It’s a question that has been on my mind lately…
At one time (pre-teens to be exact) I was superficial jerk when it came to judging quarterbacks. My opinion at the time was if a QB didn’t have a Super Bowl ring, they weren’t good enough for me to acknowledge their existence. The reason why, is because I acknowledged every position on the field ALONG with the signal-caller. My father and other football fans I grew up around taught me that football was a team game, and that the quarterback was a part of the team. So I never put the QB above the team unless they were supremely talented. To me, Quarterbacks in the 90’s were not as fun to watch as some of the other positions, so they had to be really good for me to care about them.
Rather than pay attention to statistically mediocre QB’s, I only paid attention to the “Elite’ few. Back then, there were only a handful of QB’s I was familiar with…Brett Farve, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, and Joe Montana. Even though Joe Montana was in the twilight of his career by the time I turned into a full-time football junkie, he was one of the first quarterbacks that I knew about due to his championships. Joe has four Super Bowl rings, and you can’t argue against the QB that has won that many titles. He’s the standard to which I’ve judged all elite signal-callers.
Unarguably the best team during the 90’s were Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys. They were the face of the NFL during that particular decade and at the time, it was OK to call them ‘America’s Team'(How times have changed). They were stacked with talent; 4 future HOF’ers and a few perennial pro-bowlers to be exact. Troy Aikman was the signal-caller for the talented team. He helped lead the Cowboys to 3 Super Bowl championships, solidifying his Hall Of Fame status before the end of the decade. Was he the star of the team? In my mind, no. Aikman was a solid QB, but I believe a lot of his success was attributed to the team around him. He had Emmitt Smith, an accomplished offensive line, and a distinguished defense to take pressure off of him, and he didn’t have to put up phenomenal stats game after game (He never threw over 25 td’s in a season). All he had to do was play mistake free and when he did, everything else took care of itself.
Let me reiterate by saying there’s nothing wrong with being the product of great coaching and a talented team, the problem is when fans/analysts fail to acknowledge the fact that most times it takes a great, balanced team to win a championship. If all it took was an ‘elite’ QB to win a championship, Dan Marino would have a handful of rings. But, even without the Super Bowl ring that evaded him his entire career, it could be argued that Marino is the greatest QB of all-time. He held almost every QB record when he retired in 2000. The lack of a championship should not hurt his legacy and what he’s accomplished in the NFL.
Lately, my perspective on how to evaluate an elite QB has changed a little. It started when I witnessed Joe Flacco win his first Super Bowl along with Super Bowl MVP. At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, people questioned whether Flacco was an elite signal caller. While he was up-and-down during the regular season, Joe answered his critics in the playoffs by playing flawless football. Flacco underwent a Montana-metamorphosis, then threw for 11 touchdowns with no ints on his way to his first Super Bowl victory. But even prior to this season, Flacco has had a reputation of slacking thru the regular season then heating up in the playoffs. He’s been in each of his first 5 seasons and has accumulated 9 post-season victories, tied with Tom Brady for most in a QB’s first five years starting.
Now lets speak on Joe Flacco’s 2008 draft counterpart Matt Ryan. Ryan has been to the playoffs in 4 of his first 5 seasons, but his first 3 playoff attempts were anything but successful; All ‘One-and-done’s’ until this past season. Prior to this season, Matt Ryan played with the ‘couldn’t win in the playoffs’ stigma. A stigma that frustrated fans and analysts who sided with the opinion that Ryan was a young superstar in the making. With a phenomenal rookie season, the bar was set high for the young Falcon-prodigy. While his regular-season work is among the best of any NFL QB their first five years in the league, his playoff success has left a lot to be desired. But, rather than speak on his 1-4 playoff record, lets speak on the infernal domain of a franchise that Matt Ryan was drafted into.
Matt Ryan was drafted 3rd overall by a Falcons team fresh off the Vick/Petrino debacle, and many thought it would take at least 3-4 years for Atlanta to recover. They were statistically and record-wise one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2007.
29th- Points allowed
29th- Points scored
30th- First downs made
26th- Rush yards gained and rush yards allowed
If there’s a statistical ‘Hell on Earth’, the 2007 Falcons were definitely submerged in it. Matt Ryan, Mike Smith, and Thomas Dimitroff turned this team into a perennial-winner in one off-season…Not to say that Joe Flacco didn’t step into an abysmal situation himself.
Baltimore went thru a line of QB’s before they found a winner in Flacco. The Ravens were lowly-ranked in just about every passing category for years. They were perennial top-15 in defense and running the football, but had trouble putting points on the board due to inept QB play. It’s amazing how much of a difference a good QB can make to a team.
Flacco took Baltimore from 5-11 team to 11-5 and from then on, the organization had his back. But, you could argue Joe inherited a pretty solid team. All the Ravens needed was a half-way decent QB to make them one of the formidable teams of the NFL and Joe is a lot more than what they asked for. When Joe was drafted in 2008, the Ravens had 4 established veterans and/or possibly future HOF’s on that defense…Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, and Terrell Suggs made for one of the strongest defensive cores in the NFL during their time together. They also had a pretty good run game with Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain (and later Ray Rice).
The Atlanta Falcons had to approach the Matt Ryan’s situation differently; They had to continue to build around him. When Matt Ryan arrived, all Atlanta had was Roddy White, Michael Turner, and John Abraham. They had to continue to add playmakers on offense and defense in order to surround Ryan with a team that could take pressure off him. Thomas Dimitroff added Sean Weatherspoon, William Moore, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and even newly signed Steven Jackson, doing everything in his power to make this team a Super Bowl contender. Because, in the end, it takes a team to win a Super Bowl, not just an ‘elite’ QB.
Before I began typing this article, I did some research on past Super Bowl winners. Drew Brees in 2009 and Peyton Manning in 2006 were the only two times I felt a QB truly carried their team to a championship in my entire life of watching football. The other teams the last eleven years? Baltimore, New England, Pittsburgh, and New York Giants all had talented defenses to put pressure on QB’s, which took pressure off their own. I think Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson are proof that you don’t have to be the greatest QB in the world to win a SB, just the beneficiary of being on the right team (with the right defense) at the right time.
Which brings me back to my question…What should an ‘Elite” QB be defined by?
Playoff wins? Is Mark Sanchez better than Matt Ryan? No.
Super Bowls? Is Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson better than Dan Marino? No.
Regular Season stats? Is Tony Romo better than Joe Flacco? Yes, unless it’s the 4th quarter or a meaningful game…
It should be a combination of all three…With (a lil’) less emphasis on the Super Bowl and more on playoff appearances, wins, and consistency. An ‘Elite’ QB should also be defined by his relentless work ethic and character on AND off the field. He’s a QB with the ability to create his own luck in clutch situations. He makes the right decisions, puts the team first, and makes them better whenever he’s on the field with them. With him calling the shots, the team is playoff bound year-in and year-out.
Who still argues Matt Ryan is not an Elite QB?