The old guard at quarterback is not going away quietly. After a 2012 highlighted by the best rookie class in memory, quarterback royalty in 2013 looked remarkably similar to the top guns back in 2009.
It was the year of Peyton Manning, like so many before. But right behind him was a Philip Rivers revival worthy of his best seasons. (This is a guy who once led the league in yards per attempt (YPA) for three consecutive seasons.) Drew Brees hasn't gone anywhere. Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger started the season slow, but try naming five better quarterbacks than them in the second half.
The next generation is coming. Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill all progressed. Cam Newton "matured," which is media translation for his defense getting better (Newton never was exactly a problem). Nick Foles came out of nowhere to bolster the 2012 rookie class.
The young guys will have their day on top. Perhaps it will come in these playoffs. For now, it's the same old bosses running the NFL.
This is the Quarterback Index. Every four weeks, I rank all 32 starters, top to bottom. This is one of those weeks. The rankings are based on 2013 play alone. I've included everyone's preseason ranking next to them in parenthesis.
Alone at the top
1. Peyton Manning (3)
Manning is about to win his fifth MVP award, which is more than Joe Montana and Tom Brady combined. Just three players have ever won it more than twice. Manning will win the award at age 37, matching Rich Gannon as the oldest player to win MVP. Manning and the 36-year-old Brady are rewriting our expectations for how quarterbacks age. Manning surprisingly threw the ball deep more as the weather turned cold.
Rivers and Mike McCoy made the Chargers' offense fun to watch, something that rarely happened in the Norv Turner era. ... Brees' excellent season was remarkably similar to the last two, although he was hit a lot more. ... Brady's rough first half wasn't all on his lack of weapons, but he'd have my vote for second-half MVP. (Note: That's not a real award.)... Rodgers was as outstanding as ever when he played. He would be ranked No. 2 for his time on the field, but he didn't start enough to qualify here.
Roethlisberger is throwing more than ever without losing any efficiency. He's also going to play 16 games for the first time since 2008. Why might offensive coordinator Todd Haley be on the way out again? ... Russell Wilson overcame a lot more this year than people realize, from his offensive line to a shaky receiver group. ... Luck also has dealt with a weak supporting cast, reducing his errant throws over the last month.
Despite Riverboat Ron's rep, the Panthers' offense is more conservative this year. Newton remains a difference maker, but his biggest change was to drastically cut down on his mistakes. ... Foles never looks quite as good on Game Rewind as he does in the box score. Perhaps that's why he's only 16th on Pro Football Focus' rankings despite leading the NFL in many categories: touchdowns per throw, yards per attempt, yards per completion and quarterback rating.
Based on Josh McCown's play, Bears coach Marc Trestman looks like the pre-eminent quarterback guru in the league. ... Matt Ryan really isn't much different of a player than a year ago. Football is just confusing. ... Romo's YPA fell significantly for the second consecutive year. He'll finish outside the top 10 in the category for the first time in his career.
The next level after that
Stafford climbed as high as No. 6 on this list during the season, and then he made me feel foolish for talking myself into believing in him. It felt like being a Lions fan. ... I have been leading Team Tannehill since day one and still see Pro Bowls in his future. ... Kaepernick wasn't quite ready to carry an offense. He remains a difficult player to figure out, ranking sixth in ESPN's QBR rating, 13th in Football Outsiders' rankings and 19th according to Pro Football Focus. This was a half-step back, before taking a few steps forward next year.
Flacco isn't nearly as bad as his stats indicate, but those stats are hideous. ... Smith's skill set transferred better outside of San Francisco than expected. ... Dalton is wildly inconsistent, which is not what you want from a quarterback with limitations. He remains the prime meridian of quarterbacks. If you are below Dalton, you are a problem.
Palmer mostly threw the ball well in the second half of the season. Expect him back in Arizona in 2014. ... This was easily Eli's worst season since 2006. The good streaks weren't there enough this year. ... Forget the RGIII comparisons to Newton's career arc. Griffin is capable of an even bigger jump next season. ... Glennon was one of the year's pleasant surprises. He deserves a chance to keep starting. ... Cassel has proved to be the perfect backup or placeholder for a promising young player. (Christian Ponder is not that player.)
End of the road
A lot of backups played a lot of football this season. Campbell, Fitzpatrick and Clemens probably lengthened their careers by a few years each with their competent play. ... The Jets should not hesitate to bring in competition for Smith. If Geno takes a big step next year, that's a good problem to have. ... The Bills are in a tough spot with Manuel. He missed too much playing time and didn't look remotely ready when he started.