The phrase “franchise quarterback” is thrown around as commonly as kids tossing the pigskin in backyards across America. Legends like Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Bart Starr, George Blanda, and Y.A. Tittle; they, along with more recent greats; Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Fran Tarkenton, Warren Moon, Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath and John Elway are just some who have been worthy of the label Franchise Quarterback. They have subsequently been deemed deserving of football’s highest honor, enshrinement in Pro Football’s Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. These were truly great players who led their respective franchises to the highest plateaus.

What does it mean to be worthy of the label Franchise Quarterback? This issue came to a head last season when the Denver Broncos were roundly chastised for trading their Franchise Quarterback, Jay Cutler, to the Chicago Bears. The condemnation involved the fact that, everyone knows you do not let go of a Franchise Quarterback. Is it possible the Broncos did not let a Franchise Quarterback go? Rather, they parted ways with a disgruntled mid-level quarterback? The Bronco’s current leadership has, in my opinion, made many missteps (look to the most recent NFL draft); but moving Jay Cutler was not one of them.

The point of this piece is not to “diss” on Jay Cutler or the Denver Broncos — it is rather to look at the larger issue of what it means to be blessed with the label, Franchise Quarterback. To begin, it must be made clear that it is not necessary to put together a Hall of Fame worthy career to warrant the elusive label. There have been and will continue to be several players whose likenesses will never grace the great hall in Canton, but remain worthy of being among those deserving the title Franchise Quarterback.

Present day examples can be found with the N.Y. Giants, Eli Manning; Packers, Aaron Rodgers; Cowboys, Tony Romo; or Texans, Matt Shaub just to name a few [I have intentionally avoided present day players like Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady because they have likely already done enough to stamp their ticket to the Hall]. Jake Delhomme was comfortably mentioned as worthy of that label, until the end of the 2008 campaign when a disastrous five interception performance in a NFC Divisional playoff game led to a complete collapse in confidence and possibly his career. Like those other present day examples mentioned above, things can happen in their career that remove them from the list of present day great players.

What then is a proper criteria? Ability, winning, leadership, and that rare attribute of making teammates better than they would otherwise be. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the newest criteria: a quarterback who keeps himself out of the headlines for the wrong reasons (e.g., Ben Roethlisberger). This is not as much a morality judgment, but more an observation of the cultural shift in what society expects of players off-the-field. It is a reality that cannot be ignored or taken too lightly.

Quite a daunting list of stuff one needs to possess to be considered among the best. It is impossible for all 32 teams in the National Football League to possess one. It so rare that the San Francisco 49ers in the late 1980’s found themselves in the virtually unprecedented situation of simultaneously having two: Joe Montana and Steve Young both went on to have Hall of Fame careers. What’s interesting is that they played in an era when it was not as essential to have a Franchise Quarterback. Until recently, defense ruled the day.

A stifling defense could contain even the most prolific offense. Experts now concede that this is a very different era: one driven by the quarterback. Now it is a common belief that the requisite building block for winning is owning a Franchise Quarterback. This leads to the dilemma of the shortage of men who live up to these criteria.

I believe the bar has been subsequently lowered. By lowering the standard by which we measure greatness at the quarterback position, more clubs can count themselves as contenders. This is how middle-of-the-road quarterbacks like Jay Cutler become elevated to a class he is not worthy of being in. Organizations are desperate to believe they are close to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. What’s needed today is a sobering reality-check of just how few Franchise Quarterbacks there actually are. Organizational denial about the quality of the guy throwing the rock can actually set a team backward in its pursuit of attaining the ultimate prize.