In last week's QB Index awards, we dubbed 2015 the Season of Cam. A strong Week 17 finish by Newton vaults him to the top of our year-end rankings.
This is the third season we've done this column. Newton finished eighth in 2013 and 14th last season before the huge jump to the top this year. He didn't finish on top by much. Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, and Russell Wilson also had incredible years. It's quite a comeback for Palmer who was 19th on this list in 2013 before tearing his ACL in 2014. Tom Brady has never finished lower than fourth, which shows he's the most consistent top-shelf quarterback in football even late in his thirties. And Ben Roethlisberger's strangely underrated career continues with his third straight top-five finish.
*On to the rankings! This ranking is based on 2015 regular season play only. *
Best of the Best
Newton's accuracy was the key to his season. After a so-so September, he didn't experience the cold streaks with his passing that plagued previous years. He completes more contested throws up the seams than any quarterback because the ball gets there too fast for defenders to react. Throw in the most value as a runner in the league and the ability to make his teammates better, and Newton narrowly edges out Palmer's career year. ... Palmer, like Newton, always stayed aggressive without piling up mistakes. He completed the most "wow" throws downfield and was even improved throwing on the run. It's crazy that he had his best season at age 36, just like it's crazy Tom Brady somehow played better this season at age 38 after a Super Bowl winning season. The Patriots offense is the Tom Brady offense. That's why it can survive so many injuries, although the team reached a tipping point in December.
Wilson enjoyed his best season, and his third straight finish in the top eight of the QB Index. Even early in the year when the Seahawks were losing games, Wilson was having his best season from the pocket. This is what the greats do; they erase weaknesses as careers wear on. Wilson is ahead of schedule. ... Roethlisberger is a good test to see whether your local analyst is watching the games or just looking at the stats. Ben's superlative play was far flashier than his touchdown:interception ratio. On a per-game basis, he was right there with Newton, Palmer, and Brady this year.
We brought Dalton back to recognize his outstanding season. His first six weeks tops any run that players like Rivers and Brees had all year. ... Rodgers' September should not be forgotten. He pulled off more outrageous throws in tough spots in consecutive weeks than we've ever seen. When the rest of the league realized the Packers could only improvise, the magic ran out. There are a lot of reasons for Rodgers' downturn, but he should be held responsible for not figuring out a way to stop the bleeding. For all the rightful talk of receivers not being open, there were often throws available that Rodgers didn't see or didn't make. He's looked scrambled mentally at times. ... Rivers, like Roethlisberger, had to be watched weekly to appreciate. For most of the year, he did an extraordinary job overcoming awful protection. Few quarterbacks would have held up so well. ... The year started with Drew Brees looking mortal. After a surprisingly brief shoulder scare, Brees wound up looking like the same old Brees in the second half of the season. That's why trying to squeeze one more playoff run out of Brees and Sean Payton together makes sense.
Big Drop to mid-tier
Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins had similar seasons even though they are extremely different players. Carr's second half of the year was a big decline after an expectations-altering start to the year. Cousins had the opposite season. He was below average through midseason before a scorching stretch run that could somehow make him richer than Robert Griffin III ever was. Carr's ceiling is higher because of his arm and athleticism, but Cousins proved he could have an Andy Dalton-like career with the help of Dalton's old buddy Jay Gruden. Carr gets the top-ten nod here because his first eleven games was incredibly consistent, with some near-flawless games. It was a better stretch than any other quarterback in this tier had all year.
Oakland found their franchise quarterback in Carr. And the Jaguars have one in Blake Bortles, who is my favorite young quarterback to watch. The Bortles roller-coaster had the biggest highs and the most head-scratching lows of any quarterback in the league. He completes more difficult throws than anyone and can almost play with too much confidence. He's got the highest ceiling of any quarterback under 25. ... Eli Manning used to make a lot more low percentage plays. Now he's more boring, but more consistent. ... Ryan Fitzpatrick's career year ended in heartbreaking fashion, but that shouldn't outweigh all his fourth quarter heroics throughout the year. It makes too much sense for the Jets to re-sign him with an eye on developing a young quarterback. ... Tyrod Taylor is hard to evaluate, but he combines incredible running skills with a great deep ball. That's a nice combination.
Matt Ryan had a disappointing year, although it wasn't as bad as people made it out to be. The concern with Ryan: He is more of a function of the offense and player around him than true top ten quarterbacks like Philip Rivers or Russell Wilson. ... Joe Flacco returns for the season-ending rankings. On a per-game basis, his play could have put him 5-6 spots higher. He wasn't the problem. ... Winston, like Bortles, had a roller-coaster season. He didn't have the interceptions everyone expected but his poor games tended to be really poor.
Alex Smith has an argument to be ranked higher, but ultimately we give the Chiefs defense and Andy Reid a lot of credit for the team's ten-game winning streak. It's uncanny how the scripted plays to start each game, along with Smith's execution, paid off in early touchdown drives. And then the Chiefs could sit on the lead because the defense was so dominant. Smith is right there, however, with Cam, Russell Wilson, and Tyrod Taylor as the most valuable running quarterbacks in the league. ... Stafford wasn't in the top-25 quarterbacks in the first half of the season. He was a top-ten quarterback in the second half. That's the Stafford experience in a nutshell.
Tier offseason questions
The question for Bradford: Is there any reason to think he'll finally justify all that belief NFL teams have showed in him since he was drafted No. 1 overall? A team out there is bound to give him big money on the free agent market if the Eagles don't re-sign him. ... The question for Bridgewater: Can you build an offense around him or is going to be the upper middle class man's Alex Smith? ... The question for Hoyer: What rookie will the Texans find to compete with him next year? ... The question for Tannehill: Is he the new Jay Cutler? He'll be on his fourth offensive coordinator next season, and the first three haven't done enough to keep their jobs.
Supporting players in 2015
McCarron showed enough in his closing stretch to believe he'll be a quality backup at worst for a while. The same is true for Gabbert after his eight start run in San Francisco. ... It will be fascinating to see how the Broncos value Osweiler this offseason. He showed just enough to be intrigued in his potential, but it's anyone's guess whether he can be a franchise quarterback. ... On the field, Johnny Manziel showed some promise. Just not enough promise to justify everything else. To put it another way: He's not talented enough to be worth it. ... Kaepernick's work ethic and desire to be great has never been a question. Now his ability to develop as a starter is in doubt. We'd be surprised if he stayed in San Francisco next season.
Nick Foles is entering the offseason as the backup to Case Keenum in St. Louis despite plenty of guaranteed money on Foles' deal. The Rams have given up on him. ... Poor Cassel wound up starting seven games at a time in his career where he should probably not be a backup any longer. ... Hasselbeck, meanwhile, would have been one of the happiest stories of the season if Andrew Luck hadn't been hurt a second time, putting Hasselbeck in harm's way for a second long stretch.