004 Vikings, reached the divisional round winning a playoff game, before losing on the road.  This is the standard expectation for an elite QB season: if a team doesn’t time it’s window perfectly for when it’s franchise quarterback has an elite year, a long playoff run is usually unobtainable, even for one of the all-pro quarterbacks.

Not only that, but in recent seasons, the uptick in total elite seasons by quarterbacks have also produced an uptick in the amount of teams that miss the playoffs despite all-pro caliber quarterback play.  The 2008 Saints, 2009 Texans, and the 2010 Chargers all enjoyed elite passing games while missing the postseason.  The last team to miss the playoffs with elite QB play: the 1995 Chicago Bears, when Erik Kramer had one of the most baffling years of all-time, put up sparkling numbers that were even better than Brett Favre’s, and didn’t even get to go to the pro bowl.  Now, more than ever before, elite quarterback play by itself is only good enough to get a team to 8 wins, anything in excess of that must be done through other competencies.

Still, a great quarterback season remains the surest way to enjoy team success.  Since 2005, Carson Palmer, and now Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger have reached the playoffs as top passers in the NFL.  While it’s unknown how Rodgers and Roethlisberger will play in these playoffs, we do know how Palmer’s bid ended in 2005: with injury, and his team slowly torn down by a bad organization, two weaknessess that neither Rodgers or Roethlisberger have to deal with.

That covers the plight of 7 or 9 first round quarterbacks to reach an elite level for their original teams.  The other two have combined for just under 1/3 of all the elite QB seasons in the last 18 years: Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers.  Despite dominating the quarterback play of the era, they’ve combined for just one super bowl trophy and a moderate amount of playoff success.  They will win more, of course, as Rivers is still on the right side of 30, and Manning is still alive and kicking.

All-in-all, the super bowl has been won 6 times by QBs having elite seasons, but only three times since the Kurt Warner miracle year in 1999.  If anything, the last decade has seemed to suggest if two teams meet in the super bowl, and one of the quarterbacks is playing at an all pro level, it’s the other team that is likely stronger elsewhere.  The exceptions are in 2004, when Tom Brady beat Donovan McNabb, and in 2006 when Peyton Manning beat Rex Grossman.  For the most part, great teams beat great quarterbacks.  The better quarterback usually does win the super bowl, but in a single game format, there is almost no premium on having an elite player over merely a strong one.  A totally different story when you talk about full seasons, where elite quarterbacking puts your team in the postseason 89.5% of the time.

If you can, it’s historically far more effective in terms of building a dynasty if you get your quarterback through a method that doesn’t require giving up a first round pick.  Out of the four quarterbacks that make up the current elite class of the NFL (Manning, Rivers, Brady, Brees), the two who were acquired by first round pick have simply run into their share of struggles against the teams that did it otherwise.  Tom Brady, a sixth round pick who won multiple super bowls before he matured into an elite player in 2004, was obviously fortunate to land with the Patriots.  Ditto for Drew Brees with the Saints.  Those are both strong coaching staffs and front offices.  At least, shrewd enough to acquire Brady and Brees without ever going short a first round pick to do it.  This comment is not a referendum on the Polian/Dungy Colts, because Polian stepped right into a job that had Peyton Manning via the first overall pick.  That’s a good front office which has enjoyed plenty of success throughout the last twelve years.

Like always, the greater the player acquired, the better off the strategy.  The Saints got more from their financial investment in a rehabbing Drew Brees than the Texans got in their trade for Matt Schaub.  Schaub will likely be like Matt Hasselbeck, Chad Pennington, or Daunte Culpepper to the Texans.  They’ll get all of his prime years, but the 2009 year was the special one, and the Texans missed the playoffs for a combination of reasons mostly related to weak coaching.  Schaub was a very good trade for the Texans, but they’ll likely have to make their playoff push with quality QB play and a strong running game or defense instead of a fantastic QB season: they already got that and missed the playoffs.  Brees is almost as good as Brady, historically.

But those great value-first organizations that can built from the inside out and also acquire great quarterback play through non-traditional means tend to reach the highest of all dynasties.  The Cowboys would have been great in the 90’s without Aikman.  The Patriots would have been great without Brady.  The Saints, at least of the last two years since the Gregg Williams hire, would have been great without Drew Brees (probably not before that, however).  The Steelers of the last six years have, at times, been even better without Ben Roethlisberger than with him.  The Texans offense would be pretty dominant without Matt Schaub, though they gave up a lot of potential defensive help to acquire him.  By and large, the teams that benefit the most from their franchise quarterbacks are the teams that never obsessed over whether or not they had a franchise quarterbacks.

That’s one of the reasons the Packers seem like a dynastic type organization over the next five years.  When Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson took over that franchise, they inherited Aaron Rodgers, but spent a second round pick on Brian Brohm anyway.  The goal was to make sure their post-Favre QB was in house, but all resources since have been poured in to the receivers and the defense.  Rodgers has emerged, this season, at maturity as a great player, but they seemed to be willing to play Rodgers without entirely believing in him.  This was the right mentality, particularly in hindsight.

Of this entire era, only the 1995 Cowboys and 2006 Colts drafted first round quarterbacks, cultured them to elite levels, and won a super bowl with them.  To truly win a bunch of football games and compete for titles, taking the best quarterback available is not the winning strategy.  It is however the easiest way to find regular season success.  Of course, great organizations and coaching staffs are going to find that success anyway, within a reasonable timeframe.  And organizations tend to maintain their dominance from year to year.  Many different quarterbacks, usually first rounders, will reach levels of dominance in their career, whether or not they play for great franchises.  If, however, theres one clear message about competing in the modern NFL, it’s that success is not self-sustaining.  You can HAVE a great quarterback without having a great team.  You can have a great quarterback without getting great play from the passing game.

And great quarterbacks are pretty plentiful in this league.  Great organizations are much rarer.  And if one of the great indicators of a strong franchise is that the front office knows how to find good quarterback play and can act opportunistically in free agency and the NFL draft knowing that a team can compete first and still find top QB play later, then we might understand why first round quarterbacks are often self-defeating propositions.  Statistically, it’s the money round to find your next quarterback in.  Statistically, you’re better off looking at formerly drafted first rounders such as Randall Cunningham with the 1998 Vikings or Vinny Testaverde with the 1998 Jets, or Brett Favre (cost the Packers a first rounder, at least) with the 2009 Vikings.  It’s a greater probability of achieving great success than looking to the later rounds.

Elite passing games require more than just a quarterback, and this is why teams that win a lot of super bowls tend to find their quarterbacks outside of the first round.  It’s not because teams that find their quarterbacks outside of the first round are better off than ones that draft first round quarterbacks.  It’s because teams that can develop quarterbacks have the resources to develop players at every position.  Thusly, drafting first round quarterbacks is the best thing a team can do in a vacuum to improve its passing game, and the worst investment a team can make towards the rest of its roster.  Your team should draft Andrew Luck when it gets the chances, because the numbers say that that move puts you in the best position to compete.

Just remember: that for everything that has gone right for the Atlanta football franchise since drafting Matt Ryan in 2008, the biggest difference between them and the Dolphins is that the Dolphins front office and ownership situation has slowly fallen apart over the last three years while the Falcons’ leaders have become more entrenched in their digs.  Through three seasons, Jake Long and Matt Ryan have been roughly equally valuable NFL talents, and both very good picks for their teams.  Matt Ryan will probably be on this list of elite QB seasons someday in the near future.  Playoff success has eluded both of these teams.  But going forward, the Falcons will likely continue to build on what they started three years ago, and the Dolphins are just a whim away from completely starting over.  The gap between the first and second round quarterbacks is a chasm, but not nearly the distance between a front office rolling in riches such as the Falcons, and one in turmoil like the Dolphins.

That is the true benefit of the elite quarterback to the talent evaluator types: believe in the quarterback, and the city will believe in you and your work as well.  If championships are the ultimate goal, lets just say that the Falcons are hardly closer than the Dolphins are.  They merely have first crack at it this playoff season.

  1. January 9, 2011 at 9:54 am

    A few weeks back there was an article regarding the development of QBs, and in the piece potential 2011 draft candidates were mentioned. One specifically caught my attention and that was my nephew at Hillsdale College, Troy Weatherhead.
    I recently returned from Kingsville, Texas and the Cactus Bowl where Weatherhead was one of four QBs on the two teams of DII all stars. What really stood out to me was his leadership…. he had spent the previous week only, with his teammates, and one could easily see that they responded to him very well. I think that your previous article mentioning him as a good candidate for development in the NFL was right on the mark… he definitely has the “it” factor which puts him above many others before any objective testing…… there were about 60-70 NFL scouts there for the preparation week of practice, however I believe most were not there for the game and it is in that venue that Weatherhead’s intangibles were evident…. in the game competition itself…. thank you.

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