Few would argue against the idea that quarterback is the most important position in all of sports. Having an elite signal caller often makes a team a top Super Bowl contender, and teams with a below-average quarterback are usually discounted as potential championship threats.
But it’s becoming more and more evident that having a great quarterback, or even a good one, is not a requirement to win a title. While the NFL rules continue to make it easier for quarterbacks to have success, teams are winning without big numbers from whomever gets the start under center.
The Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 despite historically bad quarterback play. Peyton Manning was at the helm when Denver defeated the Carolina Panthers for the championship, but his final season was nothing like the one John Elway put together when he capped off his Hall-of-Fame career by winning a title with the Broncos in 1999. Manning was probably one of the two worst starting quarterbacks in 2015, and his 67.9 passer rating was the worst of any Super Bowl winning quarterback in 42 years.
A year later, the Broncos have been just as good by replacing Manning with Trevor Siemian, a seventh-round draft choice that wouldn’t start for almost any other team. Denver has won its first three games of the 2016 NFL season because of an elite defense, and they aren’t the only team winning in that fashion.
The Minnesota Vikings look like the best team in the NFC after losing their starting quarterback in the preseason. The combination of career-backup Shaun Hill and former draft-bust Sam Bradford has been good enough to give Minnesota a 3-0 record. Bradford has exceeded expectations in two starts, but the team still ranks 28th in passing yards. Even last year, the Vikings won the NFC North with just 14 touchdown passes from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Denver and Minnesota might have the best defenses in the NFL, giving them both a chance to win the 2017 Super Bowl without a ton of help from the quarterback position. Having a top coach can also make up for a lack of talent under center, as evidenced by what the New England Patriots have done without Tom Brady. All Bill Belichick needed was 103 passing yards from third-stringer Jacoby Brissett to give the Patriots a 27-0 win over the Houston Texans in Week 3.
Examining the importance of quarterbacks in 2009, ESPN’s John Clayton, who two years prior was inducted into the writers' wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, wrote, “a team is what its quarterback makes it.” But that hardly seems to be the case in 2016.
Just as some teams that don’t have much help from the quarterback position are having success, those that rely too much on a top quarterback are struggling. Drew Brees continues to play at an elite level, but the New Orleans Saints are 0-3 after two straight losing seasons. Andrew Luck, while potentially overrated, is widely regarded as a top-10 quarterback, and the Indianapolis Colts aren’t a serious Super Bowl threat because they’ve surrounded him with a poor roster.
Clayton’s statement might have been true seven years ago. Just take a look at the quarterbacks that were winning championships. From 2004-2012, the Super Bowls were won by Brady, Brees, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. Every one of those quarterbacks besides Eli Manning is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and Peyton Manning’s younger brother might find his way to Canton after his career is finished.
Siemian and Bradford, along with the 2015 version of Peyton Manning, don’t belong in the same stratosphere as any of those names. Still, all of them have a chance to share the title of “Super Bowl winning quarterback.”
Putting a top quarterback on the right team is certainly the ideal scenario. It’s why Brady makes the Patriots the clear Super Bowl favorites, and Carolina reached Super Bowl 50 in large part because Cam Newton was the league MVP.
The talent at quarterback, however, doesn’t define a team’s chances, perhaps making for more Super Bowl contenders than NFL fans or Las Vegas oddsmakers might indicate is the case.