In Ken Burns' epic 2001 documentary Jazz, critic Gary Giddins noted that Louis Armstrong arrived on the scene 30 years after the birth of the music, yet still emerged as American culture's answer to Shakespeare or Dante.
Armstrong's ascendance represents "the moment when it becomes an art form," Giddins explained. "He's the figure who codifies, who assimilates everything that's happened before, and he shows where the future is going to be."
Just as Armstrong was shaping a uniquely American form of musical expression in the 1930s, Chicago Bears legend George Halas was teaming with Clark Shaughnessy to elevate the quarterback from a single-wing tailback to a position of prominence unmatched in the professional sports world.
Nearly 30 years later, Johnny Unitas codified the gridiron field general, assimilating Sammy Baugh's accuracy and savvy, Otto Graham's sideline timing throws and Bobby Layne's proto two-minute drill.
In front of a mid-century audience transitioning from train to air travel and from regional to national sports, Unitas led his Baltimore Colts to a thrilling overtime victory in the 1958 Championship Game. That defining performance turned quarterbacking into an art form, treating Americans to one of the first truly national sporting experiences of the kind we took for granted before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unitas' late-game theatrics "inflamed the imagination of the national audience," wrote Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule, enabling the NFL to plant its flag on Sunday afternoons. It wasn't long before pro football bypassed not only golf, horse racing and boxing in the sports hierarchy, but also pulled off the unthinkable in unseating baseball as the country's most popular pastime.
Little did Unitas know that the very technology which amplified his heroics and elevated the concept of quarterback to American iconography would ultimately draw decision-making power away from the player and toward the coach. While Unitas took great pride in calling his own plays and developing a feel for manipulating defenses into preferred coverages, he was doing so in a primitive sport that was more individualized at the ground level, closer to backyard football than today's intricate, meticulously choreographed weekly extravaganzas.
Television soon brought big contracts, allowing players and coaches to forego offseason jobs in favor of the quest for football innovation. Just as important to the coach-quarterback tug-of-war, television also slowed the pace of the game, introducing commercial breaks and stops between downs. Until this outside influence introduced mandated stoppages in play, there simply wasn't time for complex play-calls and personnel substitution. Once the battle plans were drawn up, the game was in the hands of the players.
As it turns out, a coaching staff with the luxury of devoting all waking hours to esoteric game scripts isn't about to encourage freelancing at the sport's most vital position. Once they wrested play-calling control from the likes of Unitas, NFL coaches developed a natural preference for drop-back, follow-orders, take-what-the-defense-gives-you quarterbacks, reducing the ranks of the improvisational, make-something-happen-off-script performance artists.
So what happened as the NFL continued to grow more complicated every year?
When Archie Manning joined the fledgling New Orleans Saints in 1971, he once recalled, teams would take four coverages and three blitzes into each game. By the time his son Eli made his own debut with the New York Giants in 2004, a quarterback could expect to see that much variety in a game's first series. Archie played against the same 11 defensive players for all four quarters. His sons faced sophisticated waves of nickelbacks, moneybackers and pass-rushing specialists designed to keep the defense's intentions indecipherable and the quarterback's life miserable.
Confronted with all of that chaos and confusion, coaches sought quarterbacks with clean mechanics willing and able to execute the play as designed.
When Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III were struggling with the transition from read-option threat to pocket passer back in 2014, Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young stressed the most important lesson of his own dual-threat career: The job of the championship quarterback is to exhaust the play from the pocket.
In other words, don't flee the pocket, abandoning the play and leaving your offensive linemen holding useless blocks while the receivers run fruitless routes.
Here's where it gets tricky. What if the quarterback has the light feet to bail himself out of trouble and move the chains by scrambling?
Stationary dropback passers such as Eli and Peyton Manning had no choice to but to exhaust the play from the pocket. And in order to exhaust each play with consistency, they had to master every nuance of the position, from formations to blitz pickup to coverages. Dynamic playmakers such as Young himself, on the other hand, had less incentive to remain ball-and-chained to the pocket, thereby reducing their reliance on the tedious whiteboard work and the coaching staff's play design.
"You're already a dual threat because you can leave the pocket and make throws," Young explained to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014. "Obviously, you can run for a bunch of yards. But are you the master of the main event, which is the job? The job is to deliver the ball from the pocket. It's been proven to me over and over again that that's the championship job."
If a quarterback wanted to "change the position forever," Young theorized, he'd have to maintain the dual-threat skill set while also adopting Peyton Manning's mastery of pre-snap nuances and pocket discipline.
Baseball pitchers and football quarterbacks each throw the ball to exploit a vulnerable area in the opposition's territory. Pitchers have it relatively easy. Their prime directive is to upset the hitter's timing, but they don't have to perform that demanding task on the move with all hell breaking loose around them as they release the throw. Young's mentor, Bill Walsh, compared the quarterback's job to standing on the Speedway in Indianapolis, dodging race cars to unleash a pass.
Asking a quarterback to exhaust the play from the pocket is like asking him to pull the pin from a grenade and hold it until he makes it through his progression of targets. Why stay if you're capable of leaving?
Because each offensive player is inextricably connected to the others. When Patrick Mahomes stays in the pocket, Tyreek Hill has time to separate from Jimmie Ward's coverage, generating a game-changing 44-yard bomb, without which the quarterback has no Super Bowl MVP award.
Much like Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson, Mahomes is blessed with the physical gifts to bail early on his coach's play call and still turn a negative into a positive. But all three of those dual-threat quarterbacks are committed to mastering the nuances of the position and exhausting the play before they rely on their legs to flee the pocket. In the process, they've added another dimension to their skill set.
Peyton Manning. Eli Manning. Tom Brady. Drew Brees. Philip Rivers. Drop-back, follow-orders, take-what-the-defense-gives-you quarterbacks are nearing the end of the line as an endangered species. It's the way of the world. Things become extinct. Rising in their place is a group of charismatic, well-rounded leaders with the athleticism to stress defenses as escape artists and designed runners counterbalanced by a commitment to exhausting the passing play from the pocket.
The day of the triple-threat QB has arrived, codifying and assimilating the experiences of the great quarterbacks they studied along the way.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Chris Wesseling will provide his rankings of the league's starting signal-callers, 1-32. With a fresh regular season upon us, here's Wesseling's pecking order entering Week 1.
2019 stats: 14 games | 65.9 pct | 4,031 pass yds | 8.3 ypa | 26 pass TD | 5 INT | 218 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
What separates Mahomes from the pack is the utter absence of poor performances. He doesn't have bad weeks. QB Index pioneer Gregg Rosenthal believes Mahomes has played the position at a higher level the past two years than any quarterback he's ever seen. I'm not yet ready to shove aside 1984 Dan Marino, 1989 Joe Montana, 1994 Steve Young, 1995-97 Brett Favre, 2004 Peyton Manning, 2007 Tom Brady and 2011 Aaron Rodgers. But that's the company he's keeping at age 24.
UPDATE: Mahomes completed 75 percent of his passes for 211 yards and three TDs to lift the Chiefs past the Texans on Thursday night.
2019 stats: 16 games | 66.1 pct | 4,110 pass yds | 8.0 ypa | 31 pass TD | 5 INT | 342 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
Speaking of historic performances, Wilson's combination of touch, timing, ball placement and aggressiveness on tight-window throws was downright impeccable through early November of last season. The true sign of the great ones? You can't count out a comeback no matter the deficit -- and they know it in both huddles.
2019 stats: 15 games | 66.1 pct | 3,127 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 36 pass TD | 6 INT | 1,206 rush yds | 7 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
If there's a knock on the reigning MVP, the comeback is it. Ever since Unitas & Co. refined the position, quarterbacks have been measured by their performance on third downs, in the red zone and in tight fourth-quarter situations when the defense knows the pass is coming. Jackson's pick-your-poison skill set is lethal on third downs and in the red zone. What remains to be seen is if his passing prowess and manipulation of the defense develop to the point where he can pull his team out of a two-score hole with the season on the line.
2019 stats: 15 games | 67.3 pct | 3,852 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 26 pass TD | 12 INT | 413 rush yds | 7 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost
Early in Russell Wilson's career, All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman referred to his Seahawks quarterback as a "mental giant" for his ability to actualize the right play in the right situation. I see that same rare quality in Watson's game. No matter what the critics think of Bill O'Brien's short-sighted personnel decisions of late, it can't be denied that Watson is a force for good, a light that can't be extinguished.
UPDATE: Watson completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 253 yards and one TD pass while rushing for one score in Thursday night's loss to the Chiefs.
2019 stats: 16 games | 62.0 pct | 4,002 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 26 pass TD | 4 INT | 183 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 4 fumbles lost
Having lost faith in his play-caller and secondary receivers, Rodgers fell into some bad habits by the time Matt LaFleur replaced Mike McCarthy as head coach in 2019. While Rodgers did a better job of playing to the down, distance and play clock in LaFleur's debut season, he still tended to challenge himself by waiting to unleash a spectacular throw when a layup would have succeeded in moving the chains. The challenge is to play smarter situational football without sacrificing the swashbuckling playing style that once allowed him to envision possibilities and interrogate limits that other quarterbacks didn't even think to explore. That's not going to happen until at least one of the young receivers, such as Marquez Valdes-Scantling or Allen Lazard, graduates from talented tease to reliable Davante Adams sidekick.
2019 stats: 16 games | 63.9 pct | 4,039 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 27 pass TD | 7 INT | 243 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 7 fumbles lost
I don't understand the skepticism. Given an outstanding supporting cast in 2017, he emerged as the must-watch MVP front-runner for three months before tearing his ACL. Dragged down by injuries to key starters last year, Wentz played his best ball with the season on the line, elevating a cast of misfits and afterthoughts in the passing game. The Eagles would like to see him stay off the injury report and show consistent mechanics for a full, 16-game campaign.
2019 stats: 16 games | 65.1 pct | 4,902 pass yds | 8.2 ypa | 30 pass TD | 11 INT | 277 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
Peaking as a passer, Prescott spent the bulk of last season on the periphery of the MVP discussion before circling the drain along with the Cowboys' playoff chances from Thanksgiving through Christmas. How many quarterbacks would like to trade places with Prescott, set to cash in a contract push with a wide receiver trio that might just end the season as the envy of the NFL?
2019 stats: 15 games | 66.2 pct | 4,466 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 26 pass TD | 14 INT | 147 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 5 fumbles lost
Ryan is a beautiful, rhythmic timing passer -- as long as his offensive line keeps him clean and the ground attack keeps the defense honest. That confluence hasn't cooperated with any degree of consistency since Kyle Shanahan decamped to San Francisco after Super Bowl LI.
2019 stats: 8 games | 64.3 pct | 2,499 pass yds | 8.6 ypa | 19 pass TD | 5 INT | 66 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost
It's easy to forget the Lions were feeling frisky at 3-4-1 with Stafford playing some of the best ball of his career when his streak of 136 consecutive starts was abruptly halted by a midseason back injury. Detroit wouldn't win again the rest of the year, exposing the team's lack of depth while highlighting Stafford's value as a veteran quarterback finally finding the consistency that eluded him during his first decade in the league.
2019 stats: 12 games | 70.3 pct | 2,742 pass yds | 9.6 ypa | 22 pass TD | 6 INT | 185 rush yds | 4 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost
The bad news is the Titans can't expect to repeat last season's aberrant play-action success. The good news is Tannehill improved across the board, suggesting he might just be here to stay as a dependable starter with a strong, accurate arm and the escapability that is growing in importance with each passing NFL season.
2019 stats: 2 games | 56.5 pct | 351 pass yds | 5.7 ypa | 0 pass TD | 1 INT | 7 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles lost
Roethlisberger is similar to 2018 Andrew Luck and 2019 Cam Newton in that it's an open question what will be left of his throwing arm following major surgery. If he can still sling it in trademark Big Ben style, a Steelers offense held hostage by its overmatched backups last season has a chance to be the league's most improved in 2020. Roethlisberger has spent the better part of his career campaigning for big-bodied receivers. He got his wish this offseason with the addition of former Colts Pro Bowler Eric Ebron at tight end and 6-foot-4, 240-pound camp sensation Chase Claypool at wideout.
2019 stats: 11 games | 74.3 pct | 2,979 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 27 pass TD | 4 INT | -4 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 0 fumbles lost
The sweet spot of quarterbacking occurs when all of the lessons of experience can be put to optimal use while the body is still young enough to impose its will on the competition. Brees can no longer throw convincingly beyond 25 yards, which speaks volumes about the complexity of modern defenses, the advances in medical and training technology and the importance of processing data quickly in the hierarchy of QB traits. It's been two years since we realized this offense rises and falls with Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Sean Payton -- and not necessarily the starting quarterback. Maybe Raiders legend Al Davis was on to something when he suggested back in 1990 that the 49ers could extend Joe Montana's career by resting him in the right matchups, perhaps limiting his exposure to eight or nine games a year once he's 40 years old.
2019 stats: 16 games | 62.9 pct | 4,638 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 22 pass TD | 16 INT | 40 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 5 fumbles lost
When he's in a groove, Goff can pull off as many high-level passes as any quarterback not named Mahomes or Wilson. He found that groove elusive last season with an offense running through Todd Gurley's arthritic knee and sidetracked by an injury-depleted, backsliding offensive line. Goff still has one of the game's most impressive minds designing the plays. A bounce-back season is in order.
2019 stats: 16 games | 69.1 pct | 3,978 pass yds | 8.4 ypa | 27 pass TD | 13 INT | 62 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 5 fumbles lost
Here's a dirty little secret about these lists -- and football punditry in general: It's easy to find supporting evidence for several conflicting viewpoints. Garoppolo threw too many interceptable passes and seemed to lose his offensive guru's trust in the season's defining moments. On the other hand, he was the only quarterback to finish the regular season ranked in the top five in completion rate (69.1), yards per attempt (8.4) and touchdown passes (27). Kliff Kingsbury recently testified that Garoppolo -- a "special talent," per Arizona's coach -- played as well as any quarterback the Cardinals faced.
2019 stats: 16 games | 64.4 pct | 3,722 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 20 pass TD | 12 INT | 544 rush yds | 4 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
If he wasn't quite the electric playmaker he was billed to be in the running game, the Offensive Rookie of the Year more than made up for that modest disappointment with a super-smooth, wrist-flick release and uncanny intermediate and downfield accuracy. Poised for success with All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins joining a healthy Christian Kirk at wideout, Murray might just inspire a new wave of offense in Kingsbury's Air Raid-influenced attack.
2019 stats: 15 games | 69.1 pct | 3,603 pass yds | 8.1 ypa | 26 pass TD | 6 INT | 63 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost
A classic over-thinker, Cousins prepares as deeply as any franchise leader around. One could point to that obsessive devotion as the primary reason for his steady half-decade of improvement, which resulted in a dream contract with the Vikings. One could also point to that quality as a factor in his career reaching a stalling point the past two years, as he's shown few answers once the whistle blows. The defense brings the heat, the receivers aren't yet open and the preparation is out the window.
2019 stats: 16 games | 60.8 pct | 4,057 pass yds | 6.6 ypa | 24 pass TD | 8 INT | 34 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 1 fumble lost
Dial up Game Pass and rewatch a 39-year-old Brady or even a mid-30s Peyton Manning. Now contrast the short-area foot quickness with Brady's 2019 season -- unequivocally, the bleakest stretch of his unparalleled career. The difference, to these eyes, is stark. And the football cognoscenti is in denial about the diminished agility and arm strength over the past two calendar years. That said, NFL success is inextricably tied to surrounding talent. The 2020 Bucs might just boast the most talented collection of skill-position personnel Brady has enjoyed since his record-shattering 2007 season. Who knew he'd still be around to compare supporting casts two decades later?
2019 stats: 16 games | 59.4 pct | 3,827 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 22 pass TD | 21 INT | 141 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
How will he respond to adversity? After breaking the rookie record for touchdown passes in his NFL debut season, a distracted Mayfield took a step back in field vision and fell into bad habits against defensive pressure. He's already on his fourth head coach, which is another way of saying he has the talent level and the cachet to get them hired and fired.
2019 stats: 16 games | 66.0 pct | 4,615 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 23 pass TD | 20 INT | 29 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost
Showing a disturbing penchant for flutter balls in the middle of the field, Rivers entered the decline phase of his career last season. It's tough to ascertain how much of that drop-off was due to factors beyond his control, such as a bookend tackle combination that ranked among the NFL's least efficient for months at a time. Reuniting with Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni behind a solid, cohesive front line, he landed in the ideal spot to milk another year out of his right arm.
2019 stats: 16 games | 58.8 pct | 3,089 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 20 pass TD | 9 INT | 510 rush yds | 9 rush TD | 4 fumbles lost
When he's on his game (Thanksgiving at Dallas, for example), Allen bears the closest resemblance to a young John Elway of any young QB I've seen in a long time. The rest of the time, however, he's been found wanting in terms of decision-making, accuracy and deep-ball touch and timing. Despite a playoff appearance in 2017, the Bills were exceptionally honest about the state of their roster entering the 2018 draft. They knew Allen would need time to lead a rebuilding effort hampered by the league's least-talented wide receiver corps. Two years later, they can argue that Stefon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley afford Allen the luxury of a top-five unit.
2019 stats: 2 games | 56.2 pct | 572 pass yds | 6.4 ypa | 0 pass TD | 1 INT | -2 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
Prior to major shoulder and foot injuries over the last two years, Newton's playing style was reliant upon a rocket arm in a see-it, throw-it aerial attack and his own physicality in the short-yardage ground game. It will be interesting to see how that style changes as he makes concessions to age, injury risk and a new coaching staff. It's worth noting that he was already succeeding with shorter, more accurate passes before his arm abandoned him late in the 2018 season.
2019 stats: 16 games | 70.4 pct | 4,054 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 21 pass TD | 8 INT | 82 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost
Six seasons into his career, we still have no idea whether Carr is the answer under center for the Raiders. Nor does Jon Gruden, which is why Marcus Mariota was signed to the richest backup contract in the league this past offseason. We saw signs of progress in a ball-control attack last year, but Carr still lacks consistency and a willingness to attack beyond 20 yards downfield.
From his obvious charisma to his record-breaking college production to his NFL projection, Burrow checks more boxes than any Cincinnati quarterback since Boomer Esiason took the league by storm with Sam Wyche's no-huddle offense in the 1980s. Before his first official snap, Burrow was the "easy pick" for training camp MVP honors and perhaps just as easily chosen to be a team captain. Thirty years removed from their franchise's last playoff victory, Cincinnatians are ready to become a football town as soon as Burrow gives them a reason to believe.
2019 stats: 13 games | 61.9 pct | 3,024 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 19 pass TD | 13 INT | 62 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost
Saddled with subpar surrounding talent, Darnold's nascent NFL career has been defined by extremes. Just when it seems tempting to write him off as a high-profile bust unable to move the offense for long stretches, he responds with a month of play so promising as to allay doubts of even the most hardened of Jets fans.
2019 stats: 13 games | 61.9 pct | 3,027 pass yds | 6.6 ypa | 24 pass TD | 12 INT | 279 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 11 fumbles lost
Turnover prone as a rookie, Jones has a bit of a post-hype-sleeper feel with a new coaching staff and a stronger-than-advertised group of skill-position players.
2019 stats: 5 games | 64.1 pct | 1,020 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 7 pass TD | 3 INT | 72 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble lost
There were moments of transcendence in Lock's late-season audition, starting with the string of big plays and throws on the run in a 38-24 drubbing of the Texans. That's not unusual for a talented rookie. There were plenty of low moments as well. The Broncos increased his chances of gaining consistency by landing a route-running savant in Jerry Jeudy to go with a true No. 1 receiver in Courtland Sutton and an emerging playmaker at tight end in Noah Fant.
2019 stats: 9 games | 67.9 pct | 1,384 pass yds | 7.1 ypa | 9 pass TD | 2 INT | 31 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles lost
Signed to be Drew Brees' caddy, Bridgewater was the quintessential game manager last season in his first extended action since suffering a career-threatening knee injury in 2016. New Panthers coach Matt Rhule has a bolder vision for his hand-picked quarterback in an offense that features the league's premier receiving back in Christian McCaffrey, a potential go-to target in D.J. Moore, a deep threat in Robby Anderson and a wild card in Curtis Samuel.
2019 stats: 14 games | 60.6 pct | 3,271 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 21 pass TD | 6 INT | 344 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 7 fumbles lost
Conjuring up images of Tony Romo, former Panthers QB Jake Delhomme and a cast of fictional pigskin characters, Minshew gave Murray a surprising run at top rookie quarterback honors. Leading an offense bereft of star power beyond No. 1 receiver D.J. Chark, Minshew has the deck stacked against him in his quest to develop into the face of the franchise before the Jaguars find themselves back atop the draft order.
2019 stats: 15 games | 62.0 pct | 3,529 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 20 pass TD | 13 INT | 243 rush yds | 4 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
Fitzpatrick deserves all of the credit that came his way for making the undermanned Dolphins not only watchable but at times legitimately compelling. Against all odds, he might have been the best the AFC East had to offer under center in 2019. Throughout his storybook career, though, the streaky Fitzpatrick has rarely followed one exceptional month with another -- much the less the back-to-back seasons which might have altered the peripatetic nature of his football journey.
2019 stats: 8 games | 66.7 pct | 33 pass yds | 5.5 ypa | 1 pass TD | 0 INT | 7 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles lost
I find it interesting that Taylor appears to share several strengths and weaknesses with the pre-injury version of Washington's Alex Smith: admirable human, conservative offensive caretaker, makes plays with his legs yet leaves throws on the field in key situations, takes too many sacks and lacks rhythm in the passing game. If the Chargers thought he was the successor to Philip Rivers, they wouldn't have used the No. 6 overall draft pick on Justin Herbert.
2019 stats: 15 games | 63.2 pct | 3,138 pass yds | 6.1 ypa | 17 pass TD | 10 INT | 193 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
For all of the discussion of Nick Foles' ties to Matt Nagy's coaching staff, he apparently had a further advantage over Cam Newton at signing time. Trubisky couldn't credibly beat out Newton in a fair camp competition to keep his starting job.
2019 stats: 9 games | 58.6 pct | 1,365 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 7 pass TD | 7 INT | 101 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost
There are plenty of reasons to believe Haskins will climb this list within the season's first month. Based on the sparse surrounding talent and last year's scant game film, however, that's purely conjecture.