by John Furgele
The most obvious statement of 2014 came early; you need a great quarterback to win big in the NFL. And, to me winning big means winning a conference championship and getting to the Super Bowl. Of course, winning the Super Bowl is nice, but not a necessity. Contrary to common media belief, there are great quarterbacks that haven’t won Super Bowls and are still in the NFL, or in the Hall of Fame. Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly are four that come to mind. When I hear, it’s all about winning championships, I cringe, because that’s not really true. Was Troy Aikman better than Peyton Manning, because he won more Super Bowls?
It is a tired argument to measure a quarterback’s greatness by how many Super Bowls they’ve won. Jim Plunkett won two. He was a good quarterback, but far from great. In 1980, he came to the Raiders after struggling in New England and San Francisco and was backing up Dan Pastorini, until Pastorini broke his leg and the rest, they say is history.
Some judge quarterbacks by wins and losses, others big games, but I use the conference championship games as a personal barometer. How many did you play in? How many did you win? Playing in a conference championship game means you led your team to at least one and perhaps two wins in postseason play. Getting there is hard. Dan Marino was the purest passer I’ve ever seen play, even purer than Peyton Manning. If you close your eyes can you remember how many times Marino took the Dolphins 75 yards in four or five pass plays. It was zip, zip, zoom , zoom, touchdown. Yes, the Dolphins relied on him too much, never drafted and cultivated a great running back and never had great run blockers, but boy could he pass. The Buffalo Bills also stood in his way. They had a Hall of Fame QB in Jim Kelly and oh, yes, they had a top notch Hall of Fame running back in Thurman Thomas, as well as Bruce Smith and ……you get it.
As good as Marino was, he only played in three AFC Championship Games and went 1-2 in those games, beating Pittsburgh in 1984, losing at home to New England in 1985 and losing at home to Buffalo in 1992. A great career, lots of wins, but only three appearances in the AFC title game. That’s why John Elway is often underrated. In 16 seasons, he took to the Broncos to six AFC Championship Games. They won five of those, with the only loss coming in 1991, when they lost at Buffalo. People remember the two Super Bowl titles at the end of his career, but six conference title games? Impressive.
I always view the conference championship games as the most sacred day in football. On that day, two champions are crowned and you can see what it really means to the players. There is joy, but it is a reflective joy, a reserved joy, because the ultimate prize is two weeks away. Playing in an NFC or AFC Championship Game should never be taken for granted. Never.
Ask Warren Moon, the old Oiler quarterback. Moon resides in the Hall of Fame, even though I’m not sure he should be. Moon was a nice quarterback but never played in an AFC Championship Game with those Houston Oilers. In fact, Moon is remembered more for the games that he and his Oilers lost during his career. They blew a late lead against Denver in the 1991 Divisional Playoff to Elway, losing 26-24. That Oiler team was good enough to go to Buffalo the next week and win, but you have to get there first. The next season was the epic meltdown at Buffalo in the Wild Card Playoff. Up 35-3, the Bills came back to win 41-38 after Moon threw a pick in overtime. The next year, they lost at home to Kansas City as the number one seed in the AFC Divisional Playoff, the game where Buddy Ryan punched Kevin Gilbride.
Moon was a great QB, but his 3-7 playoff record shows just how tough it is to make it to a conference championship game. When you draft or sign or give a QB the keys to the offense that is the question you must ask—can this guy get me to the AFC or NFC Championship Game? Forget the Super Bowl for now. That’s why the Jets may not be sold on Geno Smith. In their mind, Smith might be able to manage the offense, go 9-7, maybe 10-6 and win a Wild Card game, but what about that Divisional Playoff. They had a guy in Mark Sanchez that took the Jets to two conference title games and they still drafted Smith.
Of the four playoff games we saw this weekend, the biggest question resides in Cincinnati, Ohio. For the third time, Andy Dalton and his Bengals failed to advance to the AFC Divisional Playoff. That’s not good, because that’s still a game away from the AFC Championship Game. New Orleans, and Green Bay are not worried about their quarterback and as reluctant to throw as Nick Foles was, it was his first playoff start, so the youngster gets a pass. But, there are no more excuses for Dalton and if he doesn’t improve, he could be the modern day version of Warren Moon. He’ll get you to the playoffs, but if the goal is to play for the right to get to the Super Bowl, is he the man for the job?
Lots of teams would be happy to make the playoffs three straight times. Ask the fans in Buffalo, who last sniffed the playoffs when Doug Flutie was still playing and Steve McNair was still alive. Ask the fans in Detroit, who are tabbed as talented every year, but fall way short of expectations. Ask the fans in Cleveland, who can’t find a coach or quarterback to lead their team.
Finding a QB is very, very hard and that’s why Dalton is an enigma. You need a guy who can win, but when you have a talented team you need a guy who can win in the playoffs. If you get rid of Dalton, you may set the franchise back years. The Indianapolis Colts are the luckiest team in the NFL. They had Peyton Manning. The year he didn’t play, they stunk, stunk enough to land Andrew Luck in the draft. That is nothing but pure good fortune. The Colts may go 20 plus years with just two quarterbacks. On the contrary, the Bills are still trying to replace Jim Kelly and the Dolphins continue to audition for Dan Marino’s replacement and those two guys retired in 1996 and 1999!
I was rooting for Dalton because had he played and won, the Bengals were more than capable of going on that magic carpet ride and getting to the Super Bowl. I always felt Moon, had he got to the AFC Championship Game with those Oilers would have won at least one of the games, but it didn’t happen.
There are losses and there are historic losses. In Philadelphia, it was a loss, same in Green Bay. In Cincinnati, the decision makers will meet and they will have to decide if Dalton is their guy; the guy that can get the Bengals to the AFC Championship Game at the very least. It will be a very emotional meeting to be sure.