Week 2 NFL Wrap-up: Rise of the Six-Quarterback League
Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ’98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Tuesday at Construction.
NATHAN: As I was watching the 49ers-Lions game Sunday night, it was clear by about the second quarter that the 49ers were the better team. On offense, Alex Smith was perfectly adept at controlling the game’s rhythm by throwing short passes that set up screens and crafty handoffs, and the O-line easily created huge gaps that Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter could slash through for big gains and an easy score. Likewise, the 49er defense was smart and stout: the secondary covered Calvin Johnson from all angles and the D-line overpowered its opponents, ensuring that Matt Stafford had to quickly get rid of the ball and that any ball carrier was stuffed at scrimmage. For the first 58 minutes of the game, the 49ers held the Lions to just four field goals before letting up a garbage time touchdown. Final score: 49ers 27, Lions 19. Final thoughts: not nearly that close.
What struck me as I watched Smith tear into the Lions secondary, though, was how, until last season, the “Alex Smith twenty picks ahead of Aaron Rogers” mistake was quickly turning into “Todd Marinovich over Brett Favre” or “JaMarcus Russell over a bowl of clam chowder” in terms of retrospectively laughable draft decisions. Smith was a game manager, a weak-armed check-downer who just didn’t have “it,” whatever “it” is. But now, he’s quite capably helming a team that, last season, came within a few ghastly special teams mistakes of making the Super Bowl, and which this season has completely dismantled two of last year’s playoff teams. What changed?
SAM: Most likely the fact that Smith no longer seems subjected to the almost comical level of incompetence that has characterized his time in the league. He’s had seven different offensive coordinators in eight years, thrown to a host of non-descript wide receivers, watched Frank Gore’s tendons fly off his bones after every big hit, and played a large chunk of his career under Mike Singletary, probably one of the worst coaches in the history of the NFL. Now? A stronger offensive line anchored by Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, a one-two running back punch with Gore and Hunter, the best tight end in the game not named Gronkowski or Graham in Vernon Davis, and a crew of 49er wide receivers who, for the first time since Jerry Rice and John Taylor, consist of people whose names I know. Throw in the league’s best defense, and you’ve got yourself a situation where even Kordell Stewart could be an All-Pro.
[pullquote_right]How can Alex Smith pump himself up by spinning the fact that everyone has written him off as a bust?[/pullquote_right]
But what I find so interesting about Smith is how he’s managed to keep his head up and stay motivated for so long. Think about his career trajectory: he’s been booed viciously by his own fans for years . . . he agrees to take a pay cut just to stick with the team . . . he’s never able to get into any sort of offensive rhythm . . . and yet even after overcoming all that and being one muffed punt from a Super Bowl, the Niners openly court Peyton Manning during the offseason and resign Smith only once they realize they don’t have any other option. In the meantime, Smith can’t really leverage the Niners because only the Dolphins show any interest in possibly signing him (and only then after they lose out on Matt “Mr. Backup, Again” Flynn). By all accounts, Smith is one of the nicest and smartest guys in the NFL. How can he possibly pump himself up by spinning the fact that, for his entire career, everyone has openly shit on his ability to succeed and written him off as a bust?
NATHAN: As fans of a certain team (in our case, the Steelers), we are supposed to be susceptible to slights against our team, whether those slights are real or perceived. I don’t care about this stuff as much as I once did, so I’m not indignant as much as intrigued when I say the following: there is no superstar in the league whose superstardom the media is less aware of than Ben Roethlisberger. During the Steelers-Jets game, CBS flashed a graphic that said Roethlisberger has the best regular season wining percentage of any active quarterback. This is true: after Sunday’s win, he’s 81-34, which means he’s won 70.4% of the regular season games he’s started. And it’s not like he’s racked up this percentage with a small sample size. This is his ninth season; over this period, he’s started 115 of the 130 (88%) games the Steelers have played, which means on average he starts all but two games per season. Then there’s his playoff record: 10-3 (76.9%), and 2-1 in Super Bowls. In other words, since 2004 Roethlisberger has been one of the most durable and winning quarterbacks in the NFL.
And yet, my initial reaction was that this CBS graphic wasn’t true, because, according to every NFL prognosticator ever, Brees, Brady, and Rodgers are the best quarterbacks, and that’s that. You never hear Dan Dierdorf say, “You know, Greg Gumbel, it seems like every year when we talk about the premier quarterbacks in the National Football League, Drew Brees gets lost in the mix and we forget about his Super Bowl ring and how dangerous he can be when he gets that mid-range passing game going, but, man, I’ll tell ya, let’s just take a minute here to appreciate what he’s done, because is it just me, or is this guy special or WHAT! Now pass me that side of potatoes you’ve been working on.” As Steelers fans, we hear that every year, for the entire season, about Roethlisberger, minus the potatoes part. (Okay, including the potatoes part.)
[pullquote_left]I love watching football for the orgy of preening and celebrating and posturing that now happens after single play.[/pullquote_left]
Anyway, I do have a point here: if pro athletes are naturally insanely competitive, Roethlisberger must always think about stuff like this and turn it into motivation (at least in the offseason), right?. I doubt he would ever admit this, especially not during his career, and certainly not publicly, but I refuse to believe it doesn’t cross his mind and piss him off and get him through a hot day on a practice field in July. And it has to be the same case for Alex Smith: every day he’s got to be telling himself, No one knows how good I am . . . just give me some receivers . . . don’t change the philosophy on me . . . let me show them. Because if you can’t tell yourself that, then you’ll mentally collapse and become a quivering mess every time you hear the pass rush coming. In other words, you will be Blaine Gabbert.
SAM: Blaine Gabbert’s lush head of hair makes me self-conscious. Okay, time to start another week’s worth of reactionary bullshit. Point #1:
- It continues to amaze how much the media (and to be fair, the fans) make of Weeks 1 and 2, when in reality, they mean nothing. Rosters have shaken up, rookies are still learning, guys are out of shape, new coaches finally unveil their real playbooks, and yet we assume that because Team X was great last year and does well in the first two weeks, they’re automatically a juggernaut. (See Sports Illustrated’s “The Falcons looked like a Super Bowl contender” headline on the website this morning.) Remember when the Jets, Cowboys, Patriots, Bears, Ravens, and Broncos were all going undefeated? Remember how the Steelers were too old on defense, the Eagles couldn’t win with all those turnovers, Russell Wilson simply couldn’t get it done in the clutch, Buffalo had the worst team in history, Miami didn’t have a single NFL caliber player on the roster (well, I guess that’s still true), and the Cardinals got lucky? Yeah, neither do I.
NATHAN: I agree with all that, but what’s the alternative to covering sports than reactionary bullshit? As they’re packaged to American viewers, pro sports are fluff entertainment whose appeal is primarily in the passivity required to partake and the argumentation that follows the viewers’ participation. One of the reasons I love writing about the NFL is because there’s so much crap to discuss, some kind of highbrow, most exceedingly lowbrow, and yet everything feels so important, since we’ve made sure that it is. And one of the reasons I love watching football is because of the orgy of preening and celebrating and ultra-serious pep talks and too-intense-for-their-own-good posturing that now happens after single play (Ray Lewis and Takeo Spikes are among my favorites). If I’m watching the NFL with a friend, I spend much of the time laughing at this stuff. If I’m watching alone, I spend much of the time wishing I were watching with a friend so we’d be able to laugh at this stuff. If you’re in on the joke, there’s nothing funnier on TV.
[pullquote_right]Sanchez and Cutler seem to lack that otherworldly competitive/talent edge that pushes them into the upper stratosphere of quarterbacking.[/pullquote_right]
SAM: Point #2:
- Back to the Cardinals for a second. There’s definitely no NFL team unit saltier than the Cardinals defense. These guys are STUDS: Patrick Peterson is looking more and more like the next Nnamdi, Calais Campbell is an NBA power forward who happens to play defensive end, and Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson are both incredible. And yet, they have to go out and kick ass every week knowing that some hideous combination of John Skelton and Kevin Kolb is going to sail passes ten feet over a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald, while Beanie Wells averages two yards and three fumbles per carry. Must be maddening.
NATHAN: This reminds me of the time in 1999 when I told Construction political writer Ben Hoffman that I felt bad for Jason Kendall because Kendall was the only decent player on the Pirates, to which Ben responded, incredulously, “You feel bad for Jason Kendall? He makes $10 million a year to play baseball and surf.” I stopped following baseball shortly thereafter.
SAM: Point #3:
- Jay Cutler reminds me of the drunk guy who worked the door at frat parties in college and would let eleven girls in at once and then tell me that the party was full, bro, before letting in another dozen girls.
NATHAN: Jay Cutler is that guy. If Jay Cutler is reading this, do you think he’s nodding his head and thinking, “I’m definitely that guy?”
Anyway, re: Cutler: I had Bill Barnwell’s “Everyone will re-label Cutler until he wins a Super Bowl and everyone is wrong” column in mind this week while watching Mark Sanchez implode against the Steelers. Basically, my thoughts were that Sanchez and Cutler are similar in that, thus far in their careers, they both seem to lack that otherworldly competitive/talent edge that pushes them into the upper stratosphere of quarterbacking. I know that winning a football game is so dependent on defense and special teams and coaching and luck and thousands of variables, but it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of Super Bowls are won only by great quarterbacks. Great teams are built around potentially great quarterbacks, and eventually, overyone’s career, there will be opportunities to make plays that get you to the final game. You either find a way to make them work, or you don’t. Maybe Cutler or Sanchez will develop into a Super Bowl winner, but do they have that bizarre “it” factor that everyone always talks about? Does Alex Smith?
Brady has perfect mechanics that become unstoppable once he has momentum; Roethlisberger extends the play better than anyone maybe ever; Peyton Manning understands the position better than anyone maybe ever; Eli Manning never gets nervous and isn’t afraid to make a mistake; Rodgers, in the words of Ross Tucker, “throws like Marino, runs like Young”; and Brees can score in two plays any time he wants. These six QBs have won the last nine Super Bowls. If you add Kurt Warner to the mix (arguably the best timing QB ever), then you have a group of seven QBs that have won 11 of the last 13 Super Bowls. That’s pretty elite.
And if they’re winning all those Super Bowls, they must be playing opposite truly overmatched QBs, right? Well, not exactly. Aside from the occasional panic-stricken Rex Grossman or Donovan McNabb, these quarterbacks are beating on each other: Brady, Warner, Roethlisberger, and Manning have lost a combined six Super Bowls. Framed in a different way, this means that, of the 26 QBs that have started the last 13 Super Bowls, 17 of them (65%) come from that same pool of seven players. Yes, the NFL is a quarterback’s league. Really, though, it’s a Six-Quarterback league (seeing as how Warner’s retired).
I think the thing that makes people label and re-label Cutler (or Sanchez) every week is that, deep down, people can sense when a quarterback is so incredibly good . . . but yet is somehow not good enough. That—and, of course, the fact that he looks like the guy who guards the door at the frat party you aren’t allowed into.
SAM: The problem with that analysis is that Mark Sanchez just isn’t good.
NATHAN: Which is the real problem afflicting Jets fans. Deep down, they know that Sanchez can’t take the step into the 6-QB club because he’s not actually “so incredibly good.” He’s just above average.
Anyway, you know which QB I think is the best candidate the join the club? Flacco. He used to be the guy I knew would implode late in the season or in the playoffs. But every year he looks more comfortable, and every year he increases his “throw repertoire.” (When Flacco leads the Ravens to a Super Bowl win and we add him to the 7-QB club, that can be his thing: has as good a “throw repertoire” as anyone in history.) Remember, the Ravens didn’t lose the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game because of Flacco; he threw a beautiful and certain game-winning touchdown into Lee Evans’s hands, and Evans dropped the ball. Can Flacco lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl this year? I say yes, but it’s only Week 2.