By: Brady Gardner
Throughout my weekly NFL columns so far this season, I have written a lot about how the league is changing, including the rising stars that are transforming the game. I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for the unexpected game-changers, and I think most other football fans are too. In our passion for the sport, us fans have an inherent attraction to the standout rookies and the emerging veterans, simply because we have never seen them before. They’re a new name to learn, a new background to explore, a new story to follow.
But while we can babble all we want about the fresh faces that are revolutionizing football as we know it, doing this might be an indication that we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Because a certain group of veterans from an especially significant position are reminding us that they still own the NFL.
For years, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger have been among the best quarterbacks in professional football. However, with all four being in their mid-thirties and above, I think it’s fair to say that they’re all on the back nine of their impressive careers. But deteriorating with age isn’t the issue for these experienced veterans. Rather, a different kind of aging is the concern; or perhaps, an evolution.
The quarterback position is evolving. The role that was once centered around cerebral performance is now more closely connected with physical ability. Sure, the QB checklist still includes decision-making and accuracy, but if you can’t run a sub-five second 40 or throw 80 yards on the fly, you’re going to have trouble getting anywhere in today’s league. A more athletic quarterback is the favorite these days, overtaking those whose greatest strength lies between their ears.
This replacement process has appeared time and time again in recent memory. At the end of last season, the promising Patrick Mahomes took over for an aging Alex Smith. Just last week, former first overall draft pick Jameis Winston was chosen over Ryan Fitzpatrick, despite the latter’s impressive start to the season. Heck, we’ve seen the Giants try to replace Eli Manning, the two-time super bowl champ, with Geno Smith! I could go on. The point is, all of these replacements are more athletic and more explosive than the quarterbacks who preceded them.
With this trend in quarterback preference across the league, the likes of Brady, Rodgers, Rivers and Roethlisberger are defying the odds by continuing to succeed late in their careers. And this is not just success in terms of wins and losses; you know, the kind of success where a strong receiving core or an elite defense can be relied on to carry a veteran QB (looking at you, Peyton Manning). Instead, this is success through the form of domination, week after week, and leading a team to victory regardless of the supporting cast or game circumstances.
Even as their careers wane, these four quarterbacks continue to set a precedent for performance at their position. Need proof? Just look at this past week. Tom Brady outlasted the aforementioned Mahomes in a Sunday Night Football shoot-out, getting the last laugh with a game-winning drive the length of the field. Aaron Rodgers followed suit on Monday Night Football, carrying a beat-up Packers offense to a win, capped by a game-winning drive of his own.
Meanwhile, Phillip Rivers put a beating on an up-and-coming Browns team, significantly outplaying the popular rookie Baker Mayfield, and Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a crucial division win over the Bengals, throwing the go-ahead touchdown pass with ten seconds to play. These four vintage performances from four generational talents were the epitome of what has put this foursome among the best in the league over the course of their careers. The leadership, the execution, and the ever-important “clutch” factor.
Through their embodiment of these characteristics, this group has redefined what it means to play their position the NFL. While we can speculate about how this description may change with the next generation of quarterbacks, we must not overlook the significance of these four individuals and their extensive success, both over the years and, perhaps more impressively, in these latter stages of their careers.
What about Russell Wilson? Look at his record since he entered the league.