- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
In recent years, teams went against conventional wisdom. They earned Super Bowl rings with minimum investments in quarterbacks. Kurt Warner was a former Arena Leaguer. Trent Dilfer was a former first-rounder earning little for the Ravens. Tom Brady? A sixth-round pick.
Their successes revamped the thinking of general managers and coaches. The team concept during the salary cap era superceded the star concept. Surround an average quarterback with superior talent and the result can be the same as a team that has the perennial Pro Bowl quarterback. It's not the super quarterback, it's the super team.
To all of this, I offer one word -- bull.
Sure, the NFL went through a stretch where successful quarterbacks didn't necessarily have the marquee names. The salary cap added another layer of parity to a sport that thrives on worst-to-first success stories, and some teams were able to get by without having a huge portion of their salary cap tied up on just the signal-caller.
What people tend to forget is that it's not the résumé of the quarterback that means anything. Brady may have been a sixth-round choice, but in big games, he plays like Joe Montana. Remember Montana wasn't a first-rounder, either. He was a third-rounder from Notre Dame who started his college career as a second-stringer.
Once Warner got his first Super Bowl ring, he was an instant star. He was hot enough to be a league MVP when his right thumb wasn't aching and his body wasn't hit so often that it affected his play. And the way this league works, once a quarterback establishes himself, he gets paid the same as quarterbacks taken at the top of the draft.
"You look at the way Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme played in the Super Bowl and you see how important a quarterback is," said agent Leigh Steinberg, who's been representing top quarterbacks for three decades. "Look at the quarterbacks who were in the conference championship games and the other playoff games that Brady and Delhomme got past -- Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair. The only difference now is that the top quarterback doesn't always have to come from the top of the draft."
What makes the beginning of the offseason so unique is the early scramble for quarterbacks. Quarterbacks generally are the first priorities. Teams either make trades for quarterbacks or sign the best ones available. Others position themselves for the draft.
So far this decade, about 10 teams on average have made starting quarterback moves from the previous season, and most of those decisions came in March. There was a quarterback drought in the mid 1990s, and the position suffered. The NFL chewed up and spit out about half the first-rounders by putting them in bad schemes or not having the patience to let them get through their mistakes.
Colleges, meanwhile, weren't passing the ball as much in the mid-1990s as they are now. Dennis Erickson took his spread passing offense from Washington State to Miami and caught everybody off guard. Defenses in the South weren't used to three-receiver sets.
Now, passing offenses have spread everywhere and quarterbacks are getting three and four years of development in more complex college offenses. The average starting quarterback is getting younger and better than ever.
Of the 32 current NFL starters, only 11 are in their 30s. Franchise quarterbacks such as Brady, Manning, McNabb and Daunte Culpepper are 27 or younger. Young guns such as David Carr, Michael Vick and Byron Leftwich are 24 or younger. Matt Hasselbeck is coming into his own in Seattle, and he's 28.
"The quarterbacks are a young group, but there are more better quarterbacks around," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said.
The Panthers gambled $2 million a year on Delhomme, who is 29, and hit the jackpot. He played well enough in the Super Bowl to be a MVP candidate for the game, and managed a league-high seven fourth quarter drives during the regular season. Once he gets a contract extension this summer, the stigma of him being a no-name quarterback will pass the same way it did in St. Louis when Warner got his $6 million a year contract.
The interesting part of the next month will be how the musical chairs of quarterbacks are being played. Enough teams have their starting quarterbacks that the number of teams in desperate need are perhaps the fewest ever. The Chargers, Dolphins, Steelers and Cardinals are the four teams most likely to make quarterbacks moves.
There are more than four options. Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger are at the top end of the first round. Phillip Rivers is sitting as a possible mid-first round selection. Overall, it's considered a very good class for quarterbacks.
On Thursday, Drew Henson will hold a workout for more than 20 teams at Reliant Park in Houston, ending a three-year fling as a Yankees minor league third-baseman. The Texans are willing to trade him for a high 2005 draft choice, and Henson expects to put on a throwing show. He's 6-foot-4½, 240 pounds and has been training since November.
The fact that he walked away from $12 million of guaranteed Yankee money last week and called for a workout a week later shows how prepared he is for this workout. The team willing to trade for Henson may get a raw talent that is rusty, but unlike the draft, they will be acquiring a signed quarterback who will be able to participate in the entire offseason program.
"This is a chance for a good team to beat the system and have a chance to get a quarterback with a lot of talent," Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "Had he come out of Michigan and gone into the draft, he might have been taken near the top. "
Joe Gibbs' pursuit of 33-year-old Mark Brunell creates another interesting opportunity. Gibbs came out of retirement to win now, not wait the extra year or two it might take for Patrick Ramsey to develop into a potential star. The Redskins appear willing to give up anywhere between a fourth and a second-round choice to get Brunell, and that should put Ramsey, 25, on the trade market.
The Dolphins and Chargers had targeted Brunell. If they don't get him, Ramsey could become the next potential steal. Expect the Steelers to get excited about this one, too. Let's say the Redskins are willing to part with Ramsey for a second-round selection if they get Brunell. The team that acquires him gets a young quarterback with starting experience who can compete immediately.
Over the past couple of years, we've watched the NFL become a coaches' league, with teams going to more experienced, winning coaches instead of just promoting assistants. At the same time, we've watched the league get younger and better at quarterback.
The days of patching the position are ending. Soon, it's going to become the league of haves and have nots at quarterback.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.