The Visible Secret to Finding a Super Bowl Quarterback

Sep 20, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass against the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In professional football, there is one constant. In order to win consistently, a team must have widespread talent. In the last fifteen years of Super Bowls, what do 13 of the 15 winning teams have in common? They drafted the winning quarterback to their team, as a rookie. Where some could argue that the build-versus- buy debate is irrelevant, another might contest that one additional factor becomes critical – the league salary cap. In today’s era of a working budget, the reality is this — a free agent quarterback is just too expensive, in most cases, to build a winning team around.

Free Agent Exceptions

Examine the two examples of quarterbacks that were not drafted. Enter two Hall of Fame level talents — Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. What do these two have in common? Both joined new teams after suffering what could have been a career-ending injury. Peyton took the Broncos to the Super Bowl in his second year with that team, whereas Brees took the saints in his third year with the Saints. As if either of these quarterbacks need additional validation for their careers, both had immediate and lasting impacts on their team performance. Peyton took an 8-8 franchise to win no less than 12 games for the next four years. Brees did similar by helping to turn a 3-13 team to a 10-6 team in the first year he was with them.

Free Agency is Not Ideal for QBs and Super Bowls

Aside from perfect timing that involves the pairing of an emerging team and Hall-of-Fame caliber talent, there are no examples in the previous 15 years that showcases a free agent quarterback taking a new team to the super bowl. That is astonishing. And why is that? These trends are not an accident or statistical anomaly.

First, in most years, it is rare to have any single playoff-caliber team lose their quarterback to free agency. When it does happen, most front office executives join the quarterback in the search for a new job. So, for starters, there are typically not many opportunities to upgrade a quarterback through free agency.

The second [and most important aspect] that limits the success of free-agent acquisitions is simple – salary cap limitations. When a team pays for a proven quarterback, they severely limit their budget for other key roles. On most teams, there will be three or four players on each side of the ball who demand Pro-Bowl level payment for their respective skill sets. When a team buys a quarterback in free agency, they have to sacrifice somewhere. That results in such talent loss that the team is no longer competing at the elite levels needed to win consistently. If a team (the Minnesota Vikings, for instance) acquires a quarterback in free agency, and is not immediately running deep into the playoffs, the recent trends at super bowl winners do not favor the move.

Ergo, thirteen of fifteen teams winning the super bowl drafted their quarterback, and one team drafted both the regular season and super bowl quarterback (Philadelphia with Wentz and Foles). Why is this significant? Rather than pay $27M a year for a franchise tag quarterback, teams are paying $27-$35M over the four years of that rookie deal. That additional budget leaves considerable room to build the key talent needed to succeed! Gone are the days when untested rookies could negotiate for a ransom to get them out of their college uniform. Instead, these caps have allowed teams – smart teams — to build a franchise around their key players.

The Patriot Blueprint

Obviously, a general manager has to pick the best talent. We all know that every team in the NFL passed on Tom Brady multiple times before he finally landed in New England. In fact, there were six quarterbacks selected before Brady. One could argue that New England knew something ahead of league rules managing rookie contracts (not necesarily cheating scandals). To build a quality team on value, the franchise can splurge on critical needs in the free agency. New England carried this philosophy to multiple titles in the early 2000s. And that’s ahead of several other owners like Daniel Snyder or Jerry Jones — who seemed to stick with the concept that they could just buy their way into a championship. One method works, the other just lands the team in a constant state of resentment from the fan base.

The Science is There. But It is Not Exact.

So draft a quarterback, and win, right? Not so fast. For every super bowl MVP like Patrick Mahomes, there are three or four Johnny Manzels, Jamarcus Russells or Ryan Leafs. These players who flopped at the professional level were top-tier and accomplished college athletes. The level of dedication needed to succeed at this professional level is usually overwhelming — even to the most dedicated and hard-working college athletes.

As the fans of 30 other teams prepare to enjoy the Super Bowl, perhaps this small trend analysis of recent winners can help provide a little explanation. Teams happily surrender so many future draft picks in order to acquire their franchise quarterback at a reasonable salary cap value. It is the recipe that so many have used to win their super bowl, perhaps your team could be next.

Find your quarterback via the draft.