Although it is not by any means universal, Tony Romo is finally beginning to get his due as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. He led the Cowboys into the playoffs and won the wild card game. The loss in the divisional round was not at all his fault. The numbers from last year show that he was arguably the best in the league. He led the NFL in quarterback rating, completion percentage, and yards per attempt. If he stays healthy, he is one of the biggest reasons for optimism about where Dallas can go this year.
And when you look at the usual suspects for making it all the way to the Super Bowl, you see the same. There is a top-rated passer at the helm. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson. Basically if a team expects to be mentioned as one of the likely playoff contenders, they have to have a quarterback who can post a passer rating for the year of over 90. The NFL has become a passing league, demanding a specific skill set that just not everyone has. That 90 rating falls exactly at the midpoint of the league, with only 16 teams having one last year. Without that kind of quarterback, teams find themselves with high draft picks - and hoping they can find one of those star passers to carry them.
But what if there really aren't any of them out there? There was a chilling article in the Wall Street Journal that discussed this possibility in length. True, that is not the first publication that comes to mind for quality football analysis, but you should read this. The first two paragraphs lay out the problem.
Since the dawn of the NFL, head coaches and general managers have been calling top college quarterback prospects into conference rooms to pepper them with rudimentary questions: how to attack a certain defense, for instance, or what to do when a play breaks down. The answers were sometimes dull and sometimes brilliant, but there were always answers.
This year, according to separate interviews with dozens of NFL coaches and executives, something disturbing happened in these pre-draft quiz sessions. When asked the same basic questions, many quarterback prospects responded with something NFL insiders said they have never seen before: blank stares.
There has been a lot of discussion about how the college game has evolved along very divergent lines from the pro version in the past ten to twenty years. The big thing now in college is the no-huddle, hurry-up offense where there is no real attempt to read the defense. Instead, you keep the defenders back on their heels, limit substitutions, and the receivers just go out and try to get open, often with virtually no route tree. The quarterbacks now are often as much of a threat to run the ball for big yards as to throw for them. They may just make two or three very quick and simple reads, and then pull it down and take off if nothing is there. And the team may have three or four talented running backs that just keep coming all game. As a result, when these players get to the pro level, the quarterback has almost none of the skills at dissecting the defense and making a progression through four or five options. The linemen have very limited technique in pass protection, and have faced pass rushers that may only have one move they just use over and over.
Colleges have a completely different approach from the pros. They may have a roster that is twice as large as the 46-man active roster the pros use, and they can use as many of them as they want. They can try and often do get off 80 plays in a college game, which often last four hours. Additionally, the college knows it only has the player for four seasons on the field at most, and for a redshirt freshman who shines, they will only see two seasons before he declares for the draft and is gone. It is a real numbers game at this level, where the most important part of a program is the ability to recruit top talent and keep a constant pipeline of players who become very disposable. There is no monetary cost for cutting players and of course no salary cap to manage. Many teams, like Ohio State, have so many quarterbacks capable of excelling at that level that they have to convert players to another position just to utilize their talent.
But for an NFL team, a true franchise quarterback is now a $100 million investment, with the guaranteed money now in the $50 million range or higher, and climbing. Every year, the league scours the college ranks for another Andrew Luck. Mostly, they don't find them.
I got curious about what the draft history says about this, so I looked back through the quarterbacks that were taken from 2000 through 2014. It was sobering. Even if you count players like Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford as legitimate NFL-caliber starting passers (and neither of them made that 90 passer rating last season), the best you can hope for in any year is three players who can start and give you some degree of success during their career. On average, there are about two per year that justify being drafted highly. When you look at the math, that means that there are going to be only about 15 to 20 quarterbacks in the league at any given time that can lead the team to a championship, unless the team has something else like a truly dominant defense to carry them. And given what the coaching staffs are seeing, it is likely only going to get worse.
When you look at the current top quarterbacks in the league, you realize that there are more of them over the age of 30 than under. This is one reason why the NFL has taken steps to protect the quarterback. The league cannot afford to have many of them get hurt if it wants to keep putting out a product that can draw the ratings to justify the incredible amounts of money it rakes in each year.
One of the things the WSJ article suggests is that the only real way forward for the NFL is to change how it uses the quarterback. This is perhaps the real underpinning for the extreme fawning over Chip Kelly. He is trying to bring much of the college game into the NFL. As much as those of us who hate all things involving the Philadelphia Eagles are loathe to admit it, he may have a blueprint for turning the raw material now available into a successful NFL quarterback. He is obviously having some problems overcoming the limitations of roster size and the rules that don't allow the HUNH offense to run the same way it does in college, but he is grafting some elements into the pro game, and it may well succeed - if it doesn't melt down first.
For years now, we as fans of the Cowboys have been asking when the team will draft Romo's replacement. But when you look at the draft history, there are only a couple or perhaps three players each year who are candidates. If you don't have a top five draft pick, you are not likely to have any real chance of drafting one of them. And even then, the chances are only about 50/50 that you will get it right. Everyone says that Romo was a miracle the likes of which will never happen again. But in the future, the only real hope for a quarterback without tanking a season will be to get one with physical abilities that fit the needs of the NFL, and then teach them how to play the game at that level. Look at the last two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. Russell Wilson was a third-rounder. Tom Brady went in the sixth. The reality is that taking a quarterback in the top five picks is no guarantee that he will be able to take the team to the Super Bowl. Successful teams are going to be forced to look much deeper in the draft to try and find that quarterback that can develop or even come in and stun everyone as a rookie.
Which does make one wonder about Jameill Showers. He had a decent SPARQ score, without doing the bench press. He did not look overwhelmed in the preseason games he appeared in. The team is planning on using him in a variety of ways as a practice squad member, because he is not only a very good athlete but he is willing to do whatever it takes to have some kind of a job with the Cowboys. When the team looks at him, do they see the combination of ability, football intelligence, and work ethic to mold into a quarterback, one who can fit as either a traditional pocket passer or whatever form the position may be forced to evolve into? This is of course rank speculation, but while Jason Garrett is not seen as the mad genius innovator that Kelly is, he is also very forward thinking and highly intelligent. He is certainly aware of the trends in the skill sets of the players coming out of college now. As I said, it makes one wonder.
For now, Dallas will ride Tony Romo, who is proving that he is one of the best of the current pro quarterbacks. But unless there is a reversal of the way colleges play the game, eventually all teams will have to adjust. It will probably be difficult, but the Cowboys have one of the best front offices in the league. We all have to hope they are up to the challenge in the next few years.