In a quarterback-driven league, there are an increasing number of fresh faces beneath the facemasks.
There are words we associate with elite quarterbacks: experience, presence, poise under pressure. We assume that a requirement of the most pressure-packed position in sports with time –the sorts of things a boy can’t learn in college. The speed is different. The playbooks are more complicated. The burdens on their shoulders more numerous than ever before.
Despite all of that, 2012’s NFL seems to have a new set of expectations. They still expect presence and poise. They still place the weight of a franchise on the shoulder-pads of their signal callers. But, instead of experience, it seems that NFL teams simply require pubescence from their quarterbacks.
As week one approaches, it’s possible that 14 quarterbacks age 25 or younger will start for their respective teams; Ryan Tannehill, Mark Sanchez, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Robert Griffin III, Jake Locker, Matthew Stafford, Christian Ponder, Cam Newton, Josh Freeman, John Skelton, Russell Wilson, and Sam Bradford. If all of these young men start the opening games of the season, that’s 44% of all starting quarterbacks that will clock in at 11 years (or more) younger than the league’s oldest starter (Peyton Manning, 36).
That’s four rookies, five sophomores, and a lot of fresh faces. Let’s put it this way; all of them were teenagers as recently as 2006. It seems, then, that NFL teams are increasingly willing to put the ball in the hands of young, untested players. Despite the immense pressure, almost half of the teams are turning to promise over experience. This is a new phenomenon.
Forget the days of yore. This is a new phenomenon in recent history. If you take 2012’s projected starters (including Kevin Kolb/John Skelton, Russell Wilson/Matt Flynn in undecided races), the average age of this season’s quarterbacks will be 27.4. As we’ve mentioned, 14 of those 34 quarterbacks are under the age of 25; only 11 are 30 or over.
|2012 Proj. Starters||Age|
|Robert Griffin III||22|
Only five years ago, the landscape of the NFL Quarterback was drastically different. In 2007, the average age of a starting signal-caller was 28.7, over a year and a half over the projected average of 2012. That may seem like a small number, but considering that there are only 32 starting quarterbacks, the fact that quarterbacks have, on average, gotten two years younger (five years later) is significant. Only nine quarterbacks five years ago were 25 or younger, and 13 were older than 30. As you can see from the table below, the spreadsheet was much different back then:
|2007 Wk-1 Starters||Age|
Go back in time a single decade and you will see that this NFL youth movement is rather unprecedented. The quarterback breakdown of 2002 is even more dissimilar to the new trend of fresh faces beneath the helmets. In 2002, you were more likely to find grizzly veterans. The average age of starters a decade ago was 29.6 (2.5 years/seasons older than today!). Once again, only 9 starters were 25 or younger, with more trending toward 25 than 22. Subsequently, 14 of the quarterbacks were over 30; that’s the same number, in 2012, of starters that could be under 25.
|2002 Wk-1 Starters||Age|
So what’s behind this drastic change? Some will point to more colleges implementing pro-style offenses. Others will mention the rise to prominence of camps, training, and mentors that prepare college stars for the NFL game. And these are certainly factors. But there’s something else revealed by these tables that may shed light on the youth sensation.
Teams want elite quarterbacks. And they want them now.
Just look at the immense turnover at the quarterback positions in a something as small as a five-year interval. From 2002 to 2007, only nine (28%) of quarterbacks maintained a starting job. From 2007 to 2012, that number was only 11 (34%). As the pressure to acquire an elite quarterback increases, so too does impatience. Teams are less willing to spend time developing quarterbacks; the search begins and ends almost simultaneously.
Over the past several years, more and more veterans have been tested. The new pool of talent no longer resides in the NFL –those faces have been placed beneath the helmets and failed to pass the tests of higher standards. The new faces of promise are in the lower levels, the college ranks, the NFL’s minor leagues. It’s why the draft is more important than ever.
But as we can see from the recent past, finding the promise of tomorrow isn’t easy. Simply seeing some of the names that coincide with the ages of 25 or younger puts in perspective how many misses come alongside the shooting stars. For every Peyton Manning that is thrown into the fray and into a Hall-of-Fame career, there are more names like these: Chris Redman, Mike McMahon, Quincy Carter, David Carr, Derek Anderson, Matt Leinart and Tavaris Jackson.
It’s proof that potential isn’t always realized –that all of these young shoulders can’t bear the burdens placed upon them.
Eighteen quarterbacks started week one games in 2002 and 2007. Seven of them still have starting jobs, today. Only three of them have Super Bowl victories. If those trends don’t increase with the increasing youth movement, we should only expect five or six of 2012’s young guns to still have jobs in 5-10 years, and if they’re lucky, two will have championships.
There are words we associate with the search for elite quarterbacks: experience, presence, poise under pressure. But perhaps that verbiage should change.
As the faces grow younger beneath the facemasks and under center, and the search continues, experience, presence, and poise gives way to the dangers of expectation …promise…potential.