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QB factions: From elite to unknown, and everything in between

Tony Gonzalez recently told ESPN The Magazine that Matt Ryan isn't "elite," immediately setting ablaze talk radio, message boards and Twitter.

How could Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer and five-year Ryan teammate, actually say "Matty Ice" isn't elite? Is there more to the story? Do they not get along? Is Gonzalez trying to make a splash, sparking an easy transition from player to broadcaster/analyst?

Shortly after his initial comments made waves, Gonzalez predictably backtracked a bit on Doug Gottlieb's CBS Sports Radio show, saying Ryan's "an inch away from being elite" and that "it's not a matter of 'if' but 'when.'"

That's the world we live in, a world of retractions and clarifications. Truth be told, when he made his initial remarks, Gonzalez was absolutely right.

Look up "elite" in the encyclopedia of today's reality, Wikipedia. The first sentence defines elite as "a small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth or political power."

Notice two key words: "small" and "disproportionate."

You can't have 10-16 elite quarterbacks in a 32-team league -- that defies the definition. Yet, fans and players get bent out of shape when their quarterback isn't included among the ranks of the elite.

Hey, as a columnist and a radio/television host, I make my living debating such topics. It's amazing how heated some fans get. I was the host who asked Phil Simms two Novembers ago, on CBS Sports Network's "NFL Monday QB," if Eli Manning is elite. Phil, while fatigued of the topic, gave a great explanation as to why Eli is "a tremendous team player" but not elite. It was wrongly seen as some kind of Giant-on-Giant crime.

As Simms said in that segment, "There are very few quarterbacks in that category." In fact, there are just three elite quarterbacks in the NFL today: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Yes, it's "a small group of people." There is no gray area. There is no hesitation. Those three signal-callers are elite.

But here's what gets me about this topic of conversation: Does it really matter? Rodgers, Brady and Peyton all have rings, but the last three Super Bowl-winning QBs are Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco and Eli. To make the playoffs and win big, you need a hot, clutch quarterback. You need a franchise quarterback, a very-good-to-great signal-caller. And, of course, you need a reliable leader.

Rodgers, Brady and Peyton are elite, if we must interpret this arbitrary measurement. How do we view the remaining quarterbacks? Well, they fall into some distinct categories. This is not a ranking; it's a snapshot of the current QB environment in the NFL.

The next tier

Oftentimes, you will see Brees lumped in with Rodgers, Brady and Peyton. I don't think that's accurate. The 2012 campaign counts against Brees, as he struggled some without Sean Payton (posting an NFL-high 19 interceptions) and New Orleans missed the playoffs. But his numbers, wins and feel put him at this worthy slot. I actually think Brees is in his own category -- right after the elite trio and right before Roethlisberger.

Still, Big Ben has been a consistently great quarterback, owning multiple Super Bowl rings. He masks areas of the Steelers that are weak. While his style can be unorthodox and he doesn't always put up the gaudy stats, Roethlisberger is a reliable winner and deserves to be recognized. OK, that ends the rankings portion of this column.

Young guns

If there's one thing that must be taken into account in this whole "elite" discussion, it's that you need a true body of work before meriting true consideration. The 2011 and 2012 draft classes delivered a number of franchise quarterbacks, some knocking on the door of greatness, some with work to do.

Luck is a star. He's everything to the Colts. (Frankly, he'd be my sixth-ranked quarterback in the NFL, but I already said I was done with rankings ... ) He's off to an eye-popping and dominant start, but again, he needs to keep doing it over a sustained period.

Kaepernick is fantastic as a runner and thrower -- and the guy was just a few inches away from knocking off the Seahawks in Seattle last month and punching the 49ers' ticket to the Super Bowl.

Wilson, of course, won that game and went on to win a championship ring. Wilson averaged just 209.8 passing yards per game during the regular season, but he has developed a knack for coming up clutch in big moments in his first two NFL campaigns. In the middle of the regular season, Wilson told me on SiriusXM Radio that he needed to improve on third down. On Super Bowl Sunday, he was special in that very area. No surprise -- nobody works harder than Wilson. This won't be the only Lombardi Trophy he lifts in his career.

Newton morphed from a losing enigma over his first two years to a true winner in 2013. His next challenge will be to win in the playoffs.

RGIII's regression -- what with his questionable health and how he handled himself last season -- should serve as a cautionary tale about prematurely pushing a QB into rarefied air. His first season was epic. His second season was a disaster that ended in what essentially amounted to a de facto benching. Though I do believe new head coach Jay Gruden will be perfect for Griffin.

Foles blossomed in his second NFL season -- and first under Chip Kelly. In fact, I'd argue he was the most valuable quarterback not named Peyton Manning.

Dalton has some nice numbers and three straight playoff berths to begin his professional career, but my feelings about the Bengals youngster not being a big-game quarterback and fizzling under pressure have been well documented in this space.

Tannehill has shown flashes but is so far the least accomplished in this group. A stable line (and organization) obviously would help.

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Vets with rings

Manning and Flacco couldn't overcome areas of deficiency on the Giants and Ravens, respectively, in 2013. In a lot of ways, they are the poster children for this "elite" topic. They've gotten hot and have been great in the playoffs, though they've also been inconsistent and, at times, very subpar in the regular season (as evidenced by their combined 49 interceptions this past fall).

Vets with big money ... and no rings

Let's get one thing straight: These four deserved their massive contracts. You either have a quarterback or you don't -- their respective teams have a quarterback. But obviously, these guys aren't perfect.

I have long argued on that Romo is a top-10 quarterback and at the bottom of the list of things that are wrong with the Cowboys. Unfortunately (and incorrectly) he always feels the wrath of Cowboys fans for not "winning the big one." Sure, Romo has some tough moments, but he's the only reason this team ever has a chance in the first place.

Ryan pressed too much last season, coping with injuries to his surrounding cast and issues along the offensive line, but I do believe you can win a title with him.

I'm not so sure if that's the case with Stafford. He has a rocket arm, but he makes ill-advised decisions. The overmatched Jim Schwartz is gone now, though; Jim Caldwell's calm and Joe Lombardi's coaching are upgrades that should, in theory, greatly benefit Stafford.

In the midst of the Josh McCown-Jay Cutler debate of December, I wrote that starting and committing long term to Cutler were both no-brainers. Cutler's career has been up and down, but the talent is there. I wholeheartedly believe he can maximize his potential under the leadership of quarterback guru Marc Trestman. The Bears didn't pay him for the past; they rightly paid him for the future.

The curious case

In 2011 and 2012, Rivers looked awful, racking up 35 picks. In 2013, with a new coaching staff in San Diego, he looked like a top-five quarterback. His regular-season stats are superior to those of Eli Manning, his 2004 draft classmate/trade partner. But of course, Eli has two legendary runs to Super Bowl titles. First-year head coach Mike McCoy really aided Rivers.

The forgotten man

As I've said before, Smith will never win a quarterback beauty pageant. He will never be a starter on your fantasy team. But if you surround him with strong coaching, a run game and a defense -- like he had at the end in San Francisco and like he enjoys now in Kansas City -- you clearly can win with Alex Smith.

Young Guns II

The first three quarterbacks taken in the 2013 NFL Draft all received significant starter burn in Year 1.

Greg Schiano's dysfunctional final season in Tampa Bay began with a fatal flaw: The coach should've trusted his gut and started Glennon from Day 1, as the rookie looked the part for the Buccaneers in the second half of the season. It will be interesting to see what Lovie Smith does with the 24-year-old signal-caller.

Geno Smith's debut campaign with the Jets was a roller-coaster ride, but before you throw him to the curb, take another look at Gang Green's receivers, tight ends and running backs. That's a weak group, to say the least. Geno has to get more consistent, but it isn't all on him. Still, the Jets would be wise to employ a capable backup quarterback in 2014.

Manuel has talent, but his rookie season with the Bills was somewhat of a wash due to injuries.

Mixed bag

Palmer added credibility to the Cardinals, who desperately needed that at the quarterback position. But come May, they must draft a quarterback for the future in the first three rounds. Palmer's not the long-term answer, and Arizona's on the cusp of special things with a talented roster.

Speaking of talent, Bradford oozes it -- but he just can't stay on the field. This is a huge season for the former No. 1 overall pick.

Locker got injured last season at the worst possible time. And the coach who believed in him just got fired. New head man Ken Whisenhunt will get in the quarterback market going forward.


I have to believe the Raiders don't view Matt McGloin and Terrelle Pryor as the present and future. Teddy Bridgewater? Johnny Manziel? Blake Bortles? Oakland surely has its eye on this year's QB class.

The Browns just experienced a shake-up in the front office Tuesday, and there's one to come in the quarterback room, as well. After talking to new Cleveland coach Mike Pettine on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," I have no doubt the team will add a quarterback or two this offseason. I think Johnny Football would be ideal in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Brandon Weeden? Not so much. If Weeden is the answer, I'd love to know the question.

Houston's open to trading out of the top spot in May and getting a quarterback with a later pick. The Texans need a veteran (Matt Cassel?) and a youngster to develop for the future. I expect them to get their hands on someone like Bortles. (And to think, I believed in Matt Schaub!)

Jacksonville needs a do-over: Blaine Gabbert obviously isn't the guy. That said, I don't necessarily see the Jaguars forcing the issue at quarterback in the first round. After all, Gus Bradley has seen firsthand how Pete Carroll built his team.

New coach Mike Zimmer told me on SiriusXM that the Vikings absolutely will be in the quarterback business this offseason, and they should be. Good thing they tossed a few million at Josh Freeman last October ...

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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