Tom Brady once told an NFL coach, according to Ian O’Connor, that if Aaron Rodgers had the same advantages he had in New England—the Patriots offensive system and their detailed scouting of defenses—he’d “throw for 7,000 yards every year. He’s so much more talented than me.” Rodgers, if you’re curious, fell about 2,700 yards short of that mark this season, but the point remains: Even a player as talented as Rodgers, one of the best football players of all time, can be helped by a good situation.
When the Buccaneers play the Packers in the NFC title game on Sunday, Brady and Rodgers will meet for the first time in the playoffs, which is no surprise since this is the first year they are in the same conference. Their respective situations this season are unlike anything they’ve experienced in their careers. Rodgers is playing at an MVP level—again—but this time for Matt LaFleur, Green Bay’s second-year coach who took over for Mike McCarthy, who’d coached the Packers since before Rodgers became the team’s starter. Brady played his first season without Bill Belichick as his head coach. Rodgers and Brady enter Sunday’s game on similar terms, generally speaking: They’re both much improved from a year ago and have come just shy of their career-best production despite their advanced ages. Rodgers, 37, has doubled his touchdown percentage from last season, which was already an improvement from 2018—his final year with McCarthy—and his passer rating has risen 26 points. Brady, 43, has also improved this season, his first in Bruce Arians’s offense. His passer rating is up more than 14 points compared to 2019, he’s thrown 16 more touchdowns, his yards per attempt is up a full yard, and he’s throwing the ball a yard-and-a-half deeper per pass attempt.
Brady’s and Rodgers’s improvements in their newish environments are not a one-to-one comparison, mostly because it is clear that Belichick helped propel Brady’s career and McCarthy hurt Rodgers’s. Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. McCarthy is very much not. Legacies aside, these quarterbacks will meet in the penultimate game of a season playing out exactly like it was supposed to. Before the season, many people in the league told me this would be a simplified season, one in which obvious advantages were more important than usual—and they are usually very important. So a good quarterback, a good coaching staff, and a few talented pieces on both sides of the ball could get you into a Super Bowl. This was the season, these people told me, of not overthinking it. Two of the best quarterbacks in football history playing for a shot at the Super Bowl is evidence of that theory.
The NFL’s final four—Rodgers’s Packers, Brady’s Bucs, Patrick Mahomes’s Kansas City Chiefs, and Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills—is a worthwhile study in roster-building. Some GMs—Howie Roseman of the Eagles, for instance—have told me they compile the vitals of the final four teams from each season, things such as age, height, weight, draft position, etc., to make sure they aren’t missing some trend among great teams. Conference championship weekend is a good time to take stock of the league and what wins and loses football games. The most obvious through line between the remaining teams this season is the passer and, most importantly, what these teams have done to help theirs.
Sunday’s final four is about quarterbacks. This is always true, in a way, because the entire sport revolves around the position, but somehow, their importance is heightened this year. There are two things you need to know about the league in 2021: the first comes from Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart, who notes that completion percentage is at an all-time high this season, and yards per completion is at an all-time low. Completed passes are more plentiful, safer, and generally more useless. The second thing to understand is that these four teams have unsubscribed from the short completion part of this equation. According to Pro Football Focus, all four rank in the top six in explosive passing plays. Rodgers and Brady are one and two in deep passing yards. Mahomes is tied for the lead in the NFL in deep touchdowns. Allen is tied for second in deep completions. All four teams are in the top 10 in yards per catch. Former NFL quarterback and current NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms said on this week’s Ringer NFL Show that these teams’ ability to stretch the field is an indication of the sport changing before our eyes.
The league has a funny habit of showing us where the sport is by which teams remain at this stage. In the 2017 season, for instance, the final four teams included four of the five best defenses by points allowed. It was a season when Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles were three of the remaining starting quarterbacks. A year later, only one top-10 defense made the final four, and the four highest-scoring offenses made it. The 2019 season was more of a hybrid: three top-10 offenses and three top-10 defenses. In the league as it is currently set up, you need, roughly, well, everything. The top three scoring offenses are here, as is the sixth. There is no elite defense left, but every team ranks in the top half of the league in points allowed, so good enough.
If you’re looking for some grand vision, it’s this: These teams have elite quarterbacks, they know how to surround them with talent, and they understand how to capitalize on their aggressiveness. (By the way, according to the same explosive pass-play rate, three of the remaining teams are in the top seven at stopping them. Only the Chiefs, who rank 25th, are bad at defending them.) Both Rodgers and Brady have teams that know how to protect them, ranking fourth and fifth, respectively, in the percentage of their throws that come from a clean pocket. This tends to come in handy—they both rank in the top five in passer rating when taking longer than 2.5 seconds to throw the ball. (Brady struggles when taking less than that. Rodgers, incredibly, is ranked no. 1 both above and below 2.5 seconds.)
I am not suggesting the blueprint for the future depends on having one of the most talented quarterbacks in history. That’s obviously the shortest path to a Super Bowl, but let’s assume that most teams already value elite quarterback play (everyone except Houston, apparently). This weekend’s conference championship games suggest that the barrier for entry to compete is as high as it’s ever been. It is not just about having an elite quarterback; it’s surrounding him with protection, at least one elite receiver, and a coaching staff that knows how to make it all work. There are no Mike McCarthys among these four head coaches. Arians, LaFleur, and Andy Reid are brilliant offensive minds and Bills head coach Sean McDermott has one of the best offensive coordinators in football in Brian Daboll. None of these teams rely on their quarterback to solve every problem for them—even if all four of them have that capability.
Last season, I talked to Chiefs general manager Brett Veach about how franchises operate in the modern era. We were talking about the idea that the Chiefs were “all in” in 2019, the last year before they signed Mahomes to an expensive extension. Veach scoffed at the notion that there is anything other than going all in for a top team. “You’ve got to be ‘all in’ every year,” Veach said. His point is a good one: This is an era when a rising salary cap has meant teams can afford more stars and a supporting cast. “The cap keeps going up, guys can get moved, traded—it’s never like it seems,” Veach said, as a way of saying there’s no excuse for not loading your roster every year. (This may soon change as the salary cap is expected to flatten due to the financial impact of COVID-19—the exact number for 2021 is unknown.)
The league is full of younger, more aggressive general managers who have come of age in an era of big trades and big contracts. Not all of the remaining teams fit the bill—the Packers have specialized in playing the long game with their existing talent and not wading too deeply into making big short-term moves—but the general arc of the league is that teams are taking bigger swings and connecting on more of them. The Chiefs traded their first-round picks in 2018 (for Mahomes) and 2019 (for Frank Clark). Buffalo’s trade for Stefon Diggs should be talked about as one of the best acquisitions in modern NFL history. Diggs was the perfect piece to add alongside an ever-improving Allen. According to Pro Football Focus, Allen was last in percentage of uncatchable passes beyond the line of scrimmage in 2018 and 2019. He’s third this year. This has led him to have the biggest third-year jump by any quarterback in history:
All four of these quarterbacks took different paths here. The timing is different and the development is different, but the end result is the same. Three of the four quarterbacks were drafted by a team that made the playoffs the prior year. Mahomes was drafted into football heaven with Reid, taking over a team that was the 2-seed in the AFC the previous season with Alex Smith as its starting quarterback. Together, they’ve expanded the limits of offensive football. Allen was a talented but raw quarterback who developed alongside a Bills franchise that has built one of the best rosters in the sport. Rodgers was simply in need of an offensive system that could help reinvigorate his considerable talents and Brady simply needed better weapons. No one would seriously suggest that Tampa Bay’s coaching staff is better than New England’s—but the Patriots’ lack of offensive weapons was weighing Brady down, and at his age, even the greatest of all time needs a little help. Belichick and Brady were the best pairing in league history. But this year, Brady needed to be paired with some open receivers as well.
This is the lesson of 2021: being all in isn’t enough. Almost every good team is. If you’re a mediocre team right now, you have a lot of catching up to do. The problem with this season is that even if teams learn the right lessons, they might not have the building blocks to do anything about it. Some teams have botched this—Bill O’Brien married trading for players like Laremy Tunsil with trading away stars like DeAndre Hopkins. Brady and Rodgers play on Sunday because they are two of the best quarterbacks of all time, and they fit perfectly into organizations that obviously know what to do with them.