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Passing the Torch: How a Decade of QB Play Reinvented the NFL

Tom Brady and Drew Brees remain at the top of their game, but they’ve been joined by a crop of young quarterbacks. As the position has evolved in the past 10 years, so has football.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There is half of an NFL season to go before the end of the decade. What did we learn about the quarterback position during this time? If you were paying attention, the answer is everything. If you learned nothing, you are likely a bad NFL head coach.

There is a decent chance that the quarterback who won the first Super Bowl of this decade, Drew Brees, could win the first Super Bowl of the next decade. Or that Tom Brady will win the last Super Bowl of the next decade. It is possible when viewing the NFL through this lens to think that very little has changed about the quarterback position. Many of the stars entering this decade will end it the same way—Brees, Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers. Of course, everything around this group changed. A young crop of quarterbacks has emerged that includes some of the most gifted passers the sport has ever seen. This decade has, at various points, brought the spread offense, the read-option, the run-pass option, and the no-look pass. None of these things replaced the other; they all collided to make the modern game, one of nearly limitless scoring and possibilities.

In BuzzFeed last week, Katherine Miller wrote that this decade has broken our sense of time. Everything happens so quickly now, including football: It can feel like multiple versions of the same sport is being played depending on the game you’re watching. Or, it can not feel like football at all, if you accidentally watch the Redskins. Based simply on how much the sport changed from the start to the end of the decade, it is probably the most important 10-year stretch of the Super Bowl era.

It has been the decade of the quarterback, and the developments we’ve seen will probably ensure that every decade for the foreseeable future will be the decade of the quarterback. Starting in 2011, scoring, completion percentage, and nearly every other quarterback statistic exploded leaguewide. Teams scored more touchdowns in 2018 than any other season in history. This decade will come and go with just one non-QB player winning MVP, running back Adrian Peterson in 2012, making it the most lopsided decade since the award was first given in 1957. It seems unfathomable that a running back will win the award again anytime soon. The quarterback position entered the decade as the most important position in sports, and it has somehow become more important at the decade’s end.

What it means to be a good quarterback has changed. Different styles can lead to greatness, yes, but playing the position has been made so much easier. Before last season, Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart noticed a trend that I found fascinating. Stuart found that despite an unprecedented emphasis on the passing game in the NFL, great passing is not getting more important because it is simply easier for teams to generate competent passing attacks with shorter, high-percentage throws. It will always be better to have an elite passer like Patrick Mahomes or Deshuan Watson than Nick Foles; still, the average quarterback is simply better than in previous eras due to friendlier schemes and rule changes that make completing a pass easier, among a slew of other factors.

The completion percentage for pass plays on RPOs in 2017 was 78 percent. If coaches can scheme players into such favorable positions, anyone with an arm can appear better. Jameis Winston’s career QB rating is 31st in the history of the sport, one spot ahead of Otto Graham and two ahead of Dan Marino. (Putting that stat aside for a second, I need to mention here that Winston is, in fact, quite bad at playing quarterback.)

Of the top 20 most productive passing yardage seasons in NFL history, 19 were set either this decade or by an active player. Kurt Warner’s 2001 season (leading an offense called the “most dynamic of the century” by ESPN) was once considered an epic achievement—his passing mark that year was trounced by Kirk Cousins’s 4,917 yards in 2016. Dan Fouts set the single-season mark for passing yards in 1981, a mark that Brees has surpassed seven times since 2008.

The NFL, of course, wants this. It’s not a coincidence that most of the rule changes—cracking down on quarterback hits and defensive contact with pass catchers—favor passing. Quarterbacks propel scoring, and scoring propels ratings. Conference championship games with famous quarterbacks, à la Patrick Mahomes vs. Tom Brady, can get more than 50 million people to tune in. You cannot get Americans to do anything en masse anymore except watch football: 33 of the top 100 telecasts last year were NFL games.

Speaking of ratings: This Sunday will feature Lamar Jackson against Brady, two of the best quarterbacks in the sport. It’s a tantalizing matchup not just for the quarterbacks, but for the coaches: Bill Belichick has made a career out of torturing young quarterbacks with unpredictable defensive game plans, and the Ravens have built one of the best schemes in recent memory around Jackson. It would be tempting to call this moment a potential changing of the guard—that’s certainly happening among NFL quarterbacks—but that’d mean forgetting that Brady is likely immortal. But yes, Brady aside, there are a lot of older quarterbacks who are being cycled out by their teams: Eli Manning was benched in September; Andy Dalton was benched on Tuesday. Ben Roethlisberger is out for the season with an injury, while Rivers appears to be slowing down.

When I was in Cincinnati for Bengals training camp, I talked with former Oklahoma running back Rodney Anderson about two of his former quarterbacks, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield, neither of whom is above 6 feet tall. I asked Anderson whether their success and status as the first overall picks in consecutive drafts will build a legacy for short quarterbacks going forward. Anderson said he couldn’t quite say that, because to suggest Murray and Mayfield will establish some sort of new normal is wrong: They are simply special players who led NFL teams to ignore certain norms. The path forward for NFL teams is not to ignore size or to draft only Oklahoma quarterbacks, or any other overly broad lesson. The path forward is to treat special players as special and not let them slip, even if they do not play a traditional NFL game or have all the measurables.

It is ludicrous that Russell Wilson was a third-round pick and that Brees and Jackson were both picked 32nd overall. Brees and Wilson were considered too short; Jackson was thought to have mechanical problems, or teams worried they couldn’t build an offense around him. Jackson’s draft status—four quarterbacks were selected before him—became such a part of the fabric of his story that he delightfully dunked on his detractors after a September demolition of the Miami Dolphins when he said, “not bad for a running back.” Jackson is definitely a quarterback; he has 11 passing touchdowns this year, but he can run, too. Jackson is such a good quarterback that the Ravens are on pace for the most rushing yards since the 1977 Chicago Bears.

In 2016, I wanted to ask Mike Mularkey a few questions for a feature story I was writing on the spread offense. I wanted to know how much of Oregon’s offense he planned to incorporate into his schemes for Marcus Mariota’s second season. The answer was none. “I’m going to do the things that I’ve had success with since 2001, and I will continue to do that until someone stops us.” He continued, saying anyone who thinks the college spread should be in the pros “doesn’t understand the NFL” and “I know people say this is a passing league. I’ll argue with that.” This is the decade that ended that argument in the NFL.

Mularkey was far from the only coach to feel this way, and there is a real argument that a handful of draft classes were ruined by this thinking. Mariota’s career never really got on track. The college game gave the NFL a blueprint on how to maximize its quarterbacks, and the NFL spent half the decade complaining about it. The pro game was eating itself. This bit of conventional wisdom was eventually toppled in the biggest way possible, but it is instructive how resistant most of the league was before these offenses were adopted en masse.

Spread quarterbacks were delivered to coaches who didn’t know how to use them and stubbornly refused to try to learn. There is no guarantee Mariota would be a superstar now under the tutelage of a forward-thinking coach like Chip Kelly, Mike Shanahan, or Belichick, but it would have given him a better chance. This is a long way of saying that coaching went through the same transformation this decade as quarterbacks: It was already clear that coaching was hugely important, but somehow at the end of the decade, it is more important—especially as it relates to quarterbacks.

Which brings us to the 2016 draft class. Despite the fact that Jared Goff, the first overall pick, played for Jeff Fisher—a mistake quickly rectified by Fisher’s firing in December of that year—it was probably the first season in which teams figured out the infrastructure you need to build around a quarterback. “You turned a shit sandwich into an ice cream cone just by who’s coaching you,” Trent Dilfer told Goff upon Sean McVay’s 2017 hiring, according to my colleague Robert Mays.

After one season, Goff was compared to Blaine Gabbert and Quincy Carter; by his third season, he’d started a Super Bowl and had signed a deal featuring the most guaranteed money in the history of the sport. The Rams spent draft capital and cash to surround Goff with as much talent as possible and to stack their defense. The Eagles and Cowboys did the same thing with their 2016 quarterbacks, Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, respectively. Fisher aside, these three quarterbacks more or less entered the league when teams had an idea of how to treat a quarterback on their rookie contract. Teams like the Seahawks with Wilson, the 49ers with Colin Kaepernick, and the Panthers with Cam Newton had shown how to develop and build around young, talented quarterbacks. By the time the 2016 quarterbacks entered the sport, a blueprint was generally established.

The fact that ranking these three quarterbacks has become such a heated football debate is important. SB Nation attempted to do it in June and had Wentz, then Goff, then Prescott. If you were to rank them in October, it would look dramatically different (Prescott is undoubtedly having the best season of the three, Goff looks pretty lost, and Wentz has been fine). There is a case to be made that each of them has taken a turn at the top at various points in the past three seasons. That, too, is telling. Prescott reached superstardom status as a rookie. Wentz looked like the MVP before he tore his ACL in 2017. Goff made the Super Bowl last year with a career high in yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdowns, and quarterback rating. Prescott is back to the top now.

Goff has been given the best offensive coach in his career. Prescott has been given more supporting offensive talent than most quarterbacks have, and he’s helped maximize that talent. Wentz was given a deep overall roster, one that led to a Super Bowl for his backup, Nick Foles. All three of these quarterbacks are examples of modern quarterbacking: It is not just their talent. It’s the infrastructure around them. Teams don’t win because they draft a good quarterback, they win because they don’t stop there.

”Coaches stuck to what they knew. They were slow to adapt to anything new,” Kent Stephens, a historian at the College Football Hall of Fame, told the Associated Press in 2013. Stephens could have been referencing any point in the history of football, but he was talking about perhaps the first instance of this being true: In 1906, when the forward pass was legalized.

We are, then, in Year 113 of football coaches thinking we have achieved what is possible on an NFL field. I started covering the NFL in 2012; in my first training camp, I wrote about how often I kept hearing how good ideas were maxed out. Then Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress told me that essentially only three playbook styles—belonging to Sid Gillman, Ron Erhardt, and Bill Walsh—existed in the NFL, with coaches putting their own variation on each. I mean this in the least offensive way possible, but it’s worth noting all three of those coaches were dead when the interview took place. Childress eventually played a significant role in the development of the spread—working with Andy Reid as a spread game analyst—but back in 2012, the quarterback position looked like it had very little potential to innovative. “As far as some great innovation coming up, I don’t think that will happen,” then–Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix told me. “There’s only so much you can do, and I’m not sure we haven’t done most of it.”

A few weeks after the story ran, the read-option revolution took over the NFL. Wilson, Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, and Robert Griffin III were dubbed “The New Kings” by Sports Illustrated before the next season. Everything changed and kept changing for the rest of the decade. The point is that guessing how and why innovation will happen with NFL coaches is usually misguided. The quarterback position keeps building on itself. The read-option, contrary to analysis, is not dead, nor is the run-pass option. The spread’s principles will never die. Instead, quarterbacks will incorporate all of these to get better. That is the arc of the quarterback and why the changing of the guard happening now is important: The position is getting better, and more important. So ends the decade of the quarterback. It seems impossible, because of what quarterbacks built in this decade, that the next one won’t be more of the same.