Do Super Bowl Hopefuls Still Need Star Quarterbacks?

Though the best signal-caller ever remains in the playoffs, his also-ran counterparts may suggest the rise of a more well-rounded sport.

The Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 31.
The Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 31, 2017. (Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports / Reuters)

There has been no truism in sports more durable than this: A team with Super Bowl aspirations needs a great quarterback. Any segment of NFL history will demonstrate its rightness, but recent years have done so especially. Over the 21st century, the Lombardi Trophy has been granted almost exclusively to teams with the position’s best players. It has gone to Tom Brady five times, to Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger twice, to Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson—likely Hall of Famers all. Even the rare outliers on the list of recent winners—the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco in 2013, the otherwise middling Eli Manning on two occasions—seem not to diminish but to reinforce the position’s importance; Flacco had one of the great aberrational postseasons that year, and Manning comes from the finest quarterback family of all time.

But last weekend, during the divisional round of the playoffs, the prevailing logic failed. Brady’s New England Patriots sailed past the outmatched Tennessee Titans to reach their seventh straight AFC title game, but in the three other matchups, All-Pro quarterbacks lost to former also-rans. The Atlanta Falcons, led by last season’s MVP Matt Ryan, fell to a Philadelphia Eagles team led by Nick Foles, a backup forced into duty by injury late in the season. Roethlisberger’s Pittsburgh Steelers were beaten by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Blake Bortles, who’s more known for being the butt of online jokes than for any on-field prowess. And Sunday evening, the journeyman Case Keenum—who took over the Minnesota Vikings after their first and second quarterback options went down with injuries in successive years—authored the most astonishing moment of the season, firing a 61-yard, last-second touchdown to beat Brees and the New Orleans Saints.

What has resulted is a final four with possibly the greatest quarterback of all time, however impaired, set opposite three players who over the past year have not even been guaranteed the starting job on their teams. One way to read the scenario, heading into the last three games of the season, is as a fluke that will resolve in a familiar ending; FiveThirtyEight calls the Patriots’ current path to the Super Bowl, “The easiest in modern NFL history.” Another way to read it, though, is as a lessening of quarterback primacy—perhaps as a subtle step toward a fuller, more well-rounded sport.

However they ultimately end, the playoffs so far have been catnip to a certain brand of football obsessive, one who enjoys sturdy line play and clever coverage as much as annually record-breaking passing stats. Keenum and the receiver Stefon Diggs may be the subjects of some of the most excited reaction videos ever, but it was the Minnesota defense, quick in the linebacking corps and sure-handed in the secondary, that for the better part of the game stifled the high-octane Saints. The Eagles won by holding a team full of playmakers to 10 points and by making a goal-line stand in the closing moments. The Jaguars forced the Steelers into a pair of turnovers and ran an offense straight out of the 1970s, with the bruising back Leonard Fournette rumbling for 109 yards and three touchdowns behind big lines of blockers.

Where in recent years high-stakes postseason games have played out as mano-a-mano showdowns, this year’s have introduced viewers to more stylistic variation. “We’re built to match up with any team,” the Jacksonville safety Barry Church said earlier this month, arguing that his squad’s ability to control possession and react to different offensive styles renders it more effective than any single signal-caller. Even if that’s not a universally agreed-upon notion—Las Vegas casinos make the Patriots a 9-point favorite over the Jaguars on Sunday—teams like Jacksonville undeniably broaden a game’s narrative. A duel expands to an epic. The Jaguars’ hero, should they win, could be the QB-stalking defensive player of the year Calais Campbell, the all-world cornerback and trash-talker Jalen Ramsey, or Fournette. The Patriots’ would almost certainly be Brady, as ever.

It has been a worrying season for the NFL in many areas, but high on the list of concerns this year has been the state of quarterback play. The generation epitomized by Brady and Brees will have to retire sooner or later, and the roster of potential replacements looks thin. Fans and analysts have fretted—and league officials have surely followed suit—that a golden age of virtuosity is about to give way to an era of sloppiness. The quarterback lacking has been attributed to the differences between college and the NFL and the complexity of modern offensive schemes, and whatever its cause, it has been held out as a possible reason for declining ratings.

It’s true that quarterbacks are uniquely recognizable, relatable, and marketable among football players: the faces of a masked, faceless game. They make for eminently TV-friendly protagonists, clear standouts for casual viewers and advertisers alike. There is no plotline in either of Sunday’s games as clear as the one generated by the old Brady versus Manning showdowns; the talents are too dispersed. The networks covering the games will likely stretch for the old storylines anyway. After the Jaguars beat the Buffalo Bills in a low-scoring defensive struggle for their first playoff win, it was Bortles and not a Jacksonville defender who got the first laudatory postgame interview on CBS.

But although the league would likely prefer to have one or two more of its signature stars present, there will be a kind of reprieve in watching games so immune to convention. The familiar form of playoff football—expert passers trading volleys—will be replaced by something more like a melee, wherein the big play might come from anywhere, at any moment. There will be a welcome sense, too, of the league’s overall structures of power and prestige being upended, however fleetingly.

The shakeup could come to a quick end if Brady wins his sixth title in February; no player is better equipped to serve as a one-man rebuttal to the idea of changing norms. April’s NFL draft will still feature teams clamoring to find their next franchise quarterback, and August’s season previews will still make special mention of the players distributing the football. But in a sport that holds fast to conventional wisdom, what has already happened qualifies as a major occurrence. A great quarterback helps hugely but may, it seems, no longer be required. Even at the highest levels, there are other ways to win.