By Mitchell Marcus
Intern 105.7 The Fan

Few buzzwords are quite as popular in the world of sports as “elite quarterback”. During the NFL season, every sports talk show, every bar room discussion, every place people talk about football seems to eventually go back to these two questions: What is an elite quarterback, and who in the league is an elite quarterback?

With the second question, some of the answers are obvious. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are, and barring catastrophic decline or injury, always will be elite until the day they retire. The same also applies to players like Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees, who, while not as strong a lock as Manning or Brady, are certainly above the rest, and Aaron Rodgers, who appears to only be a few years of high-level play – another ring or two wouldn’t hurt either – from being headed to Canton. Beyond those five though, the question becomes much murkier. Is Philip Rivers elite? What about Matt Ryan? Eli Manning? Joe Flacco? How about younger players, how much does Andrew Luck turning the Colts right around count next to Russell Wilson’s Superbowl ring?

What quantifies an elite quarterback is even harder to define. One person will say championships, and the inevitable comparison of Dan Marino to Trent Dilfer usually follows. Another will say that statistics should dictate elite status. Statistics in a bubble are equally problematic however; Matt Stafford is only the fourth quarterback to ever throw 5,000 yards in a season, yet few would place him above quarterbacks like Philip Rivers or Matt Ryan that have never reached such a feat. Tom Brady posted his fewest touchdowns and, 2010 aside, yards since 2006 last year, to go along with his second-worst career completion percentage, yet many analysts argued that 2013 was one of his finest, as he took a team with the seventh-worst defense and a patchwork-at-best receiving corps to a 12-4 record and a conference championship. Statistics, without context, are as ineffective a measurement as trophies. Some will say playoff performance, but that would place Eli Manning squarely above his brother, a notion that would give even the most ardent Giants fan pause.

In no small part because it’s part of what makes it such a varied discussion, concrete qualifiers for elite quarterbacks will likely never be established. Lets pretend that we can establish such qualifiers though. In my experience, using four specific questions seems to yield results that most people agree on: Does the quarterback raise their team up to be better than they are, do they play clutch in the biggest moments, do their statistics as a whole compare favorably to their peers, and do they consistently make the smart decision, accepting an easy first down instead of forcing a deep ball, taking a sack and punting instead of throwing a pick six, etc.?

All five of our elite quarterbacks from earlier get straight A’s. Statistical outliers like Stafford and championship outliers like Dilfer are filtered out, too. Nothing is ever perfect though, and these questions still retain a few outliers, none more notable than perhaps the most divisive player in the NFL: Tony Romo.

In eight years as a starter, Romo has never posted a completion percentage south of 61%, or a passer rating below 90. He has thrown over thirty touchdowns in two of the last three years, thrown for over 4,000 yards four years, his statistics compare very well to his peers. Though he doesn’t always give up on a play when he should, and occasionally forces passes, aside from the occasions that earned his choker reputation, Romo typically makes the smart decisions.

Probably the most overlooked part of Romo is the fact that, more than almost anyone in the league other than Rodgers and Brady, he carries his team; since 2011, Dallas has gone from average to awful on defense, giving up the 17th, 9th, and 7th most points, in addition to magnanimous honor of having the worst defense in the league last year, to go along with the 15th, 2nd, and 9th worst rushing offenses. No defense, no running game, the Cowboys should have three straight years of top five draft picks, yet all three years, Romo has carried what should be a team that goes 4-12, 6-10 at best, to 8-8. In many divisions, two games is the difference between playing in the playoffs and watching them, and four games is a completely different year.

However the knock on Tony is one that even those that don’t follow the game are likely well-aware of. When the game is on the line, he chokes. It seems like few players have more of a penchant for losing their team games in the closing moments, and unless he earns a Superbowl ring on the back of comeback after comeback, the choker label is one that Romo is likely to never be able to shake. As much as he is the sole reason Dallas ever competes, he is also seemingly the biggest contributor to their demise.

So is Tony Romo an elite quarterback? Does his ability to make the Dallas Cowboys compete in spite of glaring, gaping flaws forgive his penchant for faltering when the lights are their brightest? For that matter, what about Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and every other franchise quarterback outside of the five “elite” names?

We probably won’t ever have a concrete answer. But we can sure have some fun debates.


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