Welcome to the golden age of quarterback debates. The nation's obsession with unending arguments and its obsession with those who throw a football for a living have merged, creating a perfect storm of intrigue and bickering.
This weekend, both conference championship games in the NFL offer quarterback matchups in which it's easy to like both passers but impossible to like them both equally. You're either a Peyton Manning backer or a Tom Brady fan; not both.
The next Manning-Brady divide has spawned in the NFC, where Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are already deep into their rivalry despite having only three full regular-seasons between them. Their styles and personalities are as different as the cities they represent. Here too, it's hard to shrug and say you like them both the same.
Then there's the emerging quarterback debate, which may end up being greatest of all: Johnny Manziel and … the rest of the NFL draft class.
Manziel is a debate in himself; it's hard to find anyone who's neutral on him as a pro passer and harder still to find any football fan who doesn't have any opinion on him. Some see the Houston Texans picking Manziel at No. 1 overall in April, and others wouldn't take him in the first round (or in any early round). Throw in some interesting alternate options in this year's class, including Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr and David Fales, and the next draft might be more hotly debated than Luck vs. RG3 and Manning vs. Ryan Leaf. If indeed Manziel goes to the Texans with the No. 1 pick, plenty of widely respected pundits (not to mention a horde of fans) will consider it the biggest whiff in recent history. Manziel may make arguments about Tim Tebow seem quaint.
In a way, the next days, weeks and months will be a three-act play that goes a long way toward determining how the quarterbacks are defined. This weekend features Brady vs. Manning, and the best-ever discussion has involved these two for a while. A fourth Super Bowl victory for Brady could land him in the top spot all time, while a second Super Bowl title for Manning (with his second team) would quiet his many postseason doubters and cement his place as a man who can single-handedly change a franchise's fate (without a consistent head coach like Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick). Brady vs. Manning is about the past. It's about the standard for excellence going forward.
The Kaepernick vs. Wilson match has many layers. Kaepernick is the bicep-kissing, headphone-wearing, lanky strider whose cavalier attitude largely hides his strong intellectual grasp of the game. Wilson is the film student, more measured and quiet. Both were overlooked as college prospects, which says a lot about how the position is evaluated. Both won their jobs unexpectedly, and convincingly, which says a lot about them. To this weekend's winner go the bragging rights for himself and his city – the fan bases hate each other – but also the chance at a breakthrough of sorts. Although the college game has evolved toward the dual-threat quarterback for decades now, the Super Bowl has almost always gone to the pocket passer: Brady, both Mannings, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers (arguably) and Joe Flacco. Kaepernick and Wilson have both shown strong pocket passing skills, but a Super Bowl title for either man (especially over Brady or Manning) would signal another big step toward a new paradigm of quarterbacking.
That brings us to Manziel, who seems so futuristic that he's been likened to a video game character. But can he take coaching? Can he stay disciplined? Can he remain in the pocket? All of these questions boil down to one: Is he under control? And that question gets to the heart of the true quarterback debate here.
Brady and Manning are coaches on the field, seemingly able to run an offense without any input at all. Although there's debate about who is better, there's no debate about whether their style works. There is enormous debate, however, about whether leaving the pocket is a good idea on a consistent basis. Manziel is the extreme example of that, even though he has a big arm and is physically larger than supposedly safer prospects like Bridgewater.
Dovetailing with this debate is the changing standard of what's acceptable aggression toward the quarterback. Penalty flags seem to fly whenever there is any heavy hit on the passer, whether it's helmet-to-helmet or not. Defenders have to allow rushing quarterbacks more leeway when they slide, which probably means an extra yard or so on every run. That gives Manziel and others like him more credence and more room.
The problem with that, however, is that a few yards on the ground is nothing compared to a dozen through the air via a pinpoint pass. A 15-yard completion and a sack are almost always better than two 4-yard runs. That feeds the argument that you'd rather have a traditional passer like Bortles as your rookie quarterback next season than Manziel, who can throw but obviously loves to run too.
Manziel's highlights are breathtaking, but how many of them would have turned into tackles-for-loss in a much faster professional league? Manziel might be the next Robert Griffin III, but after such a frustrating season for the Redskins' quarterback, is that a good or a bad thing?
This weekend, this month and this entire year will start to answer a lot of these questions. The quarterback of the future could be Manziel, and it could be Nick Foles. It could be both, with the arguing camps further divided like Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps that's the most likely outcome, as the college game continues to be won over by dual-threat throwers and the pro game hasn't changed as much as everyone thought it would.
Manning and Brady are still the kings, at least for now. One of them will make the Super Bowl. And at least for the next few months, the two of them are like their statuesque styles in one important aspect: they aren't going anywhere.