The Quarterback Quest: Where NFL Decision Makers Adapt or Die

While the entire NFL is off zagging, the Houston Texans zig in a previously familiar direction.

The ultimate quest for most NFL franchises is to acquire the illustrious Super Bowl hardware. One trophy is often enough for these billion dollar organizations to do whatever it takes to complete their journey. There are so many pieces to the puzzle of a Super Bowl winning team: General Manager, Head Coach, and of course the Quarterback, to name a few.


In terms of on-field product, there is no player more important than the QB, I know that, you know that, and all 32 NFL teams know that. So the quest for a Super Bowl often hinges on the quest for a franchise QB.

The next question to ponder is what exactly defines a "franchise QB". While I suppose it's a fairly subjective term, when analyzing the definition under the scope of Super Bowl champions, the answer becomes crystal clear.

Screen Shot 2021-05-09 at 12.37.06 PM.png

Out of the 52 Super Bowls since the NFL's origin, there have been 21 different QBs who have started more than one SB. If you subtract the 4 players who are currently in the league (Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes) you see that out of the 17 remaining QBs, 13 have been inducted into the illustrious Hall of Fame. That number will likely rise to 14/21 once Eli Manning becomes eligible, and 18/21 once Brady, Big Ben, Russ and Mahomes become eligible.

The final three names on the list, Jim Plunkett, Joe Theismann, and Craig Morton all resemble the fact that if you don't have a Hall of Fame caliber-QB, your odds at winning it all exponentially crash. Is it impossible? No, but in a league where there is such minuscule margin for error, you need the best advantage of them all, at the most important position of them all. The quest for a franchise QB that can lead a team to a Super Bowl victory is one that even the brightest coaches in the NFL are thirsty for.

Shanahan case study

The Shanahan system has historically been lauded as QB-heaven - being able to take good but not great QBs and improve their level of play. However it seems that three talented disciples of the ideology have learned a valuable lesson that their mentor failed to ever realize.

All within the same offseason, 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan, Rams HC Sean McVay and even Vikings OC Klint Kubiak (Gary Kubiak's son) have gone outside of their QB-comfort-zone to ensure they adapt and avoid mediocrity. Jimmy Garoppolo to Trey Lance, Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins to Kellen Mond. Three prototypical “Shanahan” QBs, to three vastly different QBs, but ones who share some intriguing baseline athletic traits.

Mike Shanahan, the godfather of the system, has paved the way for his disciples. A SB victory in 1994 as offensive co-ordinator for the 49ers, plus back-to-back SB victories in 1997&1998 as head coach for the Denver Broncos speak to his success at the highest level.


However, has the original praise behind the Shanahan system been over-commended? Looking at the QBs Mike has won with, he wasn't just elevating good QBs and making them great, but rather had Hall of Fame QBs under center. Steve Young in 94' and John Elway in 97' and 98'. Those are two of the best five to ever do it at the QB position.

Now, the point of this article isn't to discredit Mike Shanahan for the genius that he is, but rather to show that even the best offensive masterminds need a Hall of Fame QB to win a chip. Since Mike's last hoist of the Lombardi in 98', in 14 more seasons as a head coach (with Denver and Washington), he managed to win the division just 2 more times and never got past the AFC championship game.

He never had another HOF caliber QB, and while he certainly wasn't dealt an amazing hand, there was talent to be molded and elevated. Working anti-chronologically, Robert Griffin III in 2012, Donovan McNabb in 2010, Jay Cutler in 2006 (at the time the first round pick was viewed as talented, okay), and most interestingly to me as a Texans fan, Brian Griese in 1998.


Hot off a Super Bowl win, Griese was drafted in the 3rd round as a potential QB of the future to replace the aging Elway. Griese "was not known for his big arm, but was considered somewhat mobile and was extremely accurate." A strikingly similar scouting report to the Houston Texans most recent 3rd round pick, Davis Mills - a pick made as a contingency plan for star QB Deshaun Watson, who could soon be out the door.

Funny enough, Brian Griese spent time with pre-GOAT status Tom Brady at Michigan - Griese was a starter in 95' and 97' where he helped lead the Wolverines to a National Championship victory. Brady was a freshman in 96', and took over the starting role in 98' and 99', but didn't have as much college success as Griese. Despite sharing a locker room, practice meetings and likely many cold beers with Brady, Griese had no idea he was keeping the GOATs throne warm "All of us in the locker room thought he was going to be this surfer dude".

And yet Griese would be the one to have a, well, modest career. He started 4 seasons for the Broncos where he averaged 2,940 yards, 17TDs and 13INTs a season, before bouncing around as a backup for Miami, Tampa Bay and Chicago. He was a good outcome for a 3rd round pick (played 10 seasons in the league after all) and Shanahan likely got the most out of him, but Griese was far from the Broncos answer for Elway's departure because he never had an extremely high ceiling.

So while the Broncos and Mike Shanahan likely weren't upset with their 3rd round QB for not becoming the face of the franchise, it set them back 4 more years, as they wanted to give the kid a fair shot. Griese shared a lot of the similar traits as other QBs that Mike was able to find success with. So, he stuck with what was comfortable - if it aint broke, don't fix it, right? As a result of their hard-headedness, the franchise was not able to find another HOF caliber QB who would take them to a Super Bowl until Peyton Manning joined the team, a full decade after the Griese experiment ended.

Emulate or evolve

This formula of throwing darts at mid-round QBs in hope of finding your next franchise star is not unfamiliar to teams around the NFL, and certainly not for former-Patriots Director of Player Personnel, Nick Caserio. Over his 20 years in his position, and despite having the GOAT QB, Tom Brady, Nick has often taken these mid round QBs who experts have labeled with similar archetypes as Mills, Griese and Brady himself.

Jarred Stidham, 4th round, 2019. Jacoby Brissett, 3rd round, 2016. Jimmy Garoppolo, 2nd round, 2014. Every few years Nick would fall in love with another QB who "wasn't known for his big arm", and "was considered somewhat mobile", but thankfully "was extremely accurate".


Nick has his formula, blueprint, ideology, whatever you'd like to call it. With his controversial drafting of Davis Mills in the 3rd round of the 2021 draft, Nick shows he will stick to his guns instead of adapting his mindset. He has not learned the lesson of just how much of an outlier Tom Brady was, and that there might not ever be another one.

Garoppolo wasn't the next Tom Brady, neither was Brissett or Stidham, and as much as I would love for Mills to be the next GOAT, historically, the odds are not in his favor. There is only one genius-mastermind like Tom Brady in the history of the NFL. A QB who will always be remembered as a 7-time Super Bowl champion, but also a QB who "wasn't known for his big arm", and "was considered somewhat mobile", but thankfully, "was extremely accurate".

What truly makes Brady so special is that his football mind and competitive demeanor is one-of-a-kind. He was a calculated robotic assassin who never made mistakes and dominantly exposed your weaknesses. However, his generational code has not been replicated, not by Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay or the Kubiaks.

The Shanahan disciples did not want to fall victim to their Godfather’s same stubbornness and diminishing returns of success. They understood the value in taking a step back from the whiteboard, and thinking outside of their preconceived box. Success, and what constitutes it, is an ever-changing model. Coaches get smarter every year, schemes get more creative every year, defenders get bigger and faster every year. Why shouldn't the QB position evolve too? Trey Lance, Matthew Stafford and Kellen Mond are just three examples, but take a look at the new wave of QBs that has been taking over your daily feed and the pattern is obvious.


Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert just to name a few more - they were all lauded for their elite athletic gifts, cannons for arms and mobility out of the pocket, but they were deemed raw. They needed to improve their mechanics to become more accurate, their ability to read defenses and how they dealt with pressure.

What numerous NFL teams failed to recognize is that those aforementioned “flaws” are all coachable. It could take a few years, it certainly did for Mahomes and Allen, but once it clicks, a Hall of Fame trajectory can be seen. Conversely, what NFL teams can’t coach is improving one's arm strength, or becoming more mobile to make off-script plays outside of the pocket. Those are innate abilities that you either have or you don't.

They are the baseline traits for an elite QB nowadays. Kyle Shanahan realized that for as smart and accurate as Jimmy Garoppolo is, he's not winning them a Super Bowl because he's limited athletically. The same cannot be said for Trey Lance, and Kyle was so desperate to get this new mold of QB that he traded 3 first round picks and 1 third round pick to do so.

Sean McVay realized that for as good of a game manager as Jared Goff could be, he will never have Matthew Stafford's arm and ability to drop dimes under pressure. Sean believed in a different archetype at QB so much that he was willing to trade 2 first round picks, 1 third round pick, and a former #1 overall QB who the Rams initially traded 2 firsts, 2 seconds and 2 thirds to acquire on draft day. The sunken cost did not matter to him, because he understood that Goff will likely never be enough to win the Rams a ring.

Clint Kubiak, OC for the Minnesota Vikings, is the best example for us Texans fans. Out of the playbook of Nick Caserio and the Patriots, the Vikings took a mid round QB in Kellen Mond, in the oft chance that he can successfully supplant Kirk Cousins in the future. Even though Clint had decades of Gary's tutelage drilled into his brain, he would not be held back by the past.

He realized that while Cousins was a good QB who had great moments - he could execute the wide zone/bootleg heavy Shanahan scheme, and even delivered the city a Minneapolis miracle - Cousins doesn't have a Super Bowl winning ceiling. So he drafted a QB who, might have a small percentage of succeeding - like your other mid round QBs: Garoppolo, Brissett and Stidham for example - but if the Vikings hit the lottery on Mond, they'll be getting the $100m jackpot, not some $50 scratch-off-card.

Texans Miss The Memo

This article had a lot of side points, some more important and clear than others, but at the end of the day, the idea for this article sprouted from my frustration with the Texans’ selection of Davis Mills. I don't hate Davis Mills, I got nothing against him personally. I wasn't against the idea of drafting a QB this year, understanding that Deshaun Watson has more than likely played his last snap in a Texans jersey.

However, if we were going to draft a QB, I wanted it to be someone who has the baseline traits of an elite QB in today's NFL. Not someone who's Brady-like-archetype has never been replicated at a Super Bowl-success-level and smart teams are moving on from. I wanted a QB who "was known for his big arm", and "was considered extremely mobile" but understandably "was a bit raw".

Instead, we drafted a QB who is certainly raw (11 collegiate starts), isn't a statue in the pocket but is also horrible outside of it, and has the arm strength comparable to 2013 Peyton Manning. No college prospect is perfect, but in my opinion, finding ones with fewer uncoachable flaws (athleticism and arm strength) than coachable flaws (reading defenses and accuracy) should be the best path for likely success. The 49ers, Rams and Vikings would certainly agree.


Now, Davis Mills isn't the worst QB in the 2021 NFL Draft Class and I'm not here to shit on his career before it's even started. However, the odds of a 3rd round QB being successful is extremely slim. Since 2000, according to Pro Football Reference, there have been 56 QBs drafted in the 3rd or 4th round, only 6 have made a Pro Bowl, and the hit rate is an ugly 10.7%.

So in the oft-chance that any mid-round QB we drafted were to hit his ultimate ceiling, I wanted said QB to have the elite traits to become a HOF-QB, not another Brian Griese who could just prolong our mediocrity. Unfortunately, the drafting of Davis Mills is setting us up for the latter, not the former.

I hope Mills can prove me, and a huge portion of the fanbase wrong. I hope he can finally be Nick Caserio's next Brady, because if he's just another Garoppolo, Brissett or Stidham, well then the Texans aren't any closer to a Super Bowl, are they? I know I'm not alone in the belief that I'm tired of mediocrity from these Houston Texans.

Talented rosters with numerous stars have gone to waste due to poor coaching. A legitimate franchise-MVP-level QB is nearly out the door due to inept ownership (and some awful decisions on his own part, if proven true). So as a fan, I will never apologize for wanting my team, to aspire for the greatest accomplishment in the game. The Texans haven't earned the benefit of the doubt that they'll figure it out eventually, they haven't earned my undying trust, because year after year they shoot themselves in the foot with a bigger gun than the last time.

Winning culture starts at the top, unfortunately, I see no drive or competitive edge out of the Texans ownership, and why should I expect any from a man who was spoon-fed the CEO position and plays video games in his office. Fill the stands, sell merchandise, repeat. As a fan who is uber-passionate about the team, division titles are not enough. Call me spoiled or over-hopeful, but if I'm going to root for something and pour my devotion into it, I'm shooting for the stars. I would love to enjoy a Super Bowl victory in my lifetime, and I doubt I'm alone in that thought-process.

So if I ever come off as I hate Davis Mills and never want to see him throw a TD pass in the NFL, that's far from the case. I'm simply frustrated at a squandered chance to evolve an outdated mindset. Nick Caserio still has the same old map he's been using on his quest to find a Super Bowl winning QB. I hope with every ounce of my body that he's able to strike gold soon, but in my opinion, he's nowhere near the mark.