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How to Win Without a Quarterback

One of the NFL’s governing principles is “You’re screwed if you don’t have a quarterback.” But why force your subpar signal-caller to do an inadequate Tom Brady impression? Instead, the Jaguars have asked Blake Bortles to do almost nothing. So far, it’s working.

Blake Bortles and Peyton Manning Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. He broke the record for passing touchdowns in a season twice and was essentially the de facto offensive coordinator of some of the greatest offenses ever, but his worst season might’ve been as important as any of his best.

It was accepted wisdom this decade that in order to win a Super Bowl, you needed a quarterback performance that approached Manning’s caliber. Then, in 2015, Manning himself proved that you didn’t.

With nine touchdowns, 17 interceptions, and the 34th-best quarterback rating that season, Manning still managed to quarterback the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl. In an era when quarterbacks are supposed to mean everything, Denver showed that they didn’t have to. A great defense, a good supporting offensive cast, a lot of effective players on cheap contracts, and a solid coaching staff can overcome a subpar signal-caller.

The best team-building strategy in the NFL is still, and always will be, to find a great quarterback who makes his team an instant contender. (Please see the 2016 postseason for more information.) Failing that, however, there’s always the blueprint the Broncos laid out. In 2017, a few teams are giving it a shot. Most notably, the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Despite the presence of Blake Bortles, who has shown himself to be one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL, the Jaguars are 3-2 and, if I can be unscientific for a second, they are fun as hell. They lead the NFL in point differential. Two of their defensive backs—A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey—lead the NFL in lowest completion percentage when targeted. Their defense has as many touchdowns as the entire Miami Dolphins team. Leonard Fournette, the reason their offense is functioning with a bad quarterback, is making NFL defenders look like anyone who ever pissed off John Wick.

Jacksonville’s 30-9 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was the first game in nearly two years in which the winning team attempted fewer than 15 passes. If Bortles has another game in which his team scores 29 or more points and he completes fewer than 12 passes—something he’s done twice already—the Jags will become the first team to accomplish that feat in at least a decade.

For an NFL franchise, quarterback is the hardest and most important problem to solve. The Jaguars’ solution is just to ignore the question and figure out everything else. It’s the football equivalent of riding a bicycle because your car keeps breaking down—it’s not as efficient, but it’s the best you’re gonna do right now. Football is about adaptability, about building a scheme that fits your players—and holding Bortles to the bare minimum of pass attempts does exactly that.

With three wins, they’ve already matched last season’s total and are an enticing division contender—Houston just lost defensive stars J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus for the season. The Titans don’t have Marcus Mariota right now, and the Colts are currently without Andrew Luck. The division is theirs for the taking if the Jags keep this up.

While the Broncos didn’t plan for Manning to fall off a cliff, the Jaguars have been conducting their experiment since Week 1. (The alternative is Chad Henne.) It might not last, but so far, it’s working. This is a test, of sorts, of modern football: Can the Jaguars contend in any meaningful way while minimizing the most important position in sports?

A short, recent history of the passing game: The modern era is the golden age of passing. Eighteen of the top 20 single-season passing totals have occurred in the past decade. This has been helped along by a generation of quarterbacks aging gracefully—Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger among them—in addition to the league putting an emphasis on defensive penalties to allow more passing and a parade of talented skill-position players throughout the league.

The league office always wants to keep scoring up—and the mission was accomplished in that regard. But one side effect of the rule tweaks is that they made a truly good quarterback the cost of entry for competing in the NFL. Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer won Super Bowls in the early 2000s, and the current version of the league is seemingly designed to ensure that never happens again.

The league’s governing principle has been that a good quarterback means a good team and a bad quarterback means a bad team. It’s not necessarily true that the better your quarterback is, the better your team is; rather, teams have just typically needed a baseline of competence behind center in order to have any real success over a full season.

Here are the quarterbacks who’ve played in a conference title game since 2014: Tom Brady (six straight title game appearances), Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson. Do you know what those players have in common? Other than the one Manning season, they were pretty freaking great during those years.

Whenever I think about teams trying to win without a great passer, I think of Ray Farmer, the former general manager of the Cleveland Browns. Farmer spoke to me once about trying to build a team that minimized the impact of the quarterback. If it’s so hard to find a suitable quarterback, then the solution, Farmer surmised, was to try to build a team in which that position matters less than we think it’s supposed to.

That’s a noble thought: If you don’t have something, and it’s nearly impossible to acquire it, the easiest solution is to adapt to life without it. Farmer never got the great quarterback, but he also never built the team that could thrive without one. He was fired in 2016.

I tend to think that this top-heavy generation of quarterbacks created a wave of teams over-reliant on star quarterbacks. The way clubs view it: Either you have one of the greats or you don’t. And if you do, your fortunes rise and fall based on that player’s performance and health. There’s an anecdote in Ron Jaworski’s great book, The Games That Changed the Game, in which Jaworski and Jon Gruden are watching a Colts practice and Gruden asks offensive coordinator Tom Moore why Peyton Manning gets all the practice reps and the backup gets none. Moore told him: “Fellas, if ‘18’ goes down, we're fucked. And we don't practice fucked.”

Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

This is a great line, and it’s generally true—but a truly great team can be built to win games over a short period of time even without a star passer. The Patriots, who adapt better than anyone in the NFL, went 3-1 without Brady to start last season. When the Raiders flopped in the playoffs last year after Derek Carr broke his leg, head coach Jack Del Rio was asked what he learned from the season. “Don’t lose your quarterback,” he said. Carr is one of my favorite quarterbacks in the league, but the moral of this story is: the quarterback is the team, and the team is the quarterback. Carr missed Sunday’s loss to the Ravens, and although the team had its sights set on the Super Bowl until recently, as Tim Kawakami of The Athletic put it, they now “look like they're losing faith and focus.”

Elsewhere in the league, teams are coping without a star QB. Minnesota’s Case Keenum completed 81 percent of his passes for 140 yards in a win over the Bears on Monday night—a master class on not letting your quarterback make mistakes and using your skill-position guys. Josh McCown has the Jets at 3-2 with less than 200 yards in three of his five starts. Alex Smith, much better than Keenum, McCown, and Bortles, has the Chiefs as perhaps the best team in the NFL despite not changing nearly as much as the narrative around him this season suggests. Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar argues that Smith is not “more aggressive,” but rather is just hitting a few deep passes in prime time when everyone is watching. Smith’s yards-in-air percentage remains in the bottom third of NFL starters. But nothing compares to Jacksonville.

Bortles is the guy who would prove the “good quarterback, good team” rule wrong. Less than two months ago, Bortles was getting roasted by his own teammates. The guy who runs the Jaguars was reported to not be a fan of his eventual quarterback before he even took the job running the team.

The way to minimize the quarterback’s impact is to do what the Jags are doing: never throw. Bortles is the same quarterback he’s always been; in fact, his interception percentage (3 percent) is slightly up from a year ago. Bortles has 135 pass attempts this year—the same as Matt Ryan, five fewer than Mike Glennon, and 19 fewer than Jameis Winston. Those players have played just four times, while Bortles has played five. He’s dead last in pass attempts among quarterbacks who've started five games.

The Jaguars are throwing plenty of support at their quarterback, too. He has the third-best sack rate among NFL starters—getting sacked on just 3.5 percent of throws. The team starts at its own 31-yard line on average—that's third-best in the NFL. He’s being helped by the fact that Fournette was literally asking defenders to come toward him then barrelling them over on the way to 181 yards on Sunday.

Over the weekend, former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah floated the idea that the Jaguars should go after Eli Manning, who won two Super Bowls for Jacksonville executive VP of football operations Tom Coughlin in New York. The main issue with this is I’m not totally sure Manning isn’t past it at this point. But beyond that, the Jaguars are the kind of case study we’ve been waiting for: They’ve recognized their quarterback isn’t good, and rather than forcing the issue, they’re doing everything they can to minimize his impact.

If the Jaguars succeed, plenty of other franchises in the league should follow suit. In fact, they might not even have a choice. The NFL, as I’ve written before, is getting alarmingly bad at developing quarterbacks—so winning ugly with bad quarterbacks may have to become more common in the future. The answer to having a bad quarterback cannot simply be to give up.

According to TruMedia, 38 percent of quarterback starts in 2016 were made by players over 30—that's the most by a wide margin; defensive linemen, who have the second-highest mark, come in at 26 percent. When Drew Brees (age 38), Tom Brady (age 40), Carson Palmer (age 37), Eli Manning (age 36), Philip Rivers (age 35), and Ben Roethlisberger (age 35) move on, there won’t be enough talented quarterbacks to replace them. That’s just an issue of numbers. Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, and Jared Goff look like they’ll be plenty capable, but it seems impossible that this generation of young quarterbacks would ever match the decade-plus run that the Brady generation had.

There’s some evidence that the rest of the league is already starting to change. In 2017, NFL teams are running 63.1 plays from scrimmage per game, down almost a full play from just a year ago and almost a play and a half down from 2015. It’s hard for any number to change that quickly on a league-wide scale.

Toward the end of the 2012, I had a conversation with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, whose team was running a ton of no-huddle and finished just short of breaking the most-plays-from-scrimmage record. McDaniels spoke of football plays in the same way analytically-driven baseball teams view at-bats: the more plays/at-bats you have, the more opportunities your team has for its game plan and talent to shine through. When you have Tom Brady running an offense, you want him running as many plays as possible in order to improve your chances of hitting a big play, but that high-frequency approach then became the modus operandi for nearly every NFL team: pass the ball, stop the clock, pass the ball, and jam as many plays in as possible so the wide receivers have more chances to take one long. That, clearly, has changed, likely because most offenses have realized the big play is never coming. Some offenses are better off running fewer plays; while big plays can happen, so, too, can mistakes.

The Jaguars would, of course, be better off with Aaron Rodgers instead of Bortles, but they’ve figured out something that the rest of the NFL has been slow to come around on. If you’re forced to play Blake Bortles, you shouldn’t give up. No, you should do everything you can to limit the damage a Bortles is able to do.