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Pete Dougherty column: Elite NFL QBs 'are like gold'

Nearly impossible to trade for quarterback like Rodgers or Favre

Dec. 14, 2013
 
The Packers were 51-17 in games Rodgers finished the last five seasons, including a Super Bowl XLV victory. Since his injury, they're 1-4-1, against a relatively soft schedule at that. File/Press-Gazette Media
The Packers were 51-17 in games Rodgers finished the last five seasons, including a Super Bowl XLV victory. Since his injury, they're 1-4-1, against a relatively soft schedule at that. File/Press-Gazette Media
The Packers went to the playoffs in 11 of Brett Favre's 16 years as their starter. In the 21 years between Bart Starr's retirement and Favre's arrival, they went to the playoffs just twice. File/AP

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Two years ago, a newsroom colleague and I were talking about elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

At some point, he thought I overstated their value and mockingly asked something to the effect of, “So if I gave you my first-round pick for 30 years for Aaron Rodgers, you wouldn’t do it?”

Rodgers was 27 at the time and on his way to winning the NFL’s MVP award. I said no. Wasn’t positive I believed it, but I was making a point.

But then, the more I considered it, the more I thought that might be right.

We revisited the discussion a couple of weeks ago. He argued that Baltimore’s Super Bowl win last season along with the New York Giants’ titles in the ’07 and ’11 seasons proved his point. Those teams had good but not Pro Football Hall of Fame-type quarterbacks in Joe Flacco and Eli Manning.

He argued that with the extra first-rounder for 30 years he could find a quarterback who was good enough and build a team that would win more Super Bowls than the Hall of Fame-type quarterback would.

I argued that the Packers this season, and the 2011 Indianapolis Colts, who went 2-14 without Peyton Manning and before drafting Andrew Luck, made my case. My point was, with a great quarterback, you have a chance to win the title almost every year. Without one, way more variables have to fall into place, and even with an extra first-round pick for years, the draft is too chancy to take that risk.

This week, I took the question to several NFL executives for expert opinion. I talked to four — three who will remain anonymous and former Colts and Buffalo Bills general manager Bill Polian.

Here’s how I asked: Your quarterback is 27 years old and on a trajectory to a Hall of Fame career, be it John Elway, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Rodgers, or someone else. Another GM calls and says, “I’ll give you my first-round pick for the next ‘X’ years for him.” What would you say? Is there an ‘X’ that would get you to pull the trigger?

All four, with varying degrees of certainty and caveats, said there probably isn’t.

“Bottom line is, you spend your whole career looking for that guy,” Polian said. “Why would you trade him away at the top of his career for the unknown?”

I told all four scouts about the 30-pick discussion, which of course is preposterous. One of the scouts initially had said that, talking realistic numbers, five might get his attention, but then he backed off for a reason all four eventually mentioned and that included the pragmatic consideration of job security.

“I don’t think you would unless you’re (also) getting something else back from an immediate standpoint,” he said. “You’re getting their quarterback or some other stud that can help you right now.”

The fact is, the NFL is heavily skewed to the quarterbacks, and it’s growing more so each season as the rules evolve to favor the passing game.

Consider the Colts, who in 2010 were 10-6 and in the playoffs. In ’11, Manning didn’t play because of a neck injury, and they went 2-14. In ’12, after drafting maybe the game’s next great quarterback, Andrew Luck at No. 1 overall, they were 11-5 and back in the playoffs.

If any Packers followers didn’t understand this before, they do now. The Packers were 51-17 in games Rodgers finished the last five seasons. Since his injury, they’re 1-4-1, against a relatively soft schedule at that.

There’s plenty of other evidence that argues against trading elite quarterbacks in their prime basically at almost any price.

“Look at Brett Favre,” one of the scouts said. “How many losing seasons did he have? How many years were they in the playoffs and trying to win Super Bowls? You don’t trade guys like that (in their prime).”

The point is, if you have an elite quarterback at age 27, you’re almost automatically in the hunt for the Super Bowl for the next eight to 10 years, at least. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s the next-best thing. Just look at these teams, with and without elite quarterbacks:

■ The Packers went to the playoffs in 11 of Favre’s 16 years as their starter. In the 21 years between Bart Starr’s retirement and Favre’s arrival, they went to the playoffs twice.

■ Indianapolis went to the playoffs in 11 of Peyton Manning’s 13 seasons as its starter. In the 20 years before Manning’s arrival, the Colts went to the playoffs three times.

■ Assuming New England (10-3) gets in the playoffs this season, it will mark the 11th time in Brady’s 12 years as the starter. In the 31 years from the NFL-AFL merger to Brady, the Patriots went to the playoffs nine times.

■ Assuming the 10-3 Saints qualify this year, they’ll have been to the playoffs five times in Drew Brees’ eight seasons as their quarterback. Not impressed? The Saints went to the playoffs five times in the 39 years between the NFL-AFL merger and Brees’ arrival.

■ The San Francisco 49ers went to the playoffs in 16 of the 18 seasons Joe Montana and then Steve Young finished as their starter. The 49ers missed out on the playoffs the eight seasons before Montana, and they’ve gone only four times in the 14 seasons since Young was their starter.

■ Jim Kelly, another Hall of Famer, took Buffalo to the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons as quarterback. The Bills have been to the playoffs twice in 16 years since.

■ John Elway’s Broncos made the playoffs 10 of his 16 seasons. In the 14 years between him and Peyton Manning, the Broncos qualified five times.

■ Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins went to the playoffs in 10 of his 17 seasons. Since Marino’s retirement, Miami has been to the postseason three times in 13 years.

This isn’t saying a team has to have a premier quarterback to win a Super Bowl. It doesn’t.

Here are the numbers: Of the 47 Super Bowls, 22 were won by teams with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Include Favre, Peyton Manning, Brady, Drew Brees and Rodgers — Polian considers the first four first-ballot Hall of Famers, and Rodgers on course to becoming one — the number grows to 28.

In other words, those elite quarterbacks have won 60 percent of the Super Bowls. That seems to say the odds aren’t that much worse that a team without a Hall of Fame quarterback will win the Super Bowl (40 percent) than a team with one.

But that’s not the best way to look at it. At any given time, there are probably four to six Hall of Fame-type quarterbacks playing in the league. This year, with Rodgers out, that’s Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees and maybe one or two of the top young quarterbacks whose careers will take off, someone such as Luck for instance.

What those numbers say is that the Super Bowl winner is more likely to come from those four or five teams than the other 27 or 28 combined. That’s a huge difference.

So there’s a reason no team has traded a premier quarterback in his prime. They don’t even trade quarterbacks on the next tier, such as a Ben Roethlisberger or Eli Manning or Flacco. Quarterbacks even of that caliber are hard to find.

Polian had two premier quarterbacks as a GM, Kelly in Buffalo and Manning in Indianapolis. He said no team ever called to acquire Manning but that two made “serious blockbuster” offers of players and draft picks for Kelly when the Bills held his rights from the USFL. Kelly had been the USFL’s best quarterback in his two seasons in that league.

“Suppose we had made that trade,” Polian said. “If you take away Jim’s time, Buffalo hasn’t made the playoffs in what, (12) years? If we’d made that trade, it would be probably 25 years without playoffs.”

Polian said that the actuarial tables he compiled as a GM show that about one-third of all first-round picks don’t help their team at all. So, even if a deal were for a more realistic number of first-rounders, say 10, then three or four probably won’t help your team at all. He said that about 30 percent, or three of them, will become Pro Bowlers, which means they’re good but not necessarily great players. The other three or four will be OK players.

And there’s nothing close to a guarantee that you’ll find a Roethlisberger/Eli Manning/Flacco quarterback even with those first-round picks, let alone a Hall of Famer. Just look at the first-round quarterbacks over the 10-year span from 1998 to 2007, which is long enough ago that we can judge the quality of their careers.

Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf went Nos. 1 and 2 overall and were the only first-rounders in ’98. One is an all-time great, the other an all-time bust. So it was 50-50 even with the first two picks in the draft.

In the nine succeeding drafts, 28 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. Seven were good or better. The other 21 would leave no GM happy with the results.

One, Rodgers, was a grand slam. Six others have been winners: Eli Manning, Roethlisberger, Flacco, Donovan McNabb, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers.

Of the rest, Michael Vick and Daunte Culpepper started well but flamed out.

Alex Smith, Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler are starters to this day, but are hardly unqualified keepers.

And 16, or 57 percent, were busts: Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, Chad Pennington, David Carr, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, Jason Campbell, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn.

So basically, three out of four first-round quarterbacks over that span were bad picks. That’s why trading a Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime probably wouldn’t be worth an extra first-round pick for maybe even a preposterous 30 years.

“Would I give up Eli (Manning) or Tony (Romo) or Rivers for a couple first-round picks?” another of the scouts said. “Yeah. But for Rodgers or Brady or Brees (at 27?). I don’t think so. You say 30 (first-rounders), but I don’t know that I’d do it. Those guys are like gold.”

pdougher@pressgazettemedia.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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