INDIANAPOLIS – The crowds haven’t changed.
At the annual Scouting combine, the media surrounds the quarterback as he comes in for his interview. It was the same for Michael Vick and David Carr a decade ago as it was for Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III this week.
The position itself seems to have evolved. Teams throw now more than ever. Quarterback may not be any more important than in the days of Bradshaw, Staubach and Stabler but it certainly feels like the game now insists on a higher level of play than before.
“Most teams, if not all, would love to be able to have a great quarterback, but not everyone can do that,” Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. “You are hoping to have at least one that won’t beat you, one that won’t turn the ball over, won’t make the mistakes that put you behind the eight-ball.”
Great quarterbacks are the ones that win titles, however, or reach Super Bowls. Passing statistics have become video-game-like. The right quarterback covers up for an inconsistent defense or a subpar offensive line or a running game that doesn’t dominate. No other position can have that kind of sway.
The Cardinals are still trying to figure out their own quarterback quandary, counting on a full offseason to help either
“It’s not any more important, but I just think, with the evolution of the passing game and the complexity of the schemes and what you are asking quarterbacks to do, you are just putting more stress on that position,” Cardinals director of player personnel Steve Keim said.
Some of the changes to the position aren’t recent transformations. Long ago went away the idea, for the most part, that a quarterback could be drafted high and sit for multiple seasons. But it was just 2004 when Ben Roethlisberger, forced into the lineup with Pittsburgh, could be sheltered in an offense by a running game and defense like the Steelers did en route to a 15-1 record.
It’s hard to imagine a Super Bowl champ winning a title with a Trent Dilfer at quarterback anymore, like the Ravens did in 2000 because their defense was one of the best ever. The rules work against that, and so has the flow of offenses.
No longer do teams ride one running back to success, like once upon a time. It’s up to the quarterback to make things happen, and if he can’t in a year or two, there’s usually a good chance he is replaced.
“The kids are getting bigger, stronger and faster, at every position,” Broncos president and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway said. “The game is getting more complicated. … Athletically and size-wise, maturity-wise, these kids realize when they step out of college, especially if you’re high in the draft, there are high expectations and a lot of pressure to perform early.”
Of the four teams that made it to the NFL championship games, two leaned on their defense more often. Both those teams ended up losing, although it wasn’t the fault of 49ers quarterback Alex Smith or Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, each of whom it could be argued should have won.
Then again, Tom Brady and Eli Manning were the ones playing in the Super Bowl.
The 49ers created a blueprint of sorts this season, a Dilfer-on-steroids situation with Smith. His statistics, while not prolific, were outstanding because he didn’t make mistakes. The defense led that team. “When you're asking players to do what they can't do, you usually have unsuccessful situations,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said.
But can the defense replicate the same turnover ratio next season? The odds are that Smith will have to make more of an impact for San Francisco to win 13 games again.
Basic football, and basic quarterbacking, can still win, Graves said. “I still believe, regardless of what we saw this past season, in teams that run the football, play good defense and minimize errors by the quarterback, you can go a long way doing that.”
The spotlight certainly isn’t going to change, however.
“With increased attention to the game, with the number of different media outlets and increased statistical analysis, there is a lot more focus on quarterback play on a game-by-game basis or even per attempt,” Cards coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “But it’s always been an important position, regardless of whether you are handing off or throwing a pass.”