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More than a Game: The NFL’s Quarterback Problem, and Why It’s the League’s Own Fault

Columns | October 11, 2016

If you’ve spent some time this fall watching the National Football League, you’ve probably come to the conclusion, just by appearances alone, that the most important people in the NFL are quarterbacks. Congratulations: your eyes have not been deceiving you. They, more than any people on the field or sideline, are responsible for a greater percentage of their team’s success or failure. They constitute a unique class of players in their importance not only to their individual teams, but also to professional football as a whole.

This is because, beyond team success in the realm of wins and losses, quarterbacks are the players that are able to produce the most value for their franchises. Obviously, winning teams—particularly those with a long track record of success, those whose brand could be reliably associated with winning—are more valuable in terms of merchandising, TV viewership, and ticket sales. Beyond that, the recent and explosive growth of passing-oriented offenses—and their highlights that reliably attract TV viewers and drive social media traffic—has made good quarterback play even more lucrative for owners and the league itself. Unless fans suddenly decide they hate highlight-reel catches, these drivers of quarterback value are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

Why, then, do coaches and general managers (the behind-the-scenes figures in charge of drafting players, negotiating trades, and bargaining over salaries) regularly bemoan the state of passer development around the league?

Is parity—an ideal state of even competition between teams and the reason why the star-crossed fans of repeatedly incompetent teams keep hope alive year after year—in danger due to this paucity of talent?

In an era of the NFL when passing statistics have never been more inflated, when quarterbacks are far and away the most valuable asset a team has, could there be a quarterback crisis?

I’ll examine these questions one at a time.

Why are NFL coaches and general managers worried about the state of quarterback play in the league, even though counting and efficiency statistics associated with quarterback play have never been better? Because, essentially, these increases are illusory.

First of all, the NFL has repeatedly tweaked the rules governing the passing game in order to increase its potency, most notably by enforcing harsh penalties against certain defensive techniques, as well as limiting the amount of punishment taken by both quarterbacks and receivers at the hands of the defense. These changes came in response to the demonstrated preference of TV viewers for show-stopping pass plays, as noted above, and have made it easier for even the worst passers to rack up passing numbers that, in previous eras, would have been MVP-worthy.

Second, the level of wide receiver talent in the NFL is, in all likelihood, higher than it’s ever been. The reasons for this league-wide overflow of talent are myriad enough for a column of their own, but nonetheless, the difference in talent between the best and worst starting receivers is smaller than it’s been in years—nearly every team has a high-quality receiver on its roster.

These two factors, while being potent enough to drive up raw passing stats across the board, impact all teams equally, and only impact raw quarterback production—the basic number of yards and touchdowns thrown for, without accounting for efficiency or game context—rather than quality of play. The problem of quarterback play that coaches and GMs are concerned about is a relative one: right now, there are only a few dominant quarterbacks who play far, far more effectively than the average passer in the league. Ten of the past 15 Super Bowls have been won by the same four QBs, one of whom, Peyton Manning, retired after the last season. Meanwhile, all the teams without a dominant quarterback are forced to rely on has-been veterans, take chances on mid-career players whom they feel were given short shrift by their previous teams, or spin the roulette wheel of the draft. Essentially, the gap between elite and replacement-level play (pretty much a self-explanatory concept) is wider than it’s ever been, despite illusory gains in the efficacy of the passing game.

Why are there so few good quarterbacks? There are a lot of good articles out there detailing this problem, but put simply: college football, which the NFL relies upon as a cost-free developmental league for young players, doesn’t play football the same way as the pro league does. There are different-enough structural factors impacting the way (most) college coaches run their offenses and teach their quarterbacks that, by the time those prospects arrive at the NFL level, they essentially have to be re-taught how to play quarterback in the way their employers want them to.

And of course, there’s no way for the NFL to force this to change: college coaches have their own bosses and their own imperatives. Why should they waste their time doing the hard work of coaching up players just out of high school in order to meet the demands of a league they don’t work in?

Right now, you might be asking where I’m going with all this. Here’s what I’m trying to get at: the NFL is facing a Malthusian crisis in regards to quarterback play. Quarterbacks are more important than ever for both team success and league-wide commercial appeal, but there are fewer and fewer of them capable of playing at a level even approaching that of the league’s few elite QBs. The NFL—particularly team owners, who are responsible for the rule changes that have lifted the passing game to prominence—has painted itself into a corner where it’s increasingly reliant on a resource that is growing scarcer and scarcer.

It gets even better: this is entirely due to the NFL’s greed. I don’t necessarily blame owners for responding to fan preference and turning the league into a passing paradise—I think that offensive showcases are by far the most exciting kind of football game. I do, however, blame the NFL for profiting off the free labor of college football players for decades. The NFL uses NCAA football as a de-facto minor league, and then has the nerve to complain that those young, unpaid players, between spending 50 hours a week playing and training with their teams, being forced to make some grasping attempt at scholarship under the hideously false claim that they’re somehow “amateurs”, and generally dealing with all kinds of racist bullshit, haven’t spent enough time adjusting their talent and playing styles to the sometimes deeply stupid whims of pro coaches.

This, of course, comes on top of the fundamental problem of college football in general, wherein a young labor force composed primarily of people of color is systematically denied both the profits produced by their labor and the opportunity to organize in order to demand better playing conditions.

The NFL is massively profitable, and could easily afford to bankroll a paid developmental league for young players—the only reason it hasn’t is because team owners would rather sit on those profits. Therefore, they’ve brought themselves to this point where the game-to-game quality of their product as well as the overall competitive balance between the league’s teams (a major factor in driving TV viewership for games that most of the audience may not have a rooting interest in) is in danger of declining sharply.

What will happen next, though? As I see it, there are three potential scenarios, none of which are necessarily exclusive of the others.

The first is that the league does essentially nothing, and lets the crisis of quarterback scarcity develop even further than it already has. The end result of this scenario is that the quality of football games declines further and further, especially as the disproportionately good generation of older quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, etc.) age out of the league, which will happen sooner rather than later. Because drafting even the best college quarterbacks is basically a crapshoot, the worst teams won’t necessarily have an opportunity to get better, and viewership will eventually decline along with the quality of the NFL product.

This is moderately unlikely to happen because NFL ownership, as stupidly risk-averse, greedy, and prone to squabbling as it is, is still likely to notice this kind of trend and at least make vaguely successful stabs at corrective action. However, if this were to occur—and I’m extrapolating wildly and only semi-seriously here—then the league may panic and do something stupid, like make the game more violent to draw a more hardcore fanbase, or add a team in London or Mexico City (both of which would only exacerbate the quarterback scarcity problem), and enter a death spiral. The upside of this would be that the best young male American athletes get into soccer instead of football, and the US Men’s National Team goes on to win eight World Cups in a row.

The second scenario is that team owners change rules and pressure coaches and GMs to try to make the NFL game friendlier to incoming college quarterbacks. If college quarterbacks are more easily able to transition to the pro game, the thinking goes, then the availability of true quarterback quality (not just production) will increase, while smarter teams will still be able to maximize their relative advantages, a scenario that should be tempting for owners of pretty much every team. To some extent, this is already happening: coaches have tentatively adopted principles of college offenses, while the league management has recently altered its rules regarding college player evaluation to give teams more opportunities to scout potential draft prospects.

However, there are still structural differences between the NFL and college football that make it impossible to fully run a college offense at the pro level, or completely smooth a player’s transition between the two: college teams don’t have a cap on how many players they can have on their rosters and are forced to continually refresh those rosters. College quarterbacks are more replaceable, and college coaches tend to run offenses that treat them as such. Furthermore, most NFL coaches tend towards conservatism and resistance to new ideas, making them less likely to want to change the way they’ve always done things; meanwhile, the NFL’s league-wide aversion to risk on the ownership/management level means that teams are unlikely to risk hiring potentially innovative new coaches.

The third scenario is that, without altering the on-the-field dimension of the NFL game, individual teams and the league as a whole take steps to make college quarterbacks more ready for the pro game. Individual teams could take steps to better identify quarterback prospects by developing their analytical evaluation tools, and then keep those young players on their rosters in a stable, learning-oriented role. This strategy, however, would run teams headlong into the roster limit and salary cap mandated by the NFL, making it hard or even impossible for teams to develop young quarterbacks over a long term. The real solutions here would have to come from the NFL as a whole, either by implementing special roster limit or salary cap exceptions that would give teams the capacity to hold onto and develop young quarterbacks over a longer period of time than the 4-year contracts drafted rookies are given.

The best of all these outcomes would, perhaps, be if the NFL could actually invest in a minor or developmental league, similar to the farm system used by baseball, or the less-extensive NBA Developmental League. While the baseball minor leagues are significantly larger in scope and more crucial to MLB teams than the NBADL, both of them give young players in both sports a space in which to develop alongside other players of roughly equal skill level, while still earning actual wages (albeit nowhere near pro salaries, another symptom of the short-sighted greed of the major sports leagues), making side money from endorsements or by playing in international leagues, and being able to unionize, all of which are forbidden by the NCAA as part of its mission to separate young athletes from the profits to which they should be entitled. The NFL has attempted to run a developmental league in the past, in the form of NFL Europe, which was shut down in 2007, and recently there’s been some reporting that league officials and owners are considering instituting either an in-season developmental league or a spring league to fill offseason downtime.

(It goes without saying that the best best outcome would be if the NFL created a comprehensive, large-scale, well-paid developmental league that then put NCAA football out of business.)

Until now, though, there hasn’t been any real incentive for the NFL to invest a lot of money in player development, because college football has generally done a good job of providing pro-ready players. However, as the core concepts of the college game drift further and further away from the pros, and as the Malthusian crisis for quarterbacks becomes more and more pronounced, the league might not have any choice but to spend that money. Otherwise, they may risk creating a future with no NFL at all.