2011 was proclaimed "The Year of the Quarterback" by the alleged Worldwide Leader in Sports, but it might just as well be the year of the incredibly average quarterback. It seems that at no time in the history of the NFL have more high-profile quarterbacks been so decidedly middle-of-the-road and still achieving success.
In an era of fantasy football, the perception of these quarterbacks can be skewed when they don't help a rotisserie owner win games; it doesn't help matters when the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers put up gaudy numbers and win Super Bowls. But the next tier of quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez -- and this year, Tim Tebow -- are very much the faces of their respective franchises. Still, their numbers are rather plebian in the NFL.
Over the past three years, neither Flacco nor Sanchez has posted a losing record, but each completed less than 60 percent of their passes this season. Yet Flacco led his team to the playoffs for what is now three straight years and Sanchez's New York Jets made consecutive AFC Championship Games the past two seasons. Terry Shea, the author of the book, "Eyes Up," is a quarterback mentor who spent time the past few seasons mentoring Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford before their NFL drafts, doesn't think that traditional statistics can measure a quarterback. And it isn't as trite as wins and losses either.
"How does a quarterback function on third down — does he create a third down conversion of 62 percent or higher? This conversion leads to more offensive plays per game and when a team runs more plays then its opponent, the winning percentage is higher. Second, does he function in the red zone and more important, how does he function on third down in the red zone?" Shea said. "Does he score points or does he surrender points on crucial third down decisions - then how does the quarterback perform on the last series of the first half and last two possessions of the game?"
Sanchez has led a Jets offense that is No. 22 in the league in third down offense, converting just 34.7 percent of the time, not exactly a ringing endorsement for Shea's first quality. But the Jets did have the league's best red zone offense and the sixth best offense in terms of red zone touchdowns per game. And to touch on Shea's last point, his four game winning drives in 2011 puts him among the league's best in fourth quarterback comebacks.
And like Flacco, Sanchez wins — 31 times the past three seasons including the playoffs.
"Now, if a quarterback moves his team into the playoffs, he has earned the right to be called one of the better active quarterbacks," Shea said. "When a Mark Sanchez drives his team to an AFC Championship Game or beyond, this answers the question 'Did we chose the right guy?' And then all the fan and media noise has no substance."
The reason why Sanchez might not be a statistical juggernaut may be that in his first two years in the league, he hasn't been asked to be. The Jets were content to play smart and controlled and let the league's best defense in 2009 (a unit which was top five this year) win games. In this environment, he wasn't asked to showcase his ability all that often, which can take a quarterback out of the rhythm of making big plays.
"The Jets said, 'Go out there, make a certain amount of plays and don't worry about things, we'll take care of our end of the bargain with the defense.' That's the mentality developed in Sanchez, he doesn't have to be a Tom Brady," former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham said. "Sanchez was great in college, great in the NFL too. To play in New York period you have to be great. To me, he is a great quarterback. Compare Mark Sanchez's numbers to Joe Namath's numbers and see where they're at in their career. He was a Super Bowl champion, one of the best quarterbacks at his position."
Then consider the case of Tebow. On Sunday, Tebow had just 60 yards passing for the Denver Broncos after completing six of his 22 passes. His completion percentage this season is a lowly 46.5 percent and he's thrown just 12 touchdowns in 14 games. But Tebow wins, the Broncos are 7-4 with him as a starter this year and they captured the AFC West title this past Sunday.
Cunningham, a four-time All-Pro selection and MVP of the 1988 Pro Bowl, sees Tebow capitalizing on the same thing that took Sanchez to AFC Championship Games in 2009 and 2010 — he plays smart football and lets the defense be the difference maker. Tebow is tied for the league lead with five comeback wins this year, a nod to Shea's importance on playing well late, another testament to what Cunningham sees as a trait that can make him great despite the limited stat line.
"Judging a quarterback can be a challenge. On the one hand, everybody wants to win. A kid like Tim Tebow, a kid like Sanchez — those kids are out there and winning games. On the other hand, you want to throw for 3,000 or 4,000 yards and make the Pro Bowl but it's better to have a quarterback like a Tim Tebow winning football games. Numbers are never as important as stats," Cunningham said. "There are lots of quarterbacks out there who put up big numbers and don't win a Super Bowl. The fact that Sanchez and Tebow and these other young quarterbacks are winning games is all that matters. Remember, if they weren't good, they'd be losing more games."
Follow Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer