The Alternative Route

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
– Robert Frost, 1920

“The Road Not Taken” may be something NFL general managers may want to investigate further.

The clear plan of nearly every team in the NFL is to find a “franchise” quarterback and then build around him. Without a franchise quarterback, most teams aren’t considered Super Bowl contenders. Even now, the Chiefs, who are sitting at 9-0, are largely considered frauds because they lack a superstar at the most important position in the sport.

Analyzing the Chiefs’ approach, as well as reading through Albert Breer’s notebook this week, makes me wonder: What if the Chiefs are smarter than everyone else? What if their approach is years ahead of every other team’s approach and we just don’t realize it yet? When thinking about team building in terms of allocation of resources, the Chiefs might be onto something. I know, building a team without a stud quarterback seems far-fetched, but hear me out…

The Money

Over the last few years, the salary cap has stayed fairly level while the prices for quarterbacks have continued to skyrocket. In 2011-2013, the NFL salary cap has been $120.375M, $120.6M, and $123M, respectively. Meanwhile, the quarterback salary range has jumped from about $14 million to an average of $20 million for the top tier guys. The quarterback prices are outpacing the salary cap increases over the last 3 years. Not to mention spending more $20M on a single guy is dedicating more 16 percent of a team’s salary cap to 1/53rd of the roster.

The allocation of that amount of cap is detrimental to the rest of the team. The Saints just paid Drew Brees and now have to find room to re-sign superstar tight end Jimmy Graham to a contract that will average in the neighborhood of $10 million a year. Nearly 25 percent of the Saints’ salary cap over the next 5 years will be dedicated to 2 players. That doesn’t leave a lot of money to pay for the rest of the 51 men on the roster.

If the numbers for quarterbacks continue to increase faster than the salary cap, it will eventually make the investment outweigh the return. Forget the, “you can’t put a price on a franchise quarterback” chatter. You can, and teams will if the current trend continues. Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady aren’t the same quarterbacks without decent offensive lines or weapons to throw to. Even Drew Brees couldn’t lift the Saints to a .500 record when his defense was giving up historic amounts of yardage in 2012.

Quarterbacks are important but at some point general managers and owners will get squeezed so much by rising salaries that the return on the investment isn’t worth it. They’re already robbing Peter to pay Paul by pushing out the middle class of the NFL. The league is becoming younger not because teams don’t want veterans, but because teams can’t pay big time players on big time contracts without re-allocating the money from some other place. This means teams are paying a lot of minimum salaries and veterans are unwillingly being weeded out because they simply cost too much, even at veteran minimums.

General managers will continue to push the brink of the salary cap by figuring out what works best for the team. Some will even begin to question, “Is spending 20-25% of my salary cap worth it? Is there an alternative – another road perhaps?”

The Availability of Franchise Quarterbacks

Franchise quarterbacks are the most sought after commodity in the NFL, and the rarity at which they are available makes them uber expensive. It’s simple supply and demand. Demand is high, supply is low, and therefore the price for a franchise quarterback is obscene. Teams are currently paying the going rate but there’s no real prediction for how long they will continue to do so.

Franchise quarterbacks don’t grow on trees. In fact, it’s more like hitting on a lottery ticket when a team finds one. By my count, there are 10-12 franchise quarterbacks in the NFL – and that’s including a handful that have some serious question marks about their recent play or near future. Teams are more likely NOT to have a franchise quarterback, yet they’re all still playing the lottery in hopes they’ll hit on one.

Eventually, a team is not going to be able to pay a quarterback on his 2nd or 3rd contract. The first general manager to let a franchise quarterback go due to money will be vilified by the fan base and media. He’ll give the standard line, “We have to do what is best for the team,” and he’ll truly believe that he is doing just that. The decision will likely be agonized over for months before it is actually made. He’ll be crucified for a decision that truly is best for the team. The results will eventually land him a big new contract or a place in line at the unemployment office.

The Road Less Traveled Might Be Better

A general manager decides not to pay his franchise quarterback and let him walk, or a new general manager takes over a new team without a franchise quarterback, now what? If a new GM is taking over a new team, it’s highly likely his franchise quarterback isn’t there. If he were, the previous general manager would likely still have his job. Without having to pay big money to a quarterback, a GM has a solid amount of cap space and resources because he’s not paying a significant portion of his cap to one player.

Kansas City took the route of shoring up their defense and trading for a “game managing” quarterback who is costing the Chiefs less than half of the top paid quarterbacks. According to the NFLPA league cap report, the Chiefs are currently 17th in cap space. They have about $18 million in dead money that’s taking up cap space this year. Because of cap logistics, that’s essentially $18 million in cap space that they’ll have available next season, in addition to anything that they roll over from this season.

Because the Chiefs won’t be spending that money on a franchise quarterback they’ll be able to add offensive weapons, offensive linemen, or even more defensive players this offseason. If they do it correctly, the Chiefs could surround Alex Smith with an impressive team.

When all factors are taken into consideration, this is the more viable way to build a team. Teams are more likely to be able to find good players at other positions and build efficiently than to get lucky and land a stud quarterback.

Taking the road less traveled also insulates the team from fluctuation due to a quarterback’s performance, or worse, injury. The Colts are the prime example. When Peyton Manning went down with an injury in 2011, the Colts went from a division winner and playoff team in 2010, to selecting 1st overall in the 2012 draft. If Andrew Luck were to go down with an injury, the Colts would struggle to win 2 or 3 games the rest of the season. The Packers are going through this now, but they’re better built than the Colts are to handle Aaron Rodgers missing a month.

It’s the same concept as diversifying a stock portfolio. Invest in many different areas so if one fails, the rest can support the collapse and it’s largely inconsequential. If a person is highly invested in one stock or one industry, and that industry or stock fails, his life savings is gone. In the same way, a general manager doesn’t want to invest solely in a quarterback, who if he fails, the whole team fails.

Nothing is infallible. Both roads have their potholes and turns to navigate. But considering both roads is necessary. It’s possible that building the team first then finding (or lucking into) the quarterback is the better road (Broncos, and possibly Jaguars next season). It’s also possible that landing the franchise quarterback first happens and a general manager has to build around him (Colts and Luck).

The examples of both roads are endless. The Panthers may just have their franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, but the lack of weapons around him makes it tough to really discern if he can make them into a contender. The Buccaneers appear to have the roster but have struggled at the quarterback position (and coaching) and it’s led a very talented team to a 1-8 record. The 49ers have an offensive line and a defense for Colin Kaepernick but haven’t provided him with the necessary receivers to really help him develop, and all this week he’s been crushed by the media for a lack of passing refinement. Seattle built the team and then lucked into their franchise quarterback and now they’re the favorite to win the NFC.

The overzealous approach of teams to find a “franchise” quarterback is the pain point. It’s possible to have success with the “right” quarterback, not the best one. Instead of spending so much time and resources chasing the uncatchable, set the team up for success and then get the franchise guy when he just happens to come along, like the Packers did with Rodgers, or the Seahawks did with Wilson.

There are many roads to success. Maybe more teams should follow Robert Frost’s footsteps and take the one less traveled.

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