The NFL’s Smartest QBs

January 3, 2014 by Richard Sherman

There is a very common misconception about me that ends today. It seems some people believe I lack respect, especially for my opponents. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a football guy, and there are few things I enjoy more than watching tape and breaking down quarterbacks. It’s a long, tedious process, but I believe the way we approach film study in Seattle both sets us apart on the field and enhances my own appreciation for the best players in the NFL.

Before I share my top 5 smartest quarterbacks of 2013, with an emphasis on the most intelligent passers in the game, please understand that I’m not talking about these guys in terms of reputation or highlight reel plays. In Seattle, we chart players the same way scouts do, and we approach games with heads full of tendencies translated from raw data.

For example, we keep track of how many passes the opponent throws down the field 20 yards or more, and what route concepts they like on 3rd and long, medium and short. Does the quarterback go through all of his progressions? Does he stare his targets down? When you’re playing a team more than once in a season, you’ve got to consider that quarterbacks make adjustments depending on the defense they face. They’re considering the reads they’ll make and the times they’ll look to scramble based on their experience against your scheme. Our coaches chart those tendencies and give them to us in scouting reports.

We take the tendencies and memorize them each week, helping us decide in a split second when it’s appropriate to gamble within the confines of the defense. Gambles = Interceptions.

After three seasons, I feel like I’ve watched and played enough pro football to be an authority on the league’s smartest quarterbacks. It’s no coincidence that these five men each have teams in the postseason—the days of defenses alone winning championships and teams advancing in the playoffs with 200-yard passing performances went away shortly after the Buccaneers won it in 2002, when I was 14.

1. Peyton Manning

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What makes him special: When we played Peyton in the preseason, I found a new appreciation for the way he makes adjustments at the line of scrimmage; he controls the protections, and if he sees the blitz coming he slides it. The thing that sets him apart is that he’ll change it to a run play if you don’t have enough players in the box, and they’ll get five or six yards because you’re not ready for it. Nobody else has both the authority to do that within their offense and the understanding to know when it’s appropriate.

His arm, however, is another story. His passes will be accurate and on time, but he throws ducks.

2. Drew Brees

What makes him special: He makes incredible adjustments during the game. He’ll struggle for a stretch and then go to the sidelines and look at pictures and then come back and attack the defense a new way. It’s almost like they installed a whole new game plan. He’s never done that to us, but I can recall the first Carolina game, when it was a back and forth battle at first and then he finally found the weakness and he just kept attacking it. He caught momentum, and then he just kept them off balance. He went to Colston, then to the outside with Graham, then Sproles and Kenny Stills and Lance Moore. Once he has you on your heels, you don’t know what’s coming.

3. Aaron Rodgers

What makes him special: He really plays the game calm. He makes all of his checks, and plays with a double count, which a lot of quarterbacks do to get defenses to show their hand. He can identify defenses and he really spreads the ball out to some great receivers. Jordy Nelson is one of the best out there. Then you have Rodgers’ ability to scramble. He’s probably as good as Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and RG3. He’s got a great football mind, so his ability to run gets overshadowed. He stumped us early in the game last year, when we played them on Monday night. We had everybody covered on the double go and we thought, Okay, we’ve got him. And he took off for 18 or 19 yards and you think, It’s gonna be a long day.

In two seasons together, Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson have led the Seahawks to a 24-8 record in the regular season. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
In two seasons together, Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson have led the Seahawks to a 24-8 record in the regular season. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

4. Russell Wilson

What makes him special: His understanding of the pass rush lanes and his elusiveness is unique. Some of that is about intelligence: Watching film and knowing where the defense likes to attack. He has a tremendous understanding of scheme and zone reads, and play-action fakes. In the Jacksonville game, we were in the red zone and he was supposed to run a bootleg right. He saw the blitz coming and he acted like he didn’t see it. He pretended to look left, then he spun around a guy and hit Zach Miller in the end zone, wide open. That kind of understanding of the game and your surroundings is what makes your quarterback elite.

5. Andrew Luck

Sherman (9) and Andrew Luck were teammates for two seasons at Stanford in 2009 and 2010. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Sherman (9) and Andrew Luck were teammates for two seasons at Stanford in 2009 and 2010. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

What makes him special: As my teammate at Stanford, I saw him call offenses, given three or four plays to pick from, and choose the correct play. He understands the run game and where the mismatches are by counting the linebackers. And he’s also an underrated scrambler who can take off at any time and buy more passing opportunities. When they beat us this year, the best thing he did was buy himself time. He has the ability to step up in the pocket and ignore the rush and find guys downfield. The goal is to bring different looks at him and never let him get comfortable.

Honorable mention: Tom Brady

It is what it is. If this were a top 6, he’d be in there. Tom Brady is one of the hardest to intercept, and still has one of the best arms in the league, but this was the year the young guys took a step forward.

Superlatives

Who’s next: Cam Newton

Hardest to intercept: Tom Brady

Most conservative: Alex Smith

Toughest to sack: Tony Romo

Biggest trash-talker: Jay Cutler

Best arm: Andrew Luck

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