Fair or not, quarterbacks are measured by Super Bowl titles. Start the conversation of the greatest ever at the position, and the first thing that comes up is always the same: How many rings do they own?
It's one reason why there is no consensus on who the greatest quarterback ever is. But the argument also extends to who the greatest current QB is.
There's the Tom Brady camp; he has three rings in four tries. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, with one ring apiece, have their supporters.
And now that Aaron Rodgers has won a championship, he, too, has entered the elite circle. His playoff performance, save for the second half against the Bears, was some of the best football we've seen at the position in years.
The fact that Rodgers was able to slay the ghost of Brett Favre in the process — even if Rodgers says there was no monkey on his back — made it all the more special, if not for him, then for the millions of others who will size up and judge his place among the greats.
Like Steve Young, who put the Joe Montana talk behind him in Super Bowl XXIX (and Young freely admitted wanting to end that discussion), Rodgers' win over the Steelers was validation. It has been a theme in recent Super Bowls.
Brees joined the elite QB fraternity with his first title last year. Ben Roethlisberger entered the discussion with his second Super Bowl ring. Eli Manning forced thousands of doubters to reconsider his place among his peers with a shocking upset of Brady and the then-18-0 Patriots. The year before that, brother Peyton ended years of talk that he couldn't win the big one by, well, winning the big one.
So who is next? Who is the next quarterback to dispel the doubters and prove the naysayers wrong?
It's entirely possible that Rodgers and the Packers, next year's early Vegas favorites, could repeat. Brady and the Patriots had a 14-3 record this season and will return nearly everyone. Both Manning brothers could have playoff-caliber teams next season. Brees and the Saints should be dangerous once more.
But it should shock no one if another name emerges from the haze of the "they're great but ..." category. And there are plenty of worthy candidates.
At the top of the list, in my mind, is the Chargers' Philip Rivers. Like Brees — the man he replaced in San Diego — before him, Rivers has done just about everything you can ask of a quarterback, other than winning a Super Bowl. He has made the Pro Bowl in three of his five seasons as a starter, has become a more refined passer every season as a pro and has fought through injuries (both to him and to his teammates) to attain a regular-season record of 46-18 along with three postseason wins.
Rivers' Chargers might be what keep him from winning it all. The team has lost several key members the past few seasons and could lose more — uh, Vincent Jackson, anyone? — in the coming year. There's this feeling that the Chargers might have missed their window of opportunity. But you have to remember how quickly things can change. The Giants and Saints, before they won it all, never had a window, and the Packers were a lot of folks' second-best team in the division (behind the Vikings) before the season began. The experts frequently are wrong, as if you didn't know.
Another obvious choice would be Michael Vick. We all watched this past season as Vick not only reached new heights as a player but also overcame some serious off-field hurdles to do so. From the NFL's perspective, it would love nothing more than to see Vick deemed as having been fully rehabilitated following his incarceration and reinstatement to the league.
Plus, he's an amazing football player. There's something about Vick that energizes and excites fans more than your typical pocket passer can. A Vick-Eagles Super Bowl would fall under the category of "epic," and assuming there is football next season, it would help to put aside the hard feelings of what looks to be some contentious and perhaps ugly labor negotiations. There's little question that Indianapolis would be on fire if Vick could find a way to bring his talents to town.
Rivers vs. Vick? Now that would be special.
But there are some other quarterbacks who could change everything about their career by winning their first Super Bowl.
The Jets' Mark Sanchez is not considered to be in that elite class yet, but all he has done in his first two seasons is lead his team to the AFC's penultimate game twice. You have to think he'll make it to a Super Bowl one day.
Atlanta's Matt Ryan is his team's golden boy, and he's also an excellent quarterback. But what has hung over him is two playoff losses in two appearances. We might have to wait a few years for Ryan to reach that level of greatness we're talking about, but it's hard to see him as a playoff goat for very long.
Perhaps we'll never see players such as Donovan McNabb or Jay Cutler, strong talents nonetheless, ever reach these heights. Just because a player has some reason to be deserving of a chance at greatness doesn't mean he'll automatically capitalize. In McNabb's case, his days of being a top QB might have passed. Cutler remains in his prime, but it would shock few if he never won the big game.
No, this category is typically reserved for greatness. A quarterback is measured by what he does on the grandest of stages, and the relief of winning can be bigger than the joy of it.
Mere minutes after he escaped the field and locker room following Super Bowl XLV, Rodgers was waiting behind a curtain to handle his media obligations. As he stood next to a Packers media-relations employee, Rodgers looked up at the ceiling and exhaled what might have been the first deep breath of his day, his week, his season, even his career.
That's what winning it all does for the great ones when it finally happens. And there's no doubting that Rodgers belongs among them.
The only question now is: Which quarterback will be the next to exhale?