Michael Lombardi: A great quarterback is hard to find

October 3, 2023 08:49 AM

A great quarterback is hard to find

I love how NFL fans on my Twitter timeline or on any radio show inform me of New England head coach Bill Belichick’s record without Tom Brady, as if Brady is the only reason, he’s won 299 games.  It’s comical. 

No one mentions Sean McVay’s record last year without Matthew Stafford, or Steelers legendary coach Chuck Noll's record after winning a Super Bowl in 1979, only having one double-digit winning season (1983) and four playoff appearances once Terry Bradshaw declined in his play due to injuries.  

What about Cowboys' legendary coach Tom Landry once he lost Danny White and had to play with Steve Pelluer?  You don’t remember him I bet.  In Landry’s final three seasons, he didn’t get above .500; in his final year, he went 3-13. 

Or Don Shula the winningest coach of all time, who went four years with Dan Marino and didn’t qualify for the playoffs?  All great coaches need a great quarterback. It’s a silly and non-educated analysis.

There is no doubt Belichick is a better coach with Brady. Same with Noll and Bradshaw. However, it takes more than a great quarterback to win a championship.  Houston Oilers great Warren Moon was a tremendous quarterback. He played 17 seasons, mostly on the Houston Oilers, one of the most talented teams in NFL history, and he only went to one conference championship game with a team history will remember as underachieving for their talent level.  Despite throwing for 28 miles of passing yards, Moon never went to the Super Bowl.   The point here is all coaches need a quarterback, and all coaches struggle when the position isn’t settled. And even when it is settled, the level of talent still must be great to win a title. 

Does anyone still believe that Daniel Jones can win a Super Bowl?  The Giants front office does. Not many Giants fans would echo that belief.  It made no sense to pay Jones this past offseason.  Nothing in his play suggested he could raise his level of play. In fact, when the game got tougher against tougher competition, he faded.  Jones is a great person. He’s intelligent, athletic and shows the skills needed to play the position, but he cannot play fast when the game speeds up requiring him to make the right decision quickly. 

As an example, Jones would qualify for Navy flight pilot school. He would have high marks and a high level of talent and meet all the requirements.  Jones would be productive on the flight simulator, passing the test for normal non-combat speeds.  But when the testing increased to the highest level, Jones would not qualify. He would fall short in his ability to react quickly, and the Navy would fail him, never allowing him to have his own plane. 

This mistake in judgment happens often. In spite of all the pre-testing and money spent on evaluating, the Navy can never determine who can react to the speed.  The same thing is true with evaluating quarterbacks in college—we never know their reaction to the speed of an NFL game until they play in the regular season. 

We all get fooled by quarterbacks. Browns fifth-round pick Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Raiders fourth-rounder Aidan O’Connell played well this summer.  They looked like they could take the next step.  However, last week, when the speed of the game increased, they fell short.  This doesn’t make them busts. It only highlights how hard the position is to play and why pre-season evaluations are meaningless.  CJ Stroud of the Texans looked bad all summer. He looks like he might be the best of all the rookies—for now. 

Filling the quarterback position is the hardest challenge of any coach or executive.  Stroud is playing well in the framework of the Texans' offense, which highlights his skill set as he transforms himself from an all-shotgun quarterback into an under-center play-action pass one.   His play has made their team look good. Great quarterbacks, as John Madden once famously said, “become the deodorant for everything that is wrong with the team.” 

Giants fans cannot be mad at Jones, because he was never the deodorant.  He didn’t force the Giants' front office to pay him; they happily wanted to pay.  They wanted to verify their selection of Jones as the sixth overall pick of the 2019 draft, so they opened their wallets at the first positive indication.  Jones has never thrown for over 7.0 yards per attempt in his career. He rarely makes big plays, always taking the check down as he never looks down the field.  When the level of competition rises, he fades.  That’s not an opinion.  Examine his record against the good defensive teams and ask yourself, why did they pay him? 

What highlights his lack of processing and playing fast is when the game becomes a third-and-7 or more—the most important and volatile down in football.   Jones has thrown six touchdowns and eight interceptions, been sacked 36 times, averages 7.1 yards per attempt, and has a quarterback rating of 76.  When the defense sends players from all over, with different twists and stems, he doesn’t react with quickness. His eye level comes down, and he throws the ball short. Last night, he averaged 5.97 per attempt. 

The slot corner blitz from Seattle’s rookie Devon Witherspoon is another example of Jones not having a feel or an understanding of the problems the defense presents. Seattle wasn’t going to allow Jones to sit back and survey the field. They understand that making him play fast and with urgency benefits their cause.  Eleven sacks (10 on Jones), two interceptions (one for a touchdown), and a fumble return for a touchdown later, the Seahawks dominated the Giants. 

All summer, we heard the Giants were going to be more explosive on offense, and more dynamic with the addition of tight end Darren Waller and rookie receiver Jalin Hyatt.  Because of Jones, that won’t happen. This isn’t a “more skill is needed around him” problem. This is a “not good enough” problem. 

And therein lies the problem for most teams. We keep making excuses for the position, believing that more talent around the quarterback will make him look better. Great quarterbacks make those around them better, and when they have elite talent on the outside, their greatness shines brighter.  Brady was better when he had Randy Moss than when he played with David Patten, yet he still made their offense look good with Patten. 

Sometimes the scheme overrides the talent and fits the player perfectly. Lions quarterback Jared Goff doesn’t have elite talent around him. He does have a strong offensive line, and when he can run play action centered around the run game, he looks like an above-average player.  When the game becomes a drop-back pass game, not as much. 

Is Goff good enough to win a Super Bowl?  McVay didn’t think so, which is why he traded him for Stafford.  However, he can get them to the playoff level with their current scheme.  Can he get to another level?  Not sure about that one.  Remember some quarterbacks in the right scheme can improve a team, but few can get them great.   Why did Andy Reid trade in Alex Smith for Patrick Mahomes?  He knew Smith made him good. He knew Mahomes could make him great. 

Being great as opposed to really good is what Josh Allen has become.  In the past three seasons, Allen has played like a shooting guard, taking the game over and carrying the team by being the game's dominant force.  Everything was about him being the scorer.  Now, he is playing like a point guard, distributing the ball, and allowing his teammates to help him win games.  He is no longer looking to be Superman. He still makes insane plays and passes, but he does it more like Magic Johnson within the framework of the offense. 

For the first time, the Bills have a Western New York weather-suited offense that can play physically in the trenches.  Allen has only carried the ball 16 times in four games, allowing others to do the dirty work, but if he needs to run, he is still a big-time threat.  Allen is playing the best ball of his career because he is not pressing to make plays. He facilitates plays. 

What would Sean McDermott’s record be without Allen?  The same as any other coach who doesn’t have an above-average player playing the most important position on the field.  As bettors, we know betting on a bad quarterback is dangerous, but when a great coach has a great player at quarterback, then watch out.  Finally, the Bills have it all headed in the right direction, which cannot be said for the Patriots, the Giants, and many other teams in the league. 

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