It is that overlapping time on the NFL calendar when most franchises begin preparing for next season while a fortunate few are still playing. And, on occasion, the way in which those successful teams have gone about getting to this point can be immediately instructive to everyone else.
So while quarterback-needy teams get ready to peruse the market, the question arising from the postseason is this: What does it mean that Minnesota’s Case Keenum, Philadelphia’s Nick Foles and Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles will start in Sunday’s conference championship games?
Should that matter to the Washington Redskins as they are about to deal with Kirk Cousins and possibly lose him? How about to those teams that could chase Cousins on the free agent market?
The contract numbers for Cousins will be massive. It would cost the Redskins $34.47 million on a one-year deal to give him the franchise player tag for a third straight year. Any long-term deal with the Redskins or any other team probably would approach or exceed the $27 million-per-season price tag of Matthew Stafford’s record five-year, $135 million deal with the Detroit Lions.
Put that in the context of Keenum, Foles and Bortles making about $9.2 million combined in salaries and bonuses for this season. Will the Redskins and other NFL teams hit the pause button before handing out contracts worth $25 million per year or more to Cousins and other quarterbacks? Should they?
The answers, it seems, are no way and probably not.
“There are some very unusual circumstances with these guys,” a personnel executive with an NFC team said of Keenum, Foles and Bortles. “I don’t think anyone will try to copy it or should try to copy it.”
There certainly are a number of disclaimers.
In Keenum’s case, it’s not like the Vikings went cheap at quarterback. Sam Bradford was supposed to be their starter, with Teddy Bridgewater on the mend from the injury that caused them to trade for Bradford in the first place. Keenum, who is making $2 million in salary and bonus money this season, was added as an insurance policy. But Bradford got hurt. Bridgewater wasn’t ready to return, and Keenum played so well when he got his chance that Coach Mike Zimmer had little choice but to leave him in the lineup.
With Foles, it’s not as if he was responsible for the Eagles being the No. 1 seed in the NFC. That was very much the doing of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, who was a front-runner for the NFL’s MVP award before suffering a season-ending knee injury in December. Foles had been signed to a two-year, $11 million contract — with a $3 million signing bonus and a $1 million salary for this season — to be a backup, and the Eagles turned to him only out of necessity.
And when it comes to Bortles, he is supposed to be a prized player. The Jaguars chose him with the No. 3 overall selection in the 2014 NFL draft with the idea that he would be a franchise quarterback. And while there have been glimpses of that during his four-year NFL career, like when he had seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in a three-game stretch in December, he has not been consistently reliable.
But if he remains in Jacksonville, he will not be an inexpensive quarterback much longer. His four-year, $20.65 million rookie deal, which pays him $3.237 million this season, is expiring, and the Jaguars have exercised his fifth-year option for next season at a cost of $19.053 million. That is guaranteed only for injury, so the Jaguars still could decide to move on.
“I’m excited for that man,” Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson said in the locker room after Bortles played well in Sunday’s triumph at Pittsburgh in an AFC semifinal. “All these quarterbacks are paid with no playoff games. I wish I was Blake.”
Keenum, Foles and Bortles also had plenty of help. The Vikings led the league in total defense this season; the Jaguars were second, and the Eagles were fourth.
But the first rule in NFL roster-building always has been that if you don’t have a franchise quarterback, you must do what it takes to try to get one. And that mind-set is not likely to change simply because Keenum, Foles and Bortles are playing on the second-to-last Sunday of NFL competition this season, or because either Keenum or Foles will be a Super Bowl quarterback.
Take a look, in the broader view, at the quarterbacks of this season’s playoff teams.
There is New England’s Tom Brady, the ultimate franchise quarterback. There were fellow former league MVPs Cam Newton of Carolina and Matt Ryan of Atlanta. There were likely Hall of Famers Drew Brees of New Orleans and Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh. There were five other quarterbacks, in addition to Newton and Ryan, taken first, second or third overall in the NFL draft: Bortles, Wentz, the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff, Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota. That leaves only Keenum and Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor as true outliers, if you count Wentz as the quarterback who got the Eagles to the postseason.
If the Patriots beat the Jaguars on Sunday, this will be the 14th time in 15 years that the AFC team in the Super Bowl will be quarterbacked by Brady, Roethlisberger or Peyton Manning.
The last 14 Super Bowl-winning teams have been quarterbacked by Brady four times; Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning twice each; and Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Joe Flacco once apiece.
Franchise quarterbacks still matter.
Just ask the Cleveland Browns, who are 1-31 over the past two seasons after pretty much going out of their way to avoid drafting Wentz or Deshaun Watson.
Or on the flip side of that equation, ask the San Francisco 49ers, who were 1-10 before turning their team over to Jimmy Garoppolo this season and 5-0 afterward.
“I don’t think the paradigm has shifted one bit,” said an agent who represents a quarterback who could be available this offseason.
So the Redskins and others must be as quarterback-focused as ever. The Redskins may have negotiated themselves into a corner with Cousins, and he very well might depart. There will be a variety of options in an unusually crowded veteran quarterback market and in a highly anticipated NFL draft class.
But if the Redskins believe there is going to be a far less celebrated, far cheaper option out there to give them the same chance of success, they might want to rethink that. It’s certainly not every season that quarterbacks like Keenum, Foles and Bortles find ways to still be playing so late into January.
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