ELITE - a word that once referred to a select few has all of a sudden become the most overused word in sports. Every time you turn on the television, the word elite is being thrown around so loosely that it's starting to sound as if elite has gone from a select few to the majority. Throw for 300 yards, you're elite; throw two touchdowns, you're elite; lead a game winning drive, you're elite; do all three in the same game vs a big name team, and you have pretty much already stamped your ticket for Canton. In today's microwave society where sports fans' memories are short and fans find themselves stuck in the moment weekly, the understanding of what the elite means has been completely lost. In an attempt to restore the word to its true meaning, let's take a look at just who is and isn't elite in the world of NFL quarterbacks.
In our quest to name the elite quarterbacks in the league, let's start with the true definition of the word. The dictionary defines elite as the best of the best;
the cream of the crop, the highest level one can reach. Now let me be clear by saying that any quarterback that has made it to the NFL level, let alone starting in the NFL, is an elite quarterback in comparison to the everyday man (Jamarcus Russell is a better quarterback than 99.9 % of the people on the planet, but it probably wasn't a good idea to try and build a NFL team around him). However, we are on a hunt to name the elite of the NFL and in a 32 team league, calling as many as 15 different quarterbacks elite sounds silly because we are no longer talking about the "cream" of the crop, we're now talking about almost half of the crop.
The biggest reason the word elite has all but taken over the sports debate world is because two other words, average and good, have almost vanished altogether. It has gotten to the point that if you call a quarterback good, you're saying he is terrible, and if you call him average, you might as well be saying he doesn't belong in the league. But how did we get here? Why does a quarterback have to either be on his way to the Hall of Fame or the unemployment office? If 31 other people did the same job as you, or 15 of them did it better while 15 of them not as well, doesn't that make you average? Placing 10th in a 32 person race means you did a good job, but it's hard to call you the best when 9 others finished ahead of you. While it sounds a lot more dramatic and makes for better headlines to call a quarterback extremes like great or awful, the truth is that a few are great and a few are terrible, but most fall somewhere in between.
Although there is no denying that this year's rookie class of quarterbacks is well on its way to becoming something special thanks to the play of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffen, and Russell Wilson, the idea of a rookie quarterback being elite is the definition of being stuck in the moment. Do Luck and RG3 look like locks to be elite quarterbacks for the next decade? Of course they do, just like Carson Palmer and Duante Culpepper did. In Palmer's second year in the NFL, he led the entire NFL in touchdown passes and led a dead Bengals franchise to an 11 win season. Two years later, he led the NFL in interceptions, and now he is rotting away in Oakland piling up fantasy football numbers in garbage time. In just his first season starting at the young age of 23, Culpepper lead the NFL with 33 TD passes and rushed for another 7 touchdowns and 470 yards. The NFL had never seen anything like Culpepper. He had linebacker size, running back speed, and the strongest arm in the league. Those stuck in the moment were already getting him sized up for his Hall of Fame jacket. Thanks to injuries and poor play after them, Culpepper found himself backing up Jamarcus Rusell by the age of 30 and out of the league by 32. Palmer and Culpepper are just two examples of how success early in a quarterback's career doesn't mean he is guaranteed to stay on that path. Luck, Griffen, and Wilson are all having eye opening seasons and their futures couldn't look any brighter, but it is way too early in their careers to call them elite. Part of being elite is standing the test of time - to have teams know what you're going to do and still not be able to stop you. These rookies haven't even played every team in the league yet, let alone started playing them twice. We are still waiting to see them win a road game in Green Bay or New England in January, or take a trip to Chicago or Pittsburgh in late December. As much as these young quarterbacks have done already, there is still twice as much that they have yet to do.
Two years ago, Josh Freeman took the NFL by surprise, throwing for 25 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions while leading the Bucs to a 10 win season. A year later, he threw only 16 touchdowns while watching his interception total more than triple as the Bucs had one of the worst records in the league. After his rookie season ended, Cam Newton had fans in Carolina and all across the country thinking that the only thing he couldn't do was walk on water. He broke Peyton Manning's rookie passing records, and his 14 rushing touchdowns were the most ever by a quarterback. Less than two months into his sophomore season, critics were all over Newton, comparing him to Vince Young and questioning if had what it takes to be a NFL quarterback. In less than 6 months, Cam went from elite to being called the next big bust. While both Freeman and Newton have shown flashes of greatness early in their careers, as well as months they would like to forget, it is still too early in their careers for them to even qualify for an elite title. With only 42 starts under his belt, Sam Bradford belongs in the same boat.
I have never been a big fan of calling anyone terrible, especially when I know they are working hard and trying their best, and I don't believe in making generalized statements about an entire group of people. But for the sake of this topic, I am left with little choice. The Chiefs, Jaguars, Browns, and Cardinals have more quarterbacks than I care to name, so let me sum it up by saying that none of them are good. In fact, most of them are downright bad. I'm tempted to throw the Jets in that category, too, but right now Mark Sanchez is clinging onto the lower tier of average, well on his way to being terrible.
The next group of quarterbacks are what I call average. The average quarterback is just that: average. Although they have some great games, they're not great. And although they have some of the worst games you have ever seen, they are not terrible. When they play bad defenses, they look great, and when they play good defenses, they struggle. These are the guys you draft as backup quarterbacks in your fantasy league and just hope that they have a solid game when your starting quarterback has a bye week. In a 16 game season, they will have 3 great performances, 3 "how the hell are you an NFL starting QB" performances, and 10 mediocre games. In this group, we have Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, Kevin Kolb, and Mark Sanchez.
After you get past the middle of the road quarterbacks, you get to the "Good Quarterbacks." The good thing about the word "good" is that by adding two different words in front of it, you can break the group up into three different levels. First there is the group that is "pretty" good. They are the guys who have all the tools and can make all the throws, but you know that their next bad games are never too far away. They are better than average and you could probably win a title with them, but chances are that they are not going to be the main reason you do. They often have stretches of great games, and just when you are ready to say they have taken that next step forward, they put together a 3 game stretch where it seems like they completely disappear. If you give them the right tools on offense with a good balanced attack, they can win games - throw in a good defense and they can even win playoff games. In this group we have Matt Schaub, Matthew Stafford, and, even though he was once knocking on the door of elite, Carson Palmer fits in this group now.
The next group of players is where it starts to get a little tricky. These are the guys who have accomplished a lot throughout their very different careers, but still have incomplete "elite status" applications. Some have numerous pro bowls and all pro honors, some hold several NFL records, and some have Super Bowl MVP honors. These are the guys who have flirted with the elite label, but for some reason or another have yet to cement their place in the exclusive group. They have all had elite stretches at some point in their careers, but being elite isn't just about having a good stretch or having a good season, it's about having great seasons year in and year out. In this group, we have Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Eli Manniing, Michael Vick, and Ben Rothelisberger.
Now, I can already hear all those Ravens fans who are stuck in the moment screaming that Flacco just won a Super Bowl, he has to be elite - what more can he do? The answer is simple: put together an elite season. In what most would call his breakout season this past year, Flacco had an 87.7 quarterback rating, which is lower than any rating Romo has had in his career. In his five year career, the Ravens QB has finished in the top 10 in QB rating only once prior to last season. This season, he was known more by his up and down games than anything. While the Pro Bowl has become little more than a joke, the fact that Flacco has never been named one of the top 3 quarterbacks in his own conference makes it hard to call him elite. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Romo. Romo has put up some of the best regular season numbers of all time and is a three time pro bowl selection, but he has many of his worst plays at the worst time. Despite having the fifth highest QB rating in league history, the fact that Romo has only been able to pull out one playoff victory this deep into his career prevents him from receiving the elite label. If you could combine Romo's regular season and Flacco's post season play, then you would have an elite QB, but on their own, they both still have some work to do if they want to join the elite group. If Flacco can put together a top 5 season next year or if Romo can lead the Cowboys on a Super Bowl run, it would make it hard to argue that they don't belong in the elite group.
In Atlanta, the Falcons have gone out of their way to make sure that Matt Ryan has all the weapons a quarterback could ask for. As far as the regular season goes, Ryan has delivered. Ryan has improved every year and even up to the midway point this season was in the discussion for league MVP. He finished the season with an eye popping 4,700 yards passing and 32 touchdowns, but it's his postseason resume that needs some work. It's hard to understand how a player can earn the nickname "Matty Ice" for his play under pressure without ever winning a playoff game, but it happened. After leading the Falcons to the best record in the NFL this season, Ryan earned his first playoff win of his career. He still has a long NFL career ahead of him and tons of talent to throw to, so becoming elite is very much within reach, but for now, just like Romo, he needs to improve his postseason win total.
The two hardest players to leave out of the elite group are Big Ben and Eli. While both have proven to be as good as anyone in the league when the game is on the line, they still have yet to put together a MVP season that shows their dominance. In Eli's 9 seasons as a Giants starter, he has only finished ranked in the top 10 in passer rating once. Also, his career rating of 82 doesn't scream greatness. The only passing category the younger Manning has ever led the league in is interceptions, a feat he has accomplished twice. For the majority of Big Ben's career, the Steelers have been a run first team and as a result, his individual numbers have never quite reached elite numbers. Like Eli, Ben has never led the NFL in anything other than interceptions and has only topped the 30 passing touchdown mark once. While there might not be anyone better in the league at extending a play than Roithersburger, a lot of those plays end in interceptions, fumbles, or unnecessary sacks. What Ben means to the Steelers cannot really be measured by numbers, and his exclusion from the elite group has more to with the play of those in the group than it does with his. While the lack of a MVP caliber year is currently keeping Eli and Ben from joining the "the best of the best," they both are knocking on the door, and their four combined Super Bowl rings cannot be ignored.
This leaves us with the true elite - not just the best, but the best of the best - the quarterbacks that other quarterbacks strive to be. These are the guys who have done it all: Super Bowl MVPs, offensive players, first team all pro, and more Pro Bowls than they care to attend. Every season, this group takes turns breaking each other's records and raising the bar even higher. When this group throws for 300 yards and 3 touchdowns, it's not news or a great game, it's another day at the office. What most quarterbacks call great games is expected of them every week. These four quarterbacks have put together 6 of the top 10 highest quarterback rating seasons in league history. The NFL record books have their names written all over it and they're not even done playing yet. In this group we have Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning. If you have any one of these quarterbacks on your team, you always have a chance to win no matter what. These are the guys who, when your team has holes in it, they cover them up. Over the past decade, the Saints, Packers, Patriots, and Colts have had some of the worst defenses in the NFL, and these guys just kept winning games. Who's the best? Depends on who you ask and what day. All four of them have had their moments of looking like the hands down best quarterback in football. That's part of being elite - not that you're the clear cut best, but that no one is hands down better than you, and you belong in the highest class. Who makes the finest car in the world? Some say Aston Martin, some say Bentley, some say Maserati - all depends on what you like. The fact that you won't find many people who put Lexus in that category doesn't mean that it isn't a great car, it's just not in the same class as those others. Imagine if you were to call a sports hotel and they asked you if you wanted the Tom Brady or the Peyton Manning suite. Most people's question would be "which room is nicer?". Now, if they asked would you rather the Aaron Rodgers suite or the Joe Flacco suite, you would already know which room is better. To say that someone is elite based on one hot 5 game streak is disrespectful to the great play these four have put together week in and week out for years. These are the guys that keep defensive coordinators up at night all week long because they already know what they are going to do and that they cant stop them. Who's going to be the offensive MVP next year? Chances are it's one of them. Who's going to lead their team to the Super Bowl next year? Odds are, one of them. Who's going to lead the league in touchdown passes? Who is going to be the first team all pro? You get the point.