Under the Headset  

 

Russell Wilson, Cam Newton each in the midst of historic stretch

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As many people lament the lack of good quarterback play in the NFL, I contend that we have never had as many quality signal callers in the league at a given time. There are three certain Hall of Fame QBs (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees), as well as at least two more likely Hall of Famers (Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger), along with another who's got a real shot (Eli Manning) and a prodigy who -- despite his troubles this season -- likely will wind up in Canton someday (Andrew Luck).

Having said that, it's also true that on any given weekend, there simply aren't 32 people walking the face of the Earth who can play quarterback effectively in the NFL. And the proof of that is evident, as well: Just this past week, people were trying to win games with the likes of Jimmy Clausen, Blaine Gabbert, Zach Mettenberger, Case Keenum, Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden.

The flaws and inconsistencies at the middle and bottom of the quarterbacking pyramid make it even easier to appreciate the remarkable attributes of those at the top. Which is why it's all the more amazing to note that, over the past six weeks, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton have been playing at a level we have never seen before in the history of this league.

In the past six games, Wilson has led Seattle to a 5-1 record, and completed nearly 69 percent of passes, while throwing 20 touchdown passes and only one interception. Over the same period, Newton has led Carolina to six victories, while completing 65 percent of his passes and piling up 19 touchdowns to just one interception. None of the quarterbacks listed in the first paragraph have ever had that level of productivity over a six-week span, and we've now seen two young guns do it over the same six-week period.

The others have come close. During last season's Super Bowl run, Brady went on a 6-0 tear in the middle of the season, throwing 20 touchdowns and three interceptions, completing 65 percent of his passes. Last year, Rodgers led the Packers on a 5-1 run, where he completed 70 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and two interceptions. Brees' best six-game run was in 2013, with 19 TDs and three interceptions.

But it's not merely that Wilson and Newton have exceeded the best stretches of the best quarterbacks in the game. It's that they've done more than that. Wilson has run for 199 yards in this span (an average of 33 per game), while Newton has totaled 237 (40 per game). It's that component that makes both so difficult to defend. Against Seattle and Carolina, you're usually going to have one less person rushing the passer or one less person dropping into coverage, because you have to keep someone home to spy the running threat at QB.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young is the only one to have come close to this level of production. In 1994, his Super Bowl-winning, MVP year, Young had a 6-0 run during the latter part of the season where he had 18 touchdowns to two interceptions, while averaging 26 yards a game rushing.

As I've mentioned before, both Wilson and Newton throw less than the Manning-Brady-Brees triumvirate, but part of this is because they're both so adept at running, and they can attack defenses that way. Wilson has never thrown 500 passes in a season, and Newton's done it just once (517 in his rookie year).

By now, Wilson and Newton have both shed the label of "athletes who can throw," establishing themselves as superb quarterbacks who can run, as well. And they've both improved over the course of this season. In Wilson's case, the team has finally come around. Back in September, Wilson had to deal with the shoddy offensive-line play of the Seahawks, as well as the lack of a reliable running game, given Marshawn Lynch's health problems. Newton's accuracy has improved, and this year he's made a significant leap in his decision making. I continue to be concerned about his ability to withstand all the punishment he takes, but as long as he's healthy, Cam's an absolute nightmare to defend.

Another thing that Wilson and Newton have in common: Both have accomplished all this with less-than-dynamic receiving corps.

So, are they "elite" yet?

Wilson, of course, has a Super Bowl ring to stake his claim to the title. And consecutive trips to Super Bowl Sunday, another difficult accomplishment. Newton hasn't been that far up the mountain, but he's consistently excelled this year with the game on the line, putting himself at the forefront of the MVP race. In Week 6, on the road at Seattle, he drove 80 yards in eight plays in the final minutes, hitting Greg Olsen with a 26-yard touchdown pass to win the game. Earlier this month, in a shootout with New Orleans, he drove his team 75 yards in 11 plays and found Jerricho Cotchery for the game-winning score. Last Sunday in New York, with the game tied in the last two minutes, he didn't merely drive his team the 49 yards in eight plays for the game-winning field goal; he did it with an air of inevitability.

And that's what the great ones have: When they get the ball with the game hanging in the balance, you have the sense that they'll find a way.

It's too early to make any definitive judgments on the legacies of Wilson and Newton, but we are getting very close to removing any remaining qualifiers to their status as elite quarterbacks.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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