NFL teams have tried to emulate the New England Patriots' gold standard for winning, but there’s one Bill Belichick formula most aren't copying, at least not yet: the long-term quarterback strategy behind an aging star.
Some don't seem to have one at all, in part because the quality of their quarterback doesn't necessitate a change in thinking. It will.
New England is one of seven teams with a high-quality, long-term starting quarterback at age 34 or older. Yet the Patriots are the only one from that group to draft a signal caller -- Jimmy Garoppolo -- in the top two rounds during the current starter’s tenure.
The 24 quarterbacks drafted in the first and seconds rounds since 2011 signal the desperation felt throughout the league about the position -- unless you’re the Steelers, Cowboys, Giants, Chargers, Saints and Cardinals, who have mined the bargain bin for developmental quarterbacks despite having starting QBs with a median average age of 35.3. The Chargers haven’t drafted a quarterback higher than the fifth round since 2006.
For others, the picture seems clear-cut: Exhaust the starter until Father Time collapses the pocket, then scramble for a replacement.
“We’re going to ride the horse we have,” said Senior Bowl president Phil Savage, the former Browns general manager. “That’s the mentality.”
And it should be. Why not celebrate a commodity so few teams have?
But the Cowboys limping to a four-win season with Tony Romo out most of the year still wasn’t enough to convince these teams to make a major move in a draft that had 15 quarterbacks selected. The Cowboys explored the Paxton Lynch market, but ultimately came away with fourth-rounder Dak Prescott, who screams development.
The highest quarterback selection from that cluster of six teams over the past decade: New Orleans’ Garrett Grayson, No. 75 overall in 2015. After that, the hit list gets ugly. Andre Woodson and Sean Canfield ugly.
This is not a new symptom, either. Peyton Manning’s primary backup in Indianapolis was Jim Sorgi. Bill Polian couldn’t have slept well.
“The thought process is if your guy gets hurt, you’re not going to win anyway,” said one NFL executive from a team with an established quarterback. “You don’t think you’ll get the franchise guy in the second or third round. There’s not a lot there, even for teams at the top.”
Then why take one in the middle rounds at all? Former NFL exec Joe Banner, now an ESPN analyst, said teams are hopeful those players are better than they actually are.
“Are you just wasting a third-round pick to make yourself feel you found a solution?” Banner said. “Or do your grades project this can be a quality starter down the road? This is where discipline comes in, to not force needs and implement an institutionalized plan that factors in the short or long term."
The Brock Osweiler effect
John Elway played it perfectly in 2012. He had Manning, but because of neck injury concerns, the Broncos doubled down with Brock Osweiler at No. 57 overall.
Present and future lived together in Mile High harmony. The Broncos developed Osweiler into a quality backup. He was the succession plan.
But Osweiler’s departure to the Houston Texans on an $18 million-per-year deal reminded teams with established starters of two things: That four-year rookie contract runs out awfully fast, and some players might be seeking change.
“It’s like if you draft a quarterback too early, you might be training them for someone else,” Savage said. “And when you already have the kind of financial commitment to one position, you figure your top quarterback is durable enough where you can spread the wealth in other areas.”
Brett Favre-to-Aaron Rodgers is the gold standard for quarterback handoffs, but the perception grew that the Packers nudged out Favre to make it happen.
You could argue the Patriots’ drafting of Brissett is not because of Tom Brady, but as a contingency plan for Garoppolo, who has two years left on his rookie deal while Brady is under contract for four more years.
Most good quarterbacks are going to play right away anyway. The Eagles have the rare opportunity to draft and develop with No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz, but their classic stopgap options in Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel make this setup tenable.
Lack of realistic options
Here’s a jarring stat from ESPN’s Kevin Seifert: 21 of the 62 quarterbacks selected between 2010 and 2014 were waived before the start of their third seasons.
Quarterback capital is a broad discussion at the NFL level. Is there enough talent available? Compounding the problem is the lack of available practice reps for non-starters. Time spent between young quarterbacks and coaches is limited by the collective bargaining agreement.
Jets second-year quarterback Bryce Petty went so far as to cite EA Sports' "Madden" NFL video game as an aid to detecting coverages.
“Only a couple good ones a year,” one NFL offensive coach said. “Teams are not going to draft a guy high they don’t think can be the guy.”
Injuries are one reason to have help on hand. Ben Roethlisberger missed four games with a knee injury last season, and though the Mike Vick/Landry Jones combo helped the Steelers win two of those four games, the whole situation was a bit uneasy. Arizona’s Carson Palmer is less than two years removed from a six-game season.
If a team has six draft picks and three glaring defensive needs, aggressively pursuing a quarterback just isn’t a priority.
Then there’s the media component. Without a top draft pick as the backup QB, there’s no clamoring for answers about how the young guy is doing.
“It’s probably as much the coaching emphasis as well -- we will put time and energy into a player who’s not going to see the field, essentially,” Savage said. “It’s the win-now mentality.”
Age of ageless quarterbacks
Quarterbacks are the new kickers. It seems players at both positions can play into their late 30s or early 40s.
Drew Brees and Brady have said they want to play well past 40. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told ESPN this offseason that Roethlisberger, 34, has at least three to four prime years left.
If a quarterback avoids major regression, there’s no urgency to look past him.
“It’s mostly driven by short-term orientation of most of the people in the league, combined with watching all these guys play well at 37 and 38,” Banner said. “They are crossing their fingers so they have the next guy who can do the same years down the road.”
That’s why Banner says it’s crucial for at least one decision-maker on the staff to broaden the scope with the roster.
The Patriots have tried to master the short-term/long-term balance, but timing is crucial. Getting minimal returns on a second-round quarterback over four years is hard for coaches. New England's deft scouting probably allows more risk-taking in the draft.
Still, the hard questions must be asked internally because teams can’t forecast exactly when the decline will come.
“You need a voice or two in the building who are fighting for the balance -- ‘our guy’s 34, we’re going to pick a guy who when he’s 36 can possibly step in,’” Banner said.
Or just keep waiting.