Not even five years ago, the NFL appeared to be in a quarterback crisis. Decrying the dearth of quality signal callers had become common practice by those inside the league and those who observe it. Playing quarterback had become so mentally complex and so physically demanding that NFL teams couldn’t find 32 guys who could do it. Most years, when the playoffs rolled around, it felt like they couldn’t even find 12, or at least 12 they could keep healthy.
As this season’s playoffs approach, it’s clear that either that crisis was overblown or it has been rapidly fixed. NFL quarterbacking is in a healthy place. If the season didn’t convince you, the postseason will.
Even with Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan — all of them either former Super Bowl participants, MVPs or both — watching at home, the NFL playoffs will be a quarterbacking feast. There are no weak links, or at least no non-compelling links. There are Hall of Famers and thrilling newcomers and Super Bowl heroes. It’s likely that no playoff games will take place without a great quarterback or a quarterback who has accomplished something great.
This is a rare treat. On a nearly annual basis, goofy stuff happens and terrible quarterbacks end up playing in the most anticipated, most watched football games of the year.
Last year, Blake Bortles beat Tyrod Taylor in an opening-round game. (Heck, Nick Foles — before the whole Super Bowl MVP thing — faced Case Keenum in a conference championship game.) Two years ago, Connor Cook squared off against Brock Osweiler in one of those games that’s played Saturday afternoon because Friday morning isn’t available. In 2015, Brian Hoyer got shut out at home for the Texans. The year before, injuries forced Ryan Lindley into a game for the Cardinals at a Carolina Panthers team that won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record.
This year, all 12 quarterbacks are either excellent or otherwise interesting — players you want to watch. The AFC is particularly loaded, but there are no slouches in the NFC field, either. Here’s a look, game by game:
Ravens vs. Chargers: Lamar Jackson is a current of electricity, and the thrills he provides outstrip his fumbling issues and passing limitations. Philip Rivers is a future Hall of Famer who may have just had his best season.
Texans vs. Colts: Deshaun Watson rebounded from a shredded knee to reclaim his place as one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. Andrew Luck rebounded from a battered shoulder to reclaim his place as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, period.
Chiefs and Patriots: Patrick Mahomes was the greatest quarterback in the NFL this season, and Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
Cowboys vs. Seahawks: Dak Prescott probably had the least impressive season of any playoff quarterback, but he’s two years removed from a 13-win rookie season. Russell Wilson is one of the five most valuable players in the NFL and a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
Bears vs. Eagles: Mitchell Trubisky is one of the NFL’s best running quarterbacks and progressed as a passer in Matt Nagy’s offense. Foles is the reigning Super Bowl MVP and led the Eagles on an improbable run just to make the playoffs.
Rams and Saints: Jared Goff may seem like the shakiest of the bunch because of how he played in December, but he finished fourth in passing yards. Drew Brees was probably the best player in the NFC and set the career passing yardage record this year.
In a couple of seasons, some of those young quarterbacks may turn out to be clunkers. As it stands now, from an entertainment standpoint, there are no Osweilers or Lindleys in the bunch.
How did we get here? It’s a combination of NFL-engineered health and overdue innovation. Enough smart coaches figured out how to maximize the skills of the best college quarterbacks, mostly by borrowing and building on concepts from the college game. Rule changes continued to protect all quarterbacks, allowing new stars to stay healthy and prolonging the careers of the best from a prior generation.
Those factors combine to make it easier to play quarterback, and the result is a better product. It will be on display in these playoffs, and it should be a lot of fun to watch.
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