Steve Young vs. Alex Smith/Colin Kaepernick
If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. You can’t juggle your QB, because sooner or later players pick sides. Unless you’re the 49ers, then you can bloody do what you like and it will all work out. With one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time behind center, the restless Bill Walsh traded for Steve Young, a wildly inconsistent but clearly talented Tampa Bay quarterback. Young provided a change of pace, a new skillset, and his presence pissed off Joe Montana enough that it squeezed an extra three years of prime out of him. And when Montana was almost killed by a Leonard Marshall sack in the 1990 title game, Young stepped in and started his own hall of fame run. 1992 was the first of three straight first team all-pro seasons for Young.
Young’s ascendance was questioned every step of the way, and the Walsh/Siefert thinking was second-guessed right up until Young won a Super Bowl in 1994. And if the 49ers fall short of the Lombardi, there will plenty of turkeys gobbling about Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback switch this year. I think staying with Kaepernick over Smith was the right move in both the short and long-term, but it is tough to choose between a veteran having a career year and a raw talent who’s not quite seasoned enough. Harbaugh realized that a steak doesn’t get any less raw sitting in the freezer: the only experience is experience. Kaepernick has no ceiling on his potential, but it’s way too early to give him a victory over a hall of famer. Advantage: 1992.
Stan Gelbaugh vs. Russel Wilson
Something is missing from the NFL Films Library, in my opinion. There is America’s Game for the champs, and there’s America’s Game: The Missing Rings for the teams who came so close, but if they ever start America’s Game: What The Hell Just Happened? They should start with the 1992 Seattle Seahawks. The 1992 Seahawks, led by Super Bowl Winning coach Tom Flores, and pro bowlers Cortez Kennedy and Eugene Robinson, were perhaps the greatest 2-14 team in history.
By the reckoning of the good people at Football Outsiders, the Seahawks had the third best defense in the league, behind only New Orleans and Philadelphia. They were equally proficient against the run and the pass. Cortez got 14 sacks, impressive for a defensive tackle, and Eugene Robinson picked off seven passes and was a strong emotional leader. This defense, paired with an average or even a mediocre offense, would have been a playoff contender, maybe even sneaking into a Super Bowl. So how bad must it have been for them to go 2-14?
Well, that’s really a question you’re better off not asking, because the truth is horrifying and not something you could possibly forget. The Seahawks offense was horrid beyond comprehension, a genetic experiment gone awfully wrong. You remember the show Catdog? If Catdog had a cousin that was just two butts, that would be the Seahawks offense. Their punter, Rick Tuten, gained more yards than their offense did. They gained eight yards in three quarters against Dallas. Their passing game is by far the worst measured by Football Outsiders, coming in with a DVOA of -65.3% (follow the link for a DVOA explanation). Taking the snap for the majority of games was Stan Gelbaugh, a depressing alternative to the Kurt Warner rags to riches story.
Gelbaugh was drafted by the Cowboys in 1986 and didn’t even make it out of training camp. Over the next five years he played for seven different teams in three leagues on two continents. At one point Gelbaugh was selling photocopiers for a living and working towards his teaching certificate when he got a call from a friend, Jim Haslett, who was an assistant in the just-beginning World League of American Football. Jim convinced Gelbaugh that the Sacramento Surge were probably going to draft him, but at the last moment they passed on him, and Gelbaugh ended up playing for the London Monarchs instead. The World League was a misbegotten and poorly organized thing, but Gelbaugh did well and got noticed, signing with Phoenix in 1991, and then signing with Seattle in 1992. There are plenty of similarities between Gelbaugh and Kurt Warner’s barnstorming career, but Gelbaugh serves as a meaningful counterexample, a demonstration of why most teams don’t do their scouting in office complexes or supermarkets.
Russel Wilson, picked five spots after the Jaguars drafted a punter, has unexpectedly had a great year, causing the Seahawks offense to gel quickly and keep pace with an equally impressive and young Seahawk defense. He also gets bonus points for being My Guy—I had him picked out as one to watch carefully after his episode of Jon Gruden’s Quarterback Camp. He was able to break down a playcall and recall its terminology—in both of the college lexicons he played with (NC State and Wisconsin). It was clear he had a head on his shoulders, even if his shoulders didn’t provide a high perch. (The same episode had Jon Gruden chanting “YOU’RE TOO SHORT! YOU’RE TOO SHORT!” at Wilson, mantra-like, for a good ten to fifteen seconds of riveting television.) He didn’t need to be great to win this tie though; he just needed to not be two butts fused together. Advantage: 2012
The score is 15-12-1 for 2012, with only four more teams to visit.