On the NFC side of the quarterback ledger, it’s the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft whose greatness continues to be a hotly debated topic as he prepares to face off against a Sean McVay cast-off who is rewriting his career with each passing week.
On the AFC side of the balance sheet, we have a two-time Super Bowl winner and two-time league MVP versus a presumptive two-time league MVP who might be playing the most dynamic football of his NFL career.
They are otherwise known as the San Francisco 49ers’ Brock Purdy vs. the Detroit Lions’ Jared Goff in the NFC and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes vs. the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson in the AFC. The caretaker accountants on one side and the architects of alchemy on the other. That is, if you’re buying the never-ending argument over what constitutes quarterback greatness.
In the eyes of the NFL’s strongly opinionated quarterback connoisseurs — and there is no shortage of them — this is a playoff landscape featuring two game managers on one side and two game-changers on the other. And this weekend will give us another chapter of that ragged quarterback debate, splitting hairs over eyeball tests, statistics, titles, awards and analytics.
Given the allocation of quarterbacks between the two conferences, we probably should've seen this one coming. Particularly with the AFC being loaded at the top with perceived heavy-hitting talent, featuring the likes of Mahomes, Jackson, the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert. If you simply follow the money at the quarterback position, that group has the five richest active “total dollar” contracts in the NFL, each a member of the quarter-billion fraternity with deals that feature a baseline value of at least $250 million. The only NFC player in that club: The Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts, who prior to this season was one of the NFC quarterbacks not being automatically plugged into the league’s “game manager” category.
Purdy and Goff have not been so lucky, with each pilloried at some point this season over their perceived limitations as players. They have been defined by great offensive rosters around them or great systems created by coaches or tagged with the backhanded swipe of being good enough to not screw up. Rarely, if ever, have Mahomes and Jackson been reduced to such a low bar of achievement at the position. And it’s going to be one of the striking storylines between the two Super Bowl quarterbacks, pondering whether a player wearing the game manager sash can outduel a game-changer.
Certainly, there will be no shortage of strong opinions about it. We saw that in the 49ers' win over the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, which saw Purdy struggle significantly until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, when he flawlessly led San Francisco on a game-winning drive that had thus far been a critical missing piece of his résumé. Yet even that moment ignited a raging debate among analysts and on social media about what it meant about Purdy. If anything, it felt like the next step in a screaming match that began earlier in the season, when he first surfaced as a potential MVP candidate.
At this point, Purdy continues to be a flashpoint in a quarterback culture war over what constitutes greatness at the position. And it’s not just fueled by talk shows and red-faced fan bases. A multitude of individuals with NFL backgrounds have weighed in, too, perhaps none more prominently than former quarterback Cam Newton, who has a Super Bowl appearance and league MVP on his résumé.
A little more than six weeks ago, Newton practically showcased the Super Bowl storyline that is now coming to fruition when he unapologetically divided a few of the league’s quarterbacks into categories on his podcast and YouTube show, “4th &1 with Cam Newton.”
“Brock [Purdy], they’re not winning because of him. He’s managing the game,” Newton said on his Dec. 6 episode, when the 49ers were 9-3 and Purdy was emerging as an MVP candidate. “And if we were to put that in its own right, as game managers — this may ruffle a lot of feathers, but it’s honest — Brock Purdy, Tua Tagovailoa, Jared Goff and, really, Dak Prescott. These are game managers. They’re not difference-makers. Christian McCaffrey, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, they’re impacting this game in the only way that they know how. … If we’re going to really call a spade a spade, there’s a difference between managers of the game and difference-makers of a game.
“A game manager is different than a game-changer.”
As Newton suspected, the comments did indeed ruffle some feathers, once again stoking a wave of debate about what a game manager is versus a game-changer and which quarterbacks fit in each box. Interestingly, Goff’s inclusion in the game manager category was a total afterthought in the conversation largely because Newton had pegged Tagovailoa and Prescott with the title, too — at a time when both were lighting up the league. Six weeks later, after both the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins flopped out of the playoffs with wild-card losses, Newton’s criticisms of Prescott and Tagovailoa have found reinforcements among the masses.
And that’s not the only thing Newton said that has aged well. In the same episode, he called Goff an “elite game manager” and named the Lions as his low-key Super Bowl favorite in the NFC. At the time, Detroit was 9-3 and leading the NFC North.
“It’s easy to look at 49ers, Philly and the Cowboys [as Super Bowl favorites],” Newton said. “My dark horse, who I’ve been thoroughly pleased at this year and all year, has been the Detroit Lions. They’ve had road wins — big road wins — team wins, all type of dominant play all year. … Nobody’s talking about the Detroit Lions. Jared Goff, in some way, shape [or] form, should be mentioned in the MVP rankings. Because he’s doing his job. When you have Amon-Ra St. Brown and just the elite game-managing ability of Jared Goff, that’s going to be a hard team to beat.”
Therein might be the new creation when it comes to the quarterback position, potentially defined by these conference title games and, eventually, the forthcoming Super Bowl: a tier that falls between game manager and game-changer. As Newton dubbed it, the elite game manager.
Perhaps that’s the next step for Purdy or Goff, if the one who advances from the NFC title game is able to clash with and vanquish Mahomes or Jackson on the biggest stage in the game. That would be an upset not seen since Nick Foles led the Philadelphia Eagles over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Another win for the accountants — yet still unlikely to change the bottom line of how they’re viewed at the quarterback spot.