Football is won in the trenches. Remember when that was the popular thing to say and believe about the sport at every level, from the Pop Warner League all the way up to the NFL?
It’s not true anymore, or at least that’s not the message being sent by coaches, general managers and even fans.
Today, it’s not about the big guys engaged in hand-to-hand combat on the line of scrimmage. It’s all about the quarterback.
If you don’t have an elite one, then you need to recruit or draft one. If you can’t do either of those two options, then you need to attract a head coach who can develop the guy you have into the next Tom Brady or at least the next Patrick Mahomes.
The new head coach of the Cleveland Browns is Freddie Kitchens. He’s the first former Alabama player to become an NFL head coach since Bart Starr with the Green Bay Packers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He got the promotion because he has a good relationship with Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in last year’s NFL draft. Now that Mayfield has had a good rookie season, it’s Kitchens’ top priority to keep him happy and progressing. It doesn’t hurt that Kitchens was a quarterback at Alabama.
The Arizona Cardinals just hired Kliff Kingsbury, apparently because somebody in the organization thought he was dreamy. The 39-year-old former college quarterback posted a record of 35 wins, 40 losses as head coach at Texas Tech. He never had a winning record in conference, going 19-30 in the Big 12 over his six seasons.
But his name is associated with a lot of big-name quarterbacks, from Case Keenum at Houston to Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M to Mahomes and Baker Mayfield at Texas Tech. Manziel won a Heisman Trophy, as did Mayfield after he transferred to Oklahoma. And Mahomes is on the verge of being named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
Now, after being fired by Texas Tech and serving as the Southern Cal offensive coordinator for less than a month, Kingsbury has been named the head coach of the Cardinals, where he will inherit quarterback Josh Rosen.
Rosen was a first-round draft pick just last year but rumor has it Kingsbury might be inclined to trade Rosen in order to draft Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray of Oklahoma.
Murray would have to return $4.6 million to the Oakland A’s in order to get out of his baseball contract and begin a pro football career.
But would Murray be the answer for the Cardinals? Could Rosen be? Either or both could prove to be great in the NFL. But what indication is there that Kingsbury is the guy to develop either of them into that?
He couldn’t produce a winning college conference record with the future MVP of the NFL but he’s supposed to win big in the NFL with a quarterback less talented than Mahomes? How does that make sense? The only explanation is that having a reputation for knowing about the quarterback position is all that matters these days.
The premise is not without merit. Take a look at the quarterbacks who led their teams to the college football playoff this season. There was the Heisman Trophy winner (Murray), the Heisman runner-up (Tua Tagovailoa), the universally acclaimed future No. 1 NFL pick (Trevor Lawrence) and a solid, if not spectacular, performer at Notre Dame (Ian Book). The team that finished No. 3 in the final polls, Ohio State, was led by the quarterback (Dwayne Haskins) expected to be the top pick in this draft.
Take a look at the favorites to win next year’s national championship. At the top are Lawrence and Clemson along with Tagovailoa and Alabama. The top challenger to those two is expected to be Georgia, led by third-year starter Jake Fromm.
Of course, it takes great players surrounding the quarterback to make a great team. Lawrence was remarkable against Alabama in the national championship game, but he wouldn’t have been nearly as good if Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins hadn’t made every tough catch. Tagovailoa would have played closer to how he did all season if the Clemson defensive front hadn’t applied pressure on him all night.
But that doesn’t change the fact that football has now become a quarterback’s game. The old battle cry of “make them quit” has been replaced by “find the mismatches based on the coverage presented by the defense.” It’s not nearly as catchy or satisfying to scream.
But it’s the future of football on all levels.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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