NEW YORK — The two kids from Northern California burst from NFL afterthought to championship contender in eerily similar fashion a decade apart.
Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick, each playing in a conference title game this weekend, are bookends to a fortuitous moment in quarterback history. On one side are the likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, still scintillating in their mid-30s.
On the other are Kaepernick, a second-year player, and the brilliant class of rookies with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson leading their teams to the playoffs.
Young, old and in between, the current crop of NFL quarterbacks is not only deep but dynamic and diverse.
"We're in a little bit of a boom right now. We're flowing a little bit, especially young players," Hall of Famer Steve Young said last week. "If those guys continue to develop, we'll have a period of time here, kind of a Camelot of quarterbacking."
The depth of the position shows in the other two guys joining the Patriots' Brady and the 49ers' Kaepernick in the conference championship games. Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco were first-round draft picks in 2008, and for all their successes, they're probably low on the list when fans think of the most dominant NFL quarterbacks.
Yet here they are a win away from the Super Bowl after leading stirring comebacks that answered many doubts about each.
Quarterback has long been the glamour position of all of sports, but it seems even a bit more glamorous right now. Rule changes favor a wide-open passing game, which makes a superior quarterback more valuable. Colleges and high schools run more sophisticated offenses, and the best athletes gravitate to quarterback, then develop into polished passers who happen to be able to scramble.
"I can't remember — even though this is a quarterback-driven league — as many remarkable and compelling stories on the quarterback side as you're seeing this year," CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said.
There was that brief stretch less than 15 years ago when Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson won Super Bowls, and it seemed perhaps championship teams didn't need a star at the position. Since then, here's the roll call of victorious quarterbacks: Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, both Manning brothers, Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Twenty-five of the 46 Super Bowl MVPs have been quarterbacks, but now it's five of the last six. In the half-dozen years before that, four were non-QBs, including two defensive players.
"It ebbs and flows, no question. There's some dark times where you have two or three guys that can truly do it," said Young, Kaepernick's forerunner as a dual-threat San Francisco QB and now an ESPN analyst.
Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls with future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman as his quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, was talking to Bill Belichick last summer about the recent shift. Belichick has won three championships with Brady, but even as of a few years ago, both coaches believed a title was possible behind a strong defense and running game.
Not anymore, they agreed.
"Now, the only thing that matters is if you get a great quarterback," said Johnson, now a Fox commentator.
Of this year's playoff teams, the only one without great stability at quarterback was Minnesota. And the Vikings had a guy named Adrian Peterson.
The bottom of the standings is full of clubs with uncertainty at the position: from the Chiefs and Jaguars to the Eagles, Cardinals and Jets.
This year, 20 quarterbacks started every regular-season game, nearly two-thirds of the league. That's by far the most since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978, according to STATS, four more than the previous high.
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