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For the Commanders, finding a quarterback matters above all else


After the 2017 NFL season, a couple of Stanford eggheads produced a brief analysis using our newest frightening technology, AI (yes, it’s that ancient), to predict college quarterback preparedness for the pros. It’s rife with mathematical formulas employing numbers and Greek letters that may as well be Sanskrit. But of all the conclusions their research could have landed upon, they mentioned one in completely decipherable English that surprised me:

“Washington should beware that releasing current quarterback Kirk Cousins (who is definitely NFL-ready),” they surmised, “in favor of incoming Oklahoma State phenomenon Mason Rudolph might be costly.”

Now, had there been bumper stickers in 2017 like the ones in the 1970s that showed support for one Washington quarterback over another — I Like Sonny (Jurgensen) or I Like Billy (Kilmer) — I would not have sported Cousins’s name on the back of my whip. In hindsight, I was wrong.

Since Cousins left after that 2017 season, at least a dozen guys have tried their hand at the game’s most important position for Washington. All have been sacked, either felled by injury, as was the case with Cousins’s immediate replacement, Alex Smith, or ineffectiveness.

In recently departed coach Ron Rivera’s four seasons alone, nine guys started at quarterback. They combined to lose 40 of 67 games and never had a winning campaign. Whatever happened to Garrett Gilbert, anyway?

So I don’t care much about who the coach is. It doesn’t seem to be the most important hire at this moment. Whether the next sideline boss was to be the latest hotshot, Detroit offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who decided otherwise, or a legend, Bill Belichick, who apparently didn’t excite enough of the new stewards at team headquarters in Ashburn, so what? That it will be Dan Quinn may be uninspiring, but he won’t make the ultimate difference.

What is most critical is to get a franchise quarterback. Johnson, with a rejuvenated Jared Goff, considered being the offensive coordinator of the up-and-coming Lions a lot more attractive than being the head coach of a down-and-out club here. After all, teams that start the fewest quarterbacks over time win the most games, advance to the most Super Bowls and, as an extension, have the fewest head coaches. So which comes first? The quarterback or the coach? What made Hall of Fame Washington coach Joe Gibbs so extraordinary was that he bucked that truth by winning the Super Bowl with three different quarterbacks. But Gibbs isn’t coming back again, nor should he.

Snagging a franchise quarterback is not guaranteed. But this draft, according to the analysts, seems to add a little more luck to the process — particularly for Washington, which has the second pick.

Last year’s No. 2 selection was Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, who was named to the Pro Bowl after he steered the Houston Texans to the playoffs. In 2021, the second pick was New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson from BYU. The closest he will get to the Pro Bowl is with a ticket.

In 2020, there was what turned out to be a quarterback mother lode with Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jordan Love picked in the first round and Jalen Hurts taken in the second. Burrow and Hurts have played in the Super Bowl. The others have guided their teams to the playoffs.

The first three players expected to be drafted this spring are quarterbacks: Caleb Williams from Southern California and D.C.’s Gonzaga College High, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2022; Drake Maye from North Carolina; and Jayden Daniels, who won the Heisman Trophy this past season at LSU.

Commanders coordinator tracker: Kliff Kingsbury will be the OC

Washington’s dream scenario is that the Chicago Bears somehow, someway don’t use the first pick to nab Williams, dropping him into the lap of his hometown team after it added Kliff Kingsbury, who worked with Williams at USC last season, as Quinn’s offensive coordinator. But Pro Football Focus has me just as excited about Maye and Daniels.

Of Maye, it says: “Maye possesses ideal NFL arm talent. He can hit just about any throw asked of him at the pro level with velocity and ball placement. He still puts the ball in harm’s way with more turnovers than you’d like, but the magnitude of the good he can do as a passer far outweighs the bad.”

Of Daniels, it observes: “Daniels is a good dual-threat quarterback who has a ton of yards from scrimmage. Last year, he focused on taking care of the ball and had one of the lowest turnover-worthy play rates in the nation. This year, he’s focused on playing better under pressure while pushing the ball downfield more often — and he’s done both at career-high levels. His growth in all areas is encouraging and shows that he could be a QB to invest in.”

After watching Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Hurts, I have become prejudiced toward the quarterback who can extend the play by running away from defenders and gain yards while avoiding injury. Robert Griffin III appeared to have been that player if not for the arrogance his great athleticism lent him and a coach who didn’t protect him after he was hurt. Maybe Daniels can be that guy and the staff Quinn assembles will restrain him.

One thing I have come to learn over the years as a fan and as a student of the game in the press box is that there are two types of teams in the NFL: those with a quarterback and those looking for one. You don’t want to be the latter, which is what Washington has been seemingly forever.

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