Quarterback talk

We talked on radio this morning about quarterbacks. We often talk about quarterbacks because it’s a stimulating conversation. We are obsessed with quarterbacks, which is understandable given the importance of the people who play that position at all levels of football.

Is the Falcons' Matt Ryan an elite quarterback? The case can be made that he's getting close.

Today’s conversation centered on NFL quarterbacks and breaking the current 32 starters into seven categories: Elite, Promising, Doing His Thing, Too Soon to Tell, Mixed Results, Disappointing and Barely Hanging On.

Here’s what I came up with in each category, starting from the back:

Barely Hanging On – Carson Palmer, Oakland; Matt Cassel, Kansas City; Mark Sanchez, New York Jets.

Disappointing – Cam Newton, Carolina; Matthew Stafford, Detroit; Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay; Michael Vick, Philadelphia; Jay Cutler, Chicago.

Mixed results – Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo; Drew Brees, New Orleans.

Too Soon to Tell – Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville; Andrew Luck, Indianapolis; Russell Wilson, Seattle; Brandon Weeden, Cleveland; Ryan Tannahill, Miami; Jake Locker, Tennessee.

Doing His Thing – Tom Brady, New England; Peyton Manning, Denver; Philip Rivers, San Diego; Tony Romo, Dallas; Eli Manning, New York Giants.

Promising – Robert Griffin III, Washington; Andy Dalton, Cincinnati; Alex Smith, San Francisco; Christian Ponder, Minnesota; Kevin Kolb, Arizona; Sam Bradford, St. Louis.

Elite – Joe Flacco, Baltimore; Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay; Matt Schaub, Houston; Ben Roethlisberger, Pittburgh; Matt Ryan, Atlanta.

OK, let’s examine all of this a little closer. I put this list together quickly for the purpose of creating a talking point for the show and, as it turns out, for this blog. The categories could have been more thought out.

These categories are meant mostly as an indicator of how these quarterbacks are playing this season, with a nod to their past accomplishments. But just a nod. Mostly, it’s about their performances so far in 2012.

That’s why Matt Ryan falls into the “elite” category. And it’s why Brady and Peyton Manning are in the “Doing His Thing,” group, though certainly both still qualify as elite quarterbacks.

I could have easily put Luck into the “Promising” category with RG3, but I think the Redskins’ quarterback has moved beyond “Too Soon to Tell.” I don’t watch RG3 in action and have any doubt about his future greatness. Luck is just a tick behind, but I think it’s too early to move him out of the “Too Soon to Tell” category.

One of the biggest debates centers around Ryan, who is 47-19 in regular-season games during his time as a starter for the Falcons but is 0-3 in playoff games.

How can he be considered “elite” without a playoff win?

Legitimate question. And again, I’m rating these guys mostly on what they’ve done so far in 2012, which is a small sample size. So far this season, Ryan is the best quarterback in the league. He’s playing at an elite level and has the tools, most believe, to continue to be one of the best.

But in his three playoff games, all losses, Ryan has been ordinary. He has yet to pass for 200 yards in a playoff game and has been outplayed by Eli Manning (Giants), Rodgers (Green Bay) and Kurt Warner (Arizona). It’s not shameful to be outplayed by those quarterbacks and Ryan is still young. This season, his two favorite targets, Roddy White and Julio Jones, are off to tremendous starts. And Ryan is making ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez look like he has another three, four . . . twenty years left.

Schaub is another quarterback nobody would mistake for being “elite,” at this point. But he’s been one of the top QBs in the NFL this season and his body of work is starting to take shape. Same for Baltimore’s Flacco, whose playoff success is one of his strongest suits.

Another question I received was how Cam Newton of Carolina can be considered disappointing while the St. Louis Rams’ Bradford made the “Promising,” list.

Would I take Bradford over Newton? Good question, and not easy to answer.

Newton was a tremendous rookie in 2011, better than Bradford was as a rookie in 2010. Bradford fell off sharply last season and some of that is because of injuries. Newton has started haltingly for the 1-3 Panthers this season and some question his leadership skills and maturity.

I believe Bradford still shows promise. And while I think Newton could still be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, his play has been disappointing so far this season. In a pinch, I would probably still pick him ahead of Bradford, although Newton’s ability as a leader has not been proven.

Now, let’s turn to the Chiefs’ Cassel, the whipping boy for an angry fan base. I like Cassel, but it is becoming harder and harder to defend the guy. At this point, it appears to me that his usefulness in Kansas City has come to an end and that it would be better for everyone if the Chiefs could find a place for Cassel to land on a team that could use a good alternative to its current starter or at least where he could serve as a back-up.

Where would that be?

I thought Arizona looked like a nice fit for Cassel, but Kolb has played better than anyone thought he would and has shown some resiliency and toughness on the job.

Cassel isn’t a difference-maker as a quarterback. He’s not going to go to Jacksonville, for instance, and make the Jaguars a winner. He might be OK in Miami, which would give rookie Ryan Tannahill some time to develop. But Tannahill hasn’t been awful so far for the Dolphins and they might not want to make a move.

Buffalo, maybe? Except that Fitzpatrick is throwing for a ton of yards – and a ton of interceptions – for the Bills.

It’s too bad the Chiefs aren’t playing better around Cassel. Two years ago, when Cassel had such a good season, he was able to manage the dangerous weapons around him and it worked out well for everyone. Now, outside of Dwayne Bowe and Jamaal Charles, Cassell’s gun cabinet is mostly empty. And he’s not dynamic enough to kick the offense into another gear by himself.

That’s why he’s barely hanging on with Kansas City. By a thread.