There might not be a position in sports more romanticized than the starting quarterback of an NFL team. If a team wins, it’s because of their quarterback. If a team loses, it’s because of their quarterback. The 2000 Ravens had an elite defense, a Hall of Fame tight end, and a rookie tailback experiencing a breakout season, but the one thing people constantly talk about is how “Trent Dilfer is the worst quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl.”
The most common criticism of a quarterback experiencing a modicum of success is that they’re simply a product of their system. If you name a great quarterback, someone, somewhere has called them a system QB. So let’s take a closer look at the worst thing a quarterback can be called.
Breaking Down the “System QB” Argument
So, What is a System Quarterback?
In order to properly tackle this controversial subject, I had to nail down what a system quarterback was supposed to be. So I went all over the web, from the nightmare that is Reddit to ol’ reliable, Wikipedia. This is what I found.
A system quarterback is a quarterback that “flourishes under a particular offensive system, specifically one that focuses on passing” and “is perceived to be successful but not extraordinarily talented.” The term was born to diminish the statistical achievements of quarterback prospects running the pass-happy spread in college, specifically University of Houston products, Andre Ware and David Klinger, who put up big numbers in college but struggled in the pros.
So right off the bat, this argument isn’t completely applicable to the NFL, because the term was invented for draft prospects. But there’s no denying that certain players only benefit from being used a specific way in a specific system. Nnamdi Asomugha was a stud corner in Oakland, but failed to conform to Philadelphia’s scheme and struggled. That didn’t make Nnamdi a bad player, just one that had a skillset better suited for certain schemes.
But nobody’s calling Nnamdi Asomugha one of the best cornerbacks of all time, are they? If we’re debating Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, and one quarterback was only a beneficiary of his scheme, that’s a pretty big debate point, so let’s break down which professional quarterbacks were guys strictly defined by their schemes.
The System Quarterbacks
The Read Option Quarterbacks
Not too long ago, there was actually an offensive trend that called for a very specific kind of system quarterback. Somewhere between the Miami Dolphins running the Wildcat and Kyler Murray going first overall in the draft, option quarterbacks became a hip trend. The Denver Broncos had Tim Tebow, the Tennessee Titans had Jake Locker, the San Francisco 49ers had Colin Kaepernick, and the Washington Redskins had Robert Griffin III.
How It Worked
A read option quarterback is a great idea in theory because it cuts down on negative players and transforms them into small gains. Ideally, the quarterback lines up in a standard offensive set, playing with at least one tailback and several receiving options. The quarterback snaps the ball, and quickly reads the defense. Depending on the look he gets, he either hands the ball off or keeps it himself. Once he’s kept it for himself, he has two or three quick reads. If none of those guys are open, he keeps the ball himself and runs.
This means fewer forced passes, which means fewer interceptions, and on a play that might’ve just been incomplete otherwise, the team gets a positive gain. Not to mention, the brief defensive hesitation while the quarterback decides whether or not he wants to keep the ball could potentially lead to a broken play. We see trace elements of this offensive philosophy in 2017’s trendy “RPO” gimmick.
Why It Doesn’t Work
The problem, of course, is that defenses evolve faster than offenses. By implementing a spy and enforcing simple accountability on defensive assignments, the gimmick inevitably gave up fewer and fewer yards and big plays. Not to mention, the typically undersized quarterbacks were getting hit more than they would’ve otherwise, resulting in injuries. In 2019, only one of the previously mentioned quarterbacks is still on a NFL roster.
You’d think that would be enough to dissuade people, but not only do these quarterbacks still exist, but two were taken in the first round in 2018. Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson are run-first quarterbacks, and neither guy astonished as passers last year, failing to post better than a 58.2 completion percentage. To this point, neither quarterback has proven to be more than just an option guy, so both could tentatively be described as system quarterbacks.
The Check Down Artists
God bless the Captain Checkdowns of the NFL. These quarterbacks rarely throw it down the field, but instead opt to throw it slot receivers and tailbacks, usually only three or four yards past the line of scrimmage, and allow them to pick up the yards for them. This plan works for a lot of the same reasons that the read option does.
Why It Works
Firstly, short passes are simply easier. A pass is far less likely to be incomplete or intercepted if there’s less space between the quarterback and his intended receiver. Fewer incomplete passes with nearly guaranteed yardage? Not to mention, someone could break off a huge gain with yards after the catch, and guess who still gets the credit for passing yards? That’s right, the quarterback.
A few quarterbacks that get this title are Oakland’s Derek Carr, who has a mediocre 6.7 yards per attempt through five years with the Raiders. Nobody will ever confuse New Orleans’ Drew Brees for having a big arm as he throws short passes in the Saints’ spread offense. And you can’t watch a Patriots game without being annoyed by just how often Tom Brady checks down to the likes of Julian Edelman or James White.
Why It Doesn’t Work
It doesn’t take a great athlete or even someone with a great mind for the game to play small-ball, though it helps. However, if teams realize your quarterback isn’t going to throw it deep, they’re more likely to just keep their defensive backs and linebackers at home, minimizing the yards after catch and essentially daring opposing quarterbacks to go deep, which not all of them are capable of doing.
The Gimmick Big Play Offensive Quarterback
If you watched Kansas City play football last year, you were witness to Patrick Mahomes’ explosive debut season as the Chief’s starting quarterback. By implementing Mahomes’ cannon of an arm and speedy receivers like Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Chris Conley, along side arguably the NFL’s best tight end in Travis Kelce, the Chiefs were a big play factory.
As the Cleveland Browns season went on, we saw something similar happening for Baker Mayfield. He made some big throws last season that could only be described a poetic. And now he’s got Odell Beckham Jr. to launch it to?
Why It Works
Mahomes and Mayfield coan make pretty much any pass, from any position on the field and not lose accuracy or velocity. Throwing it deep to someone like Tyreek Hill , who could outrun just about everyone, or Odell Beckham, who can’t be covered one-on-one, is a great risk to take. If you’re bigger or faster than everyone else, exploit your physical dominance and score more points in a hurry.
Why It Doesn’t Work
The defenders in the NFL are pretty fast and strong too. Throwing the ball deep means more risks and potential to be intercepted or for the passes to simply fall incomplete. If your defense gives up a long scoring drive, and then you go deep three plays in a row and put them right back on the field, you’re going to be in trouble.
Here’s where my long winded rant gets fun. Because I’ve broken down a few unique circumstances where the scheme necessitated a certain kind of quarterback. I looked at guys like Colin Kaepernick and Josh Allen and questioned if they could play in other offenses. But here’s a fun thing. Let’s gather up the usual suspects of “greatest quarterbacks ever.”
I don’t think I’d offend anyone by saying Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, and Dan Marino all end up in that conversation pretty consistently. Would you trust any of them as true read-option quarterbacks? I’m not talking about what the Broncos did with the Pistol in 2013 or what the RPO is right now, I’m talking about play-action-quick-read-scramble. Would you trust 4.8 40 Dan Marino to run the ball 13 times a game? No.
It’s almost like every single head coach and offensive coordinator in the NFL is trying to accomplish the same goal, score points, but they’re going about it in different ways. Some guys like to air the ball out and score on huge chunk plays, some guys like to grind the clock and win through efficiency. Some guys just take what the defense gives them and try to avoid big mistakes. Different offenses don’t create quarterbacks with specific skill sets, they require them.
Money Talks… Duh
This idea that there’s a magic formula that Sean Payton, Bill Belichick, or Tom Moore figured out 15 years ago and have been using to elevate mediocre quarterbacks to legendary status is silly, and frankly, lazy. If Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees were system quarterbacks, and their coaches could get similar production out of just about anyone, why wouldn’t they?
Why continue to make someone that is strictly a product of your coaching a super-millionaire when you could get Joe Blow off the street and use that money to build a super team? Because they don’t know their player is a system quarterback, but you do? They wouldn’t replace their overpaid quarterbacks because believe it or not, they have a mental understanding of not just the offense, but the game of football, and physically are capable of making the throws (or runs) you need them to when it matters.
So please stop complaining about how Tyreek Hill stretching the field makes Patrick Mahomes’ job easier or that Tom Brady checks down too much. Stop pretending that Teddy Bridgewater could come in tomorrow and throw for 5,000 yards in Sean Payton’s offense. Stop using this tired, lazy, uninformed, and frankly, immature argument to put down a quarterback you don’t like, in all reality, because they beat your team or make your quarterback look inadequate.
Or hey, just tell your head coach to run the magical system that creates Hall of Famers.