In 2007 Derek Anderson was the #9 passer in the entire NFL. He threw for 29 touchdown passes in leading the Browns – yes, the Browns – to the cusp of a playoff berth. Anderson had ideal size and a rocket arm that seemed tailor-made for the modern NFL. He was only 24 years old.
In the decade since that magical season, Anderson has thrown fewer than a thousand passes, completing only 52.4% of them. He had a back-and-forth with Brady Quinn for the starting role, which eventually got him sent to Arizona. There, he posted a rating of 65.9 in one year as the starter and got cut. Since then he has been a backup in Carolina.
Remember that when you get excited this spring about your team signing Case Keenum or Nick Foles.
It’s not just Anderson. In 2010, Matt Cassel and Matt Schaub were top ten passers. Josh Freeman ranked fourth in 2010 and ninth in 2012. Josh McCown was third in 2013. Ryan Fitzpatrick was ninth in 2014. At the time, all of these guys were young enough that these seasons could have been harbingers of big things to come. McCown signed a big deal with Tampa Bay right after his monster season. In the four years since, he has thrown 47 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. Schaub had two more decent years in Houston but was run out of town after a miserable 2013 season where he had almost as many pick sixes as touchdowns. Freeman has not played since 2015. Cassel is a backup.
Perhaps the most notorious case of a team biting on a hot streak in Joe Flacco. In 2012 he had possibly the best postseason in NFL history, throwing eleven touchdowns against zero picks in leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl title. Soon after he signed a six-year, $120 million deal, making him the highest paid player in the league. Since then, his highest passer rating has been 91.3, which would have ranked 16th in the league this year. In other words, the Ravens have paid a premium salary for an average quarterback. With a hard salary cap, that kind of mistake can haunt a franchise.
Worse than the damage such a contract can do is the cost of getting out of it. Rather than eat the cost of their mistake on Flacco and start over, the Ravens have tried to soften the blow by signing him to extensions that only spread the cost out into future years. Now he is under contract until 2021, when he will be 37 years old. The Ravens can cut him in 2020 and take an affordable cap hit, but until then they are stuck. Joe Flacco is why Washington is so hesitant to pull the trigger on a big contract for Kirk Cousins.
It’s possible that Case Keenum had an epiphany this season and will be an elite quarterback for the next decade. It’s possible that he was held back by Jeff Fisher, as the success of Foles and Jared Goff may indicate. But history shows us that it’s equally possible that Keenum found a comfort level with his offensive coordinator or his receivers that he won’t be able to duplicate in a new scheme that doesn’t cover up his most glaring weaknesses. Or, as any weekend athlete can attest, he might have just gotten hot and will spend the next decade trying to recover whatever mojo he had for a couple of months in 2017.
The going rate for an average NFL quarterback has been set at twenty million dollars per year. If you pay that and you get a guy who makes you a perennial Super Bowl contender, you pay it and smile. If you get Flacco or any other mid-level quarterback who can at least be functional, you grit your teeth and hope that he gets another hot streak at a point where it can do the most good – say, December and January.
But if you bet the farm on a guy and you get Matt Cassel or Brock Osweiler, the costs of extricating yourself from that mistake can set a franchise back for years, and cost coaches and general managers their jobs. The Texans traded what turned out to be the fourth pick in this year’s draft to get Deshaun Watson to replace Osweiler, then they traded the fourth pick in the second round just to entice Cleveland to take Osweiler’s contract off their hands. That’s two of the top 36 picks in the draft, just to fix a mistake. Coach Bill O’Brien is facing a season where his job is on the line. Brock Osweiler has cost him a chance to draft two impact players, which could possibly save his job.