NEW YORK — The two kids from Northern California burst from NFL afterthought to championship contender in eerily similar fashion a decade apart.
Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick, each playing in a conference title game this weekend, are bookends to a fortuitous moment in quarterback history.
On one side are the likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, still scintillating in their mid-30s. On the other are Kaepernick, a second-year player, and the brilliant class of rookies with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson leading their teams to the playoffs.
Young, old and in between, this crop of NFL quarterbacks is deep, dynamic and diverse.
“We’re in a little bit of a boom right now,” Hall of Famer Steve Young said. “If those guys continue to develop, we’ll have a period of time here — kind of a Camelot of quarterbacking.”
The depth of the position shows in the other two guys joining the Patriots’ Brady and the 49ers’ Kaepernick in the conference championship games. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco were first-round picks in 2008 and, for all their successes, they’re probably low on the list when fans think of dominant quarterbacks.
Yet here they are, a win away from the Super Bowl after leading stirring comebacks that answered many doubts about each.
Quarterback has long been the glamour position, but it seems even a bit more glamorous now. Rule changes favor a wide-open passing game, which makes a superior quarterback more valuable. Colleges and high schools run sophisticated offenses, and the best athletes gravitate to quarterback, then develop into polished passers who can scramble, too.
“I can’t remember — even though this is a quarterback-driven league — as many remarkable and compelling stories on the quarterback side as you’re seeing this year,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said.
There was that brief stretch less than 15 years ago when Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson won Super Bowls, and it seemed perhaps championship teams didn’t need a star at the position. Since then, here’s the roll call of victorious QBs: Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, both Manning brothers, Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Twenty-five of the 46 Super Bowl MVPs have been quarterbacks, but now it’s five of the past six. In the half-dozen years before that, four were non-QBs, including two defensive players.
“It ebbs and flows, no question. There’s some dark times where you have two or three guys that can truly do it,” said Young, Kaepernick’s forerunner as a dual-threat San Francisco QB and now an ESPN analyst.
Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls with future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman as his quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, was talking to Bill Belichick last summer about the recent shift. Belichick has won three championships with Brady but, even as of a few years ago, both believed a title was possible behind a strong defense and running game.
Not anymore, they agreed.
“Now, the only thing that matters is if you get a great quarterback,” said Johnson, now a Fox commentator.
Of this year’s playoff teams, the only one without great stability at quarterback was Minnesota. And the Vikings had a guy named Adrian Peterson to carry the load. The bottom of the standings is full of clubs with uncertainty at the position: the Chiefs, Jaguars, Eagles, Cardinals and Jets.
This year, 20 quarterbacks started every regular-season game — nearly two-thirds of the league. According to STATS, that’s by far the most since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978, four more than the previous high.
That record reflects a lack of injuries, in which all those rules protecting the QB may be a factor. But it also shows how few teams benched their quarterbacks: Most clubs are quite happy with their current situation.
For all the quarterback intrigue in the playoffs, consider the big names who didn’t qualify: Brees, Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Cam Newton. And then there’s Tim Tebow, who may never start again as an NFL QB but remains one of the most recognizable and polarizing athletes in sports.
This quarterback Camelot is about more than the deep field of effective starters. The playoffs oozed with stars popular not just for their performance but their personalities and pizazz.
“I marvel at how prepared these guys are — not only on the field but the exposure they get off it,” Aikman said. “Whether it’s through social networks or different platforms, they are given the opportunity to talk to the press and are much more well-rounded and prepared for all that comes with the scrutiny of the position than ever before.
“If you’re on Park Avenue in New York (at league headquarters), you’re pretty happy with the new representatives that will be the ambassadors for the league for the years to come.”
Nielsen/E-Poll calculates an “N-Score” to measure the endorsement potential of athletes. Peyton Manning has the top score of current QBs, but others come out ahead in specific categories.
In this high school yearbook of NFL quarterbacks, Brees is voted most appealing. Rodgers is the most confident, Newton the most dynamic, Griffin the most talented. Luck is considered the most intelligent and Brady the most attractive.
Unlike past rookie quarterbacks who reached the playoffs, Luck and Griffin were anything but caretakers riding a strong defense; both were vibrant leaders turning around franchises. And Wilson advanced deeper into the postseason than either of them.
For the moment, Kaepernick is the best story of all. The 2011 second-round pick opened the season as a backup to Alex Smith, who led the 49ers to the NFC title game last year. Kaepernick played so well after Smith was injured that coach Jim Harbaugh took the gamble to stick with him — just as Belichick did with Brady 11 years earlier.
“They’re not going to last forever,” Young said of the old guard. “But you’ve got a feeling (since) there’s some guys around that we’re in pretty good shape in the next generation.”