As Playoffs Approach, What’s the State of the “Elite” Debate?
As playoff season approaches, it’s crucial to reevaluate all the offseason discussions and power rankings.
One of the most enduring debates surrounds the question of “who are the elite quarterbacks?”
This inquiry is especially significant because while football is a team sport, exceptional performance in the game’s pivotal position should, at the very least, secure a team’s spot in the playoffs.
The term “elite quarterback” has been tossed around so frequently that its precise definition has become elusive.
There are as many elite quarterback lists as there are NFL analysts. Over the past few years, I’ve encountered as many as 12 quarterbacks bearing this label.
Considering there are 32 potential starting NFL quarterbacks every Sunday, declaring 12 as elite appears to dilute the title’s significance.
Among the 12 quarterbacks who have been labeled as such at some point, we have Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, and Andrew Luck.
In my view, a genuinely elite player should rank within the top 90 percentile of their respective group.
This implies that, at most, there are only three quarterbacks who can be genuinely considered elite.
Consequently, while the remaining nine players mentioned may be highly proficient, they cannot be classified as elite.
Attaining elite status isn’t a permanent designation. A player might seem to reach this level temporarily after a notable streak or even a single exceptional play, only to perform below par in subsequent series or stretches.
Furthermore, a player can demonstrate elite-level performance for an extended period, only to later lose that status due to inconsistency.
So, what truly defines an elite quarterback? It’s not just about occasionally showcasing elite-level skills.
In my perspective, the first criterion is leading one’s team to a Super Bowl championship.
This benchmark rules out Luck, Romo, Rivers, and Ryan from contention.
While each has displayed flashes of elite quarterbacking, none have consistently sustained it.
For instance, Romo has demonstrated nearly flawless play on the road, boasting an impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio 17-to-1.
Rivers and Ryan have also had their moments of elite quarterbacking, though to a lesser extent.
There’s certainly potential for attaining elite status, but ultimately, it’s about sealing the deal.
Another crucial factor for me is how much of the team’s overall success the quarterback carries, particularly in their Super Bowl-winning season.
By this criterion, Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t cut.
Throughout his career, he’s enjoyed the support of a potent rushing offense and a formidable defense.
This has alleviated the pressure on Roethlisberger to make game-changing plays for his team to secure victories.
In 2008, the last time the Steelers clinched a Super Bowl, they boasted the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
The same narrative holds true for Russell Wilson. The Seattle Seahawks starting quarterback has also thrived thanks to the contributions of Marshawn Lynch in the running game and a top-ranked defense.
For both Roethlisberger and Wilson, it’s uncertain whether, without robust rushing games and dominant defenses, they would have achieved Super Bowl victories.
They are undoubtedly very skilled, but without this substantial support, their Super Bowl credentials might not even be discussed.
Two quarterbacks who clinched Super Bowls without the crutch of dominant defenses and robust running games and were the primary catalysts behind their teams’ championship victories are Flacco and Eli Manning.
Nonetheless, both fall short of the third criterion for elite status, a prolonged period of exceptional play.
This entails being the linchpin for your team’s victories and maintaining that high-performance standard over several seasons.
Flacco and Eli Manning experienced scorching hot streaks that propelled their respective teams to titles.
Flacco boasted a remarkable QB rating of 117 during the Baltimore Ravens’ 2012 postseason and Super Bowl run.
Eli Manning posted an impressive QBR of 103 in the Giants’ 2011 postseason Super Bowl campaign.
They both led their teams with stellar quarterbacking. However, following these hot streaks, both became inconsistent, with QBRs well below 100, indicating a drop from the elite standard.
So, who makes it into this elite group? The quartet consists of Rodgers, Brady, Peyton Manning, and Brees.
Each has secured a Super Bowl victory, been the driving force behind their team’s success, and maintained an elite level of quarterbacking for an extended period.
Nevertheless, among this group, Brees is the one whose standing has waned this season.
On average, Rodgers, Brady, and Peyton Manning contribute about three touchdowns for every giveaway (interceptions and fumbles lost) per game.
This statistic is pivotal as it underscores the impact each respective QB has on the outcome of games.
Brees aligns more closely with Flacco and Roethlisberger, who flort on the edge of elite status with approximately a 2-to-1 TD-to-giveaway ratio.
To be considered elite means to be at the pinnacle of excellence and to maintain that level of performance over an extended period.
Rodgers, Brady, and Peyton Manning have excelled in this regard more than any other current quarterbacks.
This is why these three are the most deserving of the label “elite.”
It goes without saying that all three have positioned their teams exceptionally well as they head into the playoffs a week from now.
This is precisely what you would anticipate from a truly elite quarterback.