The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Football might be the ultimate team sport. Increasingly, only one position matters.

Three of the remaining playoff quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. (Jason Behnken; Reed Hoffmann; Rick Osentoski/AP)
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Even without covid cases and covid tests and covid protocols and keeping track of close contacts, an NFL season is impossibly complex. Thirty-two teams with 53-man rosters and 16-man practice squads overseen by coaching staffs that are closer to two dozen than one, each personnel decision a matter of public debate. What gets broken down weekly — cover-two or cover-three, empty backfields or jumbo packages, safety blitzes or linebackers in coverage — fills nearly endless hours on talk radio and television.

And what we’re left with as the second week of the playoffs approaches are quarterbacks who, according to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Ranking (QBR), are rated first, second, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, 11th and 13th in the NFL. Not a bum among ’em.

Put another way: Of the eight remaining quarterbacks, five were taken among the first 10 picks of their drafts, including three with the first overall pick. Put another way: The remaining quarterbacks include the MVPs from the 2017, 2018 and 2020 seasons — and almost certainly the MVP from this season as well.

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Put another way: Still alive are the leader in completion percentage and yards per attempt (Joe Burrow), the leader in passing yards and touchdown passes (Tom Brady) and the player with the lowest interception percentage, the highest touchdown percentage and the top passer rating (Aaron Rodgers).

Put one more way: The NBA might be dismissed as a stars’ league in which the standard way to determine who’ll be the champ is to figure out who has LeBron, KD or Steph. But the NFL has equally specific parameters: To contend deep into the playoffs, you don’t need a Hall of Fame pass rusher or a receiver who runs the 40 in 4.3 seconds. What’s required is elite quarterback play. Turns out the ultimate team sport is distilled to a single position.

This analysis is neither head-scratching nor groundbreaking. Yet it is increasingly striking. The AFC championship game will feature either Burrow (first overall selection in the 2020 draft, 2021 leader in completion percentage and yards per attempt) or Ryan Tannehill (eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, eighth in Total QBR this season) facing either Josh Allen (seventh pick in the 2018 draft, sixth in Total QBR) or Patrick Mahomes (MVP of the 2018 season and of Super Bowl LIV, fifth in Total QBR). The NFC’s version will be either Matthew Stafford (the first overall pick in the 2009 draft) or Tom Brady (the greatest to ever do it) against Rodgers (a three-time MVP who will probably win his fourth after leading the league in Total QBR) or Jimmy Garoppolo — arguably the lone outlier.

The composite picture: The resumes sparkle. In six telling statistical categories — completions, yards, completion percentage, touchdown passes, passer rating and Total QBR — the eight remaining quarterbacks rank in the top 10 in the league 33 of a potential 48 times. It’s stark, and it makes all the weekly haranguing during the season about whether Taylor Heinicke or Kyle Allen should start in Washington or whether a healthy Sam Darnold is better than a revived Cam Newton in Carolina seem silly and frivolous. Either you have one of These Guys or you don’t, and your season bristles with potential or is severely limited because of it.

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Of course, this isn’t just a theme of the 2021 season. It is the design of the modern NFL. According to ProFootball-Reference.com, the last dozen seasons are the top 12 in league history in terms of average yards passing per game. The league protects passers in the rules so it gets passing in the product.

Thus, a trend. The conference finalists a year ago: Josh Allen, Mahomes, Brady and Rodgers. The conference finalists in 2020: Mahomes, Tannehill, Rodgers and Garoppolo. The year before that: Brady, Mahomes, Drew Brees and Jared Goff. (Poke fun at that last entry all you want, but he was talented enough to be the first pick in the 2016 draft.)

This is a rule: To advance deep in the playoffs, the quarterback must be elite. Yeah, there are exceptions — looking at you, 2018, with a final four that included Case Keenum, Blake Bortles and Nick Foles. But they’re harder and harder to come by.

This isn’t just about what makes for team success. It’s what ruins regimes. Of the dozen quarterbacks ranked 20th or lower in Total QBR this season, only one (Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger) advanced to the playoffs. Five — Denver’s Teddy Bridgewater, the New York Giants’ Daniel Jones, Houston’s Davis Mills, Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence and Chicago’s Justin Fields — played for teams that fired their coaches during or after the season. Of the teams with quarterbacks ranked 17th or higher, only one — Minnesota — dumped its coach.

Excellent quarterback play makes anything possible. Poor quarterback play costs jobs. Make the right choice at the position and solidify or enhance a legacy. Just ask Andy Reid, who traded up to the 10th slot in the 2017 draft to select Mahomes. Make the wrong choice and check the want ads. Just ask Ryan Pace, the Bears’ general manager who selected Mitchell Trubisky over Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in that same draft. Pace was fired last week.

In any NFL season, in any NFL game or drive or play, there’s more than enough to dissect. The strategy, the game plans, the choices — all can be fascinating and nuanced to the point that it’s all barely comprehensible.

Get to January, though, and what you’re left with is the league distilled to its purest form. The playoffs are about the quarterbacks. The rest is some level of window dressing, filler for the airwaves in August that makes little difference when it matters.

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