No, this is not a call-to-arms or an endorsement of Occupy Wall Street. The NFL regular season came to a close yesterday, and amid all the usual drama one unknown name managed to grab a star-sized portion of the headlines. The Green Bay Packers, having already secured the number one seed in the NFC and a first-round playoff bye, sat superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Backup Matt Flynn was given the starting nod, and decided that he wanted to make history. Flynn lit up the Lions to the tune of 480 passing yards and six (!) touchdown passes. Green Bay Packer single game records. Flynn didn’t just manage to pull out a win against a Lions team with its own offensive juggernaut and something to play for. He probably just earned himself a $50 million contract offer from one of the many quarterback-hungry teams in the league.
Now, this didn’t come completely out of nowhere. Flynn has been well-regarded as one of, if not the, top backup quarterback in the NFL for a couple seasons now. He got a chance to show his stuff last year and went blow-for-blow with the great Tom Brady, losing but competing at a level that any starter would have been proud of. His historic outburst yesterday, though, cemented the fact that he will get a chance to start somewhere next year. The question is, how much can we learn from his performance? How much of this was Matt Flynn, and how much of it was a combination of a putrid Lions secondary and a well-oiled Packers offense?
The answer is not so simple. Quarterback is a very difficult position to rate with such small sample sizes. Matt Schaub gathered dust in Atlanta only to become a rock-solid starter in Houston. Kevin Kolb generated excitement in Philly only to be Skeltoned in Arizona. Matt Cassel’s experience as a surprise starter might fall somewhere in between those two guys. I personally think he has more Schaub than Kolb in him. I think it also depends on what team he ultimately joins.
One of the criticisms you start hearing after performances like this is that guys can succeed because of a “system”. So-and-so is a “system quarterback”, which essentially likens them to a glorified puzzle piece. Plug in the piece, flip the switch and away we go. This was the concern with Matt Cassel after he lit it up with the Patriots. The grumblings are that anyone could sit behind center and succeed with all the weapons at hand in Green Bay. It’s an idea that got me thinking, and it got me thinking that it’s mostly bullshit. Why?
Quarterback is an incredibly difficult position to play. Beyond the requisite physical skills and split-second decision making, good quarterbacks HAVE to have intangibles. They have to have leadership qualities. They have to be capable of shaking off poor play of mistakes by teammates. They have to set the tone for the whole offense (and sometimes the whole team) because of the huge amount of responsibility on their shoulders. I’d be hard pressed to name a successful signal-caller who didn’t possess these traits. Traits that no brilliantly sketched playbook could ever hope to instill in a person.
Greatness is not simply an inherent trait. No great football player, no great politician, artist, musician, locksmith whatever — was great simply from birth. Success is a combination talent, circumstance and luck. The same applies to the quarterback position. Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith were the top two quarterbacks in the 2005 draft. Smith ended up being taken number one — Rodgers slid to 25. Smith was thrown to the wolves, playing under an endless parade of inept coaches and coordinators. Rodgers got to learn from a Hall of Famer and a brilliant offensive mind. Would Smith be Rodgers if their places had been switched? Who knows, and it would be ridiculous to ever make such an assumption. But two players with a very similar pedigree saw their careers altered vastly by the situations they were placed in.
People tend to forget where Tom Brady started. He was a fringe draft-pick with absolutely no hype coming out of college. Bill Belichek was a grumpy perfectionist whose career up until that point had been defined by various levels of underachievement. There was no “Belichek System” before Tom Brady, or at least not one that mattered to anyone. What happened in between? Again, there is no one event that turned those two into the benchmarks for offensive brilliance in the NFL. Hard work, reps and a desire to buy-in and become a true team probably had something to do with it. As do the intangibles, which make Brady Brady as much as the crisp stat lines he puts up. No part of that equation is less important than the other.
Seriously, though. Who ISN’T a system quarterback? And which successful system, exactly, has been so successful without an elite player at the helm? I count zero. It’s just not how football works.
Will Matt Flynn be a star in the league? Who knows. Even if he is a great player, he is entering the Golden Age of Quarterbacks in the NFL. Success is hard to come by. But when a young player does what he did on the field yesterday, it’s hardly fair to dismiss it as the product of a system. Matt Flynn the man had something to do with this, and time will tell exactly how much.
(Photo via daapw10 / Flickr)