As much of the sports-watching world breathlessly awaits LeBron James’s free agent decision, the question as it relates to the NFL is: Is there anything close to a comparable player in football?
Football clearly is a different sport, with a single player far less able to dominate the action — in-season or off-season. But quarterbacks are major difference-makers, particularly today in the most passing-friendly era in the game’s history. So from the standpoint of one player’s impact on a team’s championship potential, there’s an interesting comparison to examine. The Miami Heat made four straight NBA Finals appearances and won two championships after James so famously took his talents to South Beach. James’s next team undoubtedly will be in the NBA title mix immediately. Is there any quarterback that could have a similar effect in the NFL? Or, in other words, which quarterback needs the least help to win a title?
The answer: Aaron Rodgers.
There are close to a dozen quarterbacks in that conversation, but Rodgers is the most sensible. He is the most complete quarterbacking package in the league, a highly accurate passer from the pocket who also can use his maneuverability to compensate for any deficiencies of his offensive line. Rodgers has had some good receivers during his time in Green Bay, but otherwise the Packers teams that have surrounded him at times have been highly flawed. There have been shortcomings among his blockers, in the running game and on defense, and Rodgers usually has found a way to keep them in contending status. Case in point, when the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, they had 15 players on injured reserve. Rodgers’s talent helped overcome all of that. He’s still only 30, and some of his most productive seasons could be yet to come.
Rodgers doesn’t run for a ton of yards. He’s had more than 300 rushing yards in a season only twice in his career. And he does get sacked. He’s been sacked 50 or more times in a season twice. But he knows how to move to avoid pass rushers and create opportunities for himself and his receivers, and he’s able to deliver throws on the run and from various arm angles. He has a career completion percentage of 65.8 and in his six seasons as the starter in Green Bay, he has 187 touchdown passes while throwing 51 interceptions.
There are plenty of other candidates, including two-time Super Bowl winners Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, four-time 5,000-yard passer Drew Brees, dual threat Cam Newton and regular Pro Bowlers Philip Rivers and Tony Romo. But they don’t make the list here. It is a golden era of NFL quarterbacks, with the old guard being challenged for places in the spotlight by already accomplished newcomers. Those who deserve the most consideration after Rodgers include:
Tom Brady: His three Super Bowl triumphs might be fading memories now. But he has reached five Super Bowls with the Patriots in all, and the cast around him — particularly when it comes to his receivers — hasn’t always been overwhelming. Consider that the last two times the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2003 and 2004 their leading receivers were Deion Branch and David Givens respectively.
Peyton Manning: Yes, his Broncos were overrun by the Seahawks in last season’s Super Bowl, leaving him with only one ring on a resume that otherwise might qualify him as the greatest quarterback ever. But he still had perhaps the best passing season ever in 2013, completing 450 of 659 passes for 5,477 and 55 touchdowns. The latter two marks are both league records for a single season. Even with his remaining Super Bowl opportunities dwindling as his career winds down, his presence on the field always gives his team a passer’s chance.
Colin Kaepernick: His talent as both a passer and a runner is considerable, and he already has demonstrated a knack for getting his team deep into the postseason, losing in the NFC Championship in 2013 after a Super Bowl run in 2012. All that remains, perhaps, is finding a way to make that final big-game play that matters the most in crunch time.
Russell Wilson: He had plenty of help in taking the Seahawks to their Super Bowl win. Seattle could lean on its running game and on its memorably great defense which dominated Manning and the Broncos on the biggest stage. But Wilson is perhaps the closest among the next wave of quarterbacks to a Rodgers play-a-like. He is able to move and improvise but when he does so, it is with the primary intention of buying time to find a receiver and deliver a throw. That should make for a long and productive career as he continues to develop as an NFL passer.
Andrew Luck: He is more mobile than he is given credit for (337 rushing yards in 2013), and he made the transition from Peyton Manning relatively seamless in Indianapolis with a pair of playoff appearances following the Colts’ 2-14 campaign in 2011. He’s had an ability to craft late comebacks (such as Indy’s 38-10 rally in the 2013 AFC Wild Card clash with Kansas City) and win tight games, but Wilson beat him and fellow 2012 draft classmate Robert Griffin III to a Super Bowl victory.