Elite QBs more vital than ever

Bill Parcells has basically said through the years that a team is what its record says it is. In 2009, a team is what its quarterback makes it.

After studying some numbers, I put 14 current starting quarterbacks on the elite level. An elite quarterback nowadays is one who can run an offense that can score 21.5 or more points a game, throw for at least 220 yards a game, complete at least 60 percent of his passes and have the ability to bring a team back in the fourth quarter.

My 14 quarterbacks currently have a record of 107-43 this year. Here's the key stat: When an elite quarterback goes against a team that doesn't have an elite quarterback, the record of the elite quarterback is 80-19. That's right, an elite quarterback has a chance to beat a non-elite quarterback roughly 80 percent of the time, which explains why a running team such as Miami has lost five games to elite quarterbacks.

The elite AFC quarterbacks are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and Joe Flacco. In the NFC, you have Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Tony Romo, Donovan McNabb, Aaron Rodgers, Kurt Warner, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan.

Matt Schaub of Houston is knocking on the door of becoming an elite quarterback. Jay Cutler of Chicago was elite in Denver, but interceptions this season have temporarily pulled him down. Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks has been elite, but a rib injury and poor offensive line play have him just on the border.

Back in 2006, using some of the same qualifiers, the elite class of quarterbacks had only 11 members. To be a consistent winner in this league, you have to have a top quarterback. That's more apparent in 2009 than ever before.

From the inbox

Q: I am not a fan of Eric Mangini, but I still think he should be given time to make something happen. My question is about the offensive coordinator in Cleveland, Brian Daboll. The Browns have one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Why isn't this guy held accountable for his responsibilities on offense and the horrible play calling involved?

TopDawg in Fayetteville, N.C.

A: Believe me, you and the fans are holding Daboll and everyone accountable in Cleveland. There just seems to be so much dislike for Mangini that he is taking all of the shots. When you have an unpopular coach at the top, he takes all the arrows.

Q: The Vikings realistically could have the rookie of the year, coach of the year, and the offensive and defensive players of the year. Has any team had more than one winner in a season?

Martin in San Marcus, Texas

A: Let's study that for a second. The Vikings have a great chance at rookie of the year because Percy Harvin has done so well. They have only an outside chance at MVP because Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are the leading contenders. Adrian Peterson and Brett Favre will be in the voting, but they don't have enough at this stage. Jared Allen is clearly a candidate for defensive player of the year. Interesting thought.

Q: I've been wondering about the Colts' secondary situation. What is gonna happen with Bob Sanders?

Matt in Indianapolis

A: It may be hard for the Colts to keep Sanders at $7.5 million a year when he can only play half a season because of injuries. Tough break. Sanders is a difference-maker. The secondary will be better once Kelvin Hayden gets back from his knee injury -- that should happen soon. My guess is they will try to do a deal with Melvin Bullitt. If that works, it may allow the Colts to consider altering Sanders' contract. What the Colts can't do is lose both. It may come down to a choice between the two.

Q: What do you think about the Bengals' signing of Larry Johnson?

Michael in Cincinnati

A: Signing Johnson is an interesting insurance policy. He may snap at not getting many opportunities. I'm sure he's fine playing behind Cedric Benson, but he may not be as happy watching Brian Leonard and Bernard Scott get carries ahead of him. It's a gamble, but I think it's a good gamble.

Q: How are the Dolphins going to fare without star running back Ronnie Brown? Chad Henne is a terrific quarterback. He's been impressing me. How are the Dolphins going to make him better?

Eugou in Delray Beach, Fla.

A: As long as they don't use Ricky Williams like a workhorse, he should be fine. In the old days, he could handle 25 carries a game. Now, he's older and lighter. I liked the way they used him two weeks ago against Carolina on Thursday night. They mixed in Lex Hilliard and didn't go overboard in giving Williams the ball. Good management on the part of Dan Henning, the offensive coordinator. The time off Williams had when he walked away from the game helps him now because he's in better shape and his body isn't beaten up too much. As for Henne, he's progressing well. The Dolphins need to get him more receiving help and maybe get another pass-catching tight end.

Q: In a previous mailbag you just responded to a question about the Dolphins and their struggles with a tougher schedule. You do realize that the NFL did away with the first-place schedule methodology at the time of realignment, don't you? Miami's 2009 opponents (and locations) were set back in 2002 -- with the exception of two games based on division standing.

Tom in Medford, Wis.

A: You are an astute follower of the schedule, which is vital. Still, there are a few quirks that do affect teams, namely the non-common games. The Saints, for example, drew the Rams and Lions because of their fourth-place finish in the NFC South last year. They won both games. The Panthers drew Minnesota and Atlanta. That's a big difference. The Ravens ended up as the losers in the AFC North scheduling game even though they finished second in the division last season. They drew the Colts and Patriots. The Steelers ended up with Tennessee and Miami, first-place teams in 2008 that are under .500 this season. You are correct in getting everyone off the idea that the first-place schedule is the true problem. It's the rotation. The AFC East last year hit the jackpot because it caught the AFC West and NFC West when both divisions were down. That's why everyone except Buffalo finished .500 or better and the Bills went 7-3 in their non-division games. When the league goes to 18 games, though, the two additional games will probably be influenced by where a team finishes.

Q: What's your take on the Steelers' run game without Willie Parker? He is a free agent after this season and Rashard Mendenhall is doing great. Do you think Steelers will re-sign him?

Stephen in Derry, Pa.

A: They have a chance to get Parker back if he's willing to play for backup money. There may not be a great market for him because of his age -- he's 29. I don't think he can get $3 million a year. If the number comes down to $1.5 million to $1 million, the Steelers have a chance because re-signing him lets them use a draft choice on another position. Mendenhall looks like a star -- he's powerful, he's fast and he runs well to the right.

Q: Drew Brees has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL over the last several years. However, he is often overshadowed by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady because of their rings and the rivalry. With the rings aside, do you think Brees needs that adversary in the NFC so he can be talked about in the same breath as Manning and Brady?

Bert in Houston

A: Nope. He just needs playoff victories. Remember the debate a year ago about whether Kurt Warner was a Hall of Famer -- despite his great numbers and trips to the Super Bowl in St. Louis, Warner helped his Hall of Fame credentials by going through the NFC playoffs and then going to the Super Bowl and having a good game. In my opinion, he's solidified his Hall of Fame standing by coming back this year and going 7-3 so far. Brees has now established himself as a perennial MVP candidate in the NFC. Winning is everything and he just needs some January wins to up his stock.

Q: Is Mike Shanahan going to take the Bills' job or wait for more openings? I can see Dan Snyder giving more money to Shanahan because Washington is a better market than Buffalo.

Greg in Ashburn, Va.

A: Shanahan will wait and odds favor him being a Redskin. You're right, Snyder isn't going to lose Shanahan to Ralph Wilson. The only worry you have is if jobs open in Houston or Dallas -- Shanahan might look at those two openings more favorably. There is no damage in Shanahan talking to the Bills. He's a Redskin unless the eyes of Texas are upon him.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.