The quarterback is the most important position in all of football and, in all likelihood, in all of major professional sports. No other player is responsible for more of the cerebral part of the game, no other player takes as much blame for losses, and no other player gets as much credit for wins as the quarterback.
This is not to say that QB Winz is a valid stat. After all, the quarterback is not the only reason why a team is victorious or not — an atrocious offensive line can get him out of his comfort zone while a terrible defense can lead to losses when a quarterback plays well enough that, in a vacuum, you would think that his team would get a win.
Still, having an excellent quarterback situation — namely a starter who combines high-level ability with availability — is essential in today’s NFL. With that in mind, the NFC North is perhaps the clearest example of seeing a hierarchy of teams defined by the stability and talent level at that position. Let’s dig into this a little further.
Packers: Aaron Rodgers
Naturally, the Green Bay Packers are the class of the division, having won it a year ago and now leading the Detroit Lions by a game after five weeks. Underscoring their stranglehold on the NFC North is the fact that they have won the division six of the last seven years.
The biggest reason for that is, of course, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has the same number of MVP awards, two, as the rest of the quarterbacks in the division have Pro Bowl appearances — combined. A year after leading the NFL in touchdown passes, he is doing so once again so far this young season and he is doing so with an increased completion percentage over last year and with nearly an identical passer rating.
Enough said about Rodgers. Let’s move on to the other teams in the North.
Lions: Matthew Stafford
Of the other three teams in the division, there is no debate that the Lions have the most stable quarterback situation at present, and that they have the best remaining player at the position in the division. Teddy Bridgewater may have given him a run for his money had his knee not exploded a year ago, but it did and here we are.
Still, Stafford has been pretty good this season so far, throwing just one interception on the year. What is notable is that he set a career-low in interception percentage a year ago and has quietly put together two straight seasons with a passer rating over 90 (and is on pace for the best season in that category in his career). Stafford is certainly a significant reason why the Lions have a winning record, as he has become a quaterback who both avoids putting his team in bad situations while also making the throws that a signal-caller must make to give them a chance to win.
Vikings: the Bridgewater Aftermath
As mentioned above, if Bridgewater’s knee remained in one piece this would be a much closer discussion for the second and third spots in the division. What they have done over the past year-plus with his replacement, Sam Bradford, shows the upper limit on the success that an organization can have with a low-ceiling, injury-prone starter leading an offense.
In 2016, Bradford was practically the definition of a game manager. He rarely threw the football deep, instead primarily throwing short passes that had a high likelihood of completion and low risk but also a low likelihood of turning into big plays. He may have set the NFL record for completion percentage in a season at 71.6%, but he finished with a lower yards-per-attempt than either Stafford or Rodgers, despite those two being more than five percentage points lower on their completion rate.
Furthermore, this season has seen Bradford’s injury issues rear their ugly heads again, as he went down with a knee injury after one game and has played just once — and looked tentative and terrible while doing so.
The Vikings at least signed veteran backup Case Keenum to a cheap contract ($2 million total), knowing that they needed some level of insurance for Bradford. That’s far better than what the final team on the list did in free agency this year. But for now this team’s ceiling looks to be a .500 team until Bridgewater can return to give them some semblance of continuity and better potential.
Bears: the Mike Glennon fiasco
What the Bears did this offseason is perhaps the biggest data point in favor of moving the NFL Draft to before free agency or moving free agency to after the Draft. First, they signed Geoffrey the Giraffe look-alike Mike Glennon to an absurd three-year, $45 million contract, despite him having not started a game in almost three years. Glennon, he of the career 84.6 passer rating, has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns thus far and is averaging an abysmal 6.0 yards per attempt.
Fast forward six weeks after the Glennon signing to draft day, when the Bears sold off half of this year’s draft class to move up one spot to draft Mitchell Trubisky, a player who started just 13 collegiate games.
If GM Ryan Pace had even an inkling that he would be getting a quarterback in the top five — or that he would even potentially be willing to trade significant draft assets to get him — why in the world would he have shelled out all that money for Glennon? That is some brutal mismanagement of resources, and the Bears have paid the price.
Glennon has been awful as mentioned above, leading to his benching and the start of the Trubisky era on Monday night. The results on the rookie were mixed; he showed some very good mobility and made some good passes on the run, but he also effectively threw the game away with a bad interception late. Those growing pains are to be expected. But the fact that a team committed nearly $20 million in guaranteed money to a guy who played himself into a backup role, then forfeited the chance to cheaply bolster the remainder of the roster with additional draft picks puts them squarely at the bottom of this list.
Trubisky may well pay off for the Bears. There are reasons for the team’s fans to be optimistic about that. But for 2017, the atrocity that is Pace’s handling of the quarterback position should doom them to another year in the NFC North cellar.