At first, Green Bay seems like the ideal place to define, once and for all, what it is to be a Franchise Quarterback.
I mean, you can punt a ball in any direction out of the Lambeau Field parking lot and hit something that commemorates one of the all-time greats at the position: to the south, there’s Brett Favre Way; to the east, a massive statue of Curly Lambeau, one of the fathers of the forward pass; to the west, a massive black-and-white banner of Hall of Famer Bart Starr hanging in the atrium; and one floor below, in the team’s Hall of Fame, there’s an entire room dedicated to Aaron Rodgers’ record-breaking 2011 season.
The place is so nuts for QBs that a few weeks ago, I heard a Lambeau Field tour guide tell fans that even though they were about to walk on the same grass surface as Rodgers does on Sundays, they still needed to control themselves and not “lick, pick or eat” the grass.
Rodgers is about as good as anyone in the game at explaining what it is he does. But about halfway through our latest conversation for the cover story in ESPN The Magazine’s Franchise Issue, Rodgers and I weren’t any closer to defining what exactly constitutes a Franchise QB.
“There’s a lot more to it than just playing on Sundays,” Rodgers explained. “There are hundreds of extra hats you have to wear along the way as the face of the franchise. Is it draining? For sure.”
In the end, though, it’s worth it. As we wrote in the piece, Franchise QBs are the closest thing to NFL royalty. It’s a rare status in a team-first sport, a result of the game’s grandest parameters -- championships, MVPs, stats, longevity, bank account and Q Score -- mysteriously combining to morph a single player’s persona into the identity of an entire organization. Think Joe Namath, John Elway or Troy Aikman.
To wit: the Saints spending $100 million just to keep Drew Brees for five more years. Or, the Redskins using three first-round picks just to try out Robert Griffin III in the role. Or, you could just rewind Rodgers in 2011. Last year, his play (a record 122.5 passer rating) elevated what we thought was possible at the quarterback position. At the same time, according to Forbes, his Discount Double Check commercials were singlehandedly moving State Farm's “Buzz” score among consumers in Wisconsin from a frigid 9 to a white-hot 42 -- in less than a month.
That simultaneous combination of QB rating and Q Score? That right there is as close as we have been able to get to defining a Franchise QB.
Why is it that the numbers geeks who rule (or, ruin, depending on your perspective) today’s game have developed stats and formulas to measure every possible aspect of football -- except, of course, the single most important ingredient in the NFL today: the Franchise Quarterback?
To set a new baseline, based on my conversations with Rodgers, Starr and the eight current NFL QBs on whom I’ve done cover stories for The Magazine, along with input from colleagues Chris Sprow, Ryan Hockensmith and Seth Wickersham, I came up with a formula based on performance (mostly in the postseason), popularity and pop-culture power to measure the let’s-call-it-the Franchise QBness of the top 20 passers in the game today.
It’s called Franchise QB Formula (FQBF). And it’s remarkable, really. By that, I mean it’s remarkable that I didn’t include my own name in the patent-pending title of the formula.
Anyway, here’s how FQBF works:
• PERFORMANCE: 1. Super Bowl (10-point bonus for each MVP, 5-point bonus for multiple starts): In the end, the ring rules, especially for quarterbacks; 2. Playoff winning percentage (PWP is expressed in two digits): three games minimum to qualify; 3. Playoff passer rating (PPR is expressed in two digits): three games minimum to qualify; 4. Game-winning drives (GWD, as calculated by Pro-Football-reference.com): Measures clutchness and a flair for the dramatic, very important in establishing Franchise QBness.
• POPULARITY: 5. Longevity (years with current team): one gauge of how synonymous QB and franchise are; 6. Owner Cry (OC): How hard would the owner cry in public if the player was lost for the year (scale of 1 to 10)? Measures a potential Franchise QB's worth/value to the overall well-being of the organization, not just the team.
• POP CULTURE: 7. TV Timeout: The funny/cool factor of national commercials and/or TV and movie cameos (1-10 scale); players who make the cover of "Madden," host "Saturday Night Live," have appeared on a billboard on the side of a building or inspired a craze such as “Griffin’ing” receive an automatic 8. This rates the very important pop-culture relevance beyond the field.
• THE MOM FACTORS: 8. Mess-ups (negative 1-10): off-field problems; 9. Hair (1-10); 10) Beer Factor: how enjoyable (BF: 1-10) would it be to grab a beer with this guy, measures how down-to-earth and workmanlike your QB appears; 10. Mom Knows Best: What does my mom think of this QB compared to Tim Tebow (MKB: 1-10)?
• 60 or greater: You’re Franchise-QB certified and there’s a trip to Canton and "SNL" in your future.
• 59-40: Fix one or two factors and you’ve got a shot.
• 39-25. You still need to make reservations to get a table on Sunday night, even after a win.
• 24-10: Local car-dealership ads aren’t that bad.
• 9-0: You’re the kind of QB who got stuck under the American flag before the game, threw four picks and couldn’t beat the Eagles at home on their worst day.
Without further ado, then, here are the top 20 QBs by FQBF:
1. Tom Brady (103.6) – The Gold Standard. The Super Bowl MVPs, the "SNL" appearance, 35 GWDs, 13 years in New England and he makes UGG boots look cool. Almost.
2. Eli Manning (83.7) – One more Super Bowl and perhaps a personal shoutout to my mom and the unthinkable happens: Eli Manning becomes the most dominant Franchise QB of our generation. Prepare yourself.
3. Aaron Rodgers (70.3) – Had the highest Playoff Passer Rating (PPR: 10.6) and best Beer Factor (BF: 9) scores but one of the lowest Game-Winning Drives (GWD: .6) in our rankings. Oh, and the hair thing. Yikes. The past two times Rodgers has been in The Magazine, his hair looked like something out of "Dumb and Dumber" and then like an extra on "Boogie Nights." But I guess that’s OK when you’re playing as well as Rodgers is in a pressure-packed place called Titletown. “It’s almost too bad he didn’t get thrown in his rookie season, we could have already had seven straight years of this stuff,” Packers teammate A. J. Hawk says. “I don’t think any of us can put ourselves in his shoes and what he has to deal with day to day with people coming at him and pulling him in different directions. He’s the guy. He’s the man. None of us can relate to how difficult that must be in a place like this.”
4. Peyton Manning (67.2) – He’s handicapped by this being his first year in Denver and a sub-.500 PWP. We’re all gonna be telling our grandkids about watching Peyton play. And if they’re marketing majors at school, we’ll also be telling them how Peyton pioneered the technique of using funny/smart commercials to create and manage a marketable public persona not necessarily 100 percent authentic.
5. Drew Brees (61.8) – Amazing PPR (10.4) and a guy who has smartly made himself synonymous with N'awlins. When we did our "SportsCenter" interview a few years ago, just before we went live, he walked up and checked his hair in the reflection of the camera lens. He gets it.
6. Michael Vick (50.9) – His negative off-field numbers and his lack of longevity with the Eagles (on account of his prison sentence) are the only things keeping Vick from achieving full Franchise-QB status with an FQBF rating of over 60. Love him or hate him, he’s everything a Franchise QB should be. Just not in Week 1.
7. Tony Romo (44.0) – I ran Troy Aikman’s FQBF numbers just to get a gauge of where Romo is by comparison: 80.2. What’s killing Romo is exactly what you’d think: Besides a string of cheesy commercials, he scored a 2.5 in PWP, by far the lowest number of any potential Franchise QB not named Tebow.
8. Ben Roethlisberger (40.1) – The lack of a signature Super Bowl performance really hurt Roethlisberger, as did his six-game suspension (reduced to four) in 2010 that essentially ended his career as a commercial pitchman. Want proof? My mom referred to him as Rocklinburger.
9. Matthew Stafford (39.9) – A non-qualifier on the field with just one playoff start, Stafford got a big boost almost into the critical FQBF 40 range with his come-from-behind victories, his hilarious "MNF" commercial (overshadowed by John Clayton), his Beer Factor rating and the fact that my mom lives in Detroit.
10. Philip Rivers (39.8) – Hitting the fat part of the FQBF curve: not showing off, not falling behind.
11. Robert Griffin III (39.0) – RG3’s zeros in the actual quarterbacking categories were offset by some of the highest scores in OC (owner crying) and PC (pop culture), on top of the fact that he was the only QB to receive a 9 in H (hair). As I tweeted last week, forget his stats -- I was most impressed by the touch he showed on his passes. Most young QBs throw the ball one speed all of the time.
12. Tim Tebow (35.7) – Although he, too, didn’t qualify for any of the postseason stats (remember, three games to qualify), Tebow already has seven come-from-behind victories and he might not be able to actually, ya know, throw the ball, but he scored off the charts everywhere else – proving just how much off-field factors contribute to the image of a Franchise QB.
13. Mark Sanchez (34.2) – Even with his above-average 9.2 PPR, I still don’t think anyone would shed a single tear if the Jets lost their Sanchize QB. My advice: Stay out of GQ.
14. Cam Newton (33.0) – I spent a lot of time with him toward the end of last season for our NEXT issue, and his revolutionary approach to the QB position left Deion Sanders, Ray Lewis and AraabMuzik all in awe. Good enough for me. But Cam still needs to be careful. Says Rodgers: “When you’re elevated to this status in people’s eyes, things change, expectations change and, especially the way you’re communicated with and to, changes. One of the toughest parts of this is reminding people, 'Hey, I’m not any different than you.' You lose some of that sense of normalcy in this position and you want it back.”
15. Joe Flacco (30.6) – The reason no one’s listening when Flacco refers to himself as elite is a 7.0 in PPR and 9 total points in off-field factors. This guy needs a "SportsCenter" spot, pronto.
16. Matt Ryan (27.7) – Could experience a major and deserved jump in FQBF this season, but so far his performance in PWP (zero) matches his acting chops in those shaving commercials.
17. Carson Palmer (19.8) – Scored a total of zero points in postseason ratings and pop-culture categories (thanks, Cincy!) but was saved by a high OC rating that probably should be pro-rated because most of the tears would come from how much they gave up to get him in Oakland. RIP, Al.
18. Andy Dalton (17.4) – Helped tremendously by four GWD and the fact that my mom likes the Bengals uniforms.
19. Alex Smith (15.2) – One more playoff win and even a mediocre Bud Light commercial would vault his FQBF into the 30s where it belongs.
20. Jay Cutler (10.6) – After seven years, Mr. Grumpypants has one playoff win, the same haircut and still gives off the vibe that he doesn’t seem to represent anything bigger than himself.
In trying to figure out how a player so rich and talented scored so low on FQBF, I kept coming back to the words of Aaron Rodgers, who finished a game in 2006 with a broken foot because he didn’t want to abandon his teammates during a blowout loss to the Patriots.
“These were decisions I made based on the type of person, teammate and player I wanted to be thought of,” Rodgers told me. “My biggest fear against the Patriots was taking myself out of the game and finding out I had a sprained foot. Think about a ripple in still water that continues on and doesn’t really ever have an end. That’s the metaphor here: Something like that would have had a long-lasting ripple effect on how I was viewed in the locker room.”
Another secret weapon that Rodgers and most of the players at the top of the FQBF rankings possess is a preternatural ability to deflect all of the money, attention and accolades and not take themselves too seriously.
It was Rodgers' idea, after all, to get his teammates to grow those ’staches and turn us into ESPN The Mustache — although his teammates’ chronic flatulence nearly shut down the entire photo shoot. It was so bad, the next day a giggling Rodgers still felt the need to apologize.
That’s just one more thankless job of a Franchise Quarterback, I told him.
When your teammates stink, you’re the one who has to apologize for it.