The entire model of NFL team building is upside down. The league and the media outlets that cover it chant the mantra of quarterback first. On Draft Day, experts line up to say why all the losing teams must start by getting a star quarterback. Then we watch the general managers fall over themselves trying to do exactly this, making massive trades to move up for untested quarterbacks. Sometimes quarterbacks who started just a single year. Players with known and obvious flaws that quarterback gurus are hoping to fix. The whole system is flawed and backward.
In 2002, the Houston Texans participated in their very first draft. They followed the standard plan: They used their first pick to get a star quarterback and set about to build around him. David Carr walked onto the scene as the starting quarterback and the face of the franchise. Houston then continued that draft with two defensive backs, three defensive tackles, and a defensive end. They did add to the offense with Chester Pitts and Fred Weary on the offensive line and Jabar Gaffney.
In 2003, the Texans added Andre Johnson. While there is no debating Johnson’s value to the franchise, there were few other key offensive picks. Houston actually drafted two more quarterbacks in this draft as well (Dave Ragone and Drew Henson). Furthermore, they drafted a fourth quarterback in 2004.
All in all, through the first five years of the franchise’s existence, Houston drafted seven offensive linemen. This team picked five wide receivers in that span. Also, this team with a 3-4 defensive formation picked eight defensive linemen. Five of these defensive linemen were drafted within the first three rounds.
The Oakland Raiders went 5-11 in 2009 and had fallen into the same trap as Houston. The 2009 season was JaMarcus Russell‘s third in the NFL. It was also his last. That year, Oakland ran with a few quarterbacks getting a second chance. Jason Campbell and Carson Palmer came in and played some, and the Raiders even kicked the tires on Terrelle Pryor.
While these quarterbacks held their own between 2010 and 2013, the Raiders were building an offensive line. They drafted six linemen in the first three rounds of these years, seven total. Yet, between 2008 and 2012, they did not draft a quarterback. In 2013, they broke this streak with Tyler Wilson in the fourth round. The following year, the Raiders selected Derek Carr in the second.
The Raiders do not still have all the players they drafted in those years: Jared Veldheer is starting in Arizona, Joe Barksdale is starting for the Los Angeles Chargers, and Stefen Wisniewski saw six starts for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016. Still, this was the base of the stability for Derek Carr. After Carr arrived, the Raiders added Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree in 2015 and supplemented their depth on the OL with Jon Feliciano.
It is a mistake to look back and think the entire David Carr moment was a bust. David got progressively better each year in this first three seasons. In his third year, David completed 61.2% of his passes for 3,531 yards with 16 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. Consider again that he was playing on an expansion team. Through five seasons in Houston, David only missed five games (all of them in 2003).
The drop off began in 2005, the fourth season. David kept his completion percentage north of 60%, but the yardage fell off. He kept a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio (14:11), though also producing the second-fewest total attempts of his five years in Houston (423 attempts). In his time in Houston, David finished with 60% completion percentage, 13,391 yards, 59 touchdowns and 65 interceptions. The most passes he attempted in any season was 466 (about 29 per game).
Derek entered the league and also started right away. His very first year, he attempted 599 passes. He had a great touchdown-to-interception ratio with 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. This improved every year. 2016 was his third season. Derek completed 63.8% of his passes for 3,937 yards, 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He did not start the final game due to injury.
Raw numbers are one thing. Yet, on yards per attempt, the comparison gets closer. In David’s second season, he managed 6.82 yards per attempt and then had 7.57 in his third year. Derek had a similar 6.96 yards per attempt in his second year and then 7.03 in his third season. Derek managed a higher touchdown rate of 5.58% in his second year and earned a 5.0% in his third. David was 3.05% and 3.43%, respectively. These numbers are interesting, as David had Andre Johnson in his WR corps during these years; Derek was able to counter with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
In three seasons in Oakland, Derek Carr has been sacked 71 times. David Carr was sacked 76 times in his rookie season. Derek’s worst season for sacks (31 in 2015) would have been the second-best season of David’s career in Houston (ahead of 41 in 2006). David was sacked 249 times in five seasons in Houston — about 50 sacks a year!
For perspective, Tyrod Taylor led the NFL in sacks in 2016 with 42. Only five quarterbacks were sacked 40 or more times. From 2010 through 2016 only Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Blake Bortles have gone through a 50-sack season. It actually happened to Bortles twice. In David Carr’s first four seasons, he had two years with more than 68 sacks.
David Carr is not alone. Tim Couch had over 50 sacks twice in his first three seasons. He reached 3,000 yards in his third season. Then he got the expansion Browns to 8-6 in 14 starts during his fourth season. That year, 2002, Couch completed 61.6% of his passes for 2,842 yards, 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He was out of football just two years later.
Rick Mirer beat Drew Bledsoe for Rookie of the Year honors in 1993. He took 47 sacks as a rookie. Then had another 42 in his third season. 116 sacks in his first three years. After his third year, Mirer never started more then nine games in any other season. He also never had 2,000 yards passing or completed better then 54% of of his passes over a year.
The lesson of recent history is that you need a quarterback to win, but you need him in the long run. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady stepped into teams that already had quarterbacks the year before. Each were on teams that had been building around someone else for years. This helped.
The hype starts with a logical fallacy: Teams that win have great quarterbacks, therefore get a great quarterback and you will win. Teams with great quarterbacks prepared for those quarterbacks. You have to till the soil before you sow the seeds. Too often, NFL teams build in the wrong order.