QB Purgatory

What if I told you that having a bad quarterback was better than having an above average quarterback? Would you believe it?

Of course you wouldn’t. A team that has Andy Dalton as their starting QB is better off than a team that has Chad Henne starting for them, obviously. Right?

Well, not really.

When looking at the big picture, the complexities of having a mediocre quarterback can actually be more detrimental to a team than having a quarterback that they are sure isn’t the answer.

This is what I call QB Purgatory – the area a team resides in when it has a quarterback who is good enough to win them games but doesn’t have that upper echelon of talent to be able to lift his team to Super Bowl contention level. It’s not really QB heaven (Rodgers/Brady/Brees/Manning) and it’s not really QB hell (Henne/Gabbert). It’s right in the middle, hence QB purgatory.

I’m not here to tell you who is in QB purgatory and who isn’t. I’m simply here to explain what QB purgatory is and why it is so dreadful. From there, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on which teams and quarterbacks are suffering from being stuck in purgatory.

Defining the Realms

There are some quarterbacks that are elevated by the talent around them and there are others who are so good that they elevate the entire team with their exceptional skills and leadership. The quarterback position is the most influential position in the sport and can act as a levitating force or an anchor for the rest of the team. Every team wants the quarterback who can support a team through tough stretches or piles of injuries, and in the end can take his team to a Super Bowl and win it.

The ultimate goal of every NFL organization is to win the Super Bowl. The preamble to that is having a quarterback who can both get you there and win it solely on his arm if necessary. These are the quarterbacks who can put a team on their throwing shoulder and carry them. They are rare and often come with the “franchise” label attached. This is QB heaven.

At the very bottom, in QB hell, are the teams that know – not think – that their current quarterbacks are not capable of taking them to the Super Bowl. These are quarterbacks that are so bad that the organization is very clear that they will be addressing the position with the utmost priority – usually a top 5 pick.

Everyone else is in QB purgatory. They’re hovering in that middle life that seems never ending (there’s a reason for that) and it’s filled with 8-8 seasons, just missing the playoffs, or maybe even a 9 or 10 win season that gets the team into the playoffs. Getting to the playoffs is a positive but it’s not winning the Super Bowl.

Why It’s So Hard To Escape QB Purgatory

Teams and organizations want to believe they have their answer at quarterback. It’s really a burning desire to believe that the quarterback problem is solved. The hope that a quarterback can be “the guy” can leave teams so disillusioned by the positives that they refuse to acknowledge the fact that their quarterback just isn’t good enough to win the big one. This is why playoff appearances can actually be detrimental to the future success of the franchise. The team is even further disillusioned and therefore further entrenched in QB purgatory.

It’s much like being in a bad romantic relationship. You know it’s not good for you but you’re so afraid of the consequences of letting the other person go. It all comes back to the same concerns. “What if I can’t find anyone better? What if he/she turns out to be much better than I gave him/her credit for? What if I miss out?”

In the same way, teams latch onto the hope that guys like Matt Schaub are good enough to take an otherwise talented team to the game in February and come out holding the Lombardi Trophy. The problem is that he might actually be what’s holding that otherwise talented team back from getting there with his mediocre play.

Players like Schaub are good enough to get teams to 8-8, 9-7, or even 10 wins because they’re solid, not great. And when they’re surrounded with good talent and coaching, teams can get a false-positive reading on their signal caller. That leads them to, “We were so close. If he only progresses a little more then we’ll get there. We can do this.” All of a sudden, another year is burned in QB purgatory.

But what if a team like Tampa Bay or St. Louis became aware they were in QB purgatory and decided to make a concerted effort to escape? Let’s pretend for a second that the Buccaneers or the Rams realized that Josh Freeman or Sam Bradford wasn’t the answer at quarterback and wanted to move on. Now they’re in search of a new quarterback that is able to carry a team.

They’re not going to find their guy in free agency. Franchise quarterbacks never come available on the open market because teams simply don’t let them go when they have one. Peyton’s release from Indianapolis was the perfect storm of events where an organization was able to move directly from one franchise quarterback to another. Drew Brees was considered damaged goods while the Chargers had Philip Rivers waiting for his chance, and that’s why he was able to leave San Diego. Brees was so damaged even the Dolphins were weary of signing him. Their poking and prodding of Brees’ injured throwing shoulder led to a feeling of being unappreciated, and ultimately, to his signing with the Saints. It’s a once a decade occurrence that a potential franchise quarterback hits the open market.

That leaves the draft. Tampa and St. Louis are left to draft their savior at the QB position that will lift them from purgatory into QB heaven. There’s just one problem. Freeman and Bradford were good enough to win 7 games each last season. Because of their decent records, the Bucs and Rams drafted 13th and 16th, respectively, in this year’s draft. By that time, the top-echelon, franchise saving quarterbacks are taken. Drafting in the teens isn’t an effective way to find a franchise quarterback. In the last 20 years, outside of Tom Brady, only Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Joe Flacco have been drafted after pick 11 and won a Super Bowl. Even then, Brees had to go to another team to do it and Rodgers sat for 3 years behind a hall of famer.

The problem is that having a mediocre quarterback actually helps keep a team in QB purgatory by continuing to win just enough games to push them out of prime drafting positions for quarterbacks. Teams then resign to accepting the current QB is the best option and choose to pass on all of the quarterbacks all together. Then, winning a few games feeds the hope of the organization with near playoff misses or even a playoff win.

Even now, the Texans seem to be trying to move on from Matt Schaub. They’ve inserted undrafted backup Case Keenum as the starter and the team’s offense has looked markedly improved. Now the question arises: Is Case Keenum the guy? And the only correct answer is: I don’t know. On a scale from 1 to 10, if Schaub were a 4 and Keenum is a 6, then comparatively Keenum’s 6 might actually appear as an 8. And we’re back to square one, evaluating a quarterback who might be good enough, but we need to wait another year and see.

Another year in QB purgatory. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

The Investment

Once a team has a guy who they believe can be the guy, they’ll give him a year or 2 to prove himself, hoping that he progresses as anticipated. By the time they’ve figured out that he isn’t the savior they had hoped for, they’ve already invested 3 or 4 years into him. When quarterbacks don’t work out, coaching and personnel staffs rarely survive.  And the process starts all over again.

Sometimes teams even decide to trade for a quarterback when they don’t have the answer in house. In 2007, the Falcons traded Matt Schaub to the Texans for a pair of 2nd round picks. Schaub was then signed to a new deal for 6 years and $48 million. In 2012, the Texans were still so confident in Schaub that they signed him to a contract extension – 5 years, $66.15 million, with $29.15 guaranteed. Less than 2 years later, the Texans appear ready to move on.

Matt Schaub helped make the Texans relevant in the AFC South after having a rough stretch as an expansion team. He was good enough to lift them out of QB hell but seven years later and with nearly $100 million invested in him, Schaub is watching an undrafted rookie start in his place because he can’t get them to the next level.

Sadly, there are similar stories across the league. Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick looked like the answer last season but seem to have significantly regressed this season. Matt Ryan just signed a new contract for top 5 quarterback money but hasn’t really answered any of the questions that many had of him to this point. Before Joe Flacco got hot last season, I would have placed him squarely in QB purgatory. He won a Super Bowl and got top quarterback money, but has not looked like the same QB that was lighting up defenses last January. Tony Romo’s playoff and primetime struggles are well documented and he was still rewarded a 6-year, $108 million extension this offseason.

The Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans have injured quarterbacks that they will need to make a decision on this offseason. That decision could determine whether those teams face an extended stay in QB purgatory or if they repent of their sins and ascend into QB heaven. They may even need to go through QB hell to get to QB heaven.

The Alternative

With so much time and money invested in quarterbacks with major concerns about their ability to take their team to the highest level, QB hell doesn’t seem like such a bad place, does it?

The Jaguars are well aware that Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert are not the future at quarterback in Jacksonville. Instead of signing Gabbert to a major extension and investing a few more failed years into him, the Jags will likely select a quarterback with a top 3 pick and move on.

No fuss. No fighting. There is really nothing to figure out. They know what they need and they’re in a position to get it.

Meanwhile, a team like the Buccaneers finally decided to move on from Josh Freeman after 4 years and they’re now evaluating Mike Glennon. Glennon has looked good as a rookie in the 7 games he’s played. But is he the answer at quarterback or is he just another average quarterback that will hold the Bucs in purgatory for another few years? Tampa may find themselves drafting in the top 5 this May and I have to believe that if that’s where they draft they’ll take a quarterback. However, if they win another few games they’ll fall to the 10-15 range and may be stuck with no viable options to draft that highly at quarterback.

Salvation

The Jaguars are the front runners in the Teddy Bridgewater (or insert your favorite QB here) sweepstakes simply because they are in the deepest depths of QB hell. The Raiders were supposed to be in QB hell. Then Terrelle Pryor looked good for a few games. Then he didn’t. Then Matt McGloin looked good for a game. And, well… we’ll see where that takes them.

The only way to extract oneself from QB purgatory is to find the quarterback good enough to elevate a team out of it. Some teams get lucky and draft a quarterback in the 3rd round that appears to be the franchise quarterback. Other teams will draft themselves out of it via a top 5 pick. Still, others will wallow in their QB purgatory without even being aware of the problem.

Some teams have built themselves a terrific roster around an otherwise average quarterback (Kansas City) and it may be enough to elevate them to a Super Bowl run, but the odds appear stacked against them. Sometimes the sum of all parts is enough to get a team to the Super Bowl and win it, but it takes a solid quarterback to get hot to really push them to Lombardi Trophy winners (Baltimore).

The only true way to escape QB purgatory is to find the right quarterback. Sometimes teams may want to release that anchor of an average quarterback so they can get to QB heaven after a brief trip through QB hell. It’s better down there.

 

Bill Walsh once described Steve Deberg as, “Just good enough to get you beat.” He understood QB purgatory.

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