Saturday, February 26, 2011

Waves and Waves of Quarterbacks

It's human nature to find patterns in just about everything and it's human nature to assume that any pattern that repeats itself is a trend.

This of course is entirely wrong.

But still, it's fun to point to This Thing and exclaim that it's just like That Thing and then to cast your gaze to the future to try to pinpoint the Next Thing.

So with that introduction, I am now declaring another Thing: Quarterbacks enter the league in waves. Oh, it's true. About every 7-10 years we see another wave of quarterbacks and since it's happened at least five times now it is therefore a certifiable Trend.

Consider; from 1970 - '73 the NFL saw Bradshaw, Phipps, Plunkett, Manning, Pastorini, Dickey, Ken Anderson, Theisman, Sipe, Bert Jones, Jaworski, Ferguson and Fouts enter the league (1972 was a lean year with only Brian Sipe and he would sit behind Phipps for a half decade). This was 13 starting quarterbacks in a league that had 26 teams. It followed a long dry period that stretched back to '61. The immediately preceding years, '66-'69 saw only Griese, Stabler and Landry as successful multiyear starters.

The next wave was brief but powerful. From 1983-85 quarterbacks Kelly, Elway, O'Brien, Marino, Hebert, Esiason, Hostetler, Schroeder, Young, and Cunningham became pros. Using some wishy-washy language because I want to include Kelly, Hebert and Young who started in the USFL.

There were choppier waters for a number of years after '85. There was a small spike on schedule from '93-'95 with Bledsoe, Brunnell, Trent Green, Dilfer, Frerotte, McNair, Kerry Collins and Kordell Stewart but this seems to lack both the magnitude and star power of previous one. I would like to argue that this is - in part - because the previous wave was still doing so well. Elway still had championships ahead of him, Young was the best quarterback in the league. Moon and Aikman were also in the mix. There wasn't as much of a void to fill as there had been previously.

I count the next wave from 1998-2001 with Peyton Manning, Brian Greise, Hasselbeck, McNabb, Culpepper, Aaron Brooks, Pennington, Bulger, Brady, Vick, and Brees. A wave that has more pure star power than depth.

Before fast forwarding, have to account for Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia in here somewhere. They both could be included in the min-'90s wave since they both left college in 1994. They also could be included in the late '90s wave since they both joined the NFL during that time. Either way, their inclusion significantly enhances the power of either wave. Counting those guys, the 1990s was a little aberrant with two smaller chops rather than the big waves of the 1970s and 1980s.

Finally, looking at 2011. This was kind of the impetus for this post. It looks like the recent wave has petered out. Obviously we won't know this for a few years, but the quality of quarterback prospect this year doesn't seem to be close to prior ones. Andrew Luck remains on the horizon and he is the consensus All Everything right now, but like Matt Leinart, Brian Brohm and Jake Locker before him we will see how wise his return to Stanford will be.

So I am prematurely counting the current wave from 2008 - 2010. If so, we can begin to measure it too.

First, does it meet the criteria for a wave? It appears to. The prior three years had poor quarterback classes. There are some names still, but realistically the best quarterback from the '07 draft was Kolb. From the '06 draft Cutler. From the '05 draft Rodgers and Orton with no depth behind them. Meanwhile Alex Smith, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jamarcus Russell and Brady Quinn each flamed out to varying degrees. I'm not sure who I'd say is 'next best' after Kolb. Probably either Jason Campbell or Ryan Fitzpatrick (yikes!).

The second component of the criteria is whether a large enough group of quality quarterbacks and additional depth entered the league. Again, the answer appears to be yes. From 2008 we have Ryan, Flacco, Henne, Dixon, Josh Johnson, Flynn, Hanie, Stafford, Sanchez, Freeman, Bradford, Tebow and McCoy. All of those guys appear to be able to play. Additionally there are guys like McGee, Claussen, Pike, Rusty Smith, Skelton and Max Hall who might still be able to craft careers.

Again, it's hard to know how this will shake out. Clearly there are a lot more questions about this entire group than there are about the 1970 guys or the 1983 guys. Even so though, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman have already reached stardom. Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford are awfully close. If Matt Stafford can shake his injuries he has as much raw talent as any of those guys and was very productive in 2010 when he was on the field.

The last wave is rapidly aging, or even aged. Regardless of the 2011 or 2012 draft, the next group of starters and stars will almost certainly be heavily populated by the 2008 wave, with a couple of others like Roethlisberger, Rivers and Schaub thrown in.

I call the next wave: 2019


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