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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Alex Smith and Quarterback Inflation in the Modern NFL

Anyone remember the 90s? Outside of the awesome zubaz and Clinton's extra-marital stuff? Me neither. But what I do remember is that teams really, really sucked at drafting quarterbacks back then. Between 1990 and 1999 there were twenty quarterbacks taken in the first round. Of those twenty quarterbacks, four were Peyton Manning (greatest ever), Donovan McNabb (actually underrated, really good), Steve McNair (probably overrated, still pretty good), and Drew Bledsoe (he...did some things, right? I remember him doing a thing once. You might remember it, too. No, not that thing. The other thing). That's an OK group, although Peyton is the only truly great player to come out of the entire decade.

Of the other 16 quarterbacks, the best of the group is probably Kerry Collins. You never want Kerry Collins to be the best of anything, unless for some reason you are ranking "best 1990s quarterbacks who were also drunken racists," and even then we all know we're just waiting for someone to crack and tell Brett Favre's darkest secrets.

What's the point of all of this? Because teams sucked at drafting quarterbacks in the 90s, quarterback play was very, very strongly divided through most of the decade between the haves and have nots. If your quarterback was not named Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, or Brett Favre, there was a good chance he was some middling journeyman who may have been pulled from the CFL (hi, Erik Kramer and Doug Flutie), or was just Dave Krieg or Chris Chandler. Needless to say, the number of teams with truly abysmal quarterback play was pretty high, and half of the teams in the league seemed to have a different starter from year to year, all desperately trying to find one guy who could hold down the job for a few years.

Fast forward to now. Since 2004, NFL teams have taken a whopping 31 quarterbacks in the first round, and although the failure rate remains high, at least 14 of those guys have been/seem to be long-term starting quarterbacks, if not stars. That's a much higher success rate than the preceding decade, and there is arguably far more talent at the quarterback position in today's NFL than ever before.

There are other factors contributing to this as well. Most NFL teams now run some version of West Coast or Spread Offenses, with their emphasis on short, controlled passing leading to higher efficiency even from less accurate and talented quarterbacks. Teams have become more willing to ease a quarterback's transition to the NFL by adopting schemes and concepts from that quarterback's college offense. The rules have been changed to overwhelmingly favor passing offense. It all adds up to more quarterbacks crossing traditional thresholds for good quarterbacking (passer ratings in the 80s and above, 20+ touchdowns, completion % above 60...etc), but just like all other forms of inflation, all this means is that the goalposts have to be moved. Andy Dalton is probably the 17th best quarterback in the NFL this year. He is probably better in an absolute sense, and more talented, than whoever was the 17th best quarterback in the NFL in 1997 (who, for reasons known only to me, we'll say was Jake Plummer), but in a relative sense, he's still #17.

So what is the 17th best quarterback in the NFL worth? I don't know. The Bengals just gave him a pretty reasonable contract. The real question is when or if the Bengals will be willing to move on from him and try someone else if he continues to flop in the playoffs. The nice thing about the middle tier of quarterbacks in the 1990s was that they and everyone else around them knew they were the middle tier and treated them accordingly. Teams weren't afraid to turn it over and roll the dice on someone new, which the Bengals, and possibly the Chiefs, appear to be.

The bigger question remains: can you win a Superbowl with Andy Dalton? with Jay Cutler? with Alex Smith?

In order, my answers are probably not, yes, and hell no. The important thing to note is that the question I just asked is the single most important factor on determining whether or not teams should retain said quarterbacks. I didn't ask "CAN THEY BE ELITE QUARTERFACTORBACK FART NOISE". I did not ask "CAN THEY TAKE X TO THE PLAYOFFS"....all of that is irrelevant. Alex Smith can obviously get you to the playoffs. So can Andy Dalton. Hell, if you put all three of them on last year's Chiefs, and ran the season ten times, you might make the playoffs with Smith at the helm more often than the other two. There were not many games last year where the Kansas City Chiefs needed outstanding QB play to notch the W. There were a number of games were Cutler and Dalton's overly charitable-at-times attitude toward opposing secondaries would have cost them the game. But again, this is not the question to be asked here.

Getting to the playoffs is more often than not a question of roster construction unless you are so blessed as to  have one of those Get to the Wildcard Round Free cards that is Peyton, Rodgers, or Breesus. For 29 other teams the playoffs are going to be determined by talent, scheduling, luck, health, and at least above-average quarterback play. Once you get there, the quarterback is likely to play a much bigger factor.

Joe Flacco and Eli Manning are the threshold here. Neither has ever been a consistently dominant quarterback, but neither has ever fit the mold of a game manager either. Both can be inexplicably awesome in the downfield passing game and three times in the last seven years that has been enough to carry one of them through four postseason victories. Joe Flacco is more than capable of beating a defense downfield, with tight throws into the narrow windows that often are all playoff caliber defenses are willing to allow. He's not going to do it every time. He's not even going to do it most of the time, which is why he's managed one ring in five trips to the postseason. But he can do it, and that makes him the bar that has to be crossed.

Cutler can do that. Last year nearly 67% of his passing yards came through the air, before the catch. He had an average depth of throw of 10 yards, with many of his completions coming downfield, where he was on of the leagues best passers at beating defenses where it hurts the most. In the playoffs he's naturally going to be at risk of a nightmarish implosion, but any team has to look at Flacco and Manning and decide that Jay, too, has a similar chance of stringing together those 3-4 games, at least two of which are probably going to come against a defense capable of taking away any of the easy stuff that Smith and others rely on to make up the bulk of their yardage.

Dalton is questionable. There's every reason to believe the physical ability is there. For as much as everyone was overwhelmingly eager to typecast Dalton after his rookie year as a safe, reliable game manager (which admittedly was the rep he carried from college), he very rarely plays that way. He alternates between absolute brilliance and mind numbing horror in a way that really should make him the standard bearer for that stereotype and not Jay as it has been for years. So it's not unthinkable that he could string together the Flacco-esque run, but he'd have to get near perfect protection to do so, an unlikely scenario, since Dalton becomes a complete and utter liability when pressured, even more so than most quarterbacks. So while I'd say Dalton's a better bet than Smith, I'd still be very surprised to see it happen, considering he's now wasted three straight playoff appearances on what is arguably the deepest roster in the NFL this side of Seattle.

The only overwhelming no of the group is Alex Smith, and it seems so unfair to the guy. From a raw statistical standpoint he's got every bit of the claim to the long term deal that a guy like Jay got as Jay did, depending on which statistics you value most (and if those statistics lead you to favor Alex Smith over Jay or even Dalton, you're doing it wrong), but any competent front office is asking the same question about Alex Smith as I am, and using the Flacco Run to decide, and frankly, it just ain't likely. I can believe that Andy Dalton might get the protection he needs to pick apart a playoff caliber defense with deep throws to Marvin Jones or AJ Green. I can't believe that Alex Smith, a guy whose average pass traveled just seven yards in the air (even on third and long), would do so. If you give Alex Smith six seconds against the Seahawks, he's still just going to check it down*. In today's NFL you can win a lot of regular season games with the QB who "takes what the defense gives him," but the defense in the Superbowl isn't likely to be giving up the same things, and what is there isn't something Alex Smith is going to be able to take.

I know there are those waiting to point our Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer and I get that, but it's probably time to let that narrative go away for a while. In the last 12 years the Superbowl has been won by Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson. There's varying levels of quality in that group, but each one is the kind of quarterback capable of beating a great defense downfield. There's not a Trent Dilfer or Alex Smith in that group. Things change. It's also worth noting that the NFL where Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer hoisted Lombardi trophies was a very different place where Brady and Peyton Manning were still struggling young quarterbacks, Brett Favre was laboring under Mike Sherman, Drew Brees was being written off in San Diego, and the Marinos, Kellys, and Elways were all long gone. Dilfer's opposing QB in the Superbowl was Kerry Collins. That's not likely to happen again anytime soon, so if that's the hope you're clinging to, maybe let that one go.

So should the Chiefs commit to Alex Smith? My answer is no. They may suffer for the decision in the short term as they try to find his replacement, but the fact of the matter is that a game manager can't change his stripes, and despite the proud history of the Chiefs, the name of the game is not "make the playoffs and bow out in the division round." Everything has to be done with the end game in mind, and whether it's fair or not to pay Jay Cutler more than Alex Smith for his projected ability to win a game neither of them may ever even get to, it's the reality of the situation. Alex Smith may look like a better quarterback than his mediocre 90s equivalent (let's just say Jake Plummer), but he's still no more likely than that guy to win a Superbowl. Maybe even less. After all, there are far more good QBs in the pool now.

*-Yes, I know Smith was kind of brilliant against the Saints in 2011 and the Colts this year. Neither of those teams had great pass defenses, and New Orleans was downright awful. They fired the damn defensive coordinator after the game. Even if he'd beaten the Colts, do you think he beats the Patriots? The Broncos? The Seahawks? POINT STANDS

1 comment:

Lee said...

Most NFL teams now run some version of West Coast or Spread Offenses, with their emphasis on short, controlled passing leading to higher efficiency even from less accurate and talented quarterbacks.

For some reason, meatheads see the West Coast offense as a fancy dink-n-dunk offense, when it's really a more methodical Air Coryell offense. Sure, it's allowed guys like Jeff Garcia to be in the playoffs,but they won't see the Super Bowl without a Hall of Famer like Jonathan Ogden or Warren Sapp.