Playoffs demonstrate that formula for NFL success starts at quarterback

WarnerRiversFavreRomo (Amy Gutierrez - AP)
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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010

An NFL regular season that was filled with superb quarterback play gave way last weekend to a postseason that included, in its opening round, perhaps the greatest passing duel in playoff history.

It always has been about the quarterbacks in the NFL. But now, with the league well into the most passing-friendly era in its history, that might be more pronounced than ever as the second round of the playoffs commences.

"We have a myriad of great quarterbacks," former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said this week. "We had a bunch of quarterbacks who had a great year and just about all of those teams are in the playoffs. . . . There are a number of guys who are really good, and every one of them is experienced.

"In every case, the organization has built the team around him, with good wide receivers and good offensive lines. The rules today are built for people to be successful throwing the ball. The game is about entertainment. It's very difficult to play defense when you can't touch anyone down the field and when the rules are set up to protect the quarterback."

It was a regular season in which five quarterbacks -- New Orleans's Drew Brees, Minnesota's Brett Favre, San Diego's Philip Rivers, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger -- had passer ratings above 100, and another, Indianapolis's Peyton Manning, was at 99.9. Compare that to last season, when only one quarterback, Rivers, had a passer rating above 100.

Only quarterbacks received votes for most valuable player this season. Manning won his record fourth MVP award while Brees, Rivers and Favre received the remaining votes. Each of the four teams to get a first-round playoff bye -- the Colts, Chargers, Saints and Vikings -- had a Pro Bowl quarterback.

"If you're looking to have that marquee offense, if you're looking to be that lead sled-dog team," former San Francisco 49ers guard Randy Cross said this week. "You've got to have that guy."

What always had been a quarterbacks' league became even more so when the NFL cracked down on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs prior to the 2004 season, instructing game officials to strictly enforce the prohibition on illegal contact on receivers by defenders more than five yards down the field. The league in recent seasons also has restricted hits by defenders, as a safety measure, on vulnerable players, particularly quarterbacks and receivers.

Just ask the Baltimore Ravens how deep the league currently is in front-line quarterbacks. They won a first-round playoff game at New England last Sunday by forcing Tom Brady, the Patriots' three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, to commit four turnovers. That win earned the Ravens a meeting with Manning and the Colts on Saturday night in Indianapolis. To get to the Super Bowl, the Ravens potentially would have to beat Rivers in San Diego as well.

"We know what's coming up in Indy," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "That's probably the greatest quarterback of the last 10 or 20 years, you know, [with] his fourth MVP."

The Ravens and New York Jets are the exception to the current rule about what it takes to be a successful team. The Jets had the league's top-ranked defense and top-ranked rushing offense during the regular season while their rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez, threw 12 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions and was the league's 28th-rated passer.

"The Jets are pretty good," Cross, now an NFL analyst for CBS, said in a telephone interview. "That's a statement that you can do it with defense and running."

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