Their names are household names even in households that don’t know a split end from, well, a split end (follically speaking). Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes, Eli Manning, and Peyton Manning do not pitch sandwiches, insurance, hot sauce, Buicks, and shampoo, among a cavalcade of other products, for a living. Their day jobs are, or were, in the cases of Brady, Brees, and the Mannings, playing quarterback on a football team, but they are as famous as any chatty nocturnal reptile or well-dressed flightless bird that barges into your TV room on an hourly basis.
The fact is, it’s impossible to win in the NFL without a great quarterback. And while it is true that the Cincinnati Bengals team is meeting the Los Angeles Rams team in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday, the game may come down to which team’s quarterback plays better, Joe Burrow or Matthew Stafford.
Of the eight teams to advance to the second round of this year’s NFL playoffs, seven were helmed by a superstar in the backfield. The one that wasn’t, Tennessee, got knocked out pronto, in its first game, thanks to three interceptions thrown by its quarterback. So quarterback-centric is the game now that teams will pull every punch to get a good one, including trading away their futures for a shot at one in a trade or the college draft. Without a stellar quarterback, your football team is spending January watching other teams play football.
It was not always so. In the not-too-distant past, teams could win championships with only average or above-average quarterback play. One thinks of the dynastic Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. Bart Starr was an exemplary leader but hardly an elite passer by today’s standards. Joe Kapp led the 1969 Minnesota Vikings to a Super Bowl appearance, and he didn’t seem capable of throwing a 20-yard pass (or, at least, a 20-yard spiral). The quarterback guiding the 1965 Baltimore Colts in a playoff game was a halfback, Tom Matte, who was subbing for the great Johnny Unitas but, more memorably, was the first player to wear a list of plays strapped to his wrist, now de rigueur among signal callers.
Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow are not high on the all-time lists … yet. But they are top signal callers in today’s game.
And in more recent times, the defensive juggernaut 2000 Baltimore Ravens claimed a Super Bowl title without exemplary quarterback play, and the Philadelphia Eagles were led to victory in Super Bowl LII by a backup quarterback. But these are exceptions that prove the rule. Of the past 20 Super Bowl winners, only four were guided by a good-not-great signal caller.
Every play of every football game, apart from punts and place kicks and kickoffs, begins with the ball in a quarterback’s hands. Sometimes he hands off the ball or runs with it, but the majority of the time it is spinning from his throwing hand, intended for a receiver. All NFL teams save the Philadelphia Eagles, who ran the ball 51.2 percent of the time, passed more than they ran in 2021. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tom Brady presiding, threw it a league-high 66.2 percent of the time this past season. Pro football is a passing game now, and the quarterback’s accuracy likely determines how well his team fares. If he’s on target, his team probably wins. If he’s off target — either missing receivers or throwing it to the other team — the team’s chances of winning plummet.
His mental workload is prodigious. He must read complex defensive schemes in an instant and anticipate blitzes. He must know every one of his teammates’ duties on every play. He must flip mentally through his progressions before he throws, and he dare not hone in on his receiver lest a defender read his eyes and intercept the ball. He’s frequently required to throw the ball into tight windows, and most of the time he’s not even throwing to a receiver but to an open space on the field where he thinks the receiver is going. All this with multiple 300-pounders carrying evil intent bearing down on him.
In recent years, some quarterbacks have taken on more duties. These are the pre-snap maestros, the Bradys and Rodgerses. Who can forget the pre-play orchestration of Peyton Manning — bouncing around the backfield before the snap, altering linemen blocking assignments with a call, pointing out a linebacker for special attention, reading defenses and calling audibles, motioning with his hands a man in motion, rapidly calling out signals and decoy signals (“Omaha, Omaha,” whatever that meant)?
It is almost inarguable: the quarterback is the most important player in any team sport. A starting pitcher is important, and if he has his “stuff,” he will win a baseball team a game more times than not. But he plays one game out of five, maybe 30 a year, in a 162-game schedule. The goalie on a soccer or hockey team is important, but he doesn’t exert the amount of control on a game in his sport that a quarterback does on a football game.
It has been in the last 25 years that the quarterback position has become what it currently is.
What has changed? To put a point on it: the game of football has changed. Myriad rule changes in the past couple of decades have benefited offensive football, and more specifically, passing the football. From the legalization of intentional grounding when outside the pocket in 1993, to penalizing not only late hits on the quarterback but even hard hits on him in 1995 and 2006, to clamping down on hard hits against “defenseless” receivers or tightening defensive pass interference rules in 2009, nearly every rule change in the past three decades has benefited the passing game.
Defensive tough guys of yore would not last long in today’s game. Ronnie Lott, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Steve Atwater — or scroll back to legends like Dick Butkus and Jack Ham and Chuck Bednarik — would be ejected in the first quarter of a modern NFL game. Piling on seemed okay back in the day; as did hitting quarterbacks long after the ball had left their hands; as did tackling hard on the sidelines, even out of bounds on occasion. Quarterbacks who gave themselves up via a baseball slide would be stripped of their man card before they got back to the huddle. And passers so unlucky (or inept) as to throw an interception would become immediate targets of heat-seeking defenders intent on knocking them out of the game.
Now, none of that. Helmet-to-helmet contact is strictly prohibited. Any hit even near the sideline is penalized, it seems. And quarterbacks are especially protected — no hitting high (at the helmet) or low (below the knees). Simply brush his helmet with your hand, even inadvertently, and it’s 15 yards.
Obviously, safety plays a big part in the clamping down on contact. The NFL, looking at years of multimillion-dollar lawsuits for concussions, wants to protect the golden goose. And tightening the contact rules is the way they’re doing it.
But in addition to that, offense sells. The suits in the NFL home office cannot be blind to how entertaining this version of football is, with scores in the 30s and 40s, with three-play 80-yard drives almost a matter of course (see the last two minutes of this year’s Chiefs–Bills playoff game). Like the three-point shot in basketball and the home run in baseball, vibrant, high-powered offense puts fannies in the seats. And the player that makes that offense happen is the quarterback.
And make no mistake, the offenses have become high-powered these days. The basketball-on-grass St. Louis Rams of the late 1990s, the “greatest show on turf,” would be just another roadside attraction in today’s NFL. A quarterback passing for 300 yards in a game is now ho-hum — 2021 boasted 112 such games, while as recently as 2000 only 67 300-yard passing games were tallied. Burrow threw for 525 in one game this season. Nine of the top 15 single-game passing stats have been achieved since 2000. Career passing stats underline the change in the game: of the top 15 passers in career yards, 12 played since 2000. Hanging on to their spots at 7 and 11 are “ancient” gunners John Elway and Dan Marino, who retired in 1998 and 2000, respectively; Fran Tarkenton, a grand old man of the game (retired 1978), slips in at No. 14; everybody else played in the new century. The point: the game has become pass-happy.
As for Super Bowl LVI’s principals, Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow are not high on the all-time lists … yet. But they are top signal callers in today’s game. Both are strong-armed men who sling it around the field with authority but can also run with it if required. One is an accomplished star consigned to a bad team for a dozen years only to be given fresh life on a new squad; the other is in his second season. Their stats are comparable, though: Stafford completed 67.2 percent of his passes and threw 41 touchdowns against 17 interceptions, boasting a quarterback rating of 102.9 for the 2021 season. Burrow completed 70.4 percent, threw 34 TDs against 14 picks, and notched a rating of 108.3.
Both quarterbacks have faced adversity. Burrow rode the bench at Ohio State until he transferred to LSU and won a national championship; his rookie year in the NFL was halted by a torn ACL. Stafford, for his part, helmed the Detroit Lions for 12 years. Both seem like grounded men and present to the media likable personalities. Stafford has more stars surrounding him; Burrow’s team has more grit.
When the scoreboard clock at SoFi Stadium hits 0:00 on Sunday night, look for Joe Burrow to be torching up a stogie.