There’s always been a discussion about the most important position in sports. It usually comes down to the pitcher in baseball and the quarterback in football. If baseball was only played every four days, pitcher would be the runaway winner in that discussion. A pitcher can control a baseball game from the mound nearly singlehandedly. Individually, it’s the most dominant position in sports.
But from a team standpoint, they’re playing baseball every day. A pitcher can’t throw every day. With football games that count being played once a week, the quarterback is the most important player on the field for both teams.
History bears that out in both professional and college football.
Twenty-one of the last twenty-five Super Bowls have been won by teams with a quarterback who’s either in the Hall of Fame or appears headed there.
Just a quick look back at the College Football Playoff and the National Championship in recent years turns up names like Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagoviaola, Jalen Hurts, and Deshaun Watson.
How do you win a football game? Have a quarterback.
Part of the discussion about championship quarterbacks always includes Trent Dilfer and the Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl title in 2000. Dilfer is cited as the only non-elite quarterback, a game manager, who wears a Super Bowl ring. But that’s it. A list of one. You could throw Brad Johnson in there, but in the last twenty-five years, it’s elite quarterbacks who have gotten their team to the title.
To win at football, the quarterback is the lynchpin, often the difference between victory and defeat. That’s why you can’t pass on acquiring that “franchise” quarterback if you’re trying to build a winner at any level.
I asked Sam Huff once about the difference between the Giants and the Colts in their two NFL championship games in ’58 and ’59.
“They had (Johnny) Unitas and we didn’t. End of story,” he deadpanned.
It didn’t sit well with Brett Favre when the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers in the first round. But it kept Green Bay competitive as Favre’s Hall of Fame career waned. Rodgers wasn’t happy this year when the Packers took Jordan Love in the first round, but Green Bay is already looking to the future.
When that quarterback is there, you can’t pass him up.
The Jaguars opponent this week, Cincinnati, is a good example of making that move. The Bengals had Andy Dalton as their starter for nine years but quickly moved onto Burrow when they had the chance.
But it’s never a lock drafting a quarterback and the Bengals are also a good example of that. They took Akili Smith with the third pick in the 1999 draft and he only played 22 games for Cincinnati. Famously, the Chargers took Ryan Leaf with the second overall pick in 1998, now commonly thought of as the biggest bust of a first round pick ever.
As the game has evolved, the quarterback position has become more important.
There have been twenty-six drafts since the Jaguars started in 1995. In those twenty-six drafts, seventeen quarterbacks were the overall first pick. In the twenty-five years before that, eight quarterbacks were the first pick. And in the twenty-five years before that just six: Terry Baker, Randy Duncan, King Hill, George Shaw, Bobby Garrett and Bill Wade. While Hill and Shaw had extended careers, none of those players are in the Hall of Fame.
Hindsight might be 20-20, but at this point it’s hard not to notice that nine teams passed on Patrick Mahomes and eleven passed on Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft, including the Jaguars. Despite their interest in Watson, the Jaguars thought they were just one piece away. They stayed with Blake Bortles and took Leonard Fournette with the fourth pick in that draft. It paid off with a trip to the AFC Championship game that year, but then it fell apart quickly.
When Florida, Florida State, Miami and Georgia were regular contenders for the National Championship, quarterbacks were the key.
Steve Spurrier was a quarterback, Bobby Bowden was a quarterback. Both knew the importance of that position from a performance and leadership perspective. Both collected quarterbacks on their roster regardless of who was already there.
“Who’s the quarterback,” was a daily story for the Gators under Spurrier. Steve wasn’t shy recruiting quarterbacks, changing them or rotating guys between snaps. He took Danny Wuerffel out of the Georgia game in ’93 in favor of Terry Dean. Dean, Eric Kresser, Doug Johnson, Noah Brindise, Jesse Palmer and Rex Grossman all made news as quarterbacks under Spurrier. Getting Chris Leak out of North Carolina changed the entire recruiting dynamic at Florida and led them to two National Championships. Tim Tebow won the Heisman wearing the Orange and Blue. Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel, Will Grier and Cam Newton were on the Gators’ roster before a career in the NFL.
Charlie Ward, Chris Weinke and Jameis Winston all won the Heisman Trophy at FSU. Casey Weldon, Peter Tom Willis, Danny Kanell and Christian Ponder all kept the Seminoles competitive. E.J. Manuel was a first round pick out of Tallahassee.
It’s an eye opener to see Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde on the same Miami roster in 1982. Mark Richt was also a quarterback on that team, The Hurricanes continued their success with Ken Dorsey, Heisman winner Gino Toretta and Steve Walsh.
At Georgia in the last thirty years Eric Zeier, Quincy Carter, D.J. Shockley, Matt Stafford, Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm all brought success to the Bulldogs.
When did those programs begin to falter? When the quarterback came into question. This might be a weird year in college football but it’s still the quarterback who will make the difference.
Kyle Trask presents as many questions as answers for the Gators. Georgia’s uncertainty at quarterback has called their whole season into question. James Blackman has never been able to establish himself in Tallahassee. Miami’s search for a quarterback at “Quarterback U” has landed on D’Eriq King to lead them out of the college football wilderness.
This year’s contenders for the National Championship revolve around quarterbacks. Trevor Lawrence leads Clemson as the overwhelming favorite to win the title. Alabama’s hopes are pinned on Bolles graduate Mack Jones. Justin Fields makes Ohio State dangerous once they start playing later this month. And even Texas is back in the picture because of Sam Ehlinger.
So learn the lesson. No matter who you have, if the quarterback is there, take him.