System Quarterbacks

March 7, 2010

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The term “system quarterback” – meaning a quarterback who requires a specific offensive system in order to be effective – is often used in a disparaging way.

Let’s step outside the world of sports for a moment. You’re the head of a large hospital. You’d like to hire a neurosurgeon for your staff, but there’s a problem. She’s left handed, and all your surgical tools are right handed. She’s a “system surgeon” who can’t be effective with the “system” of right handed tools and shouldn’t be hired, right? Of course not – that’s crazy talk. You just buy some left handed tools. You don’t allow the less expensive parts of an environment dictate decisions about the most expensive parts.

Why, then, should an NFL team discard the notion of giving a particular quarterback a chance to succeed, simply because he is a “system” quarterback?

What am I recommending exactly – that the team change itself to fit the quarterback, rather than finding a quarterback who is a better fit? Yes, precisely.

This probably doesn’t sound fair to a lot of people. Why should a team force its coaches and players to change to accommodate one player? In fact, other players on the team may not be a good fit for the quarterback’s preferred style of play, resulting in those players having reduced roles or no role at all. Changing the system to fit the quarterback could cost them their jobs. This doesn’t sound fair at all.

And it’s not fair. However, many things in life aren’t fair. In this case, I think that money trumps fairness. Quarterbacks are expensive – much more expensive than any other player. Some have speculated that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning may receive a contract extension that pays him $20 million per year, with a $50 million signing bonus. The first pick in the 2009 NFL draft, Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions, signed a contract that is likely to pay him $78 million during his first six years in the league – before he ever took a snap. Matt Cassel – who didn’t start a game in college – leveraged one strong season with the Patriots into a six year, $63 million contract after being traded to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The money changes everything. If you can spend $5 million per year on a quarterback that can excel within a particular system (getting him cheap because he is perceived as flawed) versus $15 million for a more traditional quarterback, you can afford to overpay a couple of other cogs that you need for the system.

Not all systems are going to work in the NFL, of course. Players in the NFL are stronger and faster than college players, and some offensive systems that work fine in college are doomed in the NFL for this very reason. But I am convinced that the right offensive coordinator could make some unconventional schemes work in the NFL. Sure, you’ll probably have to pony up a few extra bucks for a coordinator who can make it work – but just like the complementary offensive players, coordinators are cheaper than quarterbacks.

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