Football devotees call it “the ultimate team sport,” and in a sense they are right. No play is made alone. The linebacker who bursts through to level the running back can thank his linemen for occupying blockers; the receiver who gets behind the defense for a 40-yard touchdown can thank the distracting routes of his cohorts who end up empty-handed. Still, nobody approaches the importance of the quarterback, especially in today’s NFL. Recent rule changes designed to protect players have had the side effect of liberating offenses, making passers unquestionably the most valuable commodities in the sport. A great one can elevate a bad team to relevance, or a good team to Super Bowl contention. A lousy one can sink even the most well-stocked squad’s chances.
The 2017 NFL season, which kicks off Thursday night, will have its share of plays that remind you of football’s variable thrills, but most games—and the eventual championship—will likely come down to the men under center. Here, then, are four quarterbacks worth paying special attention to, as they set the terms of the sport’s present and future.
Deshaun Watson, the Rookie
In last year’s college football championship, the Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson progressed from star to legend. He broke the record for passing yards in a title game, with 420, and with one second left threw the game-winning touchdown, leading his Tigers past the then-undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide. “I couldn’t hear the crowd,” he said then of his heroics. “I just felt at peace.”
Watson was drafted by the Houston Texans with the 12th pick in April’s draft, and though he’ll be relegated to backup duties in Week 1, the hope in Houston is that he’ll take the starting job soon and, eventually, become the player to push a promising team over the hump. Outfitted with a stellar defense and talented receiving corps, the Texans made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, but each appearance ended in a blowout loss due, in large part, to subpar quarterback play. Watson—strong-armed, nimble-footed, and with a well-earned reputation for leadership and poise under pressure—presents a possible solution.
He could help solve a leaguewide problem, as well. The NFL needs an infusion of youth at its premium position; last season, four of the five leaders in passing yards were older than 30. A generation of star quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning and Tony Romo, has started phasing into retirement. With a skillful roster around him and a strong pedigree behind him, Watson is as good a bet as any rookie to inherit the role; Drew Brees, one of those soon-to-exit elders, recently called him “as talented as they come.”
Cam Newton, the Comeback Hopeful
For pure joy, no season in recent memory tops Cam Newton’s 2015 campaign. That year, he threw for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more, won the Most Valuable Player award, and led the Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 record and the Super Bowl. He played like an action hero, firing passes into impossibly tight windows and battering through defenders. Along the way, he enlivened the normally buttoned-up culture of the NFL, offering wide smiles where other players might have opted for blankfaced stares, celebrating his touchdowns by racing to the seats and handing the football to a kid in a Panthers jersey. Newton’s excitement bothered some of the more dour segments of sports media, but that didn’t much matter as his team rolled over all comers.
Carolina lost that year’s Super Bowl, though, while Newton followed a subpar performance with a surly press conference, and the year since has been as difficult as the previous one was easygoing. The 2016 Panthers went 6-10, and their quarterback saw his productivity slip in every statistical category. Defenders made a habit of delivering punishing hits to Newton, which were curiously not flagged as excessive, and tired arguments often trotted out regarding black quarterbacks resurfaced. “Running is an easy, lazier way to play quarterback,” the Fox Sports host Colin Cowherd said recently, forgetting—or, more likely, ignoring—Newton’s ability to disassemble defenses with his arm or his legs.
The 2017 Panthers have an offense energized by the addition of the rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, and they hope to prove that last season was an aberration, not the start of a downward trend. A bounceback year for Newton, meanwhile, would be welcome beyond the Carolinas. At his best, he is living, laughing, rumbling proof that the game’s most demanding job need not be its least fun one.
Aaron Rodgers, the Virtuoso
Aaron Rodgers makes throws that seem not only unprecedented but, until replays show them again and again, physically impossible. Take, for example, the pass that helped his Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs. With 12 seconds left in a tie game, facing third and 20, Rodgers took the snap, spun away from the Dallas rush, and—on the run—threw a 35-yard dart diagonally into the arms of Jared Cook, who corralled it on the last sliver of grass before the sideline. The completion set up the winning field goal, and after the game, Rodgers was as giddy as any spectator. “I love that part,” he said. “I love the challenge—I love the opportunity to go out there and make plays.”
The problem, for Green Bay, is to use Rodgers’s rare ability to make football magic without becoming reliant on it. Detractors might argue that the Packers have overburdened their quarterback in the years since they last reached the Super Bowl, in their 2010 championship season. Rodgers has kept to his remarkable standards since then, but he has needed to, rescuing teams with weak defenses and slapdash running attacks. He has thrown an unheard-of three Hail Mary touchdowns over the past two seasons, a testament both to his ability and to his team’s sometimes dire straits.
There’s little question that the 33-year-old Rodgers will be remembered as one of the best of his era when he leaves the game. He is an offense unto himself, an exploder of norms and inventor of angles. What remains to be seen is whether he will spend the rest of his career keeping flawed teams afloat or leading great ones to championships. In some ways, despite his deserved accolades, Rodgers represents the downside of modern quarterbacking’s outsized importance; some passers can be so good that the deficiencies around them go overlooked until it’s too late.
Tom Brady, the Champion
In February’s Super Bowl, Tom Brady turned in the defining performance of what may be the greatest quarterback career of all time, leading the New England Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit to an overtime win. The comeback had all of its perpetrator’s trademarks: perfect accuracy, uncanny timing, unflappable cool, and a dash of what might look like luck, had it happened to anyone else. It was the fifth championship for Brady and the head coach Bill Belichick, the defining duo of 21st-century football.
Maybe the only thing more unlikely than the win itself is the fact that it wasn’t a swan song. At age 40—ancient in the lifespan of a pro football player—Brady seems better than ever; a recent ESPN.com ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players put him at the top of the list. He owes his relative agelessness to an approach that privileges the mental over the physical. Brady hardly moves behind his offensive line, bouncing on his toes and surveying the defense, and he doesn’t really throw deep, by contemporary standards. Rather, he goes about his work like the world’s most well-paid locksmith, glancing in one direction and sending the football in another, manipulating the opposition’s strategic cogs.
There is nothing new to say about Brady: no sudden deficiencies to report, no hurdles to overcome. He’s at the apex of his profession, and he figures to remain there for some time. For its NFL preview issue, Sports Illustrated ran a cover with star players from other teams, miniaturized, scampering over a gigantic Brady, trying to find purchase. The metaphor landed. He is not only his team’s central figure but the sport’s, the best at the most crucial task. In 2017—and, likely, beyond—the rest of the league can only try to catch up.