Image courtesy of sxc.hu.
Brian Neal, Assistant Sports Editor
The word “elite” is defined as something or someone that represents the most choice or select — the best. In the NFL today, the word “elite” has been thrown around almost as much as the actual pigskin on the football field. It’s been abused. While many seem content to accept this, I simply cannot do the same.
This topic has risen over the past couple of seasons and been centrally focused on the most important position in the game: the quarterback. Seeing as this position has very well-defined statistics, and an average fan can judge that person’s play simply by watching the game, it’s understandable.
So, how do we decide if a quarterback (or any player, for that matter) is elite? Elite, as an adjective, such as in the phrase “elite quarterback,” is describing a signal-caller — or a group of them — that can be considered and debated as the best one at his job.
Now, there’s always the eye test. How does that player look when you watch him? Can he read defenses, are his throws accurate and on time and does he sense pressure well in the pocket? These are things that an experienced eye can look at and judge. However, that doesn’t give you the full story; we also need to look at the statistics. How many yards and touchdowns did this player throw? How many interceptions? What is his completion percentage and passer rating? And then compare him to other quarterbacks across the league.
Of course, there’s always the question of whether winning determines if a player is elite, but we’ll get to that.
The most controversial players surrounding the “elite” discussion are Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, quarterbacks for the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens, and they will serve as my cases-in-point.
These are two peculiar cases as the first time either of them was mentioned as “elite” came from their own mouths to sports radio hosts. However, both of them made the comments right before the season they won Super Bowls, which has been the past two years. As soon as that happened, seemingly every analyst on the TV and radio was ready to hand them this achievement of becoming “elite.” So, before I take anything away from them — which, spoiler alert, I will — they did have phenomenal playoffs in their respective championship runs.
But does winning the Super Bowl make you elite? Also, can you dub yourself elite? The answer to both questions is no, especially to the latter; that’s absurd. (If you disagree, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.)
Winning does not make you elite, especially when you’re debating the best individual at a position. If winning a championship made you elite, we’d have to consider the possibility of guys like Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson (2000 Ravens and 2002 Buccaneers) being considered part of that class during their time in the NFL — which they never-ever should be. At the same time, we’d have to discredit the idea that a former quarterback such as Dan Marino wasn’t one of the greatest quarterbacks of his time (and NFL history) because he was never on a good enough team to win it all.
Football is a team sport. To win a Super Bowl, a team needs 22 good players starting on each side of the ball, as well as good depth to fill in for injuries and play special teams.
Manning, for example, in both of his Super Bowl wins, was on a team that boasted perhaps the most dominant pass rush in the entire league. In fact, the defense in their 2007 championship held the most explosive offense in NFL history to a mere 14 points.
Not only that, but he has always had a strong offensive line, great play-makers at wide receiver and tight end, and a solid running game to mix things up and keep opposing defenses guessing.
This past year, the Ravens also provided a star-studded cast to help Flacco win a championship. The defense has Pro Bowl-caliber players such as Haloti Gnata, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. On offense, they have a top-three running back in Ray Rice, good receivers in Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones, two contributing tight ends with Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson and, like the Giants, a powerful offensive line.
The fact of the matter is that neither of these quarterbacks were the only reason, the driving forces, to reach the NFL’s grandest stage, and truly, the statistics have a much larger play in determining this status.
Flacco only has a career passer rating of 86.3. The last four years, his numbers are almost identical each year, meaning he hasn’t made a whole lot of progress in his development. Also, in his five years in the NFL, he has never been voted to a Pro Bowl, even as an alternate. Not that Pro Bowl means a lot, but it does cast the public’s view of that player as one of the best in the league at their position.
Manning’s career passer rating is even lower at 82.7. While he has progressed in his career, he’s never had a season where he was even a top-three quarterback in the NFL numbers-wise. And in the 2010-11 season, the year before he called himself “as good as Tom Brady,” he led the NFL in turnovers. Not exactly a model of consistency.
So, what does an elite quarterback look like in today’s NFL, and who are they?
There are only four that can be in the conversation. Peyton Manning, Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. These players are consistently, week-in-and-week-out, the best quarterbacks in the NFL. They have all had multiple seasons of at least a 100-passer rating, something no other quarterbacks can say. They have all broken records at one point or another, as well.
Even though individually they do all these great things, it doesn’t mean they always win the Super Bowl, because as I have already said, it takes an entire team to win a championship, and to the Giants and Ravens I give all the credit — sorry, Joe and Eli.
That is what “elite” means: to be the best. It doesn’t mean that you’re just “very good;” it means nobody can really be called better than you. For the case of other “very good” quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Flacco and Manning, of course, and likely in the ånear future Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, there’s nothing wrong with being a great quarterback in the NFL. But they’ll have to live with not being considered elite until their game is comparable to the best.