Those familiar with the NFL know the most important position on any team is the quarterback. There is an undefined term that is universally understood within league circles, fans, and media pundits. It is what every team’s front office seeks to find and build their team around: a franchise quarterback. So who are these franchise quarterbacks? And what sets them apart from other “good” quarterbacks? Who are the other “good” quarterbacks?
Well for starters, a franchise quarterback has to be a guy who can win a Super Bowl. The ultimate goal of every team is essentially to be good enough to compete for a Super Bowl every year, and each year their goal is to win the Super Bowl that season. Pretty simple. With that in mind, if a team’s starting quarterback isn’t good enough to win them a Super Bowl, or isn’t developing into someone who can, then that team needs a new quarterback. If the quarterback is holding the team back from its ultimate goal, that’s a problem, and it needs to be addressed. This is, of course, easier to say than it is to actually evaluate.
Now, this does not mean winning a Super Bowl is required for a player to be classified as a franchise quarterback. However, in the right year and with the right team, a franchise quarterback is capable of winning the Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, and Joe Flacco are examples of franchise quarterbacks that were able to lead their teams to Super Bowl victories on good teams, though they may not be considered amongst the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
Elite quarterbacks are inherently franchise quarterbacks, but they are in a class of their own. Currently, the only guys in this category are: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers. These are all names that someone could throw into a conversation about the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and not be looked at as completely insane. While all four of these players have won at least one Super Bowl, that is not necessarily a qualification for being considered an elite quarterback. For example, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were both elite quarterbacks prior to winning their respective Super Bowls.
Current franchise quarterbacks in the NFL who have not yet won a Super Bowl include: Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Andrew Luck, and Colin Kaepernick. These quarterbacks have played well enough to have their team in competition for the playoffs almost every year. They may never win a Super Bowl, but it’s reasonable to believe they could with the right team around them.
Another classification of NFL quarterbacks that is just a notch below franchise quarterbacks includes “good” quarterbacks who should not presently be viewed on the franchise level. These quarterbacks consistently put up impressive passing numbers and their teams are usually competitive. Examples of good quarterbacks include: Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Alex Smith, and Jay Cutler. Any of these players may be capable of elevating themselves to franchise consideration, when they take their game to the next level, but their careers suggest this is unlikely to happen. The ceiling for these quarterbacks’ teams is probably some level of the playoffs. Until one of these quarterbacks raises his level of play to another level, these quarterbacks’ teams will not be Super Bowl contenders. The hope with these players is that they improve with more talent around them, because finding a better quarterback will prove more difficult.
Current NFL quarterbacks below the aforementioned levels are either still developing and/or largely unproven (Jake Locker, Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith, E.J. Manuel, Mike Glennon, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater), or will be replaced in the near future (Josh McCown, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Cassell, Brian Hoyer, Chad Henne). The latter group is coming to be known as “bridge quarterbacks.”
Every quarterback in the National Football League belongs to one of these categories. Given that having a franchise quarterback is essential for winning a Super Bowl, a team’s primary goal should be finding one. In order for that search to prove fruitful, it’s important to know what sets a franchise quarterback apart from his peers. Many look at height, others to arm strength. Lately, experts have suggested an evolution in the game of football requires an athletic quarterback with above average mobility. These things can all contribute to a quarterback’s success in the league, but they are not fundamentally what makes franchise quarterbacks so rare.
Russell Wilson and Drew Brees are less than 6 feet tall. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have been referred to as statues in the pocket. Yes, they can make all the necessary throws their position requires, but many less successful quarterbacks have stronger arms. What makes these players special is a brilliant football mind. The way they analyze the field, read defenses, and prepare for an opponent is unparalleled by those outside their echelon.
Looking at NFL history, it seems to be consistent that the quarterbacks with the most successful careers are the smartest ones. Big, fast, elusive, strong-armed quarterbacks will always have their appeal to fans, scouts, and independent evaluators, but countless players have let their teams down because they lacked the mind of a franchise quarterback. They may produce great plays, games, or even seasons, but not great careers.
Doug Flutie, Vince Young, Tim Tebow, and Michael Vick have their share of highlights in the league, but their athleticism wasn’t enough to lead their teams to consistent playoff success. Byron Leftwich, Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Jeff George, and Josh Freeman are among the dozens of quarterbacks who could throw a football through a car wash without it getting wet, yet failed to carve out a successful NFL career.
Yes, Russell Wilson can run with the best of them and Aaron Rodgers has a cannon; Ben Roethlisberger is called Big Ben for a reason and Joe Flacco stands at 6’6,’’ but these guys understand the game on a different level. Manning, Brees, and Brady aren’t super athletes, but they are super smart, and that’s why they stand above every other quarterback in the league.
Everyone’s trying to find the next great quarterback, yet they keep looking at the wrong things in the evaluation process. Without a doubt, it’s hard to know which collegiate standouts will transition well to the NFL. Even the GMs who have drafted franchise quarterbacks will admit there is no foolproof formula. Knowing to look for smart quarterbacks is a good first step, but knowing which ones are really special has proven to be a defining challenge in NFL history. After all, these guys can change a franchise.