As Commanders look for franchise QB, be thankful they're not in AFC

Joe Burrow and Josh Allen

The calendar has rolled into mid-January, but the Washington Commanders are still in search of the top item on their holiday wishlist: a franchise quarterback.

Sam Howell's Week 18 start impressed the Commanders' brass enough to reportedly tell prospective offensive coordinators that he's the starting signal-caller entering 2023, but there are reasons not to read much into that theory. Howell has one career game under his belt. Could he eventually become the guy? Sure. But is he the guy right now? Hard to justify such.

As Washington continues to search for a franchise QB, the organization does have one specific and quite simple fact going for them: almost all of the league's top passers are in the AFC. Washington, of course, plays in the NFC -- a conference full of teams that are also searching for a franchise quarterback.

There's no better proof of the large imbalance of quarterback talent between conferences than this year's playoffs.

The four quarterbacks that played this past weekend in the AFC divisional round were as follows: Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen and Trevor Lawrence. The first trio of names mentioned are widely considered the three best QBs in all of football. Lawrence, meanwhile, was the No. 1 overall pick in 2021 and played like an MVP in the latter half of 2022. He looks poised to lead Jacksonville to several AFC South titles over the next decade.


The AFC's quarterback talent hardly stops there. Baltimore's Lamar Jackson won the MVP in 2019 and, when healthy, is one of the sport's best. Miami's Tua Tagovailoa was on the verge of being an MVP finalist this year before he was sidelined due to multiple concussions. The AFC's other playoff team this year, the Los Angeles Chargers, is led by Justin Herbert, who has a rare blend of arm talent and athleticism that constantly has him in the top-5 discussion at the position.

The 2022 season proved that in the AFC, near-elite level quarterback play is practically a requirement to make the postseason. Teams like the Las Vegas Raiders, Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans all entered the year with talented rosters and high expectations, but mid-tier QB play (at best) was among the significant reasons none of these clubs made it to the playoffs. 

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It's also worth noting the conference's two worst teams in 2022, the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts, could very well end up with the NFL Draft's best two passers in Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud. There's plenty of hope, even at the bottom of the conference.

On the contrary, the NFC's quarterback talent can hardly compare. Outside of Eagles star Jalen Hurts, an MVP finalist, many of the conference's elite teams are in that category despite not having a top-tier signal-caller.

The 49ers, who are playing for their second Super Bowl bid in four years on Sunday, are down to third-string rookie Brock Purdy. The Iowa State product is undefeated as a starter since taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo, but San Francisco's success is largely credited to Kyle Shanahan's favorable offensive system, the numerous talented skill players and the league's No. 1 defense. San Francisco is winning with Purdy, not because of Purdy.

Down the list of NFC playoff teams, Dallas' Dak Prescott led the NFL in interceptions despite missing four games; backup Cooper Rush went 4-1 as a starter. Prescott turned in the best game of his career in Dallas' Wild Card win over Tampa Bay, only to follow up with one of his worst performances against San Francisco one week later.


Minnesota's Kirk Cousins turned in an impressive regular season, but he was far from his best in their playoff loss to New York. Giants passer Daniel Jones had a semi-breakout year under new coach Brian Daboll, but questions linger about him truly being a franchise QB, too. 

Entering the year, the conference's best quarterbacks were Tampa Bay's Tom Brady and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. They are two of the best to ever play the position; Rodgers won back-to-back MVPs in 2020 and 2021, while Brady finished as MVP runner-up to Rodgers last year. Yet, both passers showed signs of their age this past year after contemplating retirement months before the season started. Rodgers' Packers missed the playoffs, while Brady and the Bucs were embarrassed in the Wild Card round. Both players could wind up in the AFC next year, too, should they want to continue playing.

There's a clear dropoff in QB talent from the AFC to the NFC. And, it's something the Commanders could potentially take advantage of.

Under Ron Rivera's watch, the Commanders have trotted out below-average quarterback play in all three seasons. Yet, the team either made the postseason (2020) or was in playoff contention for much of the year (2021 and 2022). Yes, the Commanders have talent at multiple positions throughout the roster, but many of their wins during this stretch have come over teams that also had poor quarterback play.

Knowing even average quarterback play could help elevate them into the conference's upper tier, Washington attempted to solve its hole at the spot with a pair of veteran acquisitions in each of the past two offseasons. However, the arrivals of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Carson Wentz didn't work out. Fitzpatrick missed almost all of the 2021 season, while Wentz went 2-5 as a starter this past year and turned in his worst performance in the club's most important game of the season.

Now, Washington is back to square one trying to find a franchise quarterback. Finding one is no easy task -- especially in Washington, an organization that's been looking for stability at the position for practically three decades. The Commanders' brass plans to explore all avenues to find the guy this offseason once again.

"You pretty much have to enter every season looking at the entire landscape of what's available," general manager Martin Mayhew said on Jan. 10. "I thought we did a really good job of that last year... We will do the same thing this year. We're not going to rule out acquiring a vet. We'll go through the entire landscape of who's available, we'll evaluate them, and we'll get to a consensus on somebody."

But unlike the AFC, the NFC is wide open. If the Commanders were to find that franchise quarterback this offseason -- whether that be Howell or someone else -- the club could easily go from a middle-of-the-pack squad to one of the NFC's best.


Easier said than done, of course.