Everyone gets old eventually. Father time has never been defeated and all of that trash. Skills erode, eras end and times change. They just do. Too often do we see NFL fans complaining about a fading star. They’ve lost something on their fastball, they can’t move around quite as well, etc. The list goes on. They should probably just retire already. Let the next hot young prospect take over. But do we have to rush it?
The talk of Peyton Manning potentially leaving the game should be a cause for concern. Once Manning goes, there is sure to be a domino effect. Eventually guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers will follow. And then what? Then we’re full blown into the Andrew Luck era and everyone else is just there, hoping that their mediocrity is good enough for a surprise run.
What are we rushing into? There is a reason there was sadness surrounding the retirements of guys like Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly and Kurt Warner. Despite those guys clearly declining (save for Warner), they were mammoth-sized living statues in their organizations. All of them had been to Super Bowls, had put up big numbers and to at least a certain degree still gave their teams a chance to win. But that chance was no longer necessarily at a Super Bowl level (again, save for Warner), so whether by their own admission or the team’s, it looked like it was time to move on.
Really? To what? To Quincy Carter? To Jay Fiedler? To Rob Johnson? To Matt Leinart?
Fools really do rush in.
Jim Kelly retired in 1996. He was probably near the end, but he still went 8-5 in that final year as a starter. Whether or not it was time to move on, it happened and since then the Bills haven’t won a playoff game. Heck, they haven’t even had any true stability at the quarterback position.
Troy Aikman retired in 2000 largely due to back issues, but was also regressing. Still, he was just 34 years old and Dallas wound up waiting six years until Tony Romo finally came along.
Dan Marino called it quits in 1999, which gave way to that lovely Jay Fiedler era. Other than one decent year out of Chad Pennington, the Fins never got anything out of anyone else and now hang their hat on an inconsistent Ryan Tannehill.
Kurt Warner retired in 2009 and the team didn’t find a suitable replacement until they traded for Carson Palmer in 2013. Thanks to a torn ACL this year, even he might not pan out as a short-term replacement.
Other teams haven’t even been this lucky. The Oakland Raiders haven’t had a truly stable passer since Rich Gannon hung’em up back in 2002. Bernie Kosar was the last great Browns quarterback. The Tennessee Titans moved on from Steve McNair in 2005 and haven’t found an answer since. The list goes on.
There’s that other element of teams not appreciating what they have even at a moderate level, too. Before Robert Griffin III came along, the Redskins hadn’t had any real hope at the quarterback position since Mark Rypien was a thing. The same goes for the Chicago Bears with Jay Cutler. Everyone seems to want to ride him out of town, yet he’s easily the best passer Chi-town has seen since Jim Harbaugh or Jim McMahon. And those two weren’t even that good. If you want to get crazy, you could say he’s the best passing talent in Chicago since Sid Luckman. Perhaps too crazy, but you get the idea.
If it seems a little silly for teams to complain about mid-level quarterbacks, how unbelievably crazy does it sound to want to move on from proven, elite passers?
We all know that quarterback can’t be an easy position to play. The quarterback is responsible for the majority of what goes down on almost every offensive play, and they live and die with their team’s success. Archie Manning might have been one of the better quarterbacks to ever play, but you may not know it because his New Orleans Saints were always holding him back.
This isn’t just about saying goodbye to a legend, either. This is about knee-jerk reactions, being prisoner of the moment and abandoning something that may not be the ideal, but really isn’t “bad”.
Jay Cutler and Tony Romo are two excellent examples. Romo now has two career playoff wins and Cutler has zero. Because of this, fans across the nation call for their heads on a yearly basis. These are two guys that put up fantastic numbers each season, keep their teams at least in contention for the playoffs and also exhibit excellent natural talent for the position. They don’t finish the job the way we’d all like, though, so it’s “on to the next one”.
That’s a clear picture of our throw-away culture as a whole. Every situation has to be treated differently and of course there have to be times where you really do just have to move on. Mark Sanchez wasn’t cutting it in New York. He wasn’t accurate, he turned the ball over and he was a big reason why his team wasn’t winning games. Tim Tebow didn’t belong in Denver, and possibly not even in the NFL. He couldn’t throw at the NFL level and the Broncos had a shot at upgrading over him in the biggest of ways. Those changes made sense.
But even those changes didn’t completely work out. Tebow was supposed to push Sanchez. That didn’t work. Geno Smith was supposed to push Sanchez or be the next answer. Neither really panned out. Peyton Manning was supposed to take the Broncos from a mere playoff team to a Super Bowl winner. Three years later, that didn’t work.
Where do we stop with how acceptable a quarterback’s numbers, plays or winning are? At what point are we content? Does Peyton Manning have to come back and win the Super Bowl in 2015 to have been worth the fuss? Was getting to the Super Bowl two years ago and making the playoffs three straight years really a failure?
To some, yes. But it can’t be, and it shouldn’t be. There have to be varying levels of success. So many different elements go into a champion in football (or any sport), and they don’t always fall on one guy. The quarterback position in the NFL may be the only sport we see that mirage so consistently, but that doesn’t make it any more true or right.
The point becomes more clear through numbers and through taking a glimpse at the next generation. Manning put up an NFL record 55 touchdown passes in 2013. This year, despite would-be wild regression, he put up 39 touchdowns. Sure, he’s lost some of his zip and deep accuracy, but he still tossed 39 touchdowns. The Broncos won their division and got a first round bye. If they had beaten the Colts, they would have been in their second straight AFC title game.
But they didn’t, and that’s all on him. He tailed off over the final four weeks, but instead of admitting a thigh injury could have played a huge role, or going up against hungry (and good) Bengals, Chargers and Bills defenses could have factored in, we suggest he’s toast. He’s old and in serious decline. Move on to the Brock Osweiler era or do everything you can to land Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston. Hell, even Bryce Petty would do. Mail this current rendition of the Broncos in, because they’re going nowhere.
Again, really? No one knows that any of the aforementioned replacement options can come close to matching Manning. They all have serious flaws and present major risk. Osweiler is a tower of a quarterback that has talent and knows the system, but he’s not at all battle tested and will have to prove he can make it in the league when it comes to accuracy and decision-making. Mariota is a system quarterback that is tempting as hell, but also came up lame in the biggest game of his life (for the most part) and Winston has serious character concerns.
When the 49ers moved on from Joe Montana, when the Packers moved on from Brett Favre and when the Colts called it a career on Manning, they had viable replacements. Those switches made actual sense. Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck looked to be generational talents when these decisions were made, and they ended up being right. But those are three extremely rare examples.
Everyone has their baggage, too. Manning’s is he’s getting old and he’s not as good as he was a year ago, and damn sure not as good as he was five years ago. But that’s okay. It needs to be okay. It should be okay. It has to be okay. Because 75% of Peyton Manning is still pretty damn good, and NFL fans need to appreciate and understand it. Not only that, but the alternative isn’t any more certain.
The same goes for Drew Brees and Tom Brady. New Orleans has nothing behind Brees despite him being 36 and showing some signs of mild decline the past two years. While that’s been true, he still has 72 touchdowns over the past two years and has remained a yardage fiend. Brady was said to be washed up after the Pats started 2-2 this year, but that just pissed him off even further and he erupted for 30 touchdowns over his final 11 starts.
Here’s a mind-bending thought we should all consider: only one team wins the Super Bowl. Only 12 of 32 make the cut for the playoffs. Only eight teams can possibly win their division. The better the competition is, the harder it is to win a lot of games. The better the defensive coaching and playing are, the harder it is to look good doing it. The Seattle Seahawks are probably the league’s nastiest defense. Peyton Manning being made into a rookie in last year’s Super Bowl wasn’t totally on him or the Broncos. That has to be on Seattle being amazing, too.
It’s odd that when a quarterback has an awful outing, they’re automatically terrible. Something must be wrong with them. Johnny Manziel looked pretty bad in his pro debut earlier this year. But when you look at everything involved, he really never stood a chance. The Bengals had the division and a playoff spot to fight for, they wanted revenge for the whooping the Browns handed to them earlier in the year and they were in general a pretty talented group (they also picked off Manning four times, mind you). Instead of people realizing the Bengals were a solid (albeit inconsistent) defense, they instead ripped Manziel and Manning.
Aaron Rodgers is to some the best quarterback in the league. Despite years of dominating defenses and claiming a Super Bowl, the minute he couldn’t light up the Seahawks, Lions and Bills, he turned into a guy who “couldn’t beat good teams on the road”. That’s laughable. Matthew Stafford, who is 0-18 in his career against above .500 teams on the road – he struggles against good teams on the road. Rodgers just ran into three of the best defenses in the entire league on their home field. That’s not being a bad quarterback, that’s just being in a horrid situation.
Ultimately, it’s become clear that we put too much on the quarterback position. Whether it’s fantasy football fooling us into thinking quarterbacks need to put up 300+ yards and three touchdowns every week or our ridiculous expectations suggesting missing the playoffs means a guy is done, we’ve grown impatient. Too impatient.
The problem is we don’t know what we’ve got, and soon it’s going to be gone. Manning, Brees, Brady, Romo and Rivers are all the next guys up to think about retirement. Rivers is the youngest at 33, and Manning will be 39 in March. The end is coming, and it’s coming soon. But we shouldn’t want it to be.