On the NFL chess board, the quarterback is king. Always has been. Stable, upright, protected at all costs. Topple the king only when the game is lost. Then prop him up to start again.
That’s been the NFL way, where the high-paid, high-profile guy under center is the centerpiece to be built around, the hub of the wheel. Front offices across the league have patience for that position that inspires envy down the rest of the roster, fully cognizant as they are of how much that single investment determines a franchise future.
Quarterbacks are on the move like never before in the NFL, a dizzying offseason carousel that has already spit out new homes for Jared Goff, Matthew Stafford, and Carson Wentz. Still, it promises more.
Deshaun Watson wants out of Houston. Dak Prescott is unhappy in Dallas. Russell Wilson wants more personnel input in Seattle. San Francisco is or isn’t happy with one-time Super Bowl starter Jimmy Garoppolo. The Jets could be ready to bail on first-rounder Sam Darnold. Who knows how Denver really feels about Drew Lock, or how Las Vegas feels about Derek Carr?
After what Tom Brady did in Tampa Bay, winning a Super Bowl as a first-year free agent, doing it alongside weapons he helped bring to Florida, there is a whole new level of envy gripping the league. Teams can’t land the man himself — the 43-year-old ageless wonder has no peer — but they can follow the formula he laid out down South.
Even more interesting is the impact Brady’s success is having on the quarterbacks themselves. They want freedom.
“Clearly what you are seeing in the NFL, and there are shades of the NBA, is there’s a player empowerment movement going on here,” said Damien Woody, the two-time Super Bowl-winning former Patriot who works currently as an ESPN analyst.
“Some of these guys are saying, ‘Wait a minute, why am I letting a team dictate what my legacy is going to be?’ There’s always been the paradigm of ownership and players where ownership had all the control and players dealt with it. That paradigm is starting to shift. Given the quarterback position is the most important in sports, this is the first time we see it in the National Football League. These guys are saying, ‘I’m not just going to stand by with the status quo and let you guys stand by and dictate my legacy.’ ”
Make no mistake: The shift is seismic. That’s the NFL’s new buzzword.
When Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill told SiriusXM NFL Radio recently, “I think there is going to be a seismic shift in talent across the NFL,” he was speaking most specifically to his team’s signing of perennial Pro Bowler J.J. Watt, another Houston emigre who’d had enough of the Texans’ unique brand of dysfunction.
But he spoke to the bigger picture, where franchises are less bound by quarterback cap numbers that used to be too high to swallow, where fans are as inclined to root for an individual player over the particular jersey he wears, where the type of loyalty that used to bind these sides together has been replaced by something far more flexible.
And thus does the NFL offseason, already a smorgasbord of can’t-look-away events, add one more morsel of deliciousness.
“I have this vision in my head of Roger Goodell sitting in his Park Avenue office rubbing his hands together saying, ‘Yes, give me more of this!’ ” Woody said. “At the end of the day, the NFL is entertainment. What could be more entertaining than all these franchise quarterback moves? We all saw Tom Brady, who was obviously a free agent, go to Tampa Bay and win a Super Bowl.
“The NFL is eating this up. The NBA has been about this for a long time — and yes, that’s a player-driven league. But to see the NFL start to really embrace this and see these types of things happening, it strengthens the NFL’s hold as the most popular league.”
The carousel will spin. Players want to move, and teams need quarterbacks. The Patriots have a gaping hole under center and could be in the market for a veteran stopgap. The Saints may be replacing a retired Drew Brees and not content with Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill. The Bears could lose Mitchell Trubisky to free agency and might or might not be happy with Nick Foles. Washington released Alex Smith and who knows who starts for there next season? The Eagles jettisoned Wentz but could still draft over Jalen Hurts.
“We don’t know if all of these moves are going to be made, or how many of them will,” Woody said. “But thinking about the ones that were already made, like Wentz [getting traded from Philadelphia to Indianapolis]. People said that his contract was immovable. Guess what? It got moved. Look at Stafford [swapped from the Lions to the Rams in exchange for Goff]. He was basically tired of Detroit, said I’ve got to change, and made it happen
“Think about it — Goff was in the Super Bowl a couple of years ago. People were talking about Wentz being the MVP a couple of years ago. I think we’re entering a new dawn, a new era.”
Woody played in the last era, and experienced its best and its worst. He won two titles protecting Brady’s pocket, benefiting from the greatest run of quarterback stability the NFL has ever known. He later spent three seasons with the Jets, whose level of dysfunction makes the Texans look brilliant, playing in front of Brett Favre, Mark Sanchez, and Kellen Clemens. As those Jets now look to potentially move on from their latest franchise savior in Darnold, it’s obvious how much the paradigm Woody spoke of has shifted.
“In this day and age, part of it if you’re a young guy, one of these high draft picks, you don’t cost them as much as you used to before this past CBA,” Woody said, “so I think there’s a little more wiggle room now to offload these young QBs, just draft capital, and so on and so forth.
“I like it. I think it’s great for the National Football League. It brings more intrigue, gives other franchises hope. Think about this — if you’re a New York Jets fan, with all this draft capital, those fans are excited, because you have the opportunity to solve the one problem you haven’t solved since Joe Namath.”
Let the carousel spin.