By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 12:04 AM
The NFL has always been defined by its great quarterbacks. That's not going to change. But the style of the quarterbacks who prosper the most might be altering subtly. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger may illustrate the point in Super Bowl XLV. If you don't have the strength or agility to shed tacklers and turn busted plays into your own magic, these are tough days to be a playoff quarterback.
Of the last 11 Super Bowls, nine were won by a classic pocket-passing quarterback whose name was Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson or one of the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli. Include Trent Dilfer, too; it'll make him feel good.
Some could run a bit or buy time by moving in the pocket. But it wasn't their calling card. Ripping away from 300-pound tacklers or making blitzing safeties miss them completely wasn't their best gift. You knew where to find them: in the pocket. And, difficult as it might be, you knew your only prayer to beat them: Get there and blast 'em.
In the NFL, coaches exist to spend 100-hour weeks studying film so they can invent schemes, and acquire specific types of players who can destroy what others have created.
The sophistication, speed and complexity of the best defenses - especially the blitzing 3-4 defenses of the Packers, Steelers and the just-eliminated Jets - attack so unpredictably that, sooner or later, they are going to bring devastating pressure. However, holding and interference rules, designed to help promote offense, make life miserable for defensive backs.
As a result, the quarterback who can "extend plays" - by breaking tackles, buying time and creating a secondary unscripted play - may be more valuable than ever. In fact, the most successful of the breed in recent years has been Roethlisberger with his two Super Bowl rings. Rodgers, who now has the highest career quarterback rating in history, is the new embodiment of this double-threat type.
Is this trend a certainty? Not yet. But January was a tough month for most big-game passers. In those 10 postseason games, just two men managed to pass for 300 yards in a game, and one of them, Brees, did it out of desperation, throwing 60 times in defeat.
On the other hand, the Jets got to the AFC title game with Mark Sanchez, the 28th-ranked passer in the NFL, who won games while passing for just 189 and 194 yards. His best quality: improvisation and grit in upsets of Peyton Manning and Brady.
And how did the Steelers get to Dallas in two weeks? A golden-arm performance was not the key to their 24-19 win over the Jets. Roethlisberger managed the game well, but he sure didn't win it, not with two interceptions and just 133 yards passing.
What he did best was improvise in crisis on the goal line and on a late-game third-down conversion. In the NFL's world of high-speed mayhem, that may be more and more necessary.
The key to the Steelers' victory came from a bewildering, bruising 3-4 defense that turned a delivery sack into a 19-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Who got to the quarterback with the big hit? A defensive back: Ike Taylor. Who got the recovery for the score? Another defensive back, William Gay. What are two of these sub-200-pounders doing in the backfield creating mayhem at the same time? Welcome to NFL defense circa 2011. Anybody and everybody might be coming. The Jets' defense scored, too, with a safety of Roethlisberger. Life's tough for glamour boys.
A defensive touchdown also provided the decisive points in the Packers' 21-14 win over the Bears. In fact, B.J. Raji's 18-yard interception return for a score to give Green Bay a 21-7 lead may have symbolized this whole month.
Raji, you see, is a 337-pound nose tackle.
If you think multiple blitzing defensive backs make life miserable, think of what a world-gone-mad you face with a man the size of Rhode Island makes a clean one-handed snag of your pass at point-blank range, then takes off running like he's done it before.
On his interception and amusing touchdown romp, Raji was actually dropping in the flat in pass coverage as the Packers ran the signature defense attack of this era: the zone blitz in which anybody - lineman, linebacker, safety or cornerback - may be rushing the passer and anybody, even all 24 stone of Raji, could drop into pass coverage.
Trend-spotting is a contagious disease, so let's not get carried away. Just because classic veteran pocket passers such as Manning and Brees were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, and the league's leading passer - Philip Rivers, Mr. Stand and Deliver - didn't even make it to the postseason, don't assume that every quarterback of the future has to have the mobility to turn busted plays into back-breaking big gains.
But it sure helps.
One of the NFL's strongest qualities is that it's able to stay fundamentally the same from era to era - we approve of the same kinds of excellence in blocking, tackling, passing, running and catching that we always have - yet its "look" changes as strategies evolve or old theories come back into vogue. No other sport comes close.
In two weeks, when the final game of the NFL season rolls around, enormously elaborate plans - traps within ambushes inside misdirection - will be plotted. We'll see the Steelers and Packers unfold multi-faceted 3-4 defenses that have been created, then elaborated over the last dozen years, to confuse and combat precise quick-release pocket passers such as Brady, Brees, Warner, Rivers and the Manning brothers.
But none of those guys will be in Dallas. Roethlisberger and Rodgers will be, luckily for the Steelers and Packers. On a busted play that looks like disaster, one of them will probably escape from those best-laid plans and invent a play that nobody dreamed of. And it will form the foundation of a championship.
Such plays, and such players, have always been valuable. But never more than now.