Year of the Quarterback
In the spring of 2006, the Miami Dolphins were shopping for a starting quarterback. Having roamed the wilderness of pro football’s most important position since Dan Marino’s retirement in 1999, the Dolphins had narrowed their choice to two veterans with quality resumes: San Diego’s Drew Brees, and Daunte Culpepper of the Minnesota Vikings. Culpepper missed half the 2005 season with tears in three knee ligaments, but was one year removed from a blockbuster 2004 during which he threw for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns. Brees had likewise established himself as an accurate passer and winning quarterback in San Diego, and like Culpepper was healing from an injury suffered the previous season, a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder. More concerned about Brees’ shoulder than Culpepper’s knee, Miami sent the Vikings a second round pick for Culpepper. Brees signed with the New Orleans Saints.
We know today that Miami chose unwisely, as the old knight guarding the Holy Grail said to Indiana Jones. Brees and the Saints reached the NFC Championship Game in 2006, and in 2009 they won the Super Bowl. This year they are 13-3 and the #3 seed in the NFC playoffs. Culpepper, meanwhile, was a bust in Miami, and the Dolphins have continued cycling through quarterbacks and coaches like a temp agency. They’ve made the playoffs once since 2006.
Were the Dolphins stupid and the Saints smart? (Literally, dolphins are believed to be at least as intelligent as humans, even saints.) The truth isn’t so binary. Culpepper injured his shoulder in 2006, and clashed with then-head coach Nick Saban. Brees joined the Saints when they’d just hired a new head coach, Sean Payton, one of the brightest play-callers in the game. Maybe Daunte Culpepper had maturity problems, or maybe Saban did. It’s safe to say there was an element of luck involved, that if the situation were reversed, maybe Culpepper would at least have enjoyed some success in New Orleans. And maybe Brees’ talent would have been wasted by the ineptitude in Miami. We’ll never know. We do know that the Dolphins continue to roam the wilderness, because they haven’t found a quarterback that approaches even one third the potential of Dan Marino.
Every year, when training camp begins in the NFL, you hear the same song and dance from the coaches across the country. "We’re going to run the football," they tell reporters. "We’ve got to run the ball well, and we’ve got to play great defense." For years, fans and reporters nodded along to this logic. Running the ball and playing tough defense have long been part of pro football’s ethos, and fans appreciate at least the lip service toward effort and fundamentals. Its logic seems infallible, since the days when Vince Lombardi’s teams ran the power sweep over and over, until it became as precise as a ballet movement and as overpowering as a cavalry charge. Throwing the ball is for third down, or for teams without the stones to run it. Besides, it’s risky. Interceptions, incompletions, and quarterback sacks are the hazards of a team that dares to drop back and heave it.
Penn and Teller could have devoted an entire episode of Bullshit! to the "run the ball first" canard. For several years the evidence before our eyes told us that teams with good or great quarterbacks play far better than teams with good or great running backs (but average or worse quarterbacks). By this season, not only has the cat long been out of the bag, it’s sleeping in the sunbeam and scratching the upholstery. One need look no further than the playoff teams and quarterbacks this postseason.
There’s no foolproof way to predict who will be a sensation and who will be a bust, and circumstances count as much as talent. Rodgers was scooped up by Green Bay, where he studied a lot of film, scouted opponents, and learned for three seasons behind Brett Favre. And coach Mike McCarthy is one of the best developers of quarterback talent in the league.
The Packers are the perfect case study for what it takes to win in today’s NFL. This season, Rodgers did everything with a football but cure cancer, throwing for 45 touchdowns, six interceptions, a whopping 9.25 yards per attempt, and a passer rating of 122.5.* (*A lot of people gripe about the quarterback rating, and I admit it’s not perfect, but it measures passing efficiency as well as anything else.) The Packers’ running game, meanwhile, is anemic. The team gained just 1,558 yards on the ground. (Rodgers had 257 of those, meaning they came from broken pass plays.) By contrast, Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville gained 1,606 on his own in 2011. The Jaguars are not in the playoffs.
Green Bay’s defense gave up more yards than any other team, meaning by the NFL’s statistical standards it was the "worst." But remember, the NFL is a passing game, and the corollary to having a statistically great quarterback is rendering the opponent’s quarterback statistically poor. Because the Packers have held opposing QBs to a passer rating of around 80, and because they’ve intercepted 31 passes (most in the league), the defense is not truly the worst, but somewhere in the middle of the pack. The "passer rating differential" (the difference between a team’s passing game and its defensive passer rating), first unearthed by the great minds at ColdHardFootballFacts.com, is the most reliable indicator of success in today’s AND yesterday’s NFL.
Drew Brees, New Orleans
Brees likewise had a remarkable season. He completed 71% of his passes for 46 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, and obliterated Marino’s season passing total with 5,476 yards. In the NFL MVP debate, he’s now neck-and-neck with Rodgers, who cooled off a bit toward season’s end. We won’t know who the MVP is until the day before the Super Bowl, because the NFL decided it wants in on the awards show racket.
Anyway, if you care about MVP awards, Brees’ season was about on par with Rodgers’. Upon further review, it was slightly over par. (Because, remember, under par is good.) Brees tossed eight more INTs, and he and the Saints had two "WTF?" losses (at St. Louis and Tampa) to Rodgers’ one (at Kansas City). Rodgers and the Pack also won the head-to-head matchup in September. That doesn’t take anything away from Brees (except, probably, the MVP award), who’s played better than any quarterback over the past three or four seasons.
Alex Smith, San Francisco
You’ve gotta admire the on-again, off-again starting quarterback for the 49ers. A lot of highly-drafted QBs are tossed on the scrap heap after four or five shitty seasons. (See: JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, etc.) Smith wasn’t developed the way Rodgers was; he was thrown into the fire immediately. When Jim Harbaugh arrived this season, he resolved to make the most with what he had, building a terrific defense and coaxing an efficient year out of Smith. You won’t see Smith light it up in one of those 45-38 touchdown orgies so common this season, but he won’t have any Jake Delhomme/Carson Palmer style four-pick afternoons, either.
The younger Manning excelled this year, partly thanks to two elusive receivers, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. The Giants (9-7) won a terrible division, in spite of losing four in a row at one point, getting swept by the Redskins, and losing at home to Seattle. Nevertheless, they beat the Patriots in Foxboro and took the Packers to the limit before losing. You never know if Manning is going to pull one of those upsets out of his hat, or start lobbing wounded ducks for interceptions as he’s being sacked. Coach Tom Coughlin always seems to be one collapse away from being fired. Somehow, in spite of winning a Super Bowl four years ago, the Giants are always either the scrappy, dangerous underdogs, or the sullen brats mailing it in so they can pack their bags and go to the Bahamas.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit
Stafford finally put together a healthy season, and in the finale in Green Bay he went toe-to-toe in a shootout, throwing five touchdowns and nearly delivering the "upset" against a fired-up Packers JV squad. Nevertheless, he along with Brady and Brees eclipsed 5,000 yards passing, and he has one of the most dominant receivers (Calvin Johnson) in the game. The Lions play at New Orleans in the wild card round, where the three biggest obstacles to victory will be 1) the home crowd, 2) Brees throwing for 750 yards and 10 touchdowns against the Lions’ defense, and 3) Ndamukong Suh being ejected for decapitating a referee and drinking blood from the skull.
Brady makes pro bowlers out of average receivers and has a merciless demeanor when it comes to winning; he’ll cut out your heart and show it to you. He’s been so lights-out over the course of his career, it’s easy to forget that he can get rattled and have a terrible game. That’s been the story the past three playoff games for Brady and the Patriots – all losses during which he threw just five touchdowns against four interceptions. There are a few explanations for this. 1) Marrying Giselle Bundchen made him weak. 2) The Patriots haven’t been the same since the NFL took away the spy cameras. 3) His various bad haircuts have become a distraction. Who knows, but if New England wins a playoff game this year, it’ll be the first time since January 20, 2008.
Joe Flacco, Baltimore
Flacco is the kind of field general who will throw for 350 yards one week, then, say, 27 the next. His completion percentage of 57% this season is underwhelming; it’s hard to envision him leading any fourth quarter comebacks. Baltimore still won its division, because the Ravens’ defense holds opponents to a league-leading 68.8 passer rating.
T.J. Yates, Houston
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
I grouped these guys together because besides Tebow, they’re the least dynamic quarterbacks in the tournament. Matt Schaub was having a decent enough year before going on injured reserve; Yates then led Houston to two victories followed by a three-game losing streak at season’s end. The jury’s out on him. Dalton is a promising rookie who threw 20 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, turning Cincy into the "Oh right, they’re in the playoffs" team of 2011. The Bengals beat up on some bad opponents and lost to just about every decent team they faced. In spite of Yates, Cincy should be one-and-done this weekend in Houston. Next year they’ll be back to their 6-10 selves, and fans can resume bitching about Marvin Lewis and Mike Brown.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
The Overlooked One. Roethlisberger is rarely mentioned among the "elite." This may be because Pittsburgh doesn’t seem like a pure passing team. Maybe it’s because their defense (especially pass defense) has been so dominant. Maybe it’s just because he’s run into trouble with the law and people hate him. Who knows, but the guy’s been to three Super Bowls and won two. Roethlisberger (I refuse to call him "BEN") fought through injury toward the end of the season, but fortunately for Pittsburgh they get to play the Broncos in round one. Which brings us to…
Tim Tebow, Denver
Here’s what we have with Tim Tebow and the Broncos: A 47% completion rate. A 6.38 yards-per-attempt average. A Hall of Fame quarterback for a GM who grits his teeth like an angry dad whose son dresses in ballerina costumes. An exuberant fan base that’ll take winning in any fashion. Finally, a subtext of the national red state-blue state, conservative-liberal, religious-secular, virginity-Caligula divide the media love to hype. People seem to love Tebow or hate him. Either he’s Christ incarnate who wins on grit and limited talent, or he’s an opportunist with a few lucky bounces who makes an ass out of himself by praying like he’s one of the Knights of the Order of St. John.
Once again, the public suffers from binary thinking. Tebow is mortal, as any indifferent fan can see. He’s won some close games and had, with the help of his team, some impressive comebacks. His team took a terribly mediocre division and made the playoffs. Yes, Tebow wears his religion on his sleeve, which offends some people, but so what? Is praying in the end zone any worse (or better) than dancing a salsa? The biggest cultural problem in America is the propensity for any one segment of people to be offended and express outrage when it can simply ignore. I’m as agnostic as they come, but if Tim Tebow uses Jesus for inspiration, good for him. He’s gonna need it.
art by Danny Jock