The quarterbacks vying for the Super Bowl represent a broader shift. In these playoffs, almost every quarterback fell into one of two categories: old and legendary or young and dynamic. For every Philip Rivers there was a Lamar Jackson, for every Ben Roethlisberger there was a Russell Wilson. The quarterbacks who entered the league were selected at a young age for their athletic ability and passing game. They grew up in widespread criminal offenses based on both their passing play and their running ability. As older passers-by fade, they are replaced by quarterbacks playing a different game.
Any attempt to learn a lesson from the remaining four quarterbacks requires a caveat. Everyone is abnormal in their own way. Brady’s stellar longevity cannot be seen in NFL history. In terms of performance, accolades, and achievements, no quarterback has started a career like Mahomes (whose status remains uncertain for Sunday as he goes through the NFL’s concussion log). Allen’s rapid improvement in accuracy has no precedent. Rodgers’ mix of quick release and arm strength makes him sui generis.
Still, the change in the way the position is played became undeniable in January. With Brady still thriving amid Rivers ‘knockout, Drew Brees’ expected knockout, and possible Roethlisberger knockout, these playoffs have at times felt like the traditional pocket passer’s final fight.
“Today’s pocket quarterback is yesterday’s scrambling quarterback,” said former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, now an NBC Sports analyst. “I think that’s where the NFL is going. There will be some expectation of the ability to get out of the pocket and prolong the games, even for the pocket quarterback these days. The guy like Tom Brady, this is a dying breed. This is the old NFL. “
Not every signal caller fits perfectly under the label of a pocket passer or a running quarterback. But even quarterbacks who come into the league as traditional throwers tend to be more athletic than their predecessors.
“It’s almost like evolution,” said Simms. “Oh, this is Peyton Manning from 25 years ago. Okay, now evolution has come and now this guy is Joe Burrow. Same type. The same kind of brain the way he throws the football. Now, 25 years later in evolution, if a hole shows up, this guy can tear off 30 meters with his legs. That’s a big part of the sport these days. “
“You’d better be athletic”
The selection of quarterbacks at the lowest levels has changed in recent years. Youth coaches once picked the most athletic players for their abilities, listing bigger, slower kids to play quarterback. Now the fastest, most athletic kids are seen as the ones coaches want to handle the ball at every game. From this environment emerged at the very end players like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray, who are among the fastest and best ball carriers in football.
The NFL teams therefore inevitably tended towards mobile quarterbacks. For part of the past decade, coaches have lamented the difficulty of evaluating college quarterbacks that were popping up in the spread and turning them into prostyle passers-by. Those who did stop trying to change them and instead embrace both the produced quarterbacks of college football and the offensive systems associated with them. They discovered various benefits including improving the running game by forcing the defense to consider the quarterback and effectively granting them an extra blocker.
When that shift occurred, the defense grew faster, just emphasizing the need for quarterbacks, especially young quarterbacks, to be able to move.
“The D-lines in this league are just ridiculous,” said Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury earlier this season. “You can’t expect to block them and keep them consistent. So if you’re not a Brees or Brady and you’re getting the ball to the right place on time 100 percent of the time, you’d better be athletic to be able to extend the games. “
“You will see mismatches over the year such as ‘We can’t block this team’ or ‘We can’t find this team’s lightning bolt,'” Simms said. “This is where quarterback mobility is paramount these days. … Not that you have to be Lamar Jackson. But at least you have to be able to get out of your pocket and play that way. “
A quarterback’s success in the NFL often depends on what happens when they struggle. What does he do when a speed camera comes free? How does he deal with a game when no recipient breaks up? He can solve these problems using his mind, arm, legs, or a combination of these. When facing lightning, Brady knows exactly where to find space in the field that the extra rusher has left free. When facing lightning, Murray can overtake or overtake a pass rusher.
Quincy Avery, an independent quarterback coach who teaches Deshaun Watson and many other NFL quarterbacks, said young quarterbacks lack the experience of using their mind or arm to resolve these problems. But NFL teams don’t have the patience to develop young quarterbacks and have a financial need to play them because their rookie contracts use up a small portion of the salary cap. So a young quarterback has to use his legs to buy time in more than one way.
“You’re looking at someone like Josh Allen,” Avery said. “If he had had the start he had out of his pocket and not had the ability to run, we would never have known what steps he could take as a passer-by just because they hadn’t given him that time to develop. You wouldn’t have moved the ball enough to do something on the offensive side of football, so he’s someone who wouldn’t be in the league. “
Brady, Brees, Rivers and Roethlisberger have redefined how long a quarterback’s career can be extended. The current number of quarterbacks will define the next generation of the quarterback game by how they answer a number of new questions: How do double-threat quarterbacks age, and can they become pocket-bound passers-by when time undermines their athletic skills? Will they be the next Brady and Rodgers, or will the domination of the quarterback of the late 30s to early 40s disappear?
“At some point your athleticism will only slacken off one touch where you can’t do so many crazy special things, and then maybe that’s the crucial thing: where are you as a passerby when that time comes?” said Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, now an NFL network analyst. “It’s going to be a fascinating trend. I don’t think we really know yet. I don’t think most quarterbacks in the history of our game have been that athletic. “
“He had to adapt”
Avery believes the dropback passerby won’t die out. Instead, he expects the young, athletic quarterback to become them – today’s Allen and Mahomes become tomorrow’s Brady and Rodgers.
He sees the process as “seamless”. As these mobile quarterbacks gain experience, they’ll learn in no time how to process defenses and of course begin to gain with arms and wits, maintain their bodies and adapt to decreased athletic ability.
For many younger quarterbacks, the transition has already begun. Watson remained an elusive runner that year, his fourth season. He was still mostly operating out of pocket as he completed 70.2 percent of his passes and led the league with 4,823 passes.
“He’s fine no matter how you ask him to play the game,” said Avery. “Yeah, it’s really cool that he adds that extra element of being able to run and be explosive. If he didn’t do these things now, he would be fine. But if he hadn’t done these things as a beginner, I wouldn’t be sure we would have seen him the same way. “
Rodgers is now a standard-bearer for the traditional quarterback game, even after he scored a goal in the divisional round in an ingenious bout. But he was once one of the sportiest quarterbacks in the league.
“If you and I sat there and saw Aaron Rodgers in 2013-2014, we’d go, oh, damn, I forgot how much he took out of the bag, around the bag dancing, lengthy games,” Simms said. “He had to adapt because he no longer has that luxury.”
Simms added that the young passers-by in the AFC championship have already started this kind of transition.
“Mahomes’ first year wasn’t all about lightning packages and things like that,” Simms said. “Josh Allen, no one has made a better adjustment. I think we’re seeing these two guys for ourselves, they got into the league kind of raw and they’re making these adjustments right here in front of us. “
New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton provides a cautionary example. The hits he absorbed as a junior quarterback with the Carolina Panthers resulted in myriad physical ailments, including a bruised shoulder that required surgery that affected his arm strength and accuracy. However, today’s quarterbacks are better trained to avoid damaging punches. Changes in the rules have limited quarterback hits, and umpires who couldn’t clearly protect Newton have become more protective of the way they officiate quarterbacks.
“I don’t think there’s a reason the quarterbacks to come can’t play into the 40s,” said former NFL quarterback Brian Griese, now an ESPN analyst. “Even when these guys run, they’re protected. They ask Josh Allen or Russell Wilson and they know. They get what they get and they come down. You won’t take big hits. There’s no reason this generation of quarterbacks can’t play much longer than previous generations. “
Avery envisioned a two-line chart with ages along the horizontal axis, with one line representing the intelligence and wisdom of football and the other representing athleticism. He assumes that they will meet before the athleticism wears off while knowledge still increases, likely around the age of 28-30.
“There will be a point where athleticism is at its highest and mental and situational awareness is at its highest,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to the time Mahomes and Deshaun and all these people get there. I think it will be very special. “
Aside from Mahomes’ win last year and Wilson’s early career title, Super Bowl titles have suffered from traditional dropback passers-by. (Brady’s existence flips that equation.) “We’re going to see this trend for the next 10 years and answer the question of whether a more athletic quarterback in this system can really compete for championships year after year.” Said Warner.
The answer already seems inevitable, to the point that in 10 years the question can be turned around: If Mahomes and Watson and everyone else become pocket passers-by, can they fend off the young, mobile quarterbacks that come into the league? As these quarterbacks evolve, the position itself will evolve as well. By then, Brady will be in his fifties, so he may not even make it through the conference championship weekend.