Monday, November 9, 2009

2004 Quarterback Class in Review

In honor of yesterday's game between the Giants and Chargers, which pitted two quarterbacks drafted in the top five of the 2004 NFL Draft and traded for each other, I will do my own review of arguably the best quarterback class of all-time (with 1983 also in the running). The question: Who from this class is the best quarterback?

The Options (career stats included)
-Eli Manning (1st overall pick) - 56.3% completions, 16,693 yards, 113 touchdowns, 82 interceptions, 77.6 rating
-Philip Rivers (4th overall pick) - 62% completions, 12,942 yards, 92 touchdowns, 42 interceptions, 93.2 rating
-Ben Roethlisberger (11th overall pick) - 63.3% completions, 17,036 yards, 112 touchdowns, 75 interceptions, 90.9 rating
-Matt Schaub (90th overall pick) - 64.6% completions, 8,970 yards, 47 touchdowns, 34 interceptions, 89.6 rating

No, Schaub is not really in the running here. I only included him to prove how deep this class really is, as a case can be made for all four of these quarterbacks to be included in the top ten right now.

The first thing I will do here, to the chagrin of just about every Giants fan I know, is eliminate Eli Manning. In his third season as an NFL starter, Manning won the 2007 Super Bowl. He threw a career-worst 20 interceptions that season, but threw 6 touchdowns and just 1 pick in four playoff games to lead the Giants to victory. And he looked great doing it.

Since then, Manning has only built on his 2007 success and cemented his place among the better quarterbacks in the league. In 2008, he completed over 60% of his passes for the first time and threw just 10 interceptions, the first time in his career he had thrown less than 17 in a season.

His numbers this season look excellent as well, with 15 touchdowns and 8 interceptions through nine games. But Manning has regressed in his last four games, throwing just 5 touchdowns and 6 interceptions when not facing the likes of Washington, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Oakland.

It's obvious he misses Plaxico Burress, as Manning's regression has gone hand-in-hand with Steve Smith's statistical dropoff. He was sacked just twice during New York's 5-0 start, but has taken 11 since, including five this past week against San Diego.

Segue to Rivers: The only quarterback taken in the first round of 2004 without a Super Bowl ring (sorry J.P. Loserman, you don't count). Rivers is in just his fourth season as the starting quarterback after sitting two seasons behind Drew Brees, an MVP candidate in his own right. In comparison, Manning is in his fifth season as a starting quarterback and Roethlisberger is in his sixth.

The one thing Rivers does better than either Manning or Roethlisberger is take care of the football. He has thrown over 30 fewer interceptions than either quarterback and has lost just three fumbles in his career, all in 2007. You can't score without the football, and Rivers has thrown more than 11 interceptions in a season just once (15 in 2007).

Despite having the mobility of a one-legged mule, a deficiency Manning and Roethlisberger wouldn't understand, Rivers has an innate sense of backside pressure and a quick release that has allowed him to take just 18 sacks in eight games this season. All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson is no longer the threat he once was, and the onus for this offense has fallen squarely on the shoulders of Rivers.

Despite that target on his back, Rivers is on pace for 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season, just a year removed from a 34-touchdown, 11-interception campaign where he was the NFL's only quarterback with a rating above 100.

This week against the Giants, he threw what could have been a costly interception deep in his own territory with just over three minutes to play. But the Giants managed just a field goal to take a 20-14 lead, and giving Rivers the ball back with enough time to win the game proved to be a mistake.

Every quarterback's most important trait is a short memory and Rivers quickly forgot about his mistake, driving San Diego down the field and tossing the game-winning touchdown to Vincent Jackson in the final 30 seconds. The win improved his team to 5-3 and was the first win of the season for the Chargers against a team over .500. Not a bad for a team with no running game and a struggling defense.

The third and final candidate is Big Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger stormed onto the scene in his first two seasons in the league, throwing 34 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in his first 26 games and winning the 2005 Super Bowl. The Steelers were a run-first team then, and Big Ben had less than 300 passing attempts in both seasons.

The next season, Roethlisberger attempted 469 passes and threw just one more touchdown (18) than in the previous two seasons, not to mention 23 interceptions. He would bounce back with an outstanding (dare I say, Rivers-like) 2007, with 32 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 104.1 quarterback rating. A drop in attempts from 469 to 404 was surely beneficial.

After an average 2008 statistically (17 touchdowns, 15 interceptions), Roethlisberger won his second Super Bowl with a late touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes that has been billed as one of the top all-time Super Bowl plays. Like Manning, he has built on this victory and taken his game to a new level this season, leading the now pass-happy Steelers to a 5-2 record and compiling a 102.6 quarterback rating.

Roethlisberger's strength and elusiveness in the pocket make him nightmare for opposing blitzers. The fact that he has taken just 20 sacks in seven games this season is beyond me, as teams know the Steelers are going to throw 35 times every game and their offensive line has struggled at times. But Roethlisberger has developed into a quarterback who can carry an offense on his shoulders, which he was not early in his career.

Now it's time for a decision: Manning, Rivers or Roethlisberger? Statistically, Rivers and Roethlisberger have a significant edge on Manning. In terms of rings, it's Roethlisberger who comes out on top, followed by Manning. My criteria for the best quarterback of the bunch includes both, making it difficult to go against Roethlisberger and his TWO rings, particularly now that he has proven his ability to take a team on his shoulders, something I was not convinced about heading into this season.

From a talent standpoint I still think Rivers is the best of the three, but that is becoming more and more difficult to justify considering Roethlisberger's accomplishments to this point and development into a dominant quarterback. I may have to concede this one for the time being, based on the information at hand. After all, facts outweigh opinions 100 percent of the time.

As for my second choice, give me the steady, fiery and deathly accurate Rivers any day. Roethlisberger and Manning may have stronger arms, but Rivers does the most with the least out of the three and has proven to be the most trustworthy with the football.

I don't see Manning becoming the 30-touchdown playmaker that Rivers and Roethlisberger are, but I will give credit where credit is due. Manning is an excellent game manager who has the ability to make plays when his team needs them. But he cannot carry a football team, at least not at this juncture of his career.

Manning and Roethlisberger both won their titles with unbelievable teams around them. Manning did it against the previously perfect Patriots and for any Giants fans who think I'm trying to discredit what Manning did that season I'm not, so please spare me. But he did have an excellent running game and defense behind him.

Roethlisberger may have two rings, but the Steelers won in 2005 in spite of him (9-21, 123 yards, 2 interceptions against the Seahawks), not because of him. But in last year's big game, Big Ben proved why he is now one of the league's elite quarterbacks.

It's difficult for me to justify ranking these quarterback based solely on championship rings, considering none of them have reached the age of 29 (Roethlisberger and Rivers are 27, Manning is 28). There is still plenty of football to be played for each, and talent prevails in the long run.

Rivers will have his day, probably not this season but down the line. Each of these quarterbacks will probably play another 8-10 seasons, and I'm not convinced Rivers won't end up with just as many titles as Roethlisberger and Manning, if not more during that time. Call it bold, call it blasphemous, call it what you want. Just don't call me when it happens.

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