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Those three names have been synonymous with elite over the past decade and the first three mentioned when the conversation turns to the best quarterbacks in the National Football League.
On Sunday, all three quarterbacks added another chapter in their respective legacies. Brees tossed a pair of touchdowns in the Saints’ overtime win over Tampa Bay, surpassing 40,000 yards passing in his Saints career. He did so in his 132nd game with the club, breaking Dan Marino‘s mark as the fastest to reach that feat with one club. Brady surpassed the 50,000-yard passing mark in his career, becoming just the sixth NFL quarterback to do so. And Peyton Manning threw for his 500th career touchdown as Denver got past Arizona. Manning set the mark in his 244th career regular season game, 49 fewer games than it took the previous record-holder, Brett Favre.
As these three future Hall of Famers that will one day be enshrined on the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks checked another marvelous feat off of their to-do lists, a whole new wave of young quarterbacks destined for stardom proved they are next in this discussion.
Andrew Luck was anointed the next “elite” quarterback while he was still throwing passing for Stanford, but his outstanding play over the past three weeks has elevated the Colts back into the conversation for the AFC’s best team. Russell Wilson has become the focal point of the Seahawks’ potent offense, as he continues to engineer arguably the NFL’s top team. And Cam Newton, who despite a rash of injuries to his offensive line and stable of running back, helped lead the Panthers to a second-half comeback against the Bears to keep his team in the thick of the divisional race.
Sure, there are perennial Pro Bowlers such as Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan very much in this discussion, but it’s the trio of Luck, Wilson, and Newton that are the younger generation of the “elite” quarterback club.
Interestingly enough, there’s a little bit of Brady, Brees, and Manning in Luck, Wilson, and Newton.
Remember the Brady that was the lone standout on those Super Bowl-winning Patriots clubs in the mid-2000s? Brady was the playmaker, glorifying very average talent around him in a way that proved Brady was the elite signal-caller. Guys like Deion Branch and Troy Brown were Pro Bowl-caliber players because of Brady, and as a result New England was able to build a dynasty. There were no stars aside from Brady, and that was the personality the Patriots lived by.
In a lot of ways, Newton finds himself in a similar situation. Newton lost his top target, Steve Smith, in the offseason to the Ravens. He’s now working alongside a patchwork offensive line and is handing the rock off to his fourth-string running back. His top two receivers are a rookie and his tight end. Newton is the star of the Carolina Panthers much like Brady was — and has to be now — in New England. Newton has yet to reach postseason success like Brady has, and he may never will. It’s the idea that despite the lack of Pro Bowl-caliber players around him, Newton continues to make the most of his situation.
Brees has long been the driving force of the Saints’ prolific offense, and we’ve all heard the knocks on him for his less-than-prototypical height. But Brees has managed to be one of the NFL’s greatest passers in history, and like Brady has not always had the luxury of a Jimmy Graham to throw to. Brees has made players like Marques Colston, perhaps a third wide receiver on most teams, and Robert Meachem, who struggled out of the Big Easy, into every-down contributors and key cogs all the way to a championship back in 2009.
Though he has yet to prove he’s close to as strong of a passer as Brees is, Wilson is becoming the focal point of Seattle’s offense. Like Brees, Wilson is a shorter-than-average quarterback, but one with tremendous arm strength and a multifaceted skill-set. Wilson is more a dual-threat quarterback than Brees has ever been or will be, but like Brees he can air out and fit throws into the tightest of windows, and is currently running one of the most potent offenses in the NFL.
Finally, there’s the Sheriff. Manning has been the NFL’s premier passer for more than a decade, holding almost all of the records and earning all of the accolades when it comes to being the best at his craft. He’s done so with a wealth of talent around him, starting with Marshall Faulk, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison and now with Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. Manning has been the consummate, never-flustered pocket passer that every high school quarterback strives to emulate. The perfect mechanics, the pinpoint accuracy, and the quarterback you never want to have the ball with a minute left in the fourth quarter.
Luck has been likened to Manning since his days in high school, the next Manning to come in and, fittingly, take over the Indianapolis Colts. Luck has the weapons around him, including Wayne, as he continues to develop in his third NFL season. Luck has also developed a knack for late-game comebacks, outstanding accuracy on deep throws and — unlike his predecessor — an ability to take over games with his legs as well.
Now let me clarify, there are similarities and differences among all of these quarterbacks, and no two are perfectly alike. But the fact is that this current elite class and the next generation of stars draw a lot of comparisons, and each in some way or another fit the mold set for them.
But as Manning, Brees, and Brady all pass milestones in their careers, the next wave of quarterbacks waiting in the wings also managed to pull off some amazing feats, and perhaps it’s time we start readying to pass the torch onto them.