How do you define the word "elite" as it relates to an NFL quarterback?
There is no rigid, correct answer. Professional quarterback is the most complex position around, demanding more from its participant than any other athletic endeavor in the world of team sports.
Signal-callers must process piles of information in seconds, before standing in the pocket while anywhere from one to seven behemoths bear down on them. Delivering an accurate pass in that situation looks easy on television at times, but it's much more difficult than it seems.
So what separates the good quarterbacks from the elite?
Let's take an anatomical approach to this breakdown.
Anyone throwing a football 20-to-50 times per game must have an arm, obviously, but it can't just be an average, functioning limb. An elite arm possesses the perfect balance of precision accuracy and rocket-like strength.
Not every quarterback has to be Joe Flacco (yes, he has elite arm strength, despite his other inconsistent qualities) or Aaron Rodgers, but they also can't be Alex Smith or Matt Cassel. Being able to squeeze the ball into any window that could close in a millisecond is a gift.
On top of that, an elite arm must push the ball down the field. Throwing the deep ball is extremely important, using sheer brawn to throw the ball great distances at high velocities. Rodgers is exceptional to that point, among others.
Accuracy is the second part of that. Throw the ball a mile; it won't matter, though, if the ball doesn't land in someone's hands (preferably a teammate's).
Short routes require even more precision. With defenders looming in every direction, an elite arm must be able to throw his receivers open. Leading a slightly open target to space is something that every quarterback doesn't bring to the table, but it's the type of thing that helped Andrew Luck make up for his average arm strength.
Many quarterbacks have one without the other. Michael Vick throws peas, but no one ever knows where they're going. Guys like Luck and Andy Dalton are accurate, but lack Rodgers' home-run arm.
Having a big-time arm is the most obvious part of playing quarterback, but it's not always what separates the good from the great. Let's move on.
This is a rare attribute that comes in all different forms. Expecting every quarterback to be Vick, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III or any number of scrambling backups is impossible, but that doesn't mean a Greek statue needs to occupy the pocket.
Rodgers is the perfect example. He doesn't have Newton or RG3's elite speed, but he's much more athletic than many anticipate. When it comes to getting to the edge of a defense and finding an open man or taking off for a few key yards, he's a master.
Ben Roethlisberger is right there with Rodgers as well. Despite being 6'5'', 241 pounds, Big Ben uses his feet to no end. He doesn't use his speed or agility to break 60-yard runs, but he extends plays by knowing what he's capable of in terms of mobility in the pocket.
The other side of that is someone like Tom Brady. Brady, for all his magnificent qualities, can't run. He just can't. Every once in awhile, he will break containment and scamper for a few yards, but he doesn't look good doing it. That requires Brady's offensive line to play extremely well under a lot of pressure.
Being a dual-threat quarterback isn't always a good thing. Vick has only played in all 16 games of a season once in his 10-year career, mostly due to taking too many hits. RG3 is young, but he has shown the presence of mind to get out of bounds when necessary. Newton is the biggest of the three, but he makes poor choices regarding when to run at times.
Mobility can be both a blessing and a curse, but guys who know how to use it—like Rodgers and Roethlisberger—use it to separate themselves from the pack.
There's no avoiding this one. Elite quarterbacks can't be stupid. Without a sharp mind, mediocre is all a signal-caller will know.
Peyton Manning is the obvious one here, with Drew Brees being a very close second. Both players diagnose a defense pre-snap as well as anyone possibly could. Figuring out where the defense is going before the ball is snapped gives a tremendous advantage to the offense, especially when he can convey that to his teammates.
Manning and Brees are experts at the second part of that as well. Even in Madden video games, Manning takes an excruciating amount of time to take the snap. He's constantly directing traffic, exploiting weaknesses before the play even happens. He's ninja-like in his dominance, beating the defense before they could possibly know what hit them.
Brees is like that as well. He's an extension of Sean Payton on the field because of his remarkable grasp of the position. Because he's only 6' tall, he has to make up for a few shortcomings, compensating with his laser-like arm.
These two aren't the only ones with an excellent head on their shoulders, but they stand out. If a quarterback produces and wins games, it's at least partially because he understands what's happening on the field, both offensively and defensively.
Call it heart, moxie, grit, whatever. Every elite quarterback must know what to do when the chips are down. If they don't, they will draw the ire of their fanbase with each passing failure.
That's Flacco's biggest issue, and it's a familiar one. Donovan McNabb dealt with it throughout his career, leading the Eagles to five NFC Championship Games, but never winning a Super Bowl.
Like it or not, that's the nature of the beast. Quarterbacks never reach the apex of their career if they can't win the big one. It's the same reason Dan Marino falls behind Joe Montana in NFL history, despite Marino's bigger arm and bigger numbers.
Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have made their careers off of this. Steelers fans know that if the game is close and Big Ben has the ball, it's never over. He's a heartbreaker, and he doesn't care what the moment is.
In Super Bowl XLIII, when Larry Fitzgerald gave the Cardinals a 23-20 lead with 2:37 left in the fourth quarter, the game appeared to be over. Until Roethlisberger did the unthinkable, leading Pittsburgh down the field in 2:02 and finding Santonio Holmes in the back corner of the end zone to win the game.
Not everyone can do that. In fact, very, very few can. Eli Manning is the only other one who really comes to mind. Winning two Super Bowls is one thing, but beating Brady in both instances is astonishing.
There are several degrees of comebacks. Two Mondays ago, Peyton Manning absolutely embarrassed the San Diego Chargers, rattling off 35 straight points in the second half to win the game. He's made a habit of that throughout his career.
Heart can be defined in a few ways. It's the ability to win a game that really matters. It's getting up from a crushing hit. (Jay Cutler isn't elite, but his heart was here.)
It's doing whatever it takes to give your team the best chance at winning the game, and only the cream of the crop have that quality.
Being an NFL quarterback, aside from the physical toll being sacked can take, is exceedingly difficult. Taking the position to the next level is rare for a reason.
The qualities listed aren't all complete requirements, but a dynamic blend of all of them is. If a quarterback can't throw the ball 70 yards on the fly, he better be able to throw the ball into a trashcan from 40 yards away, and so on. It's a give-and-take skill set, but the best of the best encompass every requisite attribute.
As the NFL constantly changes, so do the players. A new wave of dual-threat talents is emerging. Athleticism in the pocket is becoming more necessary as defenses dial up more exotic packages.
Without an elite signal-caller, a team is at a major disadvantage in today's pass-happy league. That's why a high premium is placed on the really good ones.