I’ve wanted to do this for a while, really for most of the summer, but it’s such a big project and takes so long to really think about and get out. Despite what the mainstream media may lead you to believe, quarterback analysis is far from simple; it’s actually one of the most complex things to do. In fact, writing these articles no matter what the topic really takes time to get your thoughts out in a (somewhat) organized manner, and topics are so time sensitive that a lot of stuff I want to write about I often don’t really get out on time. But this project has been bugging me for some time and I want to get it out there. It feels like a waste to spend so much time thinking about this stuff (which I do way too often) and not get it on paper. So since the season is going to start soon I’m going to give a list of my quarterback rankings and analysis. I could write a whole essay one each of these quarterbacks and to do a fully comprehensive analysis with responses to objections would take forever. So for the sake of time I’m going to rush this a little bit. It may not be my best work and the rankings may not be perfect, but at least it will give you something to think about before football season gets underway.
I’m not sure anything represents the world of football analysis among media and fans better than quarterback rankings. While fans and analysts will talk and argue forever, nothing they really say means anything. This is absolutely the case with quarterback rankings, which could not be more meaningless. Where a quarterback “ranks” with regards to his peers is just a thought exercise intended to create debate; it means absolutely nothing in the football world. It doesn’t matter if a quarterback is “elite” or “greatest of all time” or “number 2 vs number 3” in the league for the respective teams; it’s a worthless comparison. All that matters for coaches is getting their players and their team to play their best and win a superbowl. That’s why when quarterbacks get asked dumb questions with regards to stuff like this, you hear them say things like passing yards don’t matter and winning is the only stat that matters. Stupid analysts mistakenly use this as an argument for players in their ranking; but what it really shows is that stuff is all pointless. We really just create it because we have nothing better to do.
Furthermore, the idea of ranking quarterbacks is conceptually ridiculous in and of itself. It oversimplifies a vastly complex position in the ultimate team sport. Quarterbacks can’t just be compared apples to apples. There are too many variables, including surrounding cast, coaching, era during which the player played, strength of schedule, luck, playing style, etc. Football is a very random game and often a superbowl win or loss is really just a question of how the ball bounces. To say a quarterback is “better” or “worse” than another implies that there is only one variable being analyzed, the “goodness” of the quarterback. But there is so much to playing quarterback that all quarterbacks have strengths and weaknesses. Some are better at some things and some are better than others. How do we choose what to value more? How do we balance this all out?
If all this is so pointless and ridiculous, why do we do it in the first place? Simple: it’s fun. It gives us something to talk about, especially during the ever so boring offseason. And just because it is a silly exercise doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We can and often do use rankings and speak of quarterbacks in these terms, and that’s okay. It helps us to understand the position and analyze the game. I just think it’s important to go in knowing all this stuff, knowing that it is really arbitrary and not to take it too seriously.
Ranking quarterbacks is so hard that you could switch around a lot of these names on the list and I’d be okay with it. I’m not even sure it’s an ideal list. Like I said, if I tried to come up with a perfect list I’d be thinking about this forever. So the rankings are not set in stone and there are some changes I’d be more comfortable with than others, but keep in mind that I will try to bring a sophisticated level of analysis or at least sufficient justification for my rankings. The analysis is the important part, probably moreso than the ranking, as that will tell you what I really think about the player. There are a lot of quarterback rankings out there and to be honest most of them suck. We see bad arguments–and often just lack of arguments–in football analysis all the time. What I’m trying to do here is break through the shitty reasoning and provide good analysis, so even though I’ve prefaced this all with ramblings about how arbitrary and meaningless this is and how unsure I am about it and all that, I urge you to give merit to my analysis because like I said, I do spend a lot of time thinking this stuff through and I haven’t just pulled it out of my ass. Also, just because I haven’t mentioned something about a quarterback’s achievements or shortcomings doesn’t mean I don’t know that it’s there. Like I said, there are so many factors that go into this and organizing it is so hard that I can only go into logically organize and remember so much at a time.
These are not career rankings, but they’re also not just rankings of last year’s play. It’s sort of a mix of both. They’re essentially rankings for the quarterbacks in the NFL right now going into the season, so there is a recency bias and they’re mostly based on last year or the last two years, but I do still take career into account. It’d be hard to entirely separate the associations we have in our mind of the elite quarterbacks and their careers, and it’d also be kind of dumb and shortsighted to do so, ranking solely based on last year. At the same time, career rankings are too hard, and seeing as we’re headed into the season and last year is fresh in our minds there should be a recency bias. So to sum up, it’s basically where do the quarterbacks in the NFL stand right now going into the season, based on what we know about them and their skillsets from their careers and the confidence we have in them because of those but also based off of where they left off in the last year or two.
I don’t have an exact scale or value system where postseason is worth this much, arm strength this much, leadership this much, etc etc etc. I’m not sure we gain a ton by doing that as that’s also oversimplifying by saying we can compare certain traits with explicit values. I really just think people say that stuff to make their rankings look more complex and objective than they are. Plus that also takes a while, so just trust me when I say that I take it all into account.
I often feel like I spend too much time defending shitty arguments instead of establishing my own, so I’m going to try (and maybe not succeed) to do that less here. There reaches a point where answering bad arguments is just a waste of my time. Keep in mind if you have a problem you can always comment and we can hash it out after this, but I want to get the arguments out there.
And lastly, I’m not going to rank all 32 quarterbacks. That takes a lot of time, and also it gets to a point where it just doesn’t really matter anymore. No one’s arguing over how to rank Josh McCown, Mark Sanchez, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. I’m also going to stick to quarterbacks that have been embedded as starters and haven’t just changed teams, ie no Sam Bradford. I’ll do a separate section at the end with some of my thoughts on the rookies, without ranking them as it’s far too early.
Finally, let’s get this thing started already!
Note: These are just quarterback rankings. If you don’t like them, please don’t yell at me or kill me or threaten to kill me. To quote Tom Brady, “This isn’t ISIS. No one’s dying.” (Yes, he actually said that.)
Number 1: Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers takes the top spot here, and it’s because no one makes playing the position look as easy and as effortless as he does. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that he has the league’s strongest arm, and I’m not even sure it’s close. Combine that with his absurdly quick and compact release and he makes throwing the ball 60 yards down the field as effortless as throwing 5 yards down the field. As Greg Cosell of NFL films says, “no one throws the ball like he does”. The other part that makes Rodgers so special is that there’s a calmness to his play. Everything from his cadence to his footwork to his movement to his throws is very very relaxed and poised. He never panics in the face of pressure. I’ve seen him have happy feet just once in my life (the play he fumbled in the 09 playoffs vs Arizona to end the game). When he plays, when you see him move and throw, it just looks like he’s in absolute control, like he’s playing with kids or like he’s playing Madden. And everyone knows about his mobility, but more importantly is how light he is on his feet, probably moreso than any other Quarterback in the league. This combination of traits is absolutely deadly. Everyone’s afraid to blitz him because of how easily he’ll make a throw down the field. (He’s always looking deep and the degree to which he is effective at doing so is incredible–It’s insane how often Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson find ways to beat the defense deep; if I’m not mistaken, the stat I heard was that those two have more 80+ yard TDs than any other combo in the league (something like that, might have been starting from a certain year)). But if you rush four, he’s so good at buying time that he’ll sit back and move around in or out of the pocket for so long that someone will open up. If you can’t get to Rodgers with four, it’s over. And how could I forget, the pinpoint accuracy at all levels of the field, short, intermediate, and most impressively, deep. His receivers never have to break stride. What’s crazy is that he throws so few interceptions, yet it’s not like he’s not a risk taker. He makes throws into such tight coverage, throws that literally no other quarterback in the league could make. I feel like the arm has something to do with that. It seems like he throws it so fast that the ball gets to his receiver before the defender even knows what hit them; either the receiver’s catching it or no one is. He sets the bar so high. I’ll go back to some of his earlier seasons, and he’ll have these great games where they only win by like one score, and you think, oh that’s not even that good by his standards, seeing as nowadays how his offense routinely blows out the opponents.
Now I will say this: Rodgers is not as perfect as some members of the media make him out to be. He does have flaws. Records have shown he’s not a very good comeback quarterback. He has one of the worst records when it comes to 4th quarter comeback opportunities vs successes. (For more look into Scott Kacsmar’s work, key words: comeback, frontrunner, green bay, Aaron Rodgers) He’s more likely to hold onto the ball while waiting for something to open up downfield than to take what the defense gives him, and this often results in unnecessary sacks. While he’s mostly incredibly consistent, he’ll occasionally have a bad game like the Buffalo one last year where he’s under 50 percent completion, and you’ll almost never see that from the Brady/Brees/Mannings. This is because while he is mostly very good at reading defenses, I don’t view him as quite as cerebral as that bunch; he’s less of the field general type and more of a physical freak. Those guys are reading the defense and getting rid of the ball. He’s more likely to hold onto the ball, buy some time, and then sling it downfield. He’s not really a rhythm player in terms of getting rid of the ball. However, because he’s so gifted he can play like this and more often than not the outstanding plays he makes more than make up for any shortcomings in his game. Also it’s worth mentioning that since the 2010 title run he’s been just average in the playoffs and against quality defenses. Most of those crazy six TD games tend to come against bad defenses and often at home, as rarely have you seen the Packers find an answer for the Seahawks and 49ers in multiple meetings in the past few years. While those in the media tend to view him as easily consensus best QB for many years now, I would argue that he reclaimed that title during his MVP year last year and was that during his MVP 2011 year and in the 2010 playoffs, but in 2012 and 2013 it was Peyton.
Back to positives, I forgot to mention his improvisational skills. It’s a huge part of his game and it makes him even harder to defend. He can throw on the run and he can throw from all sorts of arm angles to get the job done; see the TD he threw against the Lions in week 17 and then on the first drive against the Cowboys in the playoffs. That’s just playmaking.
He’s lost receivers since his Superbowl winning 2010 and his record setting 2011, but it hasn’t impacted his production. Nelson and Cobb get the majority of his targets, yet he finds a way to make it work. Detractors say that he’s had good receivers and that backups have played well in the GB system, but those are just bad arguments in this case; that stuff’s totally irrelevant when isolating the player. I do believe that no one elevates the play of his surrounding cast like Rodgers (Peyton’s a very close second) for all the reasons I’ve given, and no one makes playing quarterback look as easy as him. Because of his truly unique skillset and gifts, Rodgers is the no 1 rated quarterback for now.
Number 2: Tom Brady
I don’t have a problem with Tom Brady so much as I have a problem with all the annoying New England fans as well as the members of the media who treat Brady as a king and think that he can do no wrong, AND who praise him as being a great quarterback for all the wrong reasons. Having said that, there’s no denying Tom Brady’s greatness. I was really impressed with his 2014, both regular and postseason. After so many postseason disappointments from so many high scoring New England offenses and ten years removed from his last title, I really did not think Brady was ever getting the 4th ring. In the regular season he checked in what I thought was his best season since 2011. He was more poised in the pocket than he had been in recent years and he looked a lot more comfortable at moving around when defenses got him off the spot. In the postseason, he came back from down 14 twice against Baltimore (with some help from the arm of Julian Edelman), and that game set a record for fewest rushing yards in a postseason win, as it was all on Brady’s arm. He had a pretty easy AFC championship matchup, and then there was the Superbowl. I remember a point down 24-14 after a few NE punts where the New England offense had stalled and I thought it was over. But Brady rallied in a way he may not have in the past. He had four touchdowns in that game including the game winner. He again had 50 attempts, which is tough to do against a defense of that caliber. Some people have mentioned his (regular season) low Y/A, but the pats offense outside of 2007 and sometimes earlier in the decade has always been a dip and dunk offense. Nothing really changed during this postseason except that defenses didn’t really play it that well. You could also argue the only difference between this postseason and previous recent failures was that now Brady had Gronk healthy, and you can’t underestimate the effect of that. Also, Seattle had some injuries in the secondary during that game. Nonetheless, you have to give Brady credit, as throwing it that much and being that effective is hard to do.
So what specifically does Brady do well? Mechanically, he’s one of the best in the game, from his drops to his footwork to his release. At age 38 he still has a very strong arm. He is a great athlete with great agility which leads to excellent pocket movement; he can step up and slide left and right with the best of them. He’s also a field general and excels at reading defenses. This is what allows New England to be so successful being so pass heavy and running so many spread/empty sets. He always knows where the rush is coming from and where to set his protection, and he always knows which receiver to throw to. This is what made the combo of him and Welker so dangerous; they both were incredibly smart players that always were on the same page and always saw what was happening with the defense, and because of that Brady always knew where Welker was going to be. This is also why the Pats are so effective at running hurry up offenses. Brady is the king of audibling and you really have to disguise your coverage against him. His pocket presence has been up and down depending on the year, but when it’s on, it’s the best in the league. Brady’s short accuracy is unmatched, he’s probably the best short passer in the history of the game. He’s also an excellent seam thrower, which is a big reason he and Gronkowski are so dangerous. He’s also very good at protecting the ball; he rarely throws interceptions. Not to mention he has 35 4th quarter comebacks and 46 game winning drives in his career. (profootballreference)
Negatives? He’s not a very good deep ball thrower and he’s not very good at throwing to outside receivers in general. This has especially been the case since he tore his ACL in 2008. People tend to think it’s because he hasn’t had a good outside receiver, but if you watch the games you’ll know that’s not it. He’s just more comfortable working the short intermediate area. I would argue that contrary to popular belief, when it comes to outside receivers, he does not elevate the play of his receivers at all. This is why outside receivers are rarely utilized in the New England offense. It’s about slot guys, tight ends, and running backs. I was very torn between Brady and Rodgers for No 1, as Brady is the reigning champ and he’s a much more cerebral/rhythm quarterback. But I think he simply has more limitations to his game than Rodgers. I think he needs a shifty slot guy like welker/edelman as a safety blanket. People like to talk down those guys when discussing Brady’s legacy, but in that role in that offense, they’re the best at what they do, and a large part of Brady’s game has depended on the overuse of those guys. I’m also not sure Brady would be as successful without a big tight end either. This is also a conversation for another article, but a lot of his postseason success and winning in general has been the result of a lot of things outside of his control, a lot of lucky bounces, and in general being part of one of the best organizations in the league with arguably the best coach in the league, an organization that has always been at the forefront of offensive innovation during Brady’s time, back to back two of the best clutch kickers this league has ever seen, and a turnover hungry defense that just doesn’t allow for comebacks, especially in New England. Just to use one example, Brady’s first lost comeback (game where he led them down the field to take the lead but then the defense gave up the lead) was super bowl 42, seven years into his career. (source: Scott Kacsmar–off memory could be wrong on that one but pretty certain) That’s astonishing and unheard of. Outside of not turn the football over, Brady didn’t do a ton to get the Pats to a 10-0 record in the postseason, and he was lucky to get to his next two superbowls given his performances in those 2 AFC championship games. It’s just not clear that guys like Brees Rodgers and Peyton get as much help as Brady does. People don’t like to hear this, but it’s the truth. (If you want more examples I can give you some)
Nonetheless, I don’t mean to diminish what Brady’s done in this league. You’ll have a lot of trouble finding guys with the consistent success that Brady has had over his illustrious 14 year career, and there’s no doubt he’ll go down as one of the best to ever play the game.
Number 3: Peyton Manning
Peyton’s “decline” has been way overblown, as has practically everything negative said about Peyton Manning, who it seems people just want a reason to hate so they can discredit his success or find some flaw in his game. Truthfully, there’s an argument that could be made that Peyton is the best of all time, as I’m not sure anyone is ever going to replicate the type of production and consistency he has over his 16 year career, not to mention his impact on the game and on offense. But that’s another conversation for another day.
After the playoff loss to the Colts, an unusually bad game for Peyton and the denver offense, it really was starting to feel like it might be the end for Peyton. He had shown noticeable decline toward the end of the season, despite the increased help he was getting from CJ Anderson. (It is worth mentioning that the schedule did toughen up. But still, it wasn’t what you expect from Peyton.) However, now that I’ve had some time to get away from the vibes of that loss and the dramatic gut reactions, as has Peyton, I’m much more confident about his return. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s never to count out Peyton Manning. Lets not forget that after the Colts let him go people thought he was done. When they saw him throw in the preseason, they thought he was done. When the 2012 Broncos started 2-3, they thought he was done. He responded with an MVP-worthy season. After the Baltimore playoff loss, we heard the same things. He responded with one of the greatest seasons in the history of all time, setting records for most TDs and yards in a single season. After the Superbowl clusterfuck to Seattle, we heard the same things. We can nitpick about the end of 2014, but he still led them to the playoffs and finished the season with very respectable numbers. The point is, we’ve heard this story before. Everyone won’t shut up about arm strength and if Peyton’s arm is okay. It’s really stupid to be honest. His arm has not been the same since surgery. We know that and we’ve known that for years. It hasn’t stopped him from playing efficiently. It doesn’t have to be brought up every time the Broncos lose a game.
So despite Peyton’s less than satisfactory end to the year, I’m not moving him any lower than 3. (Some people have him outside of their top 10, which is ridiculous). He’s still Peyton Manning and you can’t count him out until it’s all over. I don’t think I have to talk about what he does well too much as everyone basically knows. He is the surgeon and his understanding of the game is unmatched. He runs the game from the line and he knows where everyone is at all times, a coach on the field. What’s most impressive about Peyton’s career is the level of consistent success he’s been able to maintain. He’s now been with 2 different teams and 4 going on 5 different head coaches. Joe Montana and Brett Favre had one good year on the Chiefs and Vikings, respectively (Brett’s was top notch). Peyton’s now had 3 (2 and a half if you’re being picky) excellent seasons on the Broncos and is returning for a 4th. The only player that’s ever come closer to winning a Superbowl with two different teams is Kurt Warner. Not to mention he’s totally adjusted his playing style, going from an aggressive down the field offense in Indy to a shorter passing offense in Denver. I also think he’s looked a little more comfortable moving in the pocket during his Denver years. The line there has been average as has the running game. 2012 was especially impressive, as Julius Thomas had not yet emerged and Peyton was working with Jacob Tamme at tight end and a 36ish year old Brandon Stokley at slot WR. Sure, Demarius and Decker have been good, but the balls are always perfectly placed. And despite all the arm strength talk, Peyton continually finds ways to go deep and remains a very effective deep passer. He is probably the best anticipation thrower in the league, throwing balls way before receivers break.
I could go on, but I’m probably boring you. Point is Peyton’s one of the best to ever play the game. I’m not positive that he’ll be great with Kubiak, but I’m not going to count him out. If this is the end, he’s had one hell of a career.
Number 4: Ben Roethlisberger
It’s unfortunate that Ben is still playing football and is not in jail after his sexual assault allegations. He’s married and has been fairly clean off the field since the incidents, but rape generally isn’t something where you’re supposed to get a second chance. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that on the field Ben has been one of the best and underrated quarterbacks of this generation and of all time. Despite often being overshadowed by the pittsburgh defense (which he has often been forced to bail out late in games), Roethlisberger has always been a very skilled quarterback. He has the arm, he has the size, he’s good late in games, he’s very accurate, and he’s had plenty of postseason success. Sure, he had a cruddy stat line in super bowl 40, but you’d think that his game winning drive in super bowl 43 would make up for that. He really helped that Bill Cowher coached team get to the next step, and did so very early in his career. What’s always stood out to me the most when watching Roethlisberger is his willingness to stand in the pocket until the last second, throwing the ball just when he’s about to get hit. He’s of a rare breed of quarterback that I think is really unique and valuable because they’re essentially indefensible at times. He’s a big man with a big frame and he’s really hard to bring down. Because of that, he’s not as rattled by pressure. So if the first read isn’t there, or there’s a rusher that’s beat your tackle, he can just shake them off and make a play late in the down. It’s inevitable that things go wrong, that plays don’t always go as planned in the NFL, and to be able to stay in the play when that happens, to get to your next read is a huge asset. (Although I don’t feel this way about quarterbacks who run around and out of the pocket to extend the play, for reasons I won’t go into here) We’ve seen it time and time again from Roethlisberger, and the late in the down throws are incredibly accurate and often big time down the field throws. (Roethlisberger is also a great deep passer.) The only other quarterback I can think of that is like him in this sense is Andrew Luck.
However, most people in the media see Roethlisberger as just that, as someone whose value is that he can extend plays, including running out of the pocket. But he’s also very very good inside the pocket and I think that goes overlooked quite a lot. He can get rid of the ball in rhythm and read defenses. That’s what leads to consistent qb play and that’s why he’s been around for so long. He might not be a field general in the sense that Peyton/Brady/Brees are, but he’s not far behind. What we’re seeing now is that he’s reaching the point in his career where his physical prime and mental prime are overlapping, and that doesn’t happen with all quarterbacks. The results have been really fun to watch and he’s a true engineer of this Pittsburgh offense. He’s throwing with power, accuracy, and touch, and he’s reading progressions, getting rid of the ball when he needs to, and buying time when he needs to. You can just see it in his game how much better he understands the position with how comfortable he’s playing and how quick he’s moving ahead of the defense. He’ll drop, look one way, check to the next read, bam, fire, touchdown. He’s been very effective out of empty backfield, which your quarterback needs to be very smart to be able to do. Also, it helps that Todd Haley isn’t calling plays like an idiot anymore. Ben is another guy people might try to bring down by mentioning his receivers (always a bad argument), but a guy like Antonio Brown, while an excellent route runner and speedster, is a short receiver. It’s hard to have success with an under 6 foot receiver in this league; those guys need the ball to be perfectly placed, and Ben does that. At this point, when you look at the entirety of their careers, Ben’s probably been the best and most consistent of the 2004 QB draft class.
Negatives? He obviously hasn’t consistently put up the type of numbers that the other elites have, he hasn’t made the playoffs quite as often, and he hasn’t played great in the playoffs in a while. Also, like I said, he’s not quite as cerebral as those guys. But there’s really not many flaws to his games. Oh and did I mention he’s a two time Superbowl champion. I think spot number 4 is more than justified.
Number 5: Drew Brees
For a while it really didn’t feel right putting Roethlisberger ahead of Brees. Brees has been one of the top QBs of this generation and is always mentioned along with Brady, Peyton, and Rodgers. Remember these are not career rankings; there is a recency bias. And I think Brees has a little something to prove after the last couple of years. In 2013 we saw a decline in arm strength, with less of the seams and deep routes and more Jimmy Graham and screens. Brees started off in MVP form but fell off towards the end of the year, and It culminated with an absolutely terrible playoff game in Seattle. The Saints were 7-9 last year, although it felt more like 4-12. I again noticed a decrease in arm strength with Brees and some wobblers I had not seen out of him before. Of course, I don’t blame him for this. When you’re 36 and you’ve thrown over 650 passes almost every year it’s inevitable, and Brees really has carried the Saints throughout his career. He’s the volume king, with four 5000 yard seasons, which show how much they ask of him. Picking on Brees for last year might seem unfair and even ludacris to some, considering he completed 69% of his passes (led the league I believe) and threw for almost 5000 yards again to go along with a 97 passer rating. But I think a lot of these numbers were pretty empty. A lot of checkdowns, and a lot of garbage time. The turnovers from Brees often came at the absolute worst time, often late in games last year. (It didn’t help that Rob Ryan’s defenses tended to breakdown late as well.) But if you look away from the numbers and watch the highlights, you see a lot of mistakes from Brees. He had a lot of bad turnovers, and in a lot of the big games he really didn’t show up. Brees’s season held some similarity to Matt Ryan’s in 2013: mostly very accurate, high completion and yards percentage due to a lot of throwing and a lot of checking down, but overall disappointing and a lot of turnovers late in games. Brees was far from the whole problem, but hall of fame QBs need to be held to hall of fame standards, and that’s why I’ve knocked Brees down a bit.
Of course, he’s still one of the premier signal callers in the game. He’s super accurate and a pro at reading defenses. This is how he gets so many completions; he knows where to go with the ball at all times. He rarely predetermines throws and is an excellent reader of progressions. Mechanics, pocket movement, it’s all there. He’s an explosive quick twitch athlete which leads to pocket movement that is some of the best in the game, and his success at his height is shocking. He has a unique ability to be able to not only create passing lanes but to get up on his toes and play like he’s much taller than he is. He has an over the top delivery and is able to arc balls over the defense in a way that’s really impressive for a man of his height. It also helps that he’s an absolute master of the game and of the position and he knows where his receivers are going to be, even if he can’t see them. And like I alluded to before, the Saints ask an absolute lot of him; rarely have they had consistent defenses, and his defenses give up the lead late a lot more than those of Brady/Peyton, as he has an absurd number of lost comebacks.
Maybe Brees has spoiled us in the past. When the Saints passing attack was really fire back in 2009 and 2011, what was so special about it was the aggressive throws he was making down the field, to receivers that were covered, yet he still would fit the ball in there. The seams to Colston were some insane shit, as well as the play action posts. Now that he’s just a very efficient ball distributor but not quite as flashy or aggressive, it almost seems like a disappointment, even though he’s still one of the best signal callers in the game.
I think one thing that has always kept Brees below Brady and Manning is that he’s not quite as consistent, both year to year and week to week. The Saints don’t make the playoffs every year, and it seems like every other year he has a whole lot of turnovers. One thing I’ve noticed from him is when the play is rushed and there’s a free rusher on him before he’s ready to throw, instead of taking the sack he’ll try to get rid of it at any cost, even if it means flicking it away left handed, often similar to what Eli Manning has done a lot of in the past. I think this hurt Brees last year as his O-line wasn’t quite up to its usual standards. Brees can compensate for poor tackle play, but he needs the interior of the line strong so he can step up and see the defense at his height. He’s had a few all time great seasons, and he’s been money when he has made the playoffs. Losses in 2010 and 2011 were not his fault.
Brees has had one hell of a career and arguably should have more rings given his production, and he can easily climb up if he has a rebound year. I just think he has a little bit to prove. The interior line should be stronger with Max Unger (who they got when they traded Jimmy Graham), and in the first preseason game his TD pass to Cooks was absolutely gorgeous, a spiral I hadn’t seen from him in a while. A good year is very much a possibility for Brees.
Number 6: Andrew Luck
To some this may seem a little premature, but I’ve really seen all I need to see from Andrew Luck at this point. Is there any doubt that barring some sort of injury or crazy regression, he will be one of, if not the, top QBs of the next generation? I know at times it may seem like piling on, but the kid really has it all, and the scariest thing is he probably hasn’t even peaked yet. Luck’s rookie year was one of the most impressive jobs of carrying a team I’ve ever seen. He was basically thrown to the wolves, on a team that was 2-14 the year before and was basically looked at as a complete rebuilding project– entirely new coaching staff and general manager, very poor offensive line, defense, receivers, everything… their best players were Adam Viniatieri and a post 30 year old Reggie Wayne, who had considered retiring in the offseason. Analysts were predicting a 4-6 win season at best. Luck stepped into a Bruce Arians led offense which asked the quarterback to make aggressive deep throws down the field out of empty sets with full progression reading. How did Luck respond? 11-5, playoffs, and 7 fourth quarter comebacks. Some of the throws he made were absolutely breathtaking, chucking it down the field into coverage accurately with defenders draped all over him. Luck was seen coming out of Stanford as a smart, conservative, game manager, but once he stepped into the NFL he destroyed expectations, becoming an aggressive gunslinger who made some throws that were as good as any in the league that year. And for those who like to use a quarterback’s “weapons” (WR) as a detraction, which I’m never really a fan of, Luck’s receivers honestly weren’t even that good that year. Donnie Avery, seriously? Lavon Brazil? Tons of drops that year. TY Hilton has become a big name now, but that was his rookie year, and I guarantee you we wouldn’t know who he was if it weren’t for Luck. Luck got a lot of flak for interceptions that year, but he also set a rookie record for passing yardage with 4374 and averaged 7 yards per attempt. When you consider the kind of offense he was asked to run, that he had 627 pass attempts that year, and that most of his interceptions came trailing by multiple scores, 18 really isn’t that bad a number. Not to mention that he took a ridiculous amount of hits that year. Anyone who was claiming Luck was overrated clearly wasn’t watching the tape and the throws he was making. He easily should have been rookie of the year that year, not even a question. (Instead it went to Robert Griffin III, who led a run-first gimmick offense.)
Luck has taken this Colts rebuilding project and turned them into a legitimate contender for three straight years. Not only that, but they’ve managed to get a step further in the playoffs each year. (Not to mention the 31-10 comeback to beat the Chiefs 44-45 in the wild card round. That’s tough to do in the playoffs.) The next logical step is Superbowl and that’s where a lot of people see the Colts going, yet they’re really still not that great a team. Their receiving core is stacked and their corners are alright, but that’s about it. Don’t mistake the fact that they continue to win and them being in the playoffs as meaning they’re a good team. We see Quarterbacks like this spoil media and fans with the ridiculously high expectations they set for themselves. I really hope Luck gets a Superbowl win before people start writing the “Luck chokes in the playoffs” narratives. You can only carry a flawed team so far. I’m sure the “Luck can’t beat the Patriots” narratives have already started going. Maybe the Colts figuring out how not to allow 200 yards rushing every time they play the Patriots would help that. If the Colts win the Superbowl that’d be pretty impressive, but if they have a huge meltdown in the playoffs against a good team don’t be surprised, and don’t blame it on Luck.
So why exactly is Luck so good? Well basically everything you want in a Quarterback, he has. Go down the checklist. Size, amazing arm strength, touch, mechanics, pocket movement, toughness, football intelligence (reading defenses), mobility, speed, leadership/maturity (I usually hesitate on that one, but watch this kid speak and you’ll see he’s way beyond his years). Luck is a guy who continually makes throws that wow you. He’s going to hang in the pocket until the last second and aggressively throw it down the field into very tight windows. What was clear also starting in his rookie year is that he always had an intuitive sense of pocket movement and where the rush is coming from, which is something you can’t really teach. In terms of playing style I’d say he’s like a mix of Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger: The size, strength, aggressiveness, and pocket toughness and patience of Roethlisberger with the intelligence of Manning. It’s a very unique combination. He’s going to hang in the pocket to make the wow throws, but he also has excellent command of the offense and he’ll read/manipulate defenses and check it down when he needs to. He’s the best of both worlds; he doesn’t rely solely on his physical skill set or his mental IQ. Usually quarterbacks with one are lacking in the other. Not the case with Luck. Oh, and then there’s the fact that he can run and he’s an incredibly efficient runner. It’s easy to forget that because he’s such an efficient passer that we rarely see him run.
Again, I know it sounds like piling on, but it’s really hard to find a flaw in Luck’s game. It also cannot be emphasized how much he’s carried this Colts team. Often, he wins in spite of them. There’s no other quarterback in the game that consistently walks into as many holes as he does. It seems like every few games he’ll be getting the ball on his second drive down 17 nothing, through no fault of his own. It seems like every few games they give up a 50 burger, an 80 percent passer, a 200 yard rusher, or something of the sort. Hell, what other team trades a first round pick for Trent Richardson? (And no, that’s not hindset being 20/20 because I said that was a terrible move when it happened.) To put things in perspective, Luck had a lost comeback his third game as a starter. (QB drives down the field to take the lead, defense gives up the lead right after.) Brady’s first lost comeback? Super Bowl 42. Last year, Luck threw 40 touchdown passes to lead the league. He also threw for over 4700 yards. That’s probably the quietest 4700 yard, 40 touchdown pass season there ever has been. If Brees or Manning put up those numbers, we’re jumping out of our chairs.
Point is, regardless of how many Superbowls come, Luck’s got one hell of a career ahead of him. It’s been fun watching him up to this point and I look forward to what he can do in the future. We’ll probably reach the point soon where Luck is taken as one of the top QBs in the league and held to such standards. Maybe we’ll reach a point where every failure he has is magnified as an indictment on his legacy, similar to where Peyton Manning is at right now. Hopefully when that day comes we can all remember the 23 year old that came out of Stanford and onto the previously 2-14 Colts, and lit the NFL on fire with his play.
Number 7: Tony Romo
Ah, Romo. One of the more polarizing QBs in the NFL, for some reason. Poor Tony has long been the butt monkey of the NFL and of many jokes. As a Giants fan I used to dislike him, but after seeing the shit he’s been put through I honestly just feel bad for him. Romo’s a guy who plays in a big media market like Dallas for the blowhard that is Jerry Jones, and as a result anything short of a Superbowl is seen as a failure. For those who actually watched the games, or even just the highlights, it’s pretty clear Romo’s not the problem in the Dallas.
Romo’s been one of the most consistent and succesful QBs of our generation. He’s borderline hall of fame at this point. Did you know that he ranks second in all time passer rating? He’s consistently a high volume, high completion percentage, high yards per attempt guy. He’s always understood how to play the position and has had excellent command of the passing game. For most of his career he’s had excellent arm strength, and we all know about his trademark improvisational skills. Yet for every defensive meltdown, Dez Bryant drop/bad route, or Jason Garrett game mismanagement, Romo’s the one who shoulders the blame. He gets nailed a lot for having only one playoff win, but when the Cowboys are consistently 8-8 and miss the playoffs, these kind of losses add up. But of course, Dez Bryant, the NFL’s media darling and athletic freak, god forbid he would ever make a mistake. The Romo “choker” reputation is purely a result of selective memory. He’s got 25 fourth quarter comebacks and 29 game winning drives (pfref). Those are some of the best numbers in the league, and yet only the failures are focused on. “Playoff wins” is an overly simplistic way of looking at things. Romo plays for a very incompetent franchise, yet he continually keeps the cowboys in contention. The defense has been historically bad in recent years; Demarco Murray was often hurt, and Romo continues to have success whoever you put around him: Cole Beasley, Roy Williams, Dwayne Harris, Miles Austin, Laurent Robinson, remember these guys? Where are they now?
Romo is a classic example of how quarterbacks are unevenly evaluated. For a guy who consistently puts up 65% comp, 7 y/a, and 4000 yards, it becomes “numbers don’t matter”. The thing is they actually do, and there are guys who have never put up numbers like these but are treated as stars. Cam Newton? Sam Bradford? Insert trendy young QB here? I’m sure there are plenty of people who think those guys are better than Romo.
Flaws? There’s been times he’s tried to do too much in terms of improvising or holding the ball. He hasn’t always been great against the blitz in terms of getting rid of the ball. He’s not quite at the level of TB/PM/AR/DB in that sense. But if your biggest criticism of Romo is that he’s not as good as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, well, let’s just say things could be worse. Hopefully last season started to bring to light how good Romo is. They finally took the load off Romo and see what happens. Demarco Murray finally stayed healthy and they committed to the running game. Dez Bryant finally came together to be what people have been expecting him to be, and the line solidified itself as one of the best in the league. The result when you give Romo an above average team? He becomes super/uber efficient: 69.9% comp, 8.5 y/a, 34 TD to 9 INT, 113.2 PR. He was also great on third down, so it wasn’t just about the running game. They should have been in the NFC Championship game too, if not for a bad application of a bad rule. Romo was 15/19 in that game, by the way. You could have made a serious argument for Romo deserving MVP last year. That was the year everything came together for Dallas and the NFL screwed them over. Who knows how many more chances Romo will get? He’s not young, and injuries have started to pile up. If Dallas could find some way to maintain consistent success, a ring would really be nice for him to have before he retires; he and Witten deserve it. But if not, don’t let that deceive you into thinking Romo isn’t a great quarterback. He was undrafted and should be celebrated as one of the best success stories in the NFL. Instead, people treat him like he’s a first round pick and hold him to unreasonably high standards.
Number 8: Philip Rivers
Philip Rivers is another guy who gets overlooked a lot. At this point in his career he’s essentially become a poor man’s Peyton Manning. The run game has been inconsistent and the O-Line average, and he’s made a living the last few years out of the gun and 3 wide sets being the commander of this no huddle offense. He’s a master of the subtleties of the game, whether it be manipulating coverage, throwing guys open, reading defenses and audibling/getting rid of the ball, buying time in the pocket, etc. His game is timing and rhythm and he throws with excellent anticipation. He’s very cerebral and his command of the game is right up there with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He’s also never been a QB that’s particularly pretty to watch. He can be sort of heavy footed at times and we all know about his funky “push” delivery. He’s never looked like a guy that could naturally flick the ball down the field with arm strength, yet he makes aggressive throws and the balls always seem to get there. He’s done a great job keeping this chargers team in contention the last few years and has been one of the best quarterbacks of the decade. His numbers reflect this as well.
For most of his career with Norv Turner he was a different type of quarterback than he is now. It was impressive in a different way. He had a lot of big play guys; Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson in their prime certainly are big targets to throw to that can elevate QB play, and we saw that a lot with Vincent Jackson. Not to mention Sproles, the king of YAC who’s a nightmare to tackle in open space and a serious matchup problem for any defense. At the same time, this offense asked rivers to make a lot of deep seven step drops off play action and from under center. He had to drop back and climb the pocket and stand tall, not lose composure, flinch, lose clarity, or lose track of his footwork. He always was great at this and it’s something not a lot of QBs would have been able to do.
Rivers had an MVP like start last year before the injury bug hit him. So why isn’t he up there in the rankings with the big five? Well, like I said, at his peak his command of the game and the position is as good as anyone’s but he doesn’t always play to that level, whether it be game to game or season to season. The stretch from 2010-2012 was as bad as it can get when it comes to clutch play. His percentage of 4QC/GWD success during that time was one of the worst in the league; every time the 4th quarter came around there would be a bad interception. He also hasn’t been that special in the playoffs, although he has played some tough defenses. Like I mentioned, he also has some physical weaknesses that can derail him at times. He’s probably the worst QB in the league out of the pocket. If you get him out of the pocket or on the run you better close your eyes. In terms of mobility he’s not quite as light footed as a guy like Tom Brady. There are just times where it seems like because of his funky release and heavy feet that he looks like a sitting duck when pressure is going to get there. His arm strength, like I said, is very confusing. He’s shown the ability to make every throw, and yet he just doesn’t look like a very natural thrower. I wonder if the strength comes from weight transfer, because like I said, if you get him to throw on the run, it’s not going to be pretty. When you think about guys like Rodgers and Romo that make throws look effortless with their light feet and quick release, well, with Rivers it can be the opposite. He makes quarterbacking look like a lot of work at times.
At the end of the day though, this is all nitpicking and may not mean anything. Rivers is also a guy that’s been screwed over by shitty management and coaching. Why do you think Archie wanted Eli in New York? It’s a proven successful franchise. If Rivers wasn’t stuck with Norv, if Marty had stuck around–seriously, who fires a coach with a winning record overall after a 14-2 season and three point playoff loss to the defending world champions–who knows where the Chargers would be.
So again, Rivers may not have the playoff success or physical attributes of some QBs out there, but when it comes to command of the offense and understanding of how to play the position, he’s as good as anyone.
Number 9: Matt Ryan
I’ve always been a Matt Ryan fan. He’s been a very solid quarterback ever since the day he was drafted. He’s not going to wow you with too many splash plays; he’s not going to make amazing runs or absolute bullet passes into coverage. But he’s been a very solid quarterback who just understands how to play the position very well and who has brought winning and relevance back to Atlanta.
Matt Ryan had a number of strengths coming out of Boston College indicating that he was pro ready. He always threw with great anticipation and got rid of the ball very quickly, often as soon as he hit his back foot. As a result, his sack numbers were very low at the start of his career. He was naturally accurate and understand coverages pretty well, and he was aggressive and willing to pull the trigger despite not having a gun for an arm. Yet he wasn’t reckless; he was always a pretty efficient player with a high completion percentage. His 21 fourth quarter comebacks and 28 game winning drives rightfully earned him the nickname “Matty Ice”. Though the offense ran through Michael Turner for years, Ryan clearly played a big role in the wins through his understanding and execution of the game. His rookie season was one of the best ever, and he continued to show improvement as the years went on. He ranks very highly in advanced stats and he’s got pretty good traditional stats as well. He’s been a consistent, smart, and professional quarterback that probably hasn’t gotten enough credit throughout his career.
Matt Ryan really impressed me with his 2012 season. For years people talked about how the key to success for the Falcons was Michael Turner. In 2012, Matt Ryan bulked up and strengthened his arm and looked and played like a different quarterback, similar to the transition Tom Brady made in 2007. Turner fell off the map and the offense became pass first and Matt Ryan showed incredible command. He had always been good at the line but he really became the master this year. The Falcons often employed the no huddle and Ryan was clearly the master of the show. The biggest change I saw was in his footwork. He wasn’t necessarily slow twitch, but he had been a little stiff, uncomfortable when he had to navigate the pocket or when the ball wasn’t coming out quick. This year he looked a lot more like a normal quarterback, swiftly getting through deep drops, planting on his back foot, and showing flex in his knees as he climbed the pocket and read progressions. The year was a huge success as Ryan was money in both playoff games, leading the game winning drive against Seattle–and in the process becoming the only QB to put up 30 points on them post legion of boom–and arguably played even better against San Francisco. Unfortunately the drive stalled in the red zone and the Falcons finished ten yards short of the Superbowl, the closest they would ever get.
The next two years were a disaster, and Ryan has been tough to evaluate. After 2012 I really thought he was becoming a big time Quarterback and joining the ranks of Brady Brees and Peyton in the upper echelon of quarterbacks. He’s still better than most quarterbacks, but I can’t help but feel I haven’t been seeing the same guy as 2012. The team hasn’t been great and most have acknowledged this. The O-line and defense have fallen off and his top receivers have been injured. There’s also been no running game. By no means has he been a bad quarterback. His numbers have still been top notch and he’s been asked to throw it an awful lot. There has been no consensus that he’s dropped off among top analysts and advanced stats. So why do I feel like he hasn’t quite been as good as he could be? Was I simply just expecting too much of him?
I think what’s happened to Ryan is somewhat comparable to what I was saying about Drew Brees this year. Ryan’s a smart quarterback and because of that he’s put up a lot of good numbers. He can use the short passing game to replace the running game because if you spread them out he’s going to know where to go with the ball and he’s going to complete a lot of passes. I just felt like some of the numbers were empty and that when the time came for big time throws, I really didn’t see that many. The last few years it feels like most of his touchdowns and most of his highlights have either been screens with a lot of YAC or wide open play actions at the goal line. He hasn’t seemed like a very aggressive passer as he’s been checking it down a lot. Like I said, that probably has to do with the O-Line. I just have expected a little more. In 2012, it felt like he was elevating the play of his receivers. The past few years, I felt like it was more about Tony and Julio than Ryan. Don’t get me wrong, he still was impressive at times and he did a great job given what he was dealing with. But those really stick throws that you see quarterbacks make to win games, those throws where the pocket is crowded and the first read isn’t there, but the QB is throwing with aggressiveness and confidence, I just didn’t see those from Ryan. I do recognize how cliche I’m sounding, and it’s something that I can’t really explain, just something I’ve noticed on film. I think part of it is how he looks. He’s dropping back a lot on the balls of his feet sort of slowly, rather than planting on his heels with his weight shifting back and then springing forward as he climbs the pocket. He’s holding the ball a little bit higher and he throws it kind of softly. It doesn’t look like he’s really getting all his weight transfer into the throws. I think he’s just not quite as confident and aggressive a passer as he was a few years back.
Matt Ryan’s had a great career and I really hope the Falcons can get back on track. I hope the change in coaching helps him and I think it will. Sometimes you just need a change. At this point I’m not sure Ryan will ever be quite on a par with Peyton and Brady. I think as good as he is, he needs some team around him. He needs a run game and some protection and I think he’s been asked to throw it too much. Having said that I think he is a very able quarterback and I really hope this isn’t the end for him and the Falcons. Crazy as it is, he’s 30 years old and is entering his eighth season in the NFL, so he’s not going to be around forever.
Number 10: Joe Flacco
Remember how before Joe Flacco won a Superbowl, everyone thought he was the problem in Baltimore and was holding them back? Now after his miraculous 2012 postseason run he’s rarely criticized ever, if at all. Again, the truth is somewhere inbetween.
Flacco has a lot going for him at the Quarterback position. He’s a prototypical tall, strong, pocket passer with a gun for an arm. He’s been very reliable and has never missed a start. He’s probably a little more mobile than he’s given credit for as he’s not bad at moving around in the pocket and can get out on the edge or leave the pocket if he needs to. He’s also been very mechanically sound, an aspect of his game which is never mentioned. His drops, throwing motion, and base are right where they should be.
Most people know that arm strength is Flacco’s game, to the point where I don’t really have to talk about it too much. I think a good comparison for Flacco is mid-career Eli Manning. He’s aggressive and wants to throw it down the field. He’s going to give his guys a shot, and that might mean not a great completion percentage. His ceiling is high and he can get hot, as shown by his amazing postseason run, but for the most part he can be inconsistent and leave a bit to be desired at times. He’s never missed a start and he’s lasted for a long time in this league.
There’s not much else to say about Flacco other than the fact that he’s just that, a solid, strong armed quarterback that you can count on even though he’ll be inconsistent at times. I don’t think he’s ever going to be great. He’s not a precision/executioner type quarterback. He doesn’t read defenses well enough and isn’t accurate enough. He holds the ball too long at times and it seems like every year he has those headscratcher losses on the road against bad teams where his completion percentage is awful, like the 21/50 game at Houston the past year. The Ravens were wildcard teams both this year and 2012, and though Flacco went on to have great postseasons both those years, losses like those could have easily kept the Ravens out of the playoffs if other scenarios outside of the Ravens control had transpired. His numbers are usually not horrible but not great either; they’ve been fairly consistent since 2008–not a ton of improvement, really–and Flacco’s never thrown for 4000 yards, which is kind of shocking in this era. I think he needs to be on a run first offense; that’s what happened last year with Forsett, that’s what he had with Rice, and in 2013 without a run game he was very poor. He got a lot of credit for his playoff wins early, but he actually played better in the losses. The 2010 loss to the Steelers and 2011 and 2014 loss to the Patriots were not his fault. And I can’t neglect to mention how well he played in the 2012 postseason. I mean, yea, the Jacoby Jones play was a little fluky, but people need to get over that in my opinion.
Like I said, Joe’s not a great quarterback, but he’s a very good and very solid quarterback that has done a lot for the Ravens. There are a lot of teams that would love to have him. I put Ryan ahead of him because I think Ryan has greater command of an offense with regards to getting rid of the ball, audibling, accuracy, etc. I also have to think if Ryan had the running game Joe had last year he would thrive. Joe and Ryan both didn’t have a run game in 2013 and Joe was much worse. Having said that, if Flacco has another good year and Ryan has another meh losing season, I’m moving Flacco ahead.
Number 11: Russell Wilson
It’s hard to get a read on the public perception of Russell Wilson. It seems like half the people think he’s a top five quarterback and the other half think he’s just a guy that’s benefitted from having Marshawn Lynch and the legion of boom. I’d say the truth is somewhere inbetween.
What Wilson’s done in the last few years cannot be ignored, as he’s had about as good a start to his career as any quarterback could have. For a while I thought Wilson was pretty overrated, because he’s been pretty impotent in a lot of his playoff wins (see NO, SF, GB). While there’s no denying that he does benefit a lot from the team he’s on and while he’s certainly not in the same class as most of the names above him on this list (certainly not 1-6), after watching him this year I’m past the point of thinking that any quarterback could win on that Seattle team. When you see the plays that this kid makes, they are unique, and if Tarvaris were to start I can guarantee you he would not be able to do the same things.
In terms of skillset Wilson has a lot of positives. He has a very very strong arm and a really nice square delivery. His mechanics are top notch; he’s smooth on his drops and always squares his shoulders to throw, whether it be from the pocket or on the run. He also has tremendous anticipation; if you blitz him he’ll loft it with perfect trajectory, often doing so before the receiver has beaten the defender. And yet the receivers always end up running underneath the balls. This is especially evident with his seam throws. He’s also a pretty poised player; there have moments in his career where he’ll overreact to pressure but for the most part he’s pretty calm and oblivious to it. Not to mention, he’s a tremendous deep thrower. His deep posts are about as pretty as it gets.
However, what really separates Wilson from other running quarterbacks and from other so called “game managers” is his awareness. When you watch Wes Welker in his prime, one of the things that made him so frustrating was how shifty he was and how hard he was to tackle. He’d continually make defenders miss and turn what looked like a sure tackle for loss into a huge gain. Russell Wilson is like that in quarterback form. Watching him avoid defenders is like watching someone play madden. He makes avoiding defenders look so easy. He’s very gifted in the sense that he has an intuitive awareness of where defenders are coming from. Most “running QBs” like RG3, Kap, Manziel, and Cam are guys that make a lot of random plays. It doesn’t really impress me because there isn’t much skill involved. They’ll run around because they don’t really know what’s going on. They don’t know where they’re going most of the time and often they’ll be running into guys even if they manage to escape. When it works people are impressed–which often it doesn’t–but it’s not really a skill. It’s just something they do because they don’t understand what they’re seeing in the defense. With Wilson it’s different; he’s almost always one step ahead of the defense. He’s not making guys miss by change; he’s making guys miss because he knows where they are and he knows how his movement impacts them. It’s actually pretty ridiculous how aware he is. You also see it with his spins and his pump fakes- he knows right when to do it so that it always affects the defense. This is a big reason why he’s somehow managed to stay healthy; defenders aren’t getting that many shots on him. It’s also why the Seahawks are one of the only teams that continue to successfully run read option; Wilson rarely makes the wrong decision.
Wilson certainly is not without flaws. He’s a different kind of quarterback than a lot of the top guys and is kind of an outlier with regards to his unconventional style. Being as short as he is, he runs around more than he theoretically should because if the ball’s not coming out quick, he’s unlikely to be able to see well enough to get through all of his progressions as the pocket gets tighter. Because of this he’ll miss some things; he’ll miss some throws that he should be making, and as a result the Seahawks pass offense is somewhat inconsistent. A lot of games it’s not really there and the defense is what keeps them in the game. As I alluded to earlier, there have been stretches in his career where he overreacts to pressure and leaves the pocket way too soon or runs into pressure. What really gets at me is how hesitant he can be at times. A lot of times Wilson is protected well and you can tell when the ball’s supposed to come out and where it’s supposed to go and for whatever reason he’s just not letting it go. Sometimes he’ll run around and make another play or check it down, but the disappointing thing is that he has the arm to make these throws; I’ve seen it. He throws a lot of fade type balls, a lot of improvisational/run around stuff, but you don’t see him drop back and gun it in there very often. Part of this is because of the defense; he may not be that aggressive because he knows that because of their defense avoiding turnovers and staying ahead of down and distance is more important than making the high risk throws. Still, it seems like since his rookie year he’s moved away from the conventional dropback/timing game and has become more and more of a runner and improvisational player. For me that can be frustrating to watch but that’s also just a personal preference; at some point I had to acknowledge that how he plays works more often than not.
Sure, Russell’s not the only reason for Seattle’s success. He’s had some poor games in the playoffs where Seattle still won. In fact, his best playoff game was the loss to Atlanta. He’s also had some poor regular season stretches, namely the beginning of 2012 and the end of 2013. However, his regular season stats are very good and for the most part he’s a very efficient player. He didn’t have to do much in the SB win against Denver, but he also arguably should have gotten a ring last year when Butler picked off the slant. Butler undercutting that was a one in a million play that rarely happens. The way they designed that pass, it should have been guaranteed or at worst an incompletion. Then again, there was also the lucky Kearse catch before that you could argue should have been a pick. At the end of the day, you could play these “what if” games a million times in your head, but I think that Wilson has ultimately done enough to prove that he’s an above average quarterback and is definitely a big part of Seattle’s success. He also has 10 fourth quarter comebacks and 15 game winning drives. Considering that he’s only been in the league for three years, he’s done pretty darn good. It’s also interesting how Wilson’s situation is very similar to early Brady’s in that his early title runs were largely defensive driven, yet rarely do people use that to knock him. What will be interesting to see I think is how Wilson’s career plays out in the future. What if the defense falls off eventually? What if he has to start throwing it more than he’s used to? Will he be able to become more of a traditional dropback passer? Will his improvisational style still work then? It will be interesting to see.
Update: I originally had Wilson at no 9 above of Ryan and Flacco, but it just didn’t feel right. Those guys are the more advanced passers. However, I’d understand putting him above seeing what he’s done the past few years. Remember, this is a very hard exercise and given all the variables involved, there really is no one right answer. (But there definitely are wrong answers, lol)
Number 12: Eli Manning
Ah, Eli. My beloved QB of my beloved Giants, Eli Manning can really give you a headache. Some would argue that he’s one of the most clutch QBs in the game and deserves to be a hall of famer. Others would argue that he’s one of the most overrated QBs in the game and is just a turnover machine that hasn’t lived up to his No 1 overall draft status. You could make a compelling argument for both and both could be right, which is why I’m not going to attempt to evaluate Eli’s entire career here.
Eli had a very impressive 2014. You could argue it was the best year of his career, especially considering the circumstances. Eli was learning a new offense for the first time since he came into the NFL back in 2004, and it was unusual in the sense that this offense asked Eli to change almost everything he had been used to doing in a way that you rarely see from system changes. Some examples are how he hands off the ball, how he stands in the shotgun, the entire language/code system with regards to audibles, cadences, and how he identifies protections, the footwork and how he reads progressions, everything. It was about as drastic a change as there could be. Rarely have I seen an offense change a quarterback’s footwork like this. In the Kevin Gilbride offense Eli was asked to take risks down the field, call all the protections and recognize fronts, and read the defense in a similar way to the receiver with a lot of option routes. This offense was the polar opposite: It was a classic West Coast and the ball had to come out, especially in rhythm with the Quarterback’s footwork and each step that he takes. (All offenses have rhythm and timing to them, but some more than others. The Gilbride offense was not a simple 1-2-3-checkdown progression reading offense like most.) There was a bit of a learning curve, but for the most part Eli was very good, and many doubted whether this offense fit his style of play. He finished with over 4400 yards, a career high 63.1 comp %, and a 30/14 TD/INT ratio. However, the team was not very good, and the Giants finished 6-10. Most of the losses were not his fault.
So why is Eli not higher on the list? After Eli’s phenomenal 2011 season I thought he was destined for big things and his career was going in a new direction. His next two seasons were disappointments, especially the 2013 season which was arguably the worst of his career, where he finished with an 18/27 TD/INT ratio, had a passer rating of 69.4, and was dead last in win probability added. Eli may never be his brother, but I need him to build on his 2014 and prove that good Eli, or at least not-terrible Eli, is here to stay. If that happens, I’ll move him forward.
Number 13: Carson Palmer
Consider this ranking a going away gift for Carson Palmer, who just came off a career year in Arizona and is getting up there in age and really might not play that much longer. I like Palmer and he has a lot going for him. He’s a very natural thrower of the football. He’s a professional veteran quarterback that understands defenses and can read progressions. He’s also aggressive and willing to gun it deep, a good match for Bruce Arians. On paper, Palmer has everything you want. So why does he always seem to leave you wanting more?
It’s usually cliche and meaningless to say that a quarterback isn’t a winner, but that’s what it truly feels like with Palmer. In eight seasons with Cincinnati he has two playoff appearances and one win. You expect a little more from a No 1 overall pick. Palmer also doesn’t have a great 4QC/GWD drive record. Palmer can certainly throw for a lot of yards, but it seems like the games he throws for the most yards in are usually losses. He’s compiled a lot of garbage time yards in his career, perhaps none more than his 4000 yard 4-12 2012 season in Oakland. I want him to do well, but his pre injury 11 TD/3 INT ratio from last year seems a little fluky and I doubt we’ll see a repeat of that.
It is worth mentioning that the Bengals aren’t the greatest franchise. Marvin Lewis… well, let’s just say that it’s pretty mind boggling that he still has a job at this point. The pass game wasn’t super creative, and Palmer had to deal with quite a few diva WRs. Not to mention, he was one of the best QBs in the league before the ACL injury.
There are two main things that are problematic with Palmer. One is that when you get a clean rusher on him, there’s a good chance he’ll throw an interception. The second is his footwork. He’s mechanically sound, but he’s the definition of a statue in the pocket and just isn’t very comfortable navigating the pocket. Remember how I talked about Matt Ryan’s stiffness early in his career? It’s a similar thing with Palmer. It’s not that he’s slow twitch, but that he’s sort of static in the pocket, and doesn’t show the comfort navigating it whether it be a step-up or a slide around. A lot of the things I said about Matt Ryan recently apply too (although Ryan moves better than Palmer): not enough flex in his knees, doesn’t plant back on the last step of his drop and then comfortably climb up. It is worth mentioning that a lot of these things are maybe just personal things that I think look better and make a QB look more comfortable when I watch QBs and they may not be of that much importance. They may just be personal things that bug me that I need to get over. Nonetheless, it is generally accepted that Palmer is a bit of a statue in the pocket.
However, he’s on a good team in Arizona. He’s got some nice receivers that attack the ball–I’m talking about Michael Floyd and John Brown, by the way. I know you don’t want to hear it, but Larry is past his prime and hasn’t done much since Kurt left–and the Arizona defense has been really good. He’s in a pretty good situation, and he’s been playing well. Most of the time No 1 overall QBs are asked to carry franchises, and there aren’t a lot of quarterbacks like this. Carson’s had a nice rebound to his career in Arizona and I hope that he has success. But I’m skeptical and I struggle to see them getting a ring before Palmer retires. Let’s not forget too that he’s very injury prone.
Number 14: Matthew Stafford
Stafford had a phenomenal and somewhat underrated 2011 season. In really his first full year as a starter, he threw for over 5000 yards and 41 touchdowns. That year is starting to look like a fluke as he hasn’t really been that guy since. The yards have been there, but the efficiency, touchdowns, and wins haven’t. 2012 was a major disappointment. Most of Stafford’s yards were garbage time as he just could not come through when they needed a drive to win. He threw 20 td to 17 int, was under 60%, and his mechanics went down the drain. He started side-arming it all over the place, which is not something you should do unless you absolutely need to. This affected Stafford’s accuracy. For a guy with an arm as strong as his, his deep passing and passing under pressure just was not where it needed to be. 2013 was definitely better, but a late season slump kept them out of the playoffs. In 2014 we started to see some footwork improvement and there were some nice late game moments, but overall the offensive output was worse and the playoff run was mostly led by a much improved defense.
What to do with Stafford at this point? There’s a lot of good and a lot of bad as well. He’s your classic gunslinger and can throw it effortlessly to any point on the field. He’s a pocket passer, but he’s never really been much of a timing and rhythm guy. He’ll hold the ball at times and can be sort of improvisational and Favre-like at times, which leads to both good and bad. Stafford is a talented kid and there are always throws that will impress you. He’s boom or bust in the 4Q and doesn’t have a great record in that department, but when it has worked its been phenomenal, as he actually has multiple comebacks from down 17+. (Not positive on that one but pretty sure.) He’s an aggressive thrower and will give his guys a shot, and like I said, he has a unique playmaking ability that you can’t help but be impressed with at times. But then there are the negatives. His footwork and mechanics have been a mess. He throws off his back foot, throws side arms at times, and is sort of erratic with his feet. He’s not really a precision mover within the confines of the pocket; he’s sort of all over the place when he moves. And while he can make the amazing throws, accuracy certainly leaves a lot to be desired. Lastly, when he’s on the road against a good team he just doesn’t get the job done. It’s hard to see the Lions taking it to the next step if that continues.
It hasn’t all been his fault. I mentioned this with Palmer previously. Stafford is an extremely talented kid who was drafted No 1 overall and expected to carry the franchise, and he hasn’t quite been able to do that, outside of 2011. The line has been average, there really hasn’t been much of a running game at all (the Jahvid best experiment was a massive failure), the defense outside of last year hasn’t been good, and he hasn’t had much to throw to outside of Calvin (the Titus Young experiment was an even massiver failure.) Some help last year did good, as Golden Tate emerged as a fantastic and gritty no 2, while the defense allowed them to win some low scoring games and not have to outscore anyone. Jim Schwartz probably wasn’t the greatest coach for Stafford either. If you watch him during his rookie year he wasn’t really throwing sidearm. Schwartz said in press conferences repeatedly that he didn’t see it as a problem. Coaching is huge, and Caldwell and staff have been working on the fundamentals with Stafford. It’s been a work in progress.
I don’t want to say Stafford’s hit a ceiling, but I think at this point we have a fairly decent idea of what Stafford is. He’s a really talented kid with a cannon for an arm that can put up yards but won’t be super efficient, that isn’t super consistent and can be shaky with mechanics and frustrating, but has all the tools and has shown that he is capable of getting the job done before. He’s a solid quarterback and I like Stafford. He certainly has flaws, but when you watch him I really do think he makes enough plays to justify him being a starter in this league. Cutler Kap and Cam also fit this “talented but frustrating” model, but I believe Stafford is definitely a step up from them. It’d be nice to see Stafford and the Lions in the playoffs a little more often, and if the defense can maintain decency without Suh and Stafford can continue to at least be solid, the Lions should have a shot.
Number 15: Ryan Tannehill
I wanted to put Tannehill higher, but he’s young and just hasn’t shown enough to this point. Nonetheless, I really like Tannehill and think he has a lot to offer. I didn’t quite get the hype his rookie year, but he’s improved each year he’s been in the league. 2013 I started to see some nice timing and rhythm and some nice understanding of quarterbacking. Last year with the addition of Bill Lazor the offense became actually not boring to watch and Tannehill really started to look nice and flash potential.
Tannehill has the mindset and feel of a pocket passer. He can run probably better than most people think–he was a WR in college–but he doesn’t that much because his game is timing and rhythm from the pocket. Timing and rhythm is another thing that it’s pretty easy to tell which guys intuitively have it and which don’t. I’ll say it again, you can really tell how comfortable a guy is by watching his feet. With Tannehill, there’s just a rhythm to his drops and throws that you don’t see with other QBs. His upper body and lower body work together, he’s quick twitch and drops back pretty fast, and when he hits his back foot he’ll bounce and transfer his weight to his flexed front knee as he follows through. He also has shown some nice progression reading in his career. I’ve seen it quite frequently. That’s also not something you see with all QBs. He also has a very strong arm. I didn’t totally see it when he first came out because he had a bit of a late, casual release which made it look like he wasn’t really driving it. Sometimes for me, if a guy has a funky release it will mask their arm strength. But Tannehill seems to have fixed that a bit. Could be just my imagine. But the arm is definitely there.
Tannehill definitely has the ability. Now we just need to see the consistency and the wins. They need to get past the 8-8 hump. All the pieces are there. With the additions of Greg Jennings, Jordan Cameron, and Kenny Stills, they’re a bit loaded on offense now. Let’s see if Tannehill can get the job done.
Note: Serious drop off from this point on. These are the lower echelon starters, the guys that have been and are embedded as starters on their respected teams, but really leave a lot to be desired. I’ll rank them for the sake of ranking them, but their isn’t much separation between any of these guys, and really any order of them would suffice.
Number 16: Cam Newton
One of the more overrated QBs in this league, I’m not sure anyone gets more excuses than Cam Newton. “He doesn’t have enough weapons!” Gimme a break. There is a serious gap between perception and reality of Cam Newton. He just hasn’t done much in this league. And yet I’m sure there are those who think he’s better than guys like Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, etc. Not even close. His teams haven’t been great, but they haven’t been awful either. More importantly, a No 1 overall pick should be successful regardless of who he’s surrounded by. We’ve seen that this isn’t always a reasonable expectation, but Cam’s been in this league for four years and has a losing record as a starter. That’s not going to cut it. He really impressed everyone during his rookie year, but doesn’t it feel like that was still his most impressive season and he hasn’t improved at all since then, in fact maybe he’s gotten worse? He hasn’t broken 4000 yards since then. That could partially be explained by his back to back 400 yard games to open his career which blew most people away, but people forget that the lockout was a big reason for increased offensive numbers the first few weeks that year.
Seriously, what has Cam done in the NFL up to this point? This may seem harsh, but the only thing on his resume up to this point it seems is “not be Jimmy Clausen”. Carolina fans will point you to a bunch of random meaningless rushing records, but the fact that they give him so many rushing attempts is a big reason for this. Maybe if he was better at throwing touchdowns he wouldn’t have to run for so many. People just can’t seem to get over his physical skillset, namely, his arm, size, and legs. But what good is a huge arm if you barely get to use it? It seems like when I’m watching Cam highlights he’s either running or holding the ball and getting sacked. As is also the case with Cutler and Kap, the wow throws are showing up less and less. He also continues to have accuracy issues, and no amount of team support is going to change that. Perhaps a reason for that is his aggressive delivery. It’s not very natural, and so often his mechanics are just off. We know he can run, but honestly who cares? That’s a different skill than navigating the pocket, and in that regard Cam isn’t anything special. He actually looks kind of slow twitch at times and the awareness just isn’t there. He holds the ball a lot and doesn’t seem to understand coverages. He’s still a one speed thrower at this point in his career. He doesn’t make touch throws, and he doesn’t take anything off the underneath throws that need to be thrown a little softer. Not to mention that because of all the running he’s always injured. Andy Dalton gets nailed all the time for his performance in the playoffs, but Cam’s only been to the playoffs twice and also has zero wins. Both trips were defensive driven, and last years wasn’t even the result of a winning season. You think Cam doesn’t have any weapons? How do you think Andrew Luck felt? The difference is Andrew Luck can actually win games.
Don’t believe me? Don’t take my word for it, just ask the Panthers. Four years and one huge contract later, and the Panthers are essentially running the Auburn offense. They wouldn’t be doing that if they felt Cam could execute a regular offense. We know Cam’s talented, and he has shown potential here and there. One example that comes to mind is the throw to Ginn he made during the game winning drives against the Saints during the last game of the 2013 regular season. But if Cam wants to justify his contract and his No 1 overall draft status, we’re going to have to see those moments a lot more often. But four years in, what makes you think anything is going to change? When reading nfl.com I was shocked how many people were emphatic about Cam’s new contract and thought he was close to being a big time top quarterback. Forget about the arm and the legs and the size and whatnot and look at what he’s actually done. Four years in and he’s shown close to no progression. He’s not terrible, he’s just average. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s why he’s ranked where he is, and until that changes, he’s not going to be moving up anytime soon.
Number 17: Alex Smith
Alex Smith is another case where perception dominates reality. Somehow the extent of analysis surrounding Alex Smith is that he’s a “winner”. This is a generally meaningless term reserved for QBs with poor stats that are on good teams and do generally very little to add to those teams, sometimes even being the weak link. Whatever it means, if it’s implying that Alex Smith is a special QB, well then it’s just plain wrong. First of all, it ignores the fact that for the first, oh, I don’t know, SIX YEARS of his career Alex Smith was widely considered to be a bust. Then there’s the fact that since then he’s been coached by Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid. People somehow turned this into a claim that his problem was that he never found a good coach that allowed him to thrive, as opposed to the truth that these coaches were the reason for his success, not his ability. Harbaugh was a magnificent coach that instantly turned the 49ers into a title contender. He essentially hid Alex Smith and asked him to hand the ball off and throw a few easy read play action passes a game. He coached the turnovers out of him, instead turning him into the overly conservative guy he is today. People gush over his low INT total, but some interceptions are actually a good thing as you gotta take your chances in this league. He may not throw many INTs, but he doesn’t throw many TDs either. He has a career high 23 TD, and every other year he has thrown less than 20.
Once Harbaugh realized he had a better QB on his roster, Smith was shipped to Kansas City and paired with Andy Reid, a guy who has been proven to elevate the play of QBs– see Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Kevin Kolb, AJ Feeley, etc. Smith is asked to pass a little more in KC than he was in SF, but he’s still not asked to do very much. It’s a lot of checkdowns, screens, and slants. Jamaal Charles is the focal point of that offense, and outside of a late stretch in 2013, Smith hasn’t let a very productive passing game. It’s well known that last year KC was the only team to not have a td pass to a WR since last century. While many may look at that as meaning you need new WR, to me it means you need a new QB. In this day in age of the golden era of passing, not throwing a TD to a WR is pretty hard to do. I’ll admit Smith has looked a little more capable in KC than he did in SF. There his footwork was really bad in terms of navigating the pocket and he often lost clarity and dropped his eyes to look at the rush. His pocket presence and footwork has improved marginally in KC, although he still is rather heavy footed. Reid has also made good use of Smith’s mobility, which Harbaugh didn’t do much (he didn’t really need to).
It certainly helps public perception that Smith has played in 3 playoff games. The Colts game was great and that loss was not on him. The Saints game he really came to life at the end, and many people see the Giants game as not his fault, although I’d probably disagree a little on that one. Nonetheless, that’s two out of three great playoff games and we all know how much that weighs in people’s minds. However, for the majority of games, Smith is just an average QB and really nothing special. His “winning” is the result of being on two great teams with two great coaches and having a minimal role on both of them. He may be a steady, likeable, risk-averse veteran–you know what you’re going to get with him–but he’s not a guy you’re going to win a championship with. If I were the Chiefs, I’d want to start Chase Daniel and see what he’s got, but we know that sort of stuff doesn’t just happen if you’re winning and your starter is healthy. None of this is to say Smith won’t have a successful year. Jeremy Maclin is a nice addition, we all know how good Jamaal Charles is, and Travis Kelce seems to be on the path to breaking out this year. Smith will probably continue to have success on the Chiefs; I don’t see him epically breaking down anytime soon. Let’s just remember what he is: He’s Alex Smith, an average QB and nothing more. I know all this seems harsh, especially for a guy that has been successful recently, but it’s not personal, it’s just the fact of the matter. Don’t think that just because he’s on a winning team and just because he’s a good guy that he’s a special quarterback. He’s not, so lets cut all this nonsense of him being in top 10 lists or above guys like Matt Ryan or other silly shenanigans like that.
Number 18: Andy Dalton
Maybe next to Peyton Manning, Andy Dalton seems to have become the NFLs biggest punching bag. People love to hate on this guy and it really just feels like piling on. There’s nothing original being said anymore. I always thought it was strange how Smith gets the “winner” treatment and Dalton gets the hate, when they’re actually very similar players. In fact, until last year I had Dalton just ahead of Smith. This is not to say that the criticism isn’t justified, it just becomes repetitive at some point. I know he gets paid a lot of money, but so do a lot of QBs, it’s just the market right now. Dalton was a second round pick; expectations shouldn’t be that high.
I always liked Dalton and he’s let me down a bit. There were a lot of positives his rookie year. He threw with good anticipation and accuracy and he had a very quick release and made good decisions. The problem is he’s shown very little improvement since then. At his best, he’s a quarterback that’s going to get rid of the ball, be accurate, throw to the right receiver, limit mistakes, and run your offense like it’s supposed to be run. The problem is he doesn’t frequently play like he’s at his best. His accuracy has seemingly gotten worse as he’s been throwing a lot of high balls recently. He also leaves a lot of plays on the field and seems to be trigger shy at times. You see him make a lot of dumpoff throws, but when it comes to that third down where he’s gotta gun it in there down the field, it seems like he’s more likely to take the sack or run out of the pocket. A lot of noise is made about his arm strength. I think with Dalton the ball needs to come out. If he can step into his throws he can get nice zip on the ball, but if he’s sitting on his back foot and the pocket’s closing in, rarely do you see him shoot it down the field. He can run pretty fast and his footwork and mechanics are solid, but he’s not great at navigating the pocket and he’s not super quick twitch. When he’s staying in the pocket, he gets kind of stagnant. He also has been noticeably worse on the road and against good teams, which isn’t a good sign if you’re trying to get to the next level.
Again, I like Andy Dalton, and he’s not a bad player, but he just hasn’t shown enough at this point. Jay Gruden became a bit of a scapegoat as many blamed him for Dalton’s problems and they fired him because they had to make a change, but it’s starting to look like he wasn’t the problem; in fact, I think his offense fit Dalton pretty well. You always have to give guys some leeway in the first year of a new offense, but Dalton’s numbers got noticeably worse this year without Jay Gruden. 2013 was a good year and he threw for over 4000 yards and 33 touchdowns. Last year, under 3400 yards and 19 TD to 17 INT. They were his worst numbers since his rookie year. The other thing is they drafted AJ McCarron a few years back, but it was a strange move as he’s a pretty similar type of player to Dalton. I don’t think they would get anything better if they started him, so there’s really no one to press Dalton.
The biggest knock on Dalton has been his performance in the playoffs. I’m no fan of critiquing a guy based on his playoff W/L record, but with Dalton it’s been so bad that it’s actually kinda valid at this point. They haven’t scored more than 13 points in any of those game (10 in 3 of them). It seems like he’s actually gotten worse in the playoffs. The first Houston loss didn’t bother me; it was his rookie year and he played okay. The next couple years were a lot worse. In a lot of these games Dalton has had a lot of possessions and just hasn’t been able to produce offense. The Chargers game was close and within a score for almost all of the game. Same with the second Texans game. What has been especially notable in these games is Dalton’s inaccuracy with the deep ball. We’ve seen him hit those bucket throws to AJ Green down the sideline before, but he’s missed some big ones in the playoffs. You could feasibly compare Dalton to early Matt Ryan, but honestly Ryan was a lot better. As a QB he did a ton of things better than Dalton, plus the playoff losses were higher scoring (except for the Giants one) and to better teams. The other thing is that Dalton hasn’t really had a bad team by any means. Through all these years they’ve managed to maintain an elite defense. Not to mention he’s throwing to one of the best wide receivers in the game.
It’d be nice if Dalton put it together. I don’t think all hope is lost. It’s the second year into the offense, we’re hoping for a breakout year from Tyler Eifert, a healthy Marvin Jones (and AJ, who was missing in the playoffs last year) as a no 2 should make a big difference, and the Bengals should be purely run first as I think they’ve really found a hidden gem with Jeremy Hill. But at the end of the day, it’s going to come back to Dalton. He’s still young and he’s good enough to be a starter, but it’s hard to see him changing too much from what he is, and if the Bengals want to take the next step he’s going to need to. They’ve already done as much as they can to help support him, now it’s on him.
Number 19: Colin Kaepernick
It’s hard to believe that Kap is this low, that he’s fallen this much from grace since his incredible 2012 season. It really was incredible, and it was just as much the arm as the legs. Once Kap took over, what was once a conservative offense became a dynamic, aggressive, and multidimensional attack, and Crabtree all of a sudden burst onto the scene and quickly became a household name. Making his play all the more impressive was that it was Kap’s first season as a starter; he had only been drafted the year before. He was just making throw after throw after throw. Kap stole the show from Aaron Rodgers in the divisional round, putting up a 45 point clusterfuck against Green Bay, killing them with both his arm and legs. Next week he went into Atlanta and rallied the troops back from down 17-0 with absolute precision throws in one of the best playoff games you’ll ever see. Advanced stats rank his postseason numbers from that year as some of the best ever. QBR has that game at 94.8 (out of 100). He did the same against the Ravens in the Superbowl, helping them come back from 28-6, but ultimately failing in the redzone at the end in a very similar way that Matt Ryan did to his team two weeks earlier. He took some heat for his redzone play in that game, but the Ravens were able to get quick pressure on a lot of those plays. Overall it was a pretty impressive performance, especially considering that the niners defense really wasn’t playing all that great ever since Kap took over and especially in the postseason (although they were facing some big time QBs). Same with Gore: He’d break a few big runs out of the pistol here and then, but for the most part it was Kap’s show. The kid played with attitude, with swagger, and he really was looking like the next big thing at the quarterback position.
So what happened..? He also had some great playoff moments in 2013, leading the game winning drive against GB and almost doing so against Seattle despite a ferocious pass rush. But even that year, particularly during the regular season, we started to see some regression, as he had some games with close to no passing output. This past year was even worse. The 49ers were still 8-8 though and Kap’s numbers weren’t terrible, but there’s just this sense that he’s not the same guy he was. So what changed? There’s no doubt defenses have caught up to running QBs and option offenses haven’t been nearly as successful. Running was a big part of Kap’s game and the pistol scheme helped to give Kap some nice windows to throw the ball and some nice quick reads. But even so, I wouldn’t so these were the sole reasons for Kap’s success. You don’t look back and say, “wow, they really schemed that passing game well”, or “wow, Kap was just totally reliant on his legs”, like you might say for RG3 back in 2012. He made throws, he made stick throws, and he did it against good defenses. In the Falcons game he barely ran. Trust me, if he was just a runner / scheme guy I wouldn’t have been this impressed with him.
Certainly the longer you play the more likely you are to regress to the mean. That’s the risk of small sample sizes. And we do forget that he is still a young quarterback. So young, that it’s surprising how little optimism there is regarding his future. Why does it feel like Kap’s headed down a path he won’t recover from?
Perhaps I’ve jumped ahead of myself here. First let’s talk about his skillset and what he’s been doing wrong. Kap’s game was arm strength no doubt. As Greg Cosell put it, he’s a “power thrower”. He winds up and he guns it. I saw him playing in rhythm really nicely in 2012 and that was what was so fun to watch. He’d fake, drop, set, wind, and gun. And he showed the abilities to make all the throws all over the field. The anticipation wasn’t always quite there, but for some guys that’s just not their game. Now, you can tell he’s just not playing with the confidence. He’s not seeing the field with clarity at all, and he’s relying too much on his legs. He’s light on his feet, but his legs are so long that the strides he takes are very big. He’s not great at subtly moving and working the pocket, in fact this is barely something he does at all. Because his stride is so long and because he doesn’t slide so much as he runs, he get’s trapped and lost in the pocket very easy and looks to escape too soon. He’s making close to no attempt to read progressions; he’ll drop back and drop his eyes almost immediately, especially if he’s under pressure. This isn’t how you play quarterback. It also makes your line look worse because you create your own pressure. Kap’s recent play is a great example of why I don’t like the argument that a QB having good “weapons” (receivers) is a detriment to his skill. It’s because there is so much that goes into getting the ball where it’s supposed to before the receiver even gets a shot at it. The QB has to read the defense, drop back in rhythm, find the right receiver, know how the routes sync with the timing of his drop, and get the ball their on time in the right place. Kap doesn’t understand any of this, and as a result it doesn’t matter who you put out wide, because so often his receivers won’t even get a chance. They have Torrey Smith now who gives them some much needed speed, but they need to figure out how to execute a pass game before they expect to start throwing deep successfully.
I am not optimistic that Kap can get back to where he was, and it’s quite unfortunate. This is mostly because it’s very hard to change the mindset of quarterbacks whose instinct it is to run. It’s almost like they’re wired differently. With pocket passers, many of which who can’t run because they just aren’t fast enough, their instinct is to get rid of the ball when the pressure closes in. With QBs with a running mindset, their instinct is to run– it’s what they’ve been doing their whole life and they know they’re capable of doing it. The problem is that doesn’t work for consistent offense in the NFL. You can’t execute a pass game if you play randomly and are unclear of the concepts, and you can’t just expect to outrun defenders on every play. The most efficient way to move the ball is to throw it. But with Quarterbacks who have the instinct to run, they’ll never learn how to read progressions because they won’t be staying in the pocket, they’ll always be leaving when they see or feel pressure. And with guys like Kap, the lesser his confidence becomes, the more he’s going to run. There’s close to no precision to any part of his game. The accuracy, the timing, none of it’s there, and it’s really unfortunate because he’s so talented. The other thing is these guys have been running for so long that they don’t have the instinctual feel for the pocket and for reading that other guys have. That’s why when you do see guys like Kap, RG3, or Cam hang in the pocket, they look stiff, uncomfortable, like a deer in headlights and unsure of where to go with the ball. It’s not something they’re used to doing. But if these guys want to be successful in the NFL, they better learn to adjust and do it fast.
I’ve went on a bit of a tangent here, but the point is Kap’s going down a bad road and it’s crazy how quick he’s fallen from grace, and he needs to turn it around and do it fast. He’s young and there still is hope, but we’ve seen very little to think he’s shown any modicum of improvement, and you just don’t get the sense that a change as big as the one he has to make is going to just happen. Again this all sounds harsh and I may be exaggerating a bit; I hope it’s not the case because I was a big fan of Kap and at his best he was really fun to watch. Will he ever become a subtle-nuance player? Only time will tell.
Number 20: Jay Cutler
Oh, Jay! I’ve always been a fan of Jay. People always get pissed by of his “attitude” but I think his nonchalant facial expressions and the degree to which he doesn’t give a fuck is kinda funny. Jay is the last QB I’m going to rank, as after him you just get to the backup-ish / new team guys that no one really cares about. Plus, it’s highly unlikely anyone is still reading at this point.
Like the quarterback above him, it feels very wrong to put someone this talented this low on the list. It’s always funny how the media works at evaluating QBs. For years Jay got a lot of excuses, mostly on the O-line, and he was injured a lot too. Last year finally seemed to be the year it clicked in everyone’s head that Jay is Jay, and he just isn’t that good. And then all of a sudden it became a story. Um, Jay’s been in the league since 2006. That he’s not going to become a top five QB isn’t really news.
I don’t think last year really told us that much. The Chicago defense was dreadful; very few QBs would have succeeded in that situation, especially not Jay. It just wasn’t really a situation where you could properly evaluate a quarterback. Having said that, we have seen enough of Jay to be able to say what he is and what he isn’t. Jay’s a quarterback with a big time arm that can make big time throws. He’s also a quarterback that mechanically is a little funky, isn’t a great reader of defenses, isn’t going to take what the defense gives him, will sometimes force it, and will make a lot of head scratching decisions. 2012 was the year I started getting off the Jay Cutler train. For years I had believed that the O-Line was a big issue, as was Mike Martz, who continued to call plays with minimal protection, exposing Jay to hits and not giving Forte the ball enough. But in 2012 Jay reunited with Brandon Marshall and with his QB coach from Denver Jeremy Bates. Yet the season was largely unimpressive, actually it was one of his worst in a while. 2013 was the year we were all deeming Marc Tresman a genius, and to my surprise Jay really was looking different. He was stepping up in the pocket, he was getting rid of the ball and taking what the defense was giving him and he wasn’t forcing it. But in 2014 the defense fell apart more, Trestman seemed a little less creative with regards to play calling, and Jay fell back into his old ways.
Jay used to make a lot of impressive throws. He was always a guy that never had great stats but you’d see a few big time throws every game. Now I’m seeing those throws less and less, which seems to be the case with talented but undisciplined QBs. Eventually, they can’t survive off of just talent and they reach the point where they’re so inept at running an offense that the time they get their drops, reads, and throws right are few and far between, and most plays you see are of them getting sacked or turning it over. It’s tough with Jay because he’s definitely the gunslinger mold. He seems to excel best when you give him single coverage isolation routes on the outside and let him throw it down the field. But at the same time, he’s far too reckless to function well enough in that type of offense. However, the more dink and dunk complex route concept offenses like Trestman’s don’t really suit him that well. Today’s pass happy NFL is built around being able to make the shorter throws consistently. Because of the rules, athletes, and scheme advantages, that’s the easiest way to move the ball. If you can’t do that efficiently, there’s not much of a place for you in the NFL today. If you’re only going to succeed as a gunslinger, you better be pretty darn productive at doing it.
With Jay, most “analysts” have reduced his problem to throwing too many interceptions (or they claim he has an attitude problem, something people say when they don’t know how to analyze actual football). But as usual the reality is more complicated. To me it’s that Jay’s always been somewhat unconventional when it comes to doing just the little things. He’s just not that mechanically sound. I remember when I watched Josh McCown in Trestman’s offense I thought to myself, this just looks like more of a normal quarterback. Again, maybe I focus too much on looks, but with Jay, everything about him looks funky. His footwork is funky. He sits in the pocket flat footed, not really ready to throw and often holding the ball way too low. He’s never been that great at moving around in the pocket. He also has a pretty funky delivery; it’s not that compact and and there’s too much windup and movement. I think this leads balls to getting away from him. So often I’ve seen him sail seams and posts over the Receiver’s heads and into the hands of safeties. I talked about how some quarterbacks just look natural when they drop back set and throw. He’s not one of those guys. I remember back in the Martz days he used to take ten step drops from under center! I guarantee you that was not what he was coached to do.
Jay gets shit on a lot, but he’s a talented kid and he can play. Unfortunately, he’s 32 and pretty far into his NFL career. He is what he is at this point; if he was going to make some “leap” he would have done it already. His best season is still his 2008 back in Denver. The move to Chicago never really seems to have worked for him. If anything, he’s on the downslide of his career, which is not given given the instability of his starting situations these days. If Foxy can get the bears back to running the ball and playing good defense, they might have a shot. Unfortunately, they’re pretty far gone from being a good offense. Jay’s best shot was while the defensive core of Urlacher, Briggs, Tillman, Jennings, etc was still there, and during those years he was either INTing his team out of playoff contention, getting hurt, or riding the bike on the sidelines in the NFC Championship. (Too soon?) Not to mention, he’s been absolute shit against the Packers, and you kinda have to beat the Packers if you want to be in the playoffs in the NFC North.
Jay, I love ya buddy, but it’s looking like the end is closer rather than further.
Oh man, was that exhausting! Before I finish up, I’m going to do a quick ranking of the rookies from last year.
I want to give my thoughts on Bridgewater Carr and Bortles, but you can’t really put rookies into a list with the rest of the starters. It’s too soon. There’s too small a sample size and you don’t know what they’re going to be. (I remember back in 2012 people were putting RG3 in the top ten, lol.) With rookies what you’re looking for is potential. Every rookie is going to have his fair share of mistakes; that’s what being a rookie in the NFL is about.
Number 1: Derek Carr
I was surprised how much negativity there was surrounding Derek Carr at the end of the season. A lot of people are making noise about his low yards per attempt (5.5), but I don’t think you can judge solely based off the numbers with rookies. They’re going to make mistakes and they’re usually going to be on bad teams. Like I said above, you have to look for potential and signs of good things. Also let’s remember Carr threw 21 TD to 12 INT. That’s a pretty good ratio for a rookie. Let’s remember that people were praising Sam Bradford big time for his rookie season, which was pretty similar to Carr’s, a lot of pass attempts and not a lot of picks but also a low yards per attempt. Bradford averaged 6 y/a, but he also threw 18 TD to 15 INT. As the years go on you want to see a QB be more aggressive, but as a rookie avoiding mistakes is a good thing, as is showing you can handle a high number of attempts. Let’s also remember y/a is affected by completion percentage as well, not just length of throw. I know Carr seemed to have a decent line, I didn’t see the Raiders games specifically (I did see the highlights) and supposedly he may not have been great on the deep ball, and supposedly advanced stats don’t love him. I don’t know, these are all things I’ve been reading, but I still don’t buy it. I think like I said you can’t judge a rookie based on raw stats, which considering that he was a rookie actually aren’t that bad. But enough of other people’s arguments, lets get to mine.
What really impressed me about Carr was his adjustment to the NFL game. He did a lot of things that are indicative of NFL qb play, and he did so coming from a spread offense. That’s especially impressive, as those guys are always more likely to struggle. This is especially the case with regards to pressure, but Carr seemed to handle pressure very well and showed nice poise. He threw the back shoulder ball very well, which is pretty advanced for a rookie. You saw him read progressions. You saw him move his feet along with his eyes as he went from one side of the field to another. You also saw him do things like check one receiver, come off that receiver, navigate the pocket by sliding his feet, resetting, and hitting another receiver down the field as the pressure closed in. This is all pretty advanced quarterbacking stuff. The raiders lost a lot of games last year, but Carr’s three wins were against very good teams and defenses. Forget his overall numbers, in those wins he was phenomenal and really looked the part. He’s also got the physical skillset. He has a quick release and a strong arm. He reminds you a bit of Aaron Rodgers, in that he’s a medium sized QB with light feet that moves well and has a big time arm with a quick effortless release and throwing motion. His footwork also looks very similar to what Rodgers’s footwork looked like as a rookie. Carr also throws very well on the run. I think after one year the Raiders are very happy with what they saw from Carr.
Number 2: Teddy Bridgewater
Teddy Bridgewater is a savvy kid with a really good feel for the game. He had a great rookie year, probably a little overlooked including by myself as I know he put up some historically good rookie numbers especially to end the season–I’m not going to look them up specifically because I’m trying to not make this analysis just reciting a bunch of stats, but I remember reading that they’re definitely up there for a rookie. He does a lot of things naturally really well. He’s naturally an accurate passer. He’s very quick twitch and does his five step drop and step up very quickly. In that sense he’s similar to Drew Brees, and I think a Drew Brees type player is his ceiling: a very athletic quick twitch athlete who excels at the subtleties of the position, at accuracy, pocket movement, progression reading, and understanding defenses. Brees has a much stronger arm now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you looked up some tape from his old Charger days or even from his college days if he would look similar to Bridgewater. Bridgewater navigates the pocket very well and he understands defenses very well for a rookie. He’s a high completion percentage guy as he’s going to get rid of the ball and take what the defense gives him. His intuitive understanding of pocket movement and where pressure is coming from is a big plus for me. As I believe I talked about with Luck, that’s something you either have or you don’t. I also talked about how a QB’s feet are very indicative of how comfortable he is, and you can see that with Bridgewater. He had some fairly high scoring games to finish the season, and as I mentioned he’s just overall a very poised and savvy kid that understands the game really well. He also can move and throws very well on the run.
So why isn’t he No 1? Indeed I’m sure most people have him as the clear No 1 after last season. For me, it’s because I have big time questions about his arm strength. The ball just does not come out with a lot of pop at all. He throws a very slow ball. He has small hands, and as a result he doesn’t seem to be able to spin the ball. He kind of pushes it. Smart quarterbacks can compensate for arm strength limitations and Bridgewater did this last year. You see it with Peyton all the time. They understand their arm and how long the ball will take to get there, so they throw it at the right time on the proper line. Timing can compensate for a lot, but at some point there are going to be throws you simply can’t make. People get on Dalton a lot for lack of arm strength, but I would say Bridgewater’s arm is worse. I didn’t see the lack of arm strength be a problem for him last year, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. Also, arm strength isn’t about just throwing it deep. Most QB’s can throw deep. It’s about driving the ball. Drive throws are different than lob/touch throws. I guarantee you the Vikings coaching staff acknowledges this as we saw Norv tweak his offense to fit Bridgewater. You don’t see the deep digs and sideline routes, the seven stop drop and long play actions that you saw with Rivers. There was a lot more shotgun and spread and a lot more quick stuff. It’s great coaching, but always remember that whatever coaches are doing is for a reason: how coaches coach tells you what they think about their players. Bridgewater’s also a little short, and he doesn’t play to help this at all. He doesn’t have as over the top a delivery as he could, and he plays with his knees bent. He’s also kind of a small kid. These physical attributes are a big reason why he likely dropped in the draft process. I worry what happens if the ball’s not coming out, if the pocket’s getting crowded. Will he be able to hang in there and make the throws? Will he get lost in there? That sounds silly but I’m serious. He’s the type of Quarterback that is likely to not be as comfortable in a muddy pocket.
Bridgewater definitely has some limitations, but overall he’s a very smart player and has shown a lot so far, and the Vikings should be in decent shape with him moving forward, especially with AP and Mike Zimmer.
Number 3: Blake Bortles
Bortles is No 3, but that’s not necessarily a knock on him. I like Bortles. He just had your typical tough rookie year. It doesn’t mean at all that he can’t or won’t be successful in the NFL. Let’s not forget he was playing on a jaguars team that lacked playmakers and could not run the ball at all. They wanted Chad Henne to play the year out and ended up playing Bortles sooner than they wanted to. He was thrown to the wolves a bit, and while his individual play wasn’t great, there still is a nice skillset there that you can build on.
Bortles just looks the part. He’s a big kid and as a result he’s fairly calm in the pocket. The bigger the better is usually the case when it comes to quarterbacking. He stands up there on his toes, he can definitely move around if he needs to, and he’s got a nice arm and delivery. He really rips it, but his motions are fairly natural. While it’s not the quickest release, he doesn’t strike me as a guy like Cam or Cutler that will struggle to control his arm and let balls get away from him.
I know it’s preseason, but last year’s preseason he looked phenomenal. During preseason you can’t look at the numbers because it’s easy to put up numbers in preseason. You have to look at the type of throws that are being made, and Bortles was making big time NFL throws. He was throwing it down the field in between coverage, he was audibling when he needed to, and he showed the ability to attack multiple levels of the field while on the run. Once again, he just looks the part.
Now obviously the regular season was a struggle, and he had some things to work on this offseason. His delivery became way too long by the end of the season and he really tightened it up this year, which shows that he’s receptive to coaching. I’m curious to see how he does his sophomore year. The tools are there. I’m not sure if it’s going to happen overnight, and I’m not sure if he’s going to be able to carry a flawed Jacksonville team (if they end up being/staying flawed, which they might not be), but Quarterbacks are always hard to predict after a year. All I can say at this point is he’s got a shot.
Oh, boy! Did I just write over 20,000 words of a blog I’m not getting paid for that two people are going to read? Jeez, what is wrong with me… Imagine all the productive real life stuff I could have finished during this time. Oh well. This is stuff I think about all the time and I wanted to get it out there. It’s a waste just sitting in my head. I didn’t realize it would take this long and it could probably use some… ok a lot… of editing, but I’m glad I did it. Couldn’t quite get it out before the season started, but I think a week in isn’t too bad. Well, I guess that’s it, until next year’s list at least! (Just kidding, I really hope I don’t feel the need to do this again anytime soon…)