NFL: Why the Future Looks Bad for the Quarterback Position

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Over the last decade, the National Football League has experienced an unprecedented era of offense, one that is directly related to the high quality of quarterback talent. What other sport can boast a list of all-time greats playing at one position at the same time like the NFL can with their QBs? Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Philip Rivers are in the elite group, which means a quarter of NFL teams have a great quarterback. But how long can this run of offensive greatness last? Things might be changing sooner than you realize.

With the rise of information relating playing football to experiencing serious physical and mental issues, the NFL has tried to crack down on unnecessary violence such as late hits, helmet to helmet collisions, and horsecollar tackles. The result has been, in part, a shift in philosophy away from smash-mouth teams such as the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens, and more toward a style that rewards speed, agility, and skill.

The results are unquestionable. On the list of the top 10 best seasons ever by quarterbacks, sorted by overall passer rating, eight of the ten come from players that are currently active. To put the shift in offense into greater perspective, Andy Dalton’s career passer rating (86.7) is higher than Dan Marino’s (86.4).

But the interesting thing about the league’s best active quarterbacks? Their age.

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 24: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos and quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots shake hands after the New England Patriots defeated the Denver Broncos 34-31 in overtime at Gillette Stadium on November 24, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
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Look at the top QBs from the 2014 season, according to passing yards:

  • Drew Brees (36)
  • Ben Roethlisberger (33)
  • Andrew Luck (26)
  • Peyton Manning (39)
  • Matt Ryan (30)
  • Eli Manning (34)
  • Aaron Rodgers (31)
  • Philip Rivers (33)
  • Matthew Stafford (27)
  • Tom Brady (39)

On this list, Luck, Ryan, Rodgers, and Stafford may be the only ones still playing in five years. Even then, Ryan will be 35, Rodgers will be 36, and despite Stafford having thrown for a ton of yards in 2014, he’s nowhere near an elite quarterback. Where are all the great, young quarterbacks?

According to Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal, this is as much a problem with college football as it is with the NFL. College offenses no longer prepare quarterbacks for the NFL the way that Manning, Brady, Ryan, or even Luck were prepared. Instead of teaching young passers how to identify and defeat a defensive scheme, they’re adopting new, less sophisticated methods. This means relying on calling plays without the huddle, the spread offense, and a quick-paced style of clock management designed to wear out the defense, while giving the offense as many possessions as possible.

Elite passers that are ready to step in and learn the pro offense are a rare item. Since 2010, the list of quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL draft, outside of Luck, are an uninspiring bunch. This includes Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Robert Griffin III, EJ Manuel, Blake Bortles, and Johnny Manziel.

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 4: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater #5 of the Minnesota Vikings throws as he warms up before a game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on October 4, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
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So what is the future of the NFL quarterback? There’s no real way of telling what the average QB will look like in the year 2020, but it seems natural to guess that a few of the younger elite guys — like Rodgers, Ryan, and Luck — will still be performing at an elite level. After that? Stafford, Dalton, Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton, and Tony Romo would qualify in the category of “average quarterback” right now, but in several years they may be some of the best in the league by default.

The NFL, more than any of the other main professional sports leagues, reinvents itself on a frequent basis. Before the 1980s, a defender could hit or push a wide receiver anywhere on the field, whether the ball was in the air or not. Now, not a game goes by without a few pass interference calls. The kickoff has been moved out to the 35-yard line, nearly eliminating the value of return specialists less than ten years after Devin Hester took the league by storm. Extra point kicks moved out to the 15-yard line just this season.

I have full faith that the NFL will reinvent itself again, but how that happens is still unknown. Will teams begin running the ball more? Will the more fast paced offense, much like Chip Kelly runs in Philadelphia with the Eagles, become the norm instead of the exception? Maybe teams will begin running a hybrid offense like the wildcat or the read option.

Whatever it may be, teams that want to be successful in the near future need to start planning and drafting with those changes in mind. Because it won’t be long before the quarterback position is a barren wasteland.

All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.

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