OPINION: D.A.: Championship Games Answer the QB Question

Rules adjustments since the '70s have led us to a place where the quarterback position is the most vital in sports. Teams can win a World Series without a true ace. Squads can hoist a Stanley Cup without an elite goalie. But winning a Super Bowl these days, like an NBA championship, takes a franchise-defining player. And that player must be under center, and be elite when it matters most.

All four teams left in the NFL playoffs have had their own unique path to acquire their quarterbacks, but they are all sewn together by the same equation. A signal-caller who can elevate the team around him is the man still standing. In Cincinnati, the road to a franchise quarterback was the easiest of the four. In '19 the Bengals were abysmal, crashing to the ground with a 2-14 record. Andy Dalton "led" the team to an 0-11 start, and finished with the worst record in the league. The first pick was an easy one with Joe Burrow coming off a record-setting campaign at LSU. No one had to debate who to take with the top pick. Burrow was the man right away, and immediately changed the fortunes of the franchise. Burrow turned out to be a generational player, one who demanded confidence around him, yet humble enough to take nothing for granted. In Burrow's three seasons the Bengals have suddenly become one of the model organizations. The only season of the three Cincy hasn't played in the AFC Championship Game, Burrow tore his ACL and was lost for the season after Thanksgiving. As far as the importance of a QB, perhaps no team in recent memory was defined by their man under center more than the Bengals.

In Kansas City, the quarterback took the franchise from perennial playoff team to perennial Super Bowl favorites. While the Chiefs saw something in Patrick Mahomes that some others didn't (the Bears took Mitchell Trubisky at #2), the organization felt strongly that the Texas Tech product could vault the team forward. The Chiefs had banged their head in the AFC playoffs for years under Andy Reid, losing twice in the Wild Card round and twice on Divisional weekend before Mahomes. The first year Reid handed Mahomes the reins, he won league MVP and the Chiefs raced to the top seed and home field advantage in the playoffs. Ultimately, they'd succumb to the Patriots in the AFC Title Game through some bad luck (offsides on Dee Ford on the game-winning INT, losing the OT coin toss), but the trajectory had been altered. The next season the Chiefs would win the Super Bowl, and Mahomes has played in the AFC Championship Games in all 5 seasons he's been the starter.

The Eagles had come out of the Carson Wentz Era looking for the next man under center. With the 53rd pick overall in '20, the franchise took Jalen Hurts and found their solution. Hurts had lost his job at Alabama to Tua Tagavailoa, and was forced to transfer to Oklahoma to start again. But through the turmoil, Hurts gained immense maturity and humility. In his two seasons before this year, Hurts showed flashes of dynamic play, but there still lingered some questions about his ability to ascend to the next level. The Eagles decided to surround him with enough assets to where there could be no excuses. Nick Sirianni was hired as a young offensive-minded head coach. Philly drafted Hurts' Alabama teammate DeVonta Smith at wide receiver in '21 in the first round, then traded for another explosive pass-catching weapon in A.J. Brown last spring. Hurts took advantage, leading the Eagles to the best record in the NFC, putting together an MVP-caliber season, and is 15-1 as a starter this season. Philly has taken flight with Hurts under center.

The Niners took the most circuitous route to their quarterback of these teams. Trey Lance was the Opening Day starter, but suffered a season-ending injury. Jimmy Garoppolo took over, then he was handed the same fate. In stepped 7th-round rookie Brock Purdy to the spotlight. He has yet to lose since taking over the job, and has thrown 16 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions. While the other three teams still standing have their cornerstone QBs in place, San Francisco is still in a wait-and-see mode with Purdy. Perhaps this is just a two month Cinderella story, and it all evaporates Sunday against the Eagles. But even if this is just temporary glory for Purdy, the Niners (and the rest of the NFL) discovered something vital. The right young QB can run a high-functioning offense as long as he has the right mentality (and plenty of weapons). What Purdy lacks in high-end physical traits he makes up for in decision-making and unflappability. He never seems overwhelmed, nor has he gotten ahead of himself despite the national acclaim. Purdy's processing is quick, and he plays with purpose. When scouts look at quarterbacks to draft, they should avoid prioritizing merely arm strength and height. That's how you draft Zach Wilson second overall while Purdy lasts until the final pick of the draft.

All four teams this weekend took different roads to find their men under center, but all four know the answer to the most vexing question in sports. How important is finding the right quarterback? It's everything.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Timothy T Ludwig / Stringer