The bell tolls for old quarterbacks.
Tom Brady is the ultimate outlier, and aside from his success and all the Super Bowls and whatnot, his biggest contribution to football is probably being an outlier. Tom Brady has broken so many brains by being a 6th-round draft pick, by playing into his mid 40s, and by creating the expectation that winning Super Bowls is a simple thing. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest players of all time, but he’s also very very unusual. No one should ever compare anything to Tom Brady. Nothing is like Tom Brady, and nothing ever will be.
Anyway, for purposes of this piece, please ignore Tom Brady.
I write about quarterback age a lot, and people frequently reply to me stating something like “it’s not uncommon for modern quarterbacks to play into their 40s thanks to advances in nutrition, workouts, medicine, etc.” The only problem is it’s not true. At all. In fact, over the last 30 years only six quarterbacks have played a season over the age of 40 and attempted over 200 passes. They are:
- Tom Brady (5 times, counting this year)
- Drew Brees (2)
- Brett Favre (2)
- Matt Hasselbeck (1)
- Warren Moon (3)
- Vinny Testaverde (1)
That’s it. Philip Rivers retired last year as a 39 year old and Alex Smith retired at 36. After the 2019 season Eli Manning retired at 38. Josh McCown retired after his age 40 season, but he only threw 5 passes in that final season and was effectively retired as a 39-year old. Many people remember old man Peyton Manning and his completely shot arm trying coast on the Denver defense to another title in 2015, but he was 39.
This is Ben Roethlisberger’s age-39 season and that, more than anything, is the reason the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. Like Peyton Manning before him, Ben’s arm looks noticeably weaker. Roethlisberger is also not as mobile as he once was, and his size/strength combination, which once allowed him to shake would-be pass rushers, has failed him. He’s been sacked on 5.6% of his dropbacks, a number he hasn’t attained since he was sacked on 6.7% of his dropbacks in 2013, and he hasn’t exactly faced a tough slate of defenses outside of the Buffalo Bills. Ben’s single biggest issue is his inability to get anything on the ball when under pressure. If he can step into a throw he still looks okay, but if you disrupt his mechanics at all, his arm strength disappears.
Roethlisberger currently ranks 26th in ANY/A among qualifiers, and he’s only ahead of rookies, and Jacoby Brissett. He’s 23rd in DVOA, awful in EPA per play and CPOE, and he looks every bit as bad as the stats say.
Once the Packers lost Jaire Alexander to a shoulder injury, a younger, better quarterback likely could have capitalized by using Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Washington and picking on the lesser Packer corners. Ben could not.
The Steelers are now faced with an uncertain future, with no heir apparent in sight and a poor quarterback class available in the 2022 draft. Perhaps they make a play for Aaron Rodgers. It is the obvious solution to a team in the Steelers’ situation.
But let’s talk about that for a second. Aaron doesn’t look old, he looks absolutely fine. His arm seems as strong as ever, he still seems to move around in the pocket well, and if he’s going to crash and burn in two years from now, it would have to come out of nowhere. Aaron probably won’t be a Packer next season, but how long will he be able to lead another team? Can he be another Drew Brees, if not Brady?
It may seem like we’ve had a lot of good, old quarterbacks lately, and that’s true, but we’re about to enter an age without them, and this is hardly unprecedented. In 1996 we had more 35-and-older quarterbacks than at any time in the last 30 seasons. That number declined steadily, finally bottoming out in 2003 and plateauing until roughly 2013 when the Manning/Brees/Brady class reached elderly status. It then peaked again last season with eight quarterbacks 35 or older. We’re about to see another major decline, however, having lost Rivers, Brees, and Alex Smith, and Ryan Fitzpatrick potentially not qualifying due to a hip injury.
There are currently only 4 quarterbacks playing who are over the age of 35 (Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Tom Brady), and we’re likely to lose Roethlisberger next season. Perhaps Fitzpatrick comes back, and perhaps Andy Dalton catches on somewhere, but it’s more likely we are down to only 3 in 2022, and Matt Ryan isn’t exactly looking like a spring chicken.
There’s also not a huge number of quarterbacks close to reaching 35. There are currently 4 quarterbacks in their age 33 seasons: Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, and Kirk Cousins. It is likely that all will be playing into their late 30s, but I’m not sure I trust any to reach 40.
In any case, Rodgers is fighting an uphill battle if he’s going to remain good into his 40s, and while he hasn’t shown much decline, there are a lot of red flags in how he plays the game. For starters, one thing Tom Brady and Drew Brees did extremely well was avoiding hits. Brady, for his career, was sacked on 4.7% of dropbacks, while Brees was sacked on 3.8%. Brees and Brady get the ball out quickly. Rodgers has been sacked on 6.6% of his dropbacks, and while that number took a brief downturn in 2020 to 3.7%, it’s back up in 2021 so far to 6.1%. And you might think of Brett Favre as taking a ton of sacks, but he was only sacked on 4.9% of his dropbacks. Brett took a lot of hits, yes, but mostly because he played forever. Even Ben Roethlisberger is sacked less than Rodgers on a per play basis.
Rodgers is also a frequent scrambler, having rushed 659 times in his 14 seasons (Note: I’m excluding the non-starting seasons for everyone). Tom Brady has only run the ball 644 times in 21 seasons. Brees ran just 498 times in 19 seasons. All of those hits add up over time, and it’s worth noting that Aaron has missed significant chunks of two seasons specifically because his mobility gets him hit.
The issue with Rodgers isn’t really the sacks themselves. Sacks are just the hits that we record. The problem is his style of play relies on holding the ball for a long time, avoiding interceptions, and taking hits over and over again, which will make longevity difficult. In fairness to Aaron, he has cut down on some of this, which should help. In the McCarthy era he was sacked on a solid 7% of his dropbacks, and under LaFleur it’s down to 5% overall. He is also rushing less frequently, and getting the ball out more often. However, even in those decreased rushing numbers, there are some red flags that age is starting to creep in. From 2008 to 2016 he averaged 54 carries per season. He then broke his collarbone for the second time in 2017, and upon his return, from 2018 to 2020 has averaged only 42 carries per season.
He’s also gotten less dangerous as a rusher. Through 2018 he averaged 5.2 yards per rush, but hasn’t eclipsed 4 yards per rush since 2018, and this season is only averaging 1.1.
Those rushing numbers are worth keeping an eye on, as a decline in both attempts and effectiveness from a mobile quarterback can often presage a more significant decline. Brett Favre was always willing and able to scramble, but his yards per run and attempts took a nosedive from his 2002 season to his 2003 season. Even then, he still usually managed between 15-25 effective runs every year, until his age 40 season. In 2009 he was an incredible passer for the Vikings, leading them to a 12-4 record, and almost a Super Bowl. He also rushed only 9 times, for just 7 yards, both career lows by a country mile. The following year he was awful, and done.
The Steelers are in a bad space because they have an old quarterback and no one in waiting. The Jordan Love pick may have caused controversy and rancor in Green Bay, but the reasoning behind it was fundamentally sound. Even if Aaron Rodgers matches Drew Brees and plays until he is 41, that would mean he retires after the 2024 season, which isn’t that far away. Rodgers can be as offended as he wants, but time comes quickly for the highly punished football player, and his next employer may regret whatever contract he ultimately receives more quickly than you think.