If you want the Cliff’s Notes explanation of why New England, Atlanta, Green Bay and Pittsburgh were at the top of the NFL this year and Cleveland, San Francisco and Chicago were at the bottom, well, look no further than one position: quarterback.
Mike Holmgren, the former coach at Green Bay and Seattle, gave everyone the blueprint long ago. Holmgren’s teams drafted a quarterback almost every year: The position is so valuable, you can’t have too many.
Holmgren didn’t need another quarterback; he had Brett Favre with the Packers and Matt Hasselbeck with the Seahawks. But he understood the value of stockpiling quarterbacks, whether to protect his team or to dangle in a trade.
He did not always hit on the draft picks, of course. No one does. But behind Favre, Holmgren’s Seahawks drafted Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell and Hasselbeck. And after Hasselbeck joined him in Seattle, Holmgren drafted Brock Huard and Seneca Wallace.
All those quarterbacks ended up playing in the NFL, and some of them returned value to Holmgren’s teams in trade.
Which is why it’s hard to understand the thinking of teams like the Browns, 49ers and Bears, who have the 1-2-3 selections in the 2017 draft, and all need a quarterback. Yet among them, the three teams chose just two quarterbacks in 62 selections over the last two drafts, four quarterbacks in 88 selections over the last three drafts.
Such shortsighted thinking is not the only reason, but gives insight into why those three teams were a combined 20-76 the last two years.
Meanwhile, New England drafted Tom Brady while it still had Drew Bledsoe as the starter and Green Bay did the same with Aaron Rodgers while Favre was playing, which explains how half of the teams in last weekend’s conference championship games protected the most important position.
Here’s the point: We know that drafting a quarterback, even with the first overall pick, is something of a crapshoot. But we also know the draft is like buying a lottery ticket with house money; you have to do something with the picks. So why not invest a few of them where you can get the biggest payoff?
That was the philosophy Holmgren and Ron Wolf, his Hall of Fame general manager, instituted in Green Bay even when Favre was at the peak of his own Hall of Fame career.
If Holmgren and Wolf were still in place, you can’t help but wonder whether they would use their first draft pick — No. 29 overall — to begin the search for a replacement for Rodgers, who will turn 34 later this year.
Too soon? Maybe.
The top-rated passers in the 2017 draft, according to NFLdraftscout.com, are Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and DeShone Kizer. Currently, they are ranked as the 13th, 15th and 35th best prospects. But because of their value, quarterbacks frequently are drafted higher than their rankings.
Of course, you can get lucky, too, but it’s hard to count on that. Montana (82nd player drafted in 1979) and Brady (199th player drafted in 2000) have eight Super Bowl titles between them. Only five other quarterbacks drafted 82nd or later, including two-time winner Bart Starr, engineered a Super Bowl victory.
Before a recent draft, Holmgren, by then long out of the NFL, expressed his draft-a-qb philosophy this way:
“You’ve got to take one.”
It’s not quite that simple, of course. Holmgren said it was important for an organization to get behind whoever was picked, to always talk about him as “the guy,” as the quarterback of the future, or whatever, and to do all that’s possible to boost his confidence and coach him up.
He did it six years out of seven in Green Bay and five of his first six years in Seattle. And while he was drafting quarterbacks for depth, he also understood the need to find that starter, too.
“If it fails, you fail, and you lose your job,” Holmgren said. “But that’s part of it. You’ve got to be willing to pick a guy and be behind him. Coach your ass off, fix what needs to be fixed, and you might not know what you have after one year or two years, but you’ll know after three years. You’ve got to give him a real chance.”
Holmgren came by that philosophy honestly.
He was an assistant to Bill Walsh with the 49ers when, with Montana in the prime of his career, the 49ers traded for Young, which eventually allowed them to replace one Hall of Fame quarterback with another. The 49ers even drafted a quarterback, Bryan Clark, in 1982, the year after Montana won the Super Bowl for the first time. After Walsh, Holmgren and Montana were gone from the 49ers, they still drafted quarterbacks to stockpile behind Young.
A more current dynasty, New England, operates the same way. In 2002, after the Patriots won the Super Bowl with Brady for the first time, they drafted a quarterback, Rohan Davey, in the fourth round. They drafted another in 2003 and again in 2005, this time hitting on one with some value, Matt Cassel.
The Patriots again drafted QBs in 2008, 2010, 2011 and, in 2014, got Jimmy Garoppolo, who seems to have value for the future, either with New England or another team.
Green Bay has not stockpiled quarterbacks in the draft as often since Holmgren moved on and Wolf retired, but it’s worth noting that, when the Packers chose Rodgers late in the first round in 2005, it was a matter of getting value for the pick — not need. They were able to keep Rodgers on the shelf for three years before replacing Favre, an unheard-of apprenticeship in today’s game.
It’s likely that the Browns, 49ers and Bears all will be taking a leap for a quarterback in the draft this year, finally. And maybe their experience will remind them — and others — of the most valuable position there is.
–Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.