Why you should care
Tom Brady may be the greatest-ever quarterback to play in the NFL. But others of his generation aren’t quitting soon either.
Ten weeks into this NFL season, league scoring is booming; as a result, we took a look at how young quarterbacks are lighting up the league. But the league’s new player safety rules and flag-happy referees are also spurring a parallel revolution in the middle of the field: They’re prolonging the careers of aging quarterbacks.
Prior to this season, the NFL enacted new rules designed to better protect players. But the stricter “roughing the passer” protections and “unnecessary roughness” flags that address how forcefully and in what way opponents can be hit are forcing NFL defenders to reconsider how they play — or suffer the consequences. In Week 2, after controversial penalties against both teams ultimately led to a 29–29 tie between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told radio station KFAN that an official had acknowledged the defensive dilemma. According to Zimmer, “they just want us to throw the flag,” the referee had told him, referring to the NFL. While, ultimately, defenses may adjust, the confusion is leading to new opportunities. Accurate quarterbacks are finding new ways to rack up yards and play longer.
Great quarterbacks have always been paramount to team success but, today, it’s not just 40-year-old Tom Brady exposing defenses. With the benefit of increased protection from referees, quarterbacks with good pocket awareness, like Brady and 34-year-old Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, are able to more freely search for downfield openings. There have been 67 roughing the passer penalties called so far this season, compared to 55 through 10 weeks in 2017.
Tom Brady playing at age 40 used to be an outlier. Now, that outlier is becoming the norm.
Nate Burleson, CBS analyst
Increased focus on roughing the passer penalties becomes more pronounced with an athletic quarterback, like Rodgers. These players are able to both avoid pressure and draw more penalties by manipulating the pocket. While the prospect of less abuse is allowing teams to field young, fast quarterbacks, it is also offering a longer lease of life for players who may be aging but bring rare accuracy to their play. This season, there are eight starting quarterbacks 34 years of age or older, when NFL passers typically begin to decline. The others — apart from Brady and Rodgers — include Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Drew Brees and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fifteen years ago, when players like Brady, Brees and Peyton Manning were solidifying themselves as young stars in the league, only three quarterbacks — Brett Favre, Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson — played into the same twilight years.
“Tom Brady playing at age 40 used to be an outlier,” says former NFL wideout turned CBS analyst Nate Burleson. “Now, that outlier is becoming the norm.”
Of course, that’s only taking into account what happens before the ball is thrown. With defenders unsure of what constitutes a penalty, quarterbacks and wide receivers are finding new ways to expose the defense. It all comes down to accuracy. Top quarterbacks can pinpoint a pass on a receiver’s body. “When it comes to being able to manipulate the defense, great quarterbacks have a really distinct advantage,” says Burleson.
Without the luxury of a pause button, defenders must decide how and where to hit a receiver when the ball is still in the air. Traditionally, if a defender targets the ball, he would be clear of penalties. But no longer. Today’s defenders must avoid both the head and lower body of a target, but the instinct to target the ball — thus breaking up the pass — remains. So, when Rodgers places a laser on Randall Cobb’s inside shoulder, he knows that the outcome will likely be either a completed pass, a penalty for targeting the head or both. Or, if it’s a crowded area of the defense, he can place the ball low and keep his receiver out of danger.
“Defenders are caught between a rock and a hard place,” says CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Boomer Esaison. “By the time they have to make a decision from three yards away, they’re already committed. They don’t know what to do.”
With defenders on their heels, older quarterbacks are only the latest set of players benefiting. A new breed of shorter wide receivers is more valuable than ever before, a trend OZY highlighted when it began in 2016. So far this season, five of the top 10 receiving yards leaders are 6′0″ or shorter. These players, and many slightly taller pass-catchers across the league, excel in tight spaces. They utilize world-class explosiveness to find small holes in a defense before bursting upfield. “It’s the rise of speedy slashers that can run a slant route and not worry about getting hit,” Burleson explains. “Back in the day, you were getting your head knocked off anytime you went across the middle [of the field]. That’s a new level of freedom and a distinct advantage for receivers.”
So, a season after overall scoring hit an eight-year low, should NFL fans expect a major bounce back? So far, it appears so. Through Week 10, NFL scoring is up an average of nearly four points per game from 2017. Overall, 14 quarterbacks have passer ratings over 100 (the average rating is a terrific 94.8 on a scale of 0 to 158.3), completing a ridiculous 65.2 percent of passes.
Not everyone agrees that player-safety rules will change the game for good. Defensive players are often left feeling lost. “I know the NFL is trying to make the game safer,” Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell told Pro Football Talk in September. “But the safer they make it, the easier they make it for the offense. … My job’s harder.”
Some, like former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who is now a star CBS broadcaster, aren’t convinced that the penalties are making the quarterback’s job easier. “There’s no change from a schematic perspective,” says Romo, dismissing the idea that accurate passers could take advantage of the rules. “I think we overestimate how this will affect defenses.” Soon enough, he argues, defenses “will have a feel for how to work within the rules.”
Still, even if he’s right, that will only increase the demand for experienced quarterbacks — their slowing reflexes compensated for by the protection rules — with the proven ability to manipulate defenses in ways younger offensive players may struggle to do. No doubt about it, Brady’s generation isn’t going anywhere.