The Buffalo Bills’ season and perhaps the fates of several coaching and scouting jobs largely depend on EJ Manuel. » With a new owner expected by the end of the year and the franchise suffering through a 14-season playoff slump, conditions will be affected significantly by the team’s competitiveness. » No player influences his team’s record more than a quarterback does. » The Bills identified Manuel as the best quarterback in last year’s draft class and gave him the responsibility of guiding the team into a new era. » The results have been underwhelming so far. But the hopes and dreams remain.
For insight into what an educated observer should notice in a franchise quarterback’s development, The Buffalo News spoke with five experts on the subject: a longtime quarterbacks coach who won a Super Bowl and a Division I national championship; a head coach with two Super Bowl rings and who played the position; a four-time Pro Bowl receiver who still holds team records; a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback who led the NFL in interceptions, and a pioneering agent who represented several star quarterbacks.
They have worked with Hall of Famers, first-round draft picks, emergency backups, journeymen, Heisman Trophy winners and busts. They’ve been blessed and frustrated. Quarterbacks have propelled them to glory and gotten them fired.
So what should we look for in a franchise quarterback? When should we see signs whether he can cut it? How long can a team give a youngster to grow into the role? How does the process impact the rest of the team?
These are the experts’ thoughts.
Tom Flores, former Bills quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion head coach: “Somebody in your scouting department has to have a really good eye for the quarterback. It’s not an easy position to judge. You have to look at every skill, and there has to be a gut feeling, too. You have to feel good about it because you’re going to be stuck with that guy – maybe for a long time.”
Leigh Steinberg, agent for several legendary quarterbacks, including Troy Aikman, Warren Moon and Steve Young: “For a franchise quarterback, I would define it as someone a team can build around for the next 10 or 12 years because of rather than with.’ ”
Stan Parrish, longtime quarterbacks coach: “How many great quarterbacks are there? Look at what Eli Manning is going through, and he’s won two Super Bowls. The window for knowing you’ve got the right guy, in my experience, is very short. You better enjoy it.”
Sam Madison, 12 seasons at cornerback for Dolphins and Giants: “I came in with a Hall of Famer [Dan Marino], and then I went through a whole bunch of other quarterbacks. I never really had another franchise quarterback [Manning] until I left Miami.”
Steinberg: “It’s a presence. It’s that player who, when everything has gone amiss, wants the ball, wants to be in the center of that pressure cooker and can filter every other thing out of his mind when everything around is chaos.”
Stanley Morgan, Patriots’ all-time leader in receiving yards and touchdowns: “Once the team gets confidence in a quarterback, they know he’s going to come into the game and is going to save them from a bad play or make good use of a mistake the other defense made. You know it’s possible to score on anybody at any time.”
Flores: “You hope that your quarterback is good enough to put your confidence in him. When you put all your trust in him, the team feels that. The defense obviously knows it. There’s a certain amount of security. It does affect the whole team.”
Madison: “For the defense, when you have a guy who can throw, you’re just thinking, ‘Let’s get the ball back. He’s going to do something with it.’ That gives any defensive player the ability to say, ‘All we have to do is get one or two stops, and our quarterback is going to do his job.’ "
Steinberg: “He must have the capacity to elevate his team in adverse or critical situations, to put a team on his back and carry them. It’s the mentality, when everything’s stacked against that player, he’s thrown multiple picks, the fans are booing, they’re way behind, but he’s able to have a quiet mind and forget whatever went wrong and be a leader.”
Madison: “At the coin flip, when the opposing team says, ‘We want to go on defense,’ and your quarterback goes out there and five, six minutes have run off the clock, then you know you have the right quarterback.”
Flores: “Sometimes it develops before your very eyes. Sometimes you need a good memory, like when we brought in Jim Plunkett. He was beat up, and his head was down. We brought him in and made him third string. We didn’t need a quarterback, but we had a feeling Plunkett had something in the tank.”
Steinberg: “First of all – and critical – is accuracy. The separation between a wide receiver and defensive back is much tighter. If a quarterback is not accurate, he can just forget about it.”
Parrish: “When you know you have the right guy, you can pretty much open the playbook to whatever you like and he can handle that situation. He’s also proven he can take you down the field late in the game and win for you, and he can throw the ball away when he has to. At the end of the day, the right quarterback usually hasn’t hurt the team and has orchestrated what he’s supposed to do.”
Morgan: “When you get the right one in there, he makes all the difference. If you get one that’s not right and the offense doesn’t have confidence in him and the defense doesn’t trust him, you’re going to have problems. There’s no trust.”
Parrish: “If you don’t know, if you’re unsure, then you’re playing on eggshells all the time. If you got a guy you’re really comfortable with, you play poised. You play relaxed and have confidence he’s going to bring you back.”
Madison: “You understand what everybody on the field can do by the time training camp is over. You know as a football team, ‘Look, this guy can get it done,’ or, ‘He can’t.’ Your mentality on defense is, ‘We have to make adjustments.’ "
Flores: “Sometimes you don’t know what you have.”
Madison: “Your team needs to see that, ‘Hey, when he eventually catches on, we’re going to be a good football team.’ “
Morgan: “When you know you’re with the right quarterback, you start thinking the same way. When you see certain situations, you can just look at your quarterback and you know you’re on the same page with him. It doesn’t happen in a month or two or three games. It happens over a period of time.”
Parrish: “We had an old saying up in our quarterback rooms wherever I worked that said, ‘The mental is to the physical as four is to one.’ Maybe it’s not that great in pro ball, but you need continuity.”
Flores: “You have to look long-term because if you’re thinking short-term, you’re looking for somebody to replace him before he even comes to camp.”
Parrish: “You can’t be changing coaches and coordinators on him, particularly young guys. There’s a lot of pressure that goes along with being a No. 1 pick also. The expectations sometimes supersede what is reality.”
Steinberg: “One of the missing parts in pro football today is the development curve, teaching and coaching the young quarterbacks. Given the amount of money they spend on signing that player, it’s a shame that in many situations they don’t assign a really gifted teacher, confidant to that position.”
Flores: “Lately in the NFL you have to put your young quarterback in there because of the amount of money you’re paying him. That’s changing a little with the rookie salary cap, but most teams can’t afford to wait, or just won’t.”
Parrish: “Patience is not a quality anybody really has with sports. If the coach has got a four-year contract and the quarterback is in his second year and he’s not getting anything done, there’s a lot of pressure to pull him.”
Steinberg: “We now have 300 television stations and much more analysis, much more commentary. In the old days, you used to say ‘It takes three to five years to know if the quarterback’s going to be successful.’ Today? Mark my words: In three weeks they’ll start looking at the rookie quarterbacks and declaring them busts. That heavy criticism can completely destroy the confidence of a young quarterback. The best thing to happen to Johnny Manziel is not starting.”
Madison: “When the quarterback is not going, other areas have to pick up the slack. It puts pressure on the whole team in different ways. If there was an opportunity for you to get an interception and you don’t come up with it, one team would’ve been happy with the pass breakup. But another team needed that interception to change the dynamics of the game.”
Flores: “As a coach, you can’t take a lot of time because you might be preparing that quarterback for somebody else.”
Morgan: “If they got the right quarterback in there, it should take an awful lot to get him out. If not, then as soon as the next guy comes in is ready to play and is outperforming you, then you’re on the trading block.”
Parrish: “It’s wrong to a degree. Look at the coach in Cleveland last year, Rob Chudzinski. He got one year. His quarterbacks all got hurt. Now, how right is that?”
Steinberg: “What you need to succeed in this situation is ownership that looks to the long view and encourages willingness to live through the process to get to a better day, to resist all the incredible pressure.”
Morgan: “The quarterback is so important that he’s second in command behind the head coach. He’s more valuable than the offensive coordinator.”
Parrish: “The NFL created that. Look at the rules. They did it for the fans. They wanted to move the football. I guess the public has pushed that guy to be that important. Is that fair? Probably not, but that’s the way it is.”
Flores: “You hate for one player to be your whole team, but your quarterback is your offense. Minnesota has an elite running game but is still trying to find itself because of the quarterback. You have to have a solid, consistent quarterback that can win games for you in the fourth quarter.”
Steinberg: “It now is virtually impossible to get to and through the playoffs without a franchise quarterback. That player is so critical that teams can go virtually for years without being able to fill that position. It’s why you see Washington give away a whole package of draft picks for Robert Griffin III.”
Parrish: “If you think about the Bills in their whole existence, they’ve had one who sustained it. They had Jim Kelly.”
Steinberg: “If I was running a franchise, I would do whatever it took get in position because if you solve that problem, you can build around him. If you don’t solve that problem, your team’s not going to win.”
These five men with a diversity of NFL experiences provide their unique take on the challenges of identifying and nurturing that coveted commodity - The Franchise Quarterback.
Flores won two Super Bowls as Raiders head coach. The first time, an injury to Dan Pastorini forced Jim Plunkett into the lineup. Flores also coached Ken Stabler and, with Seattle, No. 2 overall pick Rick Mirer. Flores was an AFL All-Star QB for the Raiders in 1966 and spent two seasons as a Bills backup.
Madison was a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Dolphins and started for the Giants’ 2007 championship team. When he entered the NFL, future Hall of Famer Dan Marino ran the show. Madison then watched Jay Fiedler and a series of interchangeable quarterbacks struggle to make progress with the Dolphins.
Morgan, a four-time Pro Bowler, is in the Patriots Hall of Fame. His 10,352 receiving yards and 67 TDs are club records. He mostly played with Steve Grogan, but was a member of the Patriots’ 1985 AFC title team that featured Tony Eason of the famed 1983 draft class. Doug Flutie was another of Morgan’s starting QBs.
Parrish was Michigan’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when Tom Brady and Brian Griese played there and helped Michigan win the national championship in 1997. He was Buccaneers QB coach when they won their Super Bowl 12 years ago. He has been a head coach at Marshall, Kansas State and Ball State.
At one time in the 1990s, Steinberg was the agent for half of the NFL’s starting QBs. Some of his Hall of Fame clients included Troy Aikman, Warren Moon and Steve Young. Steinberg also represented star QBs Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Bledsoe and Jeff George as well as Bills legends Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith.