By Reggie Hayes
Fort Wayne News-Sentinel
The best or worst decision an NFL front office can make is its choice of quarterback.
Get the choice right and you’re set for big games, playoff berths and, last but not least, ticket/merchandise sales. Get it wrong and you’re unemployed. Oh, and your team stinks for years.
This Sunday’s Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts game features teams that appear to have gotten it right. Both made the playoffs last year, they have a combined 7-1 record so far this year and they seem to have bright futures ahead with second-year starters Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck.
The Seahawks (4-0) were prescient enough to sense Wilson’s upside a year ago, even though they had already signed, desperately, Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn. Wilson won the job. The Seahawks lucked into Wilson a bit, drafting him 75th when they’d just spent $19.5 million on Flynn. But the coaches also recognized that he was the best man for the job, no matter what the quarterback payroll said at the time.
The Colts (3-1) grabbed Luck when they could, jettisoning a legend to do so.
And that brings us to the other side.
This week’s Thursday game featured the Buffalo Bills at the Browns, with both teams hoping that they’ve hit on something at the quarterback spot.
The Bills have EJ Manuel, drafted this year when the pickings were slim after the possibly best quarterback draft in history in 2012. The Browns turned to Brian Hoyer, who was injured during Thursday’s game. Hoyer has two good games under his belt. In Cleveland, that’s near veteran status.
It’s hard to find a more compelling case for the need for quality quarterback play than to list the teams with the longest playoff droughts.
Of the nine teams with the longest playoff droughts, only one (St. Louis Rams and Sam Bradford) has a quarterback who has been on the job four years. Four of the nine have first-year starters.
The quick list of longest playoff droughts: Bills (13 years), Browns (10), Raiders (10), Rams (eight), Bucs (five), Jaguars (five), Titans (five), Panthers (four) and Dolphins (four). For the Bills, Browns and Raiders — fairly storied franchises — those are the longest droughts in history.
Three of those teams have quarterback positions in upheaval, with the Titans dealing with Jake Locker’s injury, the Browns’ situation up in the air and the Bucs dealing with Josh Freeman becoming persona not grata.
This is why it was so imperative, although emotionally painful, for the Colts to part ways with Peyton Manning and turn to Luck. If you have a chance to get it right at quarterback, you can’t hesitate. Better to make a move too early than too late.
Look at the Dolphins. They believe Ryan Tannehill is the real deal at quarterback, a starter they can build around, and they better hope so. The Dolphins have been trying to find a quarterback since Dan Marino retired in 1999. In 14 seasons since, they’ve had 18 quarterbacks play at least a game.
By contrast, the Colts had Manning, the 2011 three-headed monster (Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky) and Luck.
“We’re very fortunate,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “I think this organization has been blessed for a long time to have had the guys that they’ve had under center for a long period of time. Regardless of anybody else’s circumstances, we appreciate who we have under center. We all know what kind of person he is. We all know what kind of player he is and what he’s going to end up being at the end of the day. We don’t take that for granted.”
When things go wrong with a quarterback decision, it’s not always immediately apparent. Take the Buccaneers and Freeman. Less than two years ago, he seemed like a franchise quarterback in the making. He had size, speed, mobility. The Bucs barely missed the playoffs.
Today, Freeman is out and the five-year playoff drought is likely to move on to six years this winter.
Quarterback would seem to be the easiest position to judge. Everyone watches quarterbacks. Everyone knows the skill sets needed — strong arm, strong will, intelligence, leadership ability — and yet finding the right one can be elusive to many NFL teams. Why do you think John Elway leaped at the chance to get Manning, if only for three or four years? The Broncos have been searching since Elway retired.
The Panthers think they have their man in Cam Newton, but he’s no longer the next-big-thing. The same goes for the Rams with Bradford. The difference between up-and-coming and overrated is slim.
There’s a reason why quarterbacks are the highest-paid players. They can swing a franchise one way or another.
And when the wrong decision on a quarterback swings a franchise out of the playoffs, it can be a long, frustrating climb back in.