Looking for some simple criteria to determine how your favorite NFL team will perform this season? Answer these three questions honestly—and you’ll have a much clearer idea.
Question 1: Is your Quarterback a Winner?
No rookie QB has ever won a Super Bowl. Only five modern-day rookie QBs have ever played in a conference championship game: Tampa’s Shaun King (1999), Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (2008), the New York Jets Mark Sanchez (2009), and San Francisco’s Brock Purdy last season.
All five lost.
Roughly two thirds of all QBs drafted in the first round make no real impact in the NFL. By that I mean—they do NOT win divisional titles and/or take their teams to the postseason with any regularity, if at all. Your team may have drafted a hotshot, big-name college QB. But that’s no guarantee of a Lombardi Trophy. Check the record for yourself.
Many NFL passers pile up impressive statistics against lackluster competition, but play poorly in key divisional games down the stretch then crumble in January. A handful of NFL teams are built to win despite their QBs. Some teams design their offenses to accommodate their particular passer’s skill set. Others ask their QBs to adapt to existing systems. Either way, winning teams need QBs who consistently make good decisions, protect the football while taking calculated risks, convert crucial third downs, and occasionally improvise outside the pocket to help their teams score touchdowns rather than field goals
Important points to consider: Can your quarterback read defenses pre-snap? Throw spirals? Play fake with intent? Look off safeties? Spot pass coverage weaknesses? Pin long sideline passes against the rail so cover-2 safeties can’t get there? Put air under swing passes and still deliver the ball accurately? Peg stick routes and deep curls? And, most importantly, keep his focus downfield when his pass protection breaks down? How does your guy?
A reminder: No team with a run-first QB has ever won a Super Bowl. Not talking about mobile passers with escapability in the pocket or more athletic types capable of executing RPO’s and running effectively. Several 2023 starting QBs rank as the best runners on their teams. Lamar Jackson may be the NFL’s single most electric ball carrier. But Jackson’s penchant for pulling it down and looking for an escape path has resulted in back-to-back season ending injuries that cost the Ravens any chance they might have had to play for a title. And he’s not the only NFL passer whose first instinct is to run rather than deliver the ball to a fellow skill player.
Skeptical? Once again, history confirms my assertion. And please don’t tell me Steve Young was a true running quarterback. In his NFL youth, Steve was a bona fide, crown-wearing, Burger King ball-carrying phenom in the open field. But by the day he led the 49ers to a victory in Super Bowl XXIX (29), he’d become an accomplished passer who threw for SIX touchdowns that day! I worked the Chargers sideline. Ouch!
Finally, how does your QB get along with his head coach? If their relationship is one of tension, turmoil and conflict—especially if the head coach doubles as the play caller—that spells trouble. Toxic pairings don’t automatically disqualify teams from postseason success. But they certainly don’t help. Good chemistry between head coaches and field generals is contagious. Teammates feel it when it’s there and appreciate the positive results. The opposite brings bad karma—and late season collapses.
Question 2: Can your Defense make Key Stops?
Here’s a broad generalization that actually rings true:
Yesteryear, NFL teams ran first to set up their passing games. In today’s game, most teams throw the ball to build leads then run the ball to exhaust the clock.
When playing quality opponents, even the league’s best defensive teams surrender yardage and give up scores. But a unit that allows 31 points in a 35-31 victory can still distinguish itself with a key stop in the red zone as time expires. Likewise, defenses that force three-and-outs on six of twelve offensive possessions then make key stops that result in field goal attempts rather than touchdowns on three or four other possessions are, in fact, playing good D. After all, both teams get paid!
Most NFL offenses script their first possessions. Halftime adjustments yield revised attack plans for most third quarter opening drives. Holding an offense scoreless in either of these situations ranks as a key stop. The same for final drives at the end of each half, particularly in close games. And, of course, nothing deflates an offense’s confidence faster than forcing field goal attempts in the red zone. Old school defensive jargon emphasizes “bending but not breaking.” Making key stops affects outcomes on a weekly basis. It's all part of "bending." Ultimately, champions yield but don’t fold.
Since most modern NFL offenses are passing more and running less, defensive coordinators are using nickel coverage packages most of the time. These days, a 4-2 front with five defensive backs is not just for third downs. Teams are prioritizing quality defensive backs over linebackers, and two positions outrank all others.
Edge Rushers are all the rage. Teams who have a good one want two, and teams who can’t develop one are often playing from behind. Some resemble old school defensive ends, others play more like outside linebackers. Their job is to collapse and contain running plays on their way to the quarterback. Sacks are defensive home runs. Forcing passers to throw early while under duress is the goal. Think of those “Mayhem, like me!” commercials. That’s what a good edge rusher causes.
Additionally, defensive coordinators want quality Cover Cornerbacks. Teams that have one force offensive coordinators to make tough decisions. “Should I game plan around that guy and limit my pass game options? Or do I attack him?” On some teams, cover corners line up opposite the offense’s most dangerous receiver and shadow him man-to-man all over the field. In zone coverage schemes, cover corners lock on late and still make plays. Either way, a quality cover corner’s mere presence often forces even winning QBs to look elsewhere. Key stops often result.
Defensive perfection is unattainable. Only four shutouts occurred during the 2022 NFL season. Just eight the year before. And when a defense records one of these rarities, an anemic offense lacking a winning QB usually contributes to the result. In striving for perfection, quality defenses achieve excellence—and victories. But without big-time Edge Rushers and Cover Corners, key stops occur far less frequently.
Question 3: Can your team’s Roster Endure?
Football is a contact sport—a marathon, not a sprint.
Grown men colliding wearing pads and helmets are going to get hurt. Bruises, pain and injuries are all part of the job, plain and simple. Keeping NFL rosters healthy involves modern medicine, effective strength and conditioning programs—and lots of good fortune. All the rules changes in the world won’t alter the inevitable. Good teams with winning QBs and key stop defensive playmakers still active and playing after Thanksgiving advance to the playoffs with a chance to win it all. Those who limp into the stretch sputter, seize up, then fall by the wayside.
There’s a thin line between a veteran team and an old one. The average length of an NFL career is just 3.3 years. This does not mean that in just 40 months most players are PUP (Physically Unable to Perform). Lots of marginal athletes never qualify for a pension. The bottom dozen or so players on NFL rosters come and go between active duty and practice squads as needed. Lots of rookies who make rosters one year disappear the next, or wind up moving from team to team until nobody else is willing to sign them. Even career special teamers eventually are replaced with younger, less-damaged and cheaper athletes.
And it varies by position group. Well-preserved, winning quarterbacks can play into their 30’s and longer. The same for offensive linemen. As each season progresses, experienced pass-catchers and seasoned place kickers without jobs run sprints and stay in shape—waiting for general managers with cap space to give them a phone call.
And so do edge rushers.
Their instincts and skill sets aren’t easily taught or bought. And their effectiveness can be dulled by time and inactivity. But “Mayhem Makers” who defy the aging process will always find work. They show up when coaches and general managers realize that pass rush rotations and TV timeouts are no longer rejuvenating their defensive fronts—and that opposing QBs are surveying secondaries unmolested. Some spark defensive teams, making that one key stop in a critical situation that affects an outcome. In crunch time, they’re worth their weight in gold.
The same applies to lock-down cover cornerbacks. Dazzling and undaunted one season, beaten deep with depressing regularity the next, a cover corner’s reign of supremacy tends to pass quickly. Those who make it to thirty with a string of first-team All Pro acknowledgments wind up in Canton. Most become hired guns, willing and possibly able to patch a late-season hole in an otherwise solid pass defense. They may no longer be premier athletes who dominate their zones or nullify big-play receivers one-on-one, but their presence is an upgrade.
So where does your team stand? Does it have a proven Winner under center? Key stop capability at crucial defensive positions? Experienced pros who can endure the rigors of an NFL season with enough left for a sprint to the finish line?
Is your team Super Bowl bound?
We start finding out Thursday night.