Pass or fail

Almost great is no longer good enough, so coaches gamble on young QBs

Originally Published: December 25, 2012
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

THIS NFL SEASON will be remembered for the handful of coaches who had the audacity to, pardon our French, show some stones. That memory, of course, might be briefly obscured, because at first glance 2012 appears to be the year of the young quarterback: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Tannehill. But behind every successful young QB is a coach who possesses the rare mix of guts, smarts, callousness and desperation to risk the season -- and perhaps his own job -- on him. And for the first time in years, more than a few coaches not only understood that gamble but acted on it.

Coaching in the NFL is a risk-averse profession. For all their tough talk, coaches can be oddly conservative, fearing public blowback and a premature pink slip for any controversial decision, from going for it on fourth and one to blitzing when trying to protect a lead. And at no time is this truer than when a coach must decide on his starting quarterback. He will almost always be shielded from criticism if he starts the experienced veteran, while handing the team to a youngster is the easiest way to lose his job. But so is failing to win in the playoffs, and that's where a coach's risk aversion meets the reality of today's NFL. You can't win a championship without an elite quarterback.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Ric Tapia/Icon SMI/CORBISPete Carroll risked the Seahawks' season on the unproven Russell Wilson.

Look at the list of QBs who have won the Super Bowl since 2003: Tom Brady (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Eli Manning (twice), Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers. If the era of the Lombardi Trophy-hoisting game manager, like Brad Johnson or Trent Dilfer, isn't officially over, then "it's less likely than ever that a team will win a Super Bowl with one," says Dilfer himself. You can't beat a great passer in January without one of your own, so coaches have realized that they need to do better than find a top-12 quarterback; they need a top-eight one -- a NEXT one.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.