If these NFL playoffs have taught us one thing, it’s that you don’t necessarily need a franchise-caliber quarterback to compete for a championship. Although the only elite quarterback left in the tournament might be the one to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the other three in Sunday’s conference title games offer a glimmer of hope for getting there.
Even if Tom Brady — he of the five rings — gets the Patriots to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, there will be a wildly unexpected quarterback facing him. The winner of the Case Keenum-Nick Foles matchup in Philadelphia will have a shot at winning it all Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
If either of those two, or Blake Bortles in the event the Jaguars pull off a monumental upset of the Patriots, wins the Super Bowl, it would be the first time in 15 years that an unheralded quarterback did that. (Brady reportedly jammed his throwing hand at practice Wednesday when a teammate accidentally ran into him, and Bortles’ chances will improve if Brady isn’t 100 percent.)
In Super Bowl XXXVII, after the 2002 season, Brad Johnson, a ninth-round pick of the Vikings in 1992, led the Bucs to a 48-21 win over the Raiders and quarterback Rich Gannon, a fourth-round pick of the Patriots in 1987. Two years earlier, Trent Dilfer was the beneficiary of a dominant Ravens defense in a 34-7 win over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
Since Dilfer and Johnson, a succession of elite quarterbacks won Super Bowls. With the exception of Joe Flacco, if your name wasn’t Brady, Manning (Peyton or Eli), Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Brees or Wilson, then there was no Supe for you.
Does the presence of Keenum, Foles and Bortles portend a potential sea change in how the NFL views quarterbacks? Is it possible that teams will transform their approach and try to build around their quarterback situation instead of doing whatever is necessary to get an elite passer?
The short answer: not likely.
With several quarterback-needy teams in the market for a draft-day fix — including the Giants and Jets, picking second and sixth, respectively — there almost certainly will be a mad rush to get the top prospects available. That means Sam Darnold (USC), Josh Rosen (UCLA), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Josh Allen (Wyoming) and Lamar Jackson (Louisville) likely will be off the board early. Most, if not all, of them could be gone in the top 10.
So for all of the feel-good vibes around the lightly regarded quarterbacks left in the tournament — particularly Keenum, whose 61-yard walk-off pass to Stefon Diggs against the Saints was one of the most remarkable plays in NFL history — the relentless pursuit of franchise-quality quarterbacks will continue unabated, and not only in the 2018 draft.
After all, what we’re witnessing this month isn’t a trend, but an aberration.
Dilfer and Johnson were exceptions to the rule, as history quickly proved. Brady won the next two Super Bowls, and even though hindsight proved he was drafted entirely too low in the sixth round in 2000, he has led a procession of elite quarterbacks to Super Bowls. And if Bortles, Foles or Keenum adds another name to the short list of unlikely winners, it will be largely because of what the players around them have done.
The Giants have a chance to get Darnold or Rosen with the No. 2 pick, but if new general manager Dave Gettleman believes 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb can be a worthy successor to Eli Manning, then perhaps Penn State running back Saquon Barkley will draw serious consideration. Look at the difference that Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette, a fourth overall pick, has made.
The Jets may go the free-agent route and pay a king’s ransom for Kirk Cousins, who is expected to be available after playing out his deal with Washington. If that’s the case, they may be tempted to take Barkley, even if it means moving up a few spots.
In both cases, the need at quarterback is the top priority, and there’s no way either team can come out of the offseason without a meaningful long-term plan at the position. Forget the three unlikely passers in this weekend’s final four; the Giants and Jets can’t rely on luck to solve their quarterback issues.
No-Names vs. G.O.A.T.
Tom Brady has a definite postseason experience advantage over the three other quarterbacks who will lead their teams on Sunday:
Case Keenum, Minn. 11-0
Nick Foles, Phila.21-1
Blake Bortles, Jack.22-0
Tom Brady, NE3526-9