For much of the 21st century, one way to win a Super Bowl was to draft a franchise quarterback … and wait.
Consider that from 2003-19, 15 of 17 Super Bowl winners were led by a quarterback they drafted — or, in Eli Manning’s case, acquired on draft night. Drew Brees (2009 Saints) and Peyton Manning (2015 Broncos) both led a new team to a title, but only after serious injury abruptly ended their initial tenures.
The formula was simple: find a franchise quarterback, then build the roster around him. That works well if you draft a generational talent like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Ben Roethlisberger, who combined to win nine of those 17 titles. Six of the remaining eight rings went to Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, and Patrick Mahomes — all of whom are well on their way to Canton. And the two remaining outliers, Joe Flacco (2012) and Nick Foles (2017), posted historic postseason numbers to reward the teams that drafted them.
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Then, something happened: teams started building their rosters first, then adding the quarterback later. And it worked right away.
We saw a glimpse of it with the Broncos, who reached two Super Bowls in Manning’s four-year run and won a title in his final season. We didn’t see another quarterback of his caliber — or anything close — hit free agency until 2020 when Brady shockingly ended his 20-year reign in New England.
Tampa Bay pounced, and the rest is history. What came next was obvious for those who saw the signs: the Buccaneers had an elite defense and loaded skill-position group but were saddled by turnover machine Jameis Winston, who consistently hindered this team’s field position and scoring chances. They were, in essence, “one quarterback away.”
It was the same story a year later, when the Rams spent two first-round picks to swap starter Jared Goff for Pro Bowl passer Matthew Stafford. Los Angeles owned a Super Bowl roster with an erratic quarterback and was, in theory, an upgrade away from a title. Once again, the theory bore fruit.
That’s the backdrop to this season, which follows one of the craziest summers of player movement in league history. Nine teams will enter the 2022 campaign with a new signal-caller, all of them hoping that their team is truly “one quarterback away” from contention.
So who really fits the bill this season? The obvious candidate is the Broncos, who dealt one of the largest trade packages in NFL history to pry Wilson — who beat them in the 2014 Super Bowl — from the Seahawks. This defense has long been title-worthy and ranked fourth in points allowed per drive (1.78) a year ago despite facing the fourth-most plays per drive (6.56). That’s usually a function of a lethargic offense asking too much of its defense; sound familiar?
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That QB development could come from within, too. The Bills were “one quarterback away” until Josh Allen elevated his game to an MVP level; now they’re the Super Bowl favorites. Could the Dolphins be due for a similar bump? Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t lived up to his original billing as a top-five pick, but he’s in the perfect position to maximize his talents in new head coach Mike McDaniel’s offense — flanked by electric receivers, a dynamic run game and one of the league’s most talent-rich defenses.
Be careful applying this theory to every team with a new quarterback. Matt Ryan is a major upgrade for the Colts, but this roster had plenty of issues by the end of last season beyond just Carson Wentz. The Panthers are among my sleeper teams this year, but even I can admit that Baker Mayfield likely isn’t the guy to elevate a team from frisky to frightening.
Ultimately, this is still a quarterbacks’ league, but that doesn’t always mean grooming a homegrown talent like it once did. So as you’re scanning for Super Bowl values ahead of Week 1, consider those teams that were “one quarterback away” entering this offseason. It could pay massive dividends right away.