What defines an elite NFL quarterback?

By Mark Chiarelli

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With the Super Bowl coming and going, plenty of attention now resides on the shoulders Joe Flacco. Due to America’s fascination with professional quarterbacks, Flacco understandably now becomes a major factor in sports discussion.

With the spotlight, stardom and face-time that comes with a Super Bowl victory, criticism and debate quickly follows. This is especially prominent when fans and pundits alike attempt to determine the “elite” quarterbacks in the NFL. This is no different for Flacco, who’s gone from the butt of many jokes during the regular season to a potential top-5 quarterback in the NFL, as deemed by many around the league.

After all, the quarterback position is defined by winning. There is a direct correlation between Super Bowl championships and historical rank, leading to speculation regarding Flacco’s sudden rise in NFL power.

The term which has been excessively pile-driven into the ground throughout the last few seasons is “elite.” Player X is an elite quarterback because of such, and player Y is not yet elite because he lacks in a certain department. What the term elite now represents is a cop-out, an easy, vague, “for lack of a better word” description of a quarterback who in more cases than not, is just pretty good.

What acts as a safety blanket for the term “elite” is the lack of a tangible way to define an “elite quarterback.” By definition, elite means “a group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category, especially because of their power, talent or wealth.”

By rule of thumb, most football fans will rattle off Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady as three mainstays at the top of the quarterback food chain. All three have at least one Super Bowl ring, and are perennial statistical leaders each year. Generally, Drew Brees is added in with these players, despite a regression in 2012 and a smaller body of work for his age.

After these four, there’s a host of second-level signal callers who often creep into the discussion of “elite.” This year, it’s Flacco. Before Flacco was Eli Manning, and before Eli Manning was Ben Roethlisberger. Soon, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and perhaps even Matt Ryan will attempt to enter this conversation.

So how do we determine whether these players are strong enough players to enter the illustrious group of elite quarterbacks?

It’s surely some combination of Super Bowl wins, regular season performance, and length of dominance. At the same time, how many quarterbacks is too many when it comes to elite? Can we, in theory, have seven or eight elite quarterbacks in the NFL? That’s 25 percent of the league. If almost one in every four QB’s is elite, it lessens the value of the highest-level quarterbacks.

Flacco is the newest addition to the crew. Flacco, himself, thinks he’s elite. Joe Linta, his straight-shooting agent, also thinks he’s elite. Conveniently, Flacco is due for a new contract in the coming weeks. He’s also the beneficiary of a magnificent playoff run, fresh off the grandest victory in all of sports. Flacco’s lights out playoff performance, creating big plays and taking advantage of his opportunities, also sets up for a lucrative off-season.

With momentum on his side, let’s play a little game. We’ll call it the “Anonymous Evaluation” between three players, and compare their 2012 statistics.

Player A: completed 59.5 percent of his passes on 551 attempts, threw for 3,702 yards, 21 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and was sacked 35 times.
Player B: completed 67.2 percent of his passes on 552 attempts, for 4,295 yards, 39 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and was sacked 51 times.
Player C: completed 59.7 percent of his passes on 531 attempts, for 3,817 yards, 22 touchdown’s, 10 interceptions’s, and was sacked 35 times.

Clearly, player A and player C are fairly comparable players, and would be considered decent to good starting NFL quarterbacks. Those numbers don’t quite compare to player B, who had a much better completion percentage on roughly the same number of attempts, threw for more yards and had an abundance of touchdowns.

With Flacco riding his momentum from 2012, some may assume he’s Player B. Actually, Player B is Rodgers. Rodgers, considered an elite NFL quarterback, did indeed put up elite numbers. Player C was of course, Flacco, who was solid in the regular season but not awe-inspiring. In fact, Flacco compared most closely to Player A — Sam Bradford.

Wait, Sam Bradford?

Flacco played to a 2012 level close to Sam Bradford? That doesn’t make sense. But it’s true. Flacco’s 2012 season compared most to Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub and Sam Bradford.

Let’s play again.

Player A: completed 63.3 percent of his passes on 443 attempts for 3,265 yards, 26 touchdowns 8 interceptions and was sacked 30 times.
Player B: completed 59.9 percent of his passes on 536 attempts for 3,948 yards, 26 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and 19 sacks.
Player C: completed 68.6 percentage of his passes on 583 attempts, for 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and 21 sacks.

Player C, clearly the best of the three, is Peyton Manning. Coming off four neck surgeries, Manning still excelled this season and clearly demonstrated “elite” performance. Player A and player B are fairly similar players, despite not being on Manning’s level. Player A battled injuries this year, but still managed to match player B’s touchdown total while throwing less interceptions and completing a better percentage of passes.

Player A is Roethlisberger, and player B is Eli Manning.

So let’s recap here, statistically in 2012, Peyton Manning and Rodgers clearly trumps the competitors. Roethlisberger was slightly better than Eli Manning, who was comparable toFlacco and Sam Bradford.

But, because of Super Bowl success, Eli Manning, Flacco and Roethlisberger are considered on equal footing as the original four, despite clearly lacking the statistical prowess to go toe-to-toe?

I understand that Super Bowl’s are heavily weighted for quarterbacks. But if we based historical rank solely off Super Bowl success, we would mention Terry Bradshaw in the same breath as Montana. Clearly, that’s not the case. But what fans may not understand today is that it’s perfectly alright to distinguish between the truly “elite” quarterbacks, and the good regular season quarterbacks who play well in big spots.

Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, during the playoffs, are fantastic choices to lead their teams due to their ability to win ballgames. But Eli Manning is not an elite quarterback, as his entire body of work does not currently match up with the top of the class. In fact, I’d be willing to say Roethlisberger is equal to, if not slightly closer to elite, than Eli Manning.

As of now, there are four elite quarterbacks in the NFL. Peyton Manning, Rodgers, Brady and Brees, most likely in that order.

While I admired Flacco’s self-belief, it’s clear that he’s not ready to be discussed with the league’s elite quarterbacks. At 28 years old, it’s not out of the question that Flacco steadily improves statistically now that the monkey is off his back. But with what is likely going to be a top-dollar contract on the way, he’s not worth it yet.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @Mark_Chiarelli