It’s easy to look at the last four franchises standing in the NFL playoffs and see three less-than-premier quarterbacks leading teams that have have been built primarily on defense.
The Minnesota Vikings, for instance, are dominant thanks to a ferocious interior defensive line and a great secondary featuring cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith.
With the Washington Redskins facing a major decision at the quarterback position this offseason, the gut reaction might be to go all-in on defense and spend the money slotted on Kirk Cousins elsewhere — seems to have worked, after all, for the Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Not so fast.
While the Eagles and the Vikings might be starting Nick Foles and Case Keenum this weekend, both teams have swung deep — multiple times — to try and build a contender around a top QB.
The New England Patriots might be the outlier among the four remaining teams, considering Tom Brady had a cap hit of only $14 million this season. That’s an absurdly cheap number for arguably the best quarterback of all-time. Brady agreed to the give the team a discount, given their track record. Winning five Super Bowls helps.
But the Vikings initially went into the year with Sam Bradford as their starter. Not only does Bradford make $18 million, he was acquired at a steep premium. After Teddy Bridgewater suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2016, the Vikings forked over a first and a fourth-round pick to the Eagles.
Keenum, who makes just $2 million, was brought in as insurance because Bridgewater, also a former first-rounder, wasn’t healthy for training camp. It turned out to be a great find, but it wasn’t how the Vikings envisioned getting to the NFC championship.
The Eagles, meanwhile, traded Bradford so Carson Wentz, their first-round draft pick in 2016, could play right away.
Wentz, after all, was acquired with the second pick in the draft — and to get him, the Eagles had to trade five draft picks to the Browns: Philadelphia’s first, third and fourth-round picks in 2016, their first-round pick in 2017 and a 2018 second-round pick.
The Browns are mocked for passing on Wentz, but they still got a haul by exploiting Philadelphia’s desperation to upgrade at the position.
And the Eagles were right to make the move. Before Wentz tore his ACL in December, he was the front-runner for the MVP. He played as much of a role in the Eagles’ resurgence as their defense.
Jacksonville’s best formula for winning is to force turnovers and rely on running back Leonard Fournette. But only four years ago, Jacksonville made the decision to use a top-three draft selection on Bortles — a decision that, until now, looked like a bust.
Like Washington, Jacksonville has a QB decision looming. They could pick up Bortles’ fifth year for a $19 million option — or look elsewhere in free agency. The Jaguars have an elite defense, but they will go into the offseason with the same uncertainty the Redskins have — who will line up in next fall at the team’s most important position.
Earlier this month, Cousins said he feels like a team can still be competitive while paying top dollar for a quarterback.
“I look at a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers … they pay the quarterback, the running back, the receiver, the right guard, the center, the left tackle — and they have a top five defense in the NFL,” Cousins told 106.7 The Fan. “They have kind of gone all in on a few people, but not at the expense at the rest of the team.”
The Redskins, obviously, will have to decide whether Cousins deserves to be paid like a top-tier quarterback. The team has the beginnings of a promising young defense, with their first three picks in last year’s draft coming on that side of the ball.
And finding another Wentz in the draft is never a guarantee.
The Denver Broncos know this firsthand. This year’s Broncos are far removed from the AFC championship, but it was only two years ago they won the Super Bowl thanks to a stingy, talented defense and an occasionally effective Peyton Manning. Manning retired that offseason, though, and Denver has been toothless since. Paxton Lynch, Denver’s 2016 top pick, looks like a miss.
Denver’s struggles are why Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall suggested on the NFL Network that he would like to see Cousins in Denver.
“We played against a guy in Week 16 that was pretty good,” Marshall said when asked who the Broncos should chase in free agency.
It’s up to the Redskins and Cousins to figure out if Cousins will be back for Washington next season. Using the league’s final four teams as an example of what to do, however, can be misleading.