No athletes generate as much mass-media nonsense as NFL quarterbacks (well, maybe with the exception of one or two). When they win, it is news. But when they lose, lose badly, lose comically, get paid, get married, get a new tattoo or do anything else besides study playbooks and lift weights, it's bigger news. An entire industry is fueled by quarterback nonsense: ESPN would go dark during the day without it, sports radio would not be a three-station-per-market phenomenon, and the blogosphere would go back to being a concentrate-on-your-jobosphere. Also, I would still be teaching algebra.
Quarterback nonsense, in other words, is an economic resource that provides jobs and stimulates commerce. Yet economists have been slow to study it scientifically. What factors generate quarterback nonsense? Which quarterbacks generate the most nonsense? How many jobs does Cam Newton create when he drapes a towel over his head?
You know where this is going: A Quarterback Nonsense Index (QNI). The quantifiable factors are weighted, sums are tallied and we get a rating of which quarterbacks are best at stimulating the kind of prepackaged debate that keeps the lights on over at the First Take studio.
Here are the underlying catalysts of quarterback nonsense and their weightings:
No Super Bowl Ring: Five Points. A no-brainer: if you are not a winner, you are a nonsense magnet. The points only accrue after four NFL seasons; even the loudest crank would not argue that Ryan Tannehill should have won a Super Bowl by now. And rings as a backup don't count.
Playoff Failure: Five Points. Losing in the playoffs is a more powerful nonsense catalyst than going 6-10 and failing to reach the playoffs. The quarterback gets far more national attention in the playoffs, making his failures extra juicy. You cannot prompt a "cannot win the big game" storyline (the nonsense equivalent of fossil fuel) for a player who does not even get close to the big game.
Playoff Bumble: Two Points. An extra premium for doing something scandalous or inept during a playoff run. Only applies to a few elite nonsense-niks.
Overpaid: Five Points. This tag applies both to quarterbacks who recently received near-record contracts and quarterbacks whose hefty contracts from a few years ago keeps them clinging to rosters in cities that are ready to move on.
Extracurriculars: Two Points. Everything from serving time to dating Carrie Underwood to Tweeting a picture wearing the wrong hat goes here. You might think that arrests and scandals would be worth more to the QNI, but the burn rate on a scandal is surprisingly fast. Quality nonsense lingers.
Appearance Issues: Three Points. Tattoos, wild hair, pretty boy aspirations, snotty facial expressions. Go to jail for dogfighting, and the trial-punishment-redemption cycle will expunge much of your nonsense record. Get caught on camera making a weird face after an interception, and it stains permanently.
Big Market: Three Points. It is easier to generate nonsense in Chicago than Cleveland. It's almost impossible not to in New York. Quarterbacks in the top ten media markets earn premium points, which stick with them for a year after they leave.
Five Year Linger: Two Points. Spend five years with one team without winning a Super Bowl, and a quarterback earns extra points for wearing out his welcome.
Recent First Pick Overall: Two Points. The first player taken in the NFL draft absolutely MUST win a Super Bowl before (or immediately after) the players chosen beneath him. The ghosts of Tim Couch and JaMarcus Russell hangs over every first overall pick until he gets that ring, as an army of bloggers prepare to update their all-time-bust lists. There is a statute of limitations on this category, because no one really cares where Carson Palmer was drafted anymore.
Overexposed: Two Points. Commercials, video game covers, and fame-for-fame's-sake are powerful nonsense catalysts. It's a slippery slope from "I hate his stupid insurance commercials" to "I hate him," and the best nonsense provocateurs know how to exploit it.
Championship: Minus-Four Points. Super Bowl rings soak up a lot of nonsense, but not all of it as Eli Manning learned from 2008 through the 2011 playoffs.
Up and Comer: Minus-Three Points. Young superstars enjoy a nonsense-free glow for a few months: there is nothing to be gained from criticizing a player most fans are still getting acquainted with. Most of the Class of 2012 gets this deduction, as does Colin Kaepernick.
Legend: Minus-Two Points. Tom Brady, Drew Bree, and Peyton Manning have acquired additional nonsense resistance that goes beyond their Super Bowl success. Arguing about someone's place in history does not have the same juice as arguing whether his body language proves that he is not enough of a leader to win the big game.
Add up the scores and each non-rookie starting quarterback has his own QNI score! Now, let's start the nonsense countdown. (Which, by its very existence, generates more nonsense!)
31. (Tie) Russell Wilson, Seahawks; Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins (-3). These two second year quarterbacks are still "in the bonus" when it comes to nonsense. They accomplished just enough as rookies to satisfy expectations (trounce them, in Wilson's case), are too young to have any disappointments on their resume, were too far down in the draft order for advertisers to pounce on them with overexposure and play for smaller media markets at the extreme corners of the nation. Wilson and Tannehill have a grace period that should extend beyond their first slump or less-than-lovable moment. After that, they are on their own.
30. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (-2). The QNI acknowledges the lingering squick that accompanies Roethlisberger's 2009-10 sexual assault violations. But the lack of formal charges, three years, counseling, and marriage-fatherhood (plus some careful image management) have buried the incidents. Remember: this is nonsense we are dealing with, not actual dialogue about the problems facing society. As a proven champion going about his business in a tiny market, Roethlisberger actually gets a freer pass than all of his peers who earned "legend" points.
28. (Tie) Peyton Manning, Broncos, Andrew Luck, Colts (-1). It is fitting to see these two once again tied together, although they come by their negative-hassle ratings in totally different ways. Peyton's status as a champion and a legend are offset by his overexposure and the old "Manningface" saw. There is still a noisy chorus of lunatics who insist he is an average quarterback who compiled great stats but choked in the playoffs until he got lucky once, though all but the most dedicated tinfoil hatters are capitulating in the face of common sense.
Luck does not quite get the same pass Wilson got because he was the first pick overall, raising expectations. Think of his draft status as a time bomb: It is no big deal now, but if other Class of 2012 quarterbacks win Super Bowls in the next three or four years, watch out.
25. (Tie) Jake Locker, Titans; Christian Ponder, Vikings; Brandon Weeden, Browns (zero). Three small-market semi-prospects who have not done enough good to be noteworthy or enough bad to become a punchline.
23. (Tie) Drew Brees, Saints; Joe Flacco, Ravens. The QNI gives Brees points for being overpaid and overexposed, but not many people really begrudge his contract or get worked up about his soda and cough syrup commercials. A Super Bowl win and Brees' emergent "legend" status take most of those points away. Brees could conceivably rank 32nd -- he exists in a Phil Mickelson Goldilocks Zone, spending years as the likeable alternative to designated superstars -- but the system is not designed to recognize this, and there are probably some Brees Haters living under a bridge somewhere.
So the system fails a bit on Brees. To see how it succeeds on Flacco, let's say he: a) lost the playoff game to the Broncos (without any special pratfalls) and b) still signed a huge contract with the Ravens. This AlternaFlacco would be dinged for No Super Bowl, lack of playoff success, being overpaid (which he gets anyway), the Five Year Linger in a city with no ring, and extracurriculars, because his 2012 "elite" comment would be used against him. He would earn 19 points, ranking him second overall on the nonsense scale. A few playoff wins later, and he must still deal with the criticism that he ruptured the Ravens salary cap, but most of the national nonsense peddlers see a fresh Super Bowl ring and move on to the next village.
20. (Tie) Sam Bradford, Rams; Robert Griffin III, Redskins; Eli Manning, Giants (2 points). What an eclectic group! Bradford is a former #1 pick overall just coming off scholarship. If he does not accomplish anything this season, he will get lumped into the No Super Bowl category and shoot up the charts. Griffin is almost universally beloved, but he is an overexposed big-market player, so the potential for a sudden backlash is enormous.
Manning was in both Bradford's and Griffin's shoes in the past, but a pair of Super Bowls have allowed him to slide down the nonsense scale after years of bouncing around near the top of the list. New York intensity and his "dopey baby brother" persona still make him a potential potshot target. So we have one quarterback just starting his climb of Mount Babble, one descending from the summit, and one still trying on his hiking boots.
18. (Tie) Matt Flynn, Raiders; Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars (3 points). Flynn and Gabbert rank ahead of the Locker-Ponder-Weeden troupe because Flynn is in a big market, Gabbert gets "appearance" points for his bumbling surfer dude persona, and neither has anything good to counterbalance these minor nonsense catalysts. Gabbert's two seasons of flailing and Flynn's sojourn as the free agent no one settled for and C3PO to Russell Wilson's Luke Skywalker make them better snark-criticism targets than the other bantamweight prospects.
17. Tom Brady, Patriots (4 points). The nonsense deflector shields activated early in Brady's career, but no one can be as famous and successful as long as Brady has been without a few barnacles attaching to the hull. He is in a big, sports-obsessed market, gets the TMZ treatment because of his model wife and California pleasuredome, carries a pretty boy label because, well, he is a pretty boy, and counts as overexposed because of the commercials and iridescent fame. Brady does not get "overpaid" points because his current contract is so sensible, but even so, his legendary status can only overcome so much. You may think this is too high, but if you want to pour a gallon of "Brady lost the will to win a Super Bowl after (Gisele, GQ, Belichick stopped spying, etc.)," you can get a lot of sports-talk mileage.
14. (Tie) Andy Dalton, Bengals; Josh Freeman, Buccaneers; Kevin Kolb, Bills (5 points). Five Nonsense Points are the Mendoza Line for a quarterback having to justify his existence on a show like Around the Horn. Below five points, a quarterback is either too great, too new, or too boring to be dragged around for no good reason except a slow news day. Only one person above five points has a Super Bowl ring, and most have some other laundry on the line, so they are fair game. Five points is the threshold. Dalton and Freeman have arrived, Dalton because he has been successful enough to rack up some playoff losses, Freeman because he has been around long enough to start accumulating blame for his lack of success. Kolb has also been a starter (or a guy who was supposed to have been a starter) long enough to wear the "no ring" label. Kolb could also earn points for being overpaid as a holdover from his crazy Cardinals contract, and a hot-of-the-presses Extracurricular could be applied for getting hurt by (tee-hee) slipping on a mat in training camp. But there is no reason to pick on the guy: Kolb is headed for backup oblivion. Dalton and Freeman are either headed for success or a trip to the QNI hot seat.
13. Aaron Rodgers, Packers (5.1 points). Rodgers actually tied Dalton and the others, but he is a category unto himself. Offsetting his championship are: the Overpaid label, a discount doublecheck Overexposed label, and some Extracurriculars. We had the Greg Jennings flare-up, Skip Bayless' assertions that Rodgers is arrogant (pot … kettle) and the unforgettable Rodgers hates sick children because he did not sign the proper number of autographs saga. The tenth of a point can be justified by the fact that Rodgers still has to play nice-nice with Brett Favre. Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL right now, which makes him easier to shoot paintballs at: the Brady Bunch have become unassailable, the Griffin Gang are too young and fun, but Rodgers is too squarely in the crosshairs for one Super Bowl ring to fully protect him.
12. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers (7 points). Kaepernick is in a different category from guys like Griffin and Luck, even though the QNI gives him Up and Comer points. The tattoos and hats are more like symptoms than an illness: in just a few months of fame, Kaepernick has attracted irrationality that the Griffin Gang easily deflects. The suddenness of that fame may be the culprit: we had months to prepare for the 2012 rookies, but Kaepernick got sprung on the football world in November, forcing unprepared opinion-mongers to fall back to their dependable trenches (tattoos are bad!). A large market and Super Bowl-caliber attention also works against Kaepernick. This likeable, talented kid only has one rung to climb up and a million miles to slide down. He is in the unfortunate position of being an 8-8 season and a few out-of-context sound bites away from becoming the next big thing in the nonsense industry.
11. Carson Palmer, Cardinals (8 points). Does not compute! The system sees a veteran with no rings who just left a major media market. Fans see a hard-luck journeyman whose career was derailed by injuries, bad teams and the T. Ocho Show. Talk-show producers see a guy whose sizzle cooled off in 2010 or so. The close thing football has to baseball's mid-rotation inning eaters, Palmer fouls up the system a bit, but a system with no odd results is a system with thumbprints all over its scales.
10. Cam Newton, Panthers (9 points). Now we are getting to the good stuff. Newton has overexposure, Extracurriculars, recent first-overall draft status and towel-covered appearance issues to make him a favorite nonsense chew toy. His small market and relative youth have kept the kettle from boiling over thus far. Newton makes a fine cautionary tale for all of the younger stars who appear to be coated with Teflon right now: all it takes is a losing streak, some bad body language and a few snipes from teammates or family members to get the QNI meter bouncing.
9. Alex Smith, Chiefs (10 points). Safely tucked away in Kansas City, Smith may appear to be too high on this list. But remember how much mileage he provided from his rookie season through his benching. Smith was a former first-overall pick forever mired in quarterback controversies in a big market; had Jim Harbaugh never switched quarterbacks and brought both to camp this year, Smith-versus-Kaepernick would be a daily ESPN talking point. Instead, Smith is destined to slide down the nonsense hill as expectations dwindle and his days as a top prospect fade from memory.
7. (tie) Philip Rivers, Chargers; Matthew Stafford, Lions (12 points). Stafford is #7 with a bullet: his new contract and fourth year in the NFL have placed him in "overpaid guy who never wins" territory, and he is a former #1 pick to boot. Another ho-hum season will add the Five Year Linger to his resume; an early playoff exit will add Playoff Failure. Rivers would have been run out of New York in a garbage scowl by about 2011, but San Diego is a friendly little market where his mouthy demeanor goes mostly unnoticed and the team's troubles were tied to the outgoing coaching regime. Rivers' ranking seems a little high; like Carson Palmer, he deflects a lot of nonsense by visibly working hard for bad-to-awful teams.
6. Matt Schaub, Texans (15 points). To reach the upper echelons of nonsense, a quarterback must have a handful of playoff losses under his belt. Schaub only has one, but he also has a messy win against the Bengals, and the industry-leading nonsense-perpetrators have likely forgotten that he was hurt during the 2011 playoff run. Schaub is "on the hot seat," "must win now," "hasn't proven he can take that step," and on and on. A lack of national exposure or personality ticks keeps him out of the top five.
5. Mark Sanchez, Jets (17 points). Sanchez does not get hit with Playoff Failure because he was more successful than anyone could reasonably expect in the playoffs. He is also not dinged for Appearance Issues; the butt fumble is classified as an Extracurricular (when Adam Sandler is making jokes about you …). Sanchez is overpaid, overexposed, ringless and trapped in New York. His saving grace is that the joke has gotten old: nothing can be wrung from Sanchez in 2013 that wasn't squeezed dry in 2012.
3. (tie) Matt Ryan, Falcons; Michael Vick, Eagles (19 points). Ryan is a rising star in the QNI field now that he has a new contract and has been in Atlanta for five years with no Super Bowl and limited playoff success (because it is his job to cover receivers, of course). Ryan provides an easy "Flacco did it, now Ryan must" storyline, and we get to enjoy a full season of wondering whether he has found the magical ingredients to the winner sauce recipe. Since Ryan has no more "next steps" until he reaches the Super Bowl, the debate can continue through mid-January. Hooray!
Vick, meanwhile, has no rings, a bad playoff record, a high salary, a big market and a whole college application's worth of Extracurriculars on his slate. Even with memories of jail and dogfights fading, Vick keeps on giving as an overpaid albatross stuck in a weird quarterback controversy on a rebuilding team. He would rank higher if the system awarded bonus points for crazy relatives on Twitter. Maybe version 2.0…
2. Jay Cutler, Bears (20 points). No ring, little playoff success, a Noted Playoff Stumble (the ankle injury against the Packers; no one said nonsense was fair), a smokin' Extracurricular meme and high-profile personal life, a big market and a face that contorts all-too-naturally into a sneer make Cutler fun fodder, even for those of us who should know better. Cutler enjoyed some blowback to the blowback after the Smokin' Jay meme got out of control: the guy played hard behind a bad line, and he really does care. Cutler could win a Super Bowl, he could fade away and join Palmer and Rivers on the road out of the spotlight, or he could smirk his way into the #1 spot. Only the Super Bowl can get him quickly out of the QNI top ten.
1. Tony Romo (30 points). What more could you ask for? Romo rings every bell in the system except Recent First Pick Overall. Even Jerry Jones has gotten into the business of measuring the value of Romo's soul. I recently wrote a blog post about how misunderstood Romo's on-field record has become, but the nuts-and-bolts of Romo's usually-solid Sundays are lost in a sea of playoff bumbles and high-profile romances.
Romo may be the most nonsense-laden regular starting quarterback in history. He trumps the late-Eagles career Donovan McNabb (who maxes at 23 points around 2008; McNabb is used to test all nonsense tolerances), and I am terrified my computer will freeze if I run the numbers for Brett Favre. More than a nonsense accumulator, Romo has been a nonsense trailblazer, gaining overexposure early in his career, generating bloopers that presaged the invention of the GIF and creating fodder for football and entertainment blogs from the moment there were football and entertainment blogs.
Ah, but what about Tim Tebow nonsense, you ask? There is no software in the world that can handle that.