The NFL season began with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning making a statement to a New York radio station that he considered himself to be among the league's elite at the position. At the time, it was a highly debatable topic. Now, having a shot at winning his second Super Bowl ring, his elite status is a given and even has some wondering if he is better than his brother Peyton.
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Peyton Manning, of course, has appeared in two Super Bowls with the Indianapolis Colts, winning one. To me, outside of Dan Marino, you can't even start the conversation of elite quarterbacks without looking at championships. So that begs the question: Does winning championships make an elite quarterback or does having an elite quarterback lead to championships? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Remember this is coming from a coach who won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer and then released him in the offseason. Obviously he is a championship-caliber quarterback, but I don't think people would argue him to be elite. I surely didn't. It was my opinion that I needed to upgrade the quarterback position if I wanted to repeat. Keep in mind that during the title season we failed to score an offensive touchdown in a five-game span in which we lost three of those five games. If we couldn't create more offensive opportunity, not only would we not repeat, but we would struggle to even make the playoffs. I didn't think I could count on another season with 2,000 yards rushing, another season of timely special teams touchdowns and another season of the most dominating defensive play in NFL history.
To me, this is very similar to what the San Francisco 49ers are facing this offseason. As soon as they were eliminated in the NFC Championship Game, questions began about the status of Alex Smith. Can he take this team to a Super Bowl? Can he be an elite quarterback?
After the divisional round, Smith had more momentum and support. But after the loss to the Giants, the "what have you done for me lately" mentality kicked in. The truth is, he leaves a lot to be desired. Just look at the numbers. Smith only completed one pass to a wide receiver in the title game -- and that was only for three yards on a play in which they needed five to get a first down. He also led his team to just 15 first downs and was 1-for-13 on third-down conversions. Now this is as much an indictment on the entire 49ers offense, especially the receiving corps, as much as it is Alex Smith. But to me, the questions about him leading this team into the future are legitimate. Those numbers clearly won't win San Francisco a Super Bowl and surely don't suggest the franchise has an elite quaterback.
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Now, this is based off one game in a season of 18, and I understand that. But in the NFL, the only thing that matters is championships. We won one with Dilfer, but I knew we wouldn't win another with that same formula. So we changed it up. Rex Grossman led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl in 2006, but was benched three weeks into the 2007 season. My point is that if you don't think your team can win a Super Bowl with its current quarterback, then you better start looking for alternatives. Maybe not immediate plans, but plans nonetheless.
So that takes us back to the original question: Does winning championships make an elite quarterback or does having an elite quarterback lead to championships? To answer that, it would be best to provide my list of elite quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. So yes, all of my elite quarterbacks have won championships and the definition comes hand-in-hand. To be elite, you must lead your team to a Super Bowl championship, but just because you did, it doesn't make you elite.