The Kolb Delusion is the belief that replacing one journeyman quarterback with another will really make a lick of difference for a bad team.
Over the past few weeks, the Raiders acquired Matt Flynn from the Seahawks to replace Carson Palmer, who was traded to the Cardinals to replace Kevin Kolb, who was signed by the Bills to replace Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was signed by the Titans. In a more poetic universe, Matt Hasselbeck would move from Tennessee back to Seattle to complete this sad little Krebs cycle, but the Seahawks don't really swim in this shallow pool anymore. They were just dropping off some leftovers at the consignment shop.
In a smaller eddy of this disappointment vortex, the Browns signed Jason Campbell to continue their tradition of depressing quarterback controversies, the Bills signed Tarvaris Jackson then forgot about him, and the Cardinals warmed up for the Palmer deal by signing Drew Stanton, a guy who can never even pick out a locker and take a snap before his new team grabs another quarterback and shoos him down the depth chart.
It was an elaborate, ritualized dance between the NFL's worst teams and least desirable starting (or near-starting) quarterbacks. Each trade and signing appeared newsworthy when it happened, but the big picture shows a bunch of teams taking one step to the right. The teams made these moves to escape from regrettable contracts, and in most cases to get a little younger at quarterback. They made the moves to pressure incumbent prospects or (probably) provide veteran support for rookies. The teams made the moves to erase some sins of past regimes. All of these are legitimate reasons for change, but none of them are the best reason for change: to acquire a significantly better quarterback who can improve the team. None of the teams acquired a playoff-caliber quarterback, or someone with a realistic chance of developing into a playoff-caliber quarterback; the best any of them did was to acquire a player who used to be a playoff-caliber quarterback.
Bad teams often make moves to prevent cap calamities or sweep the foolishness of the past into the dustbin. That is what makes them bad teams. As a rundown of the recent quarterback churning reveals, the Kolb Delusion is the mistaken belief that bad NFL teams can make themselves better by making themselves less worse.
Kevin Kolb, Buffalo Bills
There is a hypothetical Kevin Kolb that can be stitched together from the best fragments of his career: productive games against the Chiefs in 2009 and Falcons in 2010 for the Eagles; his 2011 season opener for the Cardinals against the Panthers; several moments of the four-game Cardinals winning streak he helped orchestrate at the start of last season. Those snippets are stretched over his career with the help of some circumstantial sackcloth: Andy Reid's high regard and extended tutelage, Kolb's arm and accuracy on short throws, a straight-shooting personality that makes Kolb the kind of guy you would happily lend your pickup truck.
The hypothetical Kolb could still turn the corner and become a productive starting quarterback for several seasons. Unfortunately, the actual Kolb is about to turn 29 years old and has flunked two extended opportunities as a starting quarterback. The actual Kolb is a quarterback who has been sacked on 9.3 percent of his attempts to pass. When Kolb drops to pass, three things can happen, two of them are bad, and one of them happens every 10th play.
There have been successful quarterbacks with higher sack percentages than Kolb, but most of them had names like Staubach and Dawson, and they played in an era when defenders could use "Rollerball" tactics. The only active quarterbacks with career sack percentages more than 9.0 are Charlie Batch and David Carr, career backups who lost their last starting jobs years ago. Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith all hover in the eight-percent range, proving that success is possible with a slightly lower sack rate. There is only one problem: Kolb's sack rate has increased in each of his NFL seasons since 2009. In his two Cardinals years, it leapt from 10.6 percent to 12.9 percent. Before you blame the Cardinals offense, note that the team's overall sack rates were 8.9 percent and 8.7 percent in those years, meaning the combination of John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, Brian Hoyer and Richard Bartell -- none of whom have the sudden release of Dan Marino -- was significantly harder to sack than Kevin Kolb.
The actual Kolb is getting worse at the one skill that completely negates his arm, his accuracy and his gumption. After a few low-sack games to start 2012, Kolb regressed alarmingly against the Dolphins, Rams and Bills, getting dumped 17 times in three games before getting hurt. Kolb reverted to his old habits after just a handful of starts (which he only earned because Skelton was hurt in the season opener). He dropped to pass, hesitated if he did not like what he saw, and rolled right at the first hint of danger, his speed only a minor asset in 2009 and now more of a minor liability. Kolb does not yet qualify for the all-time sack percentage leaderboards he should share with Batch, Carr and the others, because he has not yet thrown enough passes, which is a natural byproduct of taking far too many hits to stay in the lineup.
The hypothetical Kolb could be an effective quarterback given a clean pocket. The actual Kolb requires no pass rush whatsoever: He can be effective behind the 1983 Redskins offensive line, or in a 7-on-7 drill.
Kolb now shares a depth chart with Tarvaris Jackson, whose career sack rate is a too-high 7.8 percent. Bills fans who are reading this have already cringed in anticipation of the mention of Rob Johnson, the most sackable quarterback of all time at 14.8 percent, a full percentage point higher than Bobby Douglass, a Bears legend who a) played in the sack-crazy 1970s; b) was essentially a running back playing quarterback; and c) was awful. The Bills are either preparing to draft a quarterback, or they want their fans to endure almost as much pain as their quarterbacks.
Kolb has the "mentor" skill set; like Batch and Carr, he could latch onto a successful team and be a valued backup and confidante for years. Nearly all of the great games that make up the hypothetical Kolb's resume are spot starts or season openers -- occasions when every element of the game plan can be carefully scripted, evidence that Kolb is best suited for brief emergency stints behind a true franchise quarterback. A Geno Smith, Matt Barkley or Ryan Nassib would likely take to his guidance, and while Ryan Fitzpatrick could do the same things, Kolb will do them cheaper. But the Bills must be ready for the eventuality that Kolb will get injured before the midway point in the season, just as the actual Kolb did in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Kolb does not slow a team's need to develop a rookie quarterback, he accelerates it.
Jason Campbell, Cleveland Browns
Since their rebirth in 1999, the Browns have behaved like distracted preschoolers on Christmas morning when it comes to quarterbacks: Give them a shiny new toy, and they inevitably start playing with the box. The perfect Browns depth chart includes both a middling prospect and a creaky journeyman, with the team financially invested in the former and emotionally in the latter: Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb, Charlie Frye and Trent Dilfer, Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, Colt McCoy and Jake Delhomme. Last year's attempt to combine the middling prospect and creaky journeyman into one convenient Brandon Weeden-shaped package backfired, as the Browns learned what every employer on earth could have told them: The 28-year old who is still finishing up college is not fast-track material. Hence, Jason Campbell is now on hand to provide competition for Weeden, giving the Browns the same multiple-choice test that they have been flunking for 14 years.
It is important to note that Browns prospects rarely "fail" in the traditional sense. They just fade away as the team grows infatuated with a Holcomb or late-career Jeff Garcia. Quinn had some impressive games in 2009 while throwing to the likes of Chansi Stuckey, then disappeared. McCoy's greatest failure was his inability to be a "company man" when the Browns treated the most obvious concussion in the history of professional sports as a finger injury. Weeden looked viable at times after an awful start last year; if you subscribe to the theory that a quarterback his age can develop significantly (a theory the outgoing Browns brass must have subscribed to), then there were signs of development in October and November. The new regime is clearly more skeptical about Weeden's long-term potential, though not quite skeptical enough to bring in anyone more threatening than a token challenger.
Campbell has had a lot of bad breaks in his pro career, and he has made the least of them. Campbell has been the starting quarterback for several teams in the throes of a coup d'état or regime change. When Campbell is in the lineup, chances are the head coach is either getting stripped of play-calling duties or declaring himself Organizational Emperor and setting fire to the team's future. Campbell survived Jim Zorn, Hue Jackson and one game in Chicago where Lovie Smith and Mike Tice were so afraid of their hand-chosen backup that they let him him throw only 22 passes (none longer than 18 yards) in a lopsided blowout. Campbell has been receding annually since his solid 2008 season and a passable follow-up (despite Zornsanity) in 2009. Attempts, touchdowns, efficiency rating and other indicators have declined in each of the last four years and were not very high to begin with.
The Campbell who played for the Bears last year couldn't "challenge" anyone. He may serve as a tiny hurdle in Cleveland: If Weeden beats him for the starting job, then Weeden enters the season with more confidence from teammates, fans, the new ownership and himself than he would have had if he just sputtered through camp as an uncontested starter. If Weeden loses to Campbell, the new regime can point fingers at the old. It's a win-win scenario for a team that too often considers two wins an accomplishment.
The worst thing about the Campbell acquisition is that the Browns will once again get older at quarterback if he wins a starting job. Finding a veteran to push Weeden was tricky, because Weeden is older than many veterans (Kolb, for example, is ten months younger). Campbell-as-mentor takes us back to the supposition that a soon-to-be-30-year old needs mentorship. The Browns appear unlikely to leap into the quarterback pool in the first round, but could snatch a Zac Dysert/Tyler Bray project on Day Two. Either that, or they can just give up and re-sign Brian Sipe.
Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
If football were baseball, Palmer would be a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, the proverbial "innings eater." He was once excellent. Now, his skills boil down to showing up, being prepared/professional and being better than all of the horrible alternatives a team without a capable veteran quarterback faces.
Palmer has started 24 games since his strange semi-retirement/conscientious objection in the summer and fall of 2011. They were 24 of the least relevant starts a modern quarterback can have. Palmer briefly got the Raiders into a dreary playoff race in the gruesome 2011 AFC West for a few November weeks, then embarked on a losing streak that lasted roughly a full calendar year while the Raiders exiled Hue Jackson to Elba Island and tried to restore what passes for organizational order in Oakland. Like the No. 3 starter on some small-market baseball team, Palmer dutifully compiled stats: 6,753 passing yards and 35 touchdowns in 1.5 seasons' work, a tiny bit of that production actually contributing to victories.
Palmer threw 565 passes last season. Only 48 of those passes were thrown with the Raiders leading in the game. Another 109 came with the score tied; 58 of those with the score 0-0 in the first quarter. Another 126 passes were thrown with the Raiders trailing by seven points or less. That leaves 282 passes -- almost exactly half of Palmer's attempts -- that were thrown with the Raiders trailing by more than a touchdown. Palmer threw 124 passes, completing 82 for 931 yards, while trailing by 10 points or more in the fourth quarter. Roughly 23 percent of his production came in the most hopeless of circumstances.
For all of this, Football Outsiders (the source of all of those breakdowns) rated Palmer as almost exactly a league-average quarterback, earning a DVOA of negative-2.4 percent. (For DVOA, average is zero; a league leader like Tom Brady comes in at 35.4 percent, a mess like Mark Sanchez at negative-29.9 percent). Compared to a "replacement level quarterback," a Ryan Lindley or Byron Leftwich, Palmer looked much better: His 334 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) ranked him 18th in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Palmer has become Derek Lowe: once great, now just competent and willing.
Competent and willing is much more valuable in baseball; in the NFL, it's available for a seventh-round pick. Palmer was a horrible fit in Oakland once Hue Jackson left; Greg Knapp wanted a rollout quarterback, and Palmer was immobile at his peak. The Cardinals have been searching for consistently average-ish quarterback play since Kurt Warner retired. If the Cardinals draft a rookie, Palmer makes a great caretaker: good enough to start for a full season if needed, successful enough to provide a youngster with first-hand knowledge of what a Pro Bowl quarterback must do to succeed.
The Palmer acquisition could be the best move of the veteran shuffle, assuming that it is part of an organized plan, not a quarterback logjam. The Cardinals' decision to release John Skelton was encouraging, as there was no reason to keep stringing him along. Drew Stanton is once again the NFL equivalent of an office NCAA tournament pool sheet: relevant for about two weeks in March, then either discarded or forgotten. The Cardinals cannot go to training camp with Palmer, Stanton, Brian Hoyer, Lindley and a rookie on the depth chart because there are not enough meaningful reps to go around. Palmer, Stanton and a rookie would be more than adequate, but the Cardinals have a bad habit of spreading themselves too thin at quarterback.
The trick with middle-of-the-order guys in baseball is recognizing them for what they are. The same goes for journeyman quarterbacks. It's not what Palmer does for the Cardinals that will matter. It's what the Cardinals do while Palmer holds down the fort.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tennessee Titans
Fitzpatrick showed the world what a borderline starter can do in October of 2011. A borderline starter can look great for a month, given the right system and circumstances. A borderline starter can become a "buzz" player, with television experts suddenly vaulting him into the "elite" class and fans convinced that he has blossomed into a franchise quarterback. A borderline starter can sign a six-year, $59-million millstone of a contract at the exact height of his hot streak. A borderline starter can revert to borderline form within days after signing that contract. His contract, and his team's belief/hope that he might still earn it, can keep his team from participating in the most fertile quarterback draft of the quarter century. A borderline starter can eat up $10-million in cap space for two seasons after he has been released.
Given a fresh start and a less fiscally bonkers contract, a borderline starter like Fitzpatrick can be more of a boon and less of a locust plague. Fitzpatrick, like Palmer, can "munch innings" effectively and is a credible mentor. Like Jason Campbell, he has value as a push player -- Jake Locker can take a necessary forward step by winning a training camp battle, or the Titans can dust their hands of Locker if Fitzpatrick beats him. Fitzpatrick-Locker is a younger, more talented tandem than Weeden-Campbell; the Titans are the one team in this group that would not be well served by dipping into the rookie quarterback pool. Back in his proper role, Fitzpatrick is a useful player.
As for the Bills, they were forced to swap Fitzpatrick for Kolb, a downgrade in most categories, for mostly economic reasons. The Bills could have asked Fitzpatrick to renegotiate, but the reboot was easier, a chance to avoid hard feelings and start the Doug Marrone era off with new personnel. For all of his limitations, Fitzpatrick was durable, canny about avoiding hits and often fun to watch, three things that are never said of Kolb. The Bills' mistake was not playing Fitzpatrick, nor releasing him, but paying him so darned much that they were forced to do both at the wrong times.
Matt Flynn, Oakland Raiders
Matt Flynn did nothing wrong. He worked very hard. He performed well in practice. He didn't lose the Seahawks starting job. Russell Wilson ripped it from him. Wilson turned out to be a force of nature. Flynn just could not stop Wilson from overtaking him. Flynn did nothing wrong.
Here's the secret about quarterbacks in Flynn's weight class: There are a lot of them. Not much separates Flynn from Fitzpatrick when it comes to athletic ability. Campbell and Kolb are roughly in Flynn's class when you start weighing skills. Heck, so are many of the other quarterbacks we have mentioned: Tarvaris Jackson and Drew Stanton on their best days, Colt McCoy, maybe Weeden. None of them have Matthew Stafford's arm, Michael Vick's legs or Peyton Manning's mind, but all of them throw well and can run a little, show up for meetings on time and give the head coach a firm handshake.
For quarterbacks like these, the difference between becoming a quality starter and bouncing around the league forever is the difference between doing nothing wrong and doing some things right. Given a three-year, $19.5-million contract and a clear path to a starting job, a quarterback in this weight class cannot afford to simply do nothing wrong. He has to see the rookie in the rear view and stomp extra-hard on the accelerator.
Flynn never stomped. Wilson buzz started at the very beginning of Seahawks camp last year. Flynn had to hear it and feel it. Those who watched practice daily saw a Mustang passing a minivan on a steep hill. If Flynn was going full throttle, his preseason performances -- a paltry 5.2 yards per pass on 39 passes, one touchdown to Wilson's five -- didn't show it. We learned later of a shoulder injury that never quite landed him on the injured list; it's the kind of injury that saves face and preserves trade value, though it didn't appear to work on either count.
The book we have on Flynn now consists of: a) two exciting starts in two seasons for one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL; b) a fine senior season for BCS champion LSU five years ago, but an overall skill set that left him on the draft board into the seventh round; c) two straight offseasons on the market with very lukewarm interest; and d) the memory of a quarterback powerless to keep his starting job when a plucky rookie asserted himself. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was in Green Bay with Flynn, and remembers when Flynn overtook Brian Brohm to become Aaron Rodgers' backup. McKenzie has a bigger book on Flynn than most of us. He is comfortable with Flynn's talent level and Flynn's work habits, and he should be: Flynn, remember, did nothing wrong. McKenzie also holds the third pick in the draft, and recent rumors have Geno Smith leaving the board in the first three selections, an oddly specific prediction that should prompt Flynn to see if he can pop the clutch this year.
Flynn arrives in Oakland with several distinct advantages over Palmer. He is six years younger and about $6-million cheaper. He was not acquired by a former head coach who mistook "Game of Thrones" for a coaching seminar. He is not better than Palmer right now, but there is still a chance that he will be a quality starter in two years, which is certainly not true in Palmer's case. Overall, though, this is another case of a team juggling journeymen for all the reasons bad teams are forced to juggle journeymen: to erase past mistakes, to clean up the cap ledger, to signal change, to eliminate the need for immediate help from a rookie and to roll the dice in the hope of boxcars, knowing that they didn't ante up very much if they crap out.
Flynn has found good company. Kolb earned starting jobs, only to lose them to Vick and Skelton. Fitzpatrick gave the Bills six weeks of glory and two years of regret. Palmer, the best of this bunch, was abandoned by the Bengals on the wayside to deal with Post T-Ocho Stress Disorder before Jackson brought him along on his power trip. Campbell … if there was ever a quarterback about whom it could be said that doing nothing wrong was precisely the problem, it is Jason Campbell.
The quarterbacks are who they have been for years. So are the teams that keep shuffling them. To draft and/or develop someone better is to rebuild, or at least try to crawl out of a mediocrity cycle. To keep turning to this kind of player over and over again is to remain forever trapped in the Kolb delusion.
Long-time readers know that I got my start in this business writing offbeat-but-informative scouting reports for the NFL Draft. This year, the weird, wacky, wonky reports will be over at my Tailgater blog, and you won't have to wait until the draft to read them!
The next two-and-a-half weeks are Draftathon season at the Tailgater. I will be writing dozens of scouting reports and other draft-related articles and musings. The site will be updated with fresh slabs of draft coverage every few hours. It all leads up to the first round on April 25, when colleague Matt Brown and I will be at Radio City Music Hall, reporting, chatting, blogging, tweeting and reveling in the on-stage man hugs.
So come visit me, starting Monday morning, as I chain myself to my desk and churn out draft coverage that appeals to draftniks and casual fans alike, I hope. It's a sprint to the finish, and like Manti Te'o at his pro day, I plan to impress you with my 40 time. Bad example! Bad Example! Anyway, stop by and read the funny.