All too often, those in the media are quick to pull the trigger on labeling someone as "elite" or a "franchise player". This is most prevalent when talking about NFL quarterbacks. There was a time when no more than three or four quarterbacks at a time were called "elite", with just a handful more carrying the "franchise" designation.
Nowadays (as if the previously-referenced era was so long ago), every quarterback drafted within the first ten spots of the draft is labeled as a "franchise player". It's not a crazy train of thought, given that the teams drafting that player obviously feel that way. The problem is that the player carries a heavy tag when he hasn't even played a down of football in the pros.
When using the term elite, many feel that the media has been too liberal with the use of that adjective. Depending on who you ask, there could be around a dozen "elite quarterbacks" in the league per generation, with others beyond that still carrying that "franchise quarterback" tag. Yes, there is a difference and yes, many feel that Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton isn't in either one of those categories.
Though both had their outstanding moments last year, some people are reluctant to call the Ravens' Joe Flacco, or the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick "elite". Kaepernick has a small sample size of work to review and Flacco has had many ups and downs in his career. Still, both had outstanding postseasons last year and since they led their respective teams to the Super Bowl, they are automatically "elite". Are they, though?
I began to sift through various barriers and benchmarks that would label a quarterback "elite" or "franchise" material. What makes a quarterback one of the best in the league? By what standards place them atop the heap? I've come up with a few standards of my own, when calling a quarterback "elite". If they meet some, most, or all of these standards, I would put them in the discussion.
Here are my criteria:
1.) The quarterback has the ability to lead his team to at least ten wins per year. Very few NFL quarterbacks fall into this category. In fact, there are about four that come to the top of my mind: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Certain guys like Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger knock on this door as well. Even Dalton, in his short career, has been in this neighborhood.
The reason that I set the standard at ten wins is because that amount almost always gets a team into the playoffs. A quarterback at the helm of a team that averages double-digit wins every year has them consistently in the hunt for The Lombardi Trophy.
2.) Take the quarterback off of the team and they are a four-win squad. Sometimes a quarterback is the product of surrounding talent. Many use that argument when slamming Dalton's abilities and I can understand that point of view. Heck, even a Brady-less Patriots team back in 2008 had 11 wins.
No more does this standard ring true than with the last three years of the Indianapolis Colts. In 2010, the Colts had ten wins and were a playoff squad under Peyton Manning. Under his leadership from 1998-2010, the Colts finished under double-digit wins just twice--once in his rookie season and another time in 2001. That's 11 out of 13 seasons that the Colts and Manning had ten or more wins.
In 2011, Manning was unable to play because of lingering neck issues and the team won two games. They were an embarrassment and decided that they needed another "franchise quarterback". In his rookie season, Andrew Luck led the Colts to an 11-5 season, What a difference a No.1 overall quarterback makes.
3.) Has shown the ability to win on the road with some consistency. This is a biggie for me and is often overlooked by many people, it seems. The best quarterbacks have the ability to get things done away from the comfort of home--especially ones that play in a dome. This has been a major knock on Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan over the years--particularly in the playoffs.
Did you know that 11 of the 19 Bengals wins under Dalton have been on the road? That stat should be pretty impressive--particularly for a quarterback who has to play the AFC North bullies in his first two seasons.
4.) Has the ability to make the "wow" throws. This one is a bit vague, I'll admit. There isn't really a true measuring stick on this one, except the eye test. Though they throw wobblers, the Manning brothers thread needles often. Brady, Rodgers, Brees and Andrew Luck have had their respective moments as well. It's a combination of throwing the deep ball to a receiver in stride, throwing a deep out with zip and finding that perfect blend of velocity and finesse on the seam routes.
Most people that follow Dalton and the Bengals believe that he doesn't have this trait. I disagree. I think that Dalton has the ability to make awe-inspiring throws, he just hasn't found the consistency with it. The worrisome aspect of the inconsistency is that I don't know that that is something that can be coached or not. Our own Brennen Warner put together a 2012 highlights video on Dalton and you'll see quite a few throws that are impressive enough to raise eyebrows.
5.) Has the ability to rally his team from being behind by two scores or more with one quarter or less to play. The great ones always find a way, don't they. Some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history are synonymous with great comebacks. This again is a trait that is synonymous with many of the great quarterbacks in league history.
Really, this can be graded on a sensation that one gets when watching some of these players lead their teams. It's just a general feeling that the team is always in the game, even if they are down two touchdowns with eight minutes to play.
6.) Postseason performance history and win-loss record must be weighed. I'm not one of those guys that automatically calls a quarterback a "franchise guy" or "elite player" just because they win the Super Bowl. Plenty of mediocre quarterbacks have had posteseason success. Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer all won Super Bowl rings. Stan Humphries, Kerry Collins and Neil O'Donnell all participated in the big game. Not one of those players were amongst the league's elite.
However, when there is a pattern, there is the path towards being elite. The Manning Brothers have three rings between them, Brady has three of his own, Big Ben has two and Brees and Rodgers both have one of their own. What makes the one-ring-winners that I just mentioned different from some of the mediocre players of yesteryear? Their combination of the above traits and eye-popping stats along with the Lombardi Trophy.
7.) Stats and Pro Bowls should be considered cautiously. Obviously, when a quarterback is making and breaking passing records, one has to consider them in this conversation. However, stats can be misleading and almost every football fan recognizes this. Along with that goes Pro Bowl voting, as with any position. The voting for the NFL's All-Star game is three-pronged with fan voting comprising one-third of the total weight for a player's potential entry. Some teams have a much larger fanbase than others and I think you can see the rest of the issue there.So, while stats and wins must be considered, the quality of each must also be accounted for.
8.) The above-mentioned traits lead to five to eight players in the "elite" conversation. It's not that this is a list in order of my preferences when using criteria for quarterbacks, but this particular trait would likely be a culmination of the list. Some people have ten to twelve people in this list, but that would mean that one-third of the league has an elite conversation. I just feel that that waters down the word "elite". So, why five to eight?
I figure that at eight quarterbacks, that brings the average to the best quarterback in each division. That amount could be whittled down to five or so, if there are those who are head and shoulders above a couple of the others in the group. That seems like a reasonable amount of "elite" players per generation.
The truth is that there are many ways to take this discussion and other traits/aspects that are unaccounted for in my list. Each media member and fan devises their own list of preferences and that's alright. I would just like to see a more conservative usage of the word "elite" in the NFL.