Peyton Manning is gone.
Tom Brady is 39.
Eli Manning turns 36 in January, and even though he’s got two Super Bowl rings, he hasn’t been to the playoffs in four seasons.
Ben Roethlisberger is 34 and at least five years removed from being a quarterback capable of scrambling. Now, he lumbers, like an aging jock who has put on a little bit of weight and his entire body aches after a pick-up basketball game.
Aaron Rodgers turns 33 in December, and is coming off the worst season of his career. Bridging this season and last, he hasn’t resembled the QB who looked like he was on a trajectory to becoming one of the Top 5 All-Time players at his position.
See where I’m going with this?
Drew Brees (37), Carson Palmer (37 in December) and Tony Romo (36) are near the end, and suddenly you’re looking around and asking, where have all the franchise QBs gone? What’s the future at the position?
Cam Newton is the reigning MVP of the league, and likely to inherit Face of the NFL status, if he hasn’t already. But Carolina is 1-2, and in his 6th year, Newton is a 59% passer.
After Newton, who is there? Russell Wilson? The 3rd round pick has overachieved through four seasons, with two Super Bowl trips. He’s never missed an NFL game, but can his 5-foot-11, 210-pound frame hold up for another decade in the league?
Andrew Luck? He’s already been to an AFC Title game with no help, and the guess here is he wins a couple Super Bowls. But he could use a capable coach and a front office … not to mention a defense. His early career has resembled that of John Elway’s:
I thought we’d found the next batch of QBs a few years ago when Robert Griffin III won Rookie of the Year (2012) and Colin Kaepernick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl (2013), but here we are in 2016 and RGIII’s career appears over, and Kaepernick’s holding a clipboard and talking about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump more than he is opposing defenses.
So what QBs are we left with to carry the NFL in the coming years? Philip Rivers (33)? Joe Flacco (31)?
In the modern era – basically the last three decades – the QB torch has been seamlessly passed, with at any point, at least two future Hall of Fame QBs dominating the NFL:
Early 1980s: Joe Montana, Dan Fouts
Mid 1980s: Montana, Dan Marino
Late 1980s: Montana, Marino, John Elway
Early 1990s: Elway, Troy Aikman, Marino, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon
Mid 1990s: Elway, Steve Young, Brett Favre
Late 1990s: Elway, Favre, Kurt Warner
Early 2000s: Favre, Manning, Warner, Steve McNair
Mid 2000s: Favre, Manning, Brady
Late 2000s: Manning, Brady, Eli Manning, Drew Brees
Early 2010s: Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Eli Manning, Brees
Mid 2010s: ???
Brady may play another few years, but as we saw with Peyton Manning last year, the end sneaks up on you quickly. Vinny Testaverde and Warren Moon played into their 40s, but their style – cement shoes in the pocket – seems highly unlikely to be as successful in the current era of defensive lineman who can run 4.6 40s and sideline-to-sideline linebackers who are heat seeking missiles.
Here’s the age of every Hall of Famer to retire in the last 30 years:
The league shifts very rapidly. Remember the wildcat? The read option? Chip Kelly’s offensive speed? Defenses have adjusted, and when you look at the best teams in the league last year (Denver and Carolina), defense was the story.
Same story early this year. The Sam Bradford-led Vikings are scary-good defensively right now – they sacked Rodgers and Newton 13 times, intercepted four passes, and permitted one passing TD in back-to-back games – and right behind them are the Broncos. The Eagles defense has been shockingly good so far, and they’re the most surprising 3-0 team in the NFL.
The quarterbacks on those three teams – Bradford, Trevor Siemian, Carson Wentz – a) have never been in a playoff game and b) collectively had a 24-37-1 record coming into the season (that’s all Bradford, as the other two had never thrown a pass in the NFL before this season).
Quarterback has overtaken point guard as the glamour position in all of sports; you can’t win without one. It’s a QB-driven league. They’re the most valuable when it comes to point spreads; teams are willing to vastly overpay guys off one good (or even decent) year in hopes they become the man.
Herein lies the major issue: QBs in recent years who were high first-round picks should be entering their prime, but it hasn’t happened and doesn’t look like it will. They either aren’t Super Bowl contenders (Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan) or are far too young (Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston), or they never panned out (Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, Mark Sanchez) or just never made the leap from average to great (Jay Cutler, Sam Bradford).
And when you go from the 2006 to 2010 draft classes, where none of the quarterbacks drafted high have become stars, you hit a dry patch, and hope a Tom Brady slips through the cracks and ascends to greatness.