Whole new look

New gen­er­a­tion of QBs ar­rived just in the nick of time to save NFL

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NFL - By Jerry Brewer

For the NFL’s cur­rent su­per­star quar­ter­backs, this is the de­fin­i­tive torch-pass­ing sea­son. That’s how we should ex­pect history to judge it. Twenty years from now, we will look back and cite 2019 as the year in which one im­mensely per­sis­tent, ac­com­plished and deep era of quar­ter­backs fi­nally yielded the floor to a trans­for­ma­tive new col­lec­tion of sig­nal call­ers.

If you’re pay­ing at­ten­tion, this sea­son keeps mak­ing the shift in­dis­putably clear. Let’s start with an ex­cit­ing MVP race, led by Rus­sell Wil­son and La­mar Jack­son with De­shaun Wat­son just on the out­skirts of the dis­cus­sion. They’re putting on daz­zling dis­plays, rack­ing up ridicu­lous stats and col­lect­ing the wins nec­es­sary to win the cov­eted award. But more than that, the way they play and their im­pact on suc­cess is al­low­ing us to have a richer con­ver­sa­tion about their value and con­tri­bu­tions.

The NFL MVP may al­ways be a quar­ter­back’s award; over the last 12 sea­sons, Adrian Peter­son (2012) is the only non-QB to win it. But there’s more nu­ance to this race than simply ask­ing which tra­di­tional ol’ drop­back quar­ter­backs on good teams are play­ing well. To ap­pre­ci­ate the great­ness of th­ese can­di­dates, you can look into how their teams are built around them, how they in­flu­ence the run­ning and pass­ing games and how they each ap­proach the po­si­tion dif­fer­ently. They also hap­pen to be African Amer­i­can, and if you in­clude the pro­lific play of Dak Prescott (lead­ing the NFL with 3,221 pass­ing yards), the con­sis­tent wow fac­tor of reign­ing MVP Pa­trick Ma­homes and the solid first sea­son of top pick Kyler Mur­ray, there has never been this many black quar­ter­backs re­ceiv­ing this much ac­claim at once. The so­cial sig­nif­i­cance mat­ters, but it’s even big­ger than race. No mat­ter the color of the quar­ter­back’s skin, the stodgy NFL is adapt­ing bet­ter to the evo­lu­tion of its ath­letes and re­al­iz­ing that there should be no sin­gu­lar way to play the most chal­leng­ing po­si­tion in sports.

On the other hand, the steady quar­ter­back­ing greats, many of whom have de­fied Fa­ther Time for so long, have en­dured their chal­lenges in 2019. Ben Roeth­lis­berger suc­cumbed to an el­bow in­jury two games into the sea­son. Drew Brees, an­other quar­ter­back who never gets hurt, missed five games with a thumb in­jury. Eli Man­ning lost his start­ing job to rookie Daniel Jones. With Philip Rivers strug­gling, there’s the thought that the Charg­ers might move on from their 37-year-old star, who’s a free agent at sea­son’s end. Even Tom Brady has been hu­man of late — which will prob­a­bly re­sult in him win­ning play­off games and call­ing out the haters again come Jan­uary — but to cover our bases, we must re­mind you that he’s 42 years old just in case he’s truly start­ing to act 42.

A year ago, we wit­nessed a won­der­ful year for quar­ter­backs all around, a re­mark­ably con­ver­gent sea­son in which young, mid­dle-aged and old passers lit up score­boards and showed us just about ev­ery in­trigu­ing facet of mod­ern and clas­sic of­fense. It wasn’t meant to last mul­ti­ple sea­sons, though. The fire­works of 2018 — which in­cluded the dy­namic de­but of Ma­homes, the pro­logue of Jack­son’s NFL story, 16 QBs who posted passer ratings of at least 95, 12 who threw for at least 4,000 yards and nine who reached at least 30 touch­downs — pro­vided the most com­pelling ev­i­dence that a horde of tal­ent was avail­able to re­plen­ish the league.

And this has been the year of sep­a­ra­tion. The best of that horde has emerged in un­mis­tak­able fash­ion. The best are ready to el­e­vate the game. And the per­sis­tent leg­ends? Well, they’re old now. Many of them are still ca­pa­ble of great­ness, but they’re not the story. They’re bet­ter off pac­ing them­selves than try­ing to carry the game.

The point isn’t that Brady, Brees and Co. are done. In fact, it’s more likely that they, both in their 40s, meet in the Su­per Bowl than any other QB com­bi­na­tion. But if the Pa­tri­ots are to play for a sev­enth ti­tle, it fig­ures to be be­cause their elite de­fense has taken pres­sure off Brady and the of­fense. And if the Saints ad­vance all the way to Mi­ami, it fig­ures to be be­cause they have the league’s most com­plete team, which they showed in go­ing 5-0 with­out Brees.

The point is that the new era is here. And it has stay­ing power, even though it’s doubt­ful that many of th­ese quar­ter­backs — more mo­bile, more sus­cep­ti­ble to in­jury — will en­joy the same longevity of their pre­de­ces­sors. And this move­ment, af­ter years of NFL re­sis­tance, could ad­vance the sport in a way Brady, Brees and Pey­ton Man­ning couldn’t.

Since 2003, there has only been one sea­son in which the NFL All-Pro team didn’t in­clude Brady, Brees, Aaron Rodgers or the re­tired Man­ning as one of its hon­orees. That lone sea­son was 2015, when Cam New­ton made the first team and Car­son Palmer was on the sec­ond. If you add

Brett Favre, you can go back 20 years and de­clare that, since 1999, there has only been one sea­son in which one of those five quar­ter­backs wasn’t on the All-Pro team.

Keep that in mind when pon­der­ing the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of this QB quin­tet. The league was blessed to have such cross­over among leg­ends who rank as elite even among the all-time elite. You’re talk­ing about five of the top 10 or 12 quar­ter­backs ever to play the game, all in a clus­ter, all of whom played or are play­ing for as long as pos­si­ble.

But if the 2019 sea­son ended today, Wil­son and Jack­son would be the All-Pro quar­ter­backs. Wat­son would be the next in line. Wil­son, who turns 31 next week, is the only of the three even in his prime. This is a big deal. The age­less don’t own the path any­more.

One fi­nal stat to chew on: From 2003 to 2017, 10 com­bined MVP awards went to Man­ning (five times), Brady (three) and Rodgers (two). In that time, there have been just two in­stances in which mul­ti­ple sea­sons passed with­out one win­ning the award. Ma­homes got it last year. An­other first-timer is poised to win it this year. And th­ese aren’t one-hit won­ders. We have ar­rived at a wa­ter­shed mo­ment.

“It’s great to be in the con­ver­sa­tion,” Wil­son said. “... When I come into this sea­son, I’m try­ing to be the best player in the National Foot­ball League ev­ery time I step on the field, ev­ery time I get a chance to play.”

De­spite hav­ing doubters be­cause of his 5-foot-11 frame, Wil­son has been a star since his rookie sea­son. He won a Su­per Bowl in his sec­ond year. He’s a six-time Pro Bowler, and he has an un­fath­omable record (83-38-1) so far in his ca­reer. But it took him eight sea­sons to have this prom­i­nent a seat at the elite ta­ble, and while he cer­tainly has im­proved over the years, it was mostly be­cause he was blocked by those ever­last­ing greats.

But there’s so much value in hav­ing to fight for it. Work your way up this list, and you’re le­git. There’s lit­tle need to worry about the game dur­ing this quar­ter­back sit­u­a­tion. The ex­e­cu­tion of this hand­off has been ex­traor­di­nar­ily smooth.

ROB CARR/GETTY

The Sea­hawks’ Rus­sell Wil­son, Ravens’ La­mar Jack­son and Tex­ans’ De­shaun Wat­son are con­tenders for league MVP.

JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY

Chiefs QB Pa­trick Ma­homes took the league by storm in his 2018 MVP sea­son.

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