I usually like to ease the reader into a topic before I start throwing numbers at them. This time, I’ll switch that up and lead off with a player comparison. The following table compares the first four years of the two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who made the fastest career starts in the salary cap era.
After his first four years in the league, quarterback B, leads quarterback A in every category (league MVP, first team All Pro, Pro Bowl, AP Offensive Player of the Year, passing yards per game started, yards per attempt, touchdowns, interceptions), except for perhaps the most important one, Super Bowl wins. This particular comparison makes two points. The first is what an amazing start to his career Patrick Mahomes (QB B) has made in his first four years in the NFL.
The real point, though, has to do with the last column, Average Per Year Salary of the QB’s first contract extension as a proportion of the NFL salary cap. In no small part through the success of QB A, Tom Brady, and his peers since the turn of the century, by the time Mahomes was ready for his first contract extension, the NFL had entered a new era in which extending a franchise QB will become unaffordable for many teams. With franchise QBs now accounting for 25% of total cap space, teams that wish to keep one, now more than ever, have to make stark choices about which of his supporting cast members they need to let go.
As Ron Rivera and company embark on their search for the Football Team’s quarterback of the future, perhaps in the coming draft, and perhaps not, they face a strange new reality. When they do eventually find their next Super Bowl winning quarterback, breaking the drought that has persisted since Bobby Beathard selected Mark Rypien in the sixth round of the 1986 draft, they might not be able to keep him after his first contract expires.
The current bubble, in which starting QB salaries are rising faster than the salary cap, does not strike me as sustainable, and I expect that a market correction is due sooner or later. In the meantime, however, it is driving increasingly desperate behavior by QB-needy teams. We have seen that before, but what is new is that teams with established franchise quarterbacks under contract are starting to think of themselves in that category.
To adapt to this new environment, NFL teams may need to become more creative and flexible about how they find their starting quarterbacks and manage their QB pipelines. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to examine the various ways that teams have come about acquiring their Super Bowl winning quarterbacks since Tom Brady entered the NFL.
Methodology and Stats
For this article, I simply compiled standard statistics on QB draft status, starts and performance from Pro Football Reference, supplemented by some information on awards from Wikipedia, and contract information from Over the Cap. No fancy QB performance metrics were required, just the familiar passing yards, completions, touchdowns and interceptions.
One stat which might require some explanation is Time to Start. That is simply the number of games that passed before the QB became a full-time starter, ignoring a few games he might have started before that to spell an injured starter. As usual, the odd QB out is Nick Foles who is too difficult to call because he never quite did become a full-time starter, or did he? I decided to err on the side of didn’t.
Last of all, the choice of era was challenging, because no discussion of this topic is complete without Tom Brady. However, teams’ approaches to finding QBs and the way the draft works were very different when he entered the league. In part to keep things as relevant to the present as possible, and in part to spare myself the effort of explaining the convoluted paths that QBs like Steve Young, John Elway and Kurt Warner took to becoming Super Bowl winners, I decided to set the cutoff at teams that acquired their Super Bowl winners from 2000 to the present.
This required making one small exception. Since Peyton Manning was signed by the Denver Broncos in 2012 and led them to a Super Bowl victory, it seemed silly to ignore his first Super Bowl championship with Indianapolis, so I “grandfathered” it in.
Super Bowl Winning Teams and Quarterbacks
Teams which have won 20 Super Bowls with QBs they acquired from 2000 are listed below:
The 12 different teams on this list found their Super Bowl winning QBs in four different ways:
Drafted With Their Original Pick
(55% of Super Bowl wins)
Five teams won 11 of the 20 Super Bowls in this period with a QB acquired in the draft without making any trades. These QB/team combinations are New England Patriots/Tom Brady (199th pick), Pittsburgh Steelers/Ben Roethlisberger (11th pick), Indianapolis Colts/Peyton Manning (1st pick), Green Bay Packers/Aaron Rodgers (24th pick), Seattle Seahawks/Russell Wilson (75th pick). The average draft pick at which these Super Bowl winning QBs were selected was 62. Without Brady, it drops to 28.
While this has proven to be the most productive method to find a Super Bowl winning QB, that is largely due to the efforts of just two QBs, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, who accounted for 8 of the 11 Super Bowls.
(20% of Super Bowls)
Three of the QBs were acquired through draft trades, accounting for 4 of the 20 Super Bowl wins. The Giants acquired Eli Manning in the 2004 by trading with the San Diego Chargers. San Diego had drafted Manning first overall, but he refused to play for them. New York traded Philip Rivers, selected with their 4th overall pick, plus their third round pick in 2004 and 2005 first and fifth round selections for Manning. In hindsight, it might appear that New York overpaid, since Rivers turned out to be the much better QB, despite the pre-draft consensus at the time being the other way around. But Manning led New York to two Super Bowl wins, and San Diego hasn’t won any, despite having an elite QB for 13 seasons.
Baltimore traded up from the 26th pick with Houston to select future Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco 18th overall in the 2008 draft. The trade cost Baltimore a third round pick it had acquired from Jacksonville and a sixth-round pick.
Finally, Kansas City acquired Patrick Mahomes by trading up from the 27th to 10th positions in the 2017 draft. In addition to the swap of first round picks, the Chiefs shipped their third-round pick in 2017 and a first round pick in 2018 to Buffalo.
Free Agents Signed As Starters
(20% of Super Bowl wins)
Four of the Super Bowls on the list were won by QBs who signed with the winning teams as free agent starters. These team QB combinations are Buccaneers/Brad Johnson, Saints/Drew Brees, Broncos/Peyton Manning, Buccaneers/Tom Brady.
Free Agents Signed as Backups
(10% of Super Bowl Wins)
Finally, two lucky QBs managed to sign as backups with very good teams that brought them to the Super Bowl.
Trent Dilfer led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years in 1997, and became the first Bucs QB to go to the Pro Bowl. Three years later, following a decline in play and a season ending injury in 1999, he was released and signed with the Baltimore Ravens to back up starter Tony Banks in 2000. Four weeks into the season Banks was benched and Dilfer took over as starter. Propelled by of one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, Dilfer did enough to avoid losing games and his team won the Super Bowl. Following the season he became the first QB to be released after winning a Super Bowl.
Nick Foles signed on for his second stint with the Philadelphia football team as a free agent in 2017 to back up starter Carson Wentz. Wentz suffered a season-ending injury in a week 13 win over the LA Rams and Foles took over starting duties. Foles did enough to win two of three remaining regular season games before seemingly finding another gear and turning in a performance throughout the playoffs that was worthy of the best quarterbacks on this list. He finished the playoffs with a 73% completion percentage, passing for 324 yds/game, with 6 touchdowns to 1 interception and was named Super Bowl MVP.
Ranking the Super Bowl Winning QBs
It is commonly stated that having an elite starting quarterback is essential to playoff success. To test out whether that’s true, let’s have a look at career summaries of the 12 Super Bowl winning QBs.
I have grouped the Super Bowl winners into four tiers based on career performance. Tier 1 consists of one Hall of Fame QB, Peyton Manning, three of the game’s current elite QBs, who are on their way to joining him (Brady, Rodgers, Brees) and the more recently drafted Patrick Mahomes. As I showed at the beginning, after his first four years in the league, Mahomes is on track to cement his position in the first tier.
Tier 2 QBs are also amongst the elite QBs of their eras. They are just slightly below the QBs ahead of them. Most NFL teams would be delighted to have either QB at his peak. All of the QBs in Tiers 1 and 2 fit the narrative that elite QBs win Super Bowls.
Tier 3 QBs are another matter. These QBs all rank below any of the QBs above them in nearly all of the key performance categories listed (Completion Percentage, Yards Per Game and Yards Per Attempt), as well as TD/Interception ratio. The only exception is that two of them had higher yardage per game figures than Russell Wilson. That exception disappears if we factor in rushing yards, which elevates Wilson back up above all the QBs in the third tier with 267 total yards per game. Neither Foles nor Manning rushes much at all. Tier 3 QBs have better career performance figures than the starters on some current NFL teams, but they wouldn’t be able to win starting jobs on many of teams.
Trent Dilfer gets his own tier, because he is quite possibly the worst QB to ever win a Super Bowl, and was lucky to start for an NFL team. He averaged 182 passing yards per game and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. The 2000 Ravens seem to have agreed with my assessment, since they released him after the Super Bowl win.
To recap, 15 of the 20 Super Bowls considered in this analysis were won by teams with elite starting QBs. Four were won by teams with mediocre starting QBs, including two long-term starters (Manning, Flacco), and two journeymen (Foles, Johnson). And one was won by a team with a bad starting QB (Dilfer). The 15 wins by elite QBs certainly provide strong support for the “elite QBs win championships” narrative. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that the other six should be of more interest to fans of the WFT, as we wait to see which direction Rivera and crew take to find the next franchise QB.
What It Means for the Washington Football Team
Previously this offseason, I have examined several topics relevant to the WFT’s search for the QB of the future. I started with a look at how the best and worst teams in the NFL went about acquiring their franchise QBs. That analysis revealed that the best NFL teams have most often relied on the draft. The best teams have also generally exercised patience and restraint when doing so and, as a result, have been remarkably frugal with their expense of draft capital on the QB position. Only one of their elite, starting QBs was acquired in a costly draft trade.
By contrast, the league’s worst teams have been more reckless with draft capital in their search for QBs, through a combination of costly draft trades and serial misses with first and second-round draft picks. A few have also made the mistake of letting quality starting QBs go in their primes.
I looked into draft trades targeting “elite” prospects in the top 10 of the draft in more detail. That analysis revealed that the success rate of teams trading into the top end of the draft to find their QB of the future was surprisingly low. When considered most broadly, only four teams that have tried that approach in the cap era have found their franchise QBs (Atlanta/Vick, NYG/Eli Manning, Buffalo/Josh Allen, KC/Mahomes) out of 13 attempts.
Viewed through the lens of the current article, I could rephrase that to say that only three of 13 teams trading into the top 10 for QBs managed to draft a guy who led them to the Super Bowl (four if you credit Carson Wentz for getting Philadelphia to the playoffs in 2017 instead of Foles). Of that small group, Philadelphia and the LA Rams have just let go of the QB who was the target of the trade.
After that, I had a look at how well NFL teams do at predicting which QBs in a draft class are most likely to succeed. That analysis revealed that, over the last decade, it has been more common for the QB drafted third or later in his draft class to be the best in class than QBs drafted first or second. I followed that by examining how the risk-reward balance for selecting QBs varies through the draft. That analysis revealed that the ratio of success rate to opportunity cost for drafting QBs has peaks and troughs through the first round and remains favorable through the second round, with some value remaining in the middle rounds, despite the decline in hit rate for QBs.
Taken together, these findings would seem to point to an optimal strategy for finding a QB of the future:
- Look for future long-term starting QBs in the draft
- Be patient, and resist the urge to waste excess draft capital trading up to target “elite” prospects
- Don’t just focus on the first few picks of the draft. Take QBs at any point in the draft where prospect value aligns with draft position and opportunity cost of players passed up.
There is just one problem, those conclusions were drawn from analysis of outcomes of past drafts, and things might be about to change. The recent escalation of starting QB salaries, relative to the salary cap, is driving unprecedented demand for QBs on rookie contracts. However, there is no reason to expect supply to increase to meet demand. If the flurry of early trade activity is any indication, we can expect to see a rush on the top QB prospects in the coming draft, which could be expected to drive prospects with late-first to second-round scouting grades much higher up draft boards than ever before.
While a run on QBs in the first round this draft seems like a forgone conclusion at this point, what is far less certain is whether that will become the new normal, or whether the draft market will correct itself, once teams realize that there is no way to force an increase in the chance of drafting a starting QB aside from finding a way to increase the number of starting-quality QBs entering the draft.
In that context, the analysis of how teams have found their Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in the present article suggests two non-mutually exclusive pathways forward for the WFT:
1. Wait out the panic
How sure should we be that the mad scramble for QBs that appears to be shaping up for the top of the 2021 draft is the start of a long-term trend? Over the last decade there was an average of around 1.7 long term starters selected per draft. The deepest draft class of the decade, 2012 produced four quality starting QBs. If somewhere between two and four long term starters are drafted later this month out of four to five QBs selected in the early first round, involving somewhere between one and three trades, there is a good chance that we will see some very costly busts.
Since the supply of starting quality QBs entering the draft is not increasing, all that a gold rush on QBs in the first round of every draft is likely to accomplish is an increase in the frequency and cost of big trade busts. I can’t imagine how that could be sustainable, but it might take the league a few years to settle down unless everyone miraculously picks a winner.
Since the WFT does not have an immediate need for a starting QB, they would be much better off using the 19th pick on a prospect at another position who is likely to be pushed down the board, rather than being one of the teams trading up to draft a second-round QB prospect.
If teams can eventually master the basic economics of the draft, by realizing that paying more does not increase supply, it might become possible to return to a patient draft approach in a few years.
2. Build a team that can win a Super Bowl with a mediocre starting QB
Six Super Bowls have been won in the last 20 years by teams with mediocre or worse starting QBs. Two of those teams, the Ravens and the Giants, were repeat winners, demonstrating that it is possible to achieve sustained success without an elite starter. Tampa and Philadelphia also won one apiece with journeyman starters.
In an era when it is becoming unaffordable for teams to retain quality starting QBs, these teams could provide the blueprint for the WFT’s rebuild. Even if Rivera’s team is able to get lucky and draft a starting QB in the middle to late rounds in 2021, by the time that guy reaches the end of his rookie contract, there is a good chance that the team won’t be able to afford to extend him. If that is the new reality, then dependence on an elite starter guarantees a boom-and-bust future, at best. Achieving sustained success will require building a team that can win with whatever QB is available.
Is there anything that teams which won Super Bowls without elite QBs had in common? Unfortunately, not really. Two of them, the 2000 Ravens and the 2002 Buccaneers, featured defenses that rank amongst the best in NFL history. The 2017 Philadelphia team was excellent all around, with the third ranked offense in the league and the fourth ranked defense.
The other three teams are a bit more enigmatic. The 2012 Ravens had a top ten ranked offense and a good defense, but were not really exceptional in any category. The Super Bowl winning Giants teams are even more puzzling. They each featured offensive units that were better than league average, and defenses that weren’t. Those teams finished the regular season with records of 10-6 in 2007, and 9-7 in 2011, and just found ways to win through the playoffs.
On the offensive side, the primary avenue to relieve pressure on quarterback performance is a strong rushing attack. Three of the six teams featured rushing offenses ranked in the league’s top 5: 2000 Ravens, 5th ranked, lead back Jamal Lewis; 2007 Giants, 4th ranked, lead back Brandon Jacobs; 2017 Eagles, 3rd ranked, lead back LeGarrette Blount with Jay Ajayi added mid-season. The 2000 Ravens and 2002 Buccaneers also featured excellent pass-catching fullbacks.
Another main relief option for QBs is to throw to the tight end. Four of the six teams feature very good to elite receiving tight ends: 2000 Ravens – Shannon Sharpe (top receiver on the team), 2007 Giants – Jeremy Shockey, 2012 Ravens – Dennis Pitta, 2017 Eagles – Zach Ertz.
While the six teams that won Super Bowls without elite QBs don’t provide any clear consensus blueprint, I think we can derive some lessons about how Rivera’s team could build a team that can compete in the playoffs without a top tier QB.
One Possible Way Forward
Considering where the WFT is now, it would seem that the fastest path back to competitiveness is to the follow the lead of the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Buccaneers (probably more Ravens than Bucs, since the latter had a poor offense). The WFT had a top-four defensive unit in 2020, despite only ranking 13th against the run. With upgrades at just a few positions, linebacker and in the secondary, the WFT could have a truly dominant defense, which would help to relieve pressure on the offense. Completing the defense should be the first priority of the rebuild.
The next priority should be building the offensive supporting cast for the team’s eventual long-term starter, and the interim “bridging” QBs who lead the offense while the search continues. The patchwork offensive line overachieved relative to expectations last year, but could benefit from addition of long-term solutions at guard and tackle.
Rivera has made a great start to building a new offensive backfield with the additions of Antonio Gibson and the under-rated 3rd down back, J.D. McKissic. Adding a power running back to complement those two would provide a valuable new tool to support his QB. The team is also missing a true starting X receiver and could use an upgrade at TE and possibly a long term solution at slot receiver. It is also time to begin succession planning for the defensive line, to maintain the team’s primary strength when the current starters reach the ends of their rookie contracts.
By focusing on these positions, rather than expending huge amounts of draft capital chasing quarterbacks, the WFT might be able to build a team that can win playoff games without an elite QB in as little as one to two years. By that time the QB draft market might have settled down and, if not, the team can compete with whatever QBs it can find in free agency or draw from the current roster.
As a parting thought, with the draft only a few days away, I would like to remind people that the crucial addition who led the 2000 Ravens to a Super Bowl Championship was a middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, drafted 26th overall, not a quarterback.
As always, a big thanks to James Dorsett for expert editorial assistance.