There's no more powerful force in the NFL than an elite quarterback. When an NFL franchise has a truly top-flight quarterback under center, they contend for the playoffs every single season. The very best signal-callers elevate their team game after game, month after month, season after season.
While every elite quarterback does most everything well, each has a calling card—something about the way they play that sets them apart. Each has at least one element of their game that's better than anyone else on the planet.
For each elite NFL quarterback, we'll examine the film to see exactly what it is they do well and how it helps them stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league.
Tom Brady: Pocket Awareness
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has never been the most impressive physical specimen. He's never been the biggest, or the strongest, or cannon-armed or fleet of foot. But Brady is blessed with an almost supernatural ability to feel pressure; he can avoid the rush with the slightest movements—and without breaking concentration.
In the first week of this season, Brady's Patriots took on the Tennessee Titans. With two minutes left in the first quarter, Brady used his pocket awareness to earn his team a lead they'd never relinquish:
When watching this clip, watch Brady's eyes. He takes the snap, quickly fakes the handoff, then looks downfield. While he progresses through his reads, Brady never takes his eyes off his downfield targets. Two Titans pass-rushers break through the line on Brady's blind side, and two unblocked linebackers stand ready to take him down.
But Brady lightly shuffles forward, right, left, left and throws.
The pass is a perfect touchdown strike to an open Aaron Hernandez; the four Titans who thought they had a clear shot at Brady come up with nothing but air.
Peyton Manning: Play Action
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has always taken pride in his best-of-breed play fake. He truly knows how to sell the handoff to the defense; it often opens up plays downfield.
In Manning's new Mile High digs, he's rebuilt the offense around the things he does well—and he does the play-action fake very, very, very well.
Manning slathers play action all over his dropbacks, including frequent fake draws out of the shotgun. But on this play against the Steelers, he devilishly deployed it in combination with a screen pass. The result? A 71-yard touchdown:
Watch safety Troy Polamalu here. He's drawn away from his coverage responsibilities by the play fake:
When Polamalu realizes it's a throw, he tries to recover—but it's too late. Bronco left tackle Ryan Clady has a bead on Polamalu and successfully throws the block that springs receiver Demaryius Thomas for the long score:
Manning may not have quite the deep ball he used to, but his incredible play-action fake, combined with clever play design and talented teammates, allows him to carve up defenses as well as he ever has.
Drew Brees: Footwork
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is rightly known for his leadership, his decision-making and his accurate passing. But his game is built on a strong foundation of excellent footwork. Don't believe me? Watch him put on a clinic against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Brees's dropback is balletic, but what really makes this throw happen is the firm back-foot plant, wide hop step forward and firm front-foot plant. His wide base, weight transfer and resistance allow his barely six-feet-tall frame to drive the ball from the center of the goal line to the sideline, 40 yards downfield.
Oh, and while he's taking that hop step? Brees executes a full-motion pump fake, then brings it all the way back before launching a rocket that drops into a spot the size of a trash can 50 yards away.
Aaron Rodgers: Consistent Deep Accuracy
The Green Bay Packer quarterback has a lot of things going for him, but his greatest gift is his ability to consistently "place" his deep passes right where his receivers need them. Case in point, this beautiful throw against the Houston Texans:
Packers receiver Jordy Nelson gets one step past Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph—one of the better corners in football. Rodgers sees this and knows he can make the throw. If he overthrows it even slightly, Nelson won't be able to get under it. If he underthrows it even slightly or hangs it too far inside, Joseph will be able to make the play.
But Rodgers puts it right where only Nelson can get it; Nelson makes a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch and takes it into the end zone.
Front shoulder or back shoulder, inside or outside, Rodgers knows where to place his throws so his receivers can catch them. Better yet, he has the strength, mechanics and accuracy to place them there, week after week.
Ben Roethlisberger: Magical Wizard
There are some things that defy explanation. Ben Roethlisberger escaping the pass rush is one of them. Brady gets away from heat with glacial calm and economy of motion; Roethlisberger gets away from the rush with eye of newt and leg of toad:
Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins blows through the Steelers line; Ben shakes him only to find himself in front of another unblocked defender. Ben makes one move, and suddenly both his blockers are back in position to protect his blind side, and suddenly he finds a wide-open receiver in space downfield.
Any other quarterback takes a drive-killing sack in that 3rd-and-3 situation. Ben Roethlisberger picked up a 20-yard gain.