Saturday, March 14, 2009

Where experience doesn't pay

Several name QBs in the NFL with a track record of experience don't have jobs right now, guys like Jeff Garcia, Kyle Boller, Byron Leftwich and Chicago's favorite instant turnover device, Rex Grossman. Meanwhile, inexperienced no names like J.T. O'Sullivan and Dan Orlovsky have jobs with teams.

First of all, this belies a common paradox: young players under contract, such as backup QBs, often remain under team control for a few years at a low cost. Even if their contracts expire, they usually hit a period of restricted free agency, where they can't leave without costing their new team draft picks, before they become unrestricted free agents and can demand large sums of money. Young players are easier for teams to keep around because they're cheap and easy to retain.

So you usually see points in the offseason where veteran QBs don't have jobs, but inexperienced young backup QBs do. That's just the way contracts shake out. Veterans' contracts expire and teams aren't quick to snap them up, especially when they already have a capable starter and 2-3 backups in house.

Tucker speculates that teams don't want to bring in a proven starter, make him a backup and risk creating a clubhouse cancer situation where the veteran gets disgruntled with his backup role.

I'm not sure that's the case with these QBs.

- Garcia took on backup roles with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay without much fuss, and that he eventually ended up starting was purely a product of circumstance: the guys ahead of him got injured or didn't perform.
- Leftwich took on a backup role in Pittsburgh and Atlanta without much fuss after washing out with Jacksonville.
- Boller and Grossman are at this point washouts and would probably have no problem as backups. Boller, in fact, has spent most of his career as a backup or transition starter at QB.

The only player among that list that might pitch a hissy over holding a clipboard on Sunday is Grossman, and honestly he's probably the least qualified of all of them given his interception fetish.

Now, this assumes that these guys won't just sign late in the offseason as many veterans do, but even then it holds: The real reason teams aren't in a hurry to sign veterans is because veterans cost more money than younger players, and every NFL team is under a salary cap.

Most teams have their starting spots accounted for, and the offseason began this way. Few teams had a need for a starting QB, and basically all of them quickly met the need (with the notable exception of the Jets, who watched Brett Favre retire for the umpteenth time). All these other teams have incumbent QBs, and to upgrade not only gets into the issue of unceremoniously dumping the incumbent, but now you have to add several million dollars to a payroll that likely is already fairly close to the salary cap, which hinders your ability to build an effective 53 man roster.

Now, why go through that just to add marginal depth at QB from a middling veteran, when you could just add a young QB at the league minimum instead? Even if he could be all that much worse than the veteran, the guy's probably going to spend most of the year on the bench or running the practice squad offense anyway.

So really, the Garcias and Bollers and Grossmans of the world aren't a victim of a complacent status quo, but caught in the no man's land of NFL economics. That gets into the whole salary cap debate, and that's where I'm going to leave this subject behind.

(Don't worry. They'll land somewhere before August.)

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