We’re Too in Love with Quarterbacks
Our love affair with the position is symbolic for the ways in which we misjudge how leaders influence their environment.
In the not-so-distant future, an NFL quarterback will pocket $40 million per season.
Yes, overspending in free agency — regardless of position—is nothing new. But this isn’t a story about salary cap space or contracts. This is about what these numbers represent. Because the proverbial tipping point of this “quarterback bubble” will not be that eventual $40 million annual deal. Nor is it this year’s free agent market, as history may come to view it.
No, I’d contend that our outsized perception of quarterback value quietly came to a breaking point during this past Super Bowl. It happened the moment that Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, and virtually nobody blinked an eye at it.
He shouldn’t have been — and here’s why it matters.
First, let me say that this is not a slight towards Mahomes, who is a generational talent and already one of the National Football League’s best quarterbacks — perhaps the best. He earned every ounce of the NFL Most Valuable Player award he won in 2018. And, sure, we should recognize the mental toughness he demonstrated on the game’s biggest stage, remaining poised and in control — amidst one of the worst passing outings he’s had at the professional level — to help his team ultimately emerge victorious.
But let’s approach this objectively. Patrick Mahomes finished that game with a passer rating of 78.1. It’s the second worst rating he had all season, and the worst rating of any Super Bowl MVP, ever. Sure, he contributed two touchdowns during Kansas City’s fourth quarter comeback, but so did Chiefs running back Damien Williams — who in addition to scoring the game’s go-ahead touchdown, scored the game’s clinching touchdown (and had a more impressive stat line, to boot).
So, why did Patrick Mahomes receive the game’s highest honor? And why did so few people question it?
This is the heart of my story.
Because, here in 2020, we’re predisposed to favor the quarterback. Because we’ve been conditioned to view the quarterback as the unchallenged leader, the ultimate influencer of wins and losses. Because we regard the quarterback as the singular, most valuable position in a complex team sport that, in truth, relies on so much more than any one individual player to determine team success.
So how did we get here?
From 1980 to 2000, the NFL’s annual league MVP award was given to a quarterback a total of eleven times. Before we go further, I should remind you that there is absolutely no methodology behind the calculation of these awards — they’re voted on by members of the media, and thus subject to whatever judgments (or attitudes, or biases) they may possess.
From 2001 to 2019, quarterbacks have won the league’s MVP award a remarkable sixteen times (for those keeping score, that’s about 50% more often than from 1980 to 2000). In fact, quarterbacks have won the award every single year since 2012. So, here’s the question: is the quarterback position getting harder to play, consequently making the NFL’s best passer even more worthy of the award? Or is the best quarterback each year simply so vastly statistically superior to his peers?
The data says . . . no. In fact, the position is getting easier. From 1960 to 2000, a quarterback threw for 4,000 yards in a season 42 different times. Since 2001, a quarterback has thrown for 4,000 yards in a season 135 different times. Up until the year 2000, a quarterback threw for 35 touchdowns in a season just ten times, ever. Since 2000? Quarterbacks have thrown for 35 touchdowns in a season 32 different times.
Sure, there were seasons where the best quarterback’s statistics were far and away better than everyone else’s (like in 2018, when Patrick Mahomes threw for 50 touchdowns). But there were also years like 2017, when Tom Brady won the MVP award despite ranking third in total touchdowns, third in passer rating, and among eight other quarterbacks to throw for 4,000 yards that season. Perhaps he led in late game heroics, you posit? No — in fact, Andy Dalton led in fourth quarter comebacks in 2017.
The truth is that we increasingly romanticize the position of quarterback. Despite data suggesting that there are plenty of signal callers that can play the position at a high level in the contemporary football era, we treat the ones at the top as rare, irreplaceable talents. I believe this creates a halo effect; quarterbacks, in turn, get undo credit for the overall success of the team, and I can provide no greater anecdotal evidence of this than the fact that they are the only players in the sport that we keep win/loss records for. Think about it: a player that affects less than half of all plays on the field is personally bestowed with the consequence of the team’s victory or defeat.
This doesn’t make sense to me.
This isn’t just a “football problem.” There are parallels here that can be found in politics, business, perhaps even everyday life. Consider how closely we link presidential reputations to the state of the U.S. economy, even though there is a swath of evidence suggesting the president has very little power to affect it. Or a Harvard Business Review study in 2015 that found that CEOs’ impact on company success ranges from just 2% to 22%. In a country that values the democratic process, in a country that believes in the power of teamwork to achieve a common goal, we sure seem to focus power and credit towards a single source quite often.
Oh, and not just credit. Blame too.
In 2014, researchers at Stanford and MIT studied more than three thousand CEO firings from 1993 to 2009, and found that the majority of executives were fired for “factors beyond their control,” such as environmental or market conditions. Allow me to bring this finding back to football for a moment; because I can find no better equivalent than Super Bowl LI (the 2016 season), when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan took an inordinate share of blame for a devastating overtime loss to the New England Patriots. Ryan’s team was winning 28–3 late in the third quarter before things started to unravel. But what you may not know? He finished the game with the fourth highest quarterback rating ever recorded in a Super Bowl, and even in that fateful fourth quarter, completed four of five passes for 82 yards. Atlanta’s defense crumbled — and Matt Ryan took the fall.
So, why are we eager to pass along too much credit — or blame — to those we perceive to be in total control of their environments? I believe there are a few factors at play. For one, our minds are in constant pursuit to bring order to an incredibly chaotic world. We long to assign cause to each outcome, and that’s not easy to do when, say, it’s tough to determine if an incomplete pass was the fault of the wide receiver or the quarterback — or if a bad fiscal quarter was the result of dozens of unseen internal decisions or merely external, uncontrollable factors. So, we oversimplify things.
Next, we allow faulty heuristics (psychology-speak for mental shortcuts) to bias our judgments. We’ve already formed an opinion about Patrick Mahomes (“he’s a great quarterback”), so now that we’ve been anchored to that opinion, we’re more likely to seek out evidence to support it. But we’re not anchored to such a positive opinion of, say, Matthew Stafford, the Detroit Lions quarterback who has been marooned on terrible teams for most of his career. So when he does something great (like break the record for fourth quarter comebacks in a season, or become the fastest quarterback to throw for 40,000 career passing yards) we’re quick to dismiss it as irrelevant, as it doesn’t confirm our existing opinion of him.
Let’s be clear: quarterbacks, CEOs, and executives can all play outsized roles in shaping the successes or failures of their respective teams and organizations. But just because they have the ability to affect an outcome more than a fellow teammate doesn’t mean they can win without them. It doesn’t mean they’re infallible; it doesn’t mean they can’t be the victim of bad luck (or the beneficiary of good luck).
Yes, quarterbacks are important — but that doesn’t mean teams should earmark nearly 15% of their salary cap to sign one.
Yes, Patrick Mahomes is likely the best quarterback in the National Football League today.
But he was not the best player on the field in Super Bowl LIV.
And it would have been OK for us to admit it.