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Tom Brady and Drew Brees vs Father Time — old men in a young man’s game

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Refreshing my look at the performance of active “old” QBs and recently retired QBs.

Denver Broncos v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

As of right now, the average age of a starting quarterback in the NFL is 29.8. This includes the recent retirement of Andrew Luck.

QB Current Age
BRADY, TOM 00/6 42.1
BREES, DREW U/SD 40.6
MANNING, ELI T/SD 38.7
RIVERS, PHILIP T/NYG 37.7
ROETHLISBERGER, BEN 04/1 37.5
FITZPATRICK, RYAN U/TB 36.8
RODGERS, AARON 05/1 35.7
FLACCO, JOE T/Bal 34.6
RYAN, MATT 08/1 34.3
DALTON, ANDY 11/2 31.8
STAFFORD, MATTHEW 09/1 31.6
KEENUM, CASE T/Den 31.5
COUSINS, KIRK U/Was 31.0
WILSON, RUSSELL 12/3 30.7
FOLES, NICK U/Phi 30.6
NEWTON, CAM 11/1 30.3
Carr, Derek 14/2 28.4
Garoppolo, Jimmy T/NE 27.8
Brissett, Jacoby T/NE 26.7
Wentz, Carson 16/1 26.7
Prescott, Dak 16/4 26.1
Mariota, Marcus 15/1 25.8
Winston, Jameis 15/1 25.6
Trubisky, Mitch 17/1 25.0
Goff, Jared 16/1 24.9
Mayfield, Baker 18/1 24.4
Watson, Deshaun 17/1 24.0
Mahomes II, Patrick 17/1 24.0
Allen, Josh 18/1 23.3
Jackson, Lamar 18/1 22.6
Darnold, Sam 18/1 22.2
Murray, Kyler 19/1 22.1
Average 29.8

We should note that there are three quarterbacks under the age of 23 and only two over the age of 40.

All ages are exact to the day as of Aug. 27. The designation after the name in this table is how the QB was acquired - with “18/1” meaning first round of the 2018 draft, for example.

This is an update of a piece I have done twice now that looks at the QB age wall in the modern NFL. So there are two questions I want to answer:

At what age do great NFL QBs first become “great”?

At what age do great NFL QBs start to decline? (I answered this one two years ago - 35ish)

The first thing is to define what a “great” NFL QB is. This is not a simple task, but I am going to simplify for the sake of the analysis. I am going use the age when the quarterback first makes the Pro Bowl as when he has officially become “great.” We can argue about whether this is the “right” way to do this in the comments if you wish. In looking at the data, making the Pro Bowl is really only an indication of “good” not great, but it’s my method, so I’m sticking with it.

I went back to 1983 and looked at every Pro Bowl quarterback, then I went in an excluded guys who only made the Pro Bowl once (Bobby Hebert, Trent Dilfer, Elvis Grbac, Brian Griese and Marc Bulger all say “hi!”)

The average age when NFL QBs first make the Pro-Bowl is 26.1. There have been 92 different quarterbacks who have made the Pro Bowl at least once since 1983, but 39 only made it once. Quarterbacks near the beginning of their careers who have only made it once (like Patrick Mahomes, Mitch Trubisky and DeShaun Watson) had their age included since I am projecting that they will make the Pro Bowl at least once more in their careers.

The oldest NFL QB to make his Pro-Bowl debut was Rich Gannon, who first made the Pro Bowl at 34. Four multiple Pro-Bowl quarterbacks made their debuts at age 22 - Dan Marino, Drew Bledsoe, Cam Newton and Michael Vick. I did not drill down to see who was the youngest when selected.

So if quarterbacks generally don’t make the Pro Bowl for the first time until they are 26, and they start to decline at the age of 35 or 36, that means they play at an above-average level (or better) for roughly 10 seasons. Next we will turn our attention to the quarterbacks who set the standard for playing well into the “old” age.

The Standards (the magnificent 7)

There are seven retired “modern” QBs who played exceedingly well into and past their mid-30s. Warren Moon, Joe Montana, Vinny Testaverde, John Elway, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner. In the graph below you can see how well (and if) they played into their mid-to-late 30s. The data is the cross product of games started and passer rating normalized to the best season ever for an NFL QB (Peyton Manning in 2004).

You can see that most of these quarterbacks were still playing exceptionally well until about age 38 or 39. At that point the wheels started to fall off for many of these guys. John Elway and Joe Montana both retired before their bodies started to really fail them, but others like Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner all ended their careers with a poor statistical season. Warren Moon took a backup role, which is why his numbers dropped precipitously.

The ‘Old Guard’ still playing

If we apply this methodology to the old guard (active starting QBs who are 34 or older right now), we find some interesting lines for these eight QBs. I am choosing to exclude Ryan Fitzpatrick. I am also including Joe Flacco, because this is a Broncos blog, and he is our current starting QB who is over age 33. I am fully aware that his stats do not warrant his inclusion here.

From this you can see that Eli Manning and Joe Flacco have always been a step below the other six guys on the list. Ben Roethlisberger has been trending up. Philip Rivers has been remarkably consistent. Tom Brady was trending downward then has had five great seasons in a row (the dip at the age of 39 coming from the four game suspension). Drew Brees has been even more consistent that Rivers. Aaron Rodgers has fluctuated mainly because of injury (remember this is a function of games started AND passer rating).

You should also notice that with two exceptions (Favre at age 40 and Moon at age 39) no starting quarterback had gotten above 70 percent of peak performance after age 38 until Brady and Brees did it very recently. You should also notice that Brady and Brees continue to take the league into uncharted territory in terms of QB performance at an “advanced age.”

At this point the combination of advances in sports medicine, rule changes, hard work and god-given talent has allowed those two QBs to do what none of their esteemed predecessors were able to do - put up ridiculous passing stats past the age of 38 while continuing to play every single game.

Now in all fairness to those who retired 10-20 years ago, I did not normalize for league average performance by year (or era). If I had done that, Elway, Montana and Moon’s numbers would all have looked better in comparison.

The question still remains: How long can Tom Brady and Drew Brees keep this up?

The Next Wave (quarterbacks age 25-33)

What about the quarterbacks who have had sustained success (four or more years) but are currently under age 34?

Let’s apply this methodology to them as well. Had I written this last week I would have included Andrew Luck. Instead let’s focus on Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford. I had to do a double-take when I typed that. Alex Smith is too old (and currently not starting because of his injury). The other guys I could have chosen have either not had enough of a track record to make plotting their data useful, or they have never been good enough to assume they could even reach the level of the six elite “old” quarterbacks in the chart above.

You can see that Wilson is the cream of this crop and Newton has mostly been a step below the other three (once Cousins took over as a starter). Stafford appeared to be trending upward until last season. Newton’s injury in the preseason might be start of a slow demise for his career, or it may just be a bump in the road.

Poll

Who will be able to sustain his elite performance longer (until the oldest age)?

This poll is closed

  • 55%
    Tom Brady
    (146 votes)
  • 26%
    Drew Brees
    (69 votes)
  • 5%
    Philip Rivers
    (14 votes)
  • 1%
    Matt Ryan
    (4 votes)
  • 7%
    Russell Wilson
    (19 votes)
  • 4%
    someone else
    (12 votes)
264 votes total Vote Now