In 2004, the Washington Redskins gave a seven-year, $43 million contract to a quarterback described by one unnamed AFC general manager as “on his last legs.” The next year, late in the first round of the NFL draft, Washington took his heir apparent.
It was business as usual in the league. For as long as there have been significant financial investments in the most important position in football, there have been backup plans. And while Mark Brunell’s much-criticized trade and Jason Campbell’s much-heralded arrival in Washington shortly thereafter have only faint echoes in Baltimore, where the Ravens are grooming Lamar Jackson to one day succeed longtime starter Joe Flacco, the Redskins’ turbulent transition underscores at once the difficulty and importance of securing a peaceful transition of power.
In both Brunell’s entrance and in his exit, Washington proved incapable. During a disappointing 2004, until a hamstring injury proved too debilitating, the former Jacksonville Jaguars star started over Patrick Ramsey, a first-round pick himself two years before. The next season, Brunell, now healthy, led the Redskins to a 10-6 record and the divisional round of the playoffs, their first postseason appearance since 1999.
“There was no question that Mark was our starter that season,” said former Redskins safety Matt Bowen, now an NFL analyst for ESPN.
But then, quickly, he wasn’t. In 2006, Brunell turned 36. His quarterback rating improved. The team’s record did not, and Campbell, the latest first-round pick, started the final seven games of the season. Brunell never again played for the Redskins, who cycled through five starting quarterbacks, three coaches and two team executives over the next five seasons, making the playoffs just once.
Even through the Ravens’ recent downturn, team brass has remained as entrenched as Old Bay on Baltimore restaurant tables. Steve Bisciotti is still the owner. John Harbaugh is entering his 11th season as head coach. Longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome’s right-hand man, Eric DeCosta, already has been named his successor. Age is just a line in their team biographies.
For the 33-year-old Flacco, who has started all 16 games in every season but one since 2008, it is a consideration. He has averaged about 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions since his age-30 season, closer to Brunell than Tom Brady, and the Ravens are 40-40 since he was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLVII, a record incommensurate with his enormous contract.
When Jackson was taken No. 32 overall in the draft this year, Newsome acknowledged they were “building for the future” with the Heisman Trophy winner. But, he added, “In order for us to win this year, we need Joe Flacco.” The question that could define the franchise’s next decade is simple: for how much longer?
“Without question, Joe's going, 'Yeah, I'm a Super Bowl quarterback. I showed you what I can do and what I'm capable of,' ” Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner said recently. “And I think the Ravens, by drafting [Jackson], aren't necessarily saying he's not. But they're just saying we haven't seen that guy in a couple of years, so we have to start playing this to wonder, 'Was that just a great Super Bowl run that we had with a great team? Or are we going to get a quarterback that can carry us to some more Super Bowls?’ ”
Top quarterback picks are like lottery scratch-offs: You don’t get one just not to play it. Since 2000, 11 other NFL teams have added a first-round quarterback to a depth chart with a seemingly sure-thing QB1. None of the veterans’ reigns lasted longer than three years.
The list of hits and misses at the position is not so much a history lesson as a reminder that the fortune-telling ability of NFL decision-makers is sometimes no different from tarot card readers’:
- In 2001, the Green Bay Packers signed Brett Favre to a 10-year, $101.5 million contract. In 2005, they drafted Aaron Rodgers No. 24 overall. After Favre’s retirement in 2008, Rodgers took over full time.
- In 2003, the Denver Broncos signed Jake Plummer to a seven-year, $40 million contract. In 2006, they drafted Jay Cutler No. 11 overall. He took over full time the following season.
- In 2006, the Arizona Cardinals signed Warner to a three-year contract worth up to $24 million. They drafted Matt Leinart No. 10 overall later that year. Leinart started 11 games in 2006 before ceding the job the following year to Warner, who led the 2008 team to the Super Bowl.
- In 2017, the Chicago Bears signed Mike Glennon to a three-year, $44 million contract. One month later, they drafted Mitch Trubisky No. 2 overall. He took over full time in early October.
“Anytime a team goes out and grabs a quarterback when you think you're entrenched as a starter, it's never a really comfortable situation,” Warner said. “You never want that to be the case. But I think, at the same time, you always have to be realistic about the business. And you have to understand that every team is always trying to find the next guy. It doesn't mean you're not the guy right now, but they're always trying to find the next guy, and that's their due diligence.”
For now, Flacco and Jackson will occupy separate strata, the starter performing publicly, his backup working privately. It is a win-win arrangement: Flacco was by far the team’s best quarterback through training camp, and Jackson still has much to learn. He played in a pro-style system at Louisville, but the NFL’s verbiage and speed, he has said, are unlike anything he encountered in college.
Help is available. In quarterbacks coach James Urban, Jackson has a mentor whom Michael Vick has called “the biggest key in my career.” In the Ravens defense, he will have a take-no-prisoners unit opposite him in practice each week. Even some of the team’s offensive concepts overlap with those Jackson studied as a Cardinals starter.
But the best way to improve at quarterback, Bowen said recently, is to play quarterback, to review film of your own throws, not the starter’s. During his playing days, Bowen would often get over a dozen special teams repetitions each game. They honed the skills he’d need on defense at safety. “As a quarterback, you don't get those opportunities,” he said, which makes practice all the more important.
Development there can be a challenge, too. During a game week, Bowen said, the coaches’ focus is on preparing the team’s starters for game day. Backups can sense that attention. They might divert their own elsewhere.
“Sometimes you can lose some focus,” he said. “Sometimes your technique slides a little bit. It's on those young quarterbacks to say, 'Look, these are vital reps for me. If I'm not going to get many reps in a game on Sunday, these are the vital reps for me to improve my craft.' ”
The irony of the Ravens’ future under center is that the longer Flacco is successful, the easier it might be for the team to manage life without him. The Ravens would take a substantial salary cap hit of $16 million in dead money if they decided to release him next year, but only $8 million if they held off until 2020.
At that point, Jackson would be entering his third season in the organization. Because he’s a first-round pick, the Ravens have the option of retaining him for five years rather than the standard four. A lengthy, team-friendly rookie quarterback deal is among the most valuable assets in the NFL; Bowen said it “buys you a window.”
In Philadelphia, the Eagles are celebrating a Super Bowl won with relatively little of their budget committed to quarterbacks. In Los Angeles, the Rams have capitalized on Jared Goff’s rookie contract by signing Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald to megadeals. Even in Chicago, where Trubisky’s ability is an open question, the Bears could afford to invest in weapons around him, adding Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel this offseason.
The broad strokes of the Ravens’ succession picture — capable starting quarterback, work-in-progress backup, a defense that can keep the team afloat — are “perfect,” Warner said. But Jackson is in Baltimore for a simple reason. The Ravens are already looking for “the next guy,” Warner said, and it might be him. Sooner than later.
“I think that the NFL is 100 percent the business of winning,” Bowen said. “That's what it is, the business of winning. And if I was Coach Harbaugh and Joe Flacco asked me a question about drafting a young quarterback, I would say, 'Produce and you're the guy. Produce and the young kid doesn't play. If you don't produce, then we make a change. It's as simple as that.'
“If the production isn't there, then we drafted a younger player for a reason.”
Quarterbacks who haven't had to wait long to be drafted also haven't had to spend much time on the bench. Over the past 10 years, just one first-rounder made his first career start under center after his rookie year.
Player; Team; Draft slot and year; First start
Mitch Trubisky; Bears; No. 2, 2017; Week 5, 2017
Patrick Mahomes; Chiefs; No. 10, 2017; Week 17, 2017
Deshaun Watson; Texans; No. 12, 2017; Week 2, 2017
Jared Goff; Rams; No. 1, 2016; Week 11, 2016
Carson Wentz; Eagles; No. 2, 2016; Week 1, 2016
Paxton Lynch; Broncos; No. 26, 2016; Week 5, 2016
Jameis Winston; Buccaneers; No. 1, 2015; Week 1, 2015
Marcus Mariota; Titans; No. 2, 2015; Week 1, 2015
Blake Bortles; Jaguars; No. 3, 2014; Week 4, 2014
Johnny Manziel; Browns; No. 22, 2014; Week 15, 2014
Teddy Bridgewater; Vikings; No. 32, 2014; Week 4, 2014
EJ Manuel; Bills; No. 16, 2013; Week 1, 2013
Andrew Luck; Colts; No. 1, 2012; Week 1, 2012
Robert Griffin III; Redskins; No. 2, 2012; Week 1, 2012
Ryan Tannehill; Dolphins; No. 8, 2012; Week 1, 2012
Brandon Weeden; Browns; No. 22, 2012; Week 1, 2012
Cam Newton; Panthers; No. 1, 2011; Week 1, 2011
Jake Locker; Titans; No. 8, 2011; Game 1, 2012
Blaine Gabbert; Jaguars; No. 10, 2011; Week 3, 2011
Christian Ponder; Vikings; No. 12, 2011; Week 7, 2011
Sam Bradford; Rams; No. 1, 2010; Week 1, 2010
Tim Tebow; Broncos; No. 25, 2010; Week 15, 2010
Matthew Stafford; Lions; No. 1, 2009; Week 1, 2009
Mark Sanchez; Jets; No. 5, 2009; Week 1, 2009
Josh Freeman; Buccaneers; No. 17, 2009; Week 9, 2009
Matt Ryan; Falcons; No. 3, 2008; Week 1, 2008
Joe Flacco; Ravens; No. 18, 2008; Week 1, 2008