NFL Reality Check: The List of 'Elite' Quarterbacks Is Getting Slimmer

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterSeptember 30, 2013

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29:  Alan Branch #90 of the Buffalo Bills pressures  Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 29, 2013 in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The term "elite" quarterback has become somewhat of a joke in NFL circles. Nobody ever talks about Peyton Manning or Tom Brady as an "elite" quarterback because the simple fact of saying their name in a football context infers their status as elite.

For my money, there aren't too many other starting quarterbacks who deserve to be in that category right now. Aaron Rodgers. Drew Brees. That's about it.

This isn't a question of who you would build a franchise around, nor is it a question of who the best fantasy quarterbacks will be this season. It's a little more basic than that.

If you had to win one game—hell, if you had to orchestrate one drive to win that one game—how many quarterbacks in the league would you really want under center? 

To be fair, there are a lot of good quarterbacks in the NFL right now. Wait. Wait. I should not say "a lot." There are some good quarterbacks in the NFL, and others that fall under the category of "serviceable." Given the fact there are 150 colleges capable of producing NFL-caliber talent (and nearly one-third of them capable of producing elite NFL talent), it's amazing to see the genuine lack of "elite" players at the most important position in the sport.

Sep 15, 2013; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) shakes hands with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) after a game at MetLife Stadium. The Broncos defeated the Giants 41-23. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, the young crop of signal-callers looks to be the part—a new wave of quarterbacks that will raise the overall level of quality at the position over the next decade.

There are currently 15 teams in the NFL employing the services of a quarterback who has started fewer than 40 games in his career. Eleven of those teams line up with a quarterback who has, to date, 20 or fewer career starts, and seven go into battle with a guy who has less than a full season's worth of starts.

The future is bright from the standpoint of potential "eliteness" in years to come.

Perhaps, then, this is a transitional period for the quarterback position, as players like Brady, Manning and Brees get longer in the tooth (without losing much, if any, production) while the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck come into their own to reach a consistent level of play worthy of a moniker like "elite."

Eventually, one or more of them—or even players like Ryan Tannehill or EJ Manuel or Geno Smith—will eclipse the "elite" conversation altogether, reaching a level reserved in their time like Manning, Brady and the other actual elite quarterbacks have attained.

No, this is not an exercise to debate the "eliteness" of the young crop of stars. Last season it looked like Kaepernick and Griffin were going to read-option their way into the Hall of Fame, and through four games for each this season—due to injuries or lack of depth or questionable play-calling—the expectations have been a bit more grounded.

My colleague Matt Miller thinks that Wilson is "perfecting the art of quarterbacking," which is to say that, on skill set alone, he deserves to be in the same category as a Manning or Brady or Rodgers. Hyperbole be damned, it seems.

But hold on. I got caught in my own trap. This isn't about them.

It's too early to put any of those players in the conversation of the game's best, no matter how dynamic their skills have been. The sample size is just too damn small, and there have been dozens of NFL quarterbacks who look like stars through a season or two before leveling off. Give it time, for good or bad.

I'm more interested in the established guys we've spent hours upon hours debating. What's happening to those guys?

Sep 29, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (8) reacts after throwing an interception during the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I'm going to run down a list of names, and tell me—honestly—which of these players you would want in a must-win game, orchestrating a must-win drive.

Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith, Michael Vick, Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Andy Dalton, Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman have each started more than 25 NFL games, with wildly varying degrees of success.

In 2013, however, each one of them is playing in the prime years of his career—Palmer and Vick perhaps a bit past that point—with something still left to prove. It's pretty clear that Gabbert, Ponder and Freeman are what they are (read: horrible) with each of them almost certainly looking for work as a backup next season, despite what one coach is saying today.

On the positive side of the list, Newton and Stafford still have time to develop from really, really good to whatever we want to call the actually elite list of NFL quarterbacks. Certainly a Super Bowl appearance would help for either, but for now, they both just need to worry about getting to the playoffs before being concerned about their "eliteness" in any way.

Heck, even Dalton, who doesn't seem close to the level of Stafford or Newton, has fewer than 40 starts in his career and seems to have untapped potential. There's still time for all of them to grow. 

For Bradford, honestly, I'm not even going to pretend to understand that situation in St. Louis to make the case if it's the lack of talent around him, the lack of talent within him or the ghost of Kurt Warner keeping the entire franchise in a state of disarray. That situation—and/or that quarterback—is a mess.

That leaves an established list of Roethlisberger, Ryan, Rivers, Cutler, Smith, Schaub, Flacco and Manning, the last two of whom have been in some weird "elite-off" for quite some time now. At one point or another, at least half of these players were in the "elite" conversation.

In 2013, are any of them deserving of that category? More to the point, how many would you trust to go win you a game?


Sep 29, 2013; London, UNITED KINGDOM; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is pressured by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson (50) in the NFL International Series game at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sp
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports


Ben Has Been Bigger

Of those named, Roethlisberger clearly has the least to prove. While the Steelers are horrible this season, it hasn't really been Ben's fault, with no running game to speak of and an offensive line with so many injuries a set of five tackling dummies could probably do a better job protecting him.

Speaking of...tackling...dummies...Roethlisberger has been sacked 15 times through five games and is personally responsible for four lost fumbles, in addition to his five interceptions. Yet he seems to be the least of the Steelers' problems this year.

Hell, Steelers Digest named him Player of the Week even though he coughed up the ball while getting sacked on the last offensive play of the game against the Vikings.

Here's how Roethlisberger described the play, via

The last one, they got some pressure and I'm thinking just try to do anything you can to get rid of the ball. Throw it away, do something, and I just couldn't manage to get it out. Of course I'm holding it out like a loaf of bread because I'm trying to not just take it to the ground and they got it out late. Even if I had held on to it I don't know if we would have had enough time.

Just real quick on that point: The Steelers faced a 3rd-and-goal from the 6-yard line with 19 seconds to go. After snapping the ball, Ben got immediately sacked, hit with 16 seconds to go before fumbling away a chance at a fourth-down attempt.

Somewhere in Ben's head, even after the game, he thought that trying to get rid of the ball while in the grasp of a sack—a sure-fire grounding call even if he didn't fumble—was better than eating the ball, getting up and having enough time left for one last play.

The play, and the explanation, were both about as "Ben" as Ben can get.


ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots is congratulated by Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons after their 30-23 win at Georgia Dome on September 29, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Matty (Not So N)Ice

A horrible headline for this section, I know. I'm sorry.

Ryan is the one player on this list who most pundits expected to have an MVP-caliber season in 2013. There was so much buzz around Atlanta heading into the season after a 13-3 record and trip to the NFC title game last year, and most of it had to do with the guy under center.

However, through four games the Falcons have just one victory, at home to St. Louis in Week 2.

Let's not blame Ryan for all the Falcons' problems by any means. He's completing more than 66 percent of his passes and has eight touchdowns to just three turnovers. His stats are in line with the fantastic year he had last season, showing that he is still on the path to greater "eliteness."

It's just, well, the ends of games have become an issue. From Gregg Rosenthal of

The Atlanta Falcons are getting used to having the ball, in the red zone, with the game on the line. And Matt Ryan keeps throwing incompletions.

Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib finished off another huge game with a deflection in the end zone on Atlanta's final offensive play. The play was reminiscent of when Ryan threw an incompletion to end lat season's NFC Championship Game. Or perhaps the incompletion to end Atlanta's Week 1 loss in New Orleans.

The similarities in the endings are uncanny, but that shouldn't overshadow Atlanta's larger issues. The Falcons' red zone problems are becoming a recurring theme. They wasted opportunities last week against Miami. On Sunday, they entered the red zone six times. They came away with one touchdown in those six trips.


SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers drops back to pass against the Dallas Cowboys in the second half at Qualcomm Stadium on September 29, 2013 in San Diego, California. The Chargers defeated the Cowboys 3
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Rivers Has Things Flowing

Mike McCoy is a quarterback maker. He turned Jake Delhomme into a Pro Bowler in Carolina. He turned Tim Tebow into a playoff winner in Denver. Now he's turned Philip Rivers into the second-best quarterback in the NFL.

From Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego

Through this season’s first three games, operating in an up-tempo, high-percentage offense seemingly tailor made for him, Rivers had exhibited a comfort unseen since the end of the 2010 season.

But Sunday was a whole new level.

Rivers completed 35 of his 42 passes for 401 yards and three touchdowns. The 83.3 percent completion rate was best in NFL history for a quarterback who threw for at least 400 yards.

Rivers is not Peyton Manning, but he's playing as close as possible to that level this season, which is amazing given the fact that San Diego was probably a season away from having to cut bait and look elsewhere.

Now, Rivers is the quintessential "elite" quarterback poster child. His career numbers are every bit as good as the others on the list, and he's made four Pro Bowls in his career, though he hasn't made the playoffs since 2009.

Surely this hasn't been all Rivers' fault, but he has a 3-4 playoff record, has never won more than two games in any playoff season and hasn't been to the postseason the last three seasons despite playing in a division that was entirely winnable each of those years (yes, even last year).

So Rivers can complete 100 percent of his passes for all he wants, but unless the quarterback maker can coach the Chargers to the playoffs to give Rivers a chance to win a Super Bowl—like Eli and Ben who were drafted with him and each have two rings—Rivers will still be judged on his (lack of) playoff success.

Oh, and this via @cjzero


Sep 29, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) walks of the field after the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. The Lions won 40-32. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Cutler Crossroads

Like Mike McCoy, Marc Trestman is known as somewhat of a guru when it comes to quarterbacks. He took the Chicago job with Jay Cutler as his guy, with the Bears brass certainly hoping someone could finally tap into that deep reservoir of potential Cutler possesses.

From Bleacher Report Lead Writer Ty Schalter:

First-year skipper Marc Trestman has suffered defeat, and it's hard to imagine a more deflating one. In one week, the Bears went from surprise Super Bowl contenders to a team with a mess of problems. Or really, one problem that spawns a bunch of others: Cutler.

Schalter runs down all the issues plaguing the Bears offense, going so far as to suggest the issues against the Lions show that some players—no matter who the coach is—just won't change.

Honestly, it seems a bit unfair to sound the guard on a guy's career after one bad start this year. Cutler has led the team to a 3-1 record, including two fourth-quarter comeback victories so far this season, and everyone is going to have an egg somewhere along the way.

But Schalter's point illustrates an issue far greater than Cutler, one that several teams are facing again this season: Our guy is pretty good, but is he good enough?


Sep 29, 2013; San Diego, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) walks off the field after at the end of a 30-21 loss to the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

Being Good Is Good, Not Great

This is the same issue the Cowboys had with Tony Romo last season before they signed him to a monster contact extension. He was good enough, or at least he was better than the other available options if they didn't re-sign him. That's the issue with the Bears as well. They don't have the luxury of a Kaepernick on the bench that allows them to cut ties with Cutler and roll the dice with a new kid.

Alex Smith, who Kaepernick replaced in San Francisco, is good enough in Kansas City for Andy Reid's first season, but at some point he'll fall into the same category as Cutler and Romo and Rivers and, my gosh, the next guy on this list: They're all too good to let go, but probably not good (read: elite) enough build a franchise around them.

A good quarterback who doesn't make mistakes and hurt your team can succeed in the NFL. Five of the last eight quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl were Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Delhomme have all taken a team to the Super Bowl in the last 10 seasons.

At some point, though, it's hard for teams to keep trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results at the quarterback position.

Maybe it's not too good to just be good.


Sep 29, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (8) reacts after throwing an interception during the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This Says It All for Schaub

I pulled about a dozen or so tweets after Matt Schaub's horrible performance against Seattle on Sunday. This says all anyone would need to say about how Houston fans feel about their quarterback right now. 


Sep 29, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) is sacked by Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Allen Bailey (97) during the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 31-7. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Spo
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Flacco and Manning Are Having an Elite-Off

I'll admit I'm a sucker for a Super Bowl ring. When Eli Manning won his second Super Bowl, I wrote that he was a near lock for the Hall of Fame if he kept his career on a positive path.

After Joe Flacco led Baltimore to the Super Bowl last year and was stellar in the playoffs, I was with everyone else who thought he deserved a big contract extension to be paid like an elite quarterback. 

So much of the tongue-in-cheek "elite" conversation surrounds these two Super Bowl champions, which is hilarious when you look at how HORRIBLE they've both been in 2013.

Eli Manning is a turnover machine. He threw an interception against the Chiefs where honestly there wasn't a player on his team within 15 yards of the ball and the Chiefs had, for some reason, three defenders in the vicinity.

His passer rating of 69.1 is 30th in the league for quarterbacks who have started at least one game—a number that is literally half the rating of his brother.

Eli has 11 turnovers in four games, nine by interception, to just six touchdowns. The Giants are in shambles, but the quarterback has been every bit as responsible for their issues as anyone.

You can't spell elite without Eli? Not this year.

Sep 29, 2013; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) gets hit by Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Alan Branch (90) after a throw during the first half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

I don't know what you can spell with Flacco, but I do know that whenever I try to tweet his name from my phone it auto-corrects to "flaccid," which seems like a perfect way to explain his play this season.

How bad was Flacco on Sunday? The Ravens threw 50 times against Buffalo on 63 offensive plays, of which only nine were actual designed runs. Flacco completed just 25 passes to his teammates—a 50 percent completion percentage—but when adding in the passes caught by the Buffalo defense, 60 percent of Flacco's passes landed in someone's hands on Sunday.

Ten percent of his passes were intercepted, and he threw the ball 50 TIMES!

Yes, it was just one game, or in Eli's case, it's just four games. Yes, even Peyton had a stretch in 2010 with the Colts where he threw 11 interceptions in three games, all losses.

Yes, both Eli and Flacco have shown they can lead a team to a Super Bowl, and they—as well as several the others on this list—deserve to be par of the debate over their collective, or individual, "eliteness." 

Yes, just the sheer nature of being a starting quarterback in the NFL makes you, by comparison to the thousands of players who lined up under center at some point in their careers from Pop Warner to a BCS title game, elite.

Yet the truly elite are never part of the debate, which is kind of what makes the debate so much fun, even if the list seems to be shrinking by the week.


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