So why would we desire anything else? Why would we care how other teams get along? A lot of us honestly don't even watch non-Seahawks football. I hadn't until 2009, when I started suspecting that Seattle's QB issues were independent of the other problems on offense. I started researching the history of playoff teams, especially those who repeat. I learned a lot from draftniks who observe the draft tendencies and priorities of teams that succeed (and those that don't). I built a picture of which positions build off each other and which ones feed into which. And I came away with an inescapable conclusion.
Seattle's 2005 offense is a weird outlier. It's an exception to the rule. Most playoff offenses don't hinge on the offensive line nearly to the degree that the Seahawks' did that year. Some Super Bowl offensive lines have even been downright mediocre. But almost every single one of them is led by a great, and usually first-round, quarterback.
Which has no small amount of pertinence to how Seattle goes about rebuilding. Quarterback first, or everything else? Draft a QB early or later? If there's a debate raging stronger than Matt Hasselbeck, this is probably it.
The Meat of the Issue
For years since 2005, the Seattle sports media talked about little but the decline of the offensive line. They ruminate on how the team "hasn't been the same" after the line started breaking down. Hasselbeck struggling? Probably bad protection. Running backs not getting it done? Probably aren't any holes for them to run through. Defense sucks? Worn out by the offense being unable to stay on the field, see previous items. I'm surprised they didn't blame Steve Hutchinson for the eroding of the ozone layer.
To put it simply, we Seahawks fans have become conditioned to thinking of the offensive line as the singular source and conduit of football success, and the quarterback and the running back as mere beneficiaries (or victims) of their play. Fix the line, it's said, and everything is golden. You certainly don't need to spend big bucks on first-round QB's and the bust-story baggage that their kind carries; humble, hardworking, cheap 6th-round QB's are where it's at. Lightning can totally strike twice.
It's a sensible conclusion if every team was like the 2005 Seahawks. We've since found out the hard way that Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander were system players who relied on their surrounding talent. But not every team is like that.
Here's a chart that lists the Football Outsiders rankings of the offensive line, run game, and defense of every playoff team for the last three years.
|Year||Team||Pass Pro||RB Yards||Rushing||Pass||Rush||QB|
** The chart's a bit unbalanced for using round of selection rather than QB performance stats, but the generalization is still useful.
These playoff teams are all over the place in terms of offensive line, running game, and defense. The very best units are present for each category, you see teams using different combinations of defense and good lines, but some of the most mediocre and some plain horawful units are also in there. It's hard to draw a logical connection between any of those units and playoff contention. This list just defies most attempts at correlation.
What does show up in the overwhelming majority of playoff teams is first-round QB's, most playing for their original team. The fact that some are listed multiple times only strengthens the evidence of their worth. The Andy Daltons, Christian Ponders, Colin Kaepernicks, and other second-tier developmental "project" QB's aren't showing up in this list at all. The one that did is a notorious example of a strong team not being able to help its QB - an army of lions led by a deer.
Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
This is why I'm confused by comments such as the one recently passed on to me by Steve Middleton of Seahawk Addicts:
"Seattle Using their 1st rd pick on a QB would be like installing a new top of the line stereo in a 10 year old Camry"
I'm not even sure what this is supposed to mean. Is he saying that you can usually get away with a late-round quarterback to find success? That's untrue and makes me wonder if he's watched other teams lately. Or is he saying that QB's are about as relevant to football teams as stereos are to cars? That's both untrue and a bad analogy. I'm not sure how anyone could miss seeing the constant media slobbering over star quarterbacks. It's there for a reason.
I've seen it said that first-round QB's have only a 40% success rate. My response:
|Last Twelve Years of Drafted QB's|
We could haggle on a couple of guys from each class, we could drop back another year to include Hasselbeck amongst the sixth-rounders, but none of that will impact the trend that we see here.
I've seen it said that QB's taken in the late first round have only a 40% success rate. My response: so do QB's from the early first.
I've seen it said that the third or fourth QB taken has a lower success rate than the rest. My response: that's because many such third- or fourth-taken QB's go in the second or third round, see the above list.
I've seen it said that guys like Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett would be second- or third-round picks in a normal draft. My response: Finally, we're asking the right questions. It all comes back to talent evaluation. How do you rate these prospects? Do they have what it takes to play at the NFL level? Let's talk about that. Much more fun.
Go over this list of every quarterback drafted in the last ten years (and beyond). Most of the guys after the first round are names you've long forgotten. The fact that you wish you could forget some of the first-round names too...well, that still doesn't change where the success is coming from.
C'mon, folks - you can't wring your hands over how risky a first-round QB is without starting to wonder, "Well, where do good QB's come from?" It's irresponsible to pose a problem without looking for a solution. Figure out the most proven formula for success, even if there's still risk, and take the plunge. Trying to get something for nothing isn't inherently bad, but we're talking competitive sports and deadlines here. A GM's job is to win; he will not keep his job by avoiding proven avenues of success and justifying it by saying "at least we're losing for cheaper".
A Bad Taste in the Mouth
Everyone else is still just cocky that Mike Holmgren beat tremendous odds by turning a sixth-rounder into a Pro Bowler. When you beat the odds, it's easy to believe you can do it again. That's how casinos make their money.
The mistake is to assume that either of these phenomena apply to the present Seahawks, much less to the rest of the league. Some people do so, and it's just plain irrational. Poke your head out once in a while and see what other teams are doing. Despite all the South Alaska comments, the Seahawks do not exist in some isolated pocket universe where the normal rules don't apply. We didn't stumble upon some secret winning QB formula that the other neanderthal GMs are missing. We just got lucky with Matt Hasselbeck, and probably won't do so again. Talk about first-round bust rates all you want, but it's still the likeliest place to find talent. We're seven times as likely to nab a franchise QB from the first round than from any of the rest.
Unless you turn to free agency, of course. The Seahawks have not been shy about that, either in the past or the present. We've courted Trent Edwards, Kevin Kolb, and depending on the rumors you believe, Carson Palmer. And Pete Carroll has his "Veteran Recovery Program" that made a legit offensive weapon out of Mike Williams for peanuts. If a QB can be signed and tried out for the veteran minimum, that's a low-risk move that nobody could fault him for. But you have to consider the potential return as well. These guys bust for a reason. How lucky was Mike Williams? How lucky was Lendale White? Is Carroll's success with Williams repeatable? We don't know yet.
Besides, free agency is not available right now and probably won't be before the draft. Which means you're asking John Schneider to bypass the best source of QB talent, the draft, in favor of the second-best source in the hope that it becomes available before the season and that we're able to work out the rumored trades - which, by the way, may also cost us a first-round pick. How unstable a gamble is that?
Where the Bread is Buttered
I hope I'm not coming across as a jerk here. I do sympathize with some of the reasons that people prefer to use that #25 on a position of need besides QB. But the numbers suggest a different strategy. I'm just trying to effectively explain why I will not budge from my belief that Seattle needs to very, very seriously consider a top QB as long as they don't consider all of them irrecoverable busts. (More on that later.)
We have to let go of the traditional Seattle paradigm that the offensive line is the be-all. This is a quarterback's league now. Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson were the last vestiges of a dying approach to football. This is the 21st century, and in the 21st century, the quarterback is king.
Besides, in general, the QB already has more control over the football than anyone else, when you think about it. He's the one calling plays, which alone makes him more powerful than any other player. He's reading coverages, audibling out of (or into) run plays. His passes change the location of the football far quicker than a running back does. He's the one calling the snap counts and pushing the tempo of the game. Cushioned by the rules and given the keys to the offense, it's really no wonder that the QB is the most important position. The shape of the modern offense is that it runs through one man, the QB.
Eggs in a Basket
Now here, the reaction of many people - and it's a very common-sensical reaction - is one of nervousness. "Going through one man? Great. One stray hit on the QB, one broken bone, and your offense is done. Talk about an unstable setup." And to an extent, they're right. This is a logical construct that appears to make sense - basically, "don't put all your eggs in one basket" - and it prompts fans to veer away from rookie QB's that won't enjoy good protection from their lines. Why blow money on a rookie if he's so exposed? Build the line first, they say, and then get a QB. Otherwise, you're not setting your QB up to succeed.
But if that's the case, every other QB should also be at risk to some degree. Rookie or not, every QB is one man and every QB gets sacked, hit, and knocked around. So how do Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, the Manning brothers, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, and Matt Ryan keep showing up season after season, despite some poor offensive lines and crazily up-and-down years from everyone else on the team?
Refer back to Figure 1. Pittsburgh and Arizona reached Super Bowl XLIII with two of the league's very worst lines. Green Bay was notorious for its bad line last year - Rodgers was sacked 51 times and overcame it. The Colts' #1 rating in pass protection has little to do with the offensive line, which has been average for years. Peyton Manning's fast reads and urgency in getting the ball out - the system built around him - plays a huge role in limiting sack opportunities for Manning's pursuers. Read this piece on their recent decline - most Seahawks fans would reflexively blame the line for Manning's recent struggles, but notice how the Colts' sports media doesn't really go there. They mostly put it on Manning. They know where the success comes from on this offense.
Have you ever wondered why Matt Hasselbeck faces so much more pressure from defenses than other QB's do? Have you ever even noticed that? Teams stack the line and blitz more often because Hasselbeck's arm (and oftentimes, his WR corps) can't punish them for it. Peyton Manning's system, on the other hand, is designed specifically to defeat modern pressure concepts like the blitz by throwing quick darts to playmaking pass-catchers. They want you to blitz. And every QB has the option of calling three-step drops, which don't demand as much from the offensive line.
Another factor, which every Seahawks fan should remember from 2010, is the QB holding onto the ball too long. Hasselbeck adjusted some of his pocket tendencies in 2010, but a consequence of his play under Jeremy Bates was to hold onto the ball forever and invite sacks. Even Aaron Rodgers got some flak for this in 2009, from another local media who understands the game. You have to either find a receiver or throw the ball away, which brings decision-making into the equation. Keep the ball forever and any offensive line will look bad. Assuming that you judge an O-line by sack totals alone, which you shouldn't be.
A good QB can determine the play of the O-line, not just the other way around. He can force defenses into eight-man coverage with the threat of his arm, opening room for the running game and lightening the line's responsibilities. He can make wide receivers better. He can make life easy for his defense by dictating the pace of the other offense. The Colts' defense has never been consistent, but its opponents are trying so hard to keep up with Peyton Manning that that they become predictable and thus defeatable. A good QB has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. Drafting one can theoretically fill three or four other holes as surely as a draft pick could.
Great, Now I'm Hungry
We've really had the wool pulled over our eyes on this one. Elite quarterbacks shape teams, and they shape the yearly playoff picture. We need one. We need one bad. Yes, a high QB is a pricey risk, but it is a necessary pricey risk. The Rams spent years drafting high on the offensive line; it didn't help Marc Bulger and the resulting losing seasons got GM Billy Devaney fired. Sam Bradford now has the team headed in the right direction, despite a questionable line.
QB's surrounded by a crummy team won't fix everything, no. But conversely, good teams without good QB's get about as far as the 2008 Vikings and Jets, or the 2010 49ers - a wild-card playoff loss, if they make the playoffs at all. Then they fall apart because players start leaving in free agency or dropping from injury. The race to contention isn't just a race against other teams; it's a race against time and a team's own attrition. A quarterback speeds up the pace and gives you a blueprint to build off, much like Josh Freeman joined a young team with a brand-new scheme and was given weapons to fit him, not the other way around.
Seahawks fans who are scarred for life over the horror stories of first-round busts like Rick Mirer and Dan McGwire need to just get over it. That was twenty years and three front offices ago, people. First-round quarterbacks are sometimes mousetraps waiting to be triggered, sure. They are also the driving force that takes teams to the Super Bowl. If you're just too risk-averse to appreciate that, then I guess there's nothing I can say to convince you, Tim Ruskell. You'll keep zooming in on the Matt Staffords and other disaster stories and keep trying to find another magic bullet. But I've never seen a Super Bowl team that got there by playing it safe. Sure have seen some GM's fired for it, though.