Data Entry: A General Manager & His Quarterback

| April 17th, 2017

Throughout the offseason, I’ll be doing a monthly piece here at DaBearsBlog, helping fill the content void of the long offseason. Each one will be a numbers-crunching look at something Bears related in which I attempt to earn the “Data” moniker so kindly bestowed on me by the comments section regulars and, more importantly, answer a Bears question that I’ve been wondering about. If you have anything you’d like me to look into, let me know in the comments or email me at woodjohnathan1@gmail.com and I’ll see what I can do.

As all Bears fans are well aware, this is the offseason of QB change in Chicago. Jay Cutler is gone, Mike Glennon is here on three 1-year deals, and a fresh face is likely coming in the draft.

I have already looked a couple times at quarterbacks from a historical perspective, trying to identify where the best place to draft one is and what to look for in their college background. Today, I want to look at this decision from the perspective of what it means for general manager Ryan Pace.

Getting a good QB is absolutely essential in the NFL. Teams that don’t have one can’t compete for a title, and GMs who fail to acquire one generally don’t last long. Since very few GMs get a 2nd chance after being fired, Ryan Pace is staking his career on at least one of Mike Glennon or “draft pick to be named” panning out.

Or at least that’s the theory. I put it to the test to see if the numbers backed that claim up.

The Setup

I wanted to see what happened to GMs who tried and failed to find their solution at QB. Specifically, how long does it take from when they invest significant resources in the position to when they get fired? Does this differ from those who invest the same resources but successfully identify their QB?

Since there is a very limited recent track record of a backup in one place becoming the answer somewhere else, there’s not really any way of looking into that numerically. It worked for the Bills with Tyrod Taylor, and that’s about the only positive example from the last decade. Most guys who show any sort of potential end up getting a longer look with their original team or traded before their rookie deal runs out. Mike Glennon may in fact be the QB answer the Bears are looking for, but the odds are not exactly in their favor there.

With that in mind, I turned my attention back to the draft, the most likely source of Chicago’s long-term QB solution. Most teams looking for a starter in the near future do so in the first two rounds, so I focused my attention there.

I looked at all 1st and 2nd round quarterbacks drafted between 2005-2014 (staying a few years back because it typically takes time for this to work itself out). I grouped them into “hits” (long-term starters) and “misses,” with a few in-between guys who didn’t really fit either category left out (full list here). I then tracked the general manager (or guy in charge of draft decisions) and how long he lasted at the job following the QB pick.

I should note selections of Andy Dalton and JaMarcus Russell were not considered because they were both made in a situation where the owner was the GM and thus cannot be fired.

The Results

From 2005-14, there were 10 hits in the 1st 2 rounds at quarterback. The average GM lasted for 5 years after that pick (though 4 of the 10 are still employed, meaning that number will be higher), and only 3 were gone within 2 years of that draft.

By contrast, there were 25 misses in the same time period. The average GM lasted for 3.4 years after that pick, and 13 were gone within 2 years. Only four of them are still employed, and they all have somewhat interesting stories that help explain why.
– Rick Spielman was listed as the de-facto GM on Pro Football Reference when Minnesota whiffed on both Tavaris Jackson and Christian Ponder, yet is still the GM there. But this is a bit misleading, because he was not officially the GM when both of these picks were made. They had a group of three people making decisions for a while, and one year after the Ponder pick Spielman was officially promoted to GM while the other two were sent packing.
– Green Bay GM Ted Thompson spent a 2nd round pick on Brian Brohm in 2008, but that is a different scenario than this study intends to look at because he was not looking for a starter but only a backup to Aaron Rodgers. Thus his whiffing on that pick was not as costly as it would be for, say, Ryan Pace in 2017.
– Denver GM John Elway spent a 2nd round pick on Brock Osweiler the same offseason he signed Peyton Manning, an obvious superstar QB. Like Thompson, he was drafting for a backup, not a starter, though Manning’s older age and neck injury status made it a bit less of a luxury pick.
If you remove those 4 picks from the misses data set, the average GM only lasted for 2.5 years after investing a high draft pick on a failed quarterback, with 13 of the 21 gone within 2 years.

1st round only

Clearly, the majority of GMs in the last decade who have invested a high draft pick in a QB who busts don’t last for long. This trend gets even more clear if you only look at 1st round picks, which represent the highest investment in a rookie QB.

Removing the exceptions from above, there were 13 1st round whiffs from 2005-14. 9 of those GMs were fired within the next 2 years, with an average remaining tenure of 2.2 years, while none are still employed. Even if you leave the exceptions in, that turns into 9 of 14 fired within 2 years and an average of 2.4 years remaining in the GM’s tenure.

No Pressure

The data supports the original hypothesis, and it is no exaggeration to say that Ryan Pace’s career is literally on the line this offseason. General managers who invest a high draft pick in a quarterback and watch him bust don’t often get to stick around to try again.

Ryan Pace needs to find a long-term solution at quarterback this offseason, and his best chance is in the first 2 rounds of the draft. But if he misses, history says his career as a GM will likely be over in the next few years.

Pretty much the only exceptions come when the GM is able to salvage his job by successfully finding a QB in free agency. This worked for Elway with Peyton Manning and Arizona GM Rod Graves, who was able to mask Matt Leinart’s stench with a late-career resurgence from Kurt Warner.

Unfortunately for Pace…

…he didn’t get a proven Hall of Fame QB in free agency like Elway and Graves did. He was smart to hedge his bets with Mike Glennon, but the odds still say Pace’s career will ultimately hinge on whatever QB he selects on April 27 or 28.

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