Where Have All the Quarterbacks Gone?

Edan Lisovicz

With two weeks of the 2008 NFL season in the books, it is clear that as in any year, there have been some early surprises and disappointments. But while one should be wary of rushing to premature judgments, if the first two weeks are any indication, it seems that this will be the year when a trend that has slowly been taking over the NFL finally reaches its climax. Especially with Tom Brady going down for the season in Week 1, the glaring shortage of quality quarterbacks in the NFL is now more apparent than ever.

When a team’s back-up quarterback has not started a game since high school, a career journeyman from a Division II school beats out a former number one overall pick, and the signing of Chad Pennington two weeks before the start of the season is hailed as a cause for hope, fans must know that something has gone horribly wrong with the quarterback position. Long gone are the days of Montana, Marino, Elway and Young. Say hello to the era of Orton, O’Sullivan, Croyle and Thigpen.

It is difficult to determine how or even when this trend began to afflict the NFL. Perhaps with Brady, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre experiencing unprecedented success, few took notice of the precipitous drop-off in consistent quarterback play after these exceptions. While there is no clear-cut reason for this apparently sudden change, it may have its earliest roots in the advent of the free agency era in the early 1990s. Due to the immediate roster turnovers that are now possible from one season to the next, the playing field has been leveled, and parity has become the dominant trend. Today, modern NFL fans, regardless of how poorly their team performed the year before, are able to entertain realistic hopes about achieving a playoff berth. All that is needed these days to turn around even the most inept of teams is a few personnel changes, a weak schedule and a little bit of luck. Perhaps the best illustration of this over the past few years is offered by the New York Jets, who have alternated winning and losing seasons over the past four years by compiling records of 10-6, 4-12, 10-6 and 4-12.

The trickledown effect of this on players has been that expectations and pressure to perform for high profile draft picks and free agents has never been higher. In lieu of such expectations, modern quarterbacks have found it nearly impossible to live up to the pressure and hype that surrounds being brought in to be the face of the franchise. Just ask other former #1 overall picks Tim Couch-out of the league for three years after being drafted in 2001-or David Carr, whose failures in Houston and Carolina have made him the second #1 overall pick on the Giants’ quarterback depth chart.

Yet perhaps the best example of the negative influence of high expectations due to parity is provided by Alex Smith, San Francisco’s #1 overall pick in 2005. During his rookie season on an awful 49ers team, Smith was almost immediately thrown into the fire with the hope of speeding up his development and grooming him to be a franchise quarterback. With his draft status and $24 million already guaranteed in his pocket, he was expected to be able to deal with the lofty expectations and pressure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, San Francisco’s plans almost completely backfired, with Smith even admitting at one point that his main problem was a lack of confidence in himself. Now, after being beaten out in training camp by journeyman quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan, it is likely Smith has played his last game for the team that drafted him. Finishing up his tenure with the 49ers with 19 touchdowns and 31 interceptions, Smith has provided just another example of the kind of effects impatience and an emphasis on winning now can have on a quarterback’s career.

What has become obvious through all of this is that in addition to the apparent lack of talent that has recently emanated from the quarterback position, it has become increasingly difficult to predict exactly how a quarterback will pan out. Regardless of how he performed in college, there is no science for predicting how a given player will respond to the unique circumstances that surround life in the NFL.

Oddly enough, rather than experimenting with different strategies for grooming their young talent, many NFL teams have seemingly taken the current situation for what it is and have decided to opt in favor of “game-managing” quarterbacks who focus mainly on limiting mistakes rather than filling the more traditional role. It is difficult to argue with the results in Tampa Bay last year, where 38-year-old Jeff Garcia beat out younger players Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski and Luke McCown and stepped into a low-risk, low-reward offense that guided the Buccaneers to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth. While Garcia threw for only 13 touchdown passes, the Bucs were more concerned with the steady presence he brought to the huddle and his mere four interceptions, and at the end of the year, Garcia finished with the NFL’s third-highest passer rating and a Pro Bowl invitation.

So with the increasing difficulty of predicting quarterback success and the apparent lack of talent at that position, it seems that the inconsistent and up-and-down nature of NFL teams is here to stay. After all, once Jacksonville rewarded another “game-managing” quarterback in David Garrard last off-season with a six-year, $60 million dollar contract after he threw for a modest 18 touchdowns in one full year as a starter, it has become clear that there has been a noticeable shift in the expectations for modern NFL quarterbacks. While Garcia and Garrard are certainly not the epitome of the gun-slinging quarterbacks of the past, there is no doubt that there is a new formula for success in the modern NFL. A formula that everyone is just going to have to get used to.