The best thing Bill Polian ever did as general manager of the Indianapolis Colts was draft Peyton Manning instead of Ryan Leaf in 1998.
The second-best thing he did for the Colts was to ignore the backup quarterback position, relatively speaking, which led to a 2-14 record when Manning couldn’t play because of a neck injury in 2011.
That set up the Colts to draft Andrew Luck at No. 1 overall in 2012. In only his second season, Luck probably deserves a place among the game’s five best quarterbacks, and the Colts are now in line to compete for Super Bowls for another 10 to 15 years.
Polian’s reward was getting fired by owner Jim Irsay, who concluded that Polian failed the franchise by leaving it so weak at backup quarterback that it won only two games without Manning. But I’d argue Polian wasn’t negligent.
Not that Polian planned it that way or tanked the season to get Luck. But the reality was, it didn’t matter who the Colts’ backup was, they weren’t going to win many games without Manning. Whether they won two games or six, what’s the difference?
Manning hadn’t missed a start up to that point in his career, and the priority had to be building a team that gave him the best chance possible to win the Super Bowl. Spending valuable resources (money or higher draft picks) on his backup was a luxury not worth the cost. So you do what you can at backup and take your chances.
Likewise, tempting as it might be to fault general manager Ted Thompson for putting the Green Bay Packers’ playoff chances in jeopardy now that Aaron Rodgers is out several games because of a broken collarbone, the argument that Thompson was negligent with the backup quarterback position goes only so far.
Yes, you can blame Thompson for not bringing in Vince Young or Seneca Wallace in the offseason to give them a fighting chance, rather than signing them in August and September, respectively. And yes, Thompson should have used another later-round draft pick, maybe even two, for alternatives to B.J. Coleman and Graham Harrell the last three or four years.
But anyone suggesting that Thompson should have spent above the minimum salary for a veteran backup, or used a relatively high draft pick at the position, is ignoring the on-field and economic realities of today’s NFL.
The truth is, teams with quarterbacks such as Rodgers, Manning, Drew Brees or Tom Brady don’t have enough salary-cap room and draft picks to warrant significant investments into backing up the player who is the biggest reason they win.
“It just denudes you at other positions,” Polian said in an interview late this week.
For starters, if any of those teams loses its quarterback, it becomes average at best, even with its pick of backups in the league. It would be only marginally better off with one of the bottom 15 starters.
Take, for example, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and Houston’s Matt Schaub. Both have to be considered decent starters, or in Schaub’s case, at least was going into this season.
Both also are surrounded by talented teams. The Bengals have an elite receiver (A.J. Green), two playmakers at tight end (Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert) and an explosive rookie running back (Giovani Bernard), Houston has one of the most talented defenses in the league, led by defensive lineman J.J. Watt, the NFL’s defensive player of the year last season.
Yet, neither Dalton nor Schaub appears to be good enough. And at least Dalton probably ranks in the middle of the pack among the league’s starters. So what are the chances of finding a backup even as good as him? Essentially zero when considering veterans available each year, and considering how hit and miss the draft is, not good enough to warrant using a relatively high pick. Not when teams with top quarterbacks have endless other needs to fill.
The fact is, teams such as the Packers (Rodgers), Broncos (Manning), Saints (Brees) and Patriots (Brady) are spending huge portions of their salary caps — up to one-seventh or more — on their quarterback. That means each offseason they have to let some good players at other positions walk in free agency, which means continually replacing them with draft picks.
Even teams with good but not great quarterbacks are similarly constrained. The New York Giants’ Eli Manning has a $20.85 million cap charge this year, and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco costs just less than $15 million on the Ravens’ cap through 2015, then shoots up to $28.5 million in ’16.
Their GMs’ charge is to give their star quarterback the best chance to win. That takes draft picks to replenish talent and money to re-sign the best players. Every pick used on a backup quarterback costs a shot at a player at another position. And every dollar above the minimum spent on a backup quarterback is a dollar less to retain good performers at other positions.
So, Dallas, for instance, has one of the league’s most accomplished veteran backups in Kyle Orton (35-34 record as a starter). But he comes at a salary-cap cost of $1.967 million this year.
The Cowboys arguably can afford it because starter Tony Romo counts only $11.8 million against this year’s cap. But for the Packers, Patriots, Saints or Broncos, that’s a price too high. That extra $1 milllion to $1.5 milllion in cap room is far better spent on contract extensions or pushed onto next years’ cap than spent on a backup who probably won’t play and isn’t much better than a cheaper alternative.
The case is similar if not quite as strong regarding the draft. Unless you’re the Packers drafting Rodgers in the first round in 2005 to succeed an aging Brett Favre, what’s the value of using a pick in the first three or even four rounds for a backup to an elite quarterback? There are too many needs elsewhere.
For instance, if Thompson had drafted a quarterback in the fourth round in ’12, he might have lost a shot at defensive lineman Mike Daniels. This year, a quarterback in the same round might have cost the chance at tackle David Bakhtiari or running back Johnathan Franklin.
Thompson basically is following the blueprint Polian used in building his roster around Manning in Indianapolis. In the 13 drafts after Manning’s, Polian selected only two quarterbacks, both with late-round picks: Jim Sorgi in the sixth round in 2004, and Curtis Painter in the sixth round in 2009.
At least one other team is operating similarly. Since signing Brees in ’06, the Saints have drafted only one quarterback (Sean Canfield), and that was in the seventh round. Their backup is 10-year pro Luke McCown at a cheap $555,000 cap charge.
In Denver, Peyton Manning’s backup is Brock Osweiler ($799,245 cap charge), drafted in the second round in ’12 as an age and injury hedge.
The New York Giants have been a little more liberal in drafting backup quarterbacks, and the Patriots much more.
Since acquiring Eli Manning in ’04, the Giants have drafted three — André Woodson in the sixth round in ’06, Rhett Bomar in the fifth round in ’05 and Ryan Nassib in the fourth round this year. Their backup is Painter at a veterans minimum $630,000 cap charge.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, on the other hand, has spent two third-round picks among the six quarterbacks he’s drafted since Brady became his starter in ’01. One of those, Kevin O’Connell in ’08, was a bust. The other, Ryan Mallett in ’11, has thrown eight passes in 2½ seasons.
In a 12-minute interview on the subject this week, Polian said if he had it to do over again he still wouldn’t pay much if anything more than the minimum salary for a veteran backup. But he would strongly have considered using a third- or fourth-round pick on one.
It’s worth noting, though, that his reason was based on the realities of holding an NFL job, not on what’s best for a franchise.
“I don’t think you should be in a position where you’re embarrassed (by your season),” Polian said. “(Luck) is there and we’re not. Maybe Irsay is smarter than we are. The fact of the matter is a lot of people went out on the street because we went 2-14, whatever the circumstance.”
In today’s NFL, the salary cap and free agency force teams to just make do at many positions. If you’re paying top dollar for a quarterback, then his backup is one of them. Those resources are much better spent elsewhere.
“Now you know why our league is so competitive, because that’s what the salary cap is designed to do,” Polian said. “It’s designed at its core to handicap good teams and good organizations.”