Playoff success, not stats, defines elite

QB Jay Cutler (Bradley Lee/USP)

Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo are among the so-called second tier of NFL quarterbacks soon to be in line for new NFL contracts. Their stats will help define the parameters of those big-money deals, but can they be defined as elite until they've produced under playoff pressure.

At some point in the not too distant future, probably before the beginning of the 2012 regular season, the Baltimore Ravens will reward Joe Flacco with a contract extension that makes him one of the league's highest paid quarterbacks.

Then this debate, already fairly vocal among Ravens' fans, will really heat up: Is Flacco, who last season came within a dropped Lee Evans pass of taking the club to Super Bowl XLVI, really an "elite" quarterback?

It has been a hot button issue in Baltimore the last several years, a favorite topic of sports-talk radio regulars. And the discussion is hardly limited to just Baltimore or Flacco, either. Subtract Flacco's name and fill in the blank with, say, Philip Rivers, or Matt Ryan, or Mark Sanchez. Or certainly Tony Romo, a lightning rod in Dallas over the offseason.

It's not good enough anymore to throw for 4,000 yards -- the new norm in the league -- lead a franchise to the playoffs, or be considered among the best players at a position that might be the most difficult in all of sports.

Nope, Super Bowl victories, at least one of them, seemingly have become the standard by which quarterbacks are assessed.

Which apparently means that there are only five so-called "elite" quarterbacks -- Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger -- currently in the league. Those are the five quarterbacks whose resumes include Super Bowl wins. Ten championships total among the five, with three multiple titles in the quintet.

That piddling sample size, suggest players and coaches familiar with many of the quarterbacks not considered in the "elite" class, is too limited. And criticisms of the quarterbacks who most rate among the best in the NFL, but who are ring-less, is pretty much ridiculous.

"Probably until we win a (championship) with Tony, it's going to continue, but it's pretty absurd," said Dallas tight end Jason Witten. "There aren't a whole lot of guys who have done what he's done. Sure, everybody focuses on the quarterback, but at times, it isn't fair. In our minds, he's a winner. He's 'elite,' whatever that means."

Since we're still short of our professorship in NFL-ology, and not quite qualified to adjudge the "elite" quarterbacks, we won't try. By definition, the term means "the best" or "of the highest class." And in that regard, there is something to be said for the Super Bowl qualification on one's resume to rank among the best players at the quarterback position. But people a lot smarter than us, and with knowledge of the game superior to what we've gleaned in 34 seasons, take umbrage.

And so do we.

"Matt knows that he's going to be judged in part by what he accomplishes in the postseason," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith in discussing Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan. "That's the next step for him, and important step, but it is for the entire team, not just him. To say he's not in that top group ... isn't right."

Players coach coaches in San Diego -- where Rivers owns a passing title and has been one of the NFL's premier players the past several seasons, but doesn't yet have a ring -- echo those sentiments about their quarterback. And there certainly are other precincts where the quarterbacks have been similarly defended.

Ryan, of course, is 0-3 in the playoffs and the Falcons have flopped miserably in their three postseason appearances of his four-year tenure. Like Flacco, he figures to land a big-money contract, although probably not until next year. And like Flacco, while acutely aware of the hole in his resume, Ryan isn't overly concerned by any of the critiques that emanate outside his own locker room.

Nor are his teammates.

Said chatty wide receiver Roddy White in the offseason: "He's the man. Anyone who says otherwise is crazy. Not everyone can win the Super Bowl. That doesn't stop them from being 'elite,' does it?"

Only, apparently, in the estimation of some fans.


Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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