Talking about football is hard.
Of course, talking about football is no harder than talking about anything else. Expert knowledge on all topics forces us to have nuanced discussions, admit uncertainty and allow for different opinions to form off of the same data. That's true of much more important areas of life and society outside of football, but it's true for the sport as well.
To make talking about football easier, we rely on crutches of discourse or buzzwords. Quick phrases and terms that get a larger, general idea across, sacrificing accuracy for the sake of common ground imagery. In football discourse, such phrases are "attacking defense," "cerebral player" and "system quarterback."
Can anyone say exactly what these terms mean? And, more importantly, will five definitions from five different analysts, experts or fans all look and sound the same? Probably not; as such, when we use the term "system quarterback," we're typically waving our hand rather carelessly to a hazy example or a general idea of a bad quarterback who masquerades as a good passer because of the system they’re in.
But the example is hazy, the idea is so general and the term, system quarterback, can be applied to everyone — and has been applied to everyone. Drew Brees, Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady are system quarterbacks; they'd be worse in an offense that wasn't the one they were in. This is an entirely useless definition: Most quarterbacks would be worse if they were in a different offense because most offenses are built around the strengths of their quarterbacks. There are always counterexamples — I'd argue Baker Mayfield's 2019 offense was not built to his strengths — but most of those systems are just bad. They wouldn't be good for anyone.
We gain nothing when we call passers "system quarterbacks" as a proxy for "quarterbacks who would be worse if their offense wasn't as good." If we're to truly understand system quarterbacks in the NFL, we have to be far more austere in our criteria. We have to be able to say that this quarterback:
- does not elevate the system they play in further than a replacement-level quarterback would.
- would not be as productive or efficient in another, generally effective replacement-level offense.
We have to say that the quarterback is truly the product of the system; that they produce nothing in the system that a second-string passer wouldn't. This is where we disqualify players like Brees and Jackson, who are certainly in offenses that are ideal for their skillsets — Brees for short accuracy and mental processing and Jackson for running ability — but are also the premier examples of those skill sets. We also lose a player like Brady, who benefitted from the greatest head coach of all time and his various schematic wins on offense but also won six Super Bowls because he's extremely good at football.
The best example of a qualifying player here is Jimmy Garoppolo, who is a system quarterback for coach Kyle Shanahan. Garoppolo is easy to target because we actually have a replacement-level proof of concept in Nick Mullens, who started eight games for the 49ers in 2018 following Garoppolo's ACL injury. Mullens didn't captain a Super Bowl-qualifying team, as Garoppolo did, but he was about as effective on a per-throw basis as Garoppolo, threw slightly fewer touchdowns, took slightly fewer sacks and threw more interceptions.
Mullens wasn't as good as Garoppolo, but the difference between his play and Garoppolo's was a much smaller margin than you would expect for a third-string undrafted free agent quarterback against a big-contract trade acquisition and eventual Super Bowl starter. It's worth noting that Shanahan did different things with Mullens on offense than he did with Garoppolo; the system wasn't exactly the same, but it was playing in Shanahan's offense that made Mullens and Garoppolo look arguably equivalent, which is our definition of a system quarterback. Neither passer elevated — they both just fit into what was asked of them.
It's tougher to argue the case for other quarterbacks as system passers, largely because they don't have the example of Mullens as the critical replacement-level player. Arguments can be made for Kirk Cousins, who in Washington and again in Minnesota only seemed good when the team around him is good and struggles to pick up the slack when his offensive line struggles or receivers flounder. Ryan Tannehill, in Tennessee, also seems like a system passer, as he's just uncorking play-action deep bombs or quick yards-after-catch targets to A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith while doing little post-snap processing. The problem here is Tannehill remains a pretty good scramble player, which is inherently outside of the system. Frustratingly, who is a system quarterback will remain an argument more cloudy than clear, which allows such ludicrous claims as calling the best passers in the league "system quarterbacks."
The important thing is to identify the term in casual discourse and heated arguments alike and ask what it really means. If it's being used just to vault a good offensive system over the head of an objectively talented passer, cast that argument aside. It doesn't help us at all.