The average quarterback career lasts about 4 1/2 years. But what does that mean?
Since players come into the NFL at age 22-23, generally, does this mean they’re gone at age 27 as often as not? Not at all. Those who can play the game tend to stick around a long time, as long as they’re not injured.
We’ve all heard about running backs, who have the shortest careers. Analysts commonly say 30 is a magic age that no running back can pass and still hold up to hits. I believe that, but I’d like to see more numbers. The hits add up for running backs.
But they don’t necessarily add up for quarterbacks. Anyone who was watching football back in 1985 remembers the Lawrence Taylor hit on Joe Theismann that ended his career at age 36. Theismann was probably close to retirement anyway. His performance had declined steeply the last two seasons. And that’s more how it ends for quarterbacks. At some point, not necessarily at 36, decline begins, and they simply don’t retain a starting role.
The quarterback position is far too important in football to allow players to age gracefully and fade into the sunset. There comes a training camp when the ball just isn’t going where it needs to go, and all of a sudden someone else is starting. Or maybe the performance declines during the season and the coach and quarterback agree that next year isn’t going to happen. It’s very rare seeing a career like Brett Favre’s, where he looked like he was in decline at 36, kept his starting job after the worst season of his career at age 37, then somehow had a pretty good season at 38, then lost his job, was serviceable with the Jets at 39, then went to the Vikings at 40 and had a career year before going back to subpar at 41 and then retiring. Some of that was probably injury, and a good coach can tell whether a player has lost it or is hurting. So there’s undoubtedly an explanation for Favre’s career track. It’s unusual, though.
In general, young quarterbacks who are going to be long-time starters are starting at age 23-24. Average performance rises steeply from 21-25. Then it rises smoothly from 25-36. There’s some attrition along the line – only about 1 in 8 quarterbacks who starts in the NFL is still playing at 36. But those who are still playing can play fairly well. Average performance then declines slowly afterward. And only two quarterbacks – Vinny Testaverde and Warren Moon – had significant playing time after age 41. They weren’t that good by then.
Here’s a quick look at the starting quarterbacks in today’s NFL, where they are in their career arcs compared to past performers. The average quarterback performance is a 51. Included is every quarterback who threw at least eight passes in six or more games.
Buffalo Bills: Ryan Fitzpatrick is 30 and has been significantly below the NFL average at every age, though he has improved every year and the gap is reduced. He had a career-best 49 in 2012. It would be reasonable to expect him to remain below average, though he’s better than replacement level. The Bills will be looking to develop a quarterback.
Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill is 24 and had an average season for a 24-year-old quarterback (46). The average first season for a quarterback is 43, so the Dolphins are probably pleased and are hoping Tannehill continues to develop.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady is 35, and his score of 61 this season is in line with his performances the last nine years. There’s no reason to believe he doesn’t have a season or three left in him at the elite level.
New York Jets: Mark Sanchez is 26. He had a good rookie season in 2009 (47), but followed that with 46, 46 and now a completely unacceptable 39. Unless he was playing hurt, I can’t see the Jets giving him the ball again. There are only a couple of long-time career arcs that look like Sanchez’s at the beginning. The most similar is Kerry Collins, who was never great, but seemed to get chances. Sanchez is probably going to be a backup the rest of his career, if he does keep a job.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco just turned 28. After a bit of a regression last year, he was back to being just a bit above average (53). That, and his amazing ability to win playoff games on the road, means he’s on the fringe of the top ten quarterbacks in the league.
Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton is 25 and has been pretty much average for his age his first two seasons (45, 50). That makes things a little difficult for the Bengals, because he might become a franchise quarterback, or he might not. This coming season will be the test.
Cleveland Browns: Brandon Weeden, at 29, had an average season for a rookie, but a terrible season for a 29-year-old quarterback (44). There’s no precedent to look at to guess whether he will improve next year. I’d imagine he will, but the Browns undoubtedly, with new management, will look for a young quarterback to develop.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a slightly below-average season (55). He’s still one of the best in the league. He came into the league as a 22-year-old, which is unusual for a starter, and posted the best score for a 22-year-old (62) in the study (1974-2012).
Houston Texans: Matt Schaub is 31 and coming off a score of 56. He didn’t start until his fourth year, but when he did, he was already much better than average. His six seasons range from 56 to 67. Since he was a third-rounder with no hype in 2004, it’s easy to level criticism. But he is definitely a top-ten quarterback.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck is 23 and posted a 43 in his rookie season. While that’s pretty bad, reports indicate he was asked to do a lot, and since the Colts won 11 games, there’s reason for optimism. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if the Colts dropped to 7-9 wins in 2013. Peyton Manning had a 48 score coming into the league at age 22, though the Colts only won three times.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blaine Gabbert is 23, and had a score of 45 following a disastrous 32 in his rookie season. Chad Henne scored a 42 at age 27. Gabbert probably gets another shot at this, but the quarterback situation in Jacksonville is bad enough that I’m sure the Jaguars would take one with the second pick if they felt there was a quarterback worthy of the pick.
Tennessee Titans: Jake Locker is 24 and posted the average score of 46 for a 24-year-old. He will get at least another year to show development. Matt Hasselbeck is 37 and has posted only one season above 50 since taking the Seahawks to the Super Bowl in the 2004 season. He’s really a backup now, at best.
Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning is 36 and coming off one of his best seasons (67). He has not been below 57 since his rookie season. If he’s healthy, there’s no reason to doubt he can play at least another season or two at an outstanding level. He is undoubtedly one of the top two or three quarterbacks ever to play the game.
Kansas City Chiefs: Matt Cassel is 30 and coming off a career-worst 38 score. He posted a 46 the previous season. There’s no reason to believe he will be the quarterback next season, especially with the Chiefs picking first in the upcoming draft. Brady Quinn scored a career-best 41 in relief. He is 28, and hasn’t given people reason to hope for much better.
Oakland Raiders: Carson Palmer just turned 33 and is coming off a 50 score. He was dominating in 2005, with a 65 score, until a serious knee injury in the playoffs. He came back from that injury fairly strong, still well above average. But he missed much of the 2008 season with an elbow injury, and he has been a little below average since. The Raiders could be in worse shape, because Palmer certainly is better than nothing. But they have to want to develop a young quarterback at this point.
San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers is 31 and coming off a 53 score, his lowest since his second season as a starter. Before this season, he had posted four straight seasons as a top-ten quarterback. There’s no reason to believe he won’t return to that level.
Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo is 32 and just posted a 59 score. He has six seasons of full-time experience, since he had to be “discovered,” going undrafted out of Eastern Illinois. He has never scored below a 55 and is definitely an elite quarterback when healthy.
New York Giants: Eli Manning just turned 32. He scored a 52 this season. In his nine seasons as a starter, he has only scored above a 53 twice – including 2011, when he scored a 60 and earned his second Super Bowl MVP. Performance-wise, he is maybe a little better than average. But you don’t consider benching a guy with two Super Bowl MVPs and a brother who could be the best all-time.
Philadelphia Eagles: Nick Foles just turned 24 and scored a 44 as a rookie. He will probably get the starting job if he has a decent training camp. Michael Vick is 32. It seems like he should be a lot older as the first pick in the draft 12 years ago. But he started as a 21-year-old rookie and posted the best passing season of any 21-year old in the study (46). Then you add what he did with the running game and you can see why people were so excited. However, 50 was as high as he got before his sentence for mistreatment of dogs. When he came back, he posted a 59 in 2010 and a 53 in 2011, but dropped to a 46 this season. The hits have added up for Vick, and I’m not sure he will be on a roster next season.
Washington Redskins. Robert Griffin III will turn 23 in a couple of weeks and posted a 58 as a rookie. Then you add in his record-setting rushing, and you see why Redskins fans are ecstatic. Hopefully, his knee injury isn’t as serious as it looks.
Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler is 29 and hasn’t lived up to the promise he showed early in his career. He scored a career-worst 48 this season. If a new coach in Chicago can’t turn him around, there’s cause for concern.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford is 24 and coming off a 48 score. That’s a little low, but he had a 61 in 2011. As a 21-year-old rookie in 2009, he scored only a 36, then missed most of 2010 with an injury. Because of what he did in 2011, his starting position is secure. But another year like this one and perhaps there will be some worries in Detroit.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers is 29, and one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. After a record-setting season in 2011 in which he scored a 73 (second-best all time), he dropped to a merely-excellent 64 – his fourth career season above 60. As long as he’s healthy, there’s no reason to believe he isn’t going remain at this level, if not get a little better.
Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder is 24, and scored a 46, which is average for his age. As a rookie in 2011, he scored a below-average 40. He needs to continue to improve to justify his hold on the starting spot.
Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan is 27 and coming off a career-best 65 score – second-best in the NFL. He has been over 55 in three of his five seasons and should be entering his prime.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton is only 23 and scored a 54 after putting up a 55 in 2011 as a rookie. He also adds a lot with his feet, and the Panthers have reason to believe they’ve found their franchise quarterback.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees turned 34 last week. He scored a 59 this season – his ninth straight with a 55 or better. He is definitely one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh Freeman is only 24, and has a remarkable 56 career starts for his age. He posted a 41 as a rookie in 2009, then jumped to a 57 in 2010 as the Buccaneers surprisingly narrowly missed the playoffs. But he regressed to a 45 in 2011 and a 48 this past season. While his job status is in no danger, another below-average season will put him on the hot seat. I would not be surprised to see Tampa Bay try and develop another young quarterback.
Arizona Cardinals: Kevin Kolb is 28 and has struggled with injuries and a difficult media situation. Yet he posted a 52 in limited play this season – far better than his competition. He did the same with a 50 in 2011. If he’s healthy, he should be given the starting job and a real opportunity to develop. John Skelton is 24 and scored a 33 this season, a 40 in 2011. Ryan Lindley is a 23-year-old rookie who posted an abysmal 27 this season (all three quarterbacks barely qualified for a season-score this season).
San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick is 25 and has led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, taking over the starting role after Alex Smith was injured. He scored a 62 this season, and has also done a lot running the ball. Smith is 28 despite having eight years in the league. He was a disaster early in his career, but regained the starting job in 2009, and has posted scores of 50, 51, 55 and 64 since. Kaepernick will undoubtedly be the starter in 2013 and Smith will probably be a free agent. Given Smith’s age and how well he’s done the last two seasons, he will get a big contract in free agency. I can see Jacksonville making this move. The Jets should make this move, but the media situation is so bad in New York that it really can’t happen.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson started as a 24-year-old rookie and posted a 61, also doing a lot of damage with the running game. I think he should have been the Rookie of the Year, though Griffin had a special season, too, so there’s no serious complaint.
St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford is 25 and had a 48 score this season. He had a 44 as a rookie in 2010, but dropped to a 37 in his sophomore season. So far, it’s not looking like he’ll have a great career, but he did enough this season to hope for continued improvement.