By: Chris Dagonas
In 1983, three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks entered the draft and were quickly snapped up by the end of the first round. They were John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino.
As their careers wound down in the late 1990’s, a new group of fresh faced kids were emerging on the scene–Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Donovan McNabb, among others.
Now, as Manning and Brady begin to fade (granted, Brady is having one of his best statistical seasons of his career, at the age of 38), there should be a new wave of up-and-coming superstar quarterbacks. A few years ago, in the 2012 draft it looked like that crop was all ready to go: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, sure I’ll even throw Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden in there, and Russell Wilson. Combine them with 2011 draftees Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert, and the league appeared to be in good hands moving forward at quarterback, the premier position.
Except, it didn’t really turn out that way.
Take a second look at that list. How many of those quarterbacks are stars? How many even started for their respective teams this past week?
Griffin might be done as a quarterback for good. Tannehill starts for the Dolphins, but has struggled mightily and his team might be looking to move on shortly. Weeden is the Texans’ backup, and only Luck and Wilson from the 2012 class have enjoyed sustained success so far. From the 2011 class, Dalton is a capable regular season quarterback who has yet to win a playoff game despite multiple opportunities. Locker and Gabbert look destined to toil away as career backups. Colin Kaepernick had a gaudy start to his career, only to flame out and struggle hugely this season. Only Newton has risen to elite status, and has a great chance to build on his reputation this season and postseason. In fact, Sunday’s come-from-behind win against the New Orleans Saints may have cemented his 2015 MVP status. Cam 2015.
So where have all the elite quarterbacks gone?
Well, there are still a tiny handful of them running around. Brady and Newton have already been mentioned, and Aaron Rodgers is putting up some gaudy stats on a questionable Packers team. Another plus-35 year old, Carson Palmer, has been treating this season like his own personal passing drill. But you will notice, with the exception of Newton, all the others are over the age of 30.
Sadly, many who were expected to become the next great generation have stalled, or taken big steps backwards, including Griffin, Tannehill, and even Luck. Yes, I know this one is hard to swallow, but Luck gets hit a lot, and the Colts have hardly built a winner around him. This season has hopefully been a wake up call to Colts management to protect their prime asset, or maybe watch him fade. Hell, his backup, old-schooler Matt Hasselbeck, has had more success with the same team than Luck managed.
Other mid-to-late-career quarterbacks, like Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford are inconsistent year-to-year, even game-to-game, and will never carry the same relevance as the older generation of passers. Of course, none of that list have won a Super Bowl or an MVP award, and their combined playoff records are 6-12.
Even the tier below Brady and Manning, guys like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger, are more likely to be remembered as never quite as good, despite numerous Super Bowl wins and MVP awards. Regardless, their impact on the league will never quite rival Brady and Peyton Manning’s, and once the latter two are retired, will likely be too old and irrelevant to enhance their legacies.
There are some possible contenders waiting to step up to fill the shoes of Brady and Manning. This season has seen the emergence of Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, and yes, even Blake Bortles. Beyond that, two rookies – Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota – have also shown flashes of brilliance. It is too early to tell what their careers will become, but they have a very long road ahead of them if they wish to take up the torch.
So how did we get to this place?
Back in October, Greg Couch of Bleacher Report noted that the dearth of elite quarterbacks could be attributed to the modern arrival of the “quarterback guru”, position-specific coaches that many top recruits are seeing during their off-seasons. These coaches often contradict head coaches, and focus on stats and measurable skills like 40-yard-dash times and throwing distance, rather than intangible leadership qualities that top quarterbacks have.
Couch also noted that most colleges, and even high schools, have begun to use more spread offenses, which are essentially shotgun formations with four (or more) wide receivers, and plenty of checkdown options. Coaches, and quarterbacks, are more likely to play it safe and gain 5 or 6 yards on a pass, rather than gamble with a 15- or 20-yard pass. Quarterbacks coming up never have to worry about developing deep, accurate throws, because they never have to make them. When they get to the NFL, where defenders and coaches are most likely to limit the success of checkdown throws, quarterbacks are unable to adjust successfully.
Oversimplification of the quarterback position and play calling accounts for some of the discrepancy between quarterback classes of the 80’s and 90’s and today. But that is not the whole story.
Despite efforts of the league to protect quarterbacks, defenders are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before. The past five seasons have seen more sacks than any previous five-year span since the stat began being recorded. That does not account for big hits against quarterbacks, both of which of course would serve to keep quarterbacks out of games, but it also changes the timing of plays. Quarterbacks have to hurry their throws more often, or risk being hit hard, which results in poor throws, or not-yet-open receivers. Andrew Luck has notably been a victim of this trend, as he has suffered numerous injuries during his career, and is finally beginning to show the ill effects.
Quarterbacks are also being used very early, and often, sometimes to the detriment of the team and to the quarterback’s own development. Griffin is a perfect example of this, as he ate up plenty of playing time, and big hits, in his first few seasons, only to now be perhaps finished as a quarterback only three seasons after making his debut.
Everything comes in cycles, of course. A lack of elite quarterback options this season could turn into an abundance in the next 5-10 years. But a look down the pipeline suggests that the quarterback of the future will not be a gunslinging, unflappable leader like Tom Brady, Brett Favre or Peyton Manning. There does not appear to be a quarterback superstar on the way up, which could make this the lost generation of quarterbacks.
If the current trend continues, the NFL quarterback of the future will be a single-minded game manager, making safe throws and rarely having to make tough decisions. If that is the case, elite NFL quarterbacks will continue to be few and far between.