The prevailing image of a “game manager” quarterback is something that resembles what Trent Dilfer was for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. A guy who is not a Top 10 player at his position, but who will not lose the game for your team. This kind of player requires an abundance of talent surrounding him to counterbalance the lack of ability at football’s most important position. It occurred to me recently that Carroll may not be picturing a player like Dilfer when talking about game managers.
Troy Aikman won three Super Bowls and one Super Bowl MVP. Did you know he was a game manager? It’s true. Aikman is not among the Top 20 NFL QBs is passing yards, touchdowns or even passer rating. He sported a career rating of 81.6, and only once threw for more than 20 touchdowns in a season. Aikman only had three seasons where his passer rating eclipsed 89.0, and those happened to be the three years his team won it all. His highest rated season was in 1993 (99.0), but he only threw for 15 touchdowns. His six interceptions were exceptional, as was his 69.1 completion percentage. This was not a quarterback, however, who was dominating the game. His ability to play smart football, coupled with Emmitt Smith running the ball and a top-rated defense created a dynasty in the 90s.
Phil Simms won a Super Bowl with the Giants in 1986 in a year he threw for more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (21). His passer rating that year was 74.6, and his completion percentage was 55.6. Yet, Simms went on to win the Super Bowl MVP by “managing” to go the entire post-season without a pick. Joe Morris, Lawrence Taylor, and crew were good enough that Simms did not need to emulate Joe Montana to put his team over the top. Interestingly, Simms never again had a season with a passer rating as low as he had in 1986, but he also never won another Super Bowl (Jeff Hostetler subbed for him after injury in 1990). Note, this style of team can weather an injury to their quarterback far better than a team built like the Colts or Saints.
Jim McMahon was an iconic part of an iconic 1985 Bears team that won the trophy. He only threw for 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions that season, but was a great compliment to Walter Payton and the fearsome Bears defense. Notice a trend? Great running game and strong defense with heady quarterback play has been a winning combination for years.
The great Seahawks team of 2005 had the Super Bowl rings in their grasp with a team based on an elite running game and wise quarterback play. Matt Hasselbeck for all his accomplishments, was never in the same class as Peyton Manning. He excelled at getting the team to the line and putting the team in the best play to exploit the defense. He was a stellar red zone quarterback who rarely turned the ball over when points were there to be had. He won’t be a Hall of Fame player, but he was certainly capable of winning a Super Bowl.
This formula has worked beyond the NFL, and we are not talking about wishbone offenses. Think back to the height of the Don James era. What stood out about those championship teams in the early 90s? Dominant defense, fantastic running game and efficient quarterback play. That’s not to say Mark Brunnell or Damon Huard lacked talent. They clearly showed they could play at the next level. It should be noted, though, that none of their names were listed when Keith Price was climbing the charts this season for most touchdown passes in a season. Instead, it was players like Cody Pickett that topped the charts. That’s not to say having a quarterback that can throw for a bunch of yards and touchdowns is a bad thing, but it doesn’t necessarily align with the greatest team success.
The last eight Super Bowls have been won by quarterback-dominated teams. Nobody is going to claim Drew Brees or Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers are game managers at the quarterback position. It can be easy to mistake a trend for a rule. People will try to convince you that the game has changed and that an elite quarterback is a prerequisite for contending. Think about that. Do you really think the 1985 Bears would have no chance against the teams winning the past few years? What about the 1986 Giants, or the Cowboys teams of the 90s? There is reason to believe that the 49ers success this season, this Chiefs success last season, and even the Seahawks late season surge could be turning the tides back to a time when great defense, a running game and a smart quarterback can win a city a parade. Carroll is betting on it, and while Jackson may not be the guy to lead his team their, he doesn’t need to strike it rich with a player the caliber of Brees or Brady. He can afford to find a Simms, and Aikman, a Brunell. That doesn’t seem quite as daunting.