Not having a quarterback sucks.
Just ask Jacksonville fans who just suffered through the Good Team Pays Mostly Bad Quarterback To Stay In Contention season and, well, it did not end particularly well for the Jaguars. The Jags won 5 games, but it felt like they won 3. This was a team that was on the verge winning the AFC a season ago with a quarterback not named Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger. (That never happens in that conference. Seriously.) Instead of getting out of the Blake Bortles business when they could, the front office doubled-down on Double B and it blew up in their faces.
This kind of team-trajectory seems eerily familiar?
The Denver Broncos.
John Elway’s team won a Super Bowl in 2015 with the corpse of Peyton Manning and I’m still not entirely sure how it happened. (Manning threw 17 picks that season to just nine touchdowns and went 7-2 in the regular season. The Broncos won the Super Bowl with the third-best quarterback of all-time tossing just two TDs in the playoffs. Just amazing.) Then, as a hat-tip to Elway, Peyton went out on top and retired. Brock Osweiler signed an outrageous contract with the Houston Texans, the team drafted Paxton Lynch and Definitely Not Matt Saracen Trevor Siemian did his best for a year-and-a-half, man.
Needless to say, the Broncos have not rebounded well following their Super Bowl run built around the league’s top defense. While the team tried address the quarterback issue, the defense started to slip. In 2015 and 2016, the Broncos were first in defensive DVOA, but in 2017, that number fell to 10th. Top defenses don’t stay on top for long, but top quarterbacks stay top quarterbacks for seemingly forever.
Jacksonville found this out the hard way in 2018. Their defense was first in defensive DVOA in 2017, but that number slipped to sixth in 2018. The Minnesota Vikings, like the Jags, found lighting in a bottle with a mid-tier-at-best QB in Case Keenum a year ago, but that top defense slipped and their new mid-tier-at-best QB Kirk Cousins wasn’t able to circumvent a bad offensive line and a slightly worse defense to get the Vikings back to where they were a season ago -- one game away from the Super Bowl. (Creepy how sports works sometimes, right?) The Jags defense wasn’t responsible for the team going 5-11 this season, nor was it Leonard Fournette's body language nor was it Jalen Ramsey’s trash-talking, it was Blake Bortles being really bad at his job. Having an elite defense is nice, but having an elite quarterback is nicer. Unfortunately, there aren’t 32 elite quarterbacks readily available so teams talk themselves into the Andy Dalton's and Kirk Cousins of the world because the rest of the roster is talented and deep enough to make a Super Bowl run. The Jags paid Bortles because the Jags thought they could win despite Bortles. This is bad team-building ideology, and, unsurprisingly, it backfired on Jacksonville in 2018.
You can understand why Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell operated in a similar way to Elway in recent years. For Caldwell, Bortles was his quarterback pick, and he bet on his guy still being good enough when he had a clean pocket and a scheme that didn’t ask him to do too much. For Coughlin and Elway, they just want to win. Now. They’ve won Super Bowls and they would like to win more. That means having a veteran quarterback, not an unproven rookie. They know when you miss on a first-round QB, it takes years to recover. (Usually with a new front office and coaching staff.) It also makes it that much more difficult to take another one. What if you draft Paxton Lynch or Blake Bortles 2.0? What if this defense can carry a QB that PFF grades out in the 20s to at least one Super Bowl run?
Teams do this all the time because drafting and developing and waiting on a young quarterback is hard. The Browns failed miserably by taking Johnny Manziel, but that also led to them performing brilliantly by drafting the next superstar quarterback in Baker Mayfield. You don’t get Mayfield without Manziel. Kyrie Irving doesn’t make The Shot without missing a thousand more. The Browns took another swing in the draft while also trading for a mid-tier quarterback in Tyrod Taylor.
What John Dorsey did in Cleveland is what Coughlin and Elway should do in Jacksonville and Denver. Keep taking that bat off your shoulder. Then, instead of Taven Bryan you have Lamar Jackson. Then, instead of Bradley Chubb you have Josh Rosen. With Bryan and Chubb you have depth, with Jackson and Rosen you have hope. Exactly zero football fans are going to be mad their team for drafting more quarterbacks.
But that was the 2018 NFL Draft, a draft loaded with quality quarterback talent. The 2019 NFL Draft, not so much. So it should come as no surprise that the teams run by two guys dying to win now with top-10 defenses are once again going to try and address their atrocious quarterback situation through free agency.
Nick Foles in Jacksonville.
Joe Flacco in Denver.
It already feels inevitable, doesn’t it? John DeFilippo, Foles’ former QB coach in Philadelphia, is running the offense in Jacksonville. Jacoby Jones, the wide receiver who ripped the hearts out of Denver those years ago, is not in the Mile High City, but Elway was in the press box for the Mile High Miracle.
Both of these moves would be fine, but only if it means they’re not done. A Keenum/Flacco quarterback room is nice, but a Keenum/Flacco/Haskins room is nicer. A Foles/DeFillipo duo is good, but a Foles/DeFillipo/Grier trio is better. Signing a mid-tier quarterback is fine, but you cannot stop there. Or you end up like Washington who started a guy named Josh Johnson down the stretch this season. Or you end up like Cincy who started Jeff freaking Driskell in 2018. Or you end up like the Dolphins who make the playoffs if Ryan Tannehill doesn’t miss multiple games again. You can never have too many quarterbacks, which is why smart teams like Chris Ballard’s Indianapolis Colts will only give up Jacoby Brissett for a hefty return. It’s why the Pats drafted Jimmy G when they still had Brady. It’s why the Chiefs traded up for Mahomes when they had Alex Smith. Signing one quarterback is cool, but draft a quarterback is cooler.
But that doesn’t seem to be in either team’s DNA.
Missing on Bortles and Lynch while also building a perfect defense hurts. So, instead of trying again, the Jaguars will sign Foles, and hope they can get rekindle their 2017 glory of almost winning the AFC with the worst quarterback in the playoffs. Instead of trying again, the Broncos will sign Flacco, and hope they can rekindle their 2015 glory of winning the Super Bowl with the worst quarterback in the playoffs. Elway and Coughlin know how to go about this -- invest in the defense, invest in your backfield, and invest in literally every other area besides the quarterback position. We have seen this movie before and we know how it ends -- the Jags and the Broncos right back in this position next year. No more magical runs back to the promise land, just more kicking the can down the road. Denver and Jacksonville, they’re one in the same.