Luck is often overlooked — in life, and in football. Fumbles are determined by luck. Clutch field goals probably are, too. And the same good fortune applies to the so-called golden generation of quarterbacks who rewrote — and still are rewriting — the record books.
Headlined by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning, that group surpassed Dan Marino’s once-seemingly unassailable single-season passing yardage record from 1984 six times from 2011 to 2016. Aaron Rodgers, age 34, hasn’t done that yet but he might be the most talented of them all. The reasons this generation got lucky are innumerable: They hit their primes at the moment the NFL liberated passing rules in favor of the offense. Most NFL defenses had zero clue how to adjust to these changes, and that ushered in a record-breaking passing era. In addition to that, these passers got more practice reps than the generation that followed because of the regulations put on practice time at nearly every level of the sport (a badly needed change for player health, but a negative one for the development of quarterbacks). Brady and Co. were also products of an era when high school and college football schemes were more closely aligned with the pro game, which lessened the learning curve for young quarterbacks. Plus, compared to the offensive-line crisis of today, lines used to be better at keeping their quarterbacks upright.
For all those reasons, we will never see a group like this again. They enjoyed remarkable marriages with good offensive minds. Brady has or had Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and — don’t laugh — even Charlie Weis. Brees has Sean Payton. Manning had Tom Moore. Rodgers has Mike McCarthy — and even if you don’t like McCarthy, Rodgers has his own brain, which is almost unfair to begin with.
Since the game itself and the conditions surrounding it are so different, comparing the Manning generation to any future quarterbacks is nothing more than water-cooler talk — fun to chat about, but ultimately a pointless exercise with no real conclusion. You’ll keep arguing it until all of a sudden you are Dennis Rodman saying that the early-1990s Golden State Warriors were better than the current ones.
The next generation of Brady, Manning, Rodgers, and Brees quarterbacks is not coming. But you know what is? A generation that will be great in its own right and help usher in a new, more exciting era of football.
For all of the bad news to come out of the 2017 season, we’ve also learned that the NFL no longer lacks for good young quarterbacks. We’ve long known that Russell Wilson can make a game exciting on his own, and that Cam Newton can do the same when he’s on. But now they have some company. Jimmy Garoppolo’s four-start hot streak with San Francisco capped off a 15-month stretch in which we learned that Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Dak Prescott all have the ability to lead teams to great things. If Monday Night Football doesn’t have its 2018 season-opening double-header as something like San Francisco–Green Bay and Philadelphia-Houston, I’m going to picket outside NFL headquarters at 345 Park Avenue. DeAndre Hopkins’s incredible catch on Christmas night reminded me that Watson, who led Houston to 38 points in Seattle before Richard Sherman got hurt, is about nine months away from throwing to Hopkins again. Meanwhile, Garoppolo is still undefeated and just roasted a great Jacksonville defense. And Wentz was the presumptive MVP before his ACL injury this month.
It’s probably not a coincidence that a new era of young quarterbacks is emerging at the same time. Partly out of desperation, NFL teams had to figure out how to help their young signal-callers succeed despite the league’s general resistance to spread concepts and the reduced practice time. And so some franchises sold out to put their guys in a position to thrive. Wentz’s supporting cast in 2016 was awful, and now the Eagles are spending $22 million on receivers this year — sixth most in the NFL. The Vikings’ offensive line was laughably bad in 2016; they retooled it, kept the talented wide receivers intact, and, in the process, helped develop Case Keenum into someone so good that Robert Mays asked me unironically on The Ringer NFL Show the other day if he should be in the MVP discussion. Keenum, at 29, is not young, but he’s a good example of how a good environment for a quarterback creates a good quarterback.
As the great quarterbacks of the early 2010s fade away, we will learn what we always should’ve known about football: coaching, defense, wide receivers, and offensive lines matter, too. Because of the sheer talent of the previous generation of quarterbacks, it often looked like those things didn’t matter — Manning was his own coaching staff, for instance, and threw the ball so quickly that he almost didn’t need an offensive line. Brees frequently found what seemed like guys from local high schools and made them 1,000-yard receivers. Brady took so many disjointed teams and made them whole that it stopped being remarkable — but we should never forget it. Since the conditions that created those quarterbacks no longer exist, the era when a quarterback masks all the problems is likely over. But that doesn’t mean that the era of great quarterbacks is.
In his recent biography of Muhammad Ali, Ali: A Life, Jonathan Eig mentions that in the 1950s, boxing’s popularity was in a “steep decline” and that the pipeline of boxers to the top of the sport had sputtered after World War II. Yet, somehow, Muhammad Ali still came to be. The point is, there’s always talent coming. It’s what the sport does with the talent that matters.
It’s never a talent problem in the NFL; the league’s problem with some of the young quarterbacks has mostly been a problem with the NFL itself. Coaches want to huddle too often with a generation of quarterbacks who’ve never done that. They want to go under center to help the run game, when shotgun is a more comfortable situation for young quarterbacks. They want to criticize how college quarterbacks make quick play calls and look to the sideline for plays, rather than thinking of a way to take advantage of that. It’s hard to look at some of the electrifying college players who don’t make it to the NFL and not think, “Hey, maybe a coach should have tried to find a way to let him do that in the pros, too.” On Tuesday, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen made news by suggesting he’s more concerned with ending up on the right team rather than going as high as possible. Good for him. Situation matters. And thankfully, more teams are using the college ideas and focusing on what their quarterbacks can do, not what they can’t.
Just look at the case of Goff. He was not good enough to save Jeff Fisher, but he is good enough to lead one of the most exciting offenses in the league right now. Goff is as much a case study on the importance of coaching flexibility as anyone in football. He had trouble with reads in his rookie year, so Sean McVay and Co. game-planned formations in which he could easily identify man coverage. Last month, it was reported that Goff gets audibles in his headset when the team gets to the line quickly. This is not dissimilar to college-style guidance in which quarterbacks look to the sideline for help.
Steve Jobs once said he was shameless about stealing good ideas. The NFL should look at college the same way. And yet, last fall, former Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley complained to me: “The college quarterback is a joystick, and the coach is playing the joystick.”
Goff’s situation is perfect now. Watson will get to pass to Hopkins when he returns. Wentz already showed us what he can do with talent around him. And Garoppolo won’t even get a full season under offensive guru Kyle Shanahan until 2018.
For that group of quarterbacks, the hype is here — and it’s totally justified in its own way.