Jon Gruden calls them CEO quarterbacks.
They're the most consequential players in the NFL, quarterbacks who combine key physical skills with a coach's understanding of their position and offense.
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are the league's undisputed CEO quarterbacks. Gruden includes Philip Rivers and suspects Indianapolis' Andrew Luck will become the ultimate CEO quarterback.
"These quarterbacks (have) great flexibility and freedom when the game begins," said Gruden, the former Packers assistant and NFL head coach, and current analyst for "Monday Night Football." "It's almost like they're reading the other team's mail.
"They use dummy snap counts, they use motion with a dummy snap count. They see the front, they see the coverage, they can change the play, change the protection, hand signal a different route. It's awesome, it really is. It's cutting edge, top of the line quarterbacking."
Manning and Brady have dominated the NFL since the early 2000s, with Brees and Rodgers joining more recently. Since 2003, the four have combined to win eight of 11 league MVP awards and five of 11 Super Bowls. Their collective record is 501-229 (.686 winning percentage) and in 45 seasons combined as starters they've missed the playoffs only nine times.
This season is rare for Rodgers in that he has two games against his CEO peers: Sunday against Brees' New Orleans Saints, and in five weeks against Brady's New England Patriots.
Rodgers has played only four games against the other three combined. He's 3-1 overall (2-1 against Brees, 1-0 against Manning and never has faced Brady). Brady and Manning, on the other hand, have faced each other 15 times, playoffs included (Brady leads 10-5). Brees has faced Manning and Brady four times each.
Whenever any of the four match up, it's a marquee game and a clinic in the art of playing quarterback.
"You know they're going to bring their best," Rodgers said, "and you're probably going to have to outscore them."
Said Gruden: "I can't tell you how much I look forward to this game."
Rodgers at 30 is the youngest and most recent entry of the four into the CEO club — Manning is 38, Brady 37 and Brees 35 — so as a young NFL backup he studied video of the others to help learn the subtler parts of the game. He remembers watching Brady extensively in '07, when the Patriots were undefeated in the regular season and set what at the time was the NFL record for points.
"The one thing that stood out about Tom was his eye control was so advanced," Rodgers said this week. "He looked off just about every throw he made that season."
It's a safe bet the four keep an eye on each other as the game's best commanders of the line of scrimmage. Rodgers, for instance, said when scouting a given week's opponent, he hopes to find video of any or all of the other three to see how they attacked that team.
He's also always on the lookout for new ideas in the cat-and-mouse game at the line of scrimmage.
"Peyton probably gets the most credit for what he's done," Rodgers said, "but both Tom and Drew do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage with checks and run to pass stuff. Peyton's just a little more demonstrative than the rest of us."
Physically, they're quite different. They share the trait of throwing accuracy, but their throwing arms are of varying strength — Rodgers and Brady have the strongest arms of the four. Rodgers is mobile, where Manning and Brady aren't, and Brees is in between. And Manning (6-feet-5) and Brady (6-4) are tall, whereas Brees (6-0) is short, and Rodgers (6-2) is in between.
Their greatest similarities are their reactions — they make quick reads and get the ball out fast — and command of their offenses. All have extraordinary autonomy over play selection at the line of scrimmage.
"You're taking an offensive coordinator and letting him play the quarterback position," is how Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers describes it.
Especially in the no-huddle offenses that are proliferating in the NFL, so much of the game happens at the line. In the no-huddle, quarterbacks don't have access to the full playbook in noisy road venues because spoken signals, such as for pass protections, can't be heard. But at home everything is in play, and even on the road, hand signals to the skill players make all pass routes fair game.
In the Packers' no-huddle, McCarthy calls the original play (or multiple plays if it's a "check with me" call) through Rodgers' helmet headset. Per NFL rules, the speaker shuts off with 15 seconds left on the play clock, but McCarthy stops talking well before then so Rodgers can study the defense.
Is it man-to-man coverage? Are the cornerbacks playing press or off? Are two safeties deep, or one? What's the defensive front? And from where might a blitz come?
"One of the biggest things is try not to give them a lot of pre-snap reads where you just tell them what you're doing," Capers said. "Your coverage disguise is important."
Still, the advantage usually goes to a Rodgers and Brees. Because of their experience they can recognize or wait out disguises, and if need be change the call to a pass designed to beat the coverage they see, or a protection for the possible blitz, or to a run to beat the defensive front.
"(These quarterbacks) have so much inventory of offense they can access it's incredible," Gruden said. "You're not going to a fast-food restaurant and choosing a hamburger, a cheeseburger or a chicken burger. These guys can serve up just about anything you can dream up."
Still, the demands on these quarterback are immense, both in the no-huddle and in more conventional audibling. The Packers, for instance, have more than 100 spoken and hand signals, and Rodgers likened them to learning a foreign language. But what makes it especially complex is the steps offenses have to take to combat opponent scouting.
The TV game feeds feature regular close-ups of quarterbacks signaling, and the field microphones make spoken signals audible on almost every play. So defensive coaches can sync the TV video with the all-22 video and decipher the signs.
That means offenses have to change the signals' meanings weekly, and use dummy signals, too. The Packers test their offensive players every week, and as late as the morning of a game or occasionally even during a game, Rodgers might change a signal or add a new one.
To use an example from another team, the signal that became famous last season during Denver's run to the Super Bowl was Manning's "Omaha" call, which he uses frequently. It's not a play signal, but an alternative to the foot lift that alerts teammates that the snap is imminent. However, he also can use it as a dummy call to fool the defense.
"I love the mental part of it," Rodgers said. "Coming up with new checks and ideas that you can incorporate to throw the defense off, to draw them offsides, or to make subtle changes that you might not be able to pick up on film. I love that part of the game. That's the challenge I live for every week."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.