By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
It is a word, just sitting there, naked in space and without an identifiable meaning. It could be a reference to Nike shoes or a defunct 1970s Ford sedan that’s better off forgotten. For anglers, it might cue up thoughts of a series of Bassmaster fishing tournaments. In the context of NFL quarterbacks, though, the term “elite” is exclusive and profound. Casual or premature application is strictly prohibited. It is a label to be respected and reserved only for the best of the best.
Why? It demarcates franchises. The quarterback position has evolved into the most important position in professional sports (hold that thought). Elite signal callers define eras, possess Super Bowl rings and break the hearts of opponents. Teams that have one behind center play in packed, raucous houses deep into January; teams that don’t lead the NFL Draft.
There are four presently in the elite fraternity: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and (despite a down year) Drew Brees. This version of quarterback Mount Rushmore has been in place essentially since 2009, Rodgers’ second season as a starter. The foursome has dominated fantasy drafts for years, won six of the last seven league MVP awards, eight of the last nine passing titles and at least one has played in six of the last eight Super Bowls. Oh, and their collective Super Bowl ring and MVP award tally is six and five, respectively. Again, Mount Rushmore stuff…
Quarterbacks, By The Numbers
Regarding that brash coronation of the quarterback as the king of all positions in sports, consider these supporting statistics. The last time a quarterback led the league in passing while throwing for less than 2,000 yards was in 1946. Excluding the strike-shortened season in 1982, Joe Ferguson was the last quarterback to claim the passing crown with less than 3,000 yards. The Buffalo Bills “bomber” did that…in 1977. The last time less than 4,000 yards passing was good enough to lead the NFL? 1997 (Jeff George). Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 yards passing in 1984 stood until Brees broke it in 2011. Marino’s mark has now been surpassed in each of the last three seasons. In fact, 2010 was the last year when less than 5,000 yards passing led the league.
Some of those inflated passing numbers can be explained by an increase in games played. The NFL regular season ranged between 10 and 12 games until 1960 when it expanded to 14. By 1978 it had grown to the 16-game season we now know and love. Still, three consecutive seasons with a 5,000 passer is video game stuff. Statistics don’t lie but you can tell lies with statistics - but not in this case. The road to a Super Bowl championship is much smoother with a quarterback capable of anticipating throws, delivering the ball into tight windows and consistently challenging defenses with a vertical passing game.
Okay, so Manning, Brady, Rodgers and Brees are really good and the forward pass is dominating football. And? Here’s the issue: father time is undefeated. Age claims even the greatest athletes and the Grim Reaper looms for the NFL’s best quarterbacks. At the start of the 2020 season - just six years from now - today’s Mount Rushmore quarterbacks – Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers- will be, in order, 44, 43, 41 and 36 years old. That means in all likelihood Manning and Brady will be out to pasture. Brees might still be hanging on, but his play will be like “reduced for quick sale” meat: long past peak. At 36, Rodgers could still be slinging it at a high level but the underrated mobility he uses to make so many jaw-dropping plays will be waning.
And what of the current second-tier quarterbacks? In 2020, Tony Romo will be 40 and Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers will be 38. Rivers might still be playing at a high level at 38, but it is difficult to imagine Romo, given his injury history, or Roethlisberger, given his propensity to find violent contact, playing in six years.
So what will the quarterback position look like in 2020, the year we will supposedly make contact? Not as good as it is today (unless alien life forms can diagnose exotic blitzes and sling the rock). That’s the problem behind all these passing numbers and advancing ages. That’s the point of this piece.
Here’s the list of current quarterbacks (and their respective 2020 ages) who will still be in their primes in 2020: Matthew Stafford (32), Cam Newton (31), Russell Wilson (31), Andy Dalton (32), Colin Kaepernick (32), Matt Ryan (35) and Andrew Luck (30). Who on that list quickens your pulse? Who keeps you up late on a Monday night or scares you when they appear on your team’s schedule? Stafford? Maybe, but Calvin Johnson will turn 35 during the 2020 season. Newton? He is a good candidate but has taken a tremendous beating. Kaepernick? Come on. Ryan, 29, is in his prime right now…and his prime is “good.” Is he going to make some sudden improvement and morph into Tom Brady at age 35? Wilson could be a must-see, but he is a long way from reaching the passing proficiency of Manning-Brady-Rodgers-Brees and his reliance on his legs is not a formula for longevity.
That leaves Luck and, frankly, only Luck in the quarterback pipeline. He’s the one guy that consistently makes the throw-it-ages-before-you-see-it plays on a consistent basis. No window is too small. No deficit is too large. He makes the plays kids dream up on the playground a reality on Sunday afternoons. By 2020, Trent Dilfer’s popular “Dilfer’s Dimes” segment on ESPN will mostly be an Andrew Luck highlight reel.
Another Round, Please
The naysayers are convinced this nonsense is the talk of a football Chicken Little or a doomsday prepper, the kind of guy who gripped in the final seconds of the twentieth century and obsessed over the Mayan calendar. Fair enough. But consider the top three quarterbacks selected in each of the last five NFL Drafts. Ready? Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater (2014). EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon (2013). Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill (2012). Cam Newton, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert (2011). Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Jimmy Clausen (2010). This pain train could continue, but that’s enough to make the point.
Quarterback speculation has always been a dangerous game but that list is alarming. It is littered with broken dreams, trashed coaching careers and barely worn jerseys available at yard sales nationwide. With the exception of Luck, Newton, Tannehill and the 2014 draft class (who can’t yet be judged), it’s a wasteland. And again, Luck’s the only bona fide heir apparent, the only quarterback on a Hall of Fame arc.
If you’re betting the next five drafts will produce three or four more Andrew Luck’s, I suggest going light and using house money. Where are the elite, can’t-miss prospects? The college game that is producing Heisman Trophy winners and gaudy, basketball-like scores, isn’t producing Manning’s, Brady’s, Rodgers’ and Brees’. It’s producing that above list of busts. Unless the NFL figures out how to effectively translate the college game to the pro game – organizational patience and a commitment to methodical development would be a good place to start – there is absolutely nothing to indicate that this trend of chewing up and spitting out prospects won’t continue and the overall play at the quarterback position will be its victim.
In The Moment
That said, here’s a suggestion: recognize that we are approaching the end of a golden era of quarterback play and enjoy what time is left with this rare collection of elite players. What Manning, Brady, Brees, Rodgers and (welcome to the fraternity) Luck do week in and week out is simply amazing. In the NFL not even the next play is guaranteed, but assuming good health, time is short for at least three of them. Should Denver win the Super Bowl this year, could Manning retire? Absolutely. Brady seems to have a few more years left but a fourth Super Bowl ring could change his thinking. Brees has had a rough year. What if he has another one in 2015 and his long-time coach Sean Peyton were to be relieved his duties?
Ah, this is the stuff of nightmares for football fans and a problem for another, hopefully far-off day. The state of the quarterback position in 2020? Forget about it. For the time being, let’s all relish the moment.
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