We're often prisoners of what's happened most recently, so anyone's answer to the question, 'Who's the NFL's best quarterback?' can change week to week.
But even with that in mind, the most persuasive argument is that, all apologies to Denver's Peyton Manning, the league's two best quarterbacks are going head to head Sunday when the Green Bay Packers face the New England Patriots at Lambeau Field.
As for what's happened most recently, well, these are the NFL's two hottest teams. The Packers have won seven of their last eight games, and Aaron Rodgers leads the league in passer rating (119.2). The Patriots have won seven straight, Brady has a 101.0 rating, and his odds of winning the NFL's MVP award, according to Bovada.lv, are 4-to-1, with only Rodgers' odds (even money) better.
"Right now the hottest one, especially the last few weeks, is Aaron Rodgers," said a high-ranking personnel executive in the NFL. "If I had to rank them I'd go Aaron (No.) 1, Tom Brady 2, Peyton (Manning) 3."
Said Kevin Gilbride, the longtime NFL offensive coordinator who retired this year: "I'd say the two that are playing (Sunday at Lambeau) are the two playing at the highest level. I'd put Andrew Luck just a smidgeon behind, and Peyton a smidgeon behind that."
As a warm-up for Sunday's game, I contacted three men with long histories in the NFL to evaluate Rodgers and Brady: Ron Wolf, the former Packers general manager who is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2015; the aforementioned executive, who was a college scouting director when Brady was drafted in 2000 and a personnel director when Rodgers entered the league in '05; and Gilbride, who was a quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL every year but one from 1989 through 2013.
We'll start with Wolf, whose record for identifying quarterback talent is first rate.
In the spring 1991, when he was working for the New York Jets, Wolf rated Brett Favre as the best player in the draft even though Favre ended up not being selected until early in the second round. A year later, as the new general manager for the Green Bay Packers, Wolf traded a first-round pick for the player who would lead the franchise's resurgence.
Wolf never again would have to use a high draft pick at quarterback, but through his final draft in 2001 he proved excellent at finding late-round prospects who were bona fide NFL players. Of the seven later-rounders he drafted, four ended up being starters in the league (Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks and Matt Hasselbeck). Only three (Jay Barker, Kyle Wachholtz and Ronnie McAda) were swings and misses.
So what does it say that in 2000, Wolf had an undraftable grade on Brady, who has gone on to become one of the best quarterbacks ever?
Well, Wolf wasn't alone. The New England Patriots didn't pick Brady until using one of their two compensatory picks at the end of the sixth round, so even they had no idea what they were getting.
"After watching his workout at the combine, he wasn't an athletic-type guy," Wolf said this week. "We said, 'Well, these (Packers area scouts) have him graded properly,' was the consensus of the room. Bad, bad mistake."
As has been well documented since Brady became a star, he was the starter his final two seasons at Michigan, though it didn't do anything for his pro prospects that for much of the '99 season backup Drew Henson played regularly also.
And Brady bombed in the physical testing at the NFL scouting combine: His 5.28 second 40 and 24½-inch vertical jump were worst among the 18 quarterbacks who took part that year.
Yet, after taking over for injured Drew Bledsoe as the Patriots' starter in 2001, Brady has won three Super Bowls, lost two others, and has a .777 winning percentage. His contemporary Manning has won the most MVPs (five) in NFL history, this year became the NFL's all-time leader in passing touchdowns, has won one Super Bowl, lost two others and has a .697 winning percentage.
But Manning also has had more playmaking talent around him. For long stretches of his career at Indianapolis he had difference makers such as Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Edgerrin James. At Denver, he's had Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker.
The one full season when Brady was surrounded by superior talent, in 2007 with Randy Moss and Welker, the Patriots went unbeaten in the regular season, scored what was then an NFL-record 589 points and Brady put up a 117.2 rating, which at the time was the second-highest ever.
"(Brady) is highly competitive," Wolf said. "He can step around the rush. You knock him down, he gets right back up and spits in your face. He's a very talented player. He's obviously intelligent. He's tougher than heck, and he's resilient. Everybody says Peyton Manning is the (best quarterback of his era). I think the guy we're talking about is."
Wolf retired after the 2001 draft, so he wasn't scouting players when Rodgers came out in '05. But Wolf has observed Rodgers in person in his annual several-day visit to training camp and watched most of his games.
"(Rodgers has) all the things we talk about, plus he's mobile, has feet, he can run and get out of trouble," Wolf said. "Arm strength, accuracy. You talk about threading the needle, he can thread the needle. He's incredible. Tremendous talent."
The unidentified scout has his own pelts when it comes to scouting quarterbacks. In the run up to the 2012 draft, for instance, he told me that someone was going to draft undersized Russell Wilson in the third through fifth rounds, and when that team's starting quarterback had to miss time because of injury, he'd never get back his job.
Wilson beat out Matt Flynn for the Seattle Seahawks' starting job even sooner than that, in training camp as a rookie, and won the Super Bowl as a second-year pro last season.
The scout said that in 2000 he rated Brady as a sixth- to seventh-round pick. The main concern was his frail build (6-4½ and 211 pounds).
"Very accurate but not overly strong (throwing arm)," the scout said. "I just keep going back to his frame. He looked like the paper boy, didn't have a lot of muscle. That's why we put him down in that area."
Throwing accuracy is a quarterback's most important physical trait, so Brady had that. The scout said Brady's arm strength improved while in the NFL, and his height combined with his ability to slide in the pocket has compensated for his inability to make plays on the move.
"Peyton wins games, but the will to win, not like Brady," the scout said. "Those are attributes are very hard — that competitiveness — to find in a player at that position. Those guys only come around every now and then. Not to knock Peyton, I love him. But if you put my feet to the fire and said, who would you take regardless of Super Bowls, just on how they play the game? I'd have to take Tom Brady."
Gilbride, who won two Super Bowls as the New York Giants' offensive coordinator, didn't evaluate Brady or Rodgers coming out of college. In both years (2000 and '05), he was an offensive coordinator and was not asked by his team, for whatever reason, to look at either.
But he's seen plenty of videotape of both since they've been in the NFL. He rated Brady as "off the charts" in all intangibles plus throwing accuracy.
"Mechanics throwing the ball, as good as you get," Gilbride said. "Running ability very limited, very restricted, not going to run for positive yards. Can slide around in the pocket effectively but not going to run for yards. Good arm strength, great accuracy. The mental acuity is what separates him. He knows what he's doing, where he's going. His vision is outstanding."
Gilbride rated Rodgers' arm strength as "very good," accuracy as "excellent" and release as the quickest in the NFL.
"The thing that separates him from the other great quarterbacks in the league is his movement," Gilbride said. "You put him with Brady and Brees or Manning, it's just his quickness of release is superior, and his ability to extend plays and run for positive yards is what puts him in a different category."
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