Old stars find new places; young stars find new styles
When Tom Brady first runs onto the field as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, dressed in red and pewter and serenaded by cannon blasts from the Raymond James Stadium pirate ship, it will be one of the most memorable sports moments of the new decade. Brady’s decision to bail on title-bejeweled New England for the sunny shores of Florida, where he’ll replace talented but turnover-prone Jameis Winston, was his sport’s version of LeBron James’ Decision — except without the melodramatic TV show. Not even Brady’s new Tampa landlord, Derek Jeter, left the Yankees after winning a string of rings.
Brady’s move isn’t just seismic for the Patriots and Bucs; it reflects an emerging chaos for his position. Cam Newton, a Carolina icon, has been jettisoned but wound up in New England where he could be the man to try and fill Brady's shoes. Philip Rivers, the most famous Charger this side of LaDainian Tomlinson, is now in the Midwest. And Drew Brees, who is almost as New Orleans as jazz itself, has already signed a contract with NBC for whenever he decides to retire from the Saints. Even Nick Foles has changed addresses twice since winning a Super Bowl in February 2018.
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It all adds up to a whirlwind of movement that will take time to absorb, but it also reflects a tectonic shift underneath the surface. It’s not just that established passers now start over like Tinder users. It’s more that the very definition of “franchise quarterback” is under review.
On the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, there is an article from 2005 devoted to the origins of the NFL passer rating statistic. It explains how metrics experts came together in the early 1970s to come up with a reliable and understandable form of measuring quarterback performance. Those experts set a standard of 1.0 and a ceiling of 2.375 for four passer categories (completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and interception percentage). The four categories are then divided by six and multiplied by 100. The maximum rating becomes 158.3. The standards, however, are a bit antiquated after five decades.
“To gain a 2.375 in completion percentage,” the article explained, “a passer would have to complete 77.5 percent of his passes. The NFL record is 70.55 by Ken Anderson (Cincinnati, 1982).”
That record has been matched or beaten six times in the 14 seasons since the article came out. Drew Brees has authored five of those marks, and Sam Bradford owns the sixth. Just in the last season, both Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill came within 0.3 percentage points of Anderson’s 70.55 completion percentage target.
And when that article came out, Steve Young’s 1994 passer rating of 112.8 ranked second to only Peyton Manning in 2004. Since then, Young has been bested 11 times, with five of those 11 higher ratings coming in the last two seasons — from Tannehill, Brees (twice), and 23-year-old quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes (in 2018) and Lamar Jackson (in 2019).
“When the stat was created about 50 years ago,” explained Mike Lynch of Pro-Football-Reference.com in an email, “they aimed to make an average performance of 66.7.”
In 2019, the lowest rating by a starter in the league was from Andy Dalton, with a 78.3.
In other words, the standard of excellence in throwing the football successfully has shot through the roof in the past several seasons. Manning’s 121.1 passer rating from 2004 was stratospheric at the time (and still is), but it was seen as the culmination of years of chemistry building, talent development and playbook streamlining. Now you have quarterbacks in new situations putting up Manning-like numbers: Foles (2013), Tannehill, Mahomes and Jackson.
Winston, whose departure from Tampa hardly marked the end of an era, is the Bucs’ all-time passing leader and led the NFL with 5,109 yards through the air last season. Tampa won five of its last eight games and could easily have finished 9–7 if not for overtime losses. Yes, he threw a laughable 30 interceptions in 2019, but in a historic context, Winston was hardly a failure. The same could be said for the Lions’ Matthew Stafford, who has zero playoff wins and yet has also thrown for more yards through age 32 than Joe Montana did in his entire career.
The passer rating was invented to give a better barometer of quarterback play, but now it feels obsolete. That makes it even tougher to evaluate a passer who may be a step away from greatness but also perpetually behind the times.
Former Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky posted a video on Twitter in early April about No. 1 draft pick Joe Burrow. Orlovsky is now an NFL analyst for ESPN, and the breakdown of one of Burrow’s college plays drew a text message from TV colleague Mike Golic Jr.:
“What are you looking for in a quarterback?”
Orlovsky wrote back right away: “Nothing.”
The answer was not flippant. Orlovsky is not looking for a prototype. There is no prototype. Not anymore.
“The typical pocket used to be the right shoulder of the right tackle to the left shoulder of the left tackle — about seven or eight yards wide,” Orlovsky explained by phone. “The quarterback would drop back, the pocket would collapse, and you’d have to be tall to see over it.
“Now guys are in the shotgun more. The ball is out quicker. The pocket is like an accordion. You don’t need to be 6'5" to see. Lanes are created.”
And it’s not just that lanes are created; it’s that lanes are created more and more by the quarterbacks themselves. Orlovsky compares the evolution of football to the evolution of basketball.
“Quarterbacks have to be scorers, not shooters,” he said. “I’ll create your open jump shot. It’s even more paramount to be a scorer. You can create your own shot.”
There’s a whole casserole of factors that have made this happen. Quarterbacks are faster, for one thing. They’re often faster without being shorter. And they’re often faster without losing the ability to make good pocket decisions.
Some of those decisions are made easier by offenses. Jet sweeps and bubble screens are not only more foolproof in the modern era, but they’re also more dangerous if the quarterback can keep the ball and create damage. In the play Burrow made on Orlovsky’s Twitter post, he checked into a shorter pass and then quickly checked again — into a longer pass. He sold this in part by faking a run. Burrow mentally and physically sold two plays after the original play had begun. He settled for what was effectively a fourth option.
The evolution of the offensive line has added a subtler but also crucial change. Blockers are both bigger and more agile. The spread offense at the high school and college level has led to more speed and better footwork.
“You’re seeing people attacking with misdirection and the whole field,” says Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone. “All those things have affected the way you play up front. Before, you could take the biggest kids or [guys who are] not that fast or don’t catch the ball well and throw them on the offensive line. Now, because of the style of offense, you’re seeing more and more things from offensive linemen. You’re seeing more of the perimeter screens. You’re seeing tackles get out there on the perimeter and blocking. I’ve seen an increase in overall athleticism at the five positions.”
So it’s not just that quarterbacks are better at selling; blockers are better at selling, too.
Then there are the hidden changes, like receiving gloves. “The grippy polymer used on the new generation of gloves,” reported the New York Times in 2019, “is about 20 percent stickier than a human hand — according to a recent study by the MIT Sports Lab.”
That doesn’t mean receivers make 20 percent more catches, but it does mean that drops in a prior era might be catches now. It also expands catch radius, on top of the longer arms on players like Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. One of the tried-and-true Ravens offensive options throughout 2019 featured Jackson throwing to the outstretched arms of one of his three tight ends — all 6'4" or taller.
Now consider the fact that roughing the passer is being called more stringently. That buys both space and time for passers to operate.
If you add it all up, quarterbacks like Burrow can create better threats both near and far — with everything from an RPO to a wheel route to an athletic tight end in the slot to a go route.
“You want to play zone, but you can’t,” Orlovsky said. “That guy (on defense) that you don’t want to get lined up in man? Teams know that. It gets to be like taking candy from a baby.”
This leaves general managers in a weird spot. When the bar for quarterback excellence rises, so do the expectations. If Mahomes can throw it over the mountains, fool a defense with a no-look pass, call a late-game “Wasp” play to Tyreek Hill that turns the Super Bowl momentum around, tuck the ball and run when he needs to and do it all on his rookie contract (with a $645,000 base salary for 2019) … where does that leave someone like Gardner Minshew II? Or Jared Goff? Or Carson Wentz? Or even Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray? Aren’t they all on a shorter timeframe now?
For that matter, what are the expectations for Jackson, who has already won an MVP on his rookie contract but is 0–2 in the playoffs?
At the very least, it seems like the days of the “game manager” quarterback are over. Maybe Brad Johnson or Joe Flacco could win a Super Bowl with a constellation of defensive stars in earlier times, but now? Jimmy Garoppolo already has a strong professional resume with a career 23-6 record as a starter (including the postseason), yet he’s heard as much criticism as praise even after coming within a whisker of a championship. Meanwhile, Mitchell Trubisky, who had one playoff appearance and did rather well in that game (303 passing yards with a touchdown and no picks), might as well change his name to “Not Pat Mahomes.”
The question Golic posed to Orlovsky by text is a pressing one: What are you looking for in a quarterback?
Nothing? Or everything?
This is where the embarrassment of recent riches gets tricky.
The traditional dropback quarterback still hasn’t quite been dethroned. Mahomes’ 2018 season places 10th all time in passer rating. (Jackson’s 2019 is 11th.) But almost every season ranked ahead of him belongs to a more stationary quarterback (in reverse order): Manning, Brees, Brees again, Ryan, Brady, Tannehill, Foles, Manning again and Aaron Rodgers. (Interestingly, Mahomes had the same number of rushing attempts in his best passer-rating season as Rodgers did in his: 60.)
So are we in a transitional phase? Do we still have one foot in the Manning-Brady-Brees era? Is the pocket passer still the safest bet?
“Rivers, Brees, Brady — those guys have put up unbelievable numbers, and their athleticism gets overlooked,” says Marrone. “Their movement in the pocket is outstanding. The feel they have is outstanding.”
Also, let’s face it, it’s usually easier to see the field when you’re not moving. Rodgers’ and Mahomes’ throwing-while-running highlights are insane, but those guys are not actively trying to leave the pocket too often. You only have a few seconds, and it’s harder when you spend several of those seconds in motion.
“How well do you play in panic?” Orlovsky said. “The quarterback position is reactionary and instinctual. Can you think your way through things?”
But then again, if you can have someone like Cam Newton or Andrew Luck — in their prime — wouldn’t you want that in this era? If you can have someone who can do it all, and do it all well, is that better than having, say, Ben Roethlisberger — who has won Super Bowls without moving the pocket?
This is a harder decision than ever now. If you install a system to fit a quarterback that you hope will be the next Lamar Jackson, then what happens if he’s not? Do you try to find another Lamar Jackson anyway?
Meanwhile, back in Tampa, the Bucs have gone with traditional passers — Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick and now Brady. If Brady doesn’t work out, do the Bucs go for yet another pocket passer even as the league inches toward a new definition of a modern quarterback?
In Indianapolis, have the Colts upgraded with Rivers? Or have they gone “backwards” by getting older and less modern?
In the Crescent City, if Brees plays only one more season, do the Saints go all-in on Taysom Hill (or new arrival Winston) or try to draft another Brees or Teddy Bridgewater?
“However you want to build your team, you’re going to have to build it around the quarterback,” says Marrone. “If it’s a mobile quarterback, you may build your line differently than if you have a dropback quarterback.”
One outlier might be the Ravens, who have threaded the needle with a pro-style offense veiled by the most mobile of quarterbacks. So arguably the two most interesting teams in the season to come will be the team with the 23-year-old gazelle and the team with the 43-year-old GOAT. We are in two simultaneous eras — at least for now.
“If Lamar wins a championship,” Orlovsky said, “everyone will be changing their mind.”
In the era of sky-high passer ratings and ever-higher expectations for franchise quarterbacks, it’s fair to say that everyone will be changing their mind anyway.
(Top photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Buccaneers, courtesy of buccaneers.com)