No, it was not harder to be a quarterback in Trent Dilfer’s day
It’s one of those seeming inevitabilities of life: You’re going along as a perfectly reasonable individual, and then, one day, that sure sign of old age creeps in: You are determined to tell everyone around you that things were much tougher in your day. Athletes are not immune in any sport — in fact, it’s a common thing for players to insist that none of these dadgum kids would have been able to survive in their days.
Now, courtesy of ESPN’s “Bullies of Baltimore” 30 for 30 documentary, we have former journeyman quarterback and Super Bowl XXXV passenger Trent Dilfer informing the quarterbacks of today that they would have had no chance of their current generational exploits in his time.
“I love Tom Brady, I love Aaron Rodgers, but it’s not impressive.”
Trent Dilfer with an absolute hydrogen bomb of a take lmao pic.twitter.com/KTdC26C9Zn
— Taylor Jenkins (@TJenkinsTampa) February 6, 2023
“The modern-day game does not impress me,” Dilfer said. “It’s super easy when you don’t get hit as a quarterback and when you can’t reroute receivers and when you can’t hit guys across the middle. I love Tom Brady. I love Aaron Rodgers. I love these guys. It’s not impressive. What’s impressive is what [the 2000 Ravens’ defense] did.”
Well, let’s set aside the obvious fact that Brady was drafted in 2000, and won a few Super Bowls and did a few other impressive things back when Dilfer was still playing. In fact, from 2000 through 2007, Dilfer’s last year in the NFL, Brady 2,294 of 3,642 passes for 26,370 yards, 197 touchdowns, 86 interceptions, and a passer rating of 92.9. Perhaps Dilfer is unhappy with quarterbacks of Brady’s stripe because over those same seasons, he completed 642 of 1134 passes for 7,549 yards, 43 touchdowns, 49 interceptions, and a passer rating of 71.6.
Perhaps it was Dilfer who was overwhelmed by the temerity of defenses back in his day, and perhaps it wasn’t as much about things being allegedly easier for the quarterbacks of today.
But let’s examine Dilfer’s charges in a good-faith way to see if it is indeed easier to be a quarterback in the modern day. We can start with today’s NFL favorite, the roughing the passer penalty, since the league is all about enforcing it, even when it isn’t actually happening.
So, you would assume that NFL officials are far more prone to call this penalty in 2022 than they were in 2000, the season Dilfer’s talking about.
Well… not really. Per Pro Football Reference, there were 75 roughing the passer penalties in the 2000 season. There have been 89 such penalties in the 2022 season, which is hardly a massive upswing. Unnecessary roughness penalties have actually decreased since then — from 120 in 2000 to 113 this season. There were also more defensive pass interference penalties in 2000 (254) than there have been in 2022 (223). So, it’s not as if quarterbacks have benefited from some mammoth conspiracy to thwart defensive efforts since Dilfer was out there helping his Ravens win a Super Bowl. It’s far more true that things have been on a fairly even track.
Now, it is true that quarterbacks of today benefit from the NFL’s adoption of spread concepts that have funneled up from the high school and college ranks. There are more three- and four-receiver sets, and those receivers are deployed in more creative ways. But defenses have adapted as they always will. Quarterbacks are also dealing with far more nickel and dime defenses (five and six defensive backs) than in Dilfer’s day. So far this season, per Sports Info Solutions, there have been 3,173 quarterback dropbacks facing six defensive backs, and 3,538 facing four defensive backs. There have been 14,069 snaps of nickel defense, which has been the predominant deployment of defensive backs in this era, which it was certainly not back then.
Defenses were also far more prone to throwing a few coverage concepts out there and sticking with them — whether it was the Cover-2 and Tampa-2 ideologies most popular in the early 2000s, or the Cover-1/Cover-3 looks popularized by the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defenses in the early 2010s.
These days, coverage looks resemble petri dishes, and you never know what you’re going to get. Positionless defenses represent a default, and that also wasn’t the case back then. Quarterbacks are far less likely to see the same picture throughout a game, or snap-to-snap.
Let’s assume that the changes have evened things out to a degree, which they have. In 2000, NFL teams averaged 206.9 passing yards per game, a touchdown rate of 3.9%, an interception rate of 3.3%, 6.1 yards per attempt, and an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 5.2.
In the 2022 season, NFL teams have averaged 218.5 passing yards per game, a touchdown rate of 4.2%, an interception rate of 2.3%, 7.0 yards per attempt, and an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 5.9.
Are things slightly more favorable for quarterbacks now than they were in Trent Dilfer’s era? To a degree, but again, we’re not talking about two entirely different types of offensive football with defenses wheezing to catch up. It would be more accurate to say, as has been the case throughout pro football history, that offenses have changes, and defenses have changed to match them.
It could also be said that were Trent Dilfer a part of today’s NFL, he’d just have to learn to deal with it.