They represent the strength of the game today and for its long-term future. They are, of course, quarterbacks, football's most important players, which they have always been, even before the league began legislating in their favor.
Look at the names: Brady, Manning, McNabb, Culpepper, Vick. Look at the young ones: Leftwich, Palmer, Roethlisberger, Carr. Now look at their numbers and each quarterback's long-term potential and it's easy to see the NFL is currently enjoying its most talented and deepest crop of quarterbacks since the 1980's.
It wasn't that way 10 years ago. Sure, the league had Troy Aikman and Brett Favre and the glory days of Steve Young's journeyman career, but it wasn't a deep crop of passers. What does it say that Neil O'Donnell and Rob Johnson, the latter on the strength of one regular-season game, each got $25 million contracts? It says the league was deficient at the position, so much so that Kurt Warner came out of arena football to win a Super Bowl with the Rams, and that Baltimore won one with Trent Dilfer, a laughing-stock quarterback previously with the Bucs.
Teams were re-claiming guys and projecting guys all over the place. All of a sudden, a career backup such as Rich Gannon got a whopping free-agent contract. Kerry Collins couldn't quit, even though he tried.
That wouldn't happen today. That's how talented and deep the crop of passers is.
Here's one reporter's look at the players who represent what's best about the NFL in 2005.
- Tom Brady—He stands alone at the top of the game. He is football's best player, at any and all positions. Forget about Peyton Manning; not even in the same league. In Brady's first-ever start, he beat Manning, 44-13, and he's beaten him every time since; twice in the postseason. Five years into his career, Brady is literally with nothing more to achieve. All he can do is do it again.
- Peyton Manning—Nobody moves the ball with greater ease than Manning. He's the hero of every stats geek. There is a growing faction of critics, however, who point to Manning's inability to win the big game. No one questions his ability to play the position. He is a sensational quarterback. But what good is it if he can't win the big one?
- Donovan McNabb—A lot of critics are starting to say the same thing about McNabb. He needs to win the big one. Otherwise, he's a great passer, a great scrambler and a tough guy who possesses top-notch leadership skills. He, too, needs to take the next step up.
- Daunte Culpepper—He may be the game's best combination of pass-and-run abilities. Now, with Randy Moss' negative influence having been moved on to Oakland, Culpepper's leadership skills may surface, allowing him to be recognized as the great quarterback he truly is.
- Michael Vick—As a passer, he's only middle of the pack. As the complete package, which includes his 902 yards rushing and 7.5 yards-per-rush average, no player in the league instills fear and commands respect as Vick does. With him, the Falcons are a Super Bowl contender. Without him, they were one of the worst teams in the league.
A cut below
- Brett Favre—Five years after he retires, he'll be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Favre is still one of the league's premier players, but he's not the player he was a few years ago. The first signs of age are evident.
- Trent Green—He doesn't have the strongest arm or the fastest legs, but only Manning moves the ball down the field with greater ease. Green is the trigger man for an offense that has been a scoring machine over the past couple of seasons.
- Jake Delhomme—Some still consider Delhomme's emergence to be a fluke. Well, look at the numbers: twenty-nine touchdown passes and nearly 4,000 yards passing. Delhomme led a team that was dead in the water at midseason last year back into playoff contention. His leadership skills and intangibles are what every coach wants in a quarterback.
- Marc Bulger—He's another underrated guy. Bulger threw for 3,964 yards, 21 touchdowns and a 93.7 passer rating last season. He also became a quarterback known for late-game comebacks. Imagine New Orleans cutting him. What a mistake. He's the real thing.
- Chad Pennington—The fifth-year Jets quarterback showed a lot of grit in leading his team to the second round of the playoffs last season, despite a shoulder injury that left him candy-armed. He's got skills and toughness, but his arm strength had already been in question before his injury.
The next wave
- Drew Brees—Just when the Chargers were ready to quit on Brees, he threw for 27 touchdowns and a 104.8 passer rating. Brees is a reminder to every team in the league to be patient in developing a young quarterback. Is there any reason to believe last year was a fluke?
- Ben Roethlisberger—As a rookie, he was 14-1 and led the Steelers to the AFC title game. Roethlisberger threw 17 touchdown passes and compiled a 98.1 passer rating in 13 regular-season games. What's not to like? Well, his critics say he quarterbacked a team that depended on the run, but that's not entirely true. In several games, such as in wins over the Patriots, Eagles and Jaguars, the Steelers threw early and took the lead, then turned it over to their running game. Against the Jaguars, Roethlisberger led the Steelers back in the final two minutes. He's the only quarterback in the league last season to have beaten both Brady and McNabb. That has to say something.
- Byron Leftwich—The Jaguars quarterback has played his best football against top competition. Leftwich is 2-1 against Manning and 1-0 against Favre, and two of those three wins were on the road. The biggest criticism of Leftwich is that he doesn't run well, but were Unitas and Marino mobile quarterbacks? Leftwich's greatest failing last season was at putting points on the board, especially in the second half of the season when he was playing on an injured knee and in an offensive scheme that had clearly fallen into disfavor with the head coach. This is a big year for Leftwich. The Jaguars have provided him with weapons in the passing game.
- Carson Palmer—After sitting on the bench through his rookie season, Palmer emerged last year as the real thing. He lit it up late in the year as the Bengals posted prodigious scoring totals. Don't be fooled by his final stats; he started the season slowly. Palmer could be headed for the elite category.
- David Carr—Last season was somewhat of a break-out year for Carr, the first pick of the 2002 draft. The Texans provided him with a big-play receiver in Andre Johnson and Carr responded by throwing 16 touchdown passes behind a suspect offensive line. He has skills and, if he gets the pass-protection he needs, he'll move up the rankings. He needs a statement game; he needs to beat a Manning, a Brady or a McNabb, as Roethlisberger and Leftwich have.
- Eli Manning—After a horrible start to his career that left Giants fans to criticize Tom Coughlin's decision to bench Kurt Warner, Manning came to life late in the season. He's the future with the Giants, at least for the next couple of years.
- Rex Grossman—Was on his way up until the knee injury early last season.
- Phillip Rivers—But where?
- Steve McNair—In his 11th season, McNair continues to battle injuries that have continually threatened his career. Now he's also battling father time and a Titans salary cap mess that threatens his future in Tennessee. Does he still have the desire to play? That's going to be a big question this season, playing for a team with major cap and roster problems.
- Drew Bledsoe—Some believe a reunion with coach Bill Parcells will rejuvenate Bledsoe's career. Some believe Bledsoe lost it a long time ago and that Bill Belichick's greatest coaching genius was having identified that fact all the way back in 2001. Bledsoe still has a strong arm, but he just doesn't get it done and he's beginning to look intimidated by the rush.
- Jeff Garcia—No quarterback could've succeeded in the situation Garcia faced in Cleveland last year. He's not the long-term answer in Detroit, but he could help the Lions acknowledge the mistake they made with Joey Harrington.
- Kerry Collins—You look at him and you wonder why it never happened. Something is just amiss.
- Brian Griese—He had big numbers in Tampa last season; 20 touchdown passes and a 97.5 passer rating. Those numbers, however, are probably just a tease. The bottom line is that no quarterback crumbles in the face of a rush more easily than Griese does.
- Kurt Warner—No fire. He took it too well when he lost his job to Eli Manning last season.
- Jake Plummer—When does this experiment end? Why has this guy gotten so many opportunities?
Under the microscope
- Billy Volek—Good numbers in his first chance to play. He's interesting. He could be the future in Tennessee. Keep an eye on him.
- Matt Hasselbeck—Not bad last year; Hasselbeck has developed into a credible NFL quarterback. But is this as good as he gets?
- Joey Harrington—He comes out of a tradition of Jeff Tedford quarterbacks who haven't been successful in the NFL: Akili Smith leads the way, then Harrington and Kyle Boller. It's put up or shut up time.
- Kyle Boller—If he doesn't get it done for the Ravens this year, somebody else will be doing it next year.
- Aaron Brooks—Wonderful skills, but Brooks makes monumental goofs. One more chance.