[Note by River City Rage, 08/11/08 9:25 AM EDT ] Our good friend Zach from Throwing into Traffic was kind enough to offer his take on the Jaguars and the AFC South.
Every other signal caller in the AFC South had to hold their breath just a little when Peyton’s knee surgery was formally announced. Of course, the fact that the best signal caller (and probably player) in the league’s best division would have something to do with that (Jim Sorgi is not putting the fear of God into anybody), but there’s something more in play here. As much as this is a division about wildly talented teams vying for superiority via excellence (as opposed to, say, the NFC West, where "war of attrition" is a generous description), it is also a division revolving around one singularly gifted player and the way he’s influenced his team. Peyton Manning has, along with Tom Brady, come to define what we think of as the elite modern quarterback. Where Brady, however, looms so large outside of the context of sport that he resists definition within it, Peyton has no such alter-ego. Yes, he’s the league’s most marketable personality, but his marketability is firmly rooted in his game. In becoming that kind of game influencing player, Manning has also created a bit of a power struggle, one that, should he show signs of slowing after his knee surgery, would take place this year in a bizarre vacuum of power, because while every team wants to make the AFC South their own, they have each decided to do so, at least in part, by crafting their own quarterback in the Peyton Manning mold.
This discussion must inevitably bring us to David Garrard. True, Vince Young, when on, has that "I force teams to adapt to me" quality that makes Peyton so dangerous, and Matt Schaub has the look of the kind of traditional pocket quarterback that Manning has made his own, but neither of these two has shown that they’re ready to fit comfortably into the well worn daddy pants that Manning has worn. Garrard, on the other hand, has already flirted with the kind of meticulous perfection that Manning makes appear so easy. To talk about it in terms of numbers diminishes the achievement, but it’s important, so let’s do so. 208-325 (64% completion rate). 7.72 YPA. 18 TDs to 3 INTs. A 102.2 passer rating…which was actually BETTER than Manning’s. Furthermore, Garrard has tasted playoff success earlier in his career than Manning, having led his team to a playoff win as road underdogs and fallen just short of beating Tom Brady (who had to have a damn near perfect game to survive) in his first playoff run. That looks so good on paper that it almost goes through the looking glass on making Jack Del Rio look good for picking Garrard over Jacksonville Fats last year, instead making us all wonder what the hell took so long for Garrard to get the job.
But it gets deeper than just the numbers. There’s a nature produced by that kind of methodical perfection, and it may be in this way that David Garrard has established himself as the heir to the throne of signal callers in the AFC South (and perhaps in all of the NFL). Because where everyone in the division has attempted to copy some sort of assertive quality of Peyton Manning (Young’s imposition on gameplans and Schaub’s big pocket arm), only Garrard has managed to exude the passive dominance that is at the heart of Manning’s signal calling. Garrard’s clean, mistake free game does more than just produce great numbers; it slowly, methodically bludgeons teams to death. This is important to notice, because on this team so much of the credit for wearing opponents down has gone to their turf war style of running game, and no attention has been paid to the fact that Garrard is posing his own spirit breaking quandary to opponents. Where the ground game makes teams brace for impact, often to the point of discovering they’re nowhere near ready to outlast the assault, Garrard’s passing game has simply become automatic to the point that opponents are left scrambling to invent solutions to a problem they can’t fully understand (largely thanks to the fact that if they really take the time to attack Garrard’s air game, the aforementioned torture of the run game resumes). New game plans have weaknesses; figure them out and you beat them (hence Vince Young’s struggles in Tennessee). But when it’s nothing new, but instead a brutal mastery of proven techniques that is killing teams, how do you stop it? What new system can you invent to throw off the perfection of the established order? Oh, and can you do it before the Jaguars have eaten 40 minutes off of the clock?
That is what makes David Garrard different than every other signal caller in the AFC South not named Peyton, even as all three have tried to become the "next Manning." Maybe it isn’t the imposition of will so much as the simple embodiment of what is that makes Manning terrifying to play against for opponents. Maybe it’s a bit sad to think that you don’t get to impose your identity on the game, but maybe that’s just the price of becoming "great". Revolutionary players are nice and all, but they come and go and wind up answers to trivia questions; players who master the old wind up with busts in Canton. If that is in fact the case, then it is Garrard’s perfection of a game that has existed outside of himself, rather than his colleagues’ attempts to change the game to their strengths, that will win out in the end, an end that could be coming much sooner than any of us think.