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Where do Super Bowl quarterbacks come from?

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Whether this year or soon after, Jay Cutler’s days in Chicago are effectively numbered. Where can we find a quarterback who can guide us to a championship? A study of conference championship QBs since 1990 provides some answers.

Super Bowl XLVI

Whether today, next week, the end of this season or next year, the Bears are eventually going to move on from Jay Cutler.

The odds are high that when they do, he will not have reached his goal of winning a Super Bowl in Chicago.

This begs the question:

Where can we find our Super Bowl quarterback?

The answer, I assure you, is not via the unrestricted free agent pile. We published that list last week. It was horrifying and our commenters knew it.

“None of these guys make us better, but most of them do make us worse,” wrote MidWayMonster54 after reading the names of 23 unrestricted free agent quarterbacks the Bears could target in 2017.

“My eyes are bleeding,” wrote Cloud_9. “I’ll take my chances with a rookie QB,” wrote ESterps08.

They were right not to feel inspired. Only 7 of the 23 quarterbacks have started a game this year. Only two have ever made a Pro Bowl. Only three have won more than 50% of their career starts; those three are all at least 30 years old, and one of them is Brian Hoyer.

Because here’s the thing: free agent quarterback signees rarely win Super Bowls. In the modern postseason era (since 1990), only five of 26 champs have won a Super Bowl with a starting QB acquired through free agency. Even fewer did so with a veteran QB acquired via trade — just two in that time.

Cutler arrived via trade. It was a bold move that didn’t pan out. To get a handle on the QB options the Bears have moving forward, I crunched the numbers on all 51 quarterbacks who have started a conference championship game since the playoffs expanded 1990 to 12 teams.

About the spreadsheets: The first spreadsheet is Super Bowl-winning QBs, followed by the ones who lost the Super Bowl, followed by the ones who lost the conference championship game. “Starter” is the year they became a starter for that team, “as starter” are the number of years they spent as starter with that team before reaching a Super Bowl with that team.

Lastly, draft years in black are first round picks; draft years in yellow are second and third round picks.

Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks
Super Bowl-losing quarterbacks
Quarterbacks who lost the conference championship

In studying these 51 QBs, I identified three rules for finding a quarterback to lead you to a Super Bowl victory: use the draft, use a quarterback drafted in the first three rounds or, failing that, find a down-on-his-luck player of high pedigree.

My recommendation: draft.

Draft.

Draft.

Draft.

1. Use the draft

The 26 Super Bowls since the 1990 season have yielded 17 winning quarterbacks. For our purposes, we’re going to say 18, counting Peyton Manning twice, once with the Colts and once with the Broncos.

Let’s look again at that group of 18, along with the year of their first championship with that team and how they joined the team.

  • Peyton Manning, 2015 Broncos, 2012 free agent
  • Russell Wilson, 2013 Seahawks, 2012 draft
  • Joe Flacco, 2012 Ravens, 2008 draft
  • Aaron Rodgers, 2010 Packers, 2005 draft
  • Drew Brees, 2009 Saints, 2006 free agent
  • Eli Manning, 2007 Giants, 2004 draft day trade
  • Peyton Manning, 2006 Colts, 1998 draft
  • Ben Roethlisberger, 2005 Steelers, 2004 draft
  • Brad Johnson, 2002 Buccaneers, 2001 free agent
  • Tom Brady, 2001 Patriots, 2000 draft
  • Trent Dilfer, 2000 Ravens, 2000 free agent
  • Kurt Warner, 1999 Rams, 1998 free agent
  • John Elway, 1997 Broncos, 1983 draft day trade
  • Brett Favre, 1996 Packers, 1992 trade
  • Steve Young, 1994 49ers, 1987 trade
  • Troy Aikman, 1992 Cowboys, 1989 draft
  • Mark Rypien, 1991 D.C., 1986 draft
  • Jeff Hostetler, 1990 Giants, 1984 draft

Breaking down that list, nine of the 18 QBs were drafted by their teams. Two QBs — John Elway and Eli Manning — were acquired in trades before ever playing for the teams that drafted them. Two others — Steve Young and Brett Favre — were acquired via trade before they’d accomplished anything with the team that drafted them.

Kurt Warner went undrafted in 1994, spent four seasons in the Arena league, and joined the Rams in 1998 as a third-string quarterback, only getting his break after free agent prize Trent Green was lost for the season with an injury. The Rams were his de facto first NFL team.

Trent Dilfer signed with the Ravens in 2000 to be the backup, and took over the starting job midseason in the midst of a five-game stretch without an offensive touchdown.

That leaves three established quarterbacks who joined a new team specifically to be the starter and led that team to a championship. These are the templates you want to think about when you evaluate potential veteran quarterbacks for the Bears to pursue:

  • Brad Johnson, a Pro Bowler in Washington who signed with Tampa Bay in 2001 and won the Super Bowl the following year
  • Drew Brees, a Pro Bowler in San Diego who signed with New Orleans in 2006 and won a ring three seasons later
  • Peyton Manning, a Hall of Famer in Indianapolis who became available only after missing an entire season due to neck surgery, winning a ring in his fourth season in Denver before retiring

In the 50-year Super Bowl history, you can add two more champion quarterbacks to the Trent Dilfer he-was-supposed-to-be-the-backup list (Doug Williams and Jim Plunkett), but no other quarterbacks to the Johnson/Brees/Manning he’ll-lead-us-to-the-promised-land list.

All told, the draft or a draft-day trade produced 67% of QBs who started a Super Bowl since 1990, plus another 62% of the QBs who started and lost a conference championship game. QBs who lost a Super Bowl with a team for which they did not start their first NFL game:

  • Peyton Manning, 2013 Broncos (free agent)
  • Kurt Warner, 2008 Cardinals (free agent)
  • Matt Hasselbeck, 2005 Seahawks (trade)
  • Jake Delhomme, 2003 Panthers (free agent)
  • Rich Gannon, 2002 Raiders (free agent)
  • Chris Chandler, 1998 Falcons (trade)
  • Brett Favre, 1997 Packers (trade)
  • Stan Humphries, 1994 Chargers (trade)

Paring down that list, only Manning and Warner made a Pro Bowl with a prior team; they’re the only guys of those eight who were considered a successful commodity, and that’s giving Warner credit for his Rams days which were way in his rear view mirror when he joined Arizona.

More common than Manning with the Broncos, Breed with the Saints, Johnson with Tampa or even Warner with the Cardinals are the big-splash acquisitions that fail to take the team to the top.

Some lose in the conference championship, like Palmer in Arizona, Cutler in Chicago, Favre in Minnesota, or Testaverde on the Jets. Others crash and burn entirely: Culpepper in Miami, Grbac in Baltimore, Kramer in Chicago, or O’Donnell on the Jets.

Recycled quarterbacks are recycled for a reason. Sometimes the player’s old team makes a mistake. More often, the new team does.

2. Find someone drafted in the first three rounds

So if you want to win a Super Bowl, your best bet for acquiring a quarterback is through the draft. That holds this year too — eight of the top 10 teams atop the Vegas odds for Super Bowl LI champs drafted (or draft-day-traded for) their quarterbacks:

  • Patriots, 5 to 2 odds: Tom Brady, 2000, 6th round
  • Cowboys, 5 to 1: Dak Prescott, 2016, 4th round
  • Seahawks, 5 to 1: Russell Wilson, 2012, 3rd round
  • Steelers, 15 to 1: Ben Roethlisberger, 2004, 1st round
  • Raiders, 18 to 1: Derek Carr, 2014, 2nd round
  • Falcons, 20 to 1: Matt Ryan, 2008, 1st round
  • Broncos, 20 to 1: Trevor Siemian, 2015, 7th round
  • Chiefs, 25 to 1: Alex Smith, 2012 trade (1st rounder)
  • Giants, 25 to 1: Eli Manning, 2004 draft day trade (1st rounder)
  • Vikings, 30 to 1: Sam Bradford, 2016 trade (1st rounder)

You’ll notice that seven of those 10 players were drafted in the first three rounds. That’s another rule — Super Bowl-winning QBs tend to go early.

Fifteen Super Bowls since 1990 have been won by QBs drafted in the first round: Troy Aikman three times, each Manning brother twice, Elway and Roethlisberger twice, Joe Flacco (18th overall in 2008), Aaron Rodgers (24th in 2005), Trent Dilfer (6th in 1994), and Steve Young (1st in the 1984 Supplemental Draft for rookies who signed with the USFL or CFL).

Another four Super Bowls were won by quarterbacks drafted in either the second round (Brees/Favre) or the third (Wilson/Hostetler). That’s 73% of champs led by a QB drafted in the first three rounds.

One champ (Kurt Warner) was undrafted; another (Brad Johnson) was taken in the 9th round before the draft was trimmed to seven. Two champs (Brady and Rypien) were taken in the 6th round.

Here is the draft data for all conference championship quarterbacks since 1990. “R-U” are Super Bowl runners-up, and “CC R-U” are QBs who lost in a conference championship:

These numbers reflect total appearances, not total quarterbacks, so remember that Tom Brady owns 10 of the 17 appearances for quarterbacks in the 4th to 7th rounds, while Kurt Warner has three of the seven appearances for the “after round 7” category.

The point is, guys in the early portion of the draft are up there for a reason. Look again at the list of QBs on top 10 teams. Three of those teams use quarterbacks who were drafted first overall in their respective years: Manning ‘04, Smith ‘05, Bradford ‘10. Two more (Ryan in Atlanta, Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh) were top-10 picks.

After the current top 10 of the Vegas odds, the next best teams are all led by first- or second-round quarterbacks too. Four of those teams are led by QBs taken #1 overall: the Lions (Stafford ‘09) and Colts (Luck ‘12) are 40 to 1; the Cardinals (Palmer ‘03) and Panthers (Newton ‘11) are 50 to 1. Also 50 to 1 are the Ravens, Bengals, and Texans, with quarterbacks from the first, second, and second rounds, respectively.

3. Find a down-on-his-luck player of high pedigree

Brad Johnson was set to be the star of the 1998 Vikings.

A 9th round pick in 1992, Johnson spent his first four pro seasons as a reserve, not playing at all until ‘94, and getting a stint in NFL Europe in 1995. He played well in 1996 and 1997 and was the starter entering 1998. In the first game, he threw four TDs, two to veteran Cris Carter, two to rookie Randy Moss.

In the second game he sprained his ankle and lost his job to eventual league MVP Randall Cunningham. The Vikings traded Johnson to Washington, he made a Pro Bowl, and when he became a free agent in 2001 he was the rare commodity: a Pro Bowl, free agent quarterback with a QB rating over 80. He signed with Tampa Bay; two years later he was a champion.

This is the kind of player a team should pursue when said team needs a final piece, just like the 2001 Buccaneers did when they went after Johnson. If you’re not going to draft your Super Bowl quarterback, you have to acquire a veteran whose circumstances stunted or his progress and ran him out of town.

Brad Johnson looks to pass Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Johnson lost his job to Cunningham because of injury, Brees lost his job to the higher-drafted and younger Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning lost his job with the Colts in a combination of those.

Looking at Super Bowl losers with quarterbacks they didn’t draft, (other than Manning’s arrival in Denver, which we covered):

Kurt Warner’s production in St. Louis and then with the Giants dipped enough to get him to Arizona. Matt Hasselbeck was drafted to the Packers by Mike Holmgren, who then traded for Hasselbeck when he went to coach the Seahawks. Jake Delhomme’s career path was similar to Warner’s arrival on the Rams. Rich Gannon and Chris Chandler were merely serviceable until they fell into optimal circumstances in Oakland and Atlanta. Stan Humphries won a ring as a backup in Washington, was traded to San Diego, and took the Chargers to the big game.

This works for winners too who fall outside the preferred background. Steve Young and Brett Favre were traded before their first teams knew what they had. Trent Dilfer was chased away from the Bucs, the team that drafted him, and won a ring in Baltimore his first year there. Tom Brady was famously motivated by his sixth round selection, as was fellow sixth round pick Mark Rypien.

The only guy who really falls outside these historic parameters is Warner in 1999. He is the only Super Bowl-champion quarterback since 1990 who was not drafted in the first three rounds, never made a Pro Bowl before the season in question, and did not attend a major football program in college. He did have some pedigree when he arrived in St. Louis: he was first team all-Arena in 1996 and 1997 with the Iowa Barnstormers.

So, who can the Bears find?

Looking around the league, there aren’t many misunderstood gems or haven’t-gotten-a-shot yet players who fall into the third category. With the Bears now 2-8, we are skating toward a top 5 pick. That’s the best bet in my opinion. We haven’t taken a quarterback in the first round (actually, first three rounds) since Rex in 2003, tied for the sixth longest stretch for a franchise not drafting a QB in the first round.

(In case you’re wondering: Bengals ‘03, Texans ‘02, Pats ‘93, Seahawks ‘93, Cowboys ‘89, Chiefs ‘83, Saints ‘71.)

If we don’t draft a quarterback in the first round (and damn, seriously, let’s draft a quarterback in the first round, if not this year then next), we’ve got a few guys currently in the league who fit one of our molds. E.J. Manuel of Buffalo falls into the 2006 Drew Brees Mold, a recent first round pick from a big college program who has fallen out of favor before reaching his peak.

Teddy Bridgewater might qualify for the 2001 Brad Johnson Mold, although he’s accomplished less than Johnson had at that point.

Tony Romo is the 2012 Peyton Manning Mold, but he’ll be 37 and returning from injury. He could qualify for the Plunkett Principle, but even he would four years older than Plunkett. Also, as terrific as Romo has been, he’s 2-4 in the playoffs and has never reached a conference championship game.

I personally am still a fan of Colin Kaepernick, who fits the 2005 Kurt Warner Mold (a comet of a star who seemingly flamed out but has more left in the tank), but he’s pricey for a stopgap option.

And in the 1992 Brett Favre Mold is Jimmy Garoppolo of the Patriots. In Belichick we trust, right? Jimmy G will be 26 next year, was a second round pick, and played well in relief of Brady. He’s the best of an uninspiring lot.

The answer is simple: the draft is where it’s at. Apparently this is not a great year to draft a quarterback. As my colleague Josh Sunderbruch explains, nearly EVERY year is touted as “not a great year to draft a quarterback,” and nearly every year, a quality quarterback breaks through the fog.

So pretty please Ryan Pace, with sugar on top, let’s draft a quarterback in the first round. If no one pans out as a first rounder this year, let’s grab someone in the top three rounds and get a first rounder next year.

Please, please, please start drafting quarterbacks. We don’t ask for much.