CHARLOTTE — Clearly, if you're trying to get to a Super Bowl, the best way to get there is to spend a sixth-round pick on a quarterback.
But unless you know you're getting Tom Brady, there's very little else that can be termed certain about the process of acquiring said quarterback of the future, despite so much being said about it.
This will be a topic of great conversation as it regards the Panthers over the next six weeks and six months. Since all the quarterbacks on the current depth chart are some degree of free agents (Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield are unrestricted, and PJ Walker will be a restricted free agent), how and when the Panthers might be able to acquire another in the draft will be (and already has been) under incredible scrutiny.
And with as many teams knotted closely under .500 at the moment as they are, that draft order is going to change. (There are 16 teams under .500, a statistically normal amount, but 13 of them have either three or four wins, which is a little clumpier than math usually is and makes for a funny-shaped bell curve.)
A week ago, the Panthers were second in the hypothetical draft order. Then they beat the Broncos and "fell" all the way to fifth in this week's hypothetical draft order. All of those calculations are based on "if the season ended today," and unless there was a memo I didn't read (possible if not likely), it does not. Things are going to change over the next six weeks. That list is going to change this week without the Panthers even playing.
And yet, there is great kvetching in some corners of the internet about the results of particular games (the corners of the internet being where we go to kvetch now instead of traditional gathering places like churches, bowling alleys, or Rotary Club meetings). Those people think losing more now will somehow result in winning later. Either they stole the pair of pants Ben McAdoo keeps his crystal ball in, or they're just miserable people because there's no way to look clinically at recent trends in quarterback acquisition and find a reliable path that points to that.
Just to create a workable sample size, we looked at the last 20 Super Bowls, giving us a list of 40 quarterbacks to see how they got there.
Seven of them got there by being the first overall pick in the draft — a prize currently held by the Houston Texans, whose fans in the corners of the internet must be the happiest people on the planet.
That group includes each Manning brother twice, Cam Newton, Jared Goff, and Joe Burrow.
Throw in quarterbacks drafted with other single-digit picks (two through nine), and that gets you up to nine Super Bowl appearances when you loop in second-overall selection Donovan McNabb and third-overall choice Matt Ryan.
Then you have eight more appearances in the Super Bowl from quarterbacks drafted 10th or lower in the first round, including Ben Roethlisberger (11th overall) three times, Patrick Mahomes (10th) twice, along with Joe Flacco (18th), Rex Grossman (22nd), and Aaron Rodgers (24th).
Again, more 199th overall picks (one Tom Brady times eight) during this sample have gotten their teams to the Super Bowl than first overall picks, and you have the occasional second- and third-rounders who parachute into good teams and get there as well (Jimmy Garoppolo, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson twice). The Eagles are currently getting after it (best record in the league) with a second-round pick under center in Jalen Hurts.
Also, you don't even have to draft them at all, as nine free agents (more than the number of number one overall picks) have taken teams to Super Bowls. That's more prevalent in the earlier years of this time frame than the most recent years, though there are exceptions (Tom Brady with Tampa Bay, Nick Foles, Peyton Manning with Denver twice, Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, Brad Johnson, and Rich Gannon).
Last year saw the second traded-for quarterback lead a team there (Matthew Stafford, joining Matt Hasselbeck), though, with teams more likely to explore such bold moves now, that number could grow in future years.
That's a long and sort of mathematical way to say there are a lot of ways to skin a cat. (Though cat skinning seems cruel and wholly unnecessary in this day and age.)
There are people out there in the corners of the internet who will tell you the only way out of purgatory is to stink so badly at football that you get a top-five pick because that's where the sure things are.
Plenty of people think that way too. Since 2002, 65 quarterbacks have been taken in the first round, but 29 have been taken in the top five, where hope springs eternal.
But for every Manning or Newton or Burrow or Goff, there are another handful of Joey Harringtons and JaMarcus Russells and Mark Sanchezes and Sam Bradfords. Speaking of Bradford, he's the quarterback who killed the golden goose, the last one to get the gigantic rookie contract. After him, they renegotiated the CBA and changed the way we pay rookie quarterbacks. It's cheaper than ever now, leading some teams to (apparently) believe they can afford to miss, so they keep trying.
Since 2011, the Jaguars and Browns have used three first-round picks on quarterbacks (three in the top 10 for the Jags). Unless my math is wrong, they've appeared in exactly zero Super Bowls in exchange for those efforts. The Panthers currently have a pair of top-three picks from other teams on the roster at the moment, so clearly, picking high does not guarantee success.
But look around the league and where other teams have found their "franchise quarterback."
The Bills found one with the seventh overall pick (Josh Allen), the Chiefs 10th (Mahomes), the Packers 24th (Rodgers), and the Ravens 32nd (Lamar Jackson).
According to my math, the Panthers still have a statistical chance to draft somewhere between seventh and 32nd this year.
The things those teams have in common aren't (just) great quarterbacks. They all had stable teams around those quarterbacks at the time of acquisition.
Creating the conditions for success is far more important than the means of acquiring any particular player. Being a good team is about more than one spot. And the Panthers appear to be moving in that direction (though a coaching search creates its own layer of uncertainty). Whatever quarterback eventually arrives will have a highly functioning offensive line and a DJ Moore, and that's a very good place to start.
They'll also have some guys around them on defense who have (at the moment) won three straight games at home. Winning remains, for normal people, the goal of playing games.
There's also the small matter that this year's quarterback class doesn't include a no-brainer No. 1 overall pick like a Manning or a Burrow or a Newton.
The current crop includes a frighteningly small one, one from a school that has produced some traditionally disappointing ones, and a couple with great size and talent who never consistently produced top-level results (through varying degrees of fault of their own). There are guys with talent, guys any team would and should want, but nothing resembling a lock. Some of them will be available with picks other than the first one (which Houston is close to securing).
As such, blowing a hole in the bottom of your own boat to race to the bottom seems unnecessary.
Quarterbacks can be had. Quarterbacks will be acquired. Some of them will turn out well. Many of them will not. The ones who succeed will likelier than not be the ones who land with functional teams. Becoming one of those is about more than one position.
So if you're a Panthers fan, enjoy the weekend off. Then enjoy the next five games. Past that, there are no guarantees of anything, no matter how much the corners of the internet kvetch or how loud the kvetching gets.