NEW YORK – The two kids from Northern California burst from NFL afterthought to championship contender in eerily similar fashion a decade apart.
Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick, each playing in a conference title game this weekend, are bookends to a fortuitous moment in quarterback history. On one side are the likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, still scintillating in their mid-30s.
On the other are Kaepernick, a second-year player, and the brilliant class of rookies with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson leading their teams to the playoffs.
Young, old and in between, the current crop of NFL quarterbacks is not only deep but dynamic and diverse.
“We’re in a little bit of a boom right now. We’re flowing a little bit, especially young players,” Hall of Famer Steve Young said last week. “If those guys continue to develop, we’ll have a period of time here, kind of a Camelot of quarterbacking.”
The depth of the position shows in the other two guys joining the Patriots’ Brady and the 49ers’ Kaepernick in the conference championship games. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco were first-round draft picks in 2008, and for all their successes, they’re probably low on the list when fans think of the most dominant NFL quarterbacks.
Yet here they are a win away from the Super Bowl after leading stirring comebacks that answered many doubts about each.
Quarterback has long been the glamour position of all of sports, but it seems even a bit more glamorous right now. Rule changes favor a wide-open passing game, which makes a superior quarterback more valuable. Colleges and high schools run more sophisticated offenses, and the best athletes gravitate to quarterback then develop into polished passers who happen to be able to scramble.
“I can’t remember – even though this is a quarterback-driven league – as many remarkable and compelling stories on the quarterback side as you’re seeing this year,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said.
There was that brief stretch less than 15 years ago when Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson won Super Bowls, and it seemed perhaps championship teams didn’t need a star at the position. Since then, here’s the roll call of victorious quarterbacks: Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, both Manning brothers, Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Twenty-five of the 46 Super Bowl MVPs have been quarterbacks, but now it’s five of the last six. In the half-dozen years before that, four were non-QBs, including two defensive players.
“It ebbs and flows, no question. There’s some dark times where you have two or three guys that can truly do it,” said Young, Kaepernick’s forerunner as a dual-threat San Francisco QB and now an ESPN analyst.
Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls with future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman as his quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, was talking to Bill Belichick last summer about the recent shift. Belichick has won three championships with Brady, but even as of a few years ago, both coaches believed a title was possible behind a strong defense and running game.
Not anymore, they agreed.
The bottom of the standings is full of clubs with uncertainty at the position: from the Chiefs and Jaguars to the Eagles, Cardinals and Jets.
This year, 20 quarterbacks started every regular-season game, nearly two-thirds of the league. That’s by far the most since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978, according to STATS LLC, four more than the previous high.
That record partly reflects a lack of injuries, in which all those rules protecting the QB may be a factor – along with, of course, sheer luck. But it also reflects how few teams benched their quarterbacks. Most clubs are quite happy with their current situation.
For all the quarterback intrigue in the playoffs, consider the big names who didn’t qualify for the postseason: Brees, Eli Manning, Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Cam Newton. And then there’s Tim Tebow, who may never start again as an NFL quarterback but is still one of the most recognizable and polarizing athletes in all of sports.
This quarterback Camelot is about more than the deep field of effective starters. The playoffs oozed with stars popular not just for their performances but their personalities and pizazz.
“I marvel at how prepared these guys are – not only on the field, but the exposure they get off it,” said Aikman, who will call the NFC title game for Fox. “Whether it’s through social networks or different platforms, they are given the opportunity to talk to the press and are much more well-rounded and prepared for all that comes with the scrutiny of the position than ever before.
“If you’re on Park Avenue in New York (at league headquarters), you’re pretty happy with the new representatives that will be the ambassadors for the league for the years to come.”
The quarterbacks in the postseason undoubtedly fascinate fans, but they do so in different ways.
“All with incredibly different kinds of stories, all with incredibly different ways of getting to the playoffs,” said McManus, whose network airs next month’s Super Bowl.
Nielsen/E-Poll calculates an “N-Score” to measure the endorsement potential of athletes. Peyton Manning has the top score of current QBs, but other players come out ahead in specific categories in the surveys.
In this high school yearbook of NFL quarterbacks, Brees is voted most appealing. Rodgers is the most confident, Newton the most dynamic, Griffin the most talented. Luck is considered the most intelligent and Brady the most attractive.
Their back stories sizzle. This season saw Manning return from neck surgery to lead the Broncos to the AFC’s top seed and earn All-Pro honors. Brees was dealing with the fallout of the Saints’ bounty scandal.
Unlike past rookie quarterbacks who reached the playoffs, Luck and Griffin were anything but caretakers riding a strong defense; both were vibrant leaders turning around franchises. And Wilson advanced deeper into the postseason than either of them.
Kaepernick is for the moment the best story of them all. The 2011 second-round draft pick opened the season as a backup to Alex Smith, who led the 49ers to the NFC championship game last year. Kaepernick played so well after Smith was injured that coach Jim Harbaugh took the gamble to stick with him – just as Belichick did with Brady 11 years earlier.
Now Brady is the grizzled veteran, though fans won’t get that expected matchup with his longtime rival, Manning, after Baltimore stunned Denver.
“They’re not going to last forever,” Young said of the old guard, “but you’ve got a feeling that there’s some guys around that we’re in pretty good shape in the next generation. Right now, as we speak, there’s compelling stories all over the playoffs at the quarterback spot, which is kind of fun.”