The Elusive Elite Quarterback
Once upon a time, wins were the primary way to judge greatness of pitchers. A twenty-win season was good for a Cy Young Award; A three-hundred-win career was good for a spot in Cooperstown. Wins are still credited, but they’ve never been more irrelevant.
At some point in the statistical revolution, fans, writers, and owners alike realized that the entire category was basically meaningless. A pitcher could allow one run and lose, or he could allow five runs and win. He could pitch eight shutout innings and miss out on a win because his offense finally scored in the ninth inning, rather than the seventh.
Jacob DeGrom won the NL Cy Young last season with a record of 10-9: a gigantic middle-finger to 150 years of conventional wisdom.
While baseball was wising up, football was doubling down. Wins and losses have become a stand-in for greatness, attributed to only one player on the team: the quarterback.
In my mission statement, I cited the great-man theory as the most popular view of sports history. Nowhere is that more rampant, and less accurate, than the way we talk about quarterbacks.
With another Super Bowl on the horizon, expect media coverage to center around two players: Tom Brady and Jared Goff. The results of the game will become a standard argument for the all-time rank of the winning quarterback. If Brady wins, he will silence any remaining doubters that he deserves to be considered the greatest quarterback of all time. If Goff wins, he will jump most of his contemporaries in perception: Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, perhaps even older players like Andrew Luck and Cam Newton.
This is not contingent on either having a great game. The single most important part of John Elway’s legacy was winning his first Super Bowl in 1997, a game where he went 12 for 22 for 123 yards. Consider that Rex Grossman was effectively banished from the NFL for going 20 for 28 for 165 yards. The win is all that matters.
That is because we’ll forget the numbers. We’ll barely remember the game unless it involves a last-minute drive or sudden power outage. But, we’ll never forget the result.
This is myth-making at its finest: strip away the context and build statues of the biggest name. That’s why we celebrate Columbus Day every fall. The game will result in a financial windfall for the winning quarterback, both in salary and endorsements. More importantly, it will create or confirm mystique.
For five seasons, there was real debate whether Joe Flacco was a good quarterback. The idea that he was elite was considered laughable, as shown by the reaction to Flacco making that assertion before the 2012 season.
Since being drafted in 2008, Flacco had been a steady hand for a stable franchise. The Ravens had gone to the playoffs every season, but Flacco himself had performed as a roughly median starting quarterback, never ranking better than tenth in completion percentage, yards, or touchdowns, but rarely lower than twentieth. He wasn’t a bust, but there was an argument to be made that Flacco was merely an average quarterback on a good team.
Everything broke right for the Ravens that year. For one month, Flacco looked excellent. An electrical failure derailed a potential 49ers comeback in the Super Bowl. So, Flacco became elite.
The Ravens committed to him long term, paying him 124 million dollars over the next six years. Flacco got all the money of an elite quarterback.
Except, he stopped being one.
The Ravens missed the playoffs four of the next five years. Even though Flacco improved his numbers in most areas, the team was worse. In Week 10 of this season, the Ravens benched Flacco in favor of rookie Lamar Jackson, who led them to the playoffs, most likely ending Flacco’s time in Baltimore and possibly as a starting quarterback.
Now, this might sound like I’m piling on Flacco. He’s an easy target, as he is the unfortunate combination of overpaid and conventionally unattractive. But the problem was never Flacco. It was the desire to view Flacco as something he just wasn’t: the central figure to the Ravens success.
Flacco is and was an average quarterback. He wasn’t exceptional, but he wasn’t bad either. Average quarterbacks can win Super Bowls: Flacco, Foles, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning’s corpse. Even quarterbacks who eventually became top performers won their first Super Bowl as a young, pedestrian version of their future selves: Brady in 2002, Roethlisberger in 2006.
Sometimes quarterbacks are the heart and soul of a franchise. Sometimes it’s a linebacker or wide receiver who sets the stage.
But in the sports world, there has been a truism that comes in and out of fashion, depending heavily on recency bias and logical fallacies.
“To win a Super Bowl, you need an elite quarterback.”
In the future, this idea will look just as foolish as all the writers who gushed oven pitcher wins. Just ask the Ravens.