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The Art of Quarterbacking: From Joe to JT

Scott Warfe, while new to Niners Nation, has been previously featured on He currently writes from Portland, Oregon, though he is a child of Northern California. Professionally, Scott teaches composition at various NW community colleges. He considers his influences to be Kurt Vonnegut, Nicole Krauss, J.D. Salinger, and Ron Swanson. You can see more of his work at

To call quarterbacking an art is not to reappropriate the term. Art, itself, is derived from the Latin ars, meaning "skill" or "technique." Certainly, such a broad designation applies to physical skill sets, no matter the medium through which that skill is employed. The difficulty is in defining the nature of the art. That is, what is essential to the value of the position? How do we know we are watching art, and not just JT O'Sullivan?

Artists are typically arranged into prescriptive categories that aim to define their relationship/reaction to the first theory of art: Theory of Ideal Forms. This theory, outlined by Plato, suggests that all earthly forms (including art) are copies of ideal forms, or archetypes--if you're more comfortable with that term. In the words of Plato, "Art is a poor child born of poor parents." Art is imperfect because it has to be; we are ill-suited to duplicate it. This is because ideals don't exist in tangible form. They are conceptual, perhaps heavenly.

This is not all together different than how we judge the quarterback position. Quarterbacking is abstract, and the evaluation of it is largely subjective, based on individual conception of what it should look like. We instinctively know when the position is performed artfully, and when it is not--much like we know when a photograph is not just a photograph, when a vase is not just a vase, and when a baseball is not just a baseball.

With this comes a need to identify the differing styles of quarterback play. Smith, for example, is largely considered a game manager, not an artist. Harbaugh, however, in calling Smith elite, is suggesting that Smith is every bit the artists as Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, or even Joe Montana.

Sure, Harbaugh might have been artificially inflating Smith's confidence, but Smith at least warranted some amount of praise. He not only had his best season as a pro, but he also engineered six fourth-quarter comebacks, two more than Montana's best season (1989). In fact, Smith's first full season as a starter in the West Coast offense rivals, statistically at least, Montana's: same records, and similar completion percentages and quarterback ratings.

This is not to say that Smith is a budding Montana. Far from it. The point is there is no concrete means of evaluating his position. Smith plays to a different standard, or in keeping with the art analogy, Smith's paints in different style. But, does this make him any less of a quarterback--he's no more a game manager than Michael Vick is a running back, or than Ben Roethlisberger is an anomaly.

Art critics would not evaluate Jackson Pollock with the same interpretative lens used to evaluate Claude Monet. Both are artists; yet, neither's work resembles the other in the slightest. This doesn't make one more of an artist, nor does it make one more brilliant than the other. It just means that art cannot be defined in static terms. The same premise applies to the quarterback. What made Young an artist is different from what makes Montana or Dan Marino one. Still neither is more talented than the others.

Ultimately, the hope is to create a series that will identify how to evaluate the art of quarterbacking by investigating how others do it (Montana, Joe Theismann, and Ken Anderson, as well as some non-NFL QBs, such as Bill Walsh). Still, the analysis of art--as is anything that is given aesthetic value--is a practice in the subjective, which means how you evaluate the position is equally as important as the experts. So, if you would, answer the following:

Imagine that there has been a nuclear war, and the survivors (49ers current starting offense) are setting sail to rebuild the NFL from the ground up. Every quarterback who has every played is there, vying to get on the raft, but there is only one seat left. You are tasked with selecting the quarterback. That quarterback will establish the standard of the position (the ideal form, if you will). Which quarterback do you take, and why?

In addition to blogging on, Scott has been featured on,,,, and Follow him on Twitter @ScottWarfe.