THE NFL REGULAR season that concludes Sunday has been, in some ways, unlike any before it.
We had replacement officials. We had New Orleans Saints coaches and players suspended because of a bounty scandal. We had players being penalized for hits that didn’t seem like penalties a few years ago. We had a team make the playoffs after losing 14 games last season and its coach for most of this one because of leukemia. We had a bunch of rookies do unprecedented things.
But this truth remains as relevant as ever: The NFL is still a quarterback-driven league.
Look at the teams that already have qualified for the playoffs: Every one has a quarterback it feels really good about.
Look at the past nine Super Bowl winners: Every one featured a top-level, “franchise” quarterback.
Look at the aforementioned playoff-bound team with the leukemia-stricken coach: Would Indianapolis have come close without precocious rookie QB Andrew Luck?
Luck isn’t the only first-year passer who has had an impact on his franchise: Robert Griffin III has Washington on the brink of its first division title since 1999, and Russell Wilson has led Seattle to double-digit victories for the first time since 2007.
Every team lacking quality quarterback play wants what those organizations now have. As is invariably the case, several franchises head into the offseason looking to make changes at football’s most important position.
Three teams don’t have a choice: Arizona, Kansas City and the New York Jets. Seven more are strong possibilities: Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Minnesota, Oakland, Philadelphia and Tennessee.
Add it all up, and that’s almost one-third of the league.
Unlike this past offseason, the draft does not promise a wealth of quarterback treasure. The top two prospects, at this point, are West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley. Some project both to slide out of the first round. Don’t bet on that. Even if the supply is lacking, demand remains high. Expect at least two teams to use first-round picks to try to solve their passing-game problems.
That still leaves eight clubs seeking quarterback solutions. Second- and third-round investments are always a possibility — Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Wilson entered the league that way — but hardly a high-percentage one.
More likely, we’ll see a flurry of moves involving intriguing veteran quarterbacks on the free-agent and trade markets. The two biggest names with the deepest resumes are Michael Vick (Philadelphia) and Alex Smith (San Francisco). Both began this season as starters. Both are unlikely to be with their current clubs next season because of their contracts, among other issues.
“There will be a market for both those guys,” one league executive said. “But I think you would bring them in to compete, not (be) given the starting job.”
Another mobile left-hander certain to be on the move in the offseason is Tim Tebow, who, according to reports, is a lock to land in his hometown of Jacksonville. Isn’t that what should have happened in the first place?
Speaking of former Heisman Trophy winners, Oakland’s Carson Palmer also is a candidate for the transactions agate this offseason. The Raiders are in a rebuilding mode under first-year general manager Reggie McKenzie.
The league executive laid out a scenario whereby the Raiders part ways with Palmer, despite the salary-cap consequences, and acquire Matt Flynn, who’s hopelessly buried on the Seahawks’ depth chart behind Wilson. McKenzie was part of Green Bay’s personnel department when the Packers drafted Flynn in 2008.
“I could see the Raiders doing that,” the executive said. “I think Reggie likes guys he knows.”
It’s possible Smith and Norv Turner, who worked together in 2006, will be a package deal somewhere. Likewise Kirk Cousins and Kyle Shanahan of Washington, which almost certainly could acquire a pick in trade higher than the fourth-rounder it spent on Griffin’s understudy.
The potential story lines are endless and exciting. When it comes to quarterbacks, they always are.