Topflight NFL QB’s: There’s Only a Handful

Topflight NFL QB’s: There’s Only a Handful
By David A. Lane

I can’t Remember an NFL season ever in my long career as a pro football spectator, bettor, and columnist, that had been affected any more by one player than was last season- even more ironically, by a player that didn’t even play! Tom Brady got injured early in the first quarter of the Patriots first game and not only did the season change complexion immediately but we all got what might be a terrifying glimpse into an all too real fact- like in the cartoon where Bullwinkle the Moose half-heartedly expects to reach in and pull a tame rabbit out of his hat instead of a roaring monster us fans idealistically pictured a pro future where new QB’s had stepped up making the transition smooth sailing, when, we like him were startled by a sudden realization- after a handful of elite aging pro quarterbacks move on to greener pastures the league may not be such a pretty place nor as much fun to watch.

During a time when the College Bowl Series boasts a lot of seriously talented young quarterbacks in a bunch of conferences, the number of proven pro football quarterbacks that are enjoyable to watch or are worthy of earning your wager is quickly waning.

When a talent like Tom Brady goes down to serious injury and he’s done for the season, lots of things happen because of it- Las Vegas changes odds as teams’ expectations change across the board, NFL teams that got their collective heads kicked in annually by the Pats now feel they have a chance to win it all, and the team that is the Pats has to stand in front of camera’s and lie to the public about how much faith they have in Matt Cassel- making it a peculiar time and hopefully one we don’t have to relive anytime soon.


Because it’s much easier for defenses to scheme against a lesser player the immediate result is lower scores and less exciting football to watch making the let-down even more immense.

The biggest factor however, is that his absence made the play of his quarterback peers stand out even more- like when one neon bulb burns out and the others burn more intensely to make up for it, their play is suddenly more evident and scrutinized than before- something Peyton Manning could have lived without in 2008.

Here’s a trivia question I would have never gotten right: How many NFL QB’s threw for more yards than Heisman Trophy winning college QB Sam Bradford of OU last season? One! Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints threw for 5069 yards while Bradford ‘lagged’ behind at 4720.

Here is another mind blowing question: How many NFL quarterbacks threw for more TD’s than OU’s Bradford? ZERO! That’s right Bradford’s 50 would have led the NFL by a ton as Phillip Rivers and Brees tied for the lead with a very distant 34 of them.

As strange as it seems to be, the pros are increasingly becoming the low scoring, conservative, and more defensive-minded, league of the two and my gut tells me it’s caused by much more than just that.

“Ole Skool” coaches, who never spelled it quite like that by the way, used to take their time to groom rookie quarterbacks who they often drafted because they saw a fit with their system or something to that effect. The odds of a young and inexperienced quarterback playing a down at all in their rookie year was slim to none while the odds of them playing any significant amount of time in their second year (back in the day) wasn’t much better.

Much of what we are seeing today out of young NFL QB’s is the product of them either having been thrown to the wolves at way too young of an age which causes them to have happy feet and make a plethora of mistakes, then they become gun-shy which is definitely not a blueprint for lasting NFL success.

Take today’s elite pro quarterbacks- the very few that do exist- and let’s do a little comparison shopping with them: Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Brett Favre.

Though Kurt Warner belongs here the most, he has had two exceptional seasons at QB and then some very below average ones as well, which doesn’t qualify him with me because he lacks consistency; Sorry Kurt!

Honorable mention to Drew Brees who is an offensive machine with no big time playoff or Super Bowl wins just yet.

Next we have Phillip Rivers, who took over for Brees in San Diego after he was in essence groomed for the job (any wonder he’s very successful?), and Jay Cutler who the jury is still out on, but was very successful with the Denver Broncos before being traded to the Chicago Bears this year.

Of all the names listed above (all nine of them), would it surprise you that only one of these cream of the crop NFL quarterbacks started for their teams from day one? Peyton Manning was the first pick in the draft by the Colts in the ’98 draft and he threw 26 touchdowns for them in his rookie year while going on to break five NFL rookie records in that year.

Unlike Manning, Ben Roethlisberger was playing behind two other QB’s on the depth chart, one of which was hurt in preseason (Charlie Batch), and the other who was eventually yanked (Tommy Maddox) in the second game for being ineffective- though the plan originally was to bring him along slowly.

The 199th selection in the 2000 draft, Tom Brady, a supplemental pick, didn’t play until early in the 2001 season when Drew Bledsoe went down to injury with internal bleeding, and the rest as they say was history.

Brett Favre was a second round pick by the Atlanta Falcons and the 33rd overall in the 1991 NFL Draft who sat on the bench his whole rookie year until the Green Bay Packers rescued him by trading for him and made him their starting quarterback immediately. The result? He didn’t miss one start for them from September 20, 1992 to January 20, 2008- which he played all the way to the Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.

Eli Manning also had some time to learn while carrying a clipboard himself, albeit not quite as much as the others, playing behind Kurt Warner for more than half his rookie season.

Kurt Warner is the epitome of “the being groomed” philosophy, going from bag boy at a grocery store to Arena Football League quarterback to Super Bowl Champion. Never having an “easy road” has kept Warner on his toes and striving to always be his best- and you can’t argue with the results he’s been able to (at times) display on the field.

Drew Brees spent his rookie year of 2001 watching Doug Flutie guide his San Diego Chargers down the field, Philip Rivers would soon be drafted and watch Brees do the same thing in 2004.

Jay Cutler was a Denver Bronco behind Jake Plummer for most of his rookie season before earning the starting opportunity Coach Mike had groomed him for.

One thing that seems to remain in common amongst most of these above average quarterbacks is that they were eased into their positions, giving them much greater chance to succeed. It seems that the NFL is a much faster game than college is so the time needed to adjust is most important.

Better organizations realize that the learning curve is also greater and they still understand that the fastest way to ruin a very talented player is to throw him to the wolves before his time- draining his confidence so quickly he’s bound to lose it all in record time. It’s about time these ‘experts’ pick up on this and go back to “NFL Coaches old ways” before they rush any more great QB’s right out of the league. The proof is in the numbers, numbers the league sorely miss.

If you think of all the different highly rated players who have come and gone, many of which will never receive another opportunity to play again, you have to wonder what the numbers would really have been had these guys not just been thrown into the game to sink or swim. If they had instead been better trained for the chance to play, how many would still be around and have experenced success in the league?

The “old” NFL that practiced a smooth transition from one generation of players to another creating quality play and no “let down” lessened the risk/danger of losing a player due to a lack of the players confidence level. Whether Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, and Josh Freeman, succeed in this league or not will also tell us if the future of the league is the smooth sailing cartoon where Bullwinkle Moose does pull out the squirrel from his hat or not.

The NFL needs the quality of play to remain as high as it has been in the past. Right now the league has a few precious performers who have carried this league on its back for some time. Now and the future is all up to the Coaches and GM’s of the league to insure that happens by giving key players time to mature and develop at their own pace.