Teddy Bridgewater’s knee buckled and popped, and just like that, the Super Bowl hopes of the Minnesota Vikings went poof. And so on rages the debate as to whether the greatest flaw of the NFL is the importance of the quarterback.
We know, we know: it has always been this way. Decades ago, Vince Lombardi warned of the inordinate importance being placed on one position – the quarterback. You can’t win without a good one, it seems, and NFL history has proven it. From 2003 through 2011, the Super was won by a cast that included Tom Brady (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. All five of those men may go down as among the greatest to play the position, albeit for different reasons, and the only quarterback to interrupt that party was Eli Manning, whose first Super Bowl title came against Brady and a Patriots team that had been 18-0.
So the Vikes are done, right?
Well, yes and no.
First of all, Minnesota’s backup quarterback Shaun Hill, was, at least at one time, a capable backup. The Vikings have a good balance of weapons, from Adrian Peterson to Stefon Diggs, and Minnesota has a good defense and a seemingly solid coach. Nobody in their right mind would pick Minnesota to win the Super Bowl – were you honestly picking them before? – but there are other variables to suggest that Minnesota can still be, at the very least, a playoff team.
The NFL is changing, folks.
And the last couple of years prove it.
To wit: among all NFL teams last season, the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos ranked 31st in passer rating, behind only the St. Louis Rams. Among the 34 qualifying quarterbacks, Denver starter Peyton manning – who played throughout the playoffs – ranked dead last. The point is that Manning was Manning in name alone, because on paper he looked more like, well, Shaun Hill.
Wait, I take that back.
Shaun Hill is better.
Yes, of course, the Broncos had a prolific defense, maybe one of the five greatest of all-time. That will be difficult for the Vikes to match. But since Rodgers and the Green Bay packers capped the 2010 NFL season with their only title, an inspection of the league’s winning quarterbacks suggests a far greater variance that existed before. In the last five years, the list of quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl includes Brady, a decrepit Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco and Eli again. That is hardly a list of bums, but with the exception of Brady, it isn’t a collection of greats, either. (Again, Peyton Manning was not the same player last year. Denver’s championship was far more akin to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who won with Trent Dilfer, or the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won with Brad Johnson.)
Eli? He’s a good player, but his resume is spotted with trick-or-treat seasons. Ditto for Flacco. Wilson is off to an absolutely prolific start, but his championship had far more to do with the Seattle defense than it did with him. (If he wins another, well, that is a different story.)
Here’s the other thing: with each year, passing in the NFL gets easier, not harder. Isn’t it reasonable to assume this minimizes the importance of the quarterback? Last year, Andy Dalton, Kirk Cousins and Tyron Taylor all ranked among the top 10 in passer rating. Meanwhile, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota all seem to have bright futures in the game – at least for now – which suggests that their respective teams all have a fighting chance in the years to come.
Maybe all of those young players are that good. Or maybe the position is getting easier and the standard for a championship is dropping.
Look, nobody is saying you should bet on the Vikings to win the Super Bowl this year. That is not the point. But passing in the NFL simply is not as difficult as it used to be, which can’t help but make you wonder whether it is actually easier to replace the quarterback.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.