Six seconds were on the clock, enough time for one play to move the team into field-goal range. And enough time for a rookie quarterback to show whether or not he had "it."
Matt Ryan surveyed the line of scrimmage, read the Chicago Bears' defense and diagnosed that the only Atlanta Falcons receiver running a route deep enough and close enough to get out of bounds was Michael Jenkins. Ryan took the snap and, under duress from Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris and the game clock, threw a 26-yard pass where only Jenkins could catch it.
After Jenkins caught it with one second left, Jason Elam booted a game-winning, 48-yard field goal, and Ryan's star was born.
On one play, in five seconds, Ryan showcased the traits of a great quarterback: poise, leadership, confidence, intelligence, accuracy and execution. For months, we were told Ryan had "it," the same mystical trait that made Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway so special and helps Peyton Manning and Tom Brady enjoy great success. In that season-turning moment, Ryan confirmed "it."
"That 'it' factor is the ability to instill confidence in others for a swagger," New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "All the successful ones have the 'it' factor, a certain charisma about them. When it comes to how you play the game, they throw with great accuracy, great anticipation. There's an ability to make clutch plays, an ability to make smart decisions, good decisions in critical situations."
There's nothing easy about being an NFL quarterback. Those who take the position for granted -- as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick recently said he did when he played for the Falcons -- find out their effectiveness wanes, as does their shelf life. Those who eat it, sleep it, work at it and live it tend to be the quarterbacks who make names for themselves and keep their teams in contention year after year.
From the moment a quarterback takes his first NFL breath, he is expected to be the first one in the building and the last one out. He must know every offensive player's role and every opposing defense's tendencies and deal with paranoid coaches who realize their job security often hinges on the quarterback's effectiveness, or lack thereof. Expectations always are high. They always have been for quarterbacks.
The survivors thrive off the demands and pressures. The could-have-beens, never-lived-up-to-their-potentials and flat-out busts either can't handle the enormity of the position or don't work hard enough to flip the grandeur of playing the position in their favor.
"We want to be leaders -- we've been leaders all of our lives," Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We enjoy the ball in our hands. We enjoy the pressure. We enjoy the opportunity with the odds against you at times, when you're playing on the road or with the expectations very high when you're at home. I think you have to have a special personality, a moxie about you to inspire your teammates but also never lose confidence in yourself. That's the most important thing a quarterback can have."
Quarterbacks no longer can be game managers. They must make plays. The Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowls earlier this decade in spite of their quarterbacks. But the New York Giants, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers won because of them. Tom Brady to Deion Branch; Eli Manning to David Tyree, then Plaxico Burress; Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes.
A delay in their delivery, an inability to escape a rush, cracking under a dwindling play clock -- any minute flaw could have changed the outcome and the legacies for those quarterbacks.
"Teams that have won the Super Bowl have franchise-style quarterbacks," Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards said. "Each year, it's the Ben Roethlisbergers, Eli Mannings, Peyton Mannings -- those guys are taking their teams deep into the playoffs, which seems like every January and February, and that's kind of what an organization needs in order to get to that level and that's an organization's goal. You obviously need to go and find a quarterback that can get you there."
That is why the Bears gave up coveted draft picks for Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler and the New York Jets handed the Cleveland Browns similar compensation to move up and take Mark Sanchez fifth overall in the April draft. It's also why the Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals awarded veterans Kerry Collins and Kurt Warner, respectively, two-year, multi-million, free-agent contracts this offseason, despite having former top-10 draft picks Vince Young and Matt Leinart on their rosters.
Collins and Warner have shown they can handle everything that comes with the position. Young and Leinart haven't -- on and off the field. They're arguably known more for their off-the-field lifestyles/issues rather than their on-field production -- although Young did flash promise as a rookie. They're prime examples that being a quarterback in the NFL is more than having the big arm and collegiate success. A quarterback must be diligent and aware, on and off the field, because he will be judged at every turn (see Tony Romo, Vick, Brett Favre, Cutler).
"There are plenty of guys who have come into this league, their priorities are a little messed up, and not just QBs," former St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green said. "They get some money and get some fame and then they're out of the league in two or three years. It's much more under the microscope at the QB position because you are the leader of the team, leader of the organization, so how that is handled is crucial for players and crucial for organizations."
Maturity is hard to gauge, which is why teams spend so much time doing their due diligence on draft prospects and potential free agents. A big arm can overshadow a bad temper. Leadership can skew perceptions of a quarterback's inability to diagnose a defense. Some coaches also believe they can fix bad habits or put players in proper schemes, red flags aside.
Good quarterbacks share common traits, according to several current and former players, coaches and personnel evaluators. Decision-making skills and accuracy rank at the top. Poise, leadership and guile rated highly. Rarely was arm strength or physical size mentioned.
"They do have to be accurate," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "They have to be guys who can make solid decisions, week after week, season after season. The ones that you see over a period of time -- the Peyton Mannings, Tom Bradys, Drew Breeses, Philip Riverses, Eli Mannings, Donovan McNabbs -- those guys have had some staying power or the potential to because they're accurate and make good decisions. Some guys, they throw it well, they do it well, but they're a half-second too late constantly, so they struggle."
Said Ryan, the 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year: "Accuracy is No. 1 -- accuracy and timing. You've got to be on time and you've got to be in the right spot. So as far as the physical part, I think that's huge. The mental part, you've got to stay poised, you've got to stay relaxed, but at the same time, you've got to be intense enough to lead your guys and take them on the field. So you kind of have to toe the line between those two, and if you can do that, I think you can be pretty successful."
Added former NFL coach Dick Vermeil: "First, he's got to be able to throw the ball accurately. Some guys can throw, throw, throw, and they'll miss two or three passes in the ball game that can mean the difference in winning and losing, and if they miss them, they lose. They hit them, they win. Can you throw the ball accurately -- under pressure? Are you distracted by the things that happen in front of you? Are you distracted by coverages?"
The slightest flaw can unseat a career. The slightest strength can prolong one. No quarterback is perfect, but as long as he strives to be, he has a chance.
"When you get thrown into the fray and stuff is just flying around you at 100 miles per hour, it's your ability to take a deep breath and slow everything down and make sure guys in the huddle see that," Brees said. "In the end, they're going to react the way that you do. If you get flustered, that shows to them. If you show composure, it puts them at ease. The great ones put everyone at ease."