Fear not. As enjoyable as it might be for me to write about, I’m not going to bore you with a history lesson. Even if I would love to discuss the War of 1812 and the famous (and incredibly bizarre) storm and tornado that saved D.C, I won’t be doing it. No discussion of the Star Spangled Banner creation. No retelling of Samuel Woodworth’s Hunters of Kentucky poem about the Battle of New Orleans. Believe me, I’ve learned my lesson from seeing enough eyes glaze over when I start talking about some historical event.
Nope, this one’s about football. We’re just a few days away from the NFL’s Conference Championships. On its surface, obviously a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line. Can it get more dramatic than that? It sure can. Future Hall of Famers #18 and #12 are playing in what is likely to be their final rivalry game on Sunday afternoon.
Manning is 39 years old years old and Brady is 38, making them both long in the tooth by NFL standards. Play-by-play announcers blindly tack on “past his prime” when they talk about 30+ year old players. And with the way teams discard most players over the age of 32, I’m surprised there isn’t a clause somewhere in the contract which requires them to take trading card pictures with a walker or stair lift.
Age aside, Manning has endured a slew of injuries that have sidelined him for significant periods of time over the last several seasons. His contract is up soon and might not be renewed to boot. Brady has previously stated that he hopes to play well into his 40’s, though time will tell if he can make it that far.
The inundation of articles on Manning vs Brady has already begun. And let me stop you right there. I’m very aware that this post adds to the pile…thank you for pointing that out. But I’m hoping to take this in a bit of a different direction than most of the ones I’ve come across so far, so bear with me.
Anyway, on top of all of the pregame articles, this particular rivalry will be one of the primary topics discussed by commentators during the game.
It will probably be talked about ad nauseam over the next few post-game weeks, if not all of the off season.
Now, just a bit under the surface of this game is the significance of why a battle of these elite quarterbacks is so noteworthy. This will be the 17th time that the two have faced each other in just over a decade. Brady currently has an 11-5 advantage over Manning, but they are 2-2 in their playoff meetings, with the home team winning each time. This game will serve as the de facto rubber match of their postseason match-ups.
Their ability to analyze and dissect a defense in order to put their teams in the best situation possible is pretty much unrivaled. The pair have dominated the NFL for much of their careers and have jockeyed for AFC dominance so frequently that they have absolutely reshaped the AFC landscape. I mean, just look:
The quarterback position is arguably the most important position on the team; a position that has steadily increased its importance on the field year after year. Sure, it has helped that the NFL works in rules that solely benefit offenses. That said, it’s interesting to observe when a team loses their running back (like Jamaal Charles for the Chiefs or Le’Veon Bell for the Steelers) or #1 wide receiver (like Kelvin Benjamin for the Panthers), they can still win and do well in the postseason. However, the QB position is of such significance that when a team loses their QB, the season is all but done for.
In the history of the NFL, seven backup quarterbacks have led their teams to a Super Bowl victory. That success rate doesn’t sound too terrible at face value…until you look closer at the four of them and their multiple Super Bowl winning careers.
- Terry Bradshaw became the full-time starter for the Steelers in week 7 of the 1974 season. From there, Bradshaw led the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in six years.
- Tom Brady replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe early in the 2001 season. Seeing that he’s a significant subject in this post, do I really need to go on about the four Super Bowls he’s already won?
- Roger Staubach took over the starting job in 1971 after a struggling Craig Morton was benched. As it just so happened, Staubach led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl four times as the starting QB, winning two.
- Jim Plunkett replaced Dan Pastorini almost halfway through Oakland’s season in 1980. He ended up helping the Raiders win two Super Bowls.
- Kurt Warner was backing up Trent Green. But in 1999, Green tore his ACL and Warner commanded what became known as the Greatest Show on Turf, culminating in the Rams’ victory over the Titans in the infamous “1 yard short” final play.
- Trent Dilfer replaced Tony Banks in 2000 midway through the season, and went on a 7-1 run to finish the season. Helped generously by a dominating Ravens defense, the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV.
- Jeff Hostetler came off the bench in 1990 for the Giants after Phil Simms broke his foot. Funny enough, he had previously claimed during the year that he would be retiring after the season because of the lack of playing time he was receiving. He led the Giants to wins over the Montana-led 49ers in the NFC Championship and the favored Bills in the Super Bowl.
When you dig way, way down into the significance of the Manning-Brady match-up, this game heralds the potential end to the golden age of quarterbacks.
The NFL has seen some elite quarterbacks since the 1950’s. But it was the mid 80’s/90’s that truly ushered in the era of the quarterback. Arguably, Brett Favre served as the bridge to the current generation of elite QB’s. The following chart can better illustrate how much has changed over the course of the NFL’s history.
A few points to take note of in comparing the 80’s/90’s quarterbacks with this golden age:
- Average completion percentage increased from 60.64% to 64.19%
- Average yards per quarterback has jumped by nearly 1,000 yards per passer…and the elites of this era are still building on that.
- Passer rating has exploded from 85.73 to 94.86.
- Super Bowl wins from the 80’s/90’s elite QB’s was 11, compared to the current 12. But again, the current elite QB’s can still build on that.
Obviously Aaron Rodgers has the most potential number of games left of all the current golden age quarterbacks. It also isn’t hard to recognize that he’ll be headed to the Hall of Fame after his career. He’s about as calm and collected as one can be in the most stressful of situations, and he’s pretty much the definition of clutch. Though the lack of a consistent running game and an often porous offensive line may ultimately hamper the number of Super Bowl victories he can obtain. But at age 32, he’s starting to head into the tail end of his career.
I believe we’re now at a crossroads, on the cusp of a new generation. There are some contenders to enter elite status. The first is Russell Wilson. At age 26, he already has a Super Bowl ring. He’s a smart, highly athletic player. But he spends a lot of his time running around to avoid sacks while he hopes for a receiver to pop open. Wilson’s success is also heavily dependent on the performance of his defense. He has led his team to victory only one time in 13 games when the Seahawks defense gives up more than 24 points. The lone victory came in week 12 this season as part of a against the Antonio Brown-less Steelers, when Ben Roethlisberger left the game in the 4th quarter after sustaining a concussion.
Maybe Andrew Luck will live up to his potential if he gets a semi-decent offensive line in front of him. His career was trending upwards until this season, when skittish pocket performance and forcing the ball led to a disastrous season.
Cam Newton is having a tremendous year, and could still live up to the potential of being great. If the rest of his career fails to keep this season’s momentum, I don’t think he’ll hit elite status.
Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, and (surprisingly) Kirk Cousins have shown impressive stats recently. But they’re just staring out and their future is uncertain.
Of the primary candidates to enter into elite status, here’s how their stats look.
The potential is there, but they have a long way to go. What strikes me most significantly is the lack of potential heirs to inherit the mantle of being elite. And that is what currently signifies (at least to me), that we’ve hit the peak of quarterback play.
Ultimately, whatever your take on the Manning vs Brady game is, and even if you just casually watch the game, hopefully you can come to appreciate witnessing the end of a truly remarkable era of elite quarterbacks.