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Orbiting Cleveland: NFL quarterbacks and sustained success

Orbiting

(John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer)
(John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer)
$41.6 million. That’s the remaining dollar amount that the Cleveland Browns have available in cap space.

Why are they not using that to sign any high-level free agents? Well, that’s the $41.6 million question, isn’t it?

So far, the Browns’ two big moves this offseason have revolved around the signing of journeyman quarterback Josh McCown and wide receiver Brian Hartline. Both players were cut from their previous team, and neither signing has created much of a buzz within the fan base.

The criticism that this franchise has faced since 1999 has become laughable at this point. Every year, it seems to be the same story with the Browns, and EHC’s Brian McPeek helped outline that a couple weeks ago in his piece, Set Your Watch By It.

I, too, have been critical of the Browns. This was true no less than three days ago when it was falsely reported that the Browns had re-signed tight end Jordan Cameron, only to watch him bolt to the Miami Dolphins just hours later. Same-old Browns, right?

Call me crazy though, but when it comes to the Browns’ conservative approach to free agency, this is one instance where I have to say that I’m on board. Completely.

Let’s take you for a trip down memory lane.

January 18, 2004. Do you remember that date?

That was the date of the 2003-04 AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. It was the first of many iconic battles between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and the Patriots ultimately won the contest 24-14, but that’s not the important thing here.

The game is remembered for the way in which Patriots defensive backs Ty Law and Rodney Harrison practically mugged Colts receivers. For the first 10 yards, the Patriots’ defensive backs were all over them, grabbing jerseys, bumping bodies and just being very physical. It’s no wonder that Manning threw four interceptions in the contest.

That game was pivotal in making the NFL review the illegal contact rule during the following offseason. While it had been in existence since the 1970s, illegal contact, defined as defenders making contact with receivers more than five yards from the line of scrimmage while the quarterback is in the pocket, had not been enforced with much regularity. However, after 2004, the NFL and its Competition Committee made it a priority for illegal contact to receive extra scrutiny from NFL referees and be enforced to the letter of the law. More than 10 years later, the league has never been the same.

Need evidence? Consider this.

During the 2003 season, the NFL has two 4,000-yard passers: Peyton Manning and Trent Green. Last season? There were 11.

The roundabout point here is that the NFL has become so reliant on passing that the game is significantly different, even compared to just over 10 years ago. This is not news, but it could be one of the reasons that the Browns have taken such a tepid approach to free agency this offseason.

Take a look at the list below:

  1. Ben Roethlisberger (2007, 2011, 2014)

  2. Donovan McNabb (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009)

  3. Tom Brady (2001, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014)

  4. Michael Vick (2002, 2004, 2005, 2010)

  5. Peyton Manning (1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014)

  6. Brett Favre (1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009)

  7. Marc Bulger (2003, 2006)

  8. Kurt Warner (1999, 2000, 2001, 2008)

  9. Jake Plummer (2005)

  10. Daunte Culpepper (2000, 2003, 2004)

  11. Matt Hasselbeck (2003, 2005, 2007)

  12. Drew Brees (2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014)

  13. Carson Palmer (2005, 2006)

  14. Eli Manning (2008, 2011, 2012)

  15. Jake Delhomme (2005)

  16. Jeff Garcia (2000, 2001, 2002, 2007)

  17. Mark Brunell (1996, 1997, 1999)

  18. Philip Rivers (2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013)

  19. Steve McNair (2000, 2003, 2005)

  20. Trent Green (2003, 2005)

  21. Tony Romo (2006, 2007, 2009, 2014)

  22. David Garrard (2009)

  23. Vince Young (2006, 2009)

  24. Kerry Collins (1996, 2008)

  25. Gus Frerotte (1996)

  26. Matt Ryan (2010, 2012, 2014)

  27. Michael Vick (2002, 2004, 2005, 2010)

  28. Jay Cutler (2008)

  29. Matt Cassel (2010)

  30. Aaron Rodgers (2009, 2011, 2012, 2014)

  31. Matt Schaub (2009, 2012)

  32. Alex Smith (2013)

  33. Andy Dalton (2011, 2014)

  34. Matthew Stafford (2014)

  35. Robert Griffin III (2012)

  36. Andrew Luck (2012, 2013, 2014)

  37. Russell Wilson (2012, 2013)

  38. Cam Newton (2011, 2013)

  39. Nick Foles (2013)

  40. Drew Stanton

  41. Christian Ponder

  42. Colin Kaepernick

  43. Tim Tebow

  44. Mark Sanchez

  45. Joe Flacco

  46. Jason Campbell

  47. Chris Simms

  48. Rex Grossman

  49. Kyle Orton

  50. Byron Leftwich

  51. Chad Pennington
Wondering what all of those names above have in common? The list above includes the names of all of quarterbacks who have led an NFL team to the playoffs since the league started to emphasize the illegal contact rule following the 2003-04 season.

These names have something else in common as well. The vast majority of these quarterbacks have all made at least one Pro Bowl. In fact, of the 51 starting quarterbacks who had led a team to the postseason since the start pf the 2004 season, only 12 have not been named to at least one Pro Bowl, and they are:
  • Drew Stanton

  • Christian Ponder

  • Colin Kaepernick

  • Tim Tebow

  • Mark Sanchez

  • Joe Flacco

  • Jason Campbell

  • Chris Simms

  • Rex Grossman

  • Kyle Orton

  • Byron Leftwich

  • Chad Pennington
Now, let’s consider some of these 12 names. While they may never have been named to a Pro Bowl, a few of these players, namely Flacco and Kaepernick, would still be considered franchise quarterbacks by their organization. Other ones, like Kyle Orton and Chad Pennington, also have a solid track record of success in the NFL.

So really, we’re talking about just six or seven names here who really have no consistent track record of NFL success. Out of 51 quarterbacks, that’s a very low percentage.

Now many of these 51 quarterbacks have since revealed themselves to not be franchise quarterbacks. After all, it does seem hard to believe that players such as Vince Young, David Garrard and Robert Griffin III were once Pro Bowlers. However, when they played well, their team found itself in the postseason, which is also indicative of how NFL success is predicated on quarterback play.

This then brings us back to the Browns. Yes, they do have plenty of cap space and the ability to make moves, but why now? Does anyone believe that a McCown-led Browns team is headed toward anything better than a 5-to-7-win season? Don’t you think the organization might realize that as well?

Sure, there are outliers. But there are not many outliers. And McCown has had plenty of chances to start in the league and not once has he ever brought a team to the playoffs.

This is not intended to be a downer, but it is intended to be a reality check. The Browns will have very little chance at sustained success until they find a quarterback. Yes, they could get lucky, just as they did for a bit last year with Hoyer at the helm, but luck is all it would be.

The best course of action for this team is to now wait and see with Johnny Manziel. Given his performance last year, it seems unreasonable to believe that he could be a franchise quarterback, but he has now been in rehab for more than six weeks. Who knows what type of person will eventually leave that facility. Certainly, one would hope it’s going to a different version of the player that we saw last year.

Then, if it’s determined that Manziel is not the answer, then the Browns should move on to securing the next best young quarterback in an upcoming draft. It’s a sad and played-out story for the Browns, but it’s the only story that might possibly have a happy ending.

Only when the Browns secure its franchise quarterback, should the team then be expected to be big spenders in free agency. Because the fact is that sustained success in today’s NFL comes only to teams with a franchise quarterback at the helm.
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