3rd & Long: The Weight of Expectation for NFL Quarterbacks


By Julian Reed

Its 3rd-and-12 in the 4th quarter with your team trailing by 5 late. Opposition knows you have to throw the football. Failure guarantees you’ll be the headline the next day on sports news. Though football is the culmination of the work of a ton of individuals (some visible, some not), you are the face, the focal point. That is the modern definition and benchmark for what a Quarterback is. More importantly, what quantifies quarterback at the elite level? Andrew Luck has been that since he was a freshman at Stanford. So talented, such a varied skill set. One could make a legitimate case that such a blessing is equally a curse. Enter expectation.

Human nature, when someone shows signs of promise or proficiency, natural progression of things is to expect more of them, task them with greater responsibility. For professional athletes in the present day, that largely entails the weighty expectation of greatness. Every narrative from media and fans loosely originates from that concept. Whether it’s “Why are you not great yet?” or “Why aren’t you more great?”We like greatness, to say the least. Culturally, we have a fascination and obsession with it. The world is constantly prodding and pulling, seeking the “next”. The next Joe Montana, the next Michael Jordan, and today, the next Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. How does a human being, designed with inherent flaws bestowed by creator live up to that?

This is the great oxymoron of professional sports. (Often deeply) Flawed individuals tasked with producing a sort of perfection. Andrew Luck will deal with the weighted expectation of that his entire professional life. Like his predecessors and peers, he will be judged by championships and accolades. He has already begun to amass a plethora of them. This begets the discussion of “the chosen one”.

When you’re as talented and successful as an Andrew Luck, naturally, you’re going to get media coverage. That coverage adds to the expectation level. People see you discussed everyday and the progression of it is, they expect the coverage to be validated. It’s not enough to be talented or even successful for many athletes. At the elite of the elite, fans expect you to be not just one of the best, but “The best”. The best ever, the highest of heights. Because of those heavy expectations, sad reality of sports, appreciation has been lost.

Appreciation for the work ethic, sacrifice, and sheer talent necessary to even have (metaphorically speaking) a seat at the table of professional sports athleteAppreciation for how amazing and rare the feats those people produce weekly is. So much of their contributions are almost deaf to people’s ears. They expect it. The mass of sports fans are jaded. A decade plus with the Internet, 24 hour news cycles airing highlights over and over, and YouTube clips found/consumed on demand in an instant. What is athletic achievement? Today, something people see with such frequency, we forget how special it is for someone to be able to do those things. Taking for granted that these guys can do things us nor anyone we know could even come close to doing physically and intellectually. Throwing a football 80 yards downfield, simultaneous to memorizing hundreds of plays, pass protections, audibles, defensive coverages, etc. More information processed in the 8-15 seconds after the ball is snapped than the average person exudes in a month. Jaded culture shames the accomplishment of a talent like Andrew Luck.

Despite the tremendous hype associated with his name since High school as the son of a former NFL quarterback, and the touting by scouts as the best college prospect in the history of football, he largely goes unnoticed, as well as what he’s been able to achieve in a brief NFL career. He’s managed to supersede hyperbole, which is difficult to do in the age where it loosely etches almost every sports story to sensationalize for eyes. At this point, it’s not even mentioned that he had the mountain task of following the legendary Peyton Manning as his replacement in Indianapolis. It was never a part of the narrative since his first NFL game under center. That speaks volumes. In his two NFL seasons, he took a team that had the worst record in the NFL prior to drafting him to consecutive playoff berths. A team with an average defense, and a below average running game with one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.

Luck has had to ironically deal with a similar team and situation setup as the legend he followed. On a franchise bereft of much talent outside of wide receiver, he is tasked with carrying that franchise. They live and die based on much of what he’s able to do weekly. The culture of sports, the best and most talented players go to the worst franchises as top draft picks. Players considered sleepers that are “under drafted” usually get the benefit of going to better teams where they’re able to adequately develop, not having the burden of heavy expectations associated with top picks.

For NFL quarterbacks, expectation level for you is almost as important as how well you play or how many championships you win. To be an Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, or Cam Newton (Just to name a few examples), expectation level and overall pressure to play well every week is significantly higher than other QB’s. To be a top pick, you’re expected to start from day one and play well, validating Draft position and contract. It doesn’t end there for highly touted quarterbacks.

The level of expectation and scrutiny that an NFL Quarterback receives can be heavily impacted by draft position, which can span careers. Tom Brady will always be given something of a pass from many in the media as well as many fans because of where he was taken in the draft. Despite a 1st ballot Hall of Fame career, 3 Super Bowl championships to his name (with 5 SB appearances) and a host of other accolades, he’s allowed to (for lack of a better term) fail as a Quarterback. In people’s eyes, despite proving himself as one of the handful of best QB’s to ever play the position, by the measure of his draft spot, still overachieving on what began as minimal to zero expectation. How often have you heard a fan in a bar talk at length about a 6th round pick that didn’t live up to the hype? Doesn’t happen. This works the opposite way in the inverse.

For players like Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, the margin for error is minimal. To be first, to be considered the best, comes with heavy weight. Anything short of Super Bowls every single year is considered under achievement. Touted as the best, the masses are sold a bill of goods. Though accurate and warranted, this creates even greater expectation that is beyond irrational from the general public. To even discuss the expectation is almost a pejorative. Comes with the territory. This (for better or worse) is modern machismo driven professional sports.

It’s 3rd and long, the ball is in your hands. What is expected of you? That’s sports in a nutshell. No fans will shed a tear for the rich and worshipped professional NFL quarterback. If you asked Andrew Luck or any other QB, I don’t think they’d seek them either. Sports are about a very miniscule line between success and failure manifesting itself as the unpredictable and incredible. The irrationality of sports fans and media isn’t going back into some metaphorical tube. It is a part of the culture. Making every win, every first down and touchdown all the more sweet. To watch Luck go out every Sunday and live up to absurd expectation makes me wonder, what can I achieve? How lucky I am that I’ll get the opportunity to pursue it without the world knowing my name and weighing in during the process. All glory and scorn fall upon those of whom the most is expected. This is life, this is sports. Take it or leave it.

 

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