The Game of Quarterback vs Real Football

Focusing too much on passers turned out to be a mistake this past weekend

It is undeniable that the quarterback is the most important single player on a football team.

A good passer can send a talented offense to a new level.  An inaccurate signal-caller can throw away entire football games with poor decision-making.  Football fans all know this, because we’ve all seen it repeatedly in both directions.  In particular, the current era of NFL football is such that the passing game has become more important than ever before.

Still, at times it seems as though all of football is placed on the quarterback these days.  We attribute wins and losses to quarterbacks as a statistic, a practice that usually ends poorly in team sports.  Moreover, we sometimes judge an entire team based on their quarterback, and miss some important things in doing so.

This past weekend showed us repeated instances of a football truism, one that should be obvious but simply isn’t:  Football is a team sport. 

Saturday’s early game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the visiting Atlanta Falcons was not supposed to be much of a game.  To hear the talking heads tell it, Atlanta was a clear favorite, to the point they could have been essentially penciled in to the NFC Championship Game.  Philadelphia, by the same token, was lucky to have made it this far.  With Carson Wentz out for the season, and Nick Foles lining up under center, Philly was hardly supposed to have a chance.

The logic was clear:  The rest of Philadelphia’s team didn’t much matter in the face of Foles’ existence.  Or, to put it in words I heard ad nauseum last week, nobody could “imagine Nick Foles winning a playoff game.”

In a way, every one of those takes was accurate.  Nick Foles did not win Saturday evening’s playoff game.  The Philadelphia Eagles, however, did end up winning and moving on to host the NFC Championship.  With a seemingly clear disadvantage at quarterback, few saw that coming.

Philadelphia won because they came with a better game plan.  Head coach Doug Peterson knew exactly what Nick Foles was capable of and where he struggles, so Peterson put together a game plan that allowed Foles to showcase his strong decision-making without relying on passing skill he might not have in comparison to a Matt Ryan.  The Eagles ran the ball consistently and effectively, setting up passes that left people open for first downs.  It helped that Philadelphia got a fantastic performance from their defense, holding the Falcons to ten points and their vaunted passing offense to just 195 yards on the day.

The game was viewed as an upset, but keep in mind the Eagles have the top playoff seed in the NFC.  Home teams in the playoffs are no underdogs, and the Eagles were no exception.  They played the entire game like the team with a better coach, a better game plan, a better running game, and a better defense than Atlanta.  Really, the surprise was not so much that the Eagles won but that nobody seemed to expect that could happen.

If Nick Foles was treated as a hindrance to his team coming into Saturday, he had nothing on Blake Bortles.

Bortles, almost ever since he was selected third overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, the young quarterback from Altamonte Springs has been treated as some combination of a joke and an affront to the very game of football.  He has been criticized for everything from his decision-making to the sound of his last name.  It is as though nobody has ever seen an atypical NFL quarterback before when Bortles is under center.

As a result, outside of our own Jaquan Cathey, just about nobody was willing to pick “Blake Bortles” to beat “Ben Roethlisberger” on Sunday afternoon.

Again, the prognosticators were right and wrong at the same time.  Bortles played much better than expected on Sunday, but to say he won the game is a stretch so far one could pull a muscle.  The Jacksonville Jaguars won as a team in the truest sense.  The defense scored a touchdown.  Bortles threw for touchdowns.  Leonard Fournette ran extremely well, getting into the end zone himself and really setting the tone for the offense as a whole.  Placekicker Josh Scobee got involved in kick return coverage and prevented a Steeler touchdown.

In this case, however, it wasn’t just the fans and analysts who seemed to write off the Jaguars.  In many ways, it appeared as though Pittsburgh was simply not expecting Jacksonville to be able to do anything on offense, and as a result the Steelers’ defense looked unprepared and on their heels all game long.

Jacksonville, if you’ll recall, won the AFC South.  They did so with the number one ranked pass defense in the NFL, meaning that they were veritable experts in stopping the kind of quarterback play that people will tell you up and down “wins games.”  Fournette was one of the best rookies in the NFL, running back or otherwise, all year long.  Doug Marrone had proven a capable coach under guru Tom Coughlin.  The offense could come and go at times, but by and large they did just enough to win games, which is important since margin of victory matters little in the NFL.

The same Jacksonville team that was supposed to lose in Pittsburgh on Sunday went into the same Heinz Field in week five and blew the Steelers out of the water.  They didn’t just win, they destroyed the Steelers, but when it came to predicting the game that simply didn’t matter.  Jacksonville, on Sunday, was perceived to have no chance and it was entirely because of Blake Bortles.

Of course, the Jaguars put up 45 points in the contest en route to a victory.

The weekend’s finale became another example of quarterback worship in the buildup.

The Minnesota Vikings earned a bye week in the NFC playoffs.  Throughout the season, they looked like one of the conference’s most complete teams.  The defense was excellent, the offense was balanced, and Minnesota got solid performances out of their special teams unit.

Problematically, though, their quarterback is a person named Case Keenum, who was in due to injuries to both Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater throughout the season.  Keenum was described as a “game manager” and a “journeyman” coming in.  His opponent in the New Orleans Saints were led by Drew Brees.  Brees, likely to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame about five years after he retires, was of course favored to win the game over Keenum.

Again, it turned out that quarterbacks can only do so much, and football is a team sport.  The Vikings led the game in both passing yards and rushing yards, as well as in takeaways, but winning took them every last second of the 60:00 clock.

The last play needs no introduction or description.  You’ve seen it by now, and hopefully you’ve also heard Vikings announcer Paul Allen’s high-volume call of the play.  The moment was iconic, and sure to be talked about for years to come.

As a result, we enter a Championship round in which the only “elite” quarterback was famously a sixth-round afterthought in the 2000 NFL Draft.

The lesson here is not, of course, that quarterbacks are overrated or that Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees are all losing their touch.  All three are great, and it should not be questioned that quarterbacks remain more important on balance than other positions.

The lesson is that wins and losses are not good statistics to keep for a quarterback.  At the end of the day, teams win or lose football games, signal callers aside.  The New England Patriots, who might have the greatest quarterback the league has ever seen, have always known this.  That knowledge is part of what sets Tom Brady up for such wild success.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.