NFL’s passing of the torch: A new generation of quarterbacks has arrived

Graphic by Meghan Joyce

On Sunday afternoons this fall, a TV remote feels like a time machine. Switching between football games feels like stepping into different decades.

First, 24-year-old Marcus Mariota leads Tennessee on a game winning drive in overtime to take down Carson Wentz, 25, and the reigning Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles.

Immediately afterwards, Drew Brees, 39, and Eli Manning, 37, face off in an impressive win for Brees’ Saints. When Manning won his first Super Bowl with the Giants, beating the undefeated Patriots in 2008, Mariota and Wentz were still underclassmen in high school.

The NFL is in the midst of a generational shift at the quarterback position. The older group is made up of players from the 2000-2004 NFL Drafts who played in an era largely defined by the greatness of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The remaining stalwarts from this golden age of gunslingers are Brady, 41, Drew Brees, 39, Eli Manning, 37, and Ben Roethlisberger, 36.

Although there are 22 players on the field at any given moment, no position determines the fate of a team quite like the quarterback. These five players — the older Manning brother included — have a combined total of 18 Super Bowl appearances and 12 Lombardi trophies over the past 17 seasons.

Somehow, this core group has ruled the NFL for nearly two decades, and their dominance has gone relatively unchallenged, as new great quarterbacks have been few and far between in recent years.

However, the quarterback drought appears to be over and just in the nick of time. In 2018, it seems as though the most exciting players at the position are all either older than 35 or younger than 25. This is the blur between eras in sports when fans get to see matchups like Kobe Bryant versus Michael Jordan, or Mike Trout against Derek Jeter.

The last four NFL Drafts have featured numerous young prospects who have shown promise over their first few seasons. 2016 produced Wentz, who was leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl last year before tearing his ACL, as well as Jared Goff and Dak Prescott. Goff has come into his own over the past two seasons surrounded by talent on a stacked LA Rams team, while Prescott has found success in Dallas alongside fellow 2016 draftee Ezekiel Elliott.

2017 saw two more rookies spend some time in the spotlight. Mitch Trubisky started 12 games in Chicago and showed potential despite some inconsistency. However, this past Sunday, Trubisky threw for 354 yards and 6 touchdowns, giving Bears fans hope for a breakout sophomore season.

Deshaun Watson only played seven games last year for the Texans before tearing his ACL, but he was off to one of the best starts by a rookie in NFL history, tearing up defenses and dominating fantasy leagues. On Sunday, Watson led Houston to a dramatic overtime victory in Indianapolis for the team’s first win of the year.

With so many young prospects already in the league, the 2018 NFL Draft only raised the stakes as a record four QBs were taken in the top 10 picks. Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen have seen varying levels of action so far this year, but have their respective franchises thrilled about the future.

Through four weeks, we’ve already seen the six-foot-seven-inch Allen hurdle a defender, Darnold get through a game without throwing an interception, and Mayfield lead the Browns to a win, their first in 635 days.

Then, there’s Patrick Mahomes III.

Mahomes was drafted 10th overall by Kansas City in 2017, but spent last year on the bench behind Alex Smith. With Smith gone, however, Mahomes has taken the starting spot and ran with it.

The Texas Tech product set an NFL record for the most touchdowns through the first three games of the season with 13, then orchestrated a gutsy comeback victory for the Chiefs in Denver on Monday night to improve to 4-0.

Mahomes is an example of why this new generation of quarterbacks is so exciting. Playing with offensive guru Andy Reid and running the spread offense, the young quarterback has had the chance to shine and put up monster stats.

The league is in the midst of a strategic shift toward pass-heavy offenses, which will likely bring higher scoring games and more eye-popping stats. Just as Steph Curry revolutionized the use of the three pointer in the NBA, Mahomes could be at the forefront of a pass-happy revolution in the NFL.

This renaissance at the game’s most important position couldn’t come at a better time. Despite still dominating television markets, the NFL’s average viewership has dropped each of the past three seasons.

Additionally, the league has been criticized for its poor handling of players accused of domestic abuse, as well as its stance on political activism. Oh yeah, and Colin Kaepernick is still being exiled by all 32 teams.

If anything is going to save the NFL and begin to improve its damaged public image, the young generation of quarterbacks poised to take over the league is the group to do it.

Fresh faces representing the sport can help change the narrative surrounding football, and move the focus back to the field and to new star players.

The group leaving the NFL is the best the game has ever seen. The Manning brothers, Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers are all in the top 10 all time for passing yards, completions, and touchdowns, and will be first-ballot Hall of Famers when they retire.

Yet, as their illustrious careers begin to wind down, the influx of young talent should leave fans assured that the NFL is in good hands. Maybe 15 or 20 years down the road, the record books will be rewritten once again.

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