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The QB age-wall: Tom Brady is a zombie

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Father time is not kind to quarterbacks as they near 40, but it appears Tom Brady is a zombie.

NFL: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
Derek Wolfe is not afraid of zombie quarterbacks
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In the world of the NFL, Father time is seemingly very cruel. He is somewhat less cruel to quarterbacks who can play into their early 40s if they are a combination of lucky and good. Outside of kickers and punters, no other position has this kind of career shelf-life, but even with the longer shelf-life that QBs have, there comes a time when they can no longer play at a high level. For most this happens rather quickly because the margins with which a starting QB has to work in the NFL are razor thin. The difference between a TD throw and an interception can literally be less than an inch. I wanted to know at what age do elite starting QBs start to decline? Who are the exceptions? How fast do these guys decline? Do these guys ever try to hang on a few more years as backup QBs (the answer is yes - some do)?

So I initially started looking at this by evaluating games started at QB by age. I did much of this research prior to last season when I wanted to know if an old QB can improve late in his career (when I was trying to sell myself on the idea of Mark Sanchez as our starting QB). So here is a plot of showing 23 different QBs all of whom played into their late 30s showing games started by age.

Games started vs. Age of quarterback

Age Favre Brunell Flutie Moon Testaverde DeBerg Brady P. Manning Romo Montana Cunningham Elway Staubach Plunkett Brees Warner B. Johnson Rivers Stabler C. Palmer Tarkenton Gannon E. Manning
21 10
22 16 4 0 14 0
23 0 0 16 1 5 10 16 0 13 0 7
24 13 0 1 4 11 14 16 0 7 12 14 14 11 0 14 0 16
25 16 10 1 15 15 16 16 0 16 16 16 14 15 16 0 13 14 12 16
26 16 16 9 14 9 16 16 10 9 16 16 14 16 0 16 1 16 12 11 16
27 16 14 3 13 1 16 16 16 16 16 12 1 14 16 0 0 16 1 16 14 12 16
28 16 13 16 12 5 16 16 13 15 1 15 3 5 16 16 8 16 11 16 14 4 16
29 16 15 14 14 5 16 16 16 15 15 15 10 12 16 11 13 16 13 4 14 0 16
30 16 16 15 6 13 16 16 6 8 4 16 0 14 15 16 2 16 13 16 14 3 16
31 16 15 12 13 11 1 16 16 11 14 16 14 16 6 16 16 12 16 13 6 16
32 16 15 11 12 2 16 16 16 13 4 12 14 0 16 1 11 16 13 9 14 10 16
33 16 3 16 16 8 16 16 15 13 3 16 13 11 16 9 16 16 16 15 14 16 16
34 16 9 15 13 11 16 16 15 15 14 14 14 7 16 10 13 16 16 16 13 16 16
35 16 15 16 13 10 16 0 4 0 6 16 14 9 16 5 16 16 16 6 14 16 16
36 16 9 10 10 1 16 16 16 0 11 3 15 15 13 15 11 4 12 16 13 16
37 16 0 15 14 16 15 16 16 14 2 16 16 6 16 16 9 8 15 9 7
38 16 1 5 15 16 2 16 16 12 3 15 14 14 16 3
39 16 0 16 16 4 5 12 9 8 0 0
40 16 0 0 8 7 3
41 16 5 14 15
42 13 1 10 4
43 0 0 0
44 1 6 1

Don’t focus yet on who dropped off when - you’ll hurt your eyes. The takeaway from this chart should be that it’s exceedingly rare for NFL QBs to still be starters after the age of 40. In fact if you use the age of 36 as your cutoff, there are very few instances of a QB who is over 36 starting 15 or more games in a season (data does not include 2017 season - Brady Brees and Palmer are all still playing).

QB Starts after age of 36 Yrs w/ >15 reg season starts >36
Favre 93 5
Moon 78 2
Testaverde 68 3
Brady 44* 2
Flutie 42 2
P. Manning 41 2
Warner 31 2
Elway 28 1
B. Johnson 26 0
Tarkenton 25 1
Deberg 22 1
Stabler 22 0
Plunkett 17 0
Brees 16* 1
Palmer 15* 1
Gannon 10 0
Staubach 16 1

So I have a plot of passer rating by age for the same 23 QBs, but it’s as difficult to parse visually as the starts by age, so I decided to do something to combine games started and passer rating (from what I remember this is called a cross-product in mathematics). So I combined (multiplied) the passer rating (the goofy one where 158 or something like that is the max) and games started then I normalized to the highest value (PFM in 2013 at the age of 37 who started 16 games and had a passer rating of 115.1) to give every year by every old QB a value relative to the best season ever by well-aged QB. Here’s the plot and it’s interesting. The thought process is that you are not as useful to your team if you can’t stay on the field.

Why is this interesting? Because it allows you to visually see when a QB hits the wall or the cliff. When does his value take a steep dive. If you focus on Peyton’s line (which I made thicker so it would be easier to follow), you see he peaked at the age of 37 and then still played well at the age of 38, but fell apart at the age of 39. Brett Favre peaked at the age of 40 - at least relative to the final third of his career. Vinny Testaverde had a brief resurgence at the age of 41. Warren Moon peaked at 39. Kurt Warner was still very good at the ages of 37 and 38 - then he retired. FWIW since players started zero games once they retired their value goes to zero at that age.

In order to focus on the guys who are currently still playing I’ve removed all of the retired QBs from the above graph and I moved the X axis back to the age of 32 as the start to get a feel for whether or not they are declining.

Now, before the Massholes start whining about the apparent decline in Br*dy’s line, I will point out that his value is hurt by his 4 game suspension and that if you just look at passer rating, his trend is still upward despite his advanced age. Drew Brees also appears to be maintaining his elite level of performance despite his age. Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Carson Palmer all appear to declining although Manning and Rivers could be said to be maintaining - it might appear that they have not hit the age-wall yet. Palmer’s line is jagged because of his injuries; it will be interesting to see where his 2017 (age of 38) data point falls. FWIW, Ben Roethlisberger is 35 this season. So he was not inlcluded in my data set which focused mostly on QB play after the age of 36.

Poll

Which old but still active QB will decline first (assuming that Palmer is already declining)

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Tom Br*dy
    (193 votes)
  • 47%
    Eli Manning
    (395 votes)
  • 7%
    Philip Rivers
    (62 votes)
  • 10%
    Drew Brees
    (84 votes)
  • 11%
    Ben Roethlisberger (currently 35)
    (98 votes)
832 votes total Vote Now

As much as it pains me to say it, Tom Brady is not done. He’s like the antagonist in any horror film; every time you think he is dead and buried, he rises up again. There you have it folks, definitive proof that Tom Brady is a zombie.