The Key to Sustained Success? Fight the Classic ‘Franchise’ Quarterback

Jared Goff and the Rams have had a volatile four weeks. The four game stretch, beginning with a week 13 road trip to Detroit, began with a pounding of the Lions (albeit a mediocre performance by Goff), followed by a dismal showing in Chicago where they were held to less than 250 offensive yards. A stellar Eagles performance stymied the “high-flying” team in week 15, where Goff’s most memorable moment was one of the weirdest, most memorable interception of this decade. Finally, a hobbling, Gurley-less Rams team compensated their consecutive shortcomings by trouncing the hapless Cardinals.

Though they ended this four game stretch with a decisive win, Goff’s recent play has nonetheless cast a shadow of doubt on his dependability. With the playoffs approaching, the inconsistencies in his play have become all the more frequent and even more relevant.

Thus, with a Super Bowl on the line and their Achilles Heel unearthed, the Rams, Goff, and the surrounding situation sparked a discussion about how Goff models an increasingly pervasive trend in the National Football League: one that we dub the Target QB Paradigm.

This paradigm is centered around a specific cycle: a cycle that if effectively utilized, can bring a team continued success under one head coach and system. Applying this paradigm, accurate predictions can be made concerning the efficacy of NFL teams in the future depending on their current position in the cycle and thus the moves needed to be made in order to prepare for their peak.

Jeff Fisher’s 2016 Rams were painful to watch; they couldn’t have given St. Louis a worse farewell season. Jared Goff, standout quarterback at Cal, was dubbed a wasted draft pick. Fanatical deviation was necessitated for the Los Angeles move to succeed; that insurrection was materialized in the form of Sean McVay.

Sean McVay’s hire in the offseason proved to be a turning-point for the team, and his personnel decisions illustrate his indispensability to the paradigm. Essentially, McVay took a young, promising quarterback – on an inexpensive rookie deal – and used the saved money to build a contender.

In the long-tenured and presumed cycle the NFL has operated under for the past 50 years, a team must find a “franchise quarterback” through the draft, keep them for their career-span, then repeat upon retirement.

This competing model embodies the dichotomy that analytics have created in the NFL. The standard “franchise quarterback” model is completely anecdotal: a holistic fabrication. While it is true that the quarterback position is the most important (in terms of total dependency) across all sports, the ‘franchise quarterback’ model speaks nothing to the replacement-level value quarterbacks bring to the table.

To observe the replace-ability of quarterback play, it is first necessary to delve deeper into the paradigm. The “McVay Paradigm” can be assessed through several different examples, but let’s first glance briefly at the Rams.

In 2017, McVay and the Rams signed all-pro tackle Andrew Whitworth to a monster deal (in terms of total value), career “what if?” receiver Robert Woods to the going rate, along with other principal players. With a restructured offensive core and a well-schemed defense, the Rams exceeded all expectations as the Rams went from worst to first (offensively), and Goff gained traction as a potential All-Pro caliber quarterback.

This past offseason, the Rams added Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, and Marcus Peters to shore up their defense, while also re-signing the likes of Todd Gurley, John Sullivan, and Nickell Robey-Coleman to ensure long term stability. Though this money would seem to be exorbitant, it was all made possible by Jared Goff.

Goff’s rookie deal accounts for just over $7.5 million this year, less than half of the average QB salary. Moreover, Goff was a number one overall pick – for all other draft slots, the salary drops precipitously. Building a team of established stars around a young base has proven to be a great success for McVay’s Rams, but there are still questions regarding sustainability. By 2020, Goff’s contract will be up; the Rams will need to decide whether to sacrifice principal players to pay their protégé or risk starting from scratch.

In 2016, Tony Romo’s preseason back injury gave rookie Dak Prescott the opportunity to take over the starting job in Dallas. In a way, Prescott found himself in an anomalously ideal situation (in terms of this situational analysis): he was able to start his NFL career while working with an offense marinated in talent. Besides Ohio State superstar Zeke Elliott and all-pro Dez Bryant, the offenses cornerstone was the league’s best line, featuring Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick.

His stats reflected his situation: in 2016, his adjusted rate of efficiency (ARE) was within the top 5, comparable to the likes of Aaron Rodgers and MVP Matt Ryan. A year later, injuries combined with free agency losses dropped him to a mark 25.8% lower than a replacement level quarterback, a stark contrast to his blazing rookie season.

The reason for this fall is the same as his prior success. His star running back, Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games, annulling their run and allowing defenses to focus on the pass. Matters were not helped by a regressing Dez Bryant, leaving the Cowboys with no legitimate receiving threats.

The offense thus became largely one-dimensional and ineffective, and without quality receivers and a running game, their amount of sacks allowed increased by 28%. This porous line manifested itself in their loss to Atlanta last year, where you might remember a man by the name of Vic Beasley made a name for himself by way of six sacks in one game.

Last year’s numbers were an abnormality, due to the aforementioned suspension, declining play, and strikingly poor defensive play. But if last year gave you a feign of inability, you are sorely mistaken. Their current defense, managed by a superb line-backing core of Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander-Esch (all taken in the top two rounds), have allowed America’s team to bestride the rest of the league in the second half of this season.

The offense has been keeping pace. In just eight games with Dallas, Amari Cooper has accrued 694 yards and 6 touchdowns, a pace that would place him top ten in receiving yards for the year and top five in receiving touchdowns.

Prescott’s numbers have seen improvement alongside Amari. Prescott has seen a sharp rebound in his ARE, more than doubling his score from last year, placing him very comfortably in the top-ten realm of quarterbacks.

However, as a fourth round pick, Prescott’s contract is eligible for extension at the end of this year. His contract, depending on the value, will determine the Cowboys’ free-agency elbow room and thus the outcomes of their future seasons. If paid the recent going rate for “franchise quarterbacks”, Prescott could command north of $25 million annually, tying up over 13% of the projected cap in just one player.

With a multitude of high-value rookie deals, the Cowboys could likely manage a strong team for a few years even with this monstrosity of a contract. However, two years down the road, contracts expire on core pieces like Jaylon Smith, Amari Cooper, and Tyron Smith.

It is without question that these are principle players the Cowboys would kill to keep. However, with a single player tying up 15% of the cap, the NFL mandates tough decisions, and the Cowboys must ensure it’s the right one in order to stay competitive in a copycat league. In Dallas, who will win out: the quarterback, or those who empower him?

Up tornado alley, in the Windy City, newly hired Matt Nagy found himself in a similar situation with the Bears. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s contract filled just 3% of the Bears’ cap space in 2017, and this year it increased only to 3.5%.

Fans around the NFL have marveled at the trade between the Raiders and the Bears at the beginning of the year to secure former defensive player of the year (and current candidate) Khalil Mack. Both teams began the league year in remarkably similar situations. Both coming off of a coaching change, they were searching for identities as teams headed by young but struggling quarterbacks, still on rookie deals. However, both teams decided to invest their assets and cap space very differently.

The Raiders began by handing Carr what was at the time the third largest contract in NFL history, followed up by trading Khalil Mack for a smorgasbord of picks. The Bears, on the other end of the deal, decided to invest a contract of tantamount size in Mack, the largest for any defensive player in history.

The subsequent results, however, would not have been possible without the cap space provided by Trubisky, which allowed for the expensive $141 million extension. Nagy also secured three key receiving targets for his young passer: wide-outs Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton; they hit the cap for 5.99%, 3.27%, and 2.98%, respectively. Combined with stellar drafts by drafts in 2017 and 2018, which featured Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, and Roquan Smith, the Bears have formed a formidable squad. Under the provision of Nagy, they have reversed a 5-11 season and a 4th division spot into a division clinch and an 11-4 record entering Week 17.

The Raiders cannot say the same. Though accruing a plethora of picks by way of Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, they currently stand tied for the second worst record in football and no young talent to show for it. Tied in to Derek Carr and John Gruden for the long haul, despite his underwhelming production, there is no foreseeable escape from mediocrity for the Raiders, save a miraculous draft.

Though the previous three examples of the paradigm in effect have been taken theoretically, reference the “Legion of Boom” Seahawks for an archetype that has come full circle.

Russell Wilson was drafted with relatively low expectations, which he exceeded once given the opportunity to start from the get-go in his 2012 rookie season. With cap flexibility, the Seahawks were able to win bidding wars for Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, Michael Bennett, and others. All defensive stalwarts, the Seahawks formed a defensive identity, and turned into a formidable force. From 2012 to 2015, in each individual year, the team was ranked 1st in total defense, undoubtedly due to the exemplary personnel gained by way of free agency and the draft.

However, not just the defense was aided by the extra cap. Russell Okung, their all-pro tackle, commanded the highest payroll of anyone on the team, and not far behind him was center Max Unger. Afforded elite protection, Wilson could utilize his lauded mobility whilst maintaining time in the pocket, allowing him to thrive as a rookie.

Thus, through elite drafting and a rookie quarterback who afforded them cap space, the Seahawks were able to build a perennial contender and arguably one of the best teams of all time.

Unfortunately, as all dynasties do, the Seahawks run came to an end. In 2017, just a year after Russell Wilson was given a hefty contract extension – which hit the cap that year, according to Spotrac, for about $18.5 million – the Seahawks missed the playoffs for the first time in more than half a decade while their defense fell to middle of the pack.

This was in part due in whole to free agent losses and lack of cap to make up for aging veterans. With defensive backs such as Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, and Brandon Browner ageing, safeties being injured, and defensive linemen departing via free agency (Bruce Irvin and Brandon Mebane), the Seahawks lacked the financial resources and draft capital to compensate. Offensively, they were no better, losing Russell Okung through a free-agency bidding war, granting them the league’s worst line.

Their losses caused them to fall by the wayside, and they have yet to return to championship form despite Russell Wilson’s MVP-caliber play.

The most recent success of the QB Paradigm can be seen in the reigning Super Bowl champs, the Philadelphia Eagles. Carson Wentz’s rookie season impressed the league albeit a sub-.500 performance, and coach Doug Pederson took advantage of the timing, nabbing Chicago’s star wide-out Alshon Jeffrey, speedster Torrey Smith, and the elite rushing duo of Blount and Ajayi. The team saw a transformation relatively unheard of: fourth in the division with a 7-9 record to first in the NFC at 13-3.

The results from the following year speak for themselves. The pattern is unmistakable – and is equally ubiquitous. Increasingly, the windows of success for NFL teams are shrinking, and paying heavy for a quarterback seems to close the gap much quicker.

It is important to note that the Paradigm, though expressed through young quarterbacks on rookie deals, is simply a model of cheap, average quarterback play enhanced through superior support. That is, it matters not if the quarterback is 24 or 30, it only matters the price of their contract.

Thus, the model withstands the Nick Foles led Eagles. Built around a cheap quarterback with superb surrounding talent, the Eagles were able to extract replacement-level play from Foles, and with it win three consecutive playoff games.

An early example of this is are the Payton/Brees Saints. One of the first systems to gain continued positive results, Payton has maintained success through efficient drafts. When Coach Payton convinced Drew Brees to sign in 2006, the San Diego superstar quashed rumors of inhibitions to his throwing shoulder by putting together a division title and progressing to the NFC championship game.

Brees’ first contract was a bargain for New Orleans, considering the quality of quarterback they were getting. It paid off, obviously, as the Saints won their first Super Bowl in 2009 and were contenders for two years afterwards.

However, since then, their overall team success has been sporadic at best. Brees signed a huge contract in the 2012 offseason in the neighborhood of $20 million a year, which was incredibly lucrative for Brees yet extraordinarily expensive for the Saints, especially considering the deflated cap at the time. It would appear that Brees’ Saints fit the paradigm well, but further analysis into their successes, in fact, show how they are an anomaly.

In 2013, Brees’ contract hit the cap for a whopping 14%, yet the team finished with an 11-5 record and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Why? Their draft class was extremely talented; it included safety Kenny Vaccaro, tackle Terron Armstead, defensive lineman Johnathan Jenkins, and wide receiver Kenny Stills.

Vaccaro and Jenkins contributed to a complete defensive turnaround season, in which New Orleans finished fourth in both points and yards allowed. Armstead is still working wonders for a currently successfully gelling offensive line, which has heavily contributed to the Saints’ success this year.

The speedy Stills ranked third on the team in receiving yards in 2013 and led the team the subsequent year. After 2013, the Saints experienced three consecutive years of mediocrity, but last year, it seemed they reversed their fortunes. Why? Again, because of their draft talent.

With the 11th pick, they selected shutdown corner Marshon Lattimore, who went on to win AP’s Defensive Rookie of the Year after recording 18 pass deflections, 52 tackles, and five interceptions. By virtue of a first round pick from New England, the Saints chose offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk, who went on to start in all 16 games.

Safety Marcus Williams was selected with the 42nd pick and had a similarly successful year, recording 57 tackles and four interceptions.

Arguably the biggest steal of the draft and an essential offensive piece, Alvin Kamara was selected in the third round with the 67th pick. After the departure of Adrian Peterson, he and Mark Ingram formed a monstrous backfield duo which dominated other defenses, taking pressure off of Brees (whose contract took up 11% of New Orleans’ cap last year).

Lastly, linebacker Alex Anzalone was selected in the third-round last year and this year has started six games for the team.

The Saints present an out, however anomalous, from the paradigm: elite drafting.

Finally, the first adherent of the Paradigm (whether consciously or not), Bill Belichick.

To say great to describe the Patriots’ success would be an understatement. Under Belichick’s direction, the Patriots have been exemplified a ‘well-oiled football machine’. Perrenial Super Bowl contenders operating under a system without apparent flaw, the Patriots represent success of the highest order in the NFL, which can be attributed almost entirely to the Patriots’ ability to not pay for players in excess.

In terms of quarterbacks, let’s take a closer look. Tom Brady has been the epitome of a bargain. Compared to other superstar quarterbacks, he has taken severe pay cuts throughout his career in order to sustain success, and some estimates put the potential income losses at $160 million.

Brady has allowed the Patriots to maintain financial capital, affording them well-roundness as a team and the ability to maintain year-to-year overlap, thus leading to the greatest dynasty of this century across all sports.

A ‘franchise’ quarterback is the dream of all NFL franchises, yet a new tactic for determining who’s under center is infiltrating the league. In order to sustain success, franchises ought to learn from the triumphs of teams who have done it right. Unless a team has the confidence to draft impeccably every single year or an elite quarterback willing to say no to a huge contract, this cycle seems inevitable. In the words of Bill O’Brien, “[winning in the NFL] is the most difficult thing to do… in professional sports.” Wins rightfully are a treasured commodity, and an NFL franchise that can utilize this increasingly prevalent paradigm will see extended success.

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