— Jim Harbaugh, Marvin Harrison and Marshall Faulk all experienced success during their careers, with Harrison and Faulk accomplishing so much that both will someday earn enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yet, in 1997, they were all starters on an Indianapolis Colts team that disgraced itself, losing its first 10 games before rallying to finish 3-13.
In the NFL, which has prized parity since the late Pete Rozelle was commissioner, that sort of season qualifies as a cry for help.
Drafting in inverse order of record. Revenue sharing. Easier scheduling for weak teams. All of that was designed to create competitive balance, and to keep any one team from struggling, or dominating, for too long.
So the Colts got rewarded for their incompetence with the No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft, a prime opportunity to pick themselves up off the mat.
They picked right.
They picked Peyton Manning out of the University of Tennessee.
In the name of parity, they were given the right to add the ultimate parity-buster.
A year later, under Manning's direction, the Colts were 3-13. But, in 1999, they rolled through the regular season at 13-3. And during the next decade (starting in 2000), they averaged 11.5 victories and just 4.5 losses. That was the highest victory average in the NFL, far above what you'd expect in a league in which every team is expected to eventually regress to the 8-8 mean. Nor were they alone in defying gravitational (parit-ational) forces.
The Patriots averaged 11.2 wins, even after starting the decade with a 5-11 season.
The two Pennsylvania teams fared well also: the Eagles averaged 10.3 wins, and the Steelers averaged 10.2.
And on the other end?
The Lions averaged 4.2 wins. Yes, 4.2. That's a decent October for the Colts. The Raiders averaged 6.2, falling off a Cliff (Branch) after losing in the Super Bowl following the 2003 season. The Cardinals averaged 6.2, though they did show improvement the past three years, even winning an NFC Championship. And the two most recent expansion teams, the Texans and Browns, averaged 6.2 and 5.7, respectively.
Sure, there were plenty of teams that represented the parity paradigm. The avengers of average? Try the Panthers (7.9), Dolphins (7.9), Buccaneers (7.9), Jets (8.0), Bears (8.1), Seahawks (8.2), Cowboys (8.2) and Saints (8.3).
"As a fan of the game, I think all 32 cities should be excited about opportunity to compete for the championship," says Ted Sundquist, a scout or personnel executive for the Denver Broncos from 1993 through 2008. "Fans, in their gut, should say, 'Boy, we've got a chance this year, I feel good about it, I really do.' I truly believe that. I believe it's good for the game. It's been the same 10 at the top, same 10 at the bottom, for a little while."
So have some franchises separated themselves, for better or worse?
"Did they have a quarterback?" former NFL executive Ken Herock asks rhetorically.
As in, a quality quarterback.
The Colts did, of course. The Patriots, Steelers and Eagles? They all did too, for all or most of the decade. The Patriots drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round in 2000. The Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004. The Eagles drafted Donovan McNabb in 2002. Between that trio? A dozen Pro Bowl selections. Twenty-two if you include Manning.
On the flip side?
"The teams that don't have a quarterback will continue to struggle, it's always been that way," Herock says.
So let's look at the three of the lesser lights of the past decade, excusing the Texans because they've only been around since 2002. The Lions had five different seasonal passing leaders: Charlie Batch, Joey Harrington, Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky and, finally, new hope Matthew Stafford. The Browns had seven different seasonal passing leaders: failed No. 1 overall pick Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and failed first-round pick Brady Quinn. The Raiders had five different seasonal passing leaders: success story Rich Gannon, Kerry Collins, Andrew Walter, Daunte Culpepper and failed No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell.
Little stability, less success.
Ask most NFL observers, and they'll argue that quarterback stability creates coaching stability. With their quarterbacks in place, the Patriots, Colts and Eagles had no need to keep changing head coaches - and so they didn't. The Patriots and Eagles had one coach apiece (Bill Belichick and Andy Reid), and the Colts had three (Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell) during the past decade, and Dungy left on his own accord. The Lions had six, the Browns had six, and the Raiders had six. And if quarterback instability creates coaching instability, it's fair to say that front office executives won't feel so comfortable either.
"My theory was always, I've got to get a quarterback," says Herock, who does put a premium on coaching, but as much on the quarterback coaches as the head coaches, noting that Brady got to work with Charlie Weis when he broke in, and Manning has always had Tom Moore at his side and in his ear.
While working in the front offices of the Raiders, Buccaneers and Falcons from 1975 through 1996, Herock had a role in some big quarterback scores, like the drafting of Doug Williams in Tampa Bay and Brett Favre in Atlanta. While with Atlanta, he traded for big-armed Jeff George, who never fully lived up to his No. 1 overall hype, but did take the Falcons to the playoffs. And he did well with some lower-profile choices, like Chris Miller and Steve DeBerg.
"If I didn't get the quarterback, I'm not doing my job, and wasn't going to be able to build a successful team," Herock says. "And sometimes, you've got to take a chance to do it."
It isn't exactly a trade secret that one position trumps all others.
Want to get back on top, and stay on top?
"Get a quarterback," says ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who won a Super Bowl as Tampa Bay's coach. "Get a quarterback, and if you don't get a quarterback, get rid of him and get another one. The teams that are winning, consistently winning, are getting quality play from the quarterback. I don't know how many games the Colts would win if they didn't have Peyton Manning, I don't know how many games the Saints would win if they didn't have Drew Brees. You have to have a quarterback in my opinion. If you don't one, you're going to struggle to win a game, three games, or five games, or to go .500. But you need to get a quarterback that can deliver for you and ignite your franchise and make plays. Because he's the guy that touches the ball. That's my opinion, it starts right there."
Or, as his television partner - and former NFC Championship passer -- Ron Jaworski puts it, "You just have to look at the history of the NFL, and even more recent history where it has become a pass-happy league, and you've got to have the guy under center. It's that simple."
Herock uses a version of that word as well.
"Once you get that quarterback, then you don't need to make other moves to try to get one," Herock says. "And you can just fill in the other pieces, the line, receivers, running back, defense. It's very simplistic. I always thought the game wasn't very difficult."
Of course, some franchises make it seem that way.
Look again at that list above. The Browns took Couch first overall. The Raiders took Russell first overall. The Lions chose Harrington with the third overall choice. None were particularly controversial choices at the time.
But what if the Browns had passed on Couch in 2002, and taken McNabb, who instead went second to Philadelphia? Might Cleveland have had averaged closer to 10.3 wins for the decade, as the Eagles did, rather than 5.7? Five years later, the Browns took Brady Quinn at No. 22 overall, passing on Kevin Kolb. The Eagles picked Kolb at No. 36. Kolb is now McNabb's promising successor. Quinn has already been dumped, and is backing up in Denver.
"It's easy to say you need a quarterback," Herock says. "But you can go and on with the high picks that didn't produce. Hey, JaMarcus Russell, he was going to bring back the glory days of the Raiders. And what happens? It puts you in a bigger hole. You try for two or three or four years, and then you dump them. And then you haven't won. And then you have to start over again."
Worse yet, the current NFL financial system is such that the highest picks cost exorbitant amounts of money. So if they bust, your salary cap does too. (Although that might be remedied in the next collective bargaining agreement.)
So aren't other positions important?
Sure, if to a lesser degree.
And the Lions, Browns and Raiders have made disastrous drafting decisions about those other spots too. In 2000 and 2001, the Browns took defensive linemen Courtney Brown and Gerald Warren first and third overall, respectively. Both proved to be decent, but hardly All-Pros. In 2002, then-coach Butch Davis passed over his own former University of Miami running back Clinton Portis to take William Green. The Lions? Mostly under the stewardship of Matt Millen, they kept picking receivers in the top 10, with 2003 No. 2 overall choice Charles Rogers and 2005 No. 10 overall choice Mike Williams proving to be monumental mistakes. The Raiders' recent draft work has been riddled with errors, with cornerback Nmandi Asomugha (No. 31 overall in 2003) a rare exception. When you're picking No. 2 overall, as the Raiders did in 2004, you must do better than a so-so guard such as Robert Gallery, who failed to make an impact at his original, more important tackle position.
Compare that with the Colts, under the direction of Bill Polian.
Their top four picks in 2000 all would play at least 73 NFL games. And, just about every year thereafter, they found stars at the bottom of the first round - after teams like the Lions, Browns and Raiders had whiffed - and several gems much latter.
In 2001, they got receiver Reggie Wayne at No. 30 and guard Ryan Diem at No. 118. In 2002, they got defensive end Dwight Freeney at No. 11 and linebacker David Thornton at No. 106. In 2003, they got tight end Dallas Clark at No. 24, defensive end Robert Mathis at No. 138 and linebacker Cato June at No. 198. In 2004, they got safety Bob Sanders at No. 44. In 2005, they got cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden at No. 29. In 2006, they got running back Joseph Addai at No. 30 and safety Antoine Bethea at No. 207. In 2007, they got receiver Anthony Gonzalez at No. 32, left tackle Tony Ugoh at No. 42 and linebacker Clint Session at No. 136. In 2008, they got receiver Pierre Garcon at No. 205, and in 2009 they got receiver Austin Collie at No. 127.
All contributed to keeping the Colts rolling.
Of course, Manning remained the conductor, which gets back to Herock's point about quarterback comfort allowing a franchise to concentrate all efforts in other areas.
"Manning is creating the receivers," Herock says.
With that said, Polian has built other areas of the team to complement him, and give him the best chance to excel. He's been every bit as good at his job as Manning has been at his. The Patriots, Eagles and Steelers proved adept at plugging holes in the draft during the past decade, which has allowed them to let older, more expensive players leave, and create a manageable salary structure.
Sundquist agrees with Herock that "on the football side of things, quarterback stability is the most important thing, not only production on the field but leadership off the field."
But there's also something else: leadership inside an organization to create an identity.
Sundquist, now the player personnel director for the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks, believes that's the single greatest element lacking in many NFL operations.
"I think it's the organization knowing who and what it is," Sundquist says. "You look at teams that have struggled to be successful, they don't know who they are, they don't know who they want to be. And I know that's kind of a crazy statement, but that goes with ownership as well as front office leadership and down to coaching. That said, it kind of flies in my face at the moment that over the past few years, our game is about players. But to be honest with you, with stability in that area, it gives a sense of 'We don't have to be in the forefront, it's not about us, it's about everything we can do to maximize the performance of our players.' When I look at Pittsburgh, the Rooneys, they know who they are. For the longest time in Denver, we knew who we were. We knew how we did business, how to communicate in the building, everything."
The Broncos were sixth in average wins in the past decade, with 9.3, though they have undergone a significant overhaul of late.
"New England is the same way," Sundquist says of an organizational identity. "Not everybody does it the same way, but on the other end, it comes out the same way."
The Broncos would study the other quality organizations from a contractual standpoint, to see how they were doling out dollars. But when it came time to draft, they knew what they needed, because they knew their own identity. And they didn't care what other teams thought. Olandis Gary might not have been an interesting running back to others, but to the one-cut Broncos, he fit well. Ben Hamilton might have been too light to play offensive line for others, but not in Denver.
"People forget that the Colts were really bad one year, and hit rock-bottom, and that allowed them to get that guy," Sundquist says. "So you have to take advantage of a bad situation, and have a good plan, and all the stars have to align and you have to little bit of luck. But you can quickly dig yourself out of your hole by selecting a guy who can be a pillar of your franchise for a long period of time."
And you can bury any notion of parity.