In the days leading up to a big football game, you will often hear people discussing a game as a matchup between two great quarterbacks. This description has great appeal. Quarterback is the single most important position in football, and quarterbacks are often the most well-known personalities on the team. How well a team fares usually has more to do with how well the team’s quarterback plays than the performance of any other single player. When the dominant narrative of a game is about the two opposing quarterbacks, there is always a backlash against the idea. This counter-narrative, put forth by fans in a knowing voice, reminds us that players of a single position in football, quarterback or otherwise, don’t actually play against each other. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, two legendary quarterbacks whose teams will play each other in the AFC Championship Game this weekend, won’t even be on the field at the same time, unless it is for the coin flip or an awkward pre- or post-game hug. Fans who argue against the legitimacy of a quarterback vs. quarterback narrative have the full weight of literalness and snark on their side, but they’re missing the point.
Two athletes don’t need to play directly against one another or even perform at the same time to engage in epic competitions. Take the many fantastic duels in Olympic sports like figure skating, gymnastics, or any of the skiing disciplines. The one after another format of all three of these sports only acts to heighten the drama as one athlete tries to best the mark set by a previous competitor. Even in team sports, like basketball and soccer, where two opposing great players are usually on the court or pitch at the same time, they don’t necessarily come up directly against each other. In the past year’s NBA finals, the two best players on each team were LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Steph Curry for the Golden State Warriors. James is 6’8″ and over 250 lbs. Curry is 6’3″ and 185 lbs. They barely interact more on a basketball court than players of the same position in football would on a football field, it’s just that football makes this division more explicit.
If we are going to personalize a football game, perhaps it’s more literally correct to talk about the matchup between a great quarterback and a great defensive player. For example, we could talk about the battle of wits and bodies between Peyton Manning and Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. Or even more directly, between Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Aqib Talib or whoever the Broncos decide to have guard him. Those are all fascinating sub-plots and one-on-one battles, but in the end, they’re not as compelling as Brady vs. Manning. There’s something more compelling about watching two people try to achieve the same thing. It’s why we often find that Presidential primaries are more interesting than general elections. No matter how interesting the candidates are in a general election, over 80% of everyone who watches, roots, and votes will do so based on party. In a primary, everything is up for grabs. That’s how it is in football. It’s fascinating to watch a great offensive player play against a great defensive player, but each of their successes and failures is so contextual. In a battle between two quarterbacks, even though the battle is not literal, the figurative battlefield is much more level. One quarterback may have better receivers or a better offensive line than the other, one quarterback may be up against a tougher defense than the other, but their goals are the same.
Simplifying football to a matchup of two quarterbacks is not a lazy simplification, it’s a convenient way of capturing one of the most exciting aspects of the sport.