Miller: Committing to finding a QB

Sports Xchange

October 12, 2017 at 10:21 am.

Nearly a third of the way through the NFL season, there are still three winless teams. One, the New York Giants, has a roster beset by injuries. But the other two, Cleveland and San Francisco, appear to be winless almost by design.

Nothing is more important in the NFL than the quarterback position, yet the Browns and 49ers largely have ignored it – and that’s inexcusable, especially considering that both teams have in their DNA a man who once laid the blueprint for protecting that position.

Mike Holmgren’s history includes terms as both the Browns president and the 49ers’ offensive coordinator and, when he was off on his own, as head coach in Green Bay and Seattle, he charted the formula for keeping the quarterback position stocked.

And he took both the Packers and Seahawks to the Super Bowl, which was not exactly a coincidence.

Holmgren’s method was the essence of simplicity. Draft a quarterback almost every year, whether you need one or not. Holmgren rarely needed one, because he had Brett Favre in Green Bay and Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle, but he turned some of those quarterbacks his teams drafted into valuable draft picks in trades.

You may have noticed that the Packers, in the transition from Ron Wolf to Ted Thompson as general manager, followed that same plan, drafting Aaron Rodgers a few years before Favre’s career was done. As a result, Green Bay now has gone a quarter-century with just two first-string quarterbacks, a stretch even exceeding the San Francisco Hall of Fame transition from Joe Montana to Steve Young, which didn’t quite make 20 years.

Cleveland and San Francisco, on the other hand, both need a quarterback, and have for a couple of years. Yet neither franchise has shown any urgency in filling the need.

With the first two picks in the draft last spring, the Browns and 49ers chose not to pick a quarterback. They bypassed Deshaun Watson, who with Tom Brady is one of two who have thrown five touchdown passes in a game this season, and they bypassed Mitchell Trubisky, who made his NFL debut last Monday night as the Chicago starter, and they bypassed Patrick Mahomes, whose debut has been delayed because Kansas City’s Alex Smith is having a career year.

A year earlier, the Browns, with the second pick (after the Rams chose Jared Goff), passed on Carson Wentz, now leading the Eagles.

The Browns eventually did choose the lower-rated Cody Kessler in the third round last year and DeShone Kizer in the second round this year, and the work of both has been uninspiring. Kessler has not played in a game this season, and Kizer, this year’s starter until he was benched this week, is the lowest-rated passer in the league by a huge margin, completing barely half his passes and throwing three times as many interceptions as touchdown passes. The 49ers drafted C.J. Beathard in the third round this year; he has been on the field for exactly one play.

Watson, meanwhile, is the NFL’s seventh-rated passer, and only Rodgers has thrown more touchdown passes.

The folly of ignoring the quarterback position in the draft is fairly self-evident. Smart teams protect themselves at that spot, and smart and lucky teams are even better off.

With Holmgren in charge and Favre at quarterback, the Packers still drafted Mark Brunell and Hasselbeck, who joined Holmgren in Seattle, where he went on to draft Brock Huard and Seneca Wallace, both of whom also played in the NFL. Meanwhile, after Holmgren left Green Bay, the Packers went on to draft Aaron Brooks and eventually, Rodgers.

The same formula, by the way, has worked rather well in New England, where Tom Brady became the starter in 2001. Since 2002, the Patriots have drafted eight quarterbacks. Matt Cassel, Ryan Mallett and Jacoby Brissett brought value in trade and now the eyes are on current backup Jimmy Garoppolo, widely thought to be in line as Brady’s successor.

Cleveland has been scrambling to find a real quarterback since it returned to the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1999, yet it did not spend any of five top-10 picks in the last six years on addressing the position.

San Francisco, given its franchise history, has been just as flawed in finding a quarterback. Since choosing Alex Smith with the first overall pick in the 2005 draft – and failing miserably to develop him under a constantly changing cast of coaches – the 49ers have used a choice in the top 100 of the draft on just one quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, a second-rounder in 2011. That worked out well for a while, but once the 49ers fired conference title-winning head coach Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick and the team fizzled badly.

There remain, of course, 11 games to be played in this season, but there is nothing that suggests the Browns and 49ers will not be drafting among the first five teams again in 2018. Which leaves us to wonder: If they haven’t gotten the message yet, will they get it this time? After all, it’s not exactly a secret that a quarterback is important.

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.