No position in sports is more scrutinized, criticized, celebrated and debated than quarterback.
Doesn’t matter what level, there’s a community referendum every fall on how squared away or screwed up the local team is at that position.
If you’ve got it solved – completely, totally, without reservation – enjoy it. Because “solved” can be fleeting. The Philadelphia Eagles are currently finding that out.
The Patriots are in flux at the spot. They had the best there’s ever been. Irreconcilable differences led to a dignified parting.
Bill Belichick’s never been in this position with the Patriots.
When he got here, there was a 28-year-old franchise quarterback named Drew Bledsoe waiting for him in the garage. Within 18 months, he had an ascending 24-year-old in Tom Brady. He got to pick between the two of them and, in choosing Brady, he made perhaps the best and boldest personnel decision in NFL history.
Now, he’s got Cam Newton who is sooooooo nice but not someone he could settle down with. Just a really, really good friend. And he’s got Jarrett Stidham, whose texts he generally leaves on “read.” The Patriots will be looking for their quarterback match again this offseason.
Meanwhile, here come the Dolphins this weekend. This team the Patriots mostly walked over for the past two decades is suddenly in an enviable spot. Under Brian Flores, former de facto defensive coordinator here, Miami’s building around a young, dynamic, accurate quarterback who’s a strong leader.
Flores made a Belichickian move when he named Tua Tagovailoa his starter. The Dolphins were 3-3 and things were fine with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the beloved journeyman placeholder. This wasn’t on the same level as benching Bernie Kosar for Todd Philcox as Belichick did in 1993. Or keeping on with Brady in 2001 when Drew Bledsoe felt better.
Tua was the fifth overall pick. This was coming at some point. Still, it was a bold move that was in keeping with the string of bold moves Miami’s made to go from punchline to powerful.
“I think in this position and in any leadership position, you’ve got to make tough decisions – things that you feel are best for the team, the organization,” Flores said Wednesday on a video call when asked about the move to Tua. "It’s not always easy, but I think you always have peace knowing that you try to do the best for the people that you’re essentially serving … When you’re genuinely and authentically and sincerely trying to do what’s best for the team, as a leader you have peace making the decisions you make, and that was the case with going with Tua. We just felt like that was the best thing for our organization.”
It took the Dolphins a couple decades to find a quarterback answer (and who knows if he truly is “the one”). During that span, the Patriots left Miami’s blip of an early-70s dynasty in the dust and Miami had to embrace the suck to get him.
Even though Belichick has pointed to the historical scoreboard a few times this season to defend the Patriots' descent to mediocrity, he probably won’t entertain getting even worse and heading back to Square One the way he did in 2000 or the way Miami did in 2019.
The Patriots of 2020 are at a better starting point than the 1993 Browns or the 2000 Patriots in one vital way. They have a culture in place. They have championship pedigree. They know what the hell they are doing.
But they don’t have a default quarterback answer in house as the Browns did with Kosar or the Patriots did with Bledsoe. At that position Belichick is performing without a net.
And he’s not just a garden-variety head coach in charge of a team that’s mostly overlooked. He’s a living legend and there’s great interest in whether – on the edge of 69 – he can reboot it all over again.
Using Flores’ move to Tagovailoa as an example, I asked Belichick about the factors a coach has to weigh in making a move at the position.
“Anytime you have a position where only one player can play it – one quarterback, one kicker, one left tackle – that’s a little different than rotating players through at running back or defensive tackle or some of the other positions that you referenced,” he said. “You can play three defensive ends and give them all playing time and evaluate them. It’s more difficult to do with positions where only one player plays there.
“Rotating kickers, rotating quarterbacks, rotating punters – you know, could you do it? Yeah,” he added. “That brings in some other problems that you’d have to evaluate with what the benefits were and weren’t and make a decision on that. I would say each situation is different. I don’t think there’s necessarily a handbook on how I would do it or how anybody else has done it. You try to do what’s best for the team based on all the things you know at that time when you make the decision.”
It's a charged decision and it’s never made in a vacuum. Outside scrutiny? Belichick gets it. Even if he’s disgusted by it and threatens to “turn this car right around” if he’s asked about his quarterback depth chart on video calls in 2020, the 2001 Bill shot it wonderfully straight.
This is from November 14, 2001 with Bledsoe cleared to practice and the Patriots chugging along under Brady.
Q: You admitted the other day that there is going to be a lot of questions about this. Did you talk to the team about how to handle it when we are down there peppering them?
BB: Sure. I know we are going to poll the coaches, we are going to poll the fans, we are going to poll the fourth graders, the barbers, we will poll everybody. I understand everybody is going to talk about that, that's fine. Hey I know there is a lot of interest in this team. I know there is a lot of interest in the football season right now and I am glad of that, nobody is happier about that then I am, but as far as making football decisions, getting ready to play the Rams, we have to block all of that out. There is nothing we can do about that. All we can do is get ready to play probably the best football team in the league right now. What the polls and what all the other speculation and controversy and talk is going on that is outside of anything that we have any control over. We are just trying to get ready to win a football game, that's it.
Lightning isn’t going to strike twice. But Belichick’s in the messy process of skinning the quarterback cat for the last time in his legendary career.
With Tua, Flores and Miami up next, the contrast between the franchises, the coaches and how Miami solved the problem while the Patriots are just starting to wrestle with it is fascinating.