Philadelphia is a football town, so the debut of a potential franchise quarterback is not one that can fly under the radar. Carson Wentz’s first game helming the Eagles will capture all the headlines, but Joel Embiid’s first time suiting up for the Sixers is more important for long-term aspirations.
CSN Philly’s Marshall Harris has taken some heat for his excitement level relative to the respective premiers of the new Philadelphia stars:
This cat @AngeloCataldi is trying to kill me for being more excited for Joel Embiid's debut than Carson Wentz's debut. Not. Backing. Down.— Marshall Harris (@mharrisCSN) September 7, 2016
I’m not here to police excitement levels; if you’re a fan of both the Sixers and Eagles, the immediacy of Wentz’s first start reigns supreme in the hype column right now. It just isn’t as important as Embiid’s debut as a member of the 76ers.
Quarterback might be the most important position in all of sports, yet the position is still reliant on countless other factors, players and contributors. By virtue of sharing the offensive burden with 10 other teammates at a time, a quarterback can only impact the game so much. Porous offensive lines have doomed talented youngsters and elite veterans alike to injury and failure, and a dearth of playmaking can limit even the best signal-callers.
Even in a charitable view, a star basketball player and a star quarterback are on relatively equal footing offensively. Both make life for their teammates immeasurably easier, whether through commanding double teams or executing pre-snap reads, and are similarly weighed down when not surrounded by the correct blend of talent. The primary difference is in sheer volume; not even the most ball-dominant Kobe Bryant seasons can compare to the usage percentage of an NFL quarterback.
If we call it a draw — or even give quarterbacks the edge in the interest of fairness — the separation between players like Embiid and Wentz lies on the other side of the ball.
Once stopping the other team becomes the objective, quarterbacks return to the sideline and are at the mercy of their defensive unit. While the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant leverage their blend of athleticism and skill to prevent buckets, Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers assess their last drive and game-plan for the next one. The days of two-way forces like Chuck Bednarik have long been over.
Football is unique in this way across all positions. In other major team sports, athletes have to balance the responsibilities on offense and defense even in hyper-specialized roles. Goalies in hockey and soccer, for example, are tasked with distributing from the back and organizing their more offensive counterparts on top of their defensive stopping. The American League’s DH is the exception to the rule, with all other baseball players required to defend a position and hit.
This is not meant to diminish the stature of a quarterback’s job; reading and reacting as other players try to maim you is absurdly difficult and requires a combination of toughness, intelligence and talent that few people in the world can ever hope to success. It is simply a recognition of the impact one can make while only playing on one side of a sport. The debate surrounding Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor is based in the idea that both struggle to keep up on one end of the court — imagine if both players quite literally walked off the court any time a possession changed.*
*(I’m sure some people would prefer this be the case)
Failings by their defensive counterparts have prevented all-time great QBs from succeeding as they might have otherwise. Prime Peyton Manning was perhaps the greatest quarterback to ever play football, but the shortcomings of his own defense (and the stoutness of the rival Patriots unit) kept him on the outside looking in for most of his career. On the flip side, the likes of Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson won Super Bowls thanks to heroic efforts from their famous defensive units, tasting the ultimate team success despite their own limitations.
Basketball’s leading talents don’t have that luxury. They have equity in both sides of the game. LeBron James is a man of many talents, but his most famous play may end up being a chasedown block. Kobe’s shot-making is his memorable characteristic, but his swarming athleticism and defense played just as big a part in his triumphs. Tim Duncan was a metronome on both ends for San Antonio, ripping teams to shreds in the post while preventing them from doing the same against his guys.
Embiid has a chance to be something the Sixers haven’t had in earnest since the early 80’s. Great as Allen Iverson was, his skill-set and size (and predisposition to gamble for steals) put a limit on his impact on the defensive end. There are very few players in the history of the Sixers franchise who can claim to be legitimate game-changers on both ends of the court.
Taking care of the ball is a top priority in every sport. The difference is that someone like Embiid can create the turnovers that lead to easy points the other way for his team. A big man who can protect the rim, levitate through the lane and knock down open jumpers has no equivalent unless Carson Wentz decides he wants to double as a ball-hawking safety.
Eagles and Sixers fans have every right to be jacked up for the big debuts of their potential franchise players. Philadelphia’s new dawn is much-needed, and the city might finally be emerging from a down period for the local teams.
Despite the importance of great quarterback play, no team-sport athlete alters the game quite like a star basketball player. If health and luck aid his journey, it’s Embiid, not Wentz, who will impact the fortunes of his team the most.