OPINION: 'ATG' with Andrew Perloff: Dissecting the system-quarterback label

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The NFL's conference championship weekend will be a battle of four system quarterbacks. My mission to convince the nation that everybody focuses on individual players and underestimates the significance of what's surrounding them, has clearly failed. Sunday's games have too often been portrayed as a bout between four quarterbacks, not four teams.

This system quarterback argument is well-worn. And yet, I'm still on an island. Fans and media don't like to face reality, because it's contrary to the cycle of hero-creation that's forever been a part of team sports. We like to view these quarterbacks as Marvel-like superhumans, who singlehandedly put teams on their backs. It's almost never the case. Well, maybe Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl. But that's about it.

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The simplest evidence backing the system quarterback argument is the trend toward championship-caliber teams having signal-callers on rookie contracts. Three of the four teams remaining haven't paid their quarterback yet. Eight of
the 14 playoff teams were in the same spot. So, teams need to surround even the great quarterbacks with loads of talent.

Quarterbacks have long received too much credit for victories and too much blame for losses (see: Dak Prescott). They're always part of a bigger picture, that somehow gets obscured by a quarterback-loving country. Here's how all four remaining players fit the definition of a "system quarterback."

Joe Burrow
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Joe Burrow, Bengals -- He's getting a lot of Tom Brady comparisons. They make sense because, like Brady, Burrow has landed in the right place at the right time. He had the best receiving group in college football history at LSU, with Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Now Burrow has the best receiving corps in the NFL. He has a strong No. 1 wideout in Chase, a mid-level No. 1 in Tee Higgins, and a solid No. 2 in Tyler Boyd. This Bengals group is deeper and more consistent than even the Dolphins with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane, who just lost at home to the Bengals, has stated the Burrow-system case clearly. "They have a good team," Beane told reporters. "They right now are on the advantage of a rookie quarterback contract... They had some lean years… And I don't want to suck bad enough to have to get [Chase]. He's a heck of a talent. I would love to have him. But you've got to go through some lean years to do that."

Beane is correct -- talent doesn't separate Burrow and Bills quarterback Josh Allen. It's the players and coaches around them that does. And there's a case that Burrow eclipses the system. He did a remarkable job assisting his backup offensive linemen against Buffalo. He's mobile, and doesn't have any fear of a big moment. But to truly understand how much help Burrow actually receives, we'd have to see him without his superstar receiver. My hunch is, the Bengals wouldn't be able to reach the Super Bowl without Chase.

Jalen Hurts
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Jalen Hurts, Eagles -- Philadelphia was 14-1 with him, and 0-2 without him. For this reason, he should be the runaway MVP. But, it doesn't mean he's not a system quarterback. A few things have changed for the Eagles this season. Trading for receiver A.J. Brown at the draft transformed the offense. They also had a healthy Miles Sanders all season. The fourth-year halfback had a career- high 259 carries and 1,269 yards. And maybe the key to making all of this work is offensive coordinator Shane Steichen. He took over their play-calling duties midway through 2021, and flourished in his first full season as the primary guy.

While Hurts deserves the MVP award, you could argue there's another equally valuable piece on the Eagles -- right tackle Lane Johnson. Philadelphia is 4-11 since 2020 when Johnson is off the field. The veteran suffered a serious groin injury just weeks ago and still man-handled the rival Giants. Now he'll face San Francisco edge-rusher Nick Bosa in the NFC championship. Birds head coach Nick Sirianni compared Hurts to Michael Jordan. The league will never have an MJ -- one player can't control the game on both sides of the ball, like him.

Brock Purdy
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Brock Purdy, 49ers -- The 262nd and final pick in the 2022 draft is the best story in the league, and has proven to be a good quarterback. The 49ers have to go with Purdy next season, even if Tom Brady begs to come back home to the Bay Area. But, Purdy still plays for the ultimate system quarterback team.

Ironically, the Niners believed they needed a "force multiplier" at quarterback, and moved up to No. 3 overall in 2021 to take Trey Lance. And, as it turns out, San Francisco didn't need a unique talent under center. They needed a player who'd avoid mistakes, and allow their star talent at every other position shine.

Purdy benefits from a talented and versatile group of skill position players that includes stars Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. Plus, he has a great offensive line. However, the biggest advantage for the 49ers' quarterback is his defense. There's never any pressure to push the ball downfield, or make overly aggressive throws. Jimmy Garoppolo upset the Packers in last season's playoffs without an offensive touchdown.

The other major advantage that Niners quarterbacks have is head coach Kyle Shanahan -- ask Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, and Robert Griffin III, who had their best seasons with Shanahan. It makes sense that the franchise would have a system guy, since they had the all-time system quarterback in the 1980s with Joe Montana. Genius 49ers coach Bill Walsh turned a third-round pick into a GOAT, with a scheme that the rest of the NFL took years to catch up with.

Patrick Mahomes
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Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs -- This one is tough. The Chiefs star appears to be the ultimate non-system quarterback. No offensive scheme calls for a left-handed pass from a right-handed quarterback or no-look throws. Just look at what Mahomes did after losing Tyreek Hill. It's all valid -- Mahomes is a wizard. But, none of it eclipses a basic fact of the NFL: if Mahomes had been drafted by the Bears, he wouldn't be this Mahomes.

Mahomes landing with Andy Reid, a coach with the most prolific quarterback track record in the NFL, was the perfect marriage. Reid remains the best play-caller in the league, and hopefully the future Hall of Famer coach will finish his career with Mahomes, in Kansas City. But if for some reason they break apart, Reid would turn some other quarterback into a Pro Bowler. Mahomes takes it a few levels higher, but you can't separate his success from this partnership.

The big test for Mahomes is, can he win a Super Bowl after signing his $450 million contract. Mahomes actually left some money on the table, which will help. But, historically, the massive quarterback deals get in the way of rings. It's a reason Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees each have only one.

Postscript -- There's one quarterback that everyone believes doesn't fit the system label: Lamar Jackson. But, it's become very clear that Jackson needs better coaching and better receivers to reach the Super Bowl. In other words, Jackson is dependent on the system, just like every other quarterback in NFL history. Postscript II -- See above for Josh Allen.

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