Quarterback Injuries Could Expose AFL Problems
The quarterback position is the most important in all of football. Yes, Trent Dilfer has won a Super Bowl, but for every Dilfer, Brad Johnson, and Jeff Hostetler, there are dozens of guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, and yes, even our own beloved John Elway.
Here in our dearest Arena Football League, the quarterback is even more important. Go back and look at the history of the quarterbacks in the AFL. Find me one time when a bad quarterback led his team to an ArenaBowl, let alone won one. Matt Nagy? Connell Maynor? Pat O'Hara? (Love you PO, but you still went 8-of-25 in ArenaBowl XII, and you still only had a 4/1 TD/INT ratio that year.)
By the way, all of those quarterbacks have the same thing in common: They all played during the days of Ironman football. Nagy's second go-around in the ArenaBowl in 2007 came during the free substitution days, but even the most ardent of AFL fan recognizes that there was some divine intervention from the AFL gods involved for Nagy's Columbus Destroyers to beat the Dallas Desperados in the second round of the playoffs.
As the years have gone by, the talent level has largely gone down in the AFL (regardless as to whether anyone wants to admit that or not), and as that has happened, the stress on the quarterback has gotten even greater. No longer is 50 points good enough to win games on a regular basis. Seventy is the new 50. That's 10 touchdowns in four quarters.
The Los Angeles KISS have scored 10 touchdowns in their last 13 quarters.
And they have a quarterback of name recognition! (Or at least they "did" have a quarterback of name recognition… At least until their head coach royally threw his QB under the bus.)
J.J. Raterink's struggles aside, it was a rough week to be an AFL quarterback. Kyle Rowley never made it to Tampa Bay after getting beaten up by the Jacksonville Sharks to the point that he has what has been classified as a "serious injury." Jason Boltus suffered a bad looking knee injury. Randy Hippeard also went down with a knee injury. Erik Meyer fell on his shoulder and likely broke his collarbone.
The AFL has always been a league of the "next man up" mentality. That's all fine and dandy if you have a backup quarterback. However, of the three backup quarterbacks who were forced into action this week after the man in front of them went down, the only one of the three which looked anything like even a remotely competent quarterback was actually a wide receiver. BJ Hall (Tampa Bay) and Wilson Masoud (Orlando) combined for a whopping two touchdowns in basically three and a half quarters of football between them.
Tyler Hansen has looked like garbage backing up the aforementioned Raterink as well.
So here's the question: Who's the "next man up?"
Simply put, there isn't a "next man" anymore. This season has already been suspect at best. Quarterbacks in this league have combined to throw 536 touchdowns against 138 INTs, a ratio of 3.88/1. Last year, the ratio was 3.93/1. In 2012, it was 4.54/1. In 2008, it was 5.65/1.
The argument could be made that quarterback play was never better in the AFL than it was in 2008 when the league came upon its demise. Of those quarterbacks that season, Matt D'Orazio, Joe Germaine, James MacPherson, Clint Dolezel, Shane Stafford, John Dutton, and Nagy never came back in 2010.
In 2010, Chris Greisen, Ray Philyaw, Russ Michna, Aaron Garcia, John Dutton, and Brett Dietz all came back to the league from the 2008 season. All four were amongst the eight best statistical quarterbacks in the league that season, and the men that were set to take the jump from the af2 up to the AFL, Nick Davila and Kyle Rowley were both in that mix as well.
Mark Grieb came back to the San Jose SaberCats in 2011, but Greisen, Philyaw and Dietz were all gone. Dutton left after the 2012 season. Grieb left then, too. Garcia looks like his days might be finished in this league to boot.
Along the way, starting quarterbacks who had become household names such as Adrian McPherson, Bernard Morris, Gino Guidugli, Nick Hill, Brett Elliott, and Justin Allgood all left the league. Granted, McPherson left to move up in the world to the CFL, but most of the rest of these names which have left the AFL have done so because they aren't willing to play for $825 a game.
What's left is taking a guys like Hall and Shane Boyd from the CIFL and trying to turn them into AFL quarterbacks. There's a reason that Boyd was cut by the Tampa Bay Storm last season, and there's a reason why Hall bounced around all sorts of teams as a backup from 2010-2013 before finally being without a job this offseason.
Part of the reason that the AFL got away with coming back in 2010 was because the af2 left behind its best players to be picked up. Now though, there isn't an af2. There isn't a place for quarterbacks to develop, and there isn't a structure in place for those backup quarterbacks to really get meaningful reps. The best example of a team trying that is the Portland Thunder with Darron Thomas, and at least to this point, the experiment has failed to the point that Danny Southwick, a journeyman backup in this league, has taken the starting job for the time being while Rowley is injured.
Alas, now comes the exposure of one of the many flaws of the AFL. It just happens to be that over the course of the last several weeks, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa Bay, Portland, and Spokane have all lost their starting quarterbacks for one reason or another. The Sharks were the only team with a legitimate backup plan.
Go back and look at the history of quarterbacks over the course of the last few years in this league. How many legitimate quarterbacks have been bred to play in this league over several years of preparation and have stuck around? Kurt Rocco? Meyer? Boltus? Dan Raudabaugh? Maybe Shane Austin? Maybe RJ Archer? That's about it. The rest were really raised in the af2 or the old AFL.
I suppose that every Tom Brady and Joe Montana had to start somewhere, and not every game is going to be a gem, even for the best in the AFL. Maybe Wilson Masoud is the next Jay Gruden. Perhaps Jarret Brown, if he's healthy, is the next Mark Grieb. However, without a place to breed young talent, what the AFL is finding is that it just doesn't have the structure in place to stay relevant. The most important player on the field is the quarterback, and now that four starters were all injured in a span of just a few days, what's the AFL to do?
What Bob McMillen is likely going to find out is that there isn't another quarterback out there to go get. He might end up getting rid of Raterink. He might end up getting rid of Hansen. But what he's going to be left with is a gaping hole in his lineup which must be filled by someone who hasn't picked up a ball all season long or has been playing in what is perceived to be a significantly lesser league.
Unfortunately, the AFL never really had the foresight to be able to see these problems coming. Names like Davila, Grady, and Rowley were supposed to be the next generation of AFL quarterbacks. But what was supposed to come next? What we're going to find is that there was never really a plan in place, and that very well could make the performance of Raterink look like one which McMillen would yearn to have back.