The NFL playoffs are typically the time when excellent quarterback play matters most, as this year has proved once again. When I think of this generation’s most iconic passers, the first names that come to mind are Tom Brady and ... Blake Bortles.
Just kidding. This postseason is weird as hell.
The group of quarterbacks who will suit up for conference championship weekend form the most bizarre final four of the modern era. Alongside the most accomplished QB of all time, there’s a 29-year-old journeyman who was recently benched by Jeff Fisher, a longtime backup who had a flash-in-the-pan run of success four years ago, and a top-three draft pick whose name has become a running punch line. In a sport where quality quarterbacking is usually a prerequisite for success, three-quarters of the teams left standing don’t possess an established option under center.
This may seem like the dawn of a new day for the NFL, but let’s slow down before every bottom-feeding team starts to think it can reach the doorstep of a Super Bowl by finding its version of Bortles. Pull back the curtain on these specific cases, though, and it’s apparent just how rare each one is.
Let’s start with the Eagles, the only team whose quarterback will start Sunday primarily as the product of circumstance. Both the Jaguars’ Bortles and the Vikings’ Case Keenum have kept their jobs in lieu of other healthy options. Nick Foles is playing for Philadelphia because the universe is cruel and nothing gold can stay. The Eagles’ loaded supporting cast hasn’t been forced to carry Foles for long, as Carson Wentz tore his ACL in December. But even with a limited sample size, the team’s results have been telling.
Philly’s 15-10 win over the Falcons in the divisional round was filled with examples of just how well this front office has filled out the margins of its roster over the past year. Running back Jay Ajayi, acquired at the October trade deadline for the paltry price of a 2018 fourth-round pick, provided the offense with a spark all game. Cornerback Ronald Darby, whom the Eagles got from Buffalo in exchange for wideout Jordan Matthews and a future third-rounder, knocked away a fade to Julio Jones that could have given Atlanta the lead with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Receiver Alshon Jeffery, originally signed to a one-year prove-it deal before inking a four-year extension last month, hauled in four passes for 61 yards, including a tough grab near the end of the first half that helped net the Eagles a crucial field goal. Foles was far from spectacular against Atlanta, but with the rest of Philly’s roster making plays, he didn’t have to be.
Entering the 2017 offseason, Philadelphia already had the skeleton of a championship roster. The challenge for executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman was addressing the holes that remained, and the Eagles shrewdly and aggressively pursued that through every possible avenue. Three high-level starters (Ajayi, Darby, and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan) were obtained via trades, allowing Philly to secure immediate upgrades without breaking the bank in free agency. That trio will make a combined $4.5 million this season (and even that number is inflated, as $2 million comes from the signing bonus Jernigan got in his extension that kicks in next season). Philadelphia will pay three quality players $500,000 less than the Bears paid corner Marcus Cooper after signing him as a free agent last spring.
Obviously, the other component involved is the draft capital it took to acquire these players. It’s easy to look at the Eagles’ offseason haul and say that GMs should start throwing away picks to land established veterans, but not every team can afford to eschew future selections to find potential stars on rookie deals. Philadelphia’s overall roster talent before executing those trades helped to make two years of Darby on a rookie contract considerably more attractive than any prospect who would have been available in the third round. A core that includes talents like Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Philly’s soul-crushing offensive line was a precursor to bold decisions. Before laying out a blueprint for building a contender without a top quarterback, remember just how hard that building process can be.
That’s the element that’s often gone overlooked in most of the discourse surrounding the 2017 Jaguars. Yes, the front office took advantage of the expanding salary cap and spent money like a drunken steel tycoon this offseason. But the monster deals handed out to Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye are only part of the equation that’s propelled Jacksonville to this point. The Jaguars have tried to solve their problems with cash for years; it’s worked out for this team because the organization made more prudent bets (Campbell, it turns out, is a better investment than Jared Odrick), and the hits in free agency have been coupled with some absolute draft gems.
The Jags developed the league’s best defense during the regular season because they paired Campbell and Bouye with homegrown studs like Jalen Ramsey (2016 first-round pick), Yannick Ngakoue (2016 third-round pick), and Telvin Smith (2014 fifth-round pick). While Ramsey was the no. 5 selection—taken after two quarterbacks, Joey Bosa, and Ezekiel Elliott—Ngakoue was the 69th overall pick. Nearly every team in the league could have taken him—twice. For the franchises looking to replicate the Jags’ formula, problems will arise when they point to a guy like Ngakoue (who finished the season with 12 sacks and a league-leading six forced fumbles, and added one of each last week in Pittsburgh) and say, “We’ll just find one of those.” Sure, buddy. Have at it. Draft-day steals have always existed, and free agency is no longer the snake pit it once was. Embarking on a run of correct calls still presents a daunting challenge, though, and the Jaguars are currently in the midst of one that will be tough to mimic.
Jacksonville’s good fortune in player acquisition has extended to its injury luck this season. Smith, a linebacker who sat out two games in December with a concussion, is the only starter on the Jags defense to miss a start this season. That’s ridiculous. What’s even more absurd is that the Vikings are nearly in the same boat. Here’s the list of Vikings starters to miss a game in 2017: Andrew Sendejo (two) and Everson Griffen (one). That’s it. Minnesota’s defense (which led the NFL in points allowed and finished no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ weighted DVOA) is the only group that can match Jacksonville’s talent from top to bottom when healthy. Both units have stayed intact for the entire campaign.
Unlike the defenses in Jacksonville and Philadelphia, Minnesota’s group isn’t composed of a hodgepodge of free-agent signings, veterans acquired through trade, and in-house draft picks. Only four of the Vikings’ starters (defensive tackles Tom Johnson and Linval Joseph, cornerback Terence Newman, and safety Sendejo) weren’t drafted by Minnesota. Coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is filled with high picks who have blossomed into stars. Look no further than Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, and Anthony Barr.
The Vikings’ piecemeal unit is its offense, which features two 2017 free-agent signees (Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff) on the line, and, of course, Keenum. How Minnesota has managed to field a top-tier offense despite dealing with injuries to both its original starting quarterback and excellent rookie running back is one of the stories of the season. Having capable personnel has certainly played a role in that success (after Sunday’s divisional-round win, I don’t think anyone needs more evidence of what Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen can do), but none of it would have been possible without a scheme well-tailored to Keenum’s strengths. The same could be said for the other two non-Brady quarterbacks left in the field.
The Super Bowl aspirations for all three non-Patriots teams are mainly rooted in defenses that finished first (Vikings), second (Eagles), and fourth (Jaguars), respectively, in weighted defensive DVOA. But that’s only half the battle. These teams have also created offensive systems that can aid and—if necessary—mask quarterback deficiencies. Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur devised a play-action-heavy scheme that allows Keenum to let it rip on 50-50 balls and take advantage of his receivers’ immense talents. The Jaguars have leaned on a Leonard Fournette–led ground game and an array of beautifully designed play-action throws that gashed the Steelers. Philadelphia’s scheme features a deluge of run-pass options that provide Foles with straightforward decisions and clear throwing lanes.
Build a dominant defense may be the best way to become a contender without a great quarterback, but it’s far from the only critical component. Another is knowing a quarterback’s limitations and planning for how to overcome them, either through schematic choices or a complementary supporting cast. All three of these teams have done that for the whole season. Structuring an offense around the skill set of its most important player sounds like it should be commonplace in the NFL. It isn’t. With the Jags, Eagles, and Vikings, it’s just one more of the rarities that have lifted groups lacking superstar QBs one game away from the Super Bowl.
These playoffs have shown that it’s possible to advance to this point purely on the strength of stellar roster construction and effective infrastructure. It’s easier to get here by having Tom Brady.