Cleveland Browns – That Oh, So Elusive Quarterback

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Since their return to the NFL in 1999, the Cleveland Browns have had 22 starting quarterbacks. That’s the most – by far – of any NFL team during this time period. Three teams share a distant second place for this dubious distinction with 18 . . . the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders. The difference is that these three second place teams have seen the post season a combined eleven times. The Browns – only once.

Over these past fifteen years, the Browns have drafted eight quarterbacks (four in the 1st round), traded for four and signed ten more through free agency. During this same time frame, they have had only one quarterback start all sixteen games in a single season (Tim Couch in 2001). Considering that the Browns’ combined record over these fifteen years is a dismal 84-172-0 (0.328), the group that has fared the best has been the Free Agent quarterbacks. Their combined record is 37-58-0 (0.390). Drafted quarterbacks have combined for a 42-95-0 record (0.307) and quarterbacks obtained via a trade have only a 5-18-0 (0.217) record.

It’s not like Cleveland didn’t even try to find a quarterback. Not surprisingly, there was an absolute dearth of QB talent in the 1999 Expansion draft. The Browns selected Scott Milanovich from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He didn’t even make the Browns expansion roster. Then came the NFL draft in which the Browns had the number 1 overall pick. In the weeks leading up to the draft, it was reported that the Browns had narrowed it down to Akili Smith, Donovan McNabb or Tim Couch.

Obviously, the Browns selected Tim Couch number one overall (Akili Smith went #2 to Cincinnati and Donovan McNabb went #3 to Philadelphia). It could have been Otto Graham re-incarnated and it wouldn’t have made a difference as the rest of the roster was composed of castoffs from the other 30 NFL teams, rookies and a select few Free Agents. The Browns proceeded to post the franchise’s worst ever record of 2-14 that year. Had Couch been drafted by any other team that had their core group of players in place, I suspect he would have gone on to have a very productive NFL career. As it was, he still started 59 games for the Browns. The most of any of these 22 starting quarterbacks.

The following year is the draft that everyone refers to when talking about finding a late round gem. Tom Brady was drafted in the 6th round with the 199th overall pick. Every team in the NFL passed on Brady 198 times before he was finally drafted by the Patriots. The Browns? . . . They drafted Spergon Wynn 16 picks prior to Brady. In his entire NFL career, Wynn started a total of 3 games, one for the Browns and the other two for the Vikings, and he lost all three of them.

2001 was the next near miss for the Browns. In the first round (#3 overall) they selected defensive lineman Gerald “Big Money” Warren. In the second round, they picked wide receiver Quincy Morgan with the 33rd overall pick. Drew Brees was selected with the 32nd overall pick.

Then, in 2004, the Browns owned the 6th pick in the draft. Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers were already off the board. Manning was drafted #1 by the Chargers followed by a hissy fit and then traded to the New York Giants who had drafted Philip Rivers with the 2nd pick. The Browns, however, selected Kellen Winslow, Jr. with the 6th pick and then watched Ben Roethlisberger get drafted by the Steelers at #11. Over the next eleven years, Roethlisberger and the Steelers would beat the Browns 19 times in 22 games. The once fierce rivalry was officially over.

In 2005, the Browns had just traded for Trent Dilfer. He was brought in to mentor Charlie Frye who was drafted in the 3rd round the year before. (They later claimed Derek Anderson off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens.) Meanwhile, in the draft, the Browns picked Braylon Edwards with the 3rd overall pick. One of the top quarterback prospects that year fell all the way down to the 24th pick. His name was Aaron Rodgers.

2007 was the only the second time since returning to the NFL where the Browns drafted a quarterback in the first round. After drafting future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas with the 3rd overall pick, the Browns gave up their 1st round pick in 2008 to get back into the 1st round and selected Brady Quinn with the 22nd overall pick. Then, in 2012, the Browns used the 22nd overall pick obtained from the Falcons a year earlier (in the Julio Jones trade) and drafted Brandon Weeden.

That was followed up in 2014 (after picking Justin Gilbert with their own pick at #8) by trading up from the #26 pick (obtained from the Colts for Trent Richardson) with the Eagles for the 22nd overall pick. With this pick, they selected Johnny Manziel. Of the three quarterbacks drafted by the Browns by using the second of two first round picks (all three coincidentally with the 22nd overall pick), their combined record so far is 8-26-0 (0.240).

Clearly, most of the changes at quarterback for the Browns were made due to an injury to the starter. (In 2010 alone, all three starting quarterbacks suffered high ankle sprains.) However, there’s an old axiom in northern Ohio that states that the most popular person in Cleveland is the Browns’ back-up quarterback and this has been proven to be true year after year. Poor performance on the field in Cleveland will no doubt find that quarterback holding a clipboard the following week . . . or worse. The most notorious change at quarterback occurred in 2007.

Charlie Frye was a local product that was drafted out Akron in the 3rd round of the 2005 draft. Due to combination of poor performance and a dispute between starter Trent Dilfer and the coaching staff, Charlie ended up starting the final five games of his rookie season. He then went on the start 13 games in 2006 before going down with an injury and was replaced by back-up Derek Anderson for the final three games. Then, after a horrific first quarter in the 2007 opening day game against the Steelers, Frye was benched and replaced by back-up Derek Anderson. The very next day Head Coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage traded Frye to Oakland for a 6th round draft pick. Derek Anderson became the new starting quarterback and the chants for Brady Quinn began.

Of the top 16 quarterbacks in the NFL today, 62.5% were drafted in the first round. Four of them were drafted #1 overall and a total of seven were drafted with one of the top 10 slots. Four more were drafted in either the 2nd or 3rd round and only two were drafted in the 4th round or later or were undrafted at all. However, as Browns fans know all too well, simply drafting a quarterback in the first round is not a guarantee for success. For every one of those 10 quarterbacks that make up the 62%, there are even more drafted in the first round that didn’t deliver the goods. Akili Smith, Matt Leinhart, Jamarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Cade McNown (and yes Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden) to name a few all failed to help their respective teams improve to the next level.

 

The bottom line is that finding a quarterback that will perform in the top half of the league is a crap shoot. A General Manager will have a better chance of filling out a perfect bracket for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament than finding the next Tom Brady in the late rounds of the draft.

It does pay however to look ahead. In February of 1992, the Green Bay Packers traded for a young quarterback named Brett Favre who had just completed his rookie season. During the physical which was required as part of the trade, Favre was diagnosed with avascular necrosis of the hip (the same degenerative condition that helped end Bo Jackson’s NFL career) and the doctors recommended that the physical be failed. General Manager Ron Wolf overruled them and Favre went on to set the NFL record for most consecutive starts (298 – 322 including post season). By 2005, Wolf figured that Favre had to quit sooner or later and drafted Aaron Rogers in the 1st round with the 24th overall pick. It would be three years before Rodgers traded his clipboard for a starting job. In the seven years since, Rodgers has started either 15 or 16 games in all but one season.

It also helps to be lucky (if losing your starting quarterback can be considered lucky). In 2011, Peyton Manning went down for the season with a neck injury after starting 16 games for 13 straight seasons and leading the Colts to playoffs during eleven of those seasons. The Colts finished the year with a record of 2-12 and earned the #1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. That just happened to be the draft that the next “sure fire elite quarterback” came out. Andrew Luck was drafted with that #1 overall pick and he has gone on to start in 16 games in every season since and making the playoffs each year.

Everyone has his or her own criteria for what makes a quarterback “elite”. Most simply use statistics such as completion percentage, TD to Interception ratio and, obviously, wins and losses. I’ve even seen fans declare their quarterback as “elite” based on how many rings they have. (To me, an NFL championship ring is a team accomplishment – not an individual accomplishment.) I have yet to see anyone use a metric that defines how durable a quarterback is and then combine that metric with the obvious on field performance statistics. In other words, how good will a team be if their “elite” quarterback is standing on the sideline wearing a walking boot yelling, “Rah, Rah!” ?

So I took some time and compared each NFL team’s win loss record over the past fifteen years to how many quarterbacks did they have starting over the same time period.

There were only nine teams that compiled a won/loss record of over 0.500 and used less than 1.75 starting quarterbacks per year over the past fifteen years. These nine teams (Patriots, Giants, Colts, Packers, Chargers, Saints, Ravens, Broncos and Seahawks) have won 12 out of the last 15 NFL Championships. If you take it to less than two starting quarterbacks per year (add the Steelers, Eagles and Cowboys), that number increases to 14 out of 15. These twelve teams (38% of the NFL teams) have won 93% of the NFL Championships over the past fifteen years.

Translation: Not only do you have to have a quarterback that can actually perform at the NFL level (even if his performance is less than top 10 worthy), you have to both keep him upright for a minimum of 15 games per season and stick with him during the inevitable periods where his performance drops off.

The Browns have done neither. Instead they opted to let the only quarterback they’ve had in the past fifteen years that posted a winning percentage of over 0.500 walk in free agency. They chose to replace him with a quarterback whose career winning percentage is 0.035. And they did this under the guise of bringing him in to “mentor” the most popular person in Cleveland. At least he was the most popular person in Cleveland until the Browns folded to pressure of the “Johnny Chants” last year and then watched their latest quarterback savior post numbers worse than the aforementioned Spergon Wynn.

So, unless the roster changes between now and opening day, the worst the Browns can do is extend their lead in number of starting quarterbacks from 22 to 23. Three out of the four quarterbacks currently on the roster have already posted a start for the Browns. Only Josh McCown stands as the next Browns quarterback virgin. The Bears, Dolphins and Raiders all return their starter from last year so, barring injury to one of these three, the lead will no doubt be extended.

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I am a transplanted Connecticut Yankee. My family moved to Northern Ohio in the very early 1950's and plopped me right smack dab in the middle of the Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley era Cleveland Browns and I have been a fan ever since. I'm also an avid history buff so the combination of the NFL and history seems to be a perfect match for me. I hope that I will be successful in sharing some of my research on the history of the NFL and hope you learn something new while reading my articles.
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