There is officially a changing of the guard at quarterback underway in the NFL, and Sunday’s events and Monday’s injury announcements confirm it.
Start with the old guard, the ranks of which suffered a massive blow Monday when it was announced that 37-year-old Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury and 40-year-old Drew Brees has been knocked out for up to six weeks with a thumb injury.
Those injuries not only change the projections for their respective teams — especially for the 0-2 and suddenly scuffling Pittsburgh Steelers — they also leave 42-year-old Tom Brady (a verified warlock at this point), 37-year-old Philip Rivers and 35-year-old Aaron Rodgers as the last remaining old-guard, elite quarterbacks chugging along at the moment.
Now juxtapose that to the spate of young quarterbacks who thrived Sunday:
Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, the reigning MVP, threw for an absurd 278 yards and four touchdowns in one quarter of a 28-10 win over Oakland that pushed the Chiefs to 2-0. Mahomes is currently on track to throw for 6,568 yards this season.
Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson threw for 272 yards and ran for another 120 in the Ravens’ 23-17 win over Arizona. Jackson, whose team is 2-0, is currently on track to throw for 4,768 yards.
Speaking of Arizona, its own young quarterback, Kyler Murray, threw for 349 yards (second-most of any quarterback this week behind Mahomes) as he nearly directed the Cardinals, who were in a 17-6 halftime hole, to his second epic comeback in as many weeks. Murray, whose team is 0-1-1, is currently on track to throw for 5,256 yards.
Dallas’ Dak Prescott continued his assault on Joe Flacco’s title of “best quarterback contract season” (2012), lighting up Washington for 269 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-21 win, just one week after posting a perfect quarterback rating against the New York Giants. Prescott, whose team is 2-0, is on track to throw for 5,392 yards.
I’m not just pointing this out because Mahomes, Jackson and Murray were my last three quarterbacks on my annual All-Juice team, a list of my favorite players in each draft (which you can find here, here and here). No. I’m pointing it out because of what they all have in common. In addition to the ability to win in the pocket — Mahomes, Jackson and Prescott are on pace to throw for 56 touchdowns apiece — they also have the athleticism and mobility to create, both inside the pocket and out, which has turned into one of the most important traits an NFL quarterback must have.
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The same thing that used to be a point of scrutiny, especially for black quarterbacks, is now the very thing that helps them become the ultimate playmakers, ones capable of slipping oncoming defenders on drop-back passes and executing the increasingly popular run-pass options that give defensive coordinators fits.
It’s a sea change coming on the heels of Mahomes’ sensational first year as a starter. That explains why the Cardinals thought the 5-foot-10 Murray could use his arm and elusiveness to overcome his lack of height, and thought nothing of taking him No. 1 overall.
Imagine that. In the same league that, 40 years ago, told a 5-foot-10 Doug Flutie he was too short, too, and banished him to Canada for eight years before his return.
Some circumstances have coalesced to get us to this point. For starters, the once rough-and-tumble NFL has become a more pass-friendly game, thanks to the widespread incorporation of college-style spread concepts. It’s never been easier to throw in the NFL, which helps all quarterbacks, regardless of style, and explains why passing yards have exploded league-wide.
With referees now protecting QBs, it’s also never been easier for mobile quarterbacks to run around and stay healthy. This isn’t 1999 anymore, when quarterbacks were hunted and every defense had a Rodney Harrison-like enforcer.
And guess what? Teams know it, as today’s NFL resembles something closer to flag football than the rough-and-tumble game of 20 years ago. As such, the scouting focus at the position has shifted from “can this guy hold up physically?” to “eff it, can this guy make a play when we need it?”
It’s a trait that NFL evaluators look for in every quarterback, regardless of race, by the way. White players like Rodgers and Carson Wentz have the Mahomes “escape artist” gene in their back pockets (and regularly use it to their advantage), and so does Bills quarterback Josh Allen, a personal favorite of mine.
In fact, Allen is a perfect test case for the new NFL. Easily dismissed by many in last year’s draft as a great athlete with amazing physical tools who wasn’t accurate enough to make it in the NFL, I bought some of the earliest Josh Allen stock out there while watching him play last season and doubled down on it, all based on the belief in his prodigious arm strength and ability to make plays with his athleticism.
Now the Bills sit at 2-0 after a pair of road wins to open the season, and Allen — who overcame a slew of turnovers to rally down the stretch in Week 1 and looked more steady in Week 2 — is a few more wins away from earning the cherished “nobody circles the wagons like Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills” co-sign from Chris Berman.
Allen certainly has more to prove, as does Jackson, Murray and to a lesser extent, Prescott, as they attempt to join the Rodgers, Mahomes and Russell Wilson realm of elite mobile quarterbacks. But the best thing is, even though some of these guys may yet fall short of the goal, more mobile quarterbacks are on the way. Colleges are churning out mobile playmakers at a rate we haven’t seen in years, and if you think it’s a coincidence the top two quarterbacks in 2020 (Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert) and the early consensus No. 1 pick in 2021 (Trevor Lawrence) are all guys who can run around and do stuff, you’re kidding yourself.
Between those three and the mobile youngsters who have already arrived — and balled out Sunday — the NFL is in great hands at the game’s most important position, even as their Hall-of-Fame bound predecessors start to cycle out over the next few years.
There’s a brand new era of all-around quarterback play upon us, folks. And damn, it’s going to be fun to watch.
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