NFL quarterbacks exist to serve three purposes, in ascending order of importance:
3. Throw accurate passes and take charge of the huddle;
2. Lead their teams to Super Bowl victories; and
1. Generate a never-ending supply of melodramatic and ridiculous storylines like characters in the world’s longest-running Spanish-language telenovela.
Crisp passes and Super Bowl rings are great, but the soap opera—the nonsense—drives several major industries, from sports talk radio to midday television to what I am doing right now. Quarterback nonsense is an important macroeconomic resource, like crude oil or organic lima beans.
With so many jobs riding on each quarterback’s ability to inspire polarizing, quasi-logical and outright bonkers narratives, measuring quarterback-nonsense output levels is not just a fiscally sound strategy but a generator of nonsense in its own right. Thus, this article is like a free energy machine!
My patented (not really) Quarterback Nonsense Index uses the best statistical science available to weigh the many factors that make a quarterback fun to idolize, demonize, ridicule, canonize, castigate—or do all to randomly five during a two-week span.
Here are the components that go into the calculations, with each starting quarterback getting a 10-point head start by virtue of earning the highest-profile job in the sports world:
No Rings: Any quarterback who gets past the “prospect” stage (four seasons) without a Super Bowl victory has cooties.
Playoff Failure in 2013: Losing in last year’s playoffs is worse than actually missing last year’s playoffs. It provides evidence that you cannot win “the big one,” which in the science of nonsensology is more damning than proving that you cannot win any of them.
Recent Playoff Bumble: Quarterbacks who looked especially bad while losing recent playoff games earn an extra boost. A four-interception playoff game is a one-way ticket to reality shows like The Biggest Loser. (See: Mitchell, Scott).
Fat New Contract: As a rule, all new starting-quarterback contracts are greeted with universal shock and dismay—a guy who always loses in the playoffs is getting that much?—even though mediocre starting pitchers still typically earn far more.
Extracurricular Activities: A blanket category that covers everything from fondling inflatable waterfowl on Instagram to running afoul of Mike Shanahan in Washington.
Appearance: Does the quarterback, you know, look funny? Because that totally matters. A sliding scale covers everything from tattoos to cocky sneers to just looking like a king-sized ginger-haired grocery bagger.
Quarterback Controversy: Imaginary controversies are worth just as much as real ones, though it is arguable that they should be worth far more.
Big Market: One rumored off-hand comment in New York is equal to a month of three-interception games in Buffalo or an out-and-out crime spree in Jacksonville.
Other Factors: Hanging around five years in one city without a championship earns extra points. Going first overall in a recent draft earns points. Overexposure in commercials or on magazine covers creates a delightful nonsense feedback loop (“We can’t stop talking about the fact that we can’t stop talking about him!”). A truly awful 2013 season is also worth a few points.
There are also mitigating nonsense factors. Each recent Super Bowl victory generates negative nonsense points, as does the “living legend” status that three quarterbacks have earned. Up-and-comers, most notably class of 2012 quarterbacks who have not yet suffered any major setbacks, also earn a silliness rebate.
If the following ratings seem a little conservative, it’s because we are in the midst of a nonsense revolution. The next generation of great quarterbacks is pushing its way into the spotlight, bringing the next generation of ridiculous controversies, loony talking points and flat-out wrongheaded perceptions along for the ride. But the old guard is not ready to cede the stage just yet: Even Jerry Jones agrees that there’s still room for a Romo Chokes joke in a Johnny Football bathroom photo world.
And now, onto the rankings!
32. Ben Roethlisberger (4 points): With Super Bowls behind him and a string of .500 seasons for a cash-strapped small-market team ahead of him, Big Ben rests in a nonsense trough. His bad behavior is ancient history, expectations are low, and anything bad that happens to the Steelers this year will be blamed on either pot-toting running backs or undead cornerback Ike Taylor.
31. Russell Wilson (6 points): Wilson generates a sparkly anti-nonsense right now. Everything will be just fine as long as you don’t criticize him, about anything, or suggest that some other young quarterback who is not supported by a historically great defense may be slightly better. You heretic.
30. Tom Brady (7 points): Here's another source of anti-nonsense, though you can get some mileage out of asserting “Brady’s not an elite quarterback anymore” and watching New Englanders react like the villagers in an old Frankenstein movie.
28. Andrew Luck (9 points). The nonsense engines are revving for Luck, who received a small-market top-prospect pass for two years. Rolling Stone magazine published a click-trampy “The Case Against Andrew Luck” article this week, issuing a win-now imperative for the third-year pro. Rolling Stone? Isn’t there a new Neil Young album it should be reviewing?
27. Eli Manning (9.5 points). Manning is the huge-market version of Ben Roethlisberger but coming off a miserable year. Manning has concrete goals this season, like a 70 percent completion rate and perhaps throwing fewer interceptions than Tony Romo, Nick Foles and RG3 combined for a change. New Yorkers will rant and rave when he falls short, but New Yorkers also honk their horns at gridlocked intersections. They aren’t really angry anymore. It’s just a habit.
25-24. EJ Manuel and Ryan Tannehill (10 points). If AFC East quarterbacks stand perfectly still, no one notices them. Tannehill got a mulligan last year because all Dolphins problems were blamed on Degrassi: The Offensive Line Years. Manuel got a mulligan for being injured and for not being Geno Smith. Tannehill has the potential to climb the nonsense ladder this year. Manuel will be lucky if we aren’t discussing Kyle Orton by Halloween.
23. Chad Henne/Blake Bortles (11 points). Joining the Jaguars is usually as high-profile a career move as joining a monastery, and the quiet confidence with which the Jaguars handled this “controversy” was a far cry from their burn all the David Garrard jerseys approach of years past. Bortles’ impressive preseason, coupled with Henne’s reliable Henne-ness, will spark a start-the-rook drumbeat soon enough. If a drum beats in Jacksonville, does it make a sound?
22. Matt Cassel/Teddy Bridgewater (13 points). Bridgewater is a likable solid B of a prospect, the kind who turns into Andy Dalton in two or three years. He does not provide much nonsense heat, except for the offseason’s media scout/professional scout rivalry, which erupted in senseless violence at the Video Music Awards.
21. Derek Carr/Matt Schaub (14 points). We are not laughing with them. We are not laughing at them. We are just wondering how much Schaub paid for copies of Matt Flynn’s 2013 MRIs.
20-18. Jake Locker, Josh McCown and Carson Palmer (15 points). This is the nonsense peloton. It consists of two veterans no one expects anything from and a quarterback some people may have forgotten even exists. Locker is in a strange place, nonsense-wise. His team is so small market that most fans are paying zero attention, creating an assumption that he must be doing something right if he still has a starting job. Look for Locker to shoot up this list once everyone discovers that they made a false assumption.
17. Matt Ryan (15.5 points). Ryan could be the next big thing in nonsense: He is well past the prospect age and coming off a disappointing season that was rightfully blamed on the Falcons defense and multiple injuries. But “rightful blame” only gets quarterbacks so far. Ryan is a likably bland guy; in other words, he’s one more 6-10 season from being “not passionate enough.”
16. Nick Foles (15.5 points). Even Eagles fans cannot quite find a good reason to hate Foles just yet. (Buzz Bissinger could find a way to hate brunch with Scarlett Johansson at this point, so he does not count). If Foles starts out hot, expect a midseason “pay the man” chorus, even though Foles cannot contractually be paid anything new until the end of the season. If he starts out cold, the NFL has “figured him out.” Because his third interception will represent a 50 percent increase over last year’s total, the smart money is on “cold.”
15. Joe Flacco (16 points). Big contract, bad season and an unsalted-cracker personality that somehow rubs people the wrong way, like an apolitical Al Gore. If Flacco were a Bob Newhart character, he would be Bob Newhart, and expecting him to suddenly become an obscenity-spewing firebrand (as Terrell Suggs suggested) is like expecting Peyton Manning to run the triple-option.
14. Ryan Fitzpatrick/Ryan Mallett/Tom Savage (17 points). This group is a fast riser on the charts, thanks to Mallett’s arrival. For nonsense purposes, keep in mind that: a) Bill O’Brien knows Mallett intimately, because the only bond stronger than father/son is position-coach/rookie-he-worked-with-for-one-season-three-years-ago; b) Mallett knows O’Brien’s system exactly, because O’Brien has changed absolutely nothing in three seasons away from New England (the mark of a successful coach); and c) watching Tom Brady in practice guarantees excellence, which is why Vegas is offering even-money odds on a Vikings-Browns Super Bowl.
13. Sam Bradford Memorial Ranking (18 points). This system is not well equipped to rank Shaun Hill. My educated guess: Between the Kurt Warner II storylines (Warner worked in a grocery store after his college career. Hill worked in a fireworks warehouse in high school. They’re practically twins!) and the robust scouting observations on Hill that keep getting excavated from four years ago (his game film is in your TiVo queue next to the season finale of Battlestar Galactica), Hill should fill Bradford’s shoes in this space as well as he fills them on the field.
12. Matthew Stafford (19.5 points). With a cap-clobbering contract, former-first-pick expectations, 52 interceptions in three years and a throwing motion that alternates between “perfect” and “trying to skim a bowling ball across the kiddie pool,” Stafford has untapped nonsense potential. For now, he’s the designated quarterback who gets scrutinized endlessly for his throwing mechanics, at least until Robert Griffin III claims the title from him.
11. Johnny Manziel (20 points). Scoring Johnny Football on a traditional Nonsense Index is like giving an IQ test to an eight-year-old with telekinesis. Albert Einstein’s high school teachers didn’t think he was all that bright, and the QBNI thinks Manziel is just another buzzy rookie controversy-magnet. Rest assured that I am using Manziel data to test the system tolerances, and the Nonsense scale will be thoroughly tweaked before it tackles Jameis Winston.
10. Philip Rivers (21 points). Rivers never achieved his nonsense potential. This is a guy with more playoff near misses than Nonsense Hall of Famer Donovan McNabb, the personality of Jay Cutler and the wardrobe of the most obnoxious Julliard-trained bluegrass banjoist at the Brooklyn Americana and Craft Moonshine Festival. He should be as unfairly loathed as any quarterback. But San Diego is a media outpost, and Chargers games always start late on the East Coast, so he is easy to forget about.
9. Alex Smith (21.5 points). Defiantly trying to thrive as a pretty good quarterback in a world that acknowledges only transcendent champions and contemptible losers, Smith even tried to sneak in a middle-of-the-road contract while everyone was barbecuing on Labor Day weekend. We noticed, Alex: four years and $45 million all but guaranteed? That’s, well…market neutral and of reasonable length. Curses, foiled again. Maybe we can trot out the “Shaun Hill is a better quarterback” storyline from 2008 in a few weeks.
8. Tony Romo (22 points). Romo provides resale-market, past-expiration-date nonsense—but plenty of it. Have you ever traveled to a small town far out in the country, turned on the radio and discovered that the local “pop hits” station is 18 months behind the curve? (“Wow, they still play LMFAO out here.”) The sports talk guys in those towns still get laughs from Romo jokes. By the way, if Romo and Manziel were on the same roster, you would not be reading this nonsense index, because the Internet would have exploded on May 10.
7. Cam Newton (24 points). All you need to make Newton crackle with nonsense like a hydroelectric plant is to finish the following argument: “Sure, all of Cam’s wide receivers are gone and half of his offensive line retired. Sure, he is trying to throw to people named Brenton Bersin behind blockers who went to Midwestern State and University of Montreal. But…” Look for Jerry Richardson to use similar rhetorical techniques come contract time.
6. Peyton Manning (25.5 points). Peyton has become the sports world’s equivalent of the global warming argument.
5. Michael Vick/Geno Smith (26 points). Vick soaked up a lot of stupid in the last 13 seasons. Leave it to the New York media to wring every last drop of the residual nonsense out of him. Vick did not work hard enough to unseat Geno for the starting job, or so the story goes. Keep in mind that if he worked too hard to win the job, he would be a source of locker room conflict. (You don’t get to cover a New York beat until you can construct your own no-win conundrums for famous players; it’s like building a birdhouse to pass shop class but with sharp spikes in it). Vick defended Riley Cooper against allegations of racism last year but did not get a "THX BRO" text in response? Someone get Jeremy Kerley’s opinion, stat! Vick has totally overshadowed Geno as a source of nonsense, with Geno threatening to make the lateral move to “source of pity.”
4. RG3/Kirk Cousins (26 points). These two have the potential to generate planet-obliterating idiocy. But causing controversy and clubhouse intrigue in Washington is like being a moron on a Real Housewives reality show. The environment is largely to blame, and the bar is not so much set high as turned sideways like a stripper pole.
3. Jay Cutler (28 points). Cutler stands at the nonsense crossroads. His cocky sneer has faded into a grimace, his reality-starlet girlfriend is now his reality-starlet wife, and even the big contract he signed at the start of the offseason now looks achievement-appropriate. Like Romo, Cutler is ready for the next generation of controversial quarterbacks to seize the spotlight so he can enter the goofy uncle stage of his career (or, conceivably, surprise us all with a Super Bowl win). Also like Romo, Cutler is a three-interception game and insouciant eye roll away from sparking the next big thing in Internet memes.
2. Andy Dalton (28.5 points). The NFL’s redheaded stepchild is not built to nonsense code. Dalton’s huge contract is piled atop a mini-Romo reputation as a playoff bumbler, and after three years as a starter, Dalton must now wear the no-ring label. It’s all too much for a dutiful and likable try-hard guy: Dalton does not have Romo’s early-career starlet getaways or Jay Cutler’s perma-sneer to buttress himself against the coming foolish storm. A few playoff wins would lighten his burden; another one-and-done postseason, and Dalton will collapse into a nonsense singularity from which no logical discussion can escape.
1. Colin Kaepernick (33 points). Kaepernick tattoo editorials became their own literary subgenre for a while; it was like Sailor Moon fanfic, except written by an even more frustrated and repressed bunch of middle-aged white guys. The tattoo brouhaha settled down, but Kaepernick remains a reliable source of everything from hand-wringing about his low statistical production to mid-afternoon offseason TMZ tests of the Emergency Character Assassination System. Trapped behind Russell Wilson in his own division and recently rewarded with a contract that was somehow simultaneously too generous and too team friendly, Kaepernick sits in the nonsense crosshairs as the overpaid also-ran, overhyped underachiever and lazy receptacle for all of those outdated athlete-playing-quarterback and not-a-leader labels. After all, just what kind of leader has all of those tattoos?
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.