There’s apparently a simple three-step process that guarantees NFL success.
Step 1: Bottom out.
Step 2: Draft a quarterback.
Step 3: Prosper.
Those are the three very easy steps for any NFL franchise to follow, leading to annual Super Bowl parades down Main Street. There’s nothing better than having a Patrick Mahomes, a Josh Allen or a Joe Burrow leading your team, and the only way to land the next one of those players (assuming the league knows how to rank the quarterbacks that year) is by having a top-five pick.
And if that’s the cost, and there is only one way to get there, than any team without a franchise-changer at QB — “Can you win a Super Bowl with him?!?” — should be racing for the bottom. Right?
So here’s the problem with all of that: It’s not that easy. There are a lucky few who actually dip down, grab the golden QB ticket and start winning immediately (Bengals), but statistically speaking, the odds of it working as well as it does in your fantasies are really, really low.
Will the Saints win?
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And this creates an interesting problem. The only way to secure sure-fire guys like Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck or Burrow is by being the worst team in the league. But the problem is, those guys come around very infrequently. So, are there other guys who cure teams? How often do they come around? As the debate rages on about the path forward for the Saints — Keep building or tear it down? — we decided to do some homework on the topic.
Let’s take a look at five-year samples of teams finishing with bottom-five records dating back to 2009 (the season ahead of the 2010 draft). That gives us 250 seasons of data to analyze. Over that span, only 63 of the 250 seasons (25.2%) finished in the playoffs at some point over the next five years. Simply put, if you’re using this as a strategy for improvement, there is a 25% chance of success based on recent history.
And if we’re looking at it as a top-five pick being the reason for success, the odds are even lower if we more closely analyze factors. The Broncos, for example, made the playoffs five times after finishing with a bottom-five record in 2010 and later signing Peyton Manning. The Chiefs made it four times with Alex Smith at the helm after a bottom-five finish in 2012. The 49ers finished bottom five in 2018 due to injuries, then made the playoffs three times with Jimmy Garoppolo mostly healthy.
Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson were all drafted outside of the top 10 and accounted for seven of the playoff seasons. Now, other players at other positions certainly help, but in the case of some of these teams, the quarterbacks were the driving factors.
But let’s localize this for quarterbacks, since that is the big topic here. Cam Newton and Andrew Luck are the only clear examples of a bottom-five finish leading to a franchise-changing reality during our sample window. And even though we don’t have five years of evidence on Burrow and Trevor Lawrence, we can safely say they fit the success model. The jury is out on Kyler Murray, though the Cardinals did make the playoffs once with him.
Meanwhile, Mitch Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles and Baker Mayfield account for five playoff seasons, but none of them stuck with their teams. And then there’s Jared Goff, who led three playoff seasons for the Rams before getting discarded.
Overall, there have been 17 quarterbacks selected in the top five since the 2010 draft. Seven of them are considered successes.
The other thing to consider here is that many of these bad teams stayed bad. The Browns (five bottom-five finishes), Lions (four), Jets (three), Texans (three),Commanders (three), Buccaneers (three) among others have all had multiple top-five finishes since 2010 and don’t have their franchise QB. The Jags were there seven times and finally got Lawrence. The Bengals also had to do some suffering after Andy Dalton left to get Burrow. The Texans (three times) are hoping to end their suffering soon with the No. 2 pick, and the Bears (three times) are hoping to have a solution between either the No. 1 pick or Justin Fields.
So, is having a top-five pick the wrong approach? No! Absolutely not. Being there gives you the best shot of getting the guy you love. The only problem is that history has shown us that often the players in that range don’t pan out, which could be for several reasons. Quarterbacks often get overdrafted out of desperation and probably aren’t worthy of where they get selected, but that’s the nature of the position.
Sometimes you know the right quarterback is there for sure (Luck, Burrow), but often you don’t. So trying to bottom out instead of ending up there out of circumstance can be a dangerous proposition because the right guy isn’t there most of the time.
That leaves one question: What’s the best way to get a quarterback? The best path is the one in front of you. That might be getting an older Manning, drafting Luck, taking a shot on Jalen Hurts in the second round, or taking a flier on Prescott in the fourth. It might be stripping down when it makes sense to strip down. It might be trading for a veteran (Matthew Stafford) after the No. 1 overall pick you traded up for doesn’t work out as hoped (Goff).
There answer is: There isn’t a blueprint, because great quarterbacks are hard to find. If the position were easy to fill, there wouldn’t be so many desperate parties every year.