It almost makes too much sense. Cam Newton, Superman, is a New England Patriot. And in the year 2020, this is exactly the kind of move we should have expected. Many did, and yet it still felt like such a longshot. Clash of cults of personality aside, there was always a strictly football-related reason for this to happen. The fact that the actual deal is good for both sides is just an added bonus.
New England Patriots Signing Cam Newton is Perfectly 2020
How Did We Get Here?
What an offseason it has been! We’ve seen a quarter of the league’s projected starters entering 2019 change teams, including a wild four-team swap with New England and 75% of the NFC South. Tom Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the shockwave of the off-season; if only slightly edging the Houston Texans swindling themselves out of DeAndre Hopkins.
Tampa Tommy is like the prodigal son going to the Darkside (which would have worked so much better had he joined the Las Vegas Raiders). Newton to the Pats is like, well T’Challa taking over for Steve Rogers. Yes, it’s on the nose, but it’s so very accurate. How else do you describe the expressive Newton heading to the most buttoned-up operation in the NFL?
What’s even better is it is two polarizing entities of opposite ends joining into one. The Patriots have been the bully on the block for much of the past 20 years. This, and a generous helping of sketchy deeds, has led to a buildup of resentment from those on the outside.
Newton, for all his charitable deeds, is more known for his scarves and attitude after losing Super Bowl 50.
Neither man is perfect. Brady was directly indicated in his fair share of the scandals during his time in New England. And, if we’re being honest, the worst Newton has done was his interaction with a female reporter a few years back. He laughed at the depth of her question and said it was “funny” a question like that came from a woman.
But on the football field, both of these men have set records.
Why It Will Work
Brady has the edge in accolades, sure. But even he has conceded it is at least equal parts situation as it is his given talent, effort, preparation, etc. Newton, if healthy, offers the total opposite. A supremely gifted athlete, he reached the edge of the mountain top without the level of coach and system he will have around him next year.
That isn’t a knock on what the Ron Rivera Panthers did either, they ran a system they felt gave them the best chance to win. The issue was they operated like Newton was a rookie for too long, not surrounding him with enough talent at receiver and/or a proper offensive line. His development seemed to stall as the Panthers found their formula.
One thing we know about the Patriots, they know the formula changes from year to year. No team has been better at adapting to their personnel.
Josh McDaniels is a very underrated part of why this will work. He was able to get seven wins out of a second-year Tim Tebow back in 2011. That was ten years ago. But Newton, a former MVP, is far and away a better passer than Tebow ever was.
People also forget the year Newton was having before he got injured in 2018. Carolina was 6-2 with Newton completing 67.3% of his passes for 1893 yards, 15 touchdowns, and four interceptions. He added another 342 yards and four scores on the ground. He over 68 percent of his passes in his remaining six games, but only threw nine touchdowns to nine picks and the Panthers went winless.
What’s The Problem?
That depends on what you thought of Brady last season. He started the season completing 64% of his passes for 2251 yards, 13 scores, and four interceptions over the first eight games. But he finished throwing for 1806 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 4 more picks while completing just 56.9% of his passes. The Patriots went 4-4 over those final eight.
Was that all Brady? He is, after all, in his 40s and has played over two and a half regular season’s worth of playoff games. It’s perfectly reasonable his abilities are in decline.
But New England lost Rob Gronkowski to retirement then lost Antonio Brown (one game) and Josh Gordon (six games) to personal issues. Julian Edelman was still around, but there aren’t many quarterbacks who can overcome that kind of talent drain before and during the season.
Newton’s health will be the biggest deterrent to any success. But he’s been out since September last year and has been seen working with Odell Beckham. Keeping him that way is paramount and dependant upon them either finding upgrades or guys like N’Keal Harry and free-agent addition Marquise Lee stepping up. Edelman and Mohamed Sanu will serve as the vets but the big hole is at tight end.
The offensive line is the bigger concern. Brady took 17 of his 27 sacks over the back half of the year. That line lost center Ted Karras and didn’t add anyone in free agency or the draft until the sixth round. They kept Joe Thuney, though.
The defense underwent a facelift but should be a smoother transition than anything the offense will go through. New England took defensive players with their first three picks and all are expected to contribute early. That’s good with the losses New England suffered at linebacker. Boasting one of the best secondaries in the NFL, though, they should be just fine.
Superman is a Patriot
Cam Newton has had to carry his offenses for much of his career, literally. In New England, he will get a chance to be a part of the machine. They will cater the offense to him week-to-week. His athleticism gives them an added dimension they didn’t have (or need) with Brady. He would also be the first non-Patriots draft pick to start for the team since Scott Secules in 1993.
Doubters will point to Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer and say Newton isn’t a lock to start. But as long as he’s healthy, neither the second-year Stidham nor the journeyman Hoyer is beating him out. The Patriots don’t need the publicity this brought (even with the penalties handed down) but Belichick would love the prestige winning with Newton would bring. We know what’s really on the line here.
Our Best and Worst series is in full bore. We’ve already covered the AFC and NFC North, the AFC and NFC East, and we just finished our AFC South entry. We now turn our focus on the NFC South, a division that would be up for the “Most Dramatic Changes” award if such an award existed. Quarterback changes, roster overhauls, and record-setting contracts, this division has it all.
Best and Worst of Free Agency: NFC South
Best Move: Upgrading at RB
Surely there will be some who will look at this and immediately question how is going to a running back rumored to be dealing with a degenerative knee disease an upgrade over the back the Atlanta Falcons made (at the time) the highest paid in 2017? When the new guy is Todd Gurley and the last guy was Devonta Freeman, that’s how.
The Los Angeles Rams parted with the former Offensive Rookie of the Year (2015) and Offensive Player of the Year (2017) largely due to uncertainty around the long-term health of his knee but fiscal motivations were not absent. Freeman (494 total touches, 2339 scrimmage yards over the last three years) has dealt with injuries that caused him to miss all but two games in 2018. If Gurley (912 total touches, 4988 yards since 2017) is close to his old self the Falcons won’t experience any dropoff and may see better production.
Worst Move: Half Addressing Pass Rush
Yet another where readers may be scratching their heads. After all, Atlanta signed free agent Dante Fowler to a three-year deal worth up to $48 million. Unfortunately, that’s about all they have done to address the issue. After they recorded more sacks than the woeful Miami Dolphins, one guy isn’t going to be enough.
Fowler had 11.5 sacks in 2019 and that his presence will help immensely. But Atlanta let Vic Beasley walk. Despite his inconsistency during his time in Atlanta, he had a strong finish to last season and led the team with eight sacks. They lost another six combined sacks between Adrian Clayborn and De’Vondre Campbell. The 16th-overall pick will be very useful.
Next Move: Lockdown the Corner
A theme we have visited elsewhere, Atlanta has a glaring need for some help on the corners. They finished 2019 ranked 22nd in passing yards allowed. Some of that was thanks to a lackluster pass rush. But none of their corners played particularly well. Desmond Trufant (Detroit Lions) was their best corner and he was only available for nine games.
Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson aren’t an intimidating trio by any stretch. Wreh-Wilson only allowed quarterbacks to complete 45 percent of passes in his direction but was only credited with being targeted 33 times, or five fewer times than Trufant who missed nearly half the season. Atlanta’s first two picks should be EDGE and cornerback, or vice versa.
Best Move: Bridging the Gap
Cam Newton is probably the greatest to ever do it for the Carolina Panthers. No player has the accolades or had the connection to the area he did. But that time is over and the Matt Rhule regime is getting off on the right foot with a player in Teddy Bridgewater who seems poised to pay off on the promise he had coming into the league.
Touted as an accurate, athletic pocket passer, Bridgewater got derailed by a knee injury that threatened not only his career but also his limb. He regained prominence with the New Orleans Saints filling in for an injured Drew Brees for five games. The Saints went 5-0 and Bridgewater completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 1205 yards, nine touchdowns, and two picks.
Worst Move: Repeating the Past
No, this isn’t about Christian McCaffrey’s (record-setting) contract. So far the Panthers plan is just as well thought out as the last one. They have a (potential) stud at quarterback and some weapons around him. But their fatal flaw will once again prove to be a lack of proper protection. Carolina traded guard Trai Turner and received tackle Russell Okung from the Los Angeles Chargers.
Not only is Okung a worse player (irrespective of position) but he is also five years older. The need for a tackle will often outweigh the advantage of a quality guard. But the difference in age (even if linemen can play longer) and the added salary make this look like a losing deal for Carolina and they still need more help protecting their new franchise passer. Also, don’t pay running backs.
Next Move: Replace Heart and Soul
Sounds easy enough, right? The reality of the situation is Luke Kuechly’s retirement is similar to Newton’s departure in that it marks the end of an era. The difference is the Panthers got to make the decision on Newton. Kuechly, who has dealt with numerous concussions in his career, made seven Pro Bowls in eight seasons and was named an All-Pro five times.
But accolades aside, the Panthers will need to find the leadership and dependability elsewhere. Carolina saw eight players leave on defense who started at least nine games. Granted, any time there is a coaching change a roster overhaul is to be expected. But Kuechly would have made the transition easier for new defensive coordinator Phil Snow.
New Orleans Saints
Best Move: Landing WR2
It’s not often that landing a secondary receiver deserves praise. But when that receiver will be with the Saints catching passes from Brees, exceptions are made. Emmanuel Sanders split 2019 between catching passes from Joe Flacco and Jimmy Garoppolo. To say Brees is an upgrade is an understatement.
New Orleans hasn’t had a capable complimentary option since Brandin Cooks left town. Ted Ginn in 2017 was the closest they’ve come. Sanders is a year older than Ginn was then, and is a more versatile receiver. A torn Achilles ended his 2018 early and he returned to put up over 800 yards and play in 17 games last season.
Worst Move: Choosing the Wrong QB2
Somehow Taysom Hill has convinced folks down in the Bayou that he is worthy of being the top backup option. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that he has franchise quarterback potential. Hill is a nice, versatile athlete. But he isn’t a full-time quarterback, let alone a starter. New Orleans gave it away by going with Bridgewater over the more familiar Hill when Brees went down.
Now, this is being stated with a full understanding of how the economics played into this. With Brees returning, retaining Bridgewater became impossible. But selling HIll as anything more than a gadget player (with Brees and Bridgewater still in limbo) was an oversell and if New Orleans stands pat at quarterback, they will regret it if Brees misses time again.
Next Move: Someone to Truzz
The Saints had the fewest rushing yards as a team in the three years since Alvin Kamara arrived. They clearly missed Mark Ingram and the energy he brought to the field and sideline. Latavius Murray gave New Orleans eight fewer yards than Ingram did in his final season. But the latter ran for over a thousand yards the two years prior and did so again with Baltimore last year.
If the Saints want to get the mojo back in their ground game the will try to find another runner with that same type of violent running style. Kamara remaining healthy is probably the bigger boost, but the need for a proper compliment to him cannot be overstated. For all their effort though, finding someone to match Ingram’s infectious energy could be close to impossible.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Best Move: Brady Bunch
Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the biggest move this offseason in the NFL, not just the NFC South. The only thing comparable is Peyton Manning joining the Broncos in 2012. This surpasses that by far but does have similar questions along with it. Among them is questioning how much Brady’s declining numbers are due to waning ability.
Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, (for now) O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate will make it clear if Brady is up to the task or not. It’s hard to say the six-time Super Bowl champ has ever had a more talented receiving corps. If there is one thing to complain about it’s the protection that wasn’t great for a more mobile Jameis Winston in 2019. Tampa might also want to finally find a running back.
Worst Move: Not Protecting the Franchise
Recurring themes are becoming a recurring theme. Another team (rightfully) making an investment in a franchise quarterback and surrounding him with weapons but failing to address porous blocking. Brady is 42. ‘Sack’ needs to be treated like the four-letter word that it is for this organization and, so far, their moves don’t show that.
Next Move: Fill the Gaps
Let’s not act like the NFL draft won’t provide the perfect opportunity to address the issue laid out in the previous section as well as address the lack of a run game. Tampa also needs some help in the secondary but they have youth there. Whatever they choose to do in the draft, the top needs to be the offensive line and secondary, in whatever order.
A sneaky move could be for the Bucs to take a pass rusher much sooner than anyone expects. Shaquil Barrett is playing on the franchise tag and Jason Pierre-Paul just re-signed for two years but is already 31. Tampa also lost Carl Nassib, their third-leading sack artist with six. Add pass rusher to the early part of the Bucs draft checklist.
March 11th, 2020 will forever be known as the day the world stood still, the day that sports stopped. It’s been a little under 3 weeks (21 loooooong days) since the NBA shut down amid the coronavirus, aka COVID-19, aka code-19 pandemic. I know this has put one big thing in perspective, what the world looks like without sports, and I don’t like it one bit.
Living in a No Sports Zone with COVID-19
Baby, Come Back!
This is showing us how important sports are to our lives. You know how you’ve got that empty, pit drop in your stomach feeling after losing your first love? That’s how it felt hearing the announcement NBA was suspended indefinitely after Utah Jazz C Rudy Gobert tested positive for that ‘Rona.
Since that discovery, the COVID-19 pandemic has made its rounds in the sports world getting to several well-known athletes and even our favorite announcers. Reaching the likes of New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant and ESPN’s beloved NBA analyst Doris Burke. So, this thing is real!
I’ve been watching sports since the tender age of eight, (I’m 43 now), when my father introduced me to football. It was Super Bowl XX Sunday when the Chicago Bears defeated the New England Patriots 46-10. Like for everyone, in those 30-plus years since we’ve never seen anything like this. So, what does one do when you’re quarantined and stuck in the “No Sports Zone?” (For those that remember, that’s an ode to the Twilight Zone intro).
Finding an Alternative
Well if you’re like me, you get familiar with that lady in the house. Oh, that’s my wife, and it turns out she’s very interesting. I also finally have time to catch up with all those Netflix shows and movies I promised myself I would watch. My personal fave is The Ozarks with Jason Bateman, I’m already ready for season four! Another one to check out is the documentary, Tiger King, all I can say is whoa!
How about some personal gains, I have a language self-learning disc set I’ve had for the last five years. I think it’s time to crack that open. Hopefully, when we come out of this quarantine I’ll be a new, Spanish-speaking me (I wonder what my Vegas odds are). But this is a sports column so let’s get back to the business at hand.
Not All In
You know who else is going on as business as usual? The NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell said let’s keep the party going, starting with one of the most exciting free agents periods in recent memory. Maybe it’s sports being halted and what we’re going through that added to the excitement but none the less it is.
By the way, the 2020 NFL Draft is still going as scheduled, April 23rd-25th. This was truly a free agent frenzy. We wondered what the Bears were going to do, after 20 years of dominance in the AFC East Tom Brady left New England, Drew Brees coming back to the big easy & more.
Obviously, the biggest signing was Brady with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but this is Chicago, so let’s look at our hometown Bears. In my opinion there free agent moves were, meh, we’ll delve into particulars at a later time, for now here are the key signings. EDGE Robert Quinn, (an upgrade from former first-round pick Leonard Floyd), tight end Jimmy Graham, bringing back linebacker Danny Trevathan, and trading for Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.
Hang In There
Though we’re in a “No Sports Zone” now, we can use our time to reset and come out refreshed on the other side. One good thing that came of this is the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, is being released early so, yay! Now if the NFL season becomes in jeopardy of being canceled, then some panic may set in. Until then, let’s be safe and keep the positive vibes.
We are two divisions into our breakdowns of the best, worst, and next moves for teams in free agency. The AFC North was first with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns being most active. After that was the NFC North where the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers both got back to old ways but to differing ends.
In this installment, we’ll look at the AFC East. It’s a division that has seen much upheaval in the past 18 months and the offseason has so far been more of the same. With one team looking like it’s on its way down, another appears poised to take the mantle of division bully. The division’s other two residents are just trying to find their way through the early rebuilding stages.
Free Agency Best and Worst: AFC East
Best Move: Acquiring a WR1
This one might get a few sideways looks. Some might take issue with designating Stefon Diggs as a true number one wide receiver. But for the price the Buffalo Bills paid to the Minnesota Vikings (1st, 5th, and 6th round in 2020, 4th round in 2021), they better hope he delivers like one. After back-to-back 1000-yard seasons (compared to Buffalo’s first since 2015) he should.
Trepidation over anointing Diggs as a number one receiver is understandable. After all, he was second on his team in receiving yards in 2018 and 2017 to Adam Thielen. An injury to the latter allowed Diggs to operate as the top option for a team that was much more run-oriented than the prior season. At 17.9 yards per reception (t-4th in the NFL), he at least brings the big play.
Worst Move: Losing 43% of Sack Total
That is a staggering number for a team that ranked 12th in sacks. The total (19 sacks) didn’t all come from one player. Instead, it was a group effort that included four players: defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (9.5), EDGE Shaq Lawson (6.5), linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (2), and defensive tackle Corey Liuget (1).
They brought in a trio of players (EDGE Mario Addison, DT Vernon Butler, and DE Quinton Jefferson) to make up the difference. Addison (9.5) has 29.5 sacks the last three seasons but was a part-timer before then and is already 32. Bulter’s six sacks are also nice but their draw is familiarity with head coach Sean McDermott. Luckily they only have to replace one starter.
Next Move: Upgrade the Offensive Line
Let’s say the Bills are set at left tackle with Dion Dawkins, who graded the highest out the offensive linemen. Every other spot should be up for grabs. Center Mitch Morse and Quinton Spain (who just re-signed this offseason) seem next closest to locks. But after that, guard Jon Feliciano and tackle Cody Ford could lose their starting spots.
In fact, Buffalo has already made an attempt on that front with the addition of Daryl Williams, another former Carolina Panthers player. His arrival might seem like a blow to Ford, but it might be a bigger signal that Feliciano (28 years old and in a contract year) is on the block. Spain and Williams have never been anything special but Buffalo is banking on the sum being greater than its parts.
Best Move: Locking Down the Corners
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is a Bill Belichick disciple. He’s just one season removed from coaching linebackers for the New England Patriots. It is the emphasis on the cornerback position that earns the nod for best move thought. With former Dallas Cowboys corner Byron Jones in tow, the Dolphins boast one of, if not the top duo in the NFL.
Pairing Jones (52.8 percent completion allowed over the last two years) with Xavien Howard is borderline overdoing it considering their division. Howard is coming off of a down campaign and potentially facing discipline stemming from a domestic battery arrest this offseason. So Jones is both a partner and an insurance policy. A very expensive insurance policy.
Worst Move: Paying Kyle Van Noy
‘Questionable’ might be a more appropriate description for this one. Kyle Van Noy is cashing in on a successful three-and-a-half-year stint with the Patriots and heading to South Beach to be reunited with Flores. Part of a complete overhaul of the defense, the signing can go one of two distinct ways and that’s why it’s not a full-blown bad move.
Jamie Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns midway through the 2016 season. His first full season he missed 10 games with a torn MCL. Year two in Cleveland wasn’t bad, he recorded 104 total tackles with 73 solo stops. But he returned to New England in 2019 and traded some tackles (58 solo) for sacks (seven). Injury aside, Van Noy’s signing could be a boon or an overpayment for mediocrity.
Next Move: Offensive Investments
Seven of their 10 free agency moves (signings and re-signings) were on the defensive side. For an offense that was 25th in scoring and 27th in yards, that has to change and fast. Multiple mock drafts have them trading up for Tua Tagovailoa or even Joe Burrow. It’s unlikely, but with Ryan Fitzpatrick returning they have to address the future beyond Josh Rosen. Right?
The offense needs several infusions of talent, not just at quarterback. The signed former Bears and Philadelphia Eagles running back Jordan Howard. He instantly slots in as their best back, but they’re thin behind him. The same goes for wide receiver where they need of playmakers behind DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, who is coming off a torn ACL.
New England Patriots
Best Move: Embracing the Rebuild
One of the lasting traits of the Belichick era in New England has been the propensity to move on from players a year too soon rather than a year too late. Well, after two decades in the Northeast, quarterback Tom Brady has headed for warmer weather. That puts the Pats into a certain level of rebuilding. It remains to be seen what that level is, however. The quarterback room is less-talented with Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer, and Cody Kessler.
That very uncertainty is exactly why the Patriots and Belichick should be commended. It would have been easy for The Hoodie to fight to keep Brady around or even walk away as his quarterback left town. Instead, he is undoubtedly going to embrace this opportunity to prove that it was he, not Brady, that was mostly responsible for their unprecedented run the last 20 years.
Worst Move: Not Having Next QB1
It isn’t often the Patriots get caught with their pants down in terms of being ill-prepared. But that seems to be exactly the case now with Brady in the NFC and their best replacements being a second-year pro or a journeyman. Now, Belichick won 10 games with Matt Cassell filling in back in 2008. So maybe his faith in Stidham will pay off again.
That hasn’t stopped speculation from mounting about some of the available veteran options. Andy Dalton and Cam Newton have both been mentioned frequently and present reclamation projects that would further Belichick’s legend. Or he could take a passer that falls or trade up to take one. We just don’t know at this point. It’s pretty much business as usual for the Patriots.
Next Move: More Offensive Firepower
Some have speculated that New England will effectively tank this season in hopes of being in the position to draft Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence next year. The biggest issue with that is it dismisses the ego of Belichick. It’s almost unfathomable to think he’d waste a year at all let alone a chance to prove it was him all along, not the quarterback.
Regardless of who is under center this season or next, the Patriots need to give him a better arsenal than Brady had in 2019. They long got by with what many considered a bunch of misfits that Brady made look good. Well, we saw last season those misfits were better than they were given credit for. New England better load up or they won’t have to try to tank.
New York Jets
Best Move: Attempting to Fix O-Line
There should be a caveat on this one. Or at least most of the emphasis should be on the ‘attempting’ part. The New York Jets had the 30th ranked pass-blocking unit and the 31st run-blocking group. The names they added don’t necessarily instill confidence that they have actually solved it though.
Outside of Connor McGovern, none of the other signees (Josh Andrews, George Fant, Greg Van Roten) or the re-signee (Alex Lewis) received good marks from Pro Football Focus. Obviously, they aren’t the be-all-end-all, but some teams do use it so it holds some weight. The Jets threw bodies at the position. We’ll see if they’re finished doing so.
Worst Move: Disarming Darnold
When the Jets let Robby Anderson leave via free agency to the Carolina Panthers, they lost their second-most receiving yards and third-most receptions from 2019. He was far from a complete player, but Carolina didn’t really pay him like one. A failure to address his loss will put the focus on some of the other questionable moves by this regime already.
New York will have Jamison Crowder and Chris Herndon back but neither has the field-stretching ability that Anderson Brings. But that could very well change with them holding the 11th overall pick. Still, it’s fair to wonder if keeping Anderson around was worth it for the development of quarterback Sam Darnold who will now have to build a rapport with someone new.
Next Move: Build Talent
It’s going to be tempting for the Jets to start believing that they have a shot at making the playoffs. The Patriots are the most vulnerable they’ve been since 1999, Miami is rebuilding, and while Buffalo made the postseason last year, they aren’t so far ahead of the rest of the division. New York might want to consider trading down to acquire more picks.
This is the alternative to simply taking the best player available; which would also be valid for the Jets. They just need so much that the better use of, at least, the first of their eight current picks is to get their hands on as much draft capital as possible. In addition to the receiver and offensive line, they need help in the secondary and with the pass-rush.
All of you “defense wins championships” folks will hate to read this but, the 2020 NFL off-season is just another dominated by quarterbacks. They’ve dominated the headlines and are the object around which NFL general managers formulate their off-season plans. Even the ones who are trying to build their defenses do so with the intent of negating opposing quarterbacks.
Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs just gave us our most recent example of this playing out. A stout San Francisco 49ers defense (2nd in yards per game allowed) couldn’t hold the third-year, former MVP down for an entire four quarters. In a league that has shifted so far towards favoring offenses, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Quarterback Talk Will Dominate Headlines Again
Since the league went to 32 teams, the NFL has seen its average pass completions per game jump from 20.1 in 2002 to 22.1 in 2019. It should also be noted that the 2002 number was a relative outlier. The average was around 19.3 and lower the six years prior and four years after the ‘02 season. But all this proves is that teams are passing that much more, right?
Wrong! In this same period, pass attempts have gone from 33.8 18 years ago to 34.9 this past season. That’s an increase of nearly three completions per game but only 1.1 more attempts. Put simply, quarterbacks got more accurate as displayed in the average completion percentage rising nearly four points from 59.6 percent to 63.5 percent.
Any number of metrics can back this up, but we only need to look at the headlines to see the trend. Mahomes winning Super Bowl MVP aside, the next biggest talking point has been about where Tom Brady will play in 2020. He’s 42 years old and didn’t have his best season (statistically or via the eye test) but that hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from churning.
Among the many hypothesized destinations have been the newly-dubbed Las Vegas Raiders, the Los Angeles Chargers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In addition to the potential drawbacks to making a large commitment to a quarterback who is less than a decade away from AARP eligibility, all of these teams have quarterbacks either in place or in limbo.
Those incumbents have also been the subjects of trade rumors in their own rights. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers recently moved (a la Brady) to Florida turning up the volume on speculation he could be elsewhere in 2020. Cam Newton has been tabbed by speculators to replace him in L.A. after his Carolina Panthers hired a new head coach and general manager.
It isn’t just the big-name guys getting all the headlines either. Cincinnati Bengals free-agent quarterback Andy Dalton, an average starting quarterback by most metrics, has been spoken of as a possible savior for teams viewed by many as being a “quarterback away” from being true contenders. Even perceived busts like Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans have been given new life by the rumor mill.
The NFL Draft is in April and guess what position the presumed first pick, Joe Burrow, plays. Yep, quarterback. A draft that is thought to be strong at wide receiver and other skill positions could have five passers go in the first round. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is one of those prospects and he is recovering from a serious hip injury just to illustrate.
Ohio State defensive end Chase Young at the top of a lot of big boards and the Bengals have a significant need for a pass rusher. But that is dwarfed by their need to upgrade the quarterback position. This illustrates the shift in ideology. Rather than build from the trenches, Cincinnati is set to pick Burrow based on one (historic) season.
Even supposed projects or guys missing something are getting first-round love. Justin Herbert was buzzing last year but needed the Senior Bowl to solidify his spot near the top of the draft. The Jacob Easons and Jordan Loves of the world, though, are first-rounders based more on potential than production.
This isn’t some earth-shattering revelation. The transition to a quarterback-driven league has been advertised and vocalized to the point that it’s almost fait accompli you’ll hear “it’s a quarterback-driven league” after a play. The announcers and pundits know it. The fans know it.
Even the league knows it. After revamping the protections on quarterbacks and receivers some years back, the NFL did so again recently. The most heavily debated being challenging pass interference. It’s a change that can and has aided defenses but was clearly developed with offenses in mind.
This might not even just apply to current and future quarterbacks either. It’s fair to wonder if the controversial Colin Kaepernick would be such a lightning rod if he played any other position. His very vocal supporter and former teammate Eric Reid did sign a multi-year deal last February.
Headlines Were Made for Quarterbacks
Again, this isn’t exactly new or revolutionary, we’ve always idolized the quarterback position. But it has become more intentional along with the devaluation of the running back has been the elevation of the quarterback. Super Bowl Sunday was just a reminder that while defense wins (conference) championships, it is quarterbacks that win Super Bowls.