The 2012 NFL season is just four weeks old, but already, we should call this The Year Of The Elite Quarterback.
How many "elite" quarterbacks are there in the NFL, and who the heck are they? It's a question everyone seems to ask, and nobody can agree on a definitive answer.
When you think about all the steps it takes to become an NFL quarterback, shouldn't we just count up…all of them? Aren't all NFL quarterbacks, certainly the NFL starters, considered elite by comparison to the rest of the football-playing universe?
If there are 250 major college teams and more than 1,600 high school squads funneling talent up the football pipeline every year in America, being one of 32 starters at the highest level sure seems pretty elite.
Heck, even the backups in the NFL have to be elite to get to that level, so before we continue with this manufactured NFL narrative to determine just how "elite" certain quarterbacks are when compared to their NFL brethren, let's first acknowledge the real answer: When compared to everyone else on the planet playing football, all NFL quarterbacks are pretty damn elite.
Now, let's get back to arguing over who is more elite, because contract extensions depend on the right answer! Seriously, the answer to this question is worth millions of dollars to a guy named Joe.
Yes, Joe Linta, sports agent and elite-quarterback-debate starter extraordinaire, is the guy fans can thank (or blame) for this ongoing discussion of the NFL's elite.
(I bet you thought I was going to say Joe Flacco, right? Well, Flacco and Linta are ostensibly the same person for the purposes of this elite quarterback conversation.)
Sure, Flacco is the guy out on the field every week for the Baltimore Ravens, putting up career numbers in a contract season, but it was Linta, Flacco's agent, who first floated the idea that Flacco should be paid as an elite signal-caller in the league.
As good as Flacco has been, sportswriters, talk radio show hosts and even in-game analysts would not be having this conversation if it wasn't for Linta throwing down the elite gauntlet late last season as a negotiating tactic. Flacco, surely at Linta's direction, has been calling himself elite for months as well, which stands to reason given the player's level of confidence and expectation of a huge upcoming payday.
The conversation seeped into the Thursday Night Football telecast when the Baltimore Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns 23-16. NFL Network analyst and performance assessment guru Mike Mayock weighed in on the elite conversation by deciding Flacco was just below the top-tier guys in the league.
Mayock eschewed the use of the term "elite" for a more apt comparative word: "franchise." How many franchise quarterbacks are in the NFL? Well, according to Mayock, there aren't many. He believes a franchise quarterback is a guy who can carry his team to the Super Bowl, meaning that right now, there are only six active franchise guys in the NFL: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers.
Mayock may have said six "or seven" franchise quarterbacks during the game. Many NFL pundits include Philip Rivers in the conversation of the league's best quarterbacks despite the fact he has never been to a Super Bowl in his eight seasons in the league, while Roethlisberger and Manning—famously taken in the same draft class as Rivers—have each won two in that span.
We can debate Rivers' status among the NFL's most elite, but the conversation on Thursday night was not about him; it was about Flacco. Mayock said he would put Flacco just behind his franchise quarterbacks in a small group that includes Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford (when he can stay healthy) and Cam Newton.
Those are all excellent choices, and a case can be made that every one of them, in his own way, is an elite quarterback on his way to becoming a franchise leader.
Working off Mayock's math then, he counts 10 or 11 quarterbacks who are franchise guys, or on the way to becoming franchise guys. To be fair, his list was extemporaneous at best, omitting names like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III who are widely viewed as the future of their respective franchises. (Note: Lots of other first-year players have been considered franchise saviors and did not pan out, but for the purposes of this conversation, those two players should probably be included.)
We are now up to 13 players on the "elite" or "near franchise" list, and the names Tony Romo and Jay Cutler haven't come up. Now, Romo sure didn't play like an elite guy on Monday night, but before the game, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden—effusive beyond belief when he talks about quarterbacks—said Romo, "gets more done on his own than any quarterback in pro football," and said he is "the most dazzling, play-making quarterback in football."
Gruden called Romo and Cutler both "great," which, in quarterback parlance, has to be just as good as "elite." If being great isn't the same as being elite, it is certainly close to, if not better than, being elite.
That now makes 15 names on our great/elite/franchise list. That's almost half the starters in the league!
Let's not forget about Matt Schaub and Michael Vick. Both former Falcons quarterbacks were considered elite at some point in their careers, with Schaub still in that category for some, as long as he can stay healthy.
The Houston Texans are talented enough to get to the Super Bowl this year, which would certainly catapult Schaub into a more elite category if it happens. Vick was a legitimate NFL MVP candidate just a few years ago with the Eagles, so while he has struggled at times the last two years, there is no denying the Vick experience has been, quite recently, elite.
That said, for the sake of this argument, let's back off on Vick, who is clearly past his prime, is injury-prone and is now thought of as a bit of a liability with the ball on an otherwise-dynamic Philadelphia offense.
Oh, and we still haven't talked about the following young players who are thought of as future franchise guys: Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, Ryan Tannehill in Miami and Jake Locker in Tennessee (note: Was Locker's backup Matt Hasselbeck ever elite, or is there no such thing as an elite game manager? I'd like to hear Troy Aikman's thoughts on that).
The way the Vikings are playing, people in Minnesota probably want Christian Ponder on that list as well.
The Cleveland Browns had a halfway decent quarterback (read: not elite), but still drafted Brandon Weeden in the first round, expecting him to quickly reach elite status. Despite the 0-4 start for the Browns, it would be unfair to completely write him off after such a small sample size. The same could be said for Russell Wilson in Seattle, I suppose.
Sheesh. I've lost count of all the elitism. Best I can tell, the only quarterbacks we haven't mentioned are Carson Palmer of the Raiders, who was certainly considered elite before his career was derailed in Cincinnati, Josh Freeman of Tampa Bay, Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Bills, Matt Cassel in Kansas City, Kevin Kolb in Arizona and Matt Flynn, who is riding the pine in Seattle. Most of these guys are being paid like franchise guys, that's for sure.
Did I forget anyone? Let's count them up…Rodgers…Brees….carry the two…Alex Smith…nope, that's it. Nobody else at all.
What's that? The New York Jets? They don't have any NFL quarterbacks on their roster, silly!
Circling up to the top, I take back my assertion that every quarterback in the NFL is elite just by the nature of being paid to play the position at the highest level.
Clearly, there are different levels of elite, or great, or franchise depending on who you talk to.
No matter how you do the math, one-third to one-half of the NFL starting quarterbacks are considered elite or great or whatever word you want to use to describe your team's leader. So Joe Flacco—and Joe Linta—can go right ahead and call him whatever the heck they want, other than the best. He is going to have to get in a long line to earn that honor.