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Everybody needs a franchise QB, and no one knows how to get one

The New England Patriots spent most of the 2000 NFL Draft trying in vain to find pieces pieces to fit around starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe. They drafted three offensive linemen, plus a running back (J.R. Redmond) and a tight end (the immortal Dave Stachelski). This quintet of picks basically produced one starter and two brief part-time starters. A forgettable haul if ever one existed.

With their second of three sixth-round picks, it was time to take a flier on a QB, as John Friesz and Michael Bishop were the only other signal callers on the roster in 1999.

New head coach Bill Belichick and his staff were down to two guys: Louisiana Tech’s prolific Tim Rattay and Michigan’s solid but semi-forgettable Tom Brady. They ended up going with the latter.

A few others:

  • Russell Wilson fell to the third round because of his size.
  • Drew Brees fell to the second round because of his size, then got let go by the Chargers in part because of a labrum injury.
  • Peyton Manning was coming off of neck surgery when he was scooped up by the Broncos.
  • Aaron Rodgers nearly fell out of the first round, then sat the bench for three years in Green Bay.
  • Philip Rivers sat behind Brees for a couple of years.
  • Tony Romo was an undrafted afterthought.

I just named the seven quarterbacks who have produced a passer rating of over 100 more than once in the 2010s. There are a million ways to define a true franchise quarterback, but that’s as good as any.

Only two were top-five picks, and only one of the two was playing for his original team. Two were either late-draft afterthoughts or UDFAs. Four are or were late in their playing careers. And among these seven QBs, almost all of whom were acquired by unconventional means, are six of the last nine Super Bowl champions.

It is a maddening football truism: You need a franchise QB. You need a big-armed face-of-the-franchise presence behind center.

And nobody really knows how to get one.

Historically, finding your man has been a crap shoot. Of the 28 post-World War II quarterbacks to reach the NFL Hall of Fame, 12 of them were picked among the top six in the NFL Draft (among 93 overall top-six QBs), and 12 were picked in the third round or later (or weren’t picked at all).

The harder you try to land a franchise changer, the more likely you are to do something bold and futile and harm your ability to actually win football games. How often have we seen teams overdraft a QB — often trading up to do so — just in the name of “landing our franchise guy?” How often does that guy actually become a franchise QB?

You could mortgage your future to trade up for a top-five pick, and you could land a Manning or a Rivers. Or you could get a Jamarcus Russell or a Mark Sanchez.

The thankless obsession with getting your franchise QB reminds me a lot of the Sabanization of college football’s Southeastern Conference.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia
Nick Saban celebrating his fifth national title at Alabama
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama hired Nick Saban in 2007, and he has since won the 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2017 national titles. He reached the College Football Playoff in 2014 and 2016 as well.

Facing the most consistently dominant program in college football since the Florida State juggernaut of the late-1980s and 1990s, SEC rivals — never particularly patient to begin with — have predictably lost their minds.

  • A decade ago, as Saban was beginning to flourish, Tennessee pushed out Phil Fulmer, who had eight seasons of double-digit wins and only two losing seasons. The Vols have hired two different former Saban assistants (Derek Dooley in 2010, Jeremy Pruitt in 2018) among four overall HC hires. They have zero 10-win seasons to show for it.
  • Since Urban Meyer retired from Florida after the 2009 season, the Gators have brought in two former Saban coordinators in Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain. They have one top-10 finish in eighty ears. (Muschamp, by the way? Now at South Carolina.)
  • Texas A&M just guaranteed new head man Jimbo Fisher — also a Saban assistant in a former life — more than $70 million to more-or-less Sabanize College Station.
  • Les Miles never won fewer than eight games at LSU (just as Kevin Sumlin hadn’t at A&M), but after winning only 17 games in 2014 and 2015, he was fired.
  • Georgia won 50 games in its final five seasons under Mark Richt, but he was shown the door in favor of Kirby Smart, Saban’s defensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa.

By his second year, though, Smart made the national title game. Then he signed a better recruiting class than Saban, something no one had done in nearly a decade. That complicates things, doesn’t it?

The panic move — the “we’ve gotta find our franchise QB/Saban” move — almost never works out. But it works out just enough that people will keep trying it.

In the 2017 draft, Chicago traded up to No. 2 to land North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a one-year starter in Chapel Hill. In 2016, the Rams traded up to No. 1 to get Cal’s Jared Goff, and the Eagles traded up to No. 2 to get NDSU’s Carson Wentz. In 2014, Jacksonville picked UCF’s Blake Bortles.

For college football folks who had seen these four QBs play quite a bit, all four seemed like pretty significant reaches. Bortles has had basically three miserable seasons and one decent one. Trubisky’s and Goff’s first seasons were nightmarish, and Wentz’s was only decent. BUT...

...with a new head coach and a couple more weapons, Goff was magnificent in his second year. Wentz looked good, too, before he got hurt. And now Trubisky gets a new, offense-friendly head coach as well. None of them have become true franchise guys yet — however we choose to define that term, you’ve got to do it more than once to earn the label — but the future is bright for at least a couple of the four.

Of course, Washington traded the family farm for Robert Griffin III six years ago, and it worked out well for a year until RG3’s knee ligaments rebelled. You have to find your guy, develop him, and hope for injury luck.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks
Jared Goff went from listless to dominant in a single offseason
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The process never changes. Teams can’t control randomly finding a sleeper in the sixth round, so they go all-in for a guy near the top of the list in a given year. SEC teams can’t trust the process of finding merely a good head-coaching fit for their university, so they look for a guy who’s spent a lot of time in a room with Saban.

Doing this sends a message to the fans that We’re Trying! And again, it does work once in a blue moon. But if you’re going to follow this route, you can at least follow due diligence.

If you’re going to go with a former Saban assistant, go with his decade-long right-hand man (Smart) and not his one-time tight ends coach (Dooley).

And if you’re going to bet your future on a top-of-the-draft QB, make sure there aren’t any red flags. (Like, say, a statistical profile that suggests Josh Allen is more Ryan Mallett than John Elway.) Make sure you aren’t simply getting seduced by how far a guy can throw a ball in shorts.