As a new wave of players begin to change the way NFL games are being played, will ageing quarterbacks still be relevant?
Tom Brady, for his age, was an active quarterback, moving between players and throwing passes over helpless opponents into his teammates’ waiting hands. Back then, it seemed like the Patriots were unstoppable and Brady was on a quest of dominance. But that was back in 2018 and a lot has changed since then.
A new generation of quarterbacks (led by reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and unanimous regular-season MVP Lamar Jackson) has been playing with a style that the league has never seen before. They captured the imaginations of those who watched them play, just as players like Brady, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers have done before them. Those three future Hall of Famers are soon to be unrestricted free agents. The Los Angeles Chargers are making moves for Rivers and, for the first time in his career, Brady could find himself playing for a different team. This begs the question: is there still a place in the NFL for an ageing pocket quarterback?
In order to understand how these three players made a name for themselves in the league, you have to first understand the key concept of their game: geometry. In the NFL, space is sometimes very limited. These ‘hashmarks’ in the professional league guarantee that almost every play starts near the middle. This creates a claustrophobic-like feeling that’s further exaggerated knowing that there are 11 more players on the other side of the line.
To win in the passing game, teams design plays that isolate the offensive player against an overmatched defensive player. Another tactic is to make one player draw defenders away for another player to receive the open pass. The point from where all these passes are coming from is called the pocket. If a quarterback drifts too far back or too far to either side, he won’t get a good look to make passes and the window with which to do all these greatly diminishes.
The best quarterbacks are those who can read how defences will set up before the snap. He then stays in the pocket just long enough to see how defenders will react to the play and make a calculated throw. While intelligence can be attributed to this, there’s a more simple way to determine how these things unfold. It’s getting used to seeing the same play over and over again and seeing if and how defenders will react to the same play. Add in a decade of rules changes that protect the quarterback in the pocket and you have yourself a league built for them.
If this is the case then, how did these three players decline so much? Simple: defences started to adapt and players started to get more intelligent, similar to seeing the same thing over and over again.