And much like The Fast and the Furious series, things really get great when you get to five.
Through the previous three articles (Dregs, Middle, Vets/Rising Stars) I have detailed why Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is better than most any QB in the league that you already knew he was better than. But what about the top tier, the elite, the few players who are consistently ranked on par or above Wilson as a quarterback?
Right now we live in a rare snapshot in time where the top five quarterbacks in the NFL is pretty clear. The only guy I would consider a “fringe” name on the list is the reigning MVP. So where does Wilson fit in this conversation? Not many Seahawks fans would disagree with any of my previous “Wilson is better than X” posts, but this is where it gets tricky.
I still think the argument can be made — with logical reasoning — that there is no better quarterback to have in the league right now than Wilson.
So, is Russell Wilson the Dominic Toretto of the NFL?
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan is like the Jason Statham of this list. He was well established already and so his addition to this family makes sense. He came in with a bang but could also go out quietly without many remembering just how unbelievable he was for that one season.
In 2016, one year after the Falcons started implementing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system, Ryan threw 38 touchdowns, seven interceptions, completed 69.9% of his passes, 9.3 Y/A, and had a passer rating of 117.1. Julio Jones may be the best receiver in the NFL, but outside of that I actually don’t think any of Atlanta’s receiving weapons are special.
Mohamed Sanu is a player I’ve always had great admiration for, but he’s possibly not even suited to be a team’s number two receiver. In his last season with the Cincinnati Bengals, Sanu played in every game and caught 33 passes for 349 yards and zero touchdowns. Last season, his YPC actually went down from an already-low 11.9 YPC in 2015 to 11.1. Taylor Gabriel got even more national hype last year after he became one of the most dependable targets in the league, but Gabriel is still far from proven and now he needs to follow up his breakout without Shanahan.
I think Ryan’s made it clear he deserves top-five recognition, but it is also reasonable for people to have pause about his MVP follow-up.
First of all, it would be weird if Ryan’s numbers didn’t get worse this year. Ryan’s rating of 117.1 was the fifth-highest ever for a single season (min. 300 att) and a significant dip should be expected. After Aaron Rodgers’ posted a 122.5 in 2011, his rating dropped to 108 the next year. After his 121.1 season in 2004, Peyton Manning’s rating dipped to 104.1. After his 117.2 season in 2007, Tom Brady saw his season wiped away in 2008 due to injury, but in 2009 he went to 96.2. And after Nick Foles’ 119.2 season in 2013, he was benched in 2014.
(Foles is the Lil Bow Wow in Tokyo Drift of this group)
Ryan’s previous career high in passer rating was 99.1 back in 2012. His career rating going into last year was 90.9 with a sample size of 126 starts, while averaging 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions per season. And now the offensive coordinator who orchestrated this campaign is gone.
I wrote last year that I think Ryan is a more-than-reasonable candidate to have his career break out in this thirties, much like how John Elway did with the Denver Broncos in the 90s — under Shanahan’s father. I still don’t think I would put Elway in the same echelon as Brett Favre and Steve Young — and I wouldn’t put Ryan quite in the same category as Rodgers, Brady, or Wilson, who have been consistently better throughout their careers and “broke out” in their first seasons as starter.
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Brees can be The Rock of this group, and not just because both of their names are things that can be found in nature. (Is “a breeze” something you “find in nature”? You can’t prove that I’m wrong.) He’s extremely well established, he came into his career with significant doubts about whether or not he could be successful (reminder that a pro wrestler is the biggest movie star in the world), and he does not seem to age.
I recently posted on Twitter that I had been wondering if maybe Drew Brees is the greatest quarterback (which in most cases would also make him the greatest player) of all-time. And the fact that we don’t hear people ask that question pretty much ever is enough for me to consider him very underrated. Now, I don’t actually think that Brees is the greatest player of all-time, but if you’re gonna play dumb about why I’d ask the question then you’re probably not “playing” dumb at all.
Since joining the Saints in 2006, over 11 seasons, Brees has led the NFL in passing yards seven times, touchdowns four times, completion percentage three times, and passer rating once. A 10-time Pro Bowl QB, Brees is third all-time in completions, third all-time in yards, third all-time in touchdowns, seventh all-time in rating — but more importantly, Brees and head coach Sean Payton essentially changed football together.
Would Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck be the type of players they are (who are the only players in history to average more attempts per game than Brees) if not for the Saints? Many quarterbacks today and those who have come and gone are essentially just worse versions of Brees or attempts to be Brees. Because if Brees can do it, why can’t they? After all, he’s barely 6’ tall, and on the surface may appear to just be a regular guy in a beautiful system. But as more years pass, as the personnel changes around him once again, without the league’s most talented receivers, or offensive linemen, and definitely some of the worst defenses we’ve ever seen, Brees is the one constant on the field and at age 37 he just threw for 5,208 yards — a thing that really did not happen for any QB of any age before Brees came along.
But is he a better player to have today than Wilson?
In the context of “Who would I rather start a franchise with?” (which is a context I am qualifying for this series), the answer is obviously Wilson. Not only because of his age but also because Wilson could still have a “Drew Brees phase” of his career ahead of him. Brees left the San Diego Chargers when he was 27 and at that point he was not on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He was good, but he was not nearly as good as what Wilson has been over the first five seasons of his own career.
Also, I think that Brees has been a reasonable comp to Wilson since he entered the NFL because of their comparable height disadvantages. In fact, before he started his rookie season, you couldn’t find many arguments for hope for Wilson without mentioning Brees. As Wilson has ramped up his pass attempts every season, it becomes more and more obvious that eventually we’re going to get to a time where he may lead the league in attempts, and puts a couple 5,000-yard notches on his belt.
And maybe that doesn’t happen. And maybe it shouldn’t. Because Wilson has also proven to be better about protecting the football than Brees (who threw 31 interceptions over his first two seasons as a starter in San Diego) and who may also be a better prodigy of the game than Brees.
When we’re getting to this level of comparing players, the differences are so tiny that it’ll be hard to find much separation, if any. Both of these players may be among the hardest working players in football history, but given a number of important factors like age, protecting the ball, and Wilson’s added component of being able to throw like Brees but also run around like Young, he is the better QB today.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers could be like the Letty of the league; they may not be very likable, they disappeared for awhile, but the talent is obvious and you know it’s not the same without them. Also, Michelle Rodriguez kind of “sat behind” Jordana Brewster for the first couple of years.
While I’ve found that the argument for Brees as “GOAT” isn’t socially acceptable, people can’t stop making it for Rodgers. That’s understandable when you consider these two numbers: 35 and 7.
That’s how many touchdowns and interceptions that Rodgers has averaged per season since 2011. You want to know how many players have ever thrown 35 TDs and 7 INTs in a single season?
Rodgers three times, Brady twice, and Ryan once. And that’s it.
That being said, Rodgers’ career has had an unexpected turn over the last two seasons, as his Y/A has dipped from a figure of 8.3 over his first 103 starts, to 7.0 over the last 32. Rodgers led the NFL in touchdown passes a year ago (40) but his 610 attempts were a career-high by a significant margin; for better or worse, Rodgers has not been the same type of player he was during his “GOAT” years.
And I mean it when I say it could be for the better. Rodgers is 33 now and you have to expect his playing style to change as he gets further and further into his thirties. Every player changes as he gets older or he risks becoming obsolete altogether; you just have to hope that he’s going to be more like Tom Brady and less like Dan Marino. No offense to the greatness that is Marino, and you can certainly argue that the reason he never won a Super Bowl was because of the roster around him, but you can’t tell me that as QBs became even bigger superstars in the 90s, Marino started to look closer to average.
I don’t think an average future awaits Rodgers, but this does seem to be a new beginning. In general, most people would take Rodgers over Wilson for many good reasons. I think over the last two seasons though, I would take the play of Wilson over Rodgers, and I think the personality stuff also wraps into why Wilson is the favorable quarterback; Wilson may be boring, he may not have much of a personality at all unless you are also football-obsessed or Entourage-obsessed, but I think he is also the type of leader you want for the long term. Rodgers’ lack of Super Bowl rings (Wilson had already appeared in more Super Bowls than Rodgers by his third season) is not without some responsibility on himself — eight postseason trips and a 9-7 record, compared to five trips and an 8-4 record by Wilson.
It’s hard to argue “body of work vs body of work” as an advantage for Wilson, but I think the possibilities for the next phase of their careers are actually more intriguing and bountiful for Wilson than Rodgers.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots
I don’t know if Paul Walker — whose combination of looks and charm is as rare as Brady’s ability to balance being a “celebrity” with being a football player — is the “sixth round pick of actors,” but he did once have a 17-episode run on The Young and the Restless. That’s a difficult place from which to emerge with great success, but Walker was the original centerpiece of what has become maybe the world’s most valuable movie franchise today despite so many obstacles in front of it at the beginning.
But the Patriots may also need to move on to the next phase of their existence without their centerpiece star pretty soon. (All due respect to Walker, RIP to one of the greats.)
Last season, Tom Brady unlocked achievements unlike anything we even knew was possible. At age 39 (only six QBs have ever thrown 15+ TDs in a season past age 38), and coming off of a four-game suspension that was completely unreasonable, Brady threw 28 touchdowns and only two interceptions on 432 attempts. In 2015, he led the NFL in touchdown passes with 36. Since historic 2007 campaign (50 TDs, eight INTs), Brady has thrown 309 touchdowns and only 74 interceptions over 141 games. That’s a TD% of 6 and an INT% of 1.4 over nine seasons, which is a ratio that only three QBs were comparable with last season: Ryan, Rodgers, and Brady.
That’s over nine seasons, which is twice as long as the average career of a QB.
A two-time MVP, five-time champion, Brady is absolutely the gold standard for the modern quarterback. It would be unfair to compare him to the OGs like Unitas, or even to Montana and Favre, but it would be fair to say that of course the average NFL player is light-years ahead of the average NFL player of yesteryear— in that context, Brady is likely the best player in NFL history.
Is he the better QB over Wilson right now?
If we are basing that question on 2016 and all seasons prior, then Brady is the obvious choice. Last season, with 11 more years of aging on his back, Brady was still clearly the superior quarterback. Wilson played through injuries, with a much worse offensive line, and didn’t experience the same type of late-season surge that he had in each of his first four seasons. But what about in 2017?
I think this could absolutely be the season that Wilson establishes himself as the top quarterback in the NFL, especially if Brady’s body starts to show that he is indeed turning 40 in August.
Speculation that Brady will continue to play like he has over the last few years is just that: Speculation. Examples of quarterbacks who played at 40 or older with literally any success are as rare as movies starring Tyrese Gibson as the main protagonist. (Which is extremely unfortunate.) You’ve got Favre and Warren Moon, and that’s basically it. You can go home and watch Baby Boy today (and you probably should) but for some reason the people at Marvel haven’t backed up a dump truck of cash to Tyrese’s home yet.
What’s next for Brady? We just don’t know. Quarterbacks simply do not lose ability gradually -- it happens overnight. Peyton Manning was about 38.5 after 12 games in 2014, throwing 36 touchdowns and nine interceptions that season up to that point. And then he threw 0 TDs and 2 INTs in a win over the Buffalo Bills and two weeks later threw four picks in a loss to the Bengals. Manning’s place not only as an upper-echelon QB, but as one who was good enough to start, really ended on December 7, 2014. A week earlier, he was still perhaps the best QB in the league. It’s that quick.
Brady’s abilities will be judged on a week-to-week basis now and it’s something that the whole football-watching world should be monitoring because the GOAT is in dangerous territory and I’ll take decades of history showing that no QB can survive past 41 over some magical mystery potion. Wilson should still be among the best in the league not only by the end of this season, but by 2027.
With great respect to Brady, Wilson is obviously the quarterback I’d start a franchise with over him, but by November of this year it might also be clear to everyone that Wilson is the better quarterback today.
So is Wilson the best QB you could have today and the Dom Toretto of this “family”? On a case-by-case basis, I think the argument can clearly be made. What can I say ... I live my life one quarter-back at a time.