It's time to let old things die -- not literally, of course, but it is time to move on from the old superstar quarterbacks who once ruled the NFL, especially come January, and embrace a new generation of quarterbacks who are ready to begin writing their playoff legacies.
Welcome to the NFL playoffs where -- fair or not -- quarterback legacies are made and destroyed. Even without the six Super Bowls, Tom Brady would be regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks to have ever played the game, because he's accomplished enough in the regular season alone to be worthy of such an honor, but it's his iconic performances in January and February that make him the greatest quarterback of all time. Maybe if Dan Marino had won just one lousy Super Bowl, he would've been the quarterback Brady had unseated as the greatest of all time. If Philip Rivers had managed to win two Super Bowls in surprising fashion and it was actually Eli Manning with zero rings, imagine how much different the discourse would be when the two are inevitably in the Hall of Fame discussion.
But you don't need me to tell you this. You know this. They know this. We all know this.
With all that in mind, Aaron Rodgers, who should be first ballot Hall of Famers whenever they do retire, but are playing nowhere close to their respective peaks right now, two quarterbacks under the age of 25 who have claimed the past two MVP awards with record-setting seasons in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson (this year's award is already his, even if it officially hasn't been handed out yet), and two quarterbacks who had already been written off by pretty much everyone, but submitted two incredible seasons that many didn't think they had in them in Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins., it's now time to rank the 12 quarterbacks who made it all the way to January. It's a loaded field featuring two all-time greats in Brady and
Before we get to the rankings, I do want to lay out the rules -- rather, just one rule in particular. This list is not a list of how these quarterbacks stack up on the all-time leaderboard. This is a list of the best quarterbacks RIGHT NOW. In that sense, you will not see Brady and Rodgers near the top of the list even though they're two of the most accomplished quarterbacks out of the 12. You won't see them near the top because neither of them is playing particularly good football right now, neither of them played well all season long, and all I care about for the purposes of this story is this postseason -- not last postseason or next postseason or two postseasons ago.
There's no doubt Allen improved in Year 2 after a wildly inconsistent rookie season. But he did not improve nearly as much as the narrative suggests.
From last year to this year, his completion percentage improved by 6 percent (good!), he averaged 0.2 more yards per pass attempt (meh), his touchdown percentage rose by 1.2 percent (good!), his interception percentage declined by 1.8 percent (great!), and his passer rating climbed by 17.4 points (great!).
However, the advanced metrics are less kind to Allen. By both DYAR and DVOA, he finished the season ranked 27th -- one spot ahead of Mitchell Trubisky and one spot behind Andy Dalton. By total QBR, which factors in running (a real strength of Allen's), he finished the season ranked 26th -- one spot ahead of Case Keenum and one spot behind Jared Goff. Last season, Allen ranked 33rd, 33rd, and 26th in those respective categories.
So, again, did he improve? Yes. Did he improve by a ton? Not really.
Allen is still the biggest question mark on an otherwise good Bills team. The good news for the Bills is that, at the very least, Allen has stopped turning the ball over. After his three-interception nightmare against the Patriots in Week 4, Allen produced only three interceptions the rest of the way. That's important. Allen might not win the Bills a playoff game, but he also might not lose them one by giving the ball to the other team. The bad news, though, is that Allen is still a highly erratic passer and he might just lose the Bills a game by missing open receivers on throws that NFL quarterbacks are expected to make 10 out of 10 times.
Those misses are even more maddening because the same quarterback is capable of making throws like this:
What the Bills need is more consistency out of their quarterback. If Allen plays well, the Bills are good enough to embark upon a playoff run. But if Allen plays the way he's played for most of his career, the Bills probably won't be able to get past the divisional round.
It sounds strange to say this, but that doesn't make it any less true: Against the Seahawks on Sunday, Wentz will be making the first playoff start of his career. To this point, Wentz has never thrown a pass in a playoff game, which isn't really something I can hold against him considering he played a role in each of the Eagles' playoff appearances the past two seasons, but has never gotten the chance to finish what he started due to untimely injuries. This year, Wentz gets that chance.
Unfortunately for Wentz, the one time he actually managed to stay healthy enough to survive until the postseason, the rest of his team didn't. The Eagles enter the postseason shorthanded at offensive line, tight end, wide receiver, and running back. Zach Ertz is probably out. Lane Johnson might be out. Brandon Brooks is definitely out. Alshon Jeffery has already been ruled out for the remainder of the season. Nelson Agholor is also in doubt. Jordan Howard hasn't really played since Week 9. Miles Sanders is banged up.
In a must-win Week 17 game, Wentz was throwing passes to guys named Boston Scott, Josh Perkins, Deontay Burnett, Greg Ward, and Robert Davis. You get the point. Wentz has been operating in less than ideal circumstances.
But that doesn't change the fact that this has been Wentz's worst season since his rookie year. From 2017-18, Wentz completed 64.7 percent of his passes, averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, and generated a 102.0 passer rating. This year, Wentz completed 63.9 percent of his passes, averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, and generated a 93.1 passer rating. He posted a negative completion percentage above expectation, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He ranked 17th, 20th, and 11th in DYAR, DVOA, and total QBR, respectively.
Again, it's not all Wentz's fault. The circumstances around him matter. But it's a shame that his postseason debut will come after his worst season since he was a rookie.
It's time for everyone to acknowledge that Rodgers is no longer the quarterback he once was and hasn't been that quarterback for a few years now. Over the past three seasons, Rodgers is completing 62.6 percent of his passes, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt, and has posted a 96.6 passer rating. Those aren't terrible numbers or anything. I'm not saying Rodgers is a bad quarterback. I'm just saying he's no longer the fire-breathing dragon he once was.
I'll let The Athletic's Ben Baldwin take it away from here, because he's been championing this cause for a while now.
Rodgers' decline is evident when looking at the tape.
And it's evident when looking at the advanced metrics.
Aaron Rodgers final 2019 season stats:— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) December 30, 2019
Completion +/- (NGS): #28
All behind the league's best pass protection
We keep waiting for Rodgers, now 36, to break out under Matt LaFleur. We've been waiting for 17 weeks. It just hasn't happened yet. At this point, I'd say it's reasonable to assume it's probably never going to happen. It's not like he's peaking entering the postseason. In the final eight games of the season, he completed 58.7 percent of his passes, averaged 5.9 yards per attempt, and posted an 84.2 passer rating -- all of which are actively bad numbers.
Historically speaking, Rodgers is the
second third best quarterback on this list (I somehow forgot about Drew Brees when I initially wrote this blurb). There's no denying that. But there's also no denying that based on his performance this season, he deserves to be ranked in the bottom half of this list.
Likewise, Brady isn't performing anywhere close to his peak. It's not entirely Brady's fault. Unlike Rodgers, who has received great pass protection all season, Brady hasn't. The Packers' offensive line is ranked first in pass block win rate. The Patriots? 18th. Brady has also been forced to deal with the absences of Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon, both of whom he hoped to be targeting frequently. Outside of Julian Edelman, Brady just hasn't had reliable receivers to throw the ball to. The lack of separation created by the Patriots' receivers coupled with the banged up offensive line's inability to provide adequate pass protection has caused Brady to submit his worst season since 2013.
Brady finished the season averaging 6.6 yards per attempt (his lowest average since 2002). He ranked 16th, 17th, and 16th in DYAR, DVOA, and total QBR, respectively. And he posted the league's eight-lowest completion percentage above expectation, ranking between Eli Manning and Baker Mayfield.
With Brady, the Patriots have been known for their ability to mount game-winning drives. But this Patriots team feels like the exact opposite in the sense that they're just not built to come from behind. Just look at how Bill Belichick approached the end of the first half against the Dolphins on Sunday. In a tied game, the Patriots chose to run out the clock instead of trying to move the ball into field goal range with 57 seconds left. That really tells you all you need to know about what Belichick thinks of his own offense.
It's not all Brady's fault, but Brady hasn't been good enough to overcome a less than ideal situation around him, which is notable. That said, nobody should be foolish enough to write him off in the postseason. It's just that, for the first time in a while, Brady doesn't inspire fear in the opposition the way he has for the better part of the past two decades.
The best thing Garoppolo has going for him is Kyle Shanahan, who continues to create open and short throws for his quarterback -- only two quarterbacks averaged fewer air yards per pass, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. But Garoppolo himself deserves credit for running the offense by design. He's answered most of the questions we asked heading into the season and again after the 49ers leapt out to an 8-0 start thanks to their defense. Down the stretch, when the 49ers' defense was unable to dominate the way they did in the first half of the season, Garoppolo played well against tough opponents -- so well that the team was still able to earn the top seed in the conference.
Here's how Garoppolo performed against the rest of the playoff field in games that all came after Week 8:
- 24 of 46 for 248 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a 66.2 passer rating in a loss to the Seahawks
- 14 of 20 for 253 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 145.8 passer rating in a win over the Packers
- 15 of 21 for 165 yards, one touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 110.2 passer rating in a loss to the Ravens
- 26 of 35 for 349 yards, four touchdowns, one interception, and a 131.7 passer rating in a win over the Saints
- 18 of 22 for 285 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 118.7 passer rating in a win over the Seahawks
He finished the season ranked 12th in DYAR, 11th in DVOA, and 12th in total QBR. That'll be good enough for the 49ers to reach the Super Bowl. Really, that's the main takeaway here. Garoppolo might not be the best quarterback in the NFL. But he's good enough to help the 49ers get to where they're trying to go.
Watson's slump down the stretch caused him to fall down the board. After dismantling the Patriots in Week 13, Watson completed 60.6 percent of his passes, averaged 6.6 yards per attempt, threw two more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (3), and posted a 70.1 passer rating in his final three starts of the season. Still, his entire body of work this season remains impressive. He finished as the league's seventh best quarterback by total QBR, but finished only 13th and 12th in DYAR and DVOA, respectively.
Even though Watson is ranked on the back half of this list, he's the kind of quarterback who is capable of getting blistering hot in January and leading an otherwise meh Texans team on a deep run. The Texans have bigger question marks than Watson, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. It might just be too much for him to overcome. But I wouldn't feel comfortable betting against him.
What a world we're living in: Cousins is ranked above Rodgers, Brady, and Watson. Who saw that coming before the season?
It's entirely fair to still have questions about Cousins' ability to win big games, because he's seldom done that throughout his career. It's undeniable. But it's also undeniable how well he's played for the Vikings this season, even if his otherwise impressive season ended with a whimper in a diabolical loss to the Packers. Cousins still finished the season with career-highs (not counting the first three seasons of his career, when he hadn't yet emerged as a full-time starter) in touchdown percentage (5.9), yards per attempt (8.1), and passer rating (107.4). He ranked seventh in DYAR, 10th in DVOA, and 13th in total QBR.
Cousins is still a quarterback who is very much dependent on the players around him -- particularly his offensive line. If defenses can apply pressure, Cousins' level of play tends to suffer. But Cousins played better than the six aforementioned quarterbacks this season. That's why he sneaks his way onto the top half of this list.
Indeed, it's a very, very mad world. First, Cousins at No. 6. Now, Tannehill at No. 5.
The thing is, I actually would be surprised if anyone had qualms with ranking Tannehill this high. That's how great he's been since the Titans handed him the starting job in Week 7. With Tannehill under center, the Titans posted a 7-3 record to sneak into the playoffs. Tannehill emerged as a darling of the analytical community, leading the league in completion percentage above expectation by a significant margin and finishing the season top-five in DVOA and top-10 in total QBR. Only Jameis Winston and Matthew Stafford averaged more air yards per attempt than Tannehill, and 19.6 percent of his passes were thrown into tight windows, which was the sixth-highest rate. Put another way, Tannehill was frequently bombing the ball downfield to well-covered receivers and he still completed 70.3 percent of his passes.
Ryan Tannehill completed better than 70% his passes for more than 9 yards per attempt this season.— Travis Wingfield (@WingfieldNFL) December 30, 2019
The last time that happened in the NFL was Joe Montana in 1989.
By the time the season ended, he was third in completion percentage (behind two quarterbacks who seldom threw the ball downfield), second in touchdown percentage (behind only Lamar Jackson), first in yards per attempt (by a full yard!), and first in passer rating (above Drew Brees). I have no idea if this is going to continue for much longer, but for now, let's just appreciate what he's doing.
Before the 12s come yelling at me, allow me to explain. This is not a shot at Wilson, who would be second on my MVP ballot behind only Jackson if I had an MVP vote. Wilson is awesome. He's always asked to cover up so many of the Seahawks' deficiencies. Once Tyler Lockett got hurt, the offense suffered. Wilson is still amazing. It's just that the final four quarterbacks are so incredibly great that one of them had to fall to fourth place and it just so happened to be Wilson. If you wanted to reverse the order ever so slightly, I wouldn't argue. That's how tight the 4-2 positions are.
I suppose Wilson got dinged because he didn't play as well down the stretch as he did in the first half of the season.
Wilson still finished the year fourth, seventh, and sixth in DYAR, DVOA, and QBR, respectively. He pieced together an awesome season. It's just that, by the time the season ended, the three quarterbacks positioned ahead of him were playing better football.
But we all know what Wilson is capable of. No team should want to play the Seahawks -- not because of their defense or their coaching staff or whatever, but because Wilson is one of those quarterbacks capable of singlehandedly turning what should be a loss into a miraculous win. He might actually be the most frustrating quarterback to face out of all 12 quarterbacks appearing on this list.
I would be absolutely terrified of facing the Saints in the postseason, even though they'll have the misfortune of playing away from home if they make it past this weekend, because their offense is peaking at the right time. Since returning from the thumb injury that cost him five starts, Brees is completing 74.6 percent of his passes and averaging 7.8 yards per attempt, and has thrown 25 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
Most of what he does is underneath, evidenced by his 6.7 air yards per attempt (fourth lowest), but you can't fault the approach given how well it works. Once again, he led the league in completion percentage and he averaged 7.9 yards per attempt (ninth highest) and a touchdown on 7.1 percent of his passes (third highest). As a result, the Saints finished with the league's fourth-best offense by DVOA, one spot ahead of the Seahawks and one spot behind the Chiefs.
Unlike Rodgers and Brady, Brees is the all-time great quarterback near the end of his career who isn't fading.
Speaking of the Chiefs, things were looking bleak for them when they lost the reigning MVP to Matt Moore slated to start against the Vikings in their next game. Meanwhile, the Patriots were cruising at 8-0. Yet the Chiefs still managed to chase down the Patriots and claim the second seed in the AFC, giving them a first-round bye.. After Week 8, the Chiefs were 5-3 with
The Chiefs' defense played a substantial role in their 7-1 run to finish the season, but Mahomes was his usual brilliant self. The touchdowns might've dried up a bit, but it's not like he was going to throw for 50 touchdowns again. Mahomes completed nearly the exact same percentage of his passes as last season, he cut his interception percentage in half, and even though his average yards per attempt fell by half a yard, he still finished the year ranked fourth in YPA. He also ranked third in both DYAR and DVOA, and second in total QBR (only Jackson had him beat).
It certainly feels like the Chiefs are on a collision course with the Ravens, which would pit the two most-recent MVPs against each other.
No debate here. Jackson was the best player in football in 2019 by a wide margin.
In a 15-game season, he completed 66.1 percent of his passes (ninth), averaged 7.8 yards per attempt (12th), threw 36 touchdowns (first), got picked off on only 1.5 percent of his passes (10th lowest), and generated a 113.3 passer rating (third). That's what he accomplished as a passer. As a runner, he rushed for (the league's best quarterback by total QBR, and ranked fifth in DYAR and second in DVOA. To this point, nobody has really figured out how to stop him, which is why the Ravens are 14-2 and haven't lost a game since Week 4.) 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns. He was
A year ago, Jackson wasn't an effective passer and it cost the Ravens in the playoffs. Remember when?
Things should go very different this time around.