Chad Pemberton: Running game means little in today's era of dominant quarterback
Once upon a time, mediocre quarterbacks competed for championships in the NFL, and sometimes they even won them.
Back when conventional wisdom said smash-mouth football was the way to win a championship. When quarterback monikers like "game manager" weren't a putdown (and probably not even in the vernacular to describe a quarterback). When quarterbacks like Stan Humphries and Neil O'Donnell represented the AFC in back-to-back Super Bowls (1994 and 1995). When guys like Chris Chandler (1998), Kerry Collins (2001), Jake Delhomme (2003), Matt Hasselbeck (2005), and Rex Grossman (2006) found themselves (improbably) on the verge of hoisting the Lombardi trophy. When Trent Dilfer (2000) and Rob Johnson (2002) actually hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
Maybe it's just me, but that kind of success feels like sometime long before yesteryear, like looking back on the past with great curiosity and wondering how that could have ever been a reality. The reality in the NFL is different now. It's harsh and maybe even unflinching: Having a mediocre quarterback is a Super Bowl death sentence.
The chance at playing in the Super Bowl is almost solely predicated on a team's ability to employ an up-tempo passing attack. The last five Super Bowls have all contained at least one team which was top 5 in passing during the regular season, and in two out of the last three, both teams in the Super Bowl were top 5 in passing (2009 and 2011). Furthermore, only one Super Bowl team during that five-year span was top 5 in rushing (New York Giants, 2007). But what's perhaps even more telling is the fact that half of the teams who played in the Super Bowl during that span were outside of the top 20 in rushing (three of which were ranked dead last, including last year's champions, the Giants.
Some will insist that this is a small sampling -- and, sure, it's only five years -- so there's no reason to hypothesize that a mediocre quarterback can't make it to a Super Bowl anymore. But I disagree. I contend that having a prolific quarterback is the new status quo for laying claim to a championship in the NFL. Yes, other factors matter -- defense, coaching, injuries -- but quarterback play is of the greatest import.
The degree to which the game has evolved over the past 10 years is almost unbelievable. This is largely due to the various rule changes to protect quarterbacks and receivers, rules which put defenders in situations where the margin between great play and penalty is absurdly slim; a half-step or a half-inch is the difference between a legal play and a 15-yard penalty. The passing in today's game is only a cut below what you see in 7-on-7 scrimmages.
Last week, I ranked every starting quarterback in the NFL. But instead of using a hierarchal structure (1st, 2nd, etc.), I put them into groups, thinking this would illustrate where each quarterback is within the arc of his career. The more I think about that list, though, the more I realize there are really only three categories: The guys who can win a championship, the ones where it's simply too soon to tell, and the ones you know won't ever make it to the Super Bowl given the current fabric of the game.
The modernity of the NFL is that it's a Quarterback's League, and there's simply no way around it. The days of faking it till you make it and the Rex Grossmans of the league making it to the Super Bowl are over. The trajectory of a franchise is inexorably linked to whether they have a prolific quarterback -- a sad truth for the majority of teams and fans, I imagine, when you consider the shortage of quality quarterbacks available. But, hey, don't lose all hope. I hear that Geno Smith guy from West Virginia is pretty good.
Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at email@example.com.