Detroit Did the Right Thing in Paying Stafford

The Detroit Lions just made Matthew Stafford the highest paid QB in the NFL and in NFL history. And as is bound to happen just about every time another QB is given a massive contract, the “should they have done it, should they not have done it” debate starts once again, with your fair of share of pundits and fans blasting the deal. I wrote about the question of whether it’s worth it to give a Quarterback–often one that isn’t an “elite” (ie Brady, Rodgers, Brees) guy–a huge contract when Brock Osweiler went to Houston and when Adam Gase signed Jay Cutler. But every situation is different, and seeing as how this debate always seems to come up, it’s always worth revisiting, as I intend to do now with Stafford. People get very passionate and intense about this stuff, but as with most things, the answer is rarely as clear cut as people make it out to be, and as I often try to do, I’ll attempt to look at the situation from as many angles as I can.

People often get shocked by the raw numbers of these deals, and understandably so. Money is an emotional issue, and a lot of people who watch the NFL probably will never see that kind of money in their lives. That in and of itself is enough to cause a negative reaction. But I think there are always a few things we have to keep in mind when looking at these giant numbers in order to help keep things in perspective and evaluate these deals objectively:

    1. NFL Contracts are rarely fully guaranteed, and players hardly ever play out their entire deal. This fact makes NFL contracts look a lot bigger than they actually are. It’s important to not look at the total number, but instead look at the guaranteed money and how it’s spread out over the years.
    2. Even the respective salaries of the richest NFL Quarterbacks probably shouldn’t be viewed just back to back, as that paints somewhat of a skewed picture. They need to be viewed with respect to what the market and salary cap were like at the time they made the deal. For example, it may seem strange that Matt Stafford is being paid more than Aaron Rodgers, but Aaron Rodgers’s deal was likely the highest when he signed it. The market doesn’t exist in isolation, and all these deals are essentially being crafted in response to the others. (I don’t really speak economics, but this piece seemed to do a good job explaining how the raw numbers can be misleading.)
    3. Athletes get paid a lot of money. It might not seem fair, but it’s just the way things work in society.
    4. The money these players are making is chump change compared to what the NFL owners are making. If the owners are getting paid so much, why shouldn’t the players? They’re the ones that are doing the heavy lifting.
    5. The NFL’s attitude toward Quarterbacks is different than its attitude toward almost every other position. With most players, teams think strictly in terms of value and don’t hesitate to let good players go if they’re asking for what they view as too much money. With Quarterbacks, teams tend to be a lot more generous. That doesn’t mean it’s justified, but with the mostly hardball philosophy the NFL employs–I can’t speak for other sports, don’t know if they do it that way too–the Quarterback position tends to stand out because of how different it’s done compared to the other positions. If other positions were paid as much as QBs were, we wouldn’t notice it as much.

Anyway, none of this is to say these big contracts are (or aren’t) justified. I just think it’s important to keep this stuff in mind when thinking about these deals and all the money that’s being tossed around. Because a lot of the negative sentiment seems to stem from people just being upset at how much money these guys get paid. But there’s more to it than that.

Anyway, back to Stafford. He’s currently the highest paid QB and player in the NFL. Is he worth the money?

Again, it’s easy in theory to say that QBss should be paid relative to the value they provide a team–that is to say, the QB pay tree should look almost identical to a QB rankings list. But as I alluded to above (see bullet (2)), the market is reactive. These seemingly huge QB deals probably started when Joe Flacco–a slightly above average QB who was coming off a spectacular postseason hot streak (which he was unable to maintain into subsequent seasons)–signed his megadeal after winning Superbowl 47. That created somewhat of a domino effect, as it set a benchmark for what other players could point to when negotiating their deals.

I’ve talked about that before, so I won’t go into it too much again here. But the bottom line is that because of how the market is set up, QBs have a lot of leverage. So Stafford, just like Flacco and all those before him, was never going to sign a middle of the pack deal. So when we evaluate this deal, we have to understand that in reality, Detroit had two options: Either pay him, or let him go.

One of my favorite NFL analysts, Scott Kascmar of Football Outsiders, has never been one afraid to go against conventional wisdom, and he is often an outspoken critic of deals like the one Stafford signed. He’s an avid tweeter whom I follow a great deal, and his arguments are certainly compelling. He spoke out against the Stafford deal, and his argument is similar to the one I presented above, namely, that top money should be reserved for top QBs, and that if a QB is unwilling to accept a deal that is more in line with his relative value, then the team should move on from said QB. Paying a non-elite QB elite money means being stuck in 8-8 purgatory, as it does not allow a team enough money to build up the rest of the team sufficiently. And there only a few QBs who can consistently overcome roster deficiencies to reach the playoffs, and these are the elite guys for whom top dollar should be reserved for.

It’s an argument that I struggle with, both because I think that these guys deserve to get paid and make as much money as they can (no one should be knocked for trying to make money, especially in a profession that leaves you more often than not injured for life), and because it’s really hard for coaches and general managers whose jobs rely on winning games to move forward without anyone at QB. But pragmatically it makes a lot of sense.

I’ve explored this philosophical debate in depth in my previous articles, and I’m sympathetic to both sides. And we’re starting to see more scenarios in which teams are willing to pass up paying Quarterbacks who they view as replaceable. Denver passed up paying Osweiler to start Siemian. The Jets, last year, played hardball with Fitzpatrick after his anomalous 2015 season. And the Redskins continue to use the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins rather than give him a long term deal (although ironically, they seem to be costing themselves more money in doing so). We’ll see what happens there, but the previous two scenarios, in retrospect, were both the right moves. Siemian was not great, but his 2016 was much better than Osweiler’s, and his flaws are easier to work around than Osweiler’s. More importantly, the Broncos want to keep their top defense together, something they would struggle doing if they had paid Osweiler. The Jets were right in thinking that Fitzpatrick’s 2015 was an anomaly, and he’s off the team now. Then there were the Eagles with Nick Foles back when Chip Kelly was the head coach. Although their plan was to roll with Bradford (who only started one so-so season with them before Kelly was fired and Wentz was drafted), they didn’t hesitate to give up Foles. He’s no longer a starter, and the Eagles seem to have their QB of the future in Carson Wentz.

The counterargument is always, if you don’t pay this guy, then who’s the QB? Kacsmar on Twitter, when asked about the last example of a team moving on from a high level QB and being successful, gave the example of the Bengals moving on from Carson Palmer to Andy Dalton in 2011, and then proceeding to make the postseason for the next 5 years. It’s not strictly analogous because the Palmers dispute with the Bengals was not about money. Rather, Palmer just didn’t want to play for the Bengals anymore. Nonetheless, it’s still a good example of a team that was able to move on from a highly respected, high level Quarterback, and maintain success. QBs certainly are not a dime a dozen, but the thinking behind the “let him go” mindset seems to be that the difference between a slightly below average to average QB and an average to slightly above average QB is not worth the difference in money and wins that it will cost you, and if you don’t have an elite QB, focusing on team building is more important. The other part of that argument is that average QBs aren’t as hard to find as people may think:

rudock
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What Kacsmar wisely articulates here is that lots of people pay QBs (or defend QBs being paid) because they are afraid of the alternative (with regard to that first tweet, Jake Rudock is Stafford’s current backup). But letting your current guy go doesn’t mean going into QB purgatory. Kacsmar gave the example of the Bengals landing on Dalton in 2011. I already mentioned Siemian and Bradford filling in well for, if not playing being better than, Osweiler and Foles did in Denver and Philly, respectably. Then you have Houston who made the playoffs back to back years with Ryan Fitzpatrick one year and then Brian Hoyer the next. They didn’t have the best QB in the division, but they had the best defense, and that turned out to be more important.

These are all excellent arguments about team building and value, and I’ll come back to them later, but for now I’d like to focus specifically on Stafford and his specific value to Detroit as a player.

The Case Against Stafford

The best argument against paying Stafford this kind of money is that the Lions simply haven’t been that good since he joined. To be fair, they’ve been better than they were before he got there, but it hasn’t resulted in playoff appearances or wins. Here’s a listing of how well the Lions have done each year with Stafford <wikipedia>:

2009 (Started 10 games): 2-14 (4th in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2010 (Started 3 games): 6-10 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2011: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at New Orleans, 28-45)
2012: 4-12 (4th in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2013: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2014: 11-5 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at Dallas, 20-24)
2015: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2016: 9-7 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at Seattle, 6-26)

Overall that’s 8 seasons, 0 first place finishes,  3 second place finishes, 3 third place finishes, 2 fourth place finishes, 3 playoff appearances, and 0 playoff wins.

Even more concerning, however, is Stafford’s 5-46 record against teams with a winning record. Wins and losses aren’t all on the Quarterback, but that’s an abysmal number, and I think is the best argument against Matthew Stafford being paid this much. (A few examples I dug up for comparison’s sake: Andrew Luck had 4 wins of the sort in 2013 alone, Carson Palmer had 4 in 2015 alone, and Matt Ryan had 4 in 2010 alone. (Those numbers could be wrong but I double checked and am pretty sure they’re correct.))

Despite Detroit’s relative lack of success with Stafford at the helm, I still think he’s worth the money for the following reasons:

Stafford is a Unique Talent

It’s important not to get swept away by and judge a Quarterback solely on his physical attributes. You can have a good arm and still not be a good Quarterback. Jay Cutler was a guy who was always given extra chances because of his immense arm talent yet was never really able to be anything more than average. Cam Newton is another guy who, outside of his 2015 season, has not been anything special compared to his peers, yet because of his immense physical gifts, people continue to mistakenly view him as a top 10 player at the position.

Having said that, arm strength does matter, as it allows you to make throws that others simply aren’t capable of making. It’s been evident that Stafford has had a big time arm ever since his college days. It’s the reason he was the No 1 overall pick in the draft, and it’s always evident on film. The ball just comes out of his hand differently than it does with other Quarterbacks. He also has relatively quick feet and a quick release and can throw from nearly any platform. This allows him to be a unique asset at the position with the throws he is able to make.

Stafford is Very Important to the Detroit Offense

The Lions under Stafford always have thrown the ball a lot more than most teams. Sometimes the result is good, sometimes not so much, but there are few Quarterbacks that would be able to handle the type of workload he’s often given. With Stafford at QB, you’re never out of a game.

Furthermore, with the offense they currently run under Jim Bob Cooter, Stafford is asked to do a lot before the snap. Jim Bob was an Offensive Assistant to the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-2011, and the offense he runs with Stafford is somewhat similar to the one Peyton Manning used to run. It uses a lot of static formations (no pre-snap motion) from the shotgun, and Stafford is asked to identify the defense, adjust the play accordingly, and isolate the correct matchup. The Lions don’t have a ton of athletes on offense, and as a result, they rely on lots of quick, short passes to move the ball. Stafford making the right read and throw is imperative to that working successfully. It’s an offensive identity that relies on him as the centerpiece (they had to change to this after Calvin Johnson retired), and it’s not clear who would pick up the slack without him. His value to this offense was apparent last year, as evidenced by his 8 fourth quarter comebacks <pfref>.

Stafford Has been an Ascendant Player the Last 2 Years

There’s always been somewhat of a gap between Stafford’s talent level and his production. He’s always flashed, but he’s never really been able to produce on a consistent week-to-week basis. I maintain that 2011 was his best season by far (5038 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 7.6 Y/A), and I was expecting big things after that year. It didn’t really happen. 2012 was a big step back with a lot of stats padded by garbage time and volume of pass attempts, and he’s been for the most part up and down ever since.

Early on in his career, Stafford started to show some problematic tendencies, mainly related to a lack of discipline. He would often get sloppy with his fundamentals. His footwork could be erratic, but most worrisome were his throwing mechanics and his tendency to sidearm throws that didn’t need to be sidearmed. I always got the sense that then head coach of the lions Jim Schwartz, as well as possibly offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, ended up exacerbating these issues by failing to address them early on when they should have, and even excusing them (if I’m correctly recalling comments made by Schwartz at the time).

The Lions hired Jim Schwartz in 2014, in part to help instill more discipline in Stafford. The Offensive Coordinator was Joe Lombardi, who had previously been on the offensive staff with the Saints. The Lions essentially ran the Saints offense, which I never saw as a great fit for Stafford considering the amount of nuance and precision it requires (think about how Drew Brees plays the position). But the hope was that it would help Stafford. The Lions made the playoffs that year and Stafford had some nice 4th quarter moments, but overall it was a step back for the offense, and it was the defense that help propelled the Lions to the playoffs (a defense that for every other year Stafford has been in Detroit, really hasn’t been anything more than average).

The next year, the 2015 season, the Lions started the season 1-7 with Stafford playing poorly. Joe Lombardi was fired and the Lions promoted Jim Bob Cooter, the Quarterbacks coach, to Offensive Coordinator. The results were excellent. Stafford finished the season on a hot streak, as did the Lions, who went 6-2 in their last 8 games mainly thanks to the improved play of Stafford. The following season (last), Stafford showed that his improved play was no anomaly. Stafford had his lowing interception percentage since 2010 (a year in which he played only three games).

Stafford was always similar to Jay Cutler in that he was a tremendous talent but had too little discipline in his game. People, like they did with Cutler, would always make a big deal about the interceptions. But with those two I would argue that the little things were even more problematic. Footwork. Mechanics. Playing within the timing of the offense. Dropping back and getting rid of the ball on time. They both would make the headscratching throws more than they should. But they also failed to keep the offense running the way it needed to in order to have consistent execution.

Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter were on the same page from the start, something Stafford has made abundantly clear. And that’s so important for a Quarterback. But even moreso, Jim Bob Cooter deserves credit for fundamentally transforming the way Stafford plays the game. He’s still a gunslinger at heart. But Jim Bob honed in those gunslinger tendencies. He did it mostly with a lot of quick throws. His offense demands that you get the ball out quickly within the timing of the play. He reined in Stafford just enough. Now Stafford does the little things right when he needs to, but is still capable of making tremendous throws when he has to. That skill doesn’t go away and never would. He’s just added to Stafford’s game so that he can be a more consistent player.

This, more than anything else, is why Stafford is deserving of his contract. Under Jim Bob Cooter, he’s been an incredibly efficient ball distributor, rather than an inconsistent, undisciplined gunslinger.

As I mentioned earlier, Stafford and the offense arguably had to change when Calvin Johnson retired. Stafford could always rely on Megatron to bail him out. He could force it to Megatron and toss it up into coverage, even if it was outside the timing of the play, and more often than not Megatron would come down with it. With Calvin Johnson, Stafford didn’t really have to play with timing.

Now, without one guy that causes matchup issues for the defense, the offense has to win through scheme, and the Quarterback has to be the centerpoint. He has to consistently execute with precision in order to create offense. This always would have helped Stafford and the offense, but without Calvin Johnson, it’s more urgent than ever that he plays this way.

Stafford’s improvement carried on through almost of his last season until a late season injury to his throwing hand seemed to diminish his play a little bit. But make no mistake, it’s evident watching the Lions that Stafford is a different player than he used to be, and in the context of that scheme, he’s incredibly valuable to that offense.

All Quarterbacks, Even Elite Ones, Play Better with a Good Team

Kacsmar makes the point that big time money should be reserved for the few elite Quarterbacks that can overcome a flawed roster and consistently carry poor defenses to the playoffs, often playing in shootouts to do so.

There is no doubt that there is a small class of elite Quarterbacks that can do this. But I’d like to counter Kacsmar’s point with the following: If the goal is to win a Superbowl, and devoting too much money to the Quarterback makes it harder to do that, then why even pay the elite guys big money?

Because as good as those elite Quarterbacks are, even they have trouble winning Superbowls on their own. No one can, really. Aaron Rodgers won his only ring when his defense didn’t suck. The same can be said for Drew Brees. Both of those guys have struggled to elevate their team’s play after signing huge contracts. Though they are still able to do so, it’s clear that they are both essentially running one man shows. Peyton Manning is arguably the greatest Quarterback of all time, and even he was only able to win his 2 Superbowl rings when his teams stepped up in the Postseason. And then you have Tom Brady. He won 3 rings with an all time great defense in his first 5 years. He then didn’t win another one for 10 years. He’s been able to play at a transcendent level for his last 2 Superbowl wins and deserves all the credit in the world for doing so. But we still can’t neglect to mention that the Patriots are the best organizations in the NFL with arguably the best coach of all time. They are able to outscheme teams to oblivion, and are tremendous at getting cheap but talented players that fit their system. In short, they’ve essentially been able to beat the salary cap era and keep really good teams around Brady even while they are paying him. Has his play been spectacular during those two postseason runs? Of course. Was he still afforded help other elite QBs simply don’t get? Yes, he was. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers’ defenses wouldn’t hold during a 28-3 deficit. They wouldn’t pick off a pass at the 1 yard line with the game on the line. Even someone as transcendentally great as Brady, who will be the Greatest of All Time if he maintains this level of play deep into his 40s, would not be where he is without the help he gets from his team and organization.

Russell Wilson’s going to get paid, and it’s going to be much harder for his team to have the consistent postseason success it’s had with him living off of his cheap 3rd round pick deal. And what about Andrew Luck?? For everything that’s great about the Patriots, that’s how bad the Colts organization is. He’s the best QB in that division and arguably a top 6 QB in the NFL, and even that wasn’t enough to make the playoffs last year. They’re a 2 win team without him, but with all the money they’re paying him and the fact that the roster is barely any better than it was when he was a rookie, it’s hard to see them getting back into the playoffs, let alone winning a Superbowl.

I get that it’s hard to win a Superbowl. I get that for most teams, it starts with having a winning season and making the playoffs. And I get that the great QBs can do that consistently. All I’m saying is that if we’re talking about the ultimate goal–winning the Superbowl–Kacsmar’s argument that having too much money tied up into the QB makes it harder, if not impossible, to have success, even applies to the elite guys who Kacsmar believes are deserving of big money.

The Lions Were Always Going to Pay Stafford

These are fascinating conversations to have from our armchair, but at the end of the day, I guarantee you that no one in the Detroit Lions organization for a second even considered letting Stafford go. When you find a good QB, you take care of him. That isn’t to say that everything an organization does is always right, but it is to say that moving forward without a QB is a lot bigger bullet to bite when your job depends on it.

In Conclusion

There’s no right answer and every situation is different. When it comes to paying or not paying the Quarterback, both sides make excellent points and its a discussion I’m sure will come up again and again. I’ve done my best to present both sides of the argument here, and while I am sympathetic to the strictly business side of things, I can’t get myself to endorse the notion that letting a QB as good as Stafford go is a good move.

We can’t generalize here because as I said, every QB is different. I’m not a business guy, so I don’t always see it from that cold, calculating side. However, I’m beginning to understand that there are situations where not always paying the QB is a good move. And I think teams are too. When you look at guys Tannehill, Kaepernick, Dalton, Cutler, and Newton, that all got big deals, I totally understand all of them, but I also get why those might be questionable and why you might be paying for a little more than they’re worth.

But I also think the idea that “we have to just give up if we don’t have an elite guy” is a tough pill to swallow for NFL organizations. Because there simply aren’t that many of those guys that can win in any situation no matter what. And I think when you have a guy that’s above average, you think that guy gives you the best chance to win. For most of Stafford’s career, he’s been around the line of average. He still has a lot to prove with this deal, but I do believe that his ascendance under Jim Bob Cooter has pushed him up from the Tannehill/Cutler tier and closer to where a guy like Matt Ryan is (probably just below the elite tier). He’s not there yet, but with guys that good, you trust in your chance to win with them.

Just to go back to team building quickly here. Kacsmar’s argument is also that the Lions are already at a disadvantage playing in the same division as Aaron Rodgers, and that they aren’t equipped to win shootouts with him, so it would be better to rely on defense. He points to Mark Sanchez and the Jets, who did a great job against Bill Belichik’s Patriots from 09-10.

This is an example I often think of when it comes to team building. Mark Sanchez was a bottom 15 Quarterback, but his team was so good that they were still able to win. In those two years, Rex Ryan beat Philip Rivers at home, Peyton Manning at home, Tom Brady at home, and was a 4th and Goal stop away from beating Ben Roethlisberger at home. That’s pretty incredible, and it shows that defense truly does win championships… or at least get you hella close.

However, we can’t neglect to mention that after 2010, Ryan’s Jets fell apart. The defense and run game sunk a little bit from their perch of best in the league, and Sanchez simply wasn’t good enough to carry the team by himself. So I think this comes back to the point that I was making just now. As Kacsmar articulates so well, it’s hard to win a shootout without a truly elite quarterback. But the counter to that is, it’s hard to win defensive battles without a truly elite defense. If you have just an average or below average Quarterback, your defense has to be phenomenal. Which is to say, while Kacsmar accurately articulates the dilemma of paying a non-elite QB and trying to win shootouts with him, I think he somewhat underestimates how hard it is to win without a QB, and overestimates how replaceable these guys really are.

Stafford’s not elite, but he’s been a really good Quarterback, and I think he’s worth the money. Even though it’s a tough pill to swallow, I think the Lions did the right thing in signing him.

So Matt Stafford, if you’re reading this, you better go out there and have a great season and make the playoffs. Don’t prove me wrong!!!!

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Jay Cutler to the Fins – Good or Bad Move?

Likely concerned about Ryan Tannehill’s apparently serious injury, the Dolphins have signed Jay Cutler to a one year, 10 million dollar deal. In doing so they coaxed him out of retirement and his newly minted deal as a broadcaster with Fox, so he likely will be the starter if Tannehill is forced to miss time, which is looking increasingly likely. The move will likely draw eye rolls from many, so it’s worth looking at whether this was a good decision or not. I’ll start by saying, however, that upon hearing that Tannehill may miss time, my immediate thought was that the Dolphins should have gone after Romo (even though I knew they likely wouldn’t). Romo did make his retirement announcement more permanent-sounding than Cutler did, but for both of them, the decision to retire was after limited to no interest in the offseason, and that really surprised me on Romo’s end. If healthy (which to be fair, is a serious question), he makes practically any team an immediate playoff contender. But, that’s a topic for another blog post…

Whenever we’re talking about big and potentially controversial decisions like this, it’s important to look at things from the eyes of a coach, and ask what the coach was thinking. The coach’s job is to win games, and when your starting QB is faced with a potentially season ending injury, it’s tough to move forward with the backup. That often feels like giving up on the season. Most backup QBs have a pretty limited ceiling.

So when it comes to the most important position on the field, many coaches are willing to doll out some extra money and take a risk or make a seemingly desperate move if it means they’ll be able to compete, as the alternative–not doing anything–can be a tough pill to swallow. I talked about this in my post here: It’s much easier to be skeptical as fans; we’re not being paid to win games and our jobs aren’t in jeopardy if we lose games. Additionally, fans and pundits tend to find a way to be skeptical regardless of the decision made. It’s just as likely that not signing anybody would look just as bad and invite just as much criticism; we just don’t see this because rarely do coaches choose not to pay the quarterback.

The other thing to remember is that coaches deserve at least some benefit of the doubt because they’re in the building with their players everyday and as a result know them much better than we do. An interesting case to look at here is Brock Osweiler, who the post I just linked to was originally focused on. Brock Osweiler turned out to be pretty bad last year and it ended up being his only year in Houston. In limited sample size, Tom Savage–who had already been on the team before the Texans signed Osweiler–looked a lot better, which likely led many to wonder why the Texans didn’t just roll with Tom Savage. One answer is, as I alluded to earlier, the coaches felt pressure to make a big move at the game’s most important position. But the other answer is that the Texans know something we don’t about Savage and don’t feel like he’s the answer, and the fact that they drafted Deshaun Watson in the first round this year seems to suggest that that is at least part of it. Obviously, hindsight tells us that Osweiler was worse than Savage likely would have been, but Osweiler also played okay in 2015, and even though the Broncos didn’t feel comfortable matching what the Texans offered him, they still did offer him a lot of money, indicating that they too thought he was a good player.

But the other part of this and the counterargument is about value, and just because coaches feel pressure to make a move doesn’t necessarily make it justified. One of my favorite writers, Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, has argued that if you’re going to miss the playoffs anyway, you might as well lose a bunch of games and go get a good draft pick than pay way too much for a couple more wins and go 8-8. Look at the Vikings with Sam Bradford last year: He played much better than he had in the past and than what was expected, and the Vikings still only went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. (Although Sam Bradford I believe is good enough to take the starting job from Teddy Bridgewater, which he very well may do if Bridgewater’s injury lingers, so that move is a little more complicated.)

While coaches may not think in terms of losing games and getting good draft picks, the question of value still remains because the stronger part of that argument is that often, the difference in talent (and therefore, the number of wins gained) between the guy signed and the existing backup isn’t large enough to justify the money being paid to the new guy. And that often is a very valid argument. If you’re going to go blow a bunch of cash and sign a free agent and he’s not even going to play that well, then that’s a bad move. And while coaches obviously don’t do it expecting to miss the playoffs, if that ends up being the outcome, then it’s still worth asking from the start if the acquisition was a good one, or if coaches are misevaluating talent or making moves out of desperation.

So philosophically, there’s a lot to take into consideration from both sides, but enough of that; let’s look at this specific situation in Miami and whether Cutler was worth the signing. He didn’t sign that expensive a deal so in this case it’s really about whether he can take the Dolphins to the playoffs and be an upgrade over their current backup, Matt Moore.

My initial feeling was skepticism. I’ve always liked Jay Cutler and would love for him to succeed. But their backup, Matt Moore, is more than capable. He doesn’t have a great arm, but he throws with good touch and anticipation and generally has a pretty good understanding of the fundamentals of playing QB. He’s reasonably quick twitch, moves well, and gets rid of the football fairly quickly. He’ll occasionally force balls, but for the most part, he usually knows where to go with the football against defenses. To use the cliche, he’s a professional quarterback. In fact, I remember that I partially questioned the Dolphins starting Tannehill when they drafted him in 2012, since Moore had come off of a pretty good 2011 season and they theoretically could win right away with him.

Jay Cutler certainly has a (much) better arm than Moore. But he’s been in this league a while and we have a pretty good idea who he is. He’s never really lived up to his talent level or been a consistent player. Leaving Denver and Mike Shanahan seemed to have messed up his development. Ever since then, everyone’s really been waiting for Cutler to become this “elite” guy, and it never really happened. 2009 was an incredibly turnover plagued year mixed in with a few really impressive throws here and there. 2010, Cutler’s lone playoff year, saw the Bears lose to the Packers in the AFC Championship as Cutler watched from the sideline on the bike, nursing… some sort of injury. He wasn’t great overall that year as the team mostly leaned on run/defense/ST for their wins, but he did start to come on late in the year with some impressive throws. 2011 was a good start, but he was injured. 2012 was a step back. 2013 saw Jay Cutler play well in Marc Trestman’s system (although Josh McCown arguably played better), only to take a step back in 2014. In 2015, Adam Gase, the current dolphins coach (more on that later), came in and simplified the system and Cutler played decently, although he wasn’t asked to do much. In 2016 he only played five games before getting injured, and it wasn’t a great start. The Bears released him that offseason, and there was apparently close to no interest from other teams.

There are a few concerns with Cutler. Obviously it starts from a quarterbacking standpoint: He’s been in the league for a long time and he’s never lived up to expectations; what reason is there to think he will now? Second, he’s 34 years old. Even though the QB is becoming more of an old man’s position than it used to be, that’s still old, and if anything Cutler is on the back end of his career. Third, Cutler has never proven that he can carry a flawed team to the playoffs. The Dolphins already have an uphill battle being in the same division as the Patriots. I haven’t followed them closely enough to really say, but I’m not sure they’re good enough to carry an average QB to the playoffs. Their offensive line in particular seems to be an issue, which is problematic because Cutler often likes to hold the ball, certainly moreso than Moore. And lastly, Cutler himself has been injury prone. He’s played less than 15 games three times (not counting his rookie year, where he didn’t come in as the starter), had his shortest season at 5 games last year, and only played 16 games three times, and that was 07 thru 09. When you’re replacing a starter who you lost due to injury, it doesn’t really make sense to get a backup who’s injury prone. This was another concern with the Vikings when they signed Sam Bradford last year, but surprisingly, he was able to make it through the season.

The Dolphins lost Tannehill to injury late last year as well, and they got crushed in the playoffs by the Steelers in Pittsburgh with Moore starting. Perhaps that had something to do with this move, but I don’t think that’s a good justification. The Dolphins were totally demolished in every phase of that game and especially could not protect the Quarterback. I have trouble believing the result would have been any different with Tannehill in the lineup.

The one reason this may work is because Adam Gase was the Bears’ Offensive Coordinator in 2015. Gase is rightly regarded as something of a QB whisperer, and Cutler had a decent year that year. He and Gase know each other, and he knows the system. I guarantee you that relationship is likely what motivated this signing, and it’s also a reason Gase likely feels comfortable plugging Cutler right into the offense.

As a coach, nothing’s more frustrating than losing your starting Quarterback to injury. Gase thinks very highly of Tannehill; Tannehill played better under Gase, and they both likely felt that things would only be that much better in Tanehill’s second year of the system and Gase’s second year as Head Coach. In just his first year, they already made the playoffs as a wild card, their first berth since 2008.

With that much positive energy regarding the upcoming season, and with the disappointment that likely came upon learning of Tannehill’s injury, it’s understanding why Gase would feel the need to go make a big move to get his team back in the playoff hunt and recapture that energy and enthusiasm so it’s not a lost season.

I would love to see Cutler succeed, but I’m skeptical it’s going to work. I also think Moore is one of the better backups in this league and would have felt fine with him under center.

Having said that, there’s not a ton of downside to this move. It’s a fairly cheap signing. If Cutler plays well, great. If not or if he gets hurt, just plug Moore right back in. If Cutler had not played (and played well) for Gase before, there’d be little reason to be optimistic. But Gase is a good coach, and I wouldn’t underestimate him.

Still, history has mostly told us what Jay Cutler is, so until he shows otherwise, it’s best to remain skeptical. Overall, I’m not sure I would have made the move, but I understand why Gase did it. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens going forward.

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What is the Value of a Quarterback?

It seems like everytime a Quarterback not named Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is handed a new contract, criticism is rampant. For years on end now, it seems like Quarterbacks have been given massive contracts that tend to eat up most of the salary cap. Many people often think that these players are not worth this type of money, as it used to be reserved for top-notch starters like Peyton Manning, Quarterbacks who were good enough that they could compensate for other areas of the team that were weak. This supposed jump in Quarterback salary likely started with Joe Flacco’s Superbowl XLVII run in 2012. At the start of that season, the Ravens chose not to offer Joe Flacco a new deal but instead let him play out the season. This was an understandable move in some respects as Joe Flacco had been a decent, but inconsistent starter up to that point, and the Ravens were a team built on running the football and playing strong defense.

That season, Joe Flacco essentially  bet on himself and won. He got hot at the right time and led the Ravens to a Superbowl victory, earning Superbowl MVP in the process. He had a tremendous postseason, throwing for 1140 yards, 9 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, and a passer rating of 117.2. At the end of the season, he knew he had the Ravens in a bind. He asked for big time money, and of course, they paid up. It was likely either that or let Joe Flacco hit the market. Letting Joe Flacco go after a Superbowl win would be a PR nightmare. Plus, they wouldn’t have a Quarterback.

It could be argued that that point changed the market for Quarterbacks as Flacco’s salary essentially became the asking price/market price for your average starter. It gave Quarterbacks and agents leverage. So since that point, we’ve seen a lot of non-elite Quarterbacks been given big time contracts. (Assuming “elite guys” are the top 3-5 guys, ie Brady, Rodgers, and Brees, that can win no matter who you put around them.) Some of these “non-elite” starters that have been given big money–and often criticized in the process–include Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, and I believe since then the Ravens even gave Joe Flacco a second big contract.

Now, it is worth saying that a lot of these contract numbers are misleading. NFL contracts are almost never guaranteed and players almost never play out the entire deal. A lot of people just look at the raw number and assume that’s what the player is getting paid, and this is rarely the case. And there are a lot of people that have a problem with athletes getting paid so much money, or asking for so much money. (There are even some people who think that even when only looking at the guaranteed money, that Quarterbacks are still getting paid too much.) I would disagree with this stance, A) because NFL players are at risk of suffering severe, debilitating lifelong injuries, and B) because what players get paid is negligible compared to the money the owners make.

But that’s a conversation for another day. Putting aside the question of whether Quarterbacks, or even players in general, deserve to be paid this kind of money from an ethical standpoint, the issue I’m focusing on for this article is whether it makes sense from an NFL/business standpoint for Quarterbacks to be making the kind of big money that they often do.

As I’ve said, it seems that everytime a big new QB deal comes out, there is criticism all over the place. “They overpaid!”, “he’s not worth it!”, etc etc etc. Now, it’s easy to offer this kind of critique from at home sitting on your couch. But at the end of the day, teams need a Quarterback. It’s the most important position on the team, outside of kicker. (Kidding, kidding. But seriously, I do love Kickers.) The search for a QB drives coaches and franchises crazy. Too often, letting a serviceable guy go is just too big a risk to take, because QBs aren’t a dime a dozen. No one wants to be the Browns, Redskins, Bills, Dolphins, etc.

At the end of the day, if the market demands a certain price for a QB, the team has two choices: either pay that guy, or let him walk and not have a Quarterback. It’s easy for us to sit on our couches and say it’s not worth it, but we’re not the ones who have to put a product on the field to start the season. Someone’s gotta play. If it’s not the guy you currently have, who is it gonna be?

In the same sense, a lot of people will make the argument that paying for an average QB is paying to go 7-9, 8-8, or 9-7 and miss the playoffs, and that if you’re going to pay that much money to do that, then you might as well go 5-11 and get a high draft pick and draft a Quarterback. Again, this makes sense in theory, but no coach thinks like that. Coaches are being paid to win games. As are players. Most coaches’ jobs are on the line every single year. We know how quickly coaches get fired in this league. Their job is to create a winning product. No coach is going to tank/purposely lose games for any reason.

Most Quarterbacks that are getting paid big-time money aren’t guys that are going to single-handedly be carrying their teams to the playoffs. There aren’t that many Tom Bradys in the world. In fact, there’s only one. Yet a lot of these Quarterbacks are held to Brady-esque standards when pundits are criticizing these contracts. Ideally, should a Quarterback be paid his value proportionally to where he stands among the QB hierarchy of the rest of the league? Sure, but the league, and the market, don’t work like that.

Coaches would love to have Tom Brady, but they have to work with what they have. And outside of that group of about 3-5 elite QBs who can be successful in almost every situation, most QBs are situation dependent. I was once listening to a podcast where someone said–I don’t remember who, might have been Chris Burke or Doug Farrar, but not sure–that when it comes to QBs, there are a group of guys at the top who are going to have success no matter what situation they’re in, there are a group of guys at the bottom who are going to be bad and bring the team down no matter what situation they’re in, and the rest of the guys are dependent on situation. That rings true to me. I think when teams pay a non-elite QB big time money, they think (or are hoping) that if they can get enough team around him, he can win them a Superbowl or at least get to the playoffs, a la Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton.

This brings us back to the initial problem though: If a QB is dependent on team to be successful, why would you pay him so much money that you don’t have enough to build up the rest of the team? This is a tough question and you could argue it even applies to the elite guys–Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers have been good enough to keep their teams in the playoff mix, but they all had more success winning rings on their earlier contracts. It’s just the case that early QB contracts are more conducive to team success, which is why it’s crucial to win a ring (or multiple ones, if you can) when you have a big time QB on his first contract. It’s going to be hard for the Seahawks to keep this defensive core together now that Russell Wilson has been extended. If I remember correctly, his first contract was incredibly team friendly, seeing how he wasn’t even expected to be the starter when he was drafted.

None of this is meant to defend any particular QB contract, nor is it meant to defend the signing of supposed “non-elite” QBs to big time contracts either. It is simply meant to point out that the criticism we hear regarding such contracts is often naive and fails to recognize the reality of the situations many of these teams are in and the options that they actually face. It’s always easy to criticize “after-the-fact”. But how many of these teams would have been criticized just as much had they cutoff ties with their QB and went into the season without a QB?

For years, teams have paid the QB, because they see it as the only viable option. For years, teams have been criticized for paying the QB because people see it as the wrong option. Could we now be starting to see a change in things? There are some situations that seem to suggest that, yes, teams may not be as willing to pay the QB going forward.

The Washington Redskins with Kirk Cousins and the New York Jets with Ryan Fitzpatrick both opted to give their QBs one year, “prove-it” deals rather than long term contracts. Both QBs had good years, statistically at least, and their teams were successful–the Redskins made it to the playoffs and the Jets were one game away–but these are guys you might hold your breath signing to long term deals. At least, that’s what the Jets and Redskins thought. Neither has a long track record of success, and neither is exceptionally physically gifted. Both played in well designed offensive schemes with talent at the skill positions. The Jets, especially, took a surprisingly long amount of time to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, much longer than people expected. They did eventually get him signed, but they played hardball, and for a while it looked like they were ready to go into the season with Geno Smith as their starter.

Then you have Sam Bradford, who, not wanting to be a placeholder for a younger QB, decided to test the market after the Eagles drafted Carson Wentz. It turns out no one wanted him, and he eventually reported to training camp with the Eagles. Teams may have been turned off by the fact that he likely wanted to be guaranteed a starting position, and wanted big time money to do so. And I know he doesn’t have a track record of success in this league, and is injury prone, but it’s still a little surprising that a former No 1 overall pick who is likely more talented throwing the football than maybe half the QBs in this league wouldn’t garner any attention, especially this day in age when so many teams are looking for Quarterbacks.

Lastly, you have the most glaring example: The Denver Broncos. Last year, Brock Osweiler stepped in midseason for an injured Peyton Manning and played pretty well, going 4-2 in his absence. I was actually surprised that they gave the job back to Peyton, to be honest. But they did, and Brock had to sit back on the bench and watch while Peyton went on to be part of the Superbowl winning team.

Osweiler was drafted by the Broncos in 2012, and everyone assumed he’d be Peyton Manning’s replacement once Manning retired. Outside of that brief period last year, Osweiler didn’t get to see the field as a starter in those four years. Yes, Osweiler was drafted under a different coaching staff than the one currently in place (although Elway had still been there, and he seems to be making the decisions with this club), but it was still surprising, to say the least, when the Broncos decided so casually to not pay Osweiler and let him seek out a trade. (Not sure if he was traded or just released and then signed, but basically Denver made a conscious decision to move on.)

What happened was Osweiler wanted a certain amount of money and Denver didn’t want to give it to him. Osweiler likely felt disrespect from a team that had him sit on the bench for four years, and then bench him again and make him watch the Superbowl from the sidelines after he thought the job was his. Elway likely watched his team win a Superbowl off the heels of a dominant defense–after a regular season during which his Quarterback, Peyton Manning, was borderline atrocious–and thought that he had a formula for success (play good defense) that he didn’t want to mess with by paying a Quarterback money that, in his eyes, he didn’t deserve based on the caliber of player he was. In theory, it makes sense for both sides, but at the end of the day, Elway is going into the season with either Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian, or Paxton Lynch as the starter (still to be determined). He essentially doesn’t have a Quarterback right now. That’s a bold move to make, but Elway’s never been afraid of doing things his way.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, you have the Houston Texans. They represent the opposite philosophy, the “pay the QB” philosophy. They gave Osweiler the money he wanted, despite going 9-7 the previous two years with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Hoyer at QB, respectively. Those QBs played okay, and Houston even got into the playoffs last year, although Hoyer imploded in the playoff game. But they saw Osweiler as an upgrade at the most important position on the field, so they gave him the money he wanted.

Both moves make sense in some respects and are questionable in others. Ultimately, only time will tell who made the best move.

The point is, it’s always easy to say from an outside perspective, not to pay the QB. But the alternative means going into the season with an unknown at QB, which could be just as dangerous, if not more. It seems that now some teams are finally beginning to take this option. It will be interesting to see what this means moving forward, as pundits who have always criticized teams for paying the QB will now get to see what the alternative looks like, and will have the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is.

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Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson: Offseason Thoughts

I’ve been meaning to update the blog for a while now, but I’ve been somewhat unsure of what to write about. Not only do posts tend to take a while, but in the dry offseason sometimes it can be hard to find things to talk about– short of another QB Rankings, which I have considered, but doing that for all 32 teams can be rough.

Having said that, the offseason generally is a time for QB analysis, if only because there’s nothing else going on or nothing better to do or talk about. And given some of the recent news that’s come out, I thought I’d focus on two things in this post that should end up tying in nicely to each other:

  1. Cam Newton’s Number One ranking on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2015 List, where his accomplishments lie as of now, and what we can expect from him going forward.
  2. Andrew Luck’s massive new contract, and whether it’s justified.

If other topics find their way into this post or I end up straying off topic, then so be it.

Let’s start with Cam. Cam Newton was ranked the No 1 player in the NFL on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2015 list–a list that historically has been advertised as being selected by the players, but in reality this claim is dubious at best, as rarely have we ever seen or heard players talking about having voted for the list. Nonetheless, Cam came in at No 1, a spot that is frustrating but not entirely surprising, considering the type of season Cam had, the hype he was getting all season long, and the fact that Cam Newton won 48 of 50 MVP votes, which is absurd given the season that Carson Palmer had.

Cam’s personality irked me big time during the 2015 season, but after watching some more tape of him over the past few months, there’s no doubt that he was really good, perhaps even better than I was giving him credit for. Yes, the raw numbers were pretty great, but he showed noticeable improvement in almost all facets of his game. I specifically noticed a greater ability to read and decipher coverage–football IQ, which is what separates the best quarterbacks from the scrubs. I specifically saw this with his eye manipulation: he was really good, especially in the redzone, at impacting coverage by using pump fakes and looking people off, then coming back to the other side where he knew he had favorable matchups. This resulted in a much better improvement in Carolina’s intermediate to deep passing game, something that hadn’t really been that good during Cam’s previous years. And while he still wasn’t and may never be a precision passer, per se, he was definitely more accurate than he’d been in the past. He also was better in 4th quarter comeback/game winning drive situations than he had been in the past. By all accounts, Cam had a good year. And while his Super Bowl gaffe can’t be ignored, he was playing a really tough defense. You can’t knock him too much for losing that game–even if you can knock him for other things about that game

I still don’t think Cam should have been the No 1 player on the list, however. But I think what this placement speaks to is his personality, and his popularity as an image. Right now, the NFL is embracing and selling the image of Cam Newton. It seems like in some ways, they’re trying to make him the face of the NFL. Or at least one of the faces. We sort of saw this with Brady around 04 and 05, where the image of him as the clutch, sexy, super bowl winning, and flawless superstar was larger than his actual performance as a quarterback–even though his performance was very good. This is all understandable, and if you’re the NFL, why not hop on board the Cam train? He’s a marvel to watch, as he’s big, he’s fast, he’s powerful, and he has a huge arm. But on top of all that, he’s young, he has personality, he’s passionate, he shows his emotions, and he has fun while he’s playing the game. And look, I’m not a fan of the dancing, the dabbing, the showboating, and all that. But I get why people would be. Even if you’re not that into football or don’t know that much about it, you can have fun watching Cam and dabbing with your friends. People know who Cam Newton is. You can also turn on the TV, see Cam trucking over defenders or firing absolute frozen ropes, and even if you don’t know football that well, you’ll still likely be impressed.

Then there’s the fact of how he plays the position. Cam Newton is a dual threat QB, and the Panthers take full advantage of this. They built the offense around his strengths and incorporated him fully into their run game. For some reason, the NFL has always loved QBs that can run. The pocket passer has always been associated with “old”, “boring” while the mobile QB is “new” and “exciting”, “the next big thing” and “transforming the quarterback position” / “changing the way the game has played”. For some reason, when you talk about the prototypical attributes of a pocket passer, people make it an emotional thing and act like you are somehow being closed-minded and stubborn. What this totally ignores is the reasons why these attributes are important. But, that’s a conversation for another day. The point is that people like and always have liked dual threat QBs. Whenever there’s a new one they always jump on the train about how this will be the one that “changes the Quarterback position”. So when there is one that’s actually had the level of success that Cam has had, of course it’s going to be emphasized.

There have always been players that have drawn fascination by the NFL more for who they are than the product they offer on the field. Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel are two examples that come to mind. Now, don’t get me wrong here. With Cam, I do think it’s both. He had a great year and he more than deserves to be praised for that. And people totally recognize that and respect that. People don’t like him just because of his personality. I want to make that very clear, because that’s not what I’m saying. His play matters. However, people also are attracted to him as a spectacle. And I think that’s what this No 1 ranking is indicative, more than anything: his ascending status as arguably the NFL’s hottest superstar–whether that’s indeed what he is right now, or whether that’s what the media wants to make him out as.

But now I would like to discuss Cam’s actual play and just where his career lies as of now. Because recency bias and hype is strong in the NFL, and it seems like because of the Super Bowl run he had last year (and I’ve been seeing the same sort of sentiments recently with the Top 100 ranking), people are getting the hall of fame busts ready for this guy. We’re seeing very strong rhetoric, such as “could be the type of player we’ve never seen before”, “will change the way the game is played”, “will be the best for the next generation”, etc. This offseason puffery is often meaningless and pointless. The narrative has been brewing for a while now–the hype was there since day one of his rookie season, and people were declaring him MVP through the midway point last season–and since Cam finally played up to his potential last year, people were more than ready to tee off on this narrative. Is the hype warranted, and can Cam maintain this level of play going forward?

Let’s be very clear about what Cam is and isn’t right now:

  • Cam did have a really strong 2015 season, aided of course by a strong supporting cast and an excellent offensive scheme. (Don’t tell me he didn’t have receivers: He had a top 5 tight end, great runningbacks, a great offensive line, a great defense, and a scheme that helps give receivers favorable matchups.)
  • Cam is also the Quarterback that came into 2015 with a losing record as a starter, 2 playoff appearances, 1 playoff win, and that win came in a season where the Panthers got in as a 7-8-1 wildcard.
  • Cam is the Quarterback who owns a career 59.6 completion percentage and a career passer rating of 88.3

“But you’re just being a hater!” No. I’m just stating facts actually.

Can Cam maintain the level of success he showed us last year? No season is going to be as easy as a 15-1 season. Those are the types of seasons where everything is going right. Cam will have to overcome adversity more than he did last year. As I said, he did show notable improvement and if I had to guess, I don’t think he’ll go back to his 2011-2014 self, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was in 2015. But as of right now, how he will play is still a question. To say he’s going to be the NFL’s best quarterback for years to come or that he’s going to be even better just because he had one good year is silly and unjustified.

This brings me into the next quarterback I want to discuss for this piece.

Andrew Luck: The Real Cam Newton

When the media talks about what makes Cam so great, when trying to justify their claims that Cam is going to be “unlike anything ever seen before”, “the best quarterback for generations”, or any similar exaggerated rhetoric, a common theme you see come up (if you can indeed find an argument in these pieces) is that Cam’s unique and grand set of skills makes his ceiling ridiculously high. Such skills include, as I’ve previously mentioned, the big arm, the big body, and his dual ability as a passer and a runner. Now, none of this is necessarily wrong. Cam is a freakish athlete and does have a really unique skillset. That’s why he was the No 1 pick in the draft back in 2011. However, as I’ve mentioned, to take any of this and turn it into some claim that Cam is going to be some demigod at the position is just meaningless editorialism and speculation.

However, in reading some of this meaningless editorialism recently, something interesting struck me that’s kind of ironic. When people talk about the ridiculous skillset and ceiling that Cam has, who they’re really talking about, even though they may not realize it, is Andrew Luck.

Again, here’s a not-so-smooth transition into the Luck situation. It seems public opinion is pretty low on luck after his poor 2015. It also seems to me that Luck is a guy that has set expectations so high that people are always going to be waiting to knock him down. But anyway, after his poor 2015 season, one might wonder about the Colts giving him the biggest contract in NFL history. Is Luck deserving of this contract? Or have the Colts made a huge mistake?

First of all, it’s worth mentioning the following: Andrew Luck will inextricably be forever linked with Peyton Manning because of obvious reasons (draft status, team, quality of supporting cast, skillset and demeanor, etc), and I did some research and found that, surprisingly, Peyton too suffered a drop in his 4th season in the league, albeit not as bad as Luck’s.

Peyton Manning 2000: 4413 yards passing, 33 TDs, 15 INTs, Passer Rating 94.7
Peyton Manning 2001: 4131 yards passing, 26 TDs, 23 INTs, Passer Rating 84.1

He threw 27 TDs/19 INTs in 2002, then threw 10 or less until 2007, and never again would throw more than 17.

Now, that’s not to say Luck is going to follow the exact same career path. He may always toss a few more interceptions because he is a bit of a gunslinger and that’s his style of play. But the point is, down years happen. It’s not the end of the world. Drew Brees is an example of a guy who tends to have a down year here and there, but always seems to bounce back the next year. Luck may have been especially bad this year, but it was also a perfect storm of lots of factors–injuries but also especially supporting cast. I don’t mean to make excuses, but that stuff matters. Just because you’ve overcome a weakness in the past doesn’t mean you’ll be able to forever. And offensive line is arguably the most important/underrated position for the quarterback, and the Colts have been bad there for just about Luck’s entire career, as he’s been hit as much as just about any quarterback in the past four years. (I don’t have the official numbers on that, but I’m fairly certain he actually has led the league in hits taken in that time span. But again, not positive.)

While it might be fair to argue that Luck was somewhat overly praised in the sense that many (including myself at times) basically took it as a given that he would be a hall of famer and expected him to consistently play at a high level–in other words, the nature of some of the praise might have been a tad premature–the bottom line is what Luck showed us he’s capable of in 2012-2014 (and even in flashes last year) can’t be ignored, and more than justified him receiving the contract he did.

I want to return to and expand on the point I was beginning to make earlier about Luck being the guy that people see Cam Newton as being or capable of becoming. I believe that Luck is the guy with the truly transcendent and incredibly wide-ranging skillset. Although people might not look at him like this–perhaps because the Colts don’t use Luck as a featured part of the running game like the Panthers do–Luck can do everything that Cam can (big body, strong, speed, elusiveness, huge arm), and then some. In addition to what Cam can do, Luck,

  • Has the ability to throw with pace and tempo, and can essentially throw the ball at any speed which the play demands
  • Throws with tremendous anticipation
  • Has superb pocket movement and functional mobility
  • Is an excellent progression reader and has shown the ability to command incredibly sophisticated passing offenses

Luck’s given us big time results in his first four years as a starter. We all know how bad that Colts team was before he came (see 2011). He’s already shown us the ability to carry incredibly flawed teams. None of the teams around him have been that good since he came into the league. Yet, the Colts had 3 straight playoff appearances with him at the helm, and got one step further in the playoffs each year. Not to mention some of the incredible numbers he’s put up, and his ability to deliver in the clutch. With Luck, we don’t have to speculate about what he could do, because he’s already shown us what he can. That, more than anything, is why Luck is being paid the number that he is.

When people criticize Luck, they like to pick on the interceptions. And while interceptions aren’t necessarily good, they need context. Just looking solely at interceptions is a very narrow way of looking at things. First of all, Luck’s never had a great defense, so he’s never been afforded the luxury of being able to go out there and be a caretaker. Instead, he knows he has to be aggressive and go out there and score on every drive. As I mentioned earlier, as cliche as it is, Luck is a gunslinger. He’s going to thread the needle and he’s going to push the ball down the field. This is not an excuse, per se. It’s just a fact that that playing style will result in more turnovers. But it’s a risk reward thing. Luck will also make plays and throws that no one else will make. Just like Brett Favre used to. The point is, some people have this perception that interceptions are just inherently bad and you should avoid them at all costs. And while you shouldn’t necessarily try to throw interceptions, the NFL game is about being aggressive, threading the needle, and turning it loose. It’s what the great ones do. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films always says, the willingness to “pull the trigger” and “turn it loose” to “make stick throws into tight windows” is a positive when evaluating quarterbacks in the NFL, not a negative.

Playing style does matter, and context matters. Brady is not going to turn it over as much as Favre, because Brady plays in a dink and dunk offense. That’s not a knock on him, that’s just the reality. If you take more chances, some of those are going to go the other way. And to say that isn’t to make excuses; it’s providing context rather than just stating a number. Now of course this doesn’t mean that every pick isn’t Luck’s fault and that he should be throwing tons of interceptions every year, or even that his interception numbers have been acceptable. But it is one reason why his interception count may always be a little higher than average.

The other thing is that a majority of Luck’s picks over his career have come when he’s been down by multiple scores in the fourth quarter. The Grigson/Pagano Colts have a terrible habit of digging themselves huge holes multiple times each year. When you’re down multiple scores with not a lot of time left, you can be overly aggressive to try to make plays, or you can dink and dunk to have a good but meaningless stat sheet. People really don’t realize how many of Luck’s picks over his career have come in these desperate situations, and those picks should essentially be tossed out.

Now, none of this is to say Luck is perfect. Of course he has things to work on. Last year proved that much. I think most important is knowing when to give up on a play. Knowing when the play isn’t there, when you have to throw the ball away or take your checkdown. There were a lot of times where it was evident the play wasn’t there and Luck tried to keep it alive or force it anyway. But Luck’s still young and he’s still learning. There’s little reason to think he won’t keep improving as he has in the past.

Also, if you don’t buy what I’m selling and you really think Luck isn’t that good, ask yourself, why have the Colts been winning so much? As I said, they had three straight playoff years and got a step further each year. What part of their team is responsible for winning if it isn’t Luck? It’d be hard to identify a team strength that has explained the Colts success over the past few years if you really think Luck isn’t at least partially responsible.

Now, I don’t know the specifics of Luck’s contract, but it is somewhat concerning that he’s been given this megadeal that is sure to eat up cap space and that the Colts have so many holes in their roster. If they weren’t able to patch them in the past, how are they going to do it now that Luck’s entering his second contract, which is that much bigger? How are they going to fix the defense and the offensive line? It definitely is a tad worrisome. However, this is all irrelevant when looking at Luck’s value as a player. Because ultimately, that’s what the contract should be judged upon when asking if Luck is worth it. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Luck is deserving of this contract when it comes to player value. Now you might argue that Luck had a bad 2015, so why not at least wait until he rebounds before paying him. However, given what Luck has done for the Colts, his skillset, his draft status, etc, he was bound to get paid at some point. He’s a franchise player, and you pay your franchise players. If it was going to happen eventually, why not do it now?

Last but not least: Don’t forget about Russell Wilson.

It’s only fitting to talk about Wilson (hopefully briefly, because I’m getting tired) because he too was drafted in 2012 (Cam was 2011, but same general time period), and he too is immensely talented, has had great success in his early career years, and should be mentioned along with this newer generation of talented young QBs.

Make no mistake: Russell Wilson has been really good since 2012. Yes, he’s benefitted from the defense and running game at times. But he’s also shown more than enough to prove that he is a special player at the Quarterback position. He’s had pretty good numbers throughout his career, he’s shown steady improvement, and he’s had tons of postseason success. At the end of last year he really started to take it to the next level. Now that Lynch has retired, we’re seeing the passing of the torch to Russell Wilson and the passing game in Seattle. And with all the Cam hype last year, I think what Russell Wilson did down the stretch was truly lost in the fray.

I’m going to give you two sets of Quarterback statistics from 2015. See if you can tell me which one is Cam and which one is Russell Wilson.

Quarterback A:

4024 Yards Passing
68.1 Completion Percentage
8.3 Yards per attempt
34 Touchdowns to 8 Interceptions
110.1 Passer Rating
25 Touchdowns to 2 Interceptions in the last 7 games
553 Yards Rushing (5.4 y/a)

Quarterback B:

3837 Yards Passing
59.8 Completion Percentage
7.8 Yards per attempt
35 Touchdowns to 10 Interceptions
99.4 Passer Rating
20 Touchdowns to 1 Interception in the last 7 games
636 Yards Rushing (4.8 y/a)

Figured it out yet? I’ll tell you. Quarterback A is Russell Wilson and Quarterback B is Cam Newton. Surprised? I didn’t include rushing touchdowns because that would have given it away. Cam had 10 to Wilson’s 1. But outside of that, the numbers are somewhat similar, yet Wilson’s actually pretty much superior in every category–despite getting close to no attention while Cam was basically unanimously considered the MVP. Yes, Wilson had a slow start to the season, but so did Cam. It just showed more for the Seahawks in the win/loss column. Also, Wilson’s production late in the season was more evenly distributed. In those last seven games, he had two 5 touchdown games and threw at least 2 touchdowns in every other game. Cam on the other hand, in his last 7, had three 5 touchdown games, but two where he threw for none.

In the playoffs, Wilson was rusty against the Vikings, and the Seahawks had one of their patented, “shouldn’t have really won that playoff game but won it anyway” games. The karma seemed to come back to them the following week as they looked nothing like Seattle and fell into a 17-0 hole early. Russell Wilson had a tough start, with pressure rushing him and causing two bad interceptions. He bounced back and rallied late, but it wasn’t enough and the Seahawks lost 31-24 to the Panthers. But make no mistake about it: Russell Wilson was playing as well as any Quarterback in the league late in the season, arguably better than Cam Newton, and not against a bad stretch of defenses either. The Seahawks were spreading it out and Wilson was in serious rhythm. All the spectacular traits he’s showed over the years, such as anticipation, accuracy, and really good arm strength were coming together, but more often than not now he was doing it from the pocket, hitting his back foot and getting rid of the ball, often at the intermediate and deeper levels. When he plays like that, like he’s capable of, from the pocket, there’s no telling what he can do. I expect him to continue to improve and really blossom as we move forward. His late season surge should not be overlooked. He’s also a guy who, since being drafted, has led the Seahawks to the following results:

2012: Lost in the divisional round by 2 points (not Wilson’s fault)
2013: Won the Superbowl by 35 points
2014: Lost the Superbowl by 4 points (arguably not Wilson’s fault)
2015: Lost in the divisional round by 7 points (somewhat Wilson’s fault, but still kept it close at the end like he always does)

Wilson’s had a lot of big time play in big time moments. The Seahawks in the Wilson era are arguably the best example of how random the playoffs are, and how playoff wins and losses are often not indicative of quarterback play. There have been multiple games where he’s played poorly and they’ve won, and multiple games where he’s played well and they’ve lost. It all really balances out in Wilson’s case. The bottom line is he’s had them in contention consistently and there have been results to show for it.

Because the Seattle offense is often inconsistent and because Wilson hasn’t always shown that advanced a level of pocket play, I’d rank his career slightly below Luck’s. If I were to rank the careers of these 3 talented young quarterbacks from 2012-2015 (and 2011-2015 in Cam’s case), I would do so in the following order:

  1. Andrew Luck
  2. Russell Wilson
  3. Cam Newton

But regardless of how you rank them, these guys are the future, and it will be exciting to see what they can produce going forward.

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