Quarterbacks tend to reflect their time, which is one of the reasons that football makes so much sense to us. In the 1950s, John Unitas — with his crew cut and white shoes and extreme calm under pressure — reflected some aspects of that time. His great receiver, Raymond Berry, once said that you would never, ever have seen Unitas embarrass a receiver who ran the wrong route. These days, you will see quarterbacks making all sorts of hand motions (“You were supposed to go THIS way not THAT way”) or be seen grabbing the receiver by the jersey and saying something. You know, anything to let everyone know that wasn’t the quarterback’s fault.
Berry said: Unitas would NEVER have done that. You didn’t do that in the 1950s.
“No,” Berry said. “We would get on the sidelines and he wouldn’t say a word. And when no one was looking, he’d ream you out.”
Joe Namath, in his way, reflected the wild side of the 1960s, the partying, the anti-authority, the cool clothes, the brash statements. The 1970s overflowed with personalities — Roger Staubach’s heroic air, Terry Bradshaw’s blue-collar style, Ken Stabler’s daredevil approach — and the 1980s belonged to the calculating football genius of Joe Montana. The 1990s gave us Brett Favre with his irresistible charm and eagerness to throw footballs into triple coverage in order to make the biggest play.
In many ways, what I think makes the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry so fascinating over the last 10-plus years is that they have not only been competing for championships, they have been competing for that defining role: What is the quarterback for our time? Is he the gyrating, whirling, “Omaha”-shouting dervish, who seems to see code the way they do in the Matrix and then determines, in an instant, the precise right play with the precise right blocking for this precise moment? Is a quarterback the handsome and heroic type, who never says the wrong thing, who inspires an almost cult-like following from teammates, a Jason Bourne figure who can make every throw from every angle and seems to love nothing more than facing impossible odds?
Of course, Sunday, they face off again — Manning and Brady — for another Super Bowl shot.
But you know what? In a strange way, the more compelling quarterback battle will be in other championship game. There, Colin Kaepernick will lead San Francisco and Russell Wilson will lead Seattle. And if Brady and Manning are still battling for the best quarterback of their time, you get the sense that Wilson and Kaepernick are in a new battle — the battle for what a quarterback will look like in the new generation.
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Here’s something you might not know: This year, for the first time, four NFL quarterbacks ran for 500-plus yards. There had never even been three quarterbacks run for that many yards. It might just be a blip, a fluke, but maybe not. This might be pro football slowly evolving before our eyes.
The four quarterbacks, in case you are wondering, are Cam Newton, Terrelle Pryor and the two facing off Saturday in Seattle — Kaepernick and Wilson. Washington’s Robert Griffin III almost ran for 500 yards (489) and would have if not for his intermittent season. Kansas City’s Alex Smith ran for more than 400 yards.
In, say, 2003 or '08 or '09 — the heyday of the Manning-Brady dominance — ANY OF THEM would have led NFL quarterbacks in rushing. Andrew Luck (377 yards), Geno Smith (366 yards) would have right at the top too. More than a third of the teams in the NFL had a quarterback who ran for more than 200 yards.
You probably know, Kaepernick was a second-round pick, Wilson a third-rounder, and both were chosen behind several quarterbacks who fit the old Brady-Manning model. That’s the thing about drafting quarterbacks — you are drafting them based on the template of the moment. Everybody’s looking to repeat yesterday’s success.
So, Newton notwithstanding, the template in 2011 was tall, strong arm, big college quarterbacks like Manning and Brady. That’s why Jake Locker went with the eighth overall pick, Blaine Gabbert with the 10th, Christian Ponder with the 12th. All had good straight-line speed, but none is what would one would consider a mobile quarterback. The 49ers got Kaepernick — a speedy, unorthodox thrower from Nevada Reno — in the second round.
The next year, it was more of the same. After Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III led off the draft — both of them reflecting something a bit more cutting-edge — Miami took Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland took Brandon Weeden, and Denver took Brock Osweiler before Seattle took Wilson in the third round. It had often been said that Wilson was too short and did not have the bazooka arm that had long been the quarterback’s best weapon in the NFL. Seattle coach Pete Carroll has admitted that he had to be convinced to take Wilson.
But that’s natural. We look back to look forward. Teams were still scouting for the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Many of them did not seem to get that quarterbacks in 2013 — and maybe for the forseeable future — would face different challenges. There are new rules. There are ever-more complicated defenses. There’s a different mindset around the game. Several teams decided they needed a new kind of quarterback, one who can:
1. Make plays both passing and running.
2. Make big plays without making big mistakes.
The second of these is particularly difficult. The thing Seattle general manager John Schneider saw in Russell Wilson was his almost supernatural understanding of what needs to be done at this precise moment. In a time of almost absurd passing numbers, Wilson only threw for 3,357 yards this season. But he threw 26 touchdown passes, and he threw just nine interceptions, and he ran for 539 yards, he led Seattle on winning drives again and again. The Seahawks' game is running the football and playing great defense, and there’s a feeling out there that this means a quarterback doesn’t have to do much.
“It’s a misconception,” Carroll says. “In many ways, there’s even more pressure on Russell because of the way we play. His job is to keep putting us in positions to win. And he’s been doing that.”
Kaepernick is probably a more explosive player than Wilson, but he plays with the same blueprint. San Francisco runs the ball and plays great defense, and Kaepernick is asked to make those huge plays — finding a way on third-and-long to get the first down, hitting the deep ball when the safety bites, watching the defense back off and then making that 20 yard run that deflates them — while not turning the ball over or taking bad sacks or getting called for intentional grounding or any of those negative plays. That’s the key.
“(Kaepernick) has the ability the great ones have to elevate their game in big situations,” Harbaugh told reporters.
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Obviously, the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady way of playing quarterback still works spectacularly well. We are not talking about a revolution here. In the year of the running quarterback, Brady ran for 18 yards, Manning for negative-31, and they still shredded defenses with their precise passing and genius for scanning the field.
But they are much closer to the end than the beginning of their careers, as is Drew Brees. The next generation of those tall, somewhat immobile big-armed quarterbacks — Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, Joe Flacco-types — took a step back in 2013. It was the year for Kaepernick and Wilson, Newton and Luck. Which way will the game evolve from here?
That’s part of the fun of Sunday. In one game, we can watch where the greatest quarterbacks have been. In the other, maybe, we can watch where the greatest quarterbacks are going.