An analysis of what makes a quarterback ‘elite’


By Imaz Athar / Staff Writer

Turn on ESPN, or any similar sports channel, and you’ll hear an NFL analyst say it: “You need an elite quarterback to succeed in the National Football League.”

Upon hearing it, you’ll nod your head, and you’ll say to yourself, “Yeah, that makes sense. You do need an elite quarterback to win games.”

But what does elite really mean anyway?

We hear the word so often that it almost becomes meaningless. Is “elite” just some word that talking heads throw around when describing a quarterback who is statistically exceptional? What about a quarterback who is just average, but leads his team deep into the playoffs – is he elite? Or one who does the opposite, performing in the regular season — but choking in the playoffs?

It seems like we use the word to separate groups of quarterbacks, or maybe “elite” is just a word we throw after a hashtag when we tweet our latest hot sports take.

This past weekend’s playoff games didn’t clear up what the magic word means. Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers beat the Arizona Cardinals — a team with a stingy defense from the powerhouse NFC West.Newton led his team to a 12-4 record and a playoff berth last year, and he won a playoff game against a well-coached team with a better record.

But Newton doesn’t throw for 4,000 yards every season like a lot of other quarterbacks, and he doesn’t have the “poise” in the pocket or the “body language” of a great quarterback. So, is Newton elite?

Who knows.

Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger faced off on Saturday night. Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens gained the upper hand, and Flacco has thrown 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last five playoff games. Even though Flacco is so “clutch” in playoff games, according to his coach, John Harbaugh, and sports analysts, he hasn’t thrown for 4,000 yards once in the regular season, and he doesn’t have pinpoint accuracy. Flacco had a completion percentage under 60 in three of the last four seasons.

Big Ben has also played tremendously in playoff games, and he has won two Super Bowls. But the Pittsburgh Steelers have only been to the playoffs twice since 2010 and he hasn’t played well at all in those games. But he has had some of the best statistical regular seasons of his career. Are Flacco and Big Ben — two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks — elite?

I guess it depends on what you mean.

Two young quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton, faced off on Sunday. Luck and the Indianapolis Colts beat the Cincinnati Bengals pretty handily. Luck has been in the NFL for three years — each year, the Colts have won 11 games and they’ve gone to the playoffs. But it might be a bit too early to call Luck “elite.” He makes bad decisions on the field at times, and he hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet.

The same can be said for Dalton. He’s been to the playoffs every year since he’s been in the league. Like Luck, he knows how to win football games. But — also like Luck — he hasn’t won a Super Bowl. You wouldn’t trust him to win a game in the final two minutes, as has been documented by his late-game struggles the past couple seasons. Are either of these winning quarterbacks elite? Maybe.

Now consider Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford. Romo and the Dallas Cowboys finally won a playoff game on Sunday after years of disappointment. Romo consistently throws for around 4,000 yards and 30-plus touchdowns every regular season. He shows poise in the pocket, but he isn’t afraid to get out and make a big play down the field. The same can be said for Stafford. He’s thrown for more than 4,000 yards every year since since 2011, including 5,038 yards in 2011, and he throws a lot of touchdowns – statistically, he’s great. But, it doesn’t always look like either Romo or Stafford has the “clutch gene.” Both have turned the ball over in crucial moments with their team’s season on the line.

So, are Romo and Stafford elite, even with their regular season success?

I don’t know. My head hurts.

Trying to explain whether someone is elite becomes a convoluted mess full of second-guessing, contradictions and platitudes. We can bend the narrative however we want, so much that labeling a quarterback as “elite” becomes arbitrary. Yet, we still hear it all the time from analysts — you need an elite quarterback to win football games.

We’ll hear it again when pundits argue whether a team should draft Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, two college quarterbacks expected to enter the upcoming NFL draft. One puts up huge numbers, while the other has won a national championship.

Who’s elite? Both? Well, then who’s the most elite? Whether it’s in a debate with your friends or a hot sports take, you can argue over it as much as you want, but either one can be as #elite as we want them to. The word can mean whatever you want to, if you use the right statistics and arguments.

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