The NFL season begins tonight with a nationally televised game between defending Super Bowl champion Eli Manning and Super Bowl hopeful Tony Romo. They have teams attached to them, too. But the NFL increasingly feels like a video game where you only control the quarterback. Everybody else runs around, catches passes, makes tackles and gives out bounties, but the quarterbacks decide the game.
We all know the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. But lately I have been thinking: Is it TOO MUCH of a quarterback-driven league? If you don't have an elite quarterback, can you really win a Super Bowl? A breakdown of the last nine Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks: Tom Brady (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2), Eli Manning (2), Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers. All six could go to the Hall of Fame.
Some of this perception is self-fulfilling -- when a quarterback wins the Super Bowl, we declare him elite, and when another quarterback fails to win a Super Bowl, we say he is not. Most fans would say Eli Manning is one of the best in the game and Romo is not quite there. But look at their regular-season numbers:
Romo: 64.5 completion percentage, 149 touchdowns, 72 interceptions, 96.9 rating.
Manning: 58.4 completion percentage, 185 touchdowns, 99 interceptions, 82.1 rating.
Perhaps we need to re-evaluate how we feel about Romo. Still, quarterbacks are so integral to NFL success that they have changed the way teams draft, how they build teams, and perhaps most importantly, how I write my NFL season preview. I was going to look at this NFL season in typical fashion: By ranking teams in predicted order of finish. I would carefully choose facts that back up my opinions while ignoring the facts that strongly imply I am an idiot.
But then I had an idea.
I decided to rank the teams in each division in order of who has the best quarterback. This is subjective, of course, but it works if you assume I am right about everything (Try it -- it's fun!). I think you will find that even though I ranked in order of quarterback play, it LOOKS like I predicted the order of finish. The correlation between quarterback play and team success is even stronger than I realized. OK, here we go.
QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A PATRIOTS FAN: I can't wait for the Patriots to go 14-2 again so I can blame the two losses on Bobby Valentine. Also, this is the most fun team to cheer for in sports: Always good in a league where nobody else is always good, with a brilliant coach and a quarterback who makes you wish you were him for a day.
QUARTERBACK: Ryan Fitzpatrick
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A BILLS FAN: That defense could be scary good. But Fitzpatrick's meltdown last year makes me think he will do it again. I hate to sound like Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, but do you want a Harvard guy as your quarterback? The Bills might be just good enough to make me believe in them until they tear my heart out. The good old days are here again!
QUARTERBACK: Martim Sanbow
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A JETS FAN: I always figured that if any team in the league split its quarterback duties between a handsome playboy who isn't very good and a handsome virgin who isn't very good, it would be the Jets. Thank you, Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, for making that happen. The Tebow experiment is worth a try, since Sanchez alone was not going to win a Super Bowl, but the Jets offense went backward so often in the preseason that by the end of the last game, it was July. I liked my coach better when he was fat.
QUARTERBACK: Ryan Tannehill
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A DOLPHINS FAN: Go Heat!
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
QUARTERBACK: Ben Roethlisberger
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A STEELERS FAN: Big Ben, I love you. Especially since you cleaned up your personal life. You did, right? Say you did. OK, just nod slowly and go out and break your nose for us again. Thanks, dude.
2. Baltimore Ravens
QUARTERBACK: Joe Flacco
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A RAVENS FAN: My team is the model for the theory that quarterbacks mean too much. If all quarterbacks were equal, and the rest of the players on the field determined who won and lost, wouldn't the Ravens be the most successful franchise of the last 15 years? Of course they would. But there is something about Flacco that makes me believe in him. At least a little.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
QUARTERBACK: Andy Dalton
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A BENGALS FAN: I fear Dalton will epitomize the Marvin Lewis era in Cincy: Promise at the beginning, followed by success, followed by the realization that some years will be good, some will be bad, but none will be great because this is Cincinnati and we are doomed, doomed, doomed.
4. Cleveland Browns
QUARTERBACK: Brandon Weeden
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A BROWNS FAN: Beer me.
1. Houston Texans
QUARTERBACK: Matt Schaub
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A TEXANS FAN: My Oilers never played in the Super Bowl in almost three decades of trying, then left for Tennessee, where (of course) they played in the Super Bowl. Then my Texans came along, defined mediocrity for a while, and finally emerged as a Super Bowl contender last year. Then our top two quarterbacks got hurt. We need to borrow a couple of those writers who complained about the Red Sox all those years and have them write about us. Anyway, if Schaub has a Super Bowl run, he will make everybody re-evaluate the rest of his career (64.3 completion percentage, 92.2 rating).
2. Indianapolis Colts
QUARTERBACK: Andrew Luck
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A COLTS FAN: Between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, we might have 30 consecutive years of Hall of Fame quarterback play, except for 2011, when Manning was hurt and the team Dan Orlovsky-ed itself into landing Luck. I shan't complain about anything again. Ever.
3. Tennessee Titans
QUARTERBACK: Jake Locker
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A TITANS FAN: Locker is going to be a star, just like he was in college. What? He wasn't a star in college? Um ...
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
QUARTERBACK: Blaine Gabbert
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A JAGUARS FAN: I Googled "Blaine Gabbert" and the second suggestion was "Blaine Gabbert bust." Also, I bet if I Googled "cheap and lazy Internet columnist device" it would suggest "Google (blank) and you get (blank)." Anyway, if Gabbert does indeed go bust, at least I can say that, as a Jaguars fan, I saw this coming. This makes me feel better, except that it doesn't.
1. Denver Broncos
QUARTERBACK: Peyton Manning
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A BRONCOS FAN: Remember when I argued with my buddies about whether Tim Tebow was the answer? Has any argument in the history of the universe seemed silly as quickly as that one did?
2. San Diego Chargers
QUARTERBACK: Philip Rivers
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A CHARGERS FAN: My only problem with Rivers is that the Chargers could have had Eli Manning and did have Drew Brees, and they chose Rivers. But then they made the brilliant move of hiring Norv Turner as coach, thereby shielding Rivers from blame when the Chargers collapse again.
3. Oakland Raiders
QUARTERBACK: Carson Palmer
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A RAIDERS FAN: Palmer has not had a good season in six years, but the Raiders haven't had a good season in 10 years, so hey, we're lucky to have him.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
QUARTERBACK: Matt Cassel
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A CHIEFS FAN: I can't tell if I want my team to win 10 games and give Cassel another year or two, or to win five and give us a chance at a new quarterback.
QUARTERBACK: Eli Manning
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A GIANTS FAN: Eli Manning has robbed me of the right to complain about anything that happens in the regular season. I feel like I'm cheering for an NBA team. Also, I always loved Tom Coughlin. Really. I swear.
QUARTERBACK: Tony Romo
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A COWBOYS FAN: How dare you rank Eli above Romo, who has better numbers? Just because Eli has won two Super Bowls while Romo once fumbled a snap to blow a playoff game? Oh, fine.
QUARTERBACK: Michael Vick
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE AN EAGLES FAN: I have to get all my Michael Vick Super Bowl hopes and dreams out now because he always gets hurt.
QUARTERBACK: Robert Griffin III
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A REDSKINS FAN: I don't care what anybody else on the team does. If RGIII looks like a star this year, I'm happy.
QUARTERBACK: Aaron Rodgers
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A PACKERS FAN: Bwahahahahahahahahaha! (Unless you're a Giants fan. Then ... uh, I have to run. See ya!)
QUARTERBACK: Matthew Stafford:
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A LIONS FAN: I have one prediction for this team: By the end of the year, there will be a semi-serious campaign to have Calvin Johnson play both offense and defense. Johnson is that much of a freak, and the defensive backfield is that bad. Anyway, the Lions are in a strange spot: This is their most anticipated season in many years, but there is also remarkably little at stake. If the Lions slip to 8-8, they get to come back with Stafford and Johnson for the next few years anyway. It is a great time to be a Lions fan. Did I really just say that?
QUARTERBACK: Jay Cutler
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A BEARS FAN: Cutler finally has weapons around him. This could be fun! I said FUN, Jay. Smile! Oh, never mind.
QUARTERBACK: Christian Ponder
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A VIKINGS FAN: Since almost making the Super Bowl after the 2009 season, my team is 9-16 and is about to stink again. All I can do is root against Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay, but I can't root too hard, because someday Rodgers might retire and unretire and leave the Packers and we might sign him and then I will cheer for him like the loathsome frontrunner I am.
QUARTERBACK: Drew Brees
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A SAINTS FAN: Bleeping bleep bleep UGH bleep. Yeah, you heard me, Roger. Nonetheless, given the choice between A) a bunch of suspensions, commissioner-imposed chaos and Drew Brees, or B) order, calm and no Drew Brees, I would go with A every time. Brees and his Coach Du Jour are going to win this division.
QUARTERBACK: Matt Ryan
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A FALCONS FAN: Ryan and Julio Jones could be one of the best pass-catch combos in the league. But if the Falcons don't make the Super Bowl soon, I am prepared to slap Ryan with some label he doesn't deserve, like Too Nice To Win or Regular-Season Player.
QUARTERBACK: Cam Newton
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A PANTHERS FAN: On a good day, Newton looks like he could redefine the position. On a bad day, he still looks better than Jake Delhomme.
QUARTERBACK: Josh Freeman
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A BUCS FAN: I like having Josh Freeman on my team. I would like having one of the other three guys in the division more.
QUARTERBACK: Alex Smith
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A 49ers FAN: OK, this is where it looks like I'm adjusting the quarterback rankings to match up with the order of finish. But I'm not. Check out the rest of the division.
QUARTERBACK: Sam Bradford
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A RAMS FAN: The organization has not done Bradford many favors, and he certainly looked like a future star as a rookie. But he did not play as well as Smith did last year. Perhaps Bradford will become the truly great pure passer that Jeff Fisher never had. Or perhaps he and Fisher will cost each other their jobs.
QUARTERBACK: Russell Wilson
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A SEAHAWKS FAN: Like Pete Carroll, I'm on board the Russell Wilson bandwagon. Unlike some NFL starters, he actually produced at a high level for a winning team in college. So what if he is short? Height isn't everything. Just ask ...
QUARTERBACK: John Skelton
WHAT I WOULD THINK IF I WERE A CARDINALS FAN: Skelton's two major qualifications are that he is tall (6-foot-6) and not Kevin Kolb. I'm sure this makes Larry Fitzgerald feel fantastic. Skelton's brother Steve is a tight end on the Cardinals' practice squad, and I sincerely hope Steve Skelton makes the active roster and then Skelton repeatedly throws to Skelton when he is double-covered, ignoring a wide-open Fitzgerald downfield, because the team will suck anyway and it's hot in Phoenix and I need some entertainment so I forget I'm sweating my nipples off.