Everybody loves rankings. They are a simple way to present information in a logical and easily-digestible fashion. They give rise to snap comparisons. And most importantly, they allow the fans of higher-ranked teams to stick their tongues out and make rude gestures in the direction of the fans of lower-ranked teams.
All in all, a pretty good deal.
But with the popularity of rankings, sometimes things get ranked just for the sake of saying they've been ranked. Such is the case with Gregg Rosenthal's list of the top ten quarterbacks 25-years-old or younger on NFL.com. For the most part, NFL quarterbacks take a few years to become acclimated to the pro game. Post-season success is more of an unexpected bonus than a commonplace occurrence for young quarterbacks and some rookies can catch teams off guard, while other second-year players can suffer sophomore slumps. Basically, a quarterback's first couple of seasons are a grab bag, and consistent trends aren't immediately obvious.
Put another way, for every Joe Flacco--a middling quarterback who suddenly turned it on at the end of his fifth season--there is a Vince Young--a record-setting rookie sensation who rapidly fell out of relevancy--and it's impossible to know which is which until they have a larger body of work.
Which leads us back to Rosenthal's ranking, which places current Bengals starter Andy Dalton at number nine on his list of the top ten quarterbacks 25-years-old or younger. So what does Rosenthal have to say about Dalton? Frankly, nothing that hasn't been said before.
Competent starting quarterback. Check. Struggles with the deep ball. Check. Solid diagnosing skills. Check. Difficulties under pressure. Check. Confident. Check. Shrinks in big games. Check. All the buzzwords and usual analysis are there. But amongst the white noise of the hashed over discussion, another common refrain also emerges.
At the end of the day, we have no idea what kind of quarterback Dalton will end up being.
And that's because he's only been in the league for two years. Dalton isn't some first-rounder with all the physical tools you could ever want. He's a day-two guy. A player who will occasionally struggle. Who might take some time to work all the kinks out. Are there areas of concern? Absolutely. But are there also areas for optimism? You bet.
It's funny how Rosenthal breaks out the stat that "Dalton averaged just 5.58 yards per attempt in his last six starts" with zero context (conveniently, the six games directly after Sanu was lost with a foot injury, one of which was also a meaningless week 17 tilt with Baltimore's second-string), while also ignoring Dalton's historic start to his career. I've said it before, but when it comes to Dalton, it seems that many analysts dismiss the possibility of further development. As though his brain and body will stop improving in the gap between years two and three.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh on Rosenthal--who truly does raise some good points about Dalton's struggles--but the kind of knee-jerk reactions that his ranking gives rise to are based more in conjecture than actual fact. Sure, Dalton has two full seasons of tape out there to judge, but his receiving corp has been a revolving door outside of A.J. Green and Cincinnati's running game has hardly been a model of consistency.
Dalton's first two years might provide a rough outline for the rest of his career, but his 2013 season will be the true litmus test for his development as an NFL quarterback. Until we have more data, any rankings, projections, or proclamations are just empty words. The only true indication of a player's career trajectory is a substantial body of work accumulated over time. And time is something that Dalton has never enjoyed an abundance of after entering the league during 2011's strike shortened offseason. Until now.
Rome wasn't built in a day and NFL quarterbacks don't arrive Super Bowl-ready. They have to be built up, subjected to the pro game, and forced to adapt. Maybe at the end of 2013's season we will have a better picture of where Dalton can lead the franchise. But for now, he's just a third-year player with back-to-back playoff appearances under his belt and room to grow.
And I'll take that any day of the week.