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NFL: In A League With Major QB Problems, Why Do Quarterbacks Rarely Change Teams?

It’s a warm night in Southern California. Jay Cutler is fighting for a playoff berth in a matchup against the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers are up 3-0, but Cutler leads his team down the field and his team breaks off a 26 yard TD run. But it all goes downhill from there.

 (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

That night of December 28th, 2008, Jay Cutler’s Broncos fell to the Chargers 52-21, capping off a 3 game losing streak that saw them fall out of first place in the AFC West, a game that would be fateful in Cutler’s future with the Broncos.

Denver was in for quite the change of personnel that offseason. Their coach, Mike Shanahan, was fired, and they shipped off Cutler, their starting quarterback, to the Chicago Bears for Kyle Orton and a handful of picks – a rare quarterback trade in the NFL.

Peyton Manning, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Josh McCown, Nick Foles, Sam Bradford, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Cutler are the only current starting quarterbacks to have ever played more than 16 games for a team other than their current club.

Of those, two were massive free agent signings (Brees and Manning) after being cornerstones of their previous teams many years ago.

Three of those were results of rebuilding projects, with teams trading current valuables for future picks and / or younger, higher upside prospects – Smith, Palmer, and Cutler.

Of the four remaining, two were traded for each other (Bradford and Foles) after scheme fits and impatience boiled over, and two are career journeymen (McCown and Fitzpatrick). McCown has started for 6 different teams over his 13 season career. Fitzpatrick has been “The Guy” for a few teams in his career and then busted, but he has proven to be a big time performer in the regular season.

So why is it that in today’s NFL, so few QBs switch teams?

Well, it isn’t that any quarterbacks of them switch teams. Its that none of the good ones really do.

20 0f the 32 franchises in the league drafted or acquired their starting quarterback on draft day. A new sense of loyalty to young prospects in the NFL has seen much longer trials for rookie and sophomore quarterbacks than there used to be.

“Rebuilding” is now the cool thing to do when your team is winning 6 or less games a year, and a main part of that is drafting some college gunslinger to manage your offense.

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports
Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

The Jaguars, Raiders, Texans, Titans, Jets, Bills and Buccaneers, and perhaps the Vikings, have all had quarterback woes over the past 5 or so seasons. Now, however, the Raiders, Jags, Bucs, Titans, and Vikings all have answers at quarterback that they have either drafted this past draft or the year before.

The Texans and Bills are two completely opposite cases of the same situation. The Texans signed Brian Hoyer this offseason, who had a very bipolar year with the Browns last season. He hasn’t panned out, but the season is still young. His competitor, Ryan Mallett, has spent time behind Tom Brady, but you wouldn’t think so if you watched him play. Neither are long term answers at QB for the team, and as the Texans scrape out another 4 or 5 win season, drafting a franchise QB will rise on the franchises’ priority list.

The Bills, on the otherhand, have found an answer at QB. Tyrod Taylor, the speedster who reminds me of a young Michael Vick,  has impressed in his new home. He sat behind Joe Flacco for 4 years after being drafted by the Ravens in the 6th round of the 2008 draft out of Virginia Tech. The Bills signed him in the offseason, and the experiment has worked out, with Taylor tossing for 1100 yards and 9 TDs, and rushing for another two, over the first 5 games of the season.

That leaves the Jets. Oh, the odd, odd Jets. They are rolling right now, with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and his beard leading the team to a surprising 4-1 start. But man, nobody has had worse quarterback play in the last few years than the Jets. The Mark Sanchez heydays were impressive, with back to back trips to the AFC championship in 2008 and 2009. But after that, things went downhill. Kellen Clemens, Mark Brunell, Tim Tebow, Greg McElroy, Geno Smith,  and Mike Vick. All those players, and a few more, have played QB for the Jets since 2010. They haven’t made the playoffs since.

Now, that could change this year if they keep their great play up, but everyone knows Ryan Fitzpatrick is not a long term answer at the position.

So that raises the question again. Why do no good quarterbacks switch teams anymore? And how does a team in need of a quarterback acquire one without tanking for a draft pick?

Lets address the first question. I would say the main reason good quarterbacks stay put is teams are scared. Teams are scared of letting go of any quarterback who has shown flashes of success and hitting the reset button. This is because there is no good answer to the second question – unless you tank for a high draft pick, there is no other way to acquire talent at the quarterback position.


So when a guy like Ryan Tannehill puts up 4,000 yards, 27 TDs, and 12 INTs, misses the playoffs, and still gets a contract worth $77 million with $45 million of that guaranteed, it makes sense. Not because Tannehill is the next big thing and is going to lead the Dolphins to $77 million worth of success and Super Bowls, but because if they let Tannehill go and search for an alternative option, one who could lead them to the playoffs, then they start from scratch.

The quarterback position is the most vital in all of sports. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with an amateur at quarterback. Similar positions in other sports, like pitchers in baseball or point guards in basketball, are often treated with the same magnitude of importance, but also are dealt like their peers in trades or let go of in free agency. That is because there is a surplus of serviceable point guards in the NBA, and a rotating door of aces and young prospects in the MLB to replace previous stars with.

In the NFL, however, teams are not as fortunate. There are not guys on the trading block worthy of starting, and there aren’t free agents able to come in, learn the system, and change to direction of a season. So in the NFL, the quarterback position is often you get what you get, and you have what you have.

Sometimes you do see a blockbuster trade, like Alex Smith to the Chiefs or Jay Cutler to the Bears, that sees a capable starter take over a new team. But most often, you will see a team drag out a disastrous season with a rotating door of amatuers at quarterback, or teams finish their mediocre seasons with mediocre quarterbacks who have flashed signs of brilliance, and proceed to give those mediocres tens of millions of dollars.

Photo via
Photo via

There are just nine elite quarterbacks in the NFL (in no particular order). Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck,Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning (declining swiftly, I must remind you), Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, and Ben Roethlisberger.

These are the guys who can win games with a terrible offensive line, or a lack of running game, or piss-poor receivers, or a crabby defense.

These are the guys who deserve the millions on millions of dollars they are getting paid.

But lets take a look at some of the non-elite players making wads of cash well beyond their on-field performance:

Eli Manning: (Yes, he has two Super Bowls and can win games. But he isnt worth…)  $84 million over 4 years, $65 million guaranteed.

Phillip Rivers: $84 million over 4 years, $65 million guaranteed.

Alex Smith: 4 years, $64 million, $45 million guaranteed.

Matthew Stafford: 3 years, $53 million, $41.5 guaranteed.

Colin Kaepernick: 6 years, $114 million, $61 million guaranteed.

All of these players are talented, yes. But how many playoff wins do they have? How many times have their teams been perenniel contenders?

Kaepernick’s, Smith’s, and Stafford’s teams are bottomfeeders right now. Rivers’ and Manning’s teams are both alive in their divisions, but they don’t necessarily shoot fear into the heart of opposing defenses.

The answer to the main question of ‘Why do no good quarterbacks switch teams anymore?’ is simple. Teams are fearful of what will happen if they don’t resign these mediocre players to contracts, and since the availability of talent at the position is so small, it allows these guys to capitalize on a few good performances and turn them into these massive contracts and life long fortunes.

Its a classic case of supply and demand, and the quarterbacks receiving these contracts are happy to accept these big deals and stay put instead of pursuing more success elsewhere. It makes sense, as you never know when a hulking defensive lineman is going to collapse the pocket and your knee may be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So that addresses the first question. But what about the second, ‘how does a team in need of a quarterback acquire one without tanking for a draft pick?’

There really isn’t an answer here. Unless college football changes its ways and takes the emphasis off of spread offenses and focuses more on a gun-run offense, the amount of quarterbacks coming out of college that are worthy of an NFL tryout will remain somewhere between 3-9.

There aren’t any European leagues with talent to turn to like there is for NBA squads, and there aren’t any minor league teams to harvest players from like the MLB.

So the NFL is stuck in a indefinite era of quarterback-deficiency. But maybe that isn’t so bad.

The NFL is the league with the most parity in all of sports, and the lack of capable game managers has a lot to do with that. If every team had a franchise quarterback like Cam Newton or Andrew Luck, it would weaken the power and importance of an elite quarterback.

Overall, the NFL is a complicated league, with players, like Tyrod Taylor, coming out of nowhere and grabbing the horns of a franchise, and players like Blaine Gabbert, showing promise in college and busting in the big league. But the quarterback deficiency is here to stay, and there isn’t anyway around it.

So look forward to more mega-contracts for not-so-mega players in the coming years until something breaks the cycle, because nothing is changing soon.

Contract information via Spotrac. 

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