Such an assertion would seem absurd on its face, but the question is beginning to be raised that changes in the game may see the so-called essential quarterback go the way of the essential or franchise running back.
For the read-option style of quarterbacking to take over, the idea of the franchise quarterback has to die.
This provocative notion was raised in the course of a conversation that Fox Sports' Jen Floyd Engel had with New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Peyton during a piece that focused on the recent controversial contract extension given to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
The rationale for the massive amount of guaranteed money given to Romo, controversial because of precious little success achieved by him or his team in the arena that most counts the playoffs, is the belief that the only certain path to that success is a dominant or what we have come to know as the franchise quarterback. For justification one only need reference Joe Flacco who is the current poster child for the idea that a player can morph into an 'elite' quarterback and command an enormous contract in relatively short order. And we all know that a team can't make it to the top without one of these which is why few blink when huge amounts of money are dumped into their laps. At least that is what we have come to believe. But is it true? And just as important or maybe even more so, is it sustainable?
As Engel's article points out, we used to feel the same way about running backs. In the 60s, 70s, and even up to the 90s when running the ball was a more dominant feature of the game the most important offensive player for many of the most successful teams was the featured running back. Jim Brown, Larry Csonka, Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas, Jim Taylor and Paul Horning, O J Simpson, Eric Dickerson were often better known and more respected, or at least equally respected as their team's starting quarterback (Does anyone even remember who the quarterback was of the Jim Brown teams?) Even with the Steelers of the early 70s Franco Harris was viewed as more essential than Terry Bradshaw. Indeed, behind Harris, Rocky Bleier and the defense the '76 Steelers made it into the playoffs with Bradshaw shelved by injury through most of the journey. It fell apart in the conference championship game because Franco and Rocky were unavailable because they were hurt.
Compare that to the current situation where it seems that the departure of Rashard Mendenhall has been met by yawns, and some believe that drafting a backup quarterback would be a higher priority even though none of the remaining running backs currently on the roster is believed to be feature back caliber. This change in perspective seems to have been driven by the evolution of the game, abetted by rule changes, which has empowered the passing game and changes in the physical capacity of the players that has resulted in difficulty keeping running backs healthy and on the field.
The game continues to evolve. The question now revolves around the read option, whether it represents a sea change in the game, and if so whether it marks the end of the dominance of the franchise quarterback. Peyton's comments on the matter seemed speculative, noncommittal as to whether this offense was here to stay. Mike Tomlin's comments struck me as being more skeptical
"I think the read option is the flavor of the month. We will see whether it’s the flavor of the year. A few years ago, people were talking wildly about the Wildcat. There’s less of a discussion now. I think that there are coaches in rooms preparing themselves to defend it, coaches in rooms that are also preparing themselves to run it, and I think it is going to sort out on the grass. I look forward to it."
What both Tomlin and Peyton seemed to agree upon in their various comments on the subject was that running the read option would exact a physical toll on the quarterback position. When asked about whether he felt the offense was here to stay Tomlin said it depended upon how teams reacted when they saw their quarterbacks getting hit. Peyton said this;
"I think (injury attrition) is the question," Payton said when asked about the longterm viability of the read-option in the NFL. "If the offense continues with the curve and success it has had, you may see a team with that style with one or two quarterbacks."
Quarterback by committee? A franchise quarterback is a diva. Can any team afford to have two? You can see where this could be going can't you? And frankly, given the current economics of the game it could be the best thing to happen to preserve the quality of the product. Consider this statement by Jack Bechta from the National Football Post;
The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening: I predicted that there would be several $25 million dollar a year QBs in the very near future. It’s coming! In addition, average QBs will be making $15 to 20 million per year and the top five star players on each team may eventually account for 50% or more of the cap dollars in use per team, leaving the remainder to be divvied up by the rest of the roster. That then could result in younger players and draft picks playing and even starting for the minimum salary. The days of multiple players making near or at the average salary of $3 million dollars will be gone. This model could lead to more turn-over of the roster, more rookies playing right away and more inexperienced players on the field. Coaches will have to work even that much harder preparing these players. Could the model create resentment amongst players? Can it divide a locker-room and be a chemistry killer? We don’t know yet. But the bottom line is that football is a team sport that relies on men working together for a singular purpose. If the team-ness fades, so can the quality of the product.
Are we not already seeing that principle in practice to an extent with the Steelers and around the league this off season? This distortion of the salary structure driven by a few star players, especially by the so-called elite quarterbacks puts me in mind of that graph that went viral on the internet where the vast disparity in income between the so-called 1% and the rest of the country is laid out in terms that creates a new level of understanding. The comments reported today from Steelers chairman Dan Rooney calling out the 'Next man up' idea as the coachspeak BS that it is (perhaps necessary, even desirable, but BS nonetheless). When players of the quality of James Harrison, in decline but still highly functional, are replaced by bodies that though younger, aren't better but merely cheaper then you have a problem. And unless you are short sighted, and many of us are, you have to recognize that eventually there will be hell to pay as the quality of play and the connection to the players decline in order to maintain a top heavy salary structure.
Of course it is very much up in the air as to what the actual fate of the read option will be; a major offensive style like the west coast offense, a tactical option like the wildcat or a passing fad like the run and shoot. I'm sure that defensive coaches like Tomlin and LeBeau have been in the lab studying how to offset it and it didn't seem to me from the comments I've seen that they are losing any sleep over it, which is how these things go. But can the argument be made that the survival or flourishing of the read option may be important to the long term health of the NFL?