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What Colin Kaepernick, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson do and do not show us about building NFL franchises

The AFC and NFC Conference Championships are set, which means a couple of different things — for one, most of America will be watching TV for a good portion of Sunday (more than 55 million people watched the 2010 and 2012 NFC Championship Games, for example) and, perhaps sadly for some, we only have three NFL games remaining until September. More broadly, though, we’re down to four teams — perceived by many to be the best four teams in the NFL this season — and thus four quarterbacks: two young bucks (Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson) on the NFC side and two veterans (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) on the AFC side.

We often talk about the NFL as a QB-driven league, and that’s fairly accurate overall. Consider the playoffs so far, for example: that Chiefs-Colts wild card game featured two QBs once drafted No. 1 overall (Alex Smith and Andrew Luck). While Carolina’s defense was their heart and soul this year, their QB (Cam Newton) is still a No. 1 overall pick — and they were one of four teams with a bye (ironically, they were the only team with a bye to lose, and that’s partially because they don’t have much in the way of downfield passing offense). It’s a QB league, though. Most people agree on that.

Think about this: since Peyton Manning went No. 1 overall in 1998, a QB has gone No. 1 eleven different times. Counting Manning, nine of those guys were a starter for an NFL team at some point this season. (Michael Vick and Sam Bradford are a bit iffy to be counted there, but they did technically start games in the NFL in 2013.)

So if we combine these two ideas — “QB league” + “QBs often taken No. 1 and often end up as starters somewhere many years later” — then it would seem to reason that the way you build a successful NFL franchise is you get a highly-touted QB, surround him with good people, and let the 12-win seasons wash over you.

But if you’re looking at just these four QBs playing this weekend, that actually isn’t the model. The model instead is based on the system and the offensive/defensive lines.

Start here: Manning was the No. 1 pick overall, yes. Tom Brady, possibly the biggest steal in NFL draft history (see video above), was No. 199. Colin Kaepernick was No. 36 (ironically, that involved a trade of picks with the Broncos, which could be a storyline if that’s our Super Bowl matchup) and Russell Wilson was No. 75. If you add up those four draft spots and divide by four, the average pick for these four guys was around No. 78 (and that’s with a heavy skew downward because of Manning being No. 1 overall). The 78th pick in the draft last year was Marquise Goodwin to the Bills; he caught 17 passes for 283 yards and 3 TD this year. That’s good, but that’s not the production you’re seeing from these four QBs — yet it’s the average slot of where they were drafted.

Obviously the Brady situation is a massive outlier, but what it all means is that system is important. Kaepernick wasn’t even the starter, or really ever expected to be — he was a system QB (Pistol) from Nevada who got in with a Jim Harbaugh-led team and Harbaugh, a former QB, saw that his best chance to win game with Kaepernick’s abilities. Brady has never played for anyone except Bill Belichick. Manning is a system unto himself. Wilson was another guy who wasn’t supposed to be an active force in the starter discussion — until he was. But he’s nimble and mobile and accurate and it worked best for the system.

On the QB front, then, it matters more who the coach is, what the system is, and what is needed from you in the system. This is why you’ll see a guy like Matt Flynn fail to become “the guy” in multiple places, then go back to Green Bay and be instrumental in helping them get to the playoffs. The 2014 NFL draft is loaded with QBs and yet, it might not be one of the big-name guys (Bridgewater, Bortles, Manziel) that is making NFL playoff runs — it could be someone like a Zach Mettenberger, depending on the system he ends up in and how it works with him.

What’s interesting about all this is that we often think of the NFL as another world, so distant from day-to-day life (participants are “warriors,” etc.), but in reality, success in the NFL is about the same thing as success in an office job: culture, fit, need, etc.

The other key idea we can learn from these four teams is that when you build, you should build around the OL/DL. Look at Seattle’s draft history; their first pick in two consecutive years was an O-Lineman (Russell Okung and James Carpenter). Both have been instrumental (Okung was hurt for part of 2013) in their run over the past two years. Since 2010, 14 of their picks have been spent on front-line guys. Here’s San Francisco. Their top two picks in 2010 — No. 11 and 17 overall — were OL. 40 percent of their 2011 picks — the same year they got Kaepernick — were OL/DL, including Aldon Smith (key cog). New England spent 25 percent of their 2010 picks on OL/DL — and that’s the year they got Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Spikes too. Their top pick in 2011 (Nate Solder) was OL, and in 2012 (Chandler Jones) it was a DE. You think of the Broncos only about offense — WR/TE corps — but four of their picks in 2010 (the Tim Tebow year) were OL/DL, and they’ve taken a D-Lineman as their top pick in the past two drafts.

It’s a small sample size and the QBs involved were often a seemingly magical mix of right place and right time (minus Manning), but if you were an NFL GM with a long-struggling franchise (Jags, Browns, et al), look at Conference Championship weekend and realize you don’t need to spend that No. 5 overall pick on a QB — you can get a QB in the 60s/70s and be fine if it’s the right match with the coach and the philosophy. Focus on building up front first and look for culture fits down the board.

Ted Bauer

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