It’s hard to look at the passing leaders in the NFL today without wiping your eyes and doing a double-take: Dalton. Weeden. McCown. Carr. Mariota. Taylor.
Who are these people? What have you done with my Manning, Stafford, Kaepernick and Luck? Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo are injured. Drew Brees and Jay Cutler are coming off injuries. Other former stars are fading away. Are we about to enter the next dark ages of passing? Hold that thought.
For sure, the 2015 season so far hasn’t been kind to franchise quarterbacks. But faster than you can say “sample size,” you can rest assured a lot will change in the next three months. Remember, last year at this time, we were burying Tom Brady. All he’s done since then is dominate the charts like Drake.
While many of the top-performing QBs this year may be unexpected, overall quarterback play hasn't changed much from 2014. Last season, among quarterbacks who threw for more than 1,600 yards (100 per game for a full season), their Total QBR checked in at 56.7, their adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) average was 6.25, and they posted an 89.3 passer rating. Through four weeks this season, among quarterbacks who’ve thrown for over 400 yards, those respective numbers are a 57.6 QBR, 6.53 ANY/A and a 92.5 passer rating.
• MORE: Week 5 NFL quarterback rankings
With so many big names “down,” how is this possible?
Rules changes certainly have helped modern passing attacks. Passing, like kicking, has improved immensely over the past 20 years. Looking at the mid-1990s NFL passing leaders — with standouts like Favre, Aikman, Marino, Elway, Young, Moon, Kelly, Bledsoe and Esiason all under center — shows that today’s passers complete a significantly higher percentage of their passes, for more yards, at a higher rating and with a higher ANY/A than they did then. While many decry the lack of quality depth at the game's most crucial position, panic over the demise of quarterback play as a whole is unwarranted.
Additionally, established starting quarterbacks today are remarkably consistent, season over season. Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, Rivers, and Rodgers are metronomes. QBs like Romo, Manning the Younger and Cam Newton, despite higher game-to-game volatility, have been uniformly fine on a per-season basis. It’s fairly easy to predict, based on past performance, what you’re going to get from your signal-caller in their prime. Meanwhile, so-called “bad” quarterbacks are relegated to a backup roles quickly, as winning-starved teams (think Buffalo, Cleveland, Miami and the New York Jets) change starters faster than the Oregon Ducks change uniforms.
Outside of that, we’re left with quarterbacks who’ve had short runs of success (sometimes a single season) who continue to take the first-string reins because of limited success, plus massive money or a high draft pick invested. That’s where we find Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick, Matthew Stafford and (gasp?) Andrew Luck.
Cutler’s career is puzzling. He had one great season in 2008 and a parade of average seasons accompanying varying degrees of team success. His career record as a starter is 62–60. He gets sacked and throws picks at an alarming rate, and yet never plays truly poorly enough to justify making a lasting change under center. Cutler is the NBA team that nails down the 8-seed in the West each year.
Kaepernick burst into the league at the tail end of 2012 through 2013, leading the 49ers to two NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl with elite stats, before free-falling the past two seasons. Stafford is still making hay off a scorching 2011 season, where you could argue he was a top-five quarterback, while throwing a mind-boggling 727 pass attempts. Luck made the leap from league average to great last season, and it was expected he’d continue his upward trend this year. That hasn't happened so far.
Kaepernick, Stafford and Luck all have been buoyed by their win-loss records, which is a combined 95–70. Stafford’s unsightly 2014 season, continuing a disturbing downward trend in his play, was masked by his team’s 11–5 mark. Perhaps we are treating quarterbacks too much like coaches, and tying their start-worthiness to whether their teams are winning. That can be dangerous; ask the front offices that believed in Vince Young and Mark Sanchez.
While quarterback play often is a solid indicator of a team’s performance, it does occasionally uncouple. Just last year, Drew Brees and Eli Manning were among the league leaders in QBR, ANY/A and rating, and their teams combined to go 13–19. Dalton and Stafford, by contrast, both made the playoffs on teams that combined to go 21–11, despite their ranking in the lower third in those categories.
That brings us back to Dalton, whose 2015 season has all the makings of a classic career-making year. His astronomical rate stats (87.7 QBR, 11.1 ANY/A, 123.0 rating) are so far and away the best we’ve ever seen from him that it’s quite possible he’ll cement his starter status in Cincinnati for years to come with a few more weeks like this. Sometimes, all it takes for a front office to suffer through an extended era of mediocre quarterbacking is proof that you could “do it once." And, sometimes, if you time your hot streak perfectly—like Joe Flacco’s 11-touchdown, zero-pick Super Bowl run—it can make up for an entire seven-year career of signal-calling that’s been middling, at best.
Anyway, in the bigger picture, don’t panic just yet. The “Franchise QB” remains in fine shape, and when the men you can set your watches to — Roethlisberger, Romo and Brees — work their way back into shape, they’ll likely rejoin Brady, Rivers and Rodgers at the front of the line. At their advanced ages, there’s no guarantee they will, but they’re a safer bet than Matthew Stafford turning things around.
Remember, four games does not a season make. Unless you’re Joe Flacco, when four games can make your entire career.