Tom Brady is the outlier among the quarterbacks who will play in the NFL’s two conference championship games Sunday, and not only because his four Super Bowl triumphs with the New England Patriots are three more than the combined total of Denver’s Peyton Manning, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Arizona’s Carson Palmer.
Brady, the world’s most accomplished sixth-round draft choice, also stands out because he will be this weekend’s lone starting quarterback who was not the No. 1 overall selection in an NFL draft.
Manning, Newton and Palmer each was once the most prized pick of all on draft day, although Manning and Palmer have moved on from the teams they originally were chosen to salvage. All three have become superstar quarterbacks, fully justifying the draft-day decisions that were made about them. It doesn’t always work out that way. But when it does, the rewards are great.
Of the 21 quarterbacks chosen first overall in an NFL draft since 1970, 14 have gone on to be Pro Bowl selections; 12 reached multiple Pro Bowls. Three of them – Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Troy Aikman – are Hall of Famers. Manning surely will join them in Canton when he is eligible. So, too, could his brother Eli, a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants.
Pro Bowls and Super Bowls are what coaches and executives with teams that have the top pick have in mind when they choose a quarterback. A franchise with the No. 1 selection in the draft very often does not have a franchise quarterback in place, or else it would not have been awful enough to earn the pick awarded to the NFL’s worst team. So, when teams do land that No. 1 pick, the inclination is strong to go with a quarterback, as it probably should be in a quarterback-centric league.
“It’s absolutely the direction you have to look first,” said Phil Savage, the former general manager of the Cleveland Browns. “When you have that first pick, you control the board. No one can jump ahead of you. You can really investigate those two or three candidates who can be your quarterback of the future. It’s the number one, top-of-the-heap priority. That’s why you can sometimes take a guy where people think it’s a reach a little bit. To me, in those cases where it doesn’t work out, you still have to give the club credit for trying. If you hit, you’re usually set for eight, 10, 12 years.”
The urge to take a quarterback can lead to some spectacular misses, such as JaMarcus Russell in Oakland and Tim Couch in Cleveland. But the odds actually are pretty good, at least by NFL draft standards.
Just seven quarterbacks chosen first overall since 1970 have failed to reach a Pro Bowl, and that number includes Jameis Winston, the top selection in last year’s draft who just had a promising rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It also includes Jim Plunkett, who endured early struggles but fared better later in his career and eventually won two Super Bowls with the Raiders.
“Those that were taken number one that didn’t succeed, most of them were probably the consensus number one at the time they were taken,” said Charley Casserly, the former GM of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. “It’s not like they were just taken out of left field. That doesn’t happen very often.
“It’s a matter of who the quarterback is, but it’s also a matter of the team that you start out with. Guys like Vinny Testaverde and Jim Plunkett, they didn’t have success right away but they did have some success later in their career. Alex Smith is winning now. You might take a guy but you’re not good enough to help him. It doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t take the right guy.”
A quarterback taken first overall not only must have the requisite talent. The proper demeanor also is required to deal with the expectations and pressures that come with being the No. 1 selection.
“I think sometimes it’s beneficial to a quarterback to go in the top part of the second round,” Savage said. “Guys like Andy Dalton and Derek Carr, they don’t have the same expectations. They can make mistakes and have them be under the radar. That doesn’t happen for the guys who are first-round quarterbacks, whether it’s first or 32nd.”
With Palmer, Peyton Manning and Newton, it quickly became clear that their teams had not erred. Manning and Newton began their NFL careers as rookie starters. Manning endured a 28-interception, 13-loss rookie year with the Indianapolis Colts in 1998, but earned his first of 14 Pro Bowl selections as a second-year pro when the Colts went 13-3 in 1999.
Newton totaled 854 passing yards in his first two NFL games in 2011 and threw for 4,051 yards as a rookie. There have been times since then when some observers have questioned his development. But he has grown into a polished and consistent pocket passer this season and, as a fifth-year pro, he is the league’s clear MVP front-runner.
Palmer had to sit and wait his turn behind Jon Kitna as a rookie in Cincinnati in 2003. But he was a starter in his second season and a Pro Bowler in his third year. There have been injuries and some controversies since then; Palmer has been traded twice and is on his third NFL team. But he clearly has found a home in Arizona and has thrived with Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians, throwing for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns this season.
The trio arrives at this weekend at far different points in their careers.
Newton has just grown into a complete quarterback and has become one of the stars who will carry the sport going forward.
Palmer is 36 but is in the midst of a career renaissance with the Cardinals and seems to have productive seasons ahead of him.
Manning is four seasons removed from his exit from Indianapolis. He was named the league MVP for a record fifth time only two years ago. But now his future is shrouded in doubt after a season of injuries and disappointing on-field results. He was a backup to Brock Osweiler for the regular season finale before Coach Gary Kubiak turned to the veteran to provide a lift in that game, then stuck with him as the Broncos’ starter for the postseason.
Could Manning’s 17th career duel with Brady be the final meeting between the quarterbacking legends?
“There’s no question a lot has happened this season that has been very different for me of any other season that I’ve played in 18 years,” Manning said at a midweek news conference. “So staying patient, taking it slow, one week at a time, that has certainly helped me.”
The Tennessee Titans have the first overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. They already have their franchise quarterback in place with Marcus Mariota. So, barring a trade, the No. 1 selection this year is not likely to be a quarterback.
But using that choice to fill a glaring need at the sport’s most important position will remain the most obvious way to go for most teams in most years, a notion reinforced by this weekend’s quarterback lineup.
“You always have to think about it,” Casserly said, “if you don’t have already have that guy.”