It’s nearly a universal answer among NFL experts and fans. Ask who the elite quarterbacks will be, and you’ll get the following list: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers. Then, depending on who you ask and how they define elite, they may throw in two more guys, who are just a notch below the top 4: Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. It’s no coincidence the names break out like this. Brady, Manning, Brees and Rodgers all play in pass heavy offenses, and have put up dizzying numbers accordingly. All four have, of course, won Super Bowls. Roethlisberger and Eli Manning get added to the list for the virtue of both being multiple Super Bowl winners, even if their passer numbers are not quite up to the standard of the Big Four. But who’s going to be the next to break into that list, if anyone. I submit for your consideration, three names: the Ravens’ Joe Flacco, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, and the Texans’ Matt Schuab.
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Of course, it’s not a foregone conclusion that any of these players will emerge from the 2012 season with the word “elite” attached to their names. But with Peyton Manning struggling coming off an injury, the Patriots have started 2-2, the Saints having started 0-4, and the Packers have started 2-2 with Rodgers not looking like himself, it sure does seem like there’ll be a spot open, doesn’t it? I also realize that some people want to throw out names like Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton or Robert Griffin III. Too soon, people. Give these kids a chance.
Before we do anything of course, we have to know what we’re dealing with, so first let’s look at their raw numbers for 2012. Flacco is 99-156 (63.5%), 1269 yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs, 95.8 passer rating. Ryan is 102-147 (69.4%), 1162 yards, 11 TDs, 2 INTs, 112.1 passer rating. Schaub is 83-124 (66.9%), 953 yards, 7 TDs, 1 INT, 105.3 passer rating. Those are nice starts, but only Ryan’s totals really jump off the page. Perhaps the number we should really be looking at is 3, 4 & 4, as in the number of wins each QB has led his respective team to so far. The Ravens, Falcons and Texans look like three of the five best teams in the NFL so far, and it seems nearly unthinkable that one of these guys won’t at least get to his first Super Bowl this year, if not win it. And winning it means people ask the question: is he elite? Well, are they?
As I stated, Matt Ryan has the prettiest numbers so far, but his Falcons have faltered in the playoffs the last two years, and there’s a certain sense that “Matty Ice” is not the best nickname for a guy who has yet to win even one “big one” for his team, much less THE big one. Ryan has the numbers, but not the mystique.
Matt Schaub may not even be in contention to break that top four, because his team, the Texans, rely so heavily on the run game and defense, that Schaub much more often plays the role of game manager, leading his team to just enough positive plays to win games. If the Texans keep plowing throw opponents, Schaub is more likely to draw comparisons to Eli Manning or Big Ben than Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers.
That leaves Flacco. At first blush, he’s not having a necessarily dominating year. Just 7 TDs. 3 picks. A passer rating that is good in the 90s but not great in the 100s. But wait. Flacco has shown some amazing resiliency this year. Those picks actually let us in on a little secret: Flacco is ready for prime time. He doesn’t rattle. Short memory? He has none. He picks himself right back up after a mistake as if it never happened. He is transforming the Ravens into a passing and running team, not just a run to set up the pass team. Most significantly, people are talking about the Ravens’ offense, not their legendary defense anymore, and when people pick the Ravens to go deep in the playoffs, it’s because of Flacco, Ray Rice and Torrey Smith, as much as because of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Haloti Ngata.
So my pick for the next elite QB is Joe Flacco. I think he has the right combination of gunslinger, leader and has the right team around him to go all the way. And remember, very very few quarterbacks get remembered as elite who did not win a Super Bowl. So that is probably a necessary prerequisite for any of these QBs to break into the upper echelon.