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Rethinking the second quarterback in the NFL

Cleveland Browns v New York Jets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In the NFL there are roles teams use premium resources to fill. Nobody has an issue with using a high Draft pick or spending big money to obtain a left tackle, edge rusher, or cornerback.

There are also positions a team would never use a premium resource to fill. Nobody would spend a high pick or franchise player money on a fullback, long snapper, or punter.

In the NFL no position is more important than the starting quarterback. Teams will pay a fortune for one. Yet spending premium resources on a second quarterback is viewed as a waste.

This roster building principle is commonly accepted in the NFL, but it flies in the face of everything we know. A second quarterback is a lot like an insurance policy. It’s important to have. You just might not appreciate that fact until you need to use it.

When your starting quarterback goes down, having a quality second quarterback can either make or break your season. The Jets had some experience with that in 2019. In the three games Sam Darnold missed, their offense performed at historically terrible levels.

Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf is remembered for aggressively adding quarterback through the Draft during his tenure as Green Bay Packers general manager. Wolf described how his philosophy was shaped.

“I wasn’t really paying much attention to who was behind Favre,” Wolf related. “Then all of a sudden we were playing a game in Minnesota, [and] Favre goes down. The very next play, No. 2 goes down, and No. 3 comes in and proceeds to lose the game. At that time, it’s like a light bulb comes on. You think, my God, we can never afford to let this happen again.

Despite having Favre, Wolf drafted a quarterback in 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999. Some like Mark Brunell and Matt Hasselbeck went on to have productive starting careers. Aaron Brooks and Ty Detmer were adequate starters for short stretches. Jay Barker, Kyle Wachholtz, and Ron McAda didn’t amount to anything. Still, Wolf aggressive sought insurance for the quarterback position.

On the flip side of this was the scene from the Jacksonville Jaguars war room during the 2004 NFL Draft. Former Jacksonville general manager Gene Smith (who was then at lower level employee) described what happened during a 2011 interview.

“Would you have taken Roethlisberger?”

The catch, of course, was that Smith had been playing second fiddle to James “Shack” Harris in 2004. Jacksonville fired Harris after the 2008 season, promoting Smith to rebuild a roster that had just hit rock bottom in a disappointing 5-11 campaign.

”To this day, I’m amazed that he [Roethlisberger] lasted that long,” Smith answered diplomatically.

”You were at his workout, weren’t you?” Ketchman continued.

”I did a lot of work on him,” Smith acknowledged.

Ketchman pressed him on that point: “You couldn’t convince them to pick him, huh?”

”No,” Smith objected, “we had taken Byron [Leftwich] the year before. Certainly, at that point in time, Byron was our future as an organizational decision.”

”But,” Ketchman interjected, “Roethlisberger would have been the highest-rated guy on your board when it was your turn to pick, right?”

Smith, who has insisted that he always picks the highest-rated player on his draft board, didn’t dodge the question.

”Roethlisberger, at that time, would have been the highest-rated player, yes.”

In NFL circles that logic makes plenty of sense. The Jaguars had just picked a quarterback, Byron Leftwich, in the first round. They were building around Leftwich. Taking Roethlisberger would have undermined Leftwich.

The process that led to that decision would make sense in front offices across the league. The result might not have been good, but Jacksonville’s thinking would be viewed as sound.

That leads me to a deeper question. Can it really be sound process when it leads you to pass on a future Hall of Fame quarterback only because you had Byron Leftwich?

It would have been one thing had the Jaguars not liked Roethlisberger. Every scouting department misses on evaluations. If Smith was telling the truth, they loved Roethlisberger but still did not see fit to add him to their franchise.

Let’s say the Jaguars had picked Roethlisberger. The media likely would have howled about the lack of direction Jacksonville was showing. There would be analysis about the Jaguars lacking faith in Leftwich and undermining his confidence. These would all show the disconnect in the way quarterbacks are treated in the NFL.

What does a quarterback need to do in the NFL? He needs to master the system. He needs to be able to quickly read complex defenses. He needs the mechanical base to deliver accurate throws. He needs to be tough enough to take big hits and bounce back. He needs to be fearless in big road games. He needs to grow into a locker room leader. In some ways, this is only scratching the surface.

In the successful quarterbacks are extraordinary people. You pick a guy early because you think he is extraordinary.

NFL teams believe these things. Yet they also seem to believe these same extraordinary people will be broken if they are given any competition and forced to earn their starting role.

What exactly was Jacksonville fearing? Were they afraid Roethlisberger would be better than Leftwich? Then they would have upgraded their most important position on the field.

That brings us to the second disconnect in NFL quarterback thinking. What do David Carr, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, Jason Campbell, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Tim Tebow, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Brandon Weeden, EJ Manuel, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Paxton Lynch, and Mitchell Trubisky have in common? They are quarterbacks who have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft within the last twenty years.

Think about all of those skills I laid out above. Imagine trying to project them over 15 years for a prospect. How difficult is that? It is close to impossible. Even the top professionals have a spotty track record of projections.

This is the most difficult position to evaluate correctly and the most important to get right. Yet NFL teams are content to put all of their eggs in one basket. You are ridiculed for even considering hedging your bets.

Even if you get your evaluation right, things can go wrong. A player could suffer a career-altering injury as happened with Robert Griffin III. Fortunately for Washington they picked a quarterback after Griffin in the 2012 Draft, Kirk Cousins. Cousins led Washington to a division title in 2015.

As you might imagine, at the time the pick was ridiculed in the media as, “ridiculous,” “utterly moronic,” a “wasted pick,” and a “luxury pick.”

Like I said earlier, a second quarterback is really valuable. It just isn’t obvious until your team actually needs to use him.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the value of the rookie contract for a quarterback. Each drafted quarterback offers his team a four year cost controlled window. If you hit on a quarterback, you can quality quarterback play for cheap against the salary cap. That frees up cap space to load up the rest of the roster.

Yes, you can win with an expensive older quarterback, but the benefit on the rookie deal is obvious. The exact same player costing under $10 million one year and over $20 million the next creates a major shift in resources to build the rest of the roster, a greater financial shift than any other in the sport. Each subsequent time you hit on a quarterback, the clock immediately resets.

Ron Wolf’s quarterback picks were in the middle to late rounds. Cousins was a fourth rounder. Yet the importance of the second quarterback leads me to a simple question. Why wouldn’t a team at least consider taking one in the early rounds?

Would Jacksonville have been better or worse in the long run had they taken Roethlisberger? The answer should illuminate the issues with current NFL thinking.

Of course the second quarterback won’t always be the right choice. Drafting an edge rusher isn’t always the right choice. Drafting a left tackle isn’t always the right choice. It comes down to the quality of players available and what the team needs.

I just don’t understand why a second quarterback should be off the table the way a fullback or a long snapper is. The second quarterback is a premium role. Every year teams’ seasons live or die based on the quality of their second quarterback.

With a few exceptions, the current NFL has a clear formula for finding a second quarterback. You sign a failed starter from another team. You talk up his starting experience, even though most of it is bad. You point out the statistics from the best season of his career even though they aren’t indicative of the player’s true quality. If he was fortunate enough to quarterback a winning team or two, all the better. It doesn’t matter whether he was the driving force.

Then you hope your starter doesn’t get hurt. If he does, the season is ruined.

Shouldn’t there be a better way?