At this point, it's almost a foregone conclusion the 2021 NFL offseason will feature unprecedented quarterback movement. Already, with the official kickoff of free agency still weeks away, three franchise signal-callers are reportedly swapping teams: Carson Wentz to the Colts, Jared Goff to the Lions, and Matthew Stafford to the Rams. Another dozen have been bandied about in trade reports and rumors. And now, this week, we've gotten our surest word yet that Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson, arguably two of the NFL's top five at the position, want in on the shuffle.
Watson, who's apparently been angling for a trade for more than a month, reportedly reiterated to Texans brass that he doesn't intend to play for Houston again. Wilson, meanwhile, has not officially requested out of Seattle, but his camp has publicly identified preferred landing spots in the wake of multiple reports and admissions of discord with the Seahawks. The haul for either big-name QB, who share a combined 11 Pro Bowl nods and $296 million in extension money, would be record-setting.
Neither Houston nor Seattle will acknowledge the possibility of a trade. Not now. And probably not ever. Technically, they both hold all the leverage in their respective dilemmas. Whether or not Watson likes it, the Texans own his rights through 2025. Whether or not Wilson likes it, the Seahawks own his through 2023. Can you assign some blame to both QBs for wanting out of lucrative deals so soon after putting their own signatures on them? Sure. But can you blame them for accelerating demands or desires for new scenery after what's already unfolded this offseason? That seems much more difficult.
CBS Sports' Tyler Sullivan foresaw some of this onslaught of QB empowerment after Tom Brady hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in Tampa. By bidding adieu to the Patriots after 20 seasons in New England, then immediately winning it all with the Buccaneers, who did everything in their power to cater to his star power, Brady proved it's actually possible to find greener pastures. Andrew Luck's abrupt retirement from the Colts in 2019 was a different but equally powerful stroke, Sullivan argued, signaling a QB operating on his own terms: "If a superstar isn't happy where he currently stands within his organization, now more than ever he has the ability to consider life in another NFL home," or in Luck's case, a literal home.
Insider Jason La Canfora thinks star QBs have always had this kind of say, pointing to John Elway's 1983 refusal to play for the Colts and Carson Palmer retiring his way into a trade out of Cincinnati in 2011. The difference, he suggests, is more QBs are simply exercising said power at the same time -- perhaps spurred by each other's bold stances.
Consider what's happened since Brady won it all: The Lions have reportedly agreed to grant Stafford his wish of a trade elsewhere, and the Eagles have reportedly done the same for Wentz. Brady's bold swing in free agency -- to bet on himself and a welcoming new home rather than the franchise synonymous with his legacy -- may have convinced Watson and Wilson they were right to consider their own relocation. But the Stafford and Wentz trades have probably justified their wandering eyes even more.
Let's start with Stafford. The Lions had plenty of reason to send their former No. 1 pick out gracefully. They're entering an obvious rebuild. Trading him saved them an instant $14 million. He owns almost every franchise passing record. But they didn't need to deal him. They had him on a team-friendly deal through 2022. At 33, he could easily play another five to eight years. And yet they publicly touted a mutual separation, allowed him to handpick possible destinations and shipped him to sunny Los Angeles to contend.
The Seahawks are not rebuilding, so you can understand why they would never agree to a mutual trade exploration for their similarly-aged QB in Wilson. But you can see why Wilson, who is at least a level or two ahead of Stafford on the unofficial scale of QB superiority, might be inspired to seize some of Stafford's own power, subdued as it may have seemed. Why shouldn't Wilson, a four-time division champion and Super Bowl winner, at least explore a move if Stafford, with just four winning seasons in 12 years as a QB and absolutely zero playoff wins, can get a red-carpet exit in Motown? Watson, meanwhile, plays for a dysfunctional Texans team that is rebuilding and could at least justify selling him at an astronomical price; of course Stafford's move helped him dig in more.
The Wentz trade was likely far more jarring -- and/or reassuring -- for Watson and Wilson. The Eagles backed themselves into a corner with their QB mess, failing Wentz at multiple turns and allowing their relationship to sour. No matter what, him returning in 2021 would've been awkward at best. But Philly's anticipated exploration of top rookie QB prospects confirms they didn't deal Wentz because they're sold on his replacement, Jalen Hurts; they did it, more than anything, because it's what Wentz wanted. You don't pay a premium to draft a guy No. 2 overall, then give him a $128 million deal, only to auction him two years later because he had one bad season. If Wentz, who was coming off a career-worst performance with a bloated salary, can dictate a move out of Philly with only one team -- the Colts -- even seriously in on the bidding, surely Watson and Wilson feel they must stand their ground if they want out.
Does that mean the Seahawks and Texans should quit playing hardball and open the floodgates for trade offers? Does that mean every team should cave as soon as any star player is a little perturbed with his situation? No. Not necessarily. But the reality is, it's not enough in the NFL to secure a great QB. You can draft and develop and pay Aaron Rodgers, but if he's getting sacked five times a game and only throwing to one good receiver, chances are either he's not going to be happy, the fans aren't going to be happy, or both. The same applies to Watson, Wilson and even the countless QBs who don't qualify as elite on their own.
If that sounds difficult, well, it's because it is! Ever wonder why it's hard to get to the Super Bowl, let alone win one, and never mind win multiple? Franchise QBs are an integral part of the equation, and more often than not, they don't lift the entire organization by themselves. Even the greats (Brady! Peyton Manning! Brett Favre!) encountered this unfortunate reality -- sometimes with painful or bitter goodbyes -- while establishing monster legacies.
So you can call Watson and Wilson and Wentz and Stafford "selfish," and there is something to be said for growing and persevering with a team. But just as front offices shred contracts all the time in the name of team-building, it's not impossible to see why the most important players on the field -- the QBs -- would feel just as empowered to "violate" commitments in the name of better team-building, better team successes.
And in the end, as big-name QB moves of recent and distant NFL history tell us, both sides ultimately do have to be on the same page for the relationship to last. If one side is ready to move on -- even the QB seemingly locked into a contract -- odds are, sooner rather than later, the split will come. Because as much as teams like the Seahawks and Texans have to lose by saying farewell to star signal-callers, the only thing more unsettling is if guys like Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson really do not want to play for their own teams. And when you see your peers expressing -- and escaping -- similar sentiments, well, the feelings just intensify.