Take a quick glance at the current divisional standings in the NFL and you’ll see a lot of familiar sights.
There’s Indianapolis and New England in position to take the AFC South and East crowns, respectively. The Patriots have won the AFC East the past five seasons and the Colts have won the AFC South eight times since 2002. That’s what you expect with elite-level quarterbacks like Andrew Luck/Peyton Manning and Tom Brady piloting the ship. That caliber of quarterback usually delivers a division title.
And then there’s the reigning AFC champs, Denver, which sits in a first-place tie in the AFC West … with Kansas City?
Yes, which brings us to our new point: Kansas City shares a division lead with Denver. Cincinnati and Arizona lead their respective divisions, while there are ties atop the NFC East, North and South between the likes of Philadelphia and Dallas, Detroit and Green Bay, and Atlanta and New Orleans.
Of the 12 division and co-division leaders, only five would be considered to have “elite quarterbacks” at their disposal. There’s the aforementioned Luck, Brady and Manning as well as Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
After that collection of future Hall of Famers, there’s Matthew Stafford, the former No. 1 overall selection enjoying one of his worst statistical seasons despite his team out to its best start in his tenure. Drew Stanton just led the NFL-leading Cardinals over the Lions, and he took over for Carson Palmer, a quarterback who returned to the league after a short retirement. Mark Sanchez and Nick Foles have each quarterbacked the Eagles to their 7-3 start, and combined own a 19:14 touchdown to interception ratio.
Two weeks ago, we nearly chastised Andy Dalton out of a job with the Bengals. His inconsistent play has long been hindering his team, and that’s been the Bengals’ thorn in their side come the postseason the past three years. Alex Smith is labeled as the NFL’s ultimate “game-manager,” and in no way is that a compliment, merely a way of saying the quarterback is limited with his physical skill-set but still finds ways to lift his team to victory.
And the tweeners — the Romos and Ryans of the world — who at times have teetered on the border of being one of the NFL’s top-level quarterbacks. Ryan came out of the tunnel firing this season in the Falcons’ overtime victory over New Orleans, but quickly dropped off the map as the turnovers began to pile up at a rapid pace. And Romo, who we’ve believed was always capable of being a premier starting quarterback, is leading Dallas to its best record in a long time thanks to his role being reduced into a game-manager role. It’s quite ironic, really.
It’s truly a new wave in the NFL that an elite quarterback is no longer essential to having success in the regular season. The post season — well, that remains to be seen.
Surprise teams in 2014 such as the Cardinals, Chiefs, Detroit and Dallas have all benefited from elite play out of their defense and their quarterbacks doing just enough to get the offense by at times.
Nobody is wowing at the performance by Stanton to lift Arizona over Detroit, but he did enough to get his team a lead early and then handed the reigns over to his defense to finish off the job. Stafford is on track to throw his lowest passing touchdown total since his first and second years in the league, which were largely erased due to injuries, but still the Lions have a chance to reach the 10-win plateau for just the fourth time since 1993 or surpass it to give the team its best record since 1991.
The Chiefs were supposed to continue their free-fall out of contention since last year’s late-season demise and first-round playoff loss, but even a slow start hasn’t prevented the team from reeling off five consecutive victories. Smith is relying on his workhorse, Jamaal Charles, while the offense hasn’t even found a way to include its wide receivers. Still, the old-fashioned theory of run the rock and play defense has propelled the Chiefs into a first-place tie with the Broncos.
Neither Sanchez nor Foles stands out as a future elite quarterback in this league, but being a game-manager in Chip Kelly’s system doesn’t require that level of skill. Instead, you simply have to follow the blueprint to get the ball out to the weapons to do the work. Both have been capable of that. Romo is on track to throw his fewest number of touchdown passes since starting only 10 games back in 2006, yet Dallas has a chance for double-digit wins and to make the postseason for the first time since 2009. This was the team we thought would be drafting Johnny Manziel and hovering around .500, at best, back in August.
For teams like the Jets and Buccaneers, organizations in need of franchise quarterbacks, the Chiefs and Cardinals and Eagles should serve as a model for how to compete without those resources. Though it’s easy to win games when your quarterback throws for 300 yards and three touchdowns, it’s equally as doable with solid running games and stingy defense, as these other division leaders have proven.
It’s a throwback to the old-school NFL model, and despite fantasy football and record-breaking performances still stealing headlines, that traditional style of football has proven it remains timeless.