A Historical Review of the "Elite Quarterback." Blame the Washington Post, Bert Jones, Joe Theismann, and John Robinson


I’m here to tell you that Joe “F-Bomb” Flacco is an elite quarterback, judging by the ignoble history of sportswriters referencing the elite quarterback. In fact, if you have never raised a question about whether you are an elite quarterback, there are only two possibilities: (a) you do not have a pulse, or (b) you might actually be a clear cut elite quarterback.

I’ve gone back through the archives using a Lexis search of newspapers to see just when the term “elite quarterback” came into prominence. The first reference I can find is in an August 16, 1978 article in the Washington Post about Bert Jones, entitled Jones Wins City’s Games, Not Its Love; Jones Prefers Hunting to Bar Hopping:

"“The upstanding country boy quarterback of the Baltimore Colts never, never put a frog down a little girl’s back. “No,” said Bert Jones, horrified. “I valued frogs too much. I ate them.” Is there no question that will uncover an ugly speck on his soul? A rock on his road from Ruston, La., to the penthouse neighborhood of the National Football League’s elite quarterbacks?”"

I hereby make a motion that a quarterback cannot be truly elite unless he eats frogs. It might greatly limit the number of references to elite quarterbacks.

The term, made in passing there, still did not catch on. It would be four more years before it would appear again. Is there any doubt, though, that Joe Theismann would be to blame for something that has become a stain on our society?

Before the 1982 season, Paul Attner, also of the Washington Post, wrote the following about Theismann:

"At 33, after three full years of starting experience, Theismann must now either advance to the next level of excellence or resign himself to being one step below the league’s elite quarterbacks. “I guess you could say the flower has grown and now it hopefully is at the stage where it’s ready to bloom,” said Theismann yesterday after the Redskins’ final full-scale practice for their Sunday opener at Philadelphia. “I just don’t want that flower to become a dandelion.”"

Truly beautiful stuff there by Joe. Of course, Washington won the Super Bowl that year, and we can say that rings and eliteness have been tied together since the term’s inception.

Paul Attner was the pioneer of the elite quarterback reference, as he also wrote about the NFLPA all-star game in October of 1982, bemoaning the lack of elite quarterbacks. (Steve Grogan, Don Strock, and Bob Avellini are noted to have played in the game).

The term, though, still did not stick yet. In 1983, we had a draft class that was the greatest of all-time at the quarterback position, when it might have actually been appropriate. It was not used once in a newspaper.

No, next, you have to turn to John Robinson, with a truly great elite quarterback reference in October of 1985 in the Los Angeles Times, in a piece entitled “John Robinson One of the Few Impressed With Play of Dieter Brock.”

"It’s time to accept Brock, the Canadian Football League refugee, among the elite of National Football League quarterbacks, Robinson says. “Particularly, after seeing (Miami’s Dan) Marino Monday night and (San Francisco’s Joe) Montana last weekend,” Robinson said."

John Robinson was back at it less than 12 months later, bemoaning having a different quarterback every year, and saying of newly acquired Jim Everett: “If you picked the elite of quarterbacks coming out of college over the last 10 years, he’d be on the list, the top 10 or 12 guys in that time.”

If there was a banner year where we can say the elite quarterback joined us to stay, starting the momentum (something I don’t believe in for football games, but do for sportswriting’s use of the term “elite quarterback”), then it was 1987.

It started that year with the first features using the term in the titles, as the St. Petersburg Times ran two pieces entitled “The quarterback elite” in regard to Phil Simms, Jay Schroeder, John Elway, and Bernie Kosar, the four quarterbacks in the title games. In the spring, an article on whether Steve Young would go to San Francisco, also mentioned the possibility of Green Bay, noting that “Packer quarterback Randy Wright is seldom listed among the league’s elite.” That kind of begs the question as to when someone ever created such a list.

The following preseason, Jay Schroeder got elite quarterback money, in another Washington Post story. Also that year, from the Chicago Tribune, “[t]he Bengals believe 1987 may be the year Esiason gains membership in the National Football League’s elite quarterback club, taking a seat next to Joe Montana and Dan Marino.” They conveniently left out Dieter Brock and Randy Wright.

Building on that elite quarterback momentum, references started trickling in. By the end of 1989, the following quarterbacks had been mentioned as either being “elite”, or looking to becoming “elite”, or making “elite” money: Dave Krieg, Jim Kelly, Mike Tomczak, Bubby Brister, Jim Everett (again), Randall Cunningham, Tony Eason, Bernie Kosar, Ken O’Brien, Joe Montana, Warren Moon, Neil Lomax, John Elway, Phil Simms, and Jim McMahon.

It hasn’t stopped since, building like a snowball, and in the last few years, engulfing sportswriting like an avalanche of cliché. Here is a look at the number of articles in newspapers using either the term “elite” within 10 words of “quarterback”, or using the phrases “elite quarterback” or “elite quarterbacks”, over the last thirty years.

It keeps doubling over time, and it has now reached critical mass. The term has more than doubled in the last two years, and is more than 10x more frequently used than just a decade ago. Can we re-start our brains, sportswriters and consuming public?

There have been more articles in newspapers (and remember, this doesn’t include blogs and other online sources) using the phrase “elite quarterback” since January 1st, 2010 (1,573 times) than in the history of ever before that date (1,339 times). Every quarterback ever is elite, and the only thing that we can say for sure using the same standards for usage is, so is every sports writer. If you use the phrase, you are at least as elite as Dieter Brock.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]