Jim Harbaugh, Marvin Harrison and Marshall Faulk all experienced success during their careers, with Harrison and Faulk accomplishing so much that both will someday earn enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yet, in 1997, they were all starters on an Indianapolis Colts team that disgraced itself, losing its first 10 games before rallying to finish 3-13.
In the NFL, which has prized parity since the late Pete Rozelle was commissioner, that sort of season qualifies as a cry for help.
Drafting in inverse order of record. Revenue sharing. Easier scheduling for weak teams. All of that was designed to create competitive balance, and to keep any one team from struggling, or dominating, for too long.
So the Colts got rewarded for their incompetence with the No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft, a prime opportunity to pick themselves up off the mat.
They picked right.
They picked Peyton Manning out of the University of Tennessee.
In the name of parity, they were given the right to add the ultimate parity-buster.
A year later, under Manning's direction, the Colts were 3-13. But, in 1999, they rolled through the regular season at 13-3. And during the next decade (starting in 2000), they averaged 11.5 victories and just 4.5 losses. That was the highest victory average in the NFL, far above what you'd expect in a league in which every team is expected to eventually regress to the 8-8 mean. Nor were they alone in defying gravitational (parit-ational) forces.
The Patriots averaged 11.2 wins, even after starting the decade with a 5-11 season.
The two Pennsylvania teams fared well also: the Eagles averaged 10.3 wins, and the Steelers averaged 10.2.
And on the other end?
The Lions averaged 4.2 wins. Yes, 4.2. That's a decent October for the Colts. The Raiders averaged 6.2, falling off a Cliff (Branch) after losing in the Super Bowl following the 2003 season. The Cardinals averaged 6.2, though they did show improvement the past three years, even winning an NFC Championship. And the two most recent expansion teams, the Texans and Browns, averaged 6.2 and 5.7, respectively.
"As a fan of the game, I think all 32 cities should be excited about opportunity to compete for the championship," says Ted Sundquist, a scout or personnel executive for the Denver Broncos from 1993 through 2008. "Fans, in their gut, should say, 'Boy, we've got a chance this year, I feel good about it, I really do.' I truly believe that. I believe it's good for the game. It's been the same 10 at the top, same 10 at the bottom, for a little while."
So have some franchises separated themselves, for better or worse?
"Did they have a quarterback?" former NFL executive Ken Herock asks rhetorically.
As in, a quality quarterback.
The Colts did, of course. The Patriots, Steelers and Eagles? They all did too, for all or most of the decade. The Patriots drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round in 2000. The Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004. The Eagles drafted Donovan McNabb in 2002. Between that trio? A dozen Pro Bowl selections. Twenty-two if you include Manning.
On the flip side?
"The teams that don't have a quarterback will continue to struggle, it's always been that way," Herock says.
So let's look at the three of the lesser lights of the past decade, excusing the Texans because they've only been around since 2002. The Lions had five different seasonal passing leaders: Charlie Batch, Joey Harrington, Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky and, finally, new hope Matthew Stafford. The Browns had seven different seasonal passing leaders: failed No. 1 overall pick Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and failed first-round pick Brady Quinn. The Raiders had five different seasonal passing leaders: success story Rich Gannon, Kerry Collins, Andrew Walter, Daunte Culpepper and failed No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell.
Little stability, less success.
Ask most NFL observers, and they'll argue that quarterback stability creates coaching stability. With their quarterbacks in place, the Patriots, Colts and Eagles had no need to keep changing head coaches - and so they didn't. The Patriots and Eagles had one coach apiece (Bill Belichick and Andy Reid), and the Colts had three (Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell) during the past decade, and Dungy left on his own accord. The Lions had six, the Browns had six, and the Raiders had six. And if quarterback instability creates coaching instability, it's fair to say that front office executives won't feel so comfortable either.
"My theory was always, I've got to get a quarterback," says Herock, who does put a premium on coaching, but as much on the quarterback coaches as the head coaches, noting that Brady got to work with Charlie Weis when he broke in, and Manning has always had Tom Moore at his side and in his ear.
While working in the front offices of the Raiders, Buccaneers and Falcons from 1975 through 1996, Herock had a role in some big quarterback scores, like the drafting of Doug Williams in Tampa Bay and Brett Favre in Atlanta. While with Atlanta, he traded for big-armed Jeff George, who never fully lived up to his No. 1 overall hype, but did take the Falcons to the playoffs. And he did well with some lower-profile choices, like Chris Miller and Steve DeBerg.
"If I didn't get the quarterback, I'm not doing my job, and wasn't going to be able to build a successful team," Herock says. "And sometimes, you've got to take a chance to do it."
It isn't exactly a trade secret that one position trumps all others.
"Get a quarterback," says ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who won a Super Bowl as Tampa Bay's coach. "Get a quarterback, and if you don't get a quarterback, get rid of him and get another one. The teams that are winning, consistently winning, are getting quality play from the quarterback. I don't know how many games the Colts would win if they didn't have Peyton Manning, I don't know how many games the Saints would win if they didn't have Drew Brees. You have to have a quarterback in my opinion. If you don't one, you're going to struggle to win a game, three games, or five games, or to go .500. But you need to get a quarterback that can deliver for you and ignite your franchise and make plays. Because he's the guy that touches the ball. That's my opinion, it starts right there."
Or, as his television partner - and former NFC Championship passer -- Ron Jaworski puts it, "You just have to look at the history of the NFL, and even more recent history where it has become a pass-happy league, and you've got to have the guy under center. It's that simple."
Herock uses a version of that word as well.
"Once you get that quarterback, then you don't need to make other moves to try to get one," Herock says. "And you can just fill in the other pieces, the line, receivers, running back, defense. It's very simplistic. I always thought the game wasn't very difficult."
Of course, some franchises make it seem that way.
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