“The Quarterback is the most important position in all of professional sports.”
Those who consistently watch the National Football League have certainly heard analysts, commentators, coaches, and peers mutter that phrase. The 2011 season, which will certainly be remembered as the first post-lockout season, should instead be remembered as the season which proved that cliché to be true.
This season has seen entire franchises rise from the dregs of the NFL to become respectable, and also seen well-established franchises plummet into misery because of a single position on the field.
In Carolina, a team that won two games last year, the arrival of rookie quarterback Cam Newton has given a previously hopeless fan-base a team and a player for whom they can be excited for the next decade.
In Indianapolis, a franchise that has not seen failure since the arrival of Peyton Manning more than a decade ago, fans are being forced to reckon with not only a terrible season, but also an uncertain future—all because of the loss of Manning for an indefinite period of time because of a series of neck surgeries.
Amongst the less fortunate teams in the league, fans are clamoring for their respective teams to begin to throw games in order to win the “Luck Sweepstakes,” which refer to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who is perceived by many to be the greatest quarterback prospect since John Elway.
However, for many more fortunate teams, the quarterback position does not present a concern. A team with an established successful quarterback always seems to succeed, regardless of the talent elsewhere (see: 2001-2004 New England Patriots).
Therefore, I decided to take on the responsibility to finally figure out who the best quarterback in the league is. However, I decided to do it based on a different set of criteria, because I believe that sometimes statistics and numbers do not tell the entire story of the quarterback position (Tony Romo, anyone?)
The criteria of this countdown are as follows:
1. Assuming that players at every other position on the field are identical, what quarterback would I choose to lead my offense for ONE GAME, with my life depending on the outcome?
2. What player do I believe would take it as their personal mission to make sure I lost the above game if I did not choose them as my quarterback?
3. If I had a discussion about which quarterback is the best in the league with a group of my peers, none of which having a vested interest or a personal bias, which quarterback would garner the least opposition?
With that said, here’s a countdown of the top 15 quarterbacks in the NFL based on those three criteria. I will divvy the 15 positions on the countdown into three tiers: third tier players will meet one of the three criteria, second tier players will meet two, and first tier players will meet all three.
Tier 3 – These quarterbacks cannot be considered in the conversation of best quarterback in the NFL, but are solid starters.
15. Jay Cutler
Cutler always seems to find criticism regarding his toughness, attitude and body language. However, how would any quarterback feel if he was in danger of being sacked on, quite literally, every single play of every game of the season thus far?
Regardless, Cutler possesses the raw abilities of an elite quarterback, especially his ability to make every throw that quarterbacks are required to make. What makes him average amongst quarterbacks in the league is, that to this point, I do not believe that many people would bet their lives on Jay Cutler winning a game for them, because of the very qualities mentioned above.
In a game for your life, Cutler would probably sit out the majority of the second half with a minor knee sprain.
14. Josh Freeman
Perhaps the most promising young quarterback in the league, Freeman possesses incredible size (6’6’’, 250 lbs) at the quarterback position. However, his 2011 campaign, to this point, has seemed like a step back in his progression.
2010 saw Freeman throw 25 touchdowns to only six interceptions. This season, Freeman has matched his total number of interceptions through five games, while only throwing three touchdowns.
With that said, he displays characteristics that could, one day, make him an elite quarterback. He commands the respect of veterans on his team and around the league with his poise and fearlessness late in games.
13. Matt Schaub
Is there any quarterback in the league (save for Rodgers and maybe Brees) who has more offensive talent around him? Schaub has perhaps the league’s best receiver and last year’s leading rusher at his disposal at every snap.
Yet, his numbers seem surprisingly ordinary. Schaub is not someone I would even bring into the conversation of being the best quarterback in the league, but teams could certainly do worse.
12. Eli Manning
As much as I personally hate the man, he has proven playoff success and a Super Bowl MVP to his resume. Other than that magical playoff run, does Peyton’s younger brother do anything to keep him in the conversation of best quarterback in the league? In my opinion, not really.
11. Tony Romo
The man throws an incredible amount of interceptions late in games. Take, for example, his self-destruction in the Cowboys’ Oct. 2 game vs. the Lions. Three interceptions in the second half—two of which gave the Lions two defensive touchdowns.
Would you feel safe with Romo leading your team into the fourth quarter of a game for your life, needing a touchdown to win? I sure would not.
Tier 2 – These players fit perhaps two of the three criteria. Not in the argument for best quarterback in the league, but in the upper echelon of established starters.
10. Cam Newton
Cam Newton is a winner.
Collegiately, he accomplished everything and won every award that a quarterback can. In the NFL, he has kept an inept Panthers team in the midst of winning most of their games this season. Walking onto the field, it looks like a defensive end is throwing passes for Carolina.
He possesses elite athleticism for the quarterback position (actually, for any position), which he uses to compensate for his ever-developing quarterback skills, such as accuracy and reading coverages.
I believe, that given a year or two more to develop, that I would not mind handing the reins to Cam in a game for my life. I also do not believe that anyone would blame me.
9. Sam Bradford
I am going to attribute Bradford’s steep decline in stats this year to the injuries that have decimated his receiving corps, and the constant battle of running back Steven Jackson to stay healthy.
I do believe that Bradford possesses the intangibles—coolness under pressure, ability and willingness to stay in the pocket in the face of a pass rush, and the “look” of an elite quarterback—that will make him a future star for years to come.
This season shows what Detroit fans, and frankly all fans of good quarterback play, were looking for in Stafford for the last three years. He has finally found a way to stay healthy. He has one of the best arms in the NFL, and is capable of making all the throws at the professional level.
He also seems to have an incredible swagger about him—calmness under pressure and an undying confidence in his ability to win, which are both ingredients of an elite quarterback.
7. Matt Ryan
The nickname “Matty Ice,” given to Ryan during his Boston College days, should reflect not only a play on words (referencing the Natural Light brand of beer), but also the fact that I cannot remember watching a Falcons game and seeing Ryan look shaken up after a bad interception or fumble.
He also has proven success in the regular season, and the ability to bring his team back from late-game deficits.
6. Michael Vick
Vick has to be considered one of the greatest overall athletes ever to play the sport. Combine that athleticism with excellent arm strength that give him the ability to fit throws into even the smallest windows, improved decision making, and improved accuracy, and it seems that Vick has finally started to make strides toward reaching his endless potential.
His newfound ability to win games through the air combined with his ever-present ability to win games with his feet, makes him one of the league’s most dangerous players. He is truly a quarterback who provides two dimensions to victory.
Tier 1 – These players fit all three criteria. One could make an argument for each as the league’s best quarterback.
5. Phillip Rivers
Rivers, at only 29 years old, still has not reached his potential. He has a very strong arm, a quick release, and the ability to read coverage and blitzes. He also delivers the ball with great accuracy.
However, what sets him apart from other quarterbacks in the league is his production with very few offensive weapons over the year. Aside from Antonio Gates, who in the past few years has missed numerous games with injuries, Rivers has found success without an elite running back or receiver (Vincent Jackson missed the majority of last season while disputing his contract).
Rivers is a gritty competitor who does not shy away from a pass rush, and he will deliver a pass with accuracy even while being hit.
“Big Ben” has two Super Bowl titles to his name,and proven success in the playoffs. Perhaps the toughest quarterback in the league to sack, he has great natural instinct to avoid pressure, and the size and strength needed to break tackles, giving him the ability to extend plays and expand the pocket.
He has led a Super Bowl-winning drive in the fourth quarter, bringing to the forefront his ability to perform in the clutch. Roethlisberger also continually plays through injuries, all while being protected by one of the most patchwork offensive lines in football.
3. Drew Brees
Is there a better leader in the NFL? Brees almost singlehandedly turned New Orleans back into a premier US city following Hurricane Katrina. Thinking about the first game back in the Superdome following the devastation of Katrina still gives me goose bumps to this day.
Brees has had success everywhere he has played, both regular season and playoffs. He also bested Peyton Manning and the favored Colts two seasons ago, winning his first Super Bowl title.
Brees is an elite quarterback not only because of his elite skills—his accuracy with all throws, his ability to read coverage, and his ability to complete passes to many different receivers—but also because of his incredible competitiveness and leadership.
Rodgers is, without a doubt, the best quarterback in the NFL at the present time. The reigning Super Bowl MVP is playing the position at a level that, maybe, has never been seen before. In fact, he seems to have no holes in his game this season.
What makes him only No. 2 on this list…?
1. Tom Brady
Three Super Bowl championships. Three Super Bowl-winning drives. A fourth Super Bowl-winning drive that should have been. The list goes on and on.
Simply put, there is no quarterback that I would trust more to win a single game than Tom Brady. As Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan recently said, “[Brady]’s the best QB, in my opinion, that’s ever played the game.”
Brady has proven that he can win at every possible level, and do it consistently. He has been at the top of the discussion of best quarterback in the league for probably about seven years. He has found success both with incredible offensive talent (see: 2007), and without any offensive talent (see: 2001-2004).