Late this past summer, near the conclusion of training camp, a reporter asked Chicago Bears General Manager Ryan Pace about his team’s window of contention. How cognizant was Pace of not only building for the future with a second-year quarterback, but also attempting to win immediately, before Mitchell Trubisky’s bargain rookie deal grew more expensive?
“That is something we internally talk about,” Pace replied. “There’s no question, the obvious advantages to that, versus going out and signing. In a perfect world, any franchise would want to hit on a young, drafted quarterback, as opposed to maybe hitting on it in free agency, where the financial part is different.”
Less than a week later, the Bears traded two first-round draft picks for Khalil Mack and made him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. It was the ultimate win-now-and-forget-tomorrow move, and the Bears had the financial capacity to pull it off in large part because they needed to pay Trubisky a small fraction of their salary cap, his salary suppressed for five years by the collectively bargained rookie pay scale.
Sunday afternoon, Pace’s plan reached fruition. The Bears beat the Green Bay Packers, 24-17, at Soldier Field to claim the NFC North title for the first time in eight years. Chicago was an 8-to-1 long shot to win the division before the season, but the Bears believed now was their time. The season validated their belief, and the underlying reason they won is the same reason they were overlooked.
For so long, NFL conventional wisdom demanded that only teams with elite quarterbacks could be Super Bowl contenders. But teams don’t need an experienced, elite, big-money quarterback to win. In fact, they may be better off without one.
Last week, a factoid tweeted by the NFL’s research department spread around social media. Five of the six highest-paid NFL quarterbacks based on average annual value — Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr — are in line to miss the playoffs. And Kirk Cousins, the other member of the top six, has Minnesota clinging to the second wild-card spot in the NFC.
The graphic was slightly disingenuous — Garoppolo tore his left ACL in Week 3, costing him the remainder of the season. It was also slightly arbitrary — Drew Brees, the seventh-highest paid quarterback, has led the New Orleans Saints to the best record in the NFC and may win the MVP.
The overall point was accurate. The NFL’s most valuable commodity is a capable quarterback on his rookie contract. It allows teams to build strong, deep rosters. More than ever, it does not force teams to pay a prohibitive penalty for not playing an elite player at the sport’s most important position.
The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl last year with backup quarterback Nick Foles after second-year starter Carson Wentz went down with an injury. As the playoff picture stands, three of the four teams with byes — Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes), Houston (Deshaun Watson) and the Los Angeles Rams (Jared Goff) — start a quarterback on a rookie contract.
New rules and new schematic innovations, both benefiting offense, have made playing quarterback easier than at any point in recent league history. With that, the value of an elite quarterback has deceased, to the point that it may be better to employ a merely competent one at a cheap price.
The current NFL environment diminishes the advantage of having one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The chasm between players such as Rodgers and players such as Goff even a few seasons ago could not be closed through building a better roster around the quarterback. Now, the gap can be closed and tilted toward the lesser quarterback.
The importance of rookie-deal quarterbacks has shaped the 2018 season. Trubisky and Goff lead teams that have clinched division titles. Watson, Mahomes and Dak Prescott have their teams leading three other divisions. In Baltimore, the Ravens have gone 4-1 since Lamar Jackson replaced Joe Flacco. In Cleveland, the Browns might be playoff contenders had Baker Mayfield not been saddled with Hue Jackson as his coach for half a season.
Quarterbacks are coming into a league filled with coaches open to implementing concepts borrowed from college with which they can find comfort. They’re facing pass rushes that cannot hit them high, low or late. They’re throwing to wide receivers more protected from helmet-to-helmet contact. All of the factors leading to historic offensive output across the league double as factors that make quarterback a simpler position to play.
Trubisky’s circumstances illustrate the point perfectly. For all of his dazzling physical attributes, Trubisky struggles with making quick decisions and throwing accurate passes. But the Bears had the resources to build a stellar defense, which took pressure off him. They could spend money on free agent receiving targets Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel. They hired a coach, Matt Nagy, who uses wildly creative schemes that help simplify Trubisky’s job.
Sunday afternoon, Trubisky faced Rodgers, the highest-paid and perhaps most talented quarterback in the NFL. The Packers had a lesser roster, and they had fired coach Mike McCarthy two weeks ago. Rodgers has not had his best season, diminished by the knee injury he suffered in the season opener, but no one questions his talent. Trubisky’s Bears won to clinch the division and officially knock the Packers out.
“There’s no denying, there’s obviously a benefit to [a quarterback on his rookie deal] financially,” Pace said back in the summer. “But I think first and foremost, when you talk about building around a young quarterback, we know you can’t win consistently without a quarterback. You might have a flash year or maybe two, but nothing is ever going to be consistent. You can hit on a lot of positions, but unless you hit on a quarterback, and until you get that right, the rest of it is not right.”
Trubisky has his flaws, but in this NFL, it’s becoming more clear that the right quarterback isn’t necessarily the best quarterback. It’s the one who lets you build a contender around him.
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