As NFL passing numbers have become ever more dizzying, the notion that a team can win the Super Bowl with anything less than a standout quarterback is becoming increasingly far-fetched.
This weekend’s second round of the NFL playoffs offers nothing but stars among the eight quarterbacks, and the days when a team’s defense can carry an unheralded quarterback to a Super Bowl title, as the Baltimore Ravens did with Trent Dilfer 13 years ago, seem to be a rapidly fading memory.
“It’s happened in the past like that,” former NFL coach Dan Reeves said this week. “I still think there’s room for a quarterback like that, and you can be successful that way. But it sure helps to have a guy like these guys who are left.”
This weekend’s games feature quarterback matchups of Drew Brees of New Orleans against Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck of Indianapolis vs. New England’s Tom Brady on Saturday, then San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick vs. Carolina’s Cam Newton and San Diego’s Philip Rivers against Denver’s Peyton Manning on Sunday.
All eight were among the league’s 18 highest-rated passers this season; five were in the top 10. All were in the top 20 in passing yards and in the top 17 in touchdown passes.
It’s old guard vs. fresh faces in two of the games. Luck, in his second NFL season, secured his first career playoff victory in the Colts’ miraculous comeback from a four-touchdown deficit last weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs. Now he faces Brady, a three-time Super Bowl winner. Wilson, another product of the 2012 draft, squares off with Brees in Seattle.
“He has definitely set the standard for success at the quarterback position,” Luck said of Brady in a conference call this week. “The way he handles himself, watching from afar, the competitive nature and basically all the right things he does — yeah, I guess he is a barometer and he is the standard.”
Three of the quarterbacks playing this weekend — Manning, Newton and Luck — are former No. 1 overall selections. A fourth, Rivers, was traded for top pick Eli Manning on draft day. But the other four were passed over in the opening round. Brees and Kaepernick were second-round choices. Wilson was taken in the third round, and Brady famously lasted until the sixth round. Two, Peyton Manning and Brees, are with their second NFL teams. The Colts released Manning after a series of neck surgeries and drafted Luck to replace him, and the Chargers let Brees exit for the Saints via free agency and turned the position over to Rivers.
“It’s not an exact science,” Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said. “It’s really hard to scout the position. You’ve seen so many first-round busts, so many late-round sensations. Some guys need to be developed. Tom Brady wasn’t ready to play when he first came into the league.”
Good luck is part of the equation, according to Reeves.
“You’ve got to be fortunate sometimes,” Reeves said. “If [Patriots Coach] Bill Belichick knew how good Tom Brady was gonna be, I don’t think he’d have waited until the sixth round to take him. I remember we looked at Drew Brees the same year we took [2001 top overall pick Michael] Vick and we wondered about his height and mobility. A lot of people did. How wrong could you be?”
Newton, Kaepernick and Wilson are among the sport’s recent wave of dual-threat quarterbacks who can run with the ball as well as throw it.
“It’s interesting to me that all four in the AFC are drop-back, stay-in-the-pocket guys,” Reeves said. “In the NFC, three of the four are guys who can get out of the pocket and run. You could definitely end up with two different styles in the Super Bowl. . . . In the Green Bay game [last weekend won by the 49ers], it came down to Kaepernick making that big run at the end. You still have Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady. They can still get the job done. But those pocket guys need the running game to help them. The other guys can run the ball themselves.”
Wilson, in only his second season, was the league’s seventh-rated passer, and third-year pro Kaepernick was 10th. Newton, also in his third season, ranked in the upper half of the league in passer rating, passing yards and touchdown passes.
“These guys are having success because they can throw the ball from the pocket,” Moon said. “It’s not all they can do. But they can do it. They can throw from the pocket. They can move around in the pocket. And they can move out of the pocket and run with the ball. As they get older, that part will become more of just moving around in the pocket. That’s what I did. These guys will develop that over the course of their career.”
So the sport is ensured of having high-profile quarterback matchups for the remainder of the postseason, including on Super Bowl Sunday. The league’s last 10 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have included Brady (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Eli Manning (twice), Peyton Manning, Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco. Eli Manning and Flacco have not always played like elite quarterbacks during the regular season, but they managed to elevate their postseason performances to that level during their teams’ Super Bowl runs.
Reeves said it could come down to which quarterback is given the most help.
“It’s always been that you needed a productive quarterback to get into the playoffs and go far in the playoffs, [but] defense is still important,” Reeves said. “Peyton Manning will only get as far as his defense helps him get. You’ve got to have a quarterback. But I don’t think there’s a bad defensive team left in the playoffs either.”