The differing paths to stardom for the four remaining playoff quarterbacks
By JOHN WESTENBERGER
College Contributor Network
As we embark on one of the greatest weekends in all of sports, championship weekend in the NFL, it isn't the least bit surprising that the four teams that remain are quarterbacked by perhaps the best four at the critical position. Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Tom Brady have all earned the reputation that precedes them nowadays. However, each quarterback has had an amazing road to this point -- where they will all look to add to respective legacies with a berth to the Super Bowl.
Most of the time when franchises think about how they can get their hands on one of these cornerstone players, it is assumed that they must be drafted in the first five picks. Although there is a good deal of evidence to prove that theory, there are also a handful of exceptions to that rule -- evidenced by this weekend's matchups. Quarterback might be the toughest position in all of sports, and the way these four have handled the ups and down in their football careers to this point are the exact reason why each is so successful.
The Indianapolis Colts will travel to Foxborough, Massachusetts this Sunday to take on the ever-prevalent New England Patriots. For the ninth time, yes ninth, Brady will be suiting up just one victory away from a Super Bowl appearance. A victory this weekend will send the Patriots quarterback to his seventh championship appearance. With such prolonged success, it is absolutely puzzling to think that Brady was not drafted until the sixth round in the 2000 NFL draft.
It was after that draft that Brady told owner Robert Kraft that drafting the Michigan standout was going to be the best decision that he ever made. And, not much longer after that, starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe, former first overall draft pick, was knocked out of a game after a brutal hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. The Brady era was officially underway.
It is all history since then. Three-time Super Bowl champion, two-time league Most Valuable Player, and one of the most clutch players in league history. Brady has been one of the most improbable stories in all of sports. When he came out of Michigan, no one -- not even the Patriots, envisioned that one day he would break Dan Marino's single-season touchdown record. Brady's legacy as a player is untouchable, but another Super Bowl appearance and potential victory could place him as the greatest quarterback to ever play.
The man he will see across the sideline from him Sunday, Andrew Luck, had a much different entrance into the NFL -- but his story is not without drama. Coming out of high school in Houston, he didn't receive any big time offers from Texas schools. He eventually landed at Stanford, allowing him to learn under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh in a pro-style offense. By the time Luck's junior year had ended it was impossible to find someone who didn't earmark him as the number one overall pick. Unimpressed by the projections and determined to complete his degree, Luck returned to Stanford for his senior year.
What happened next was unprecedented in the NFL. With the Indianapolis Colts falling to the bottom of the NFL ranks after Peyton Manning's surgically repaired neck cost the team a season and quite possibly more, the franchise earned the first pick in the 2012 draft. The Colts were faced with an incredibly difficult decision. They ultimately did the extremely hard, but sensible thing -- they released Manning and decided they would select Luck to become his predecessor.
Manning, a legend in his own right, was on the tail end of his career and it was uncertain how he would recover from the serious neck injury. With the prospect of taking the best quarterback prospect since John Elway came out of Stanford himself, the choice was clear. However, the Indianapolis roster was in shambles with Manning the glue that kept them together for year. It figured to be a long rebuilding project before Luck would bring success back. He then shined his first moments of greatness.
With a first-time head coach and first-time general manager, the rookie quarterback managed to guide his team to an 11-5 record and playoff appearance. Since, he has returned his team to the playoffs every year despite GM Ryan Grigson making terrible personnel moves over and over. The Colts still do not possess a legitimate roster, but Luck's pure dominance at the position has minimized the futility of the rest of his team. At just 25 years of age, the third-year pro is competing in his first championship game. A victory will further prove that he is truly a once-in-a-generation type of player.
The NFC side of the draw will feature the Green Bay Packers visiting the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks at Century Link Field in Seattle. While it appears the Seahawks will have another terrific chance to return to defend their title, it is Packers QB Aaron Rodgers that stands in their way.
Rodgers, now the best quarterback in the entire league by a wide margin, was never viewed in the light he is today. Although he finished his collegiate career at the University of California, he was once a lowly junior college player in the state. After transferring to Cal, he had two excellent seasons and figured to be a high draft pick in 2005. With his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers holding the top pick, Rodgers fingers were crossed he would be selected first.
The 49ers instead decided Utah quarterback Alex Smith would be their franchise quarterback -- a move that probably haunts the franchise to this day. Not only did he not go first, but another 22 teams passed on him before Green Bay finally ended his torment in the green room at Radio City Music Hall. However, Rodgers was firmly entrenched as the backup to Brett Favre who still had many good years to give before he would be ready to hand over the reigns. The next few years saw Rodgers as Favre's favorite celebration buddy, often slapping hands after a touchdown pass. Rodgers was an afterthought by fans and maybe even the franchise, who drafted several more quarterbacks during the time.
General manager Ted Thompson shocked the world when he declared that the team was moving forward with Rodgers as the starting quarterback over Favre who had recanted on his retirement that he announced just months earlier. The people of Green Bay were furious, not understanding how a legend was denied the position that he played at such a high level for such a long time. After the first season with the new quarterback at the helm, it was clear that Thompson's plan was justified. Rodgers threw for more than 4,000 yards with 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his first season as starting quarterback in 2008.
By the time 2010 rolled around, it was obvious that the Green Bay quarterback was going to be special for a long time. At that point, all he needed was some hardware to prove it. That postseason, Rodgers took his team on the road for three playoff games on his way to his first Super Bowl appearance. It was that night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, on the national platform, that Rodgers stole the show. He threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns, including a pinpoint-accurate missile strike to Greg Jennings that propelled him to his first Super Bowl victory and the MVP of the game. Yet to return since, Rodgers is the best at his position, but is still looking to cement his legacy.
The final quarterback of this foursome, Russell Wilson, is the most trivial to fans and analysts. That is not something new to him. The third-year pro transferred to the University of Wisconsin for his senior year after spending the first three years at North Carolina State. He was superb in his college career, but he couldn't shake the height deficiencies that pro scouts believed would prevent him from being a dominant quarterback. All 5-feet-11 of Wilson fell to the third round of the 2012 draft because of those height problems.
Upon arriving in Seattle, he was expected to be the backup while he transitioned away from college. With new free agent Matt Flynn signing a pretty three-year, $24 million dollar deal in the offseason, he was penciled in as the team's starter. However, the unconventional methods of Seattle coach Pete Carroll paid off for Wilson and his team. Carroll named Wilson the starter in his rookie season, citing that he clearly beat out Flynn in the preseason. Wilson was aided by a punishing run game and polished defense. He took his team to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs in his first season, falling just short to the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons.
Wilson improved seemingly every week in his rookie campaign. That trend continued in 2014. His team and he took monstrous steps towards elite status during that season. A menacing defense, a play-making quarterback, and an unmatched home-field advantage was the recipe to get the Seahawks to last year's Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos. Despite having a fantastic season, the team figured to have finally met its match with Peyton Manning entering off one of the best seasons in league history.
The game was over from the very first snap. Literally. Denver's center, Manny Ramirez, hiked the ball over Manning's head for a safety and it was all over from there. Wilson was tremendous, throwing for two scores and making timely play after timely play, winning his first Super Bowl in just his second season. Analysts and fans still don't know what to make of Wilson. While he certainly has one of the best supporting casts in the league, his play-making skills, in and out of the pocket, are unique. Better yet, he rarely ever turns over the football. His work ethic and study habits are praised by teammates and coaches. While some will fail to recognize him as one of the best, a championship repeat will undoubtedly silence those critics.
The four quarterbacks and their journey to stardom represent what makes the NFL so great. One first overall draft pick, a late first-rounder, a third-rounder, and a sixth-round draft pick make up perhaps the best four quarterbacks in the league. In each of their journeys they all faced impediments and were viewed as afterthoughts. Despite their clear obstacles, they all proved that greatness cannot be denied, and that being a highly touted recruit or high draft pick isn't the end-all be-all that we always assume it to be.
John Westenberger is a journalism student at Rutgers University. He's passionate and hungry to cover any and all sports, but his true love lives in football and the Dallas Cowboys! Follow him on Twitter: @GuardtheStar