The 2012 NFL season is over, but a big story was the youth movement at quarterback with the most impressive rookie class ever, and also San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Kaepernick was the sixth-youngest quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl.
But has the NFL turned into such a young man’s game that future Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Peyton Manning (37 in March) and Tom Brady (36 in August) are too old to win the game’s ultimate prize again?
Only five of the 47 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback age 35 or older, and none were older than John Elway (38) in 1998.
Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco just recently turned 28, but he looked like the better athlete in his back-to-back road wins over these two quarterbacks who have outclassed him by a wide margin in their careers.
But it was Flacco avoiding the mistakes, making the deep throws and moving well under pressure as he completed one of the best postseasons in NFL history with a win in Super Bowl XLVII and numerous postseason records.
With Flacco’s win, 13 of the last 14 Super Bowl winners had a quarterback age 30 or younger.
Only Brad Johnson (34 in 2002) was older than 30 and his opponent was 37-year-old Rich Gannon. There has not been a Super Bowl matchup between two quarterbacks past their age-30 season ever since.
The all-time average ages of the winner (29.7) and loser (29.9) are practically the same, but notice the trend in winners getting younger and losers getting older. The table also neatly breaks down to align with changes to NFL history.
The 16-game season and illegal contact rule were put into the game in 1978. The 1990 season is the first to feature 12 teams in the playoffs, while 2002 is the debut for eight divisions and the current playoff format.
Note that this is using the age the quarterback was for that season (from Pro-Football-Reference), and not necessarily how old they were the day of the Super Bowl.
Despite what teams like the Giants and Ravens have recently done, winning the Super Bowl still is a full-season process. Every little event counts for the butterfly effect.
Flacco’s current situation speaks directly to the two biggest factors in why winning a Super Bowl is a task better fit for a young man: responsibility and compensation.
Young quarterbacks likely to have less responsibility on better teams
The 2012 Baltimore Ravens did not beat Manning and Brady to win a Super Bowl just because Flacco is the younger player. That is not part of a championship-winning formula.
What the Ravens have done is build a better team around Flacco, which means he does not have to do as much for the Ravens to have success.
Whether it is Ray Rice converting a 4th-and-29, Anquan Boldin plucking jump balls out of the air, Jacoby Jones having three touchdowns of at least 105 yards, or that old reliable Baltimore defense, Flacco had more help around him than the quarterbacks he beat on his way to the Super Bowl.
This is also why many scoff at the idea of Flacco being an elite quarterback, because he is not asked to carry the Ravens every season. Flacco has yet to throw more than 36 passes in any of his 13 playoff starts. Manning (43) and Brady (54) each exceeded that in this year’s loss to the Ravens, who had their defense back intact just in time for the playoffs.
With Manning and Brady, you have players who are kept in mind for every team-building decision the organization makes. They are expected to make the players around them better, and they take on a massive amount of responsibility to make sure the team is consistently successful, and they are the driving force behind that success.
When Brady won three Super Bowls as a young player, he was not the player he is today. The defense (and special teams early on) was the unit that led the Patriots to that success. Once the defense aged and deteriorated, the Patriots moved to a pass-happy offensive approach where the team basically lives and dies by the performance of Brady each week.
The change in philosophy has led to numerous NFL records for Brady and his offense, and the first two MVP awards of his career.
But since that point, the Patriots have not won any more championships, the offense struggles at a historic rate in the playoffs, while Bill Belichick’s defense cannot stop offenses the 2001-04 Patriots would have shut down with ease.
Manning has always been the focal point of his team’s success, and his best teams in Indianapolis were in 2005 and 2007, but neither of those teams won a playoff game. It was the year in between (2006) that earned him his only championship, because that team had the right pieces working together at the right time (the playoffs).
Rookie back Joseph Addai combined with Dominic Rhodes for a strong running game. The offensive line was at its peak. It was the last season Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne were playing together at a high level. Dallas Clark had a breakout year. Bob Sanders returned for the playoff run, and Dwight Freeney was also healthy.
Manning was physically at his best, knowing he had to get better at throwing under pressure after the tough loss to Pittsburgh. The 2006 season was his best at converting on third down and throwing under pressure and out of the pocket.
Also, keep in mind this was the season he suffered that brutal hit by Gregg Williams’ Washington defense, which may have been the starting point of his neck problems.
Even then, Manning had arguably his worst postseason that year, but he got the help he needed for a change, hence a Super Bowl ring.
When the team is better, the quarterback has less to do, which gives him a better chance at championship success. This is hardly limited to just the quarterbacks of today as well.
Brett Favre played forever, but notice he won all of his MVP awards and made both of his Super Bowl appearances by age 28. He finished empty in both categories despite playing 13 more seasons.
The dynamics change for a quarterback when he evolves into that elite veteran that is expected to carry the team. As the Green Bay Packers lost talent, including the great Reggie White, Favre was left with a lesser team around him. That is when the mistakes piled up, and he had a miserable time in the postseason in the post-Mike Holmgren era.
Father Time is also undefeated, as you can tell Favre, once renowned for his play in cold weather, would have rather been in a dome in some of those frigid games in Green Bay late in the season like the 2007 NFC Championship.
One hurdle Favre never could get past even in his early days was the Dallas Cowboys.
Troy Aikman won three Super Bowls with Dallas by the age of 29, but after he turned 30 in 1996, Aikman went 1-3 in the playoffs with two touchdowns and eight interceptions. He only made it past the Wild Card round once in his final five seasons.
What happened to this supposedly clutch champion? The talent base of the Cowboys simply deteriorated. It was so strong when Aikman was a young player, thanks in large part to the bounty secured from the infamous Herschel Walker trade.
But when Aikman had to carry a lesser team, he could not do it, thus no more playoff success for the Cowboys after that run of greatness. Dallas’ dynasty was also the last from the era without the salary cap, which was put in for the 1994 season with a now-laughable size of $34.6 million.
The team that next won multiple Super Bowls was Denver (1997-98), though one can argue they also had no salary cap, as the Broncos were fined by the league for violating cap rules.
Still, Denver won two rings to send John Elway out on top, and it was done by making Elway the secondary part of the offense. That is a real rarity, though it worked for Denver with how good Terrell Davis was in Mike Shanahan’s system.
Can you imagine Brady or Manning delegating so much to Stevan Ridley or Knowshon Moreno to carry them to a Super Bowl ring?
For one, great players have egos, and that is not to say Manning or Brady do not know when to hand the ball off, but clearly both are still playing in an offense that is built around them being the star of the show. Dan Marino played his whole career that way.
Also, neither really has a running game reliable enough to dominate the way Denver’s did, and teams who win Super Bowls now get a mediocre performance out of the running game. Just enough to keep defenses honest.
Elway is back in Denver with Manning now, and while he will want to draw on his personal experience at the end of his career, he must realize the game has changed and Manning will need a better defense, not a running game, to win another Super Bowl. He is still going to throw for over 4,000 yards each year and try to win with his offense.
There is a good reason these players get paid the most, but that is also part of the problem that prevents them from having a more championship-caliber team.
Veteran quarterbacks eat up more of the salary cap
One of the biggest stories associated with the Super Bowl is the type of contract Flacco deserves, as he is a free agent now. Obviously, Flacco is considerably better than Trent Dilfer, who the Ravens let walk after he won a Super Bowl with them.
Flacco will be a Raven, but is he worth the price tag of $20 million per year that has been suggested this week?
Sure, it is remarkable what Flacco did in this postseason, but you will be paying the player based on what he does in the future. You predict that by looking at his past, and Flacco’s past clearly says he is not worth that much money, which sounds like the record amount Brees was given last year by New Orleans.
For $40 million in 2012, Brees led the Saints to a 7-9 record. But he held all the leverage in the negotiation, and could basically name his price. If winning is all a player actually cared about, then they would never take such a ludicrous deal.
Sean Payton returning will help the Saints, but Brees’ guaranteed $60 million in the first three years makes it hard to rebuild that dreadful defense.
In his post-game interviews this week, Flacco sounds very much like a player targeting a nine-figure contract.
Should Baltimore want to repeat or even make the playoffs again next year, Flacco taking a huge piece of the pie will make it very difficult to do so.
With the heart of the team, Ray Lewis, retiring, and Ed Reed being a free agent (along with many others), this might have been the last hurrah for the Ravens, and now Flacco will hold the team at ransom.
It would be a PR nightmare to not resign the Super Bowl MVP after a record-breaking run, which is exactly why Flacco will get paid handsomely. But make no mistake, without a significant improvement in his play, this mega deal will hurt the Ravens’ ability to have long-term success.
What if Reed cannot be resigned because of the Flacco deal and he goes to rival New England to have a Rodney Harrison-sized impact on that defense? That would be disastrous for the Ravens.
Players like Manning, Brady and Brees deserve the money because of how much they mean and how much they do for their team. Rodgers is also soon going to get a deal that may dwarf all of these, especially given he’s younger and plays in the most quarterback-heavy offense in NFL history for Mike McCarthy.
Green Bay fans will be happy to lock him up for the rest of his prime, but it is almost guaranteed to hurt the improvement of the team, meaning they will just continue to rely on Rodgers to play at the highest level, while hoping to find some players in the draft.
The salary cap may keep increasing, but inflation is also driving up the price for a quarterback. We may be just a few years away from a quarterback making $25 million per year.
This is why having a younger quarterback not making such money allows a team to build up the rest of the roster. Eight of the last 12 Super Bows have been won by a quarterback in their age-27 season or younger. In most cases, that is the first contract.
Hit on some draft picks and free agents, get that quarterback enough experience, and you can quickly build a Super Bowl team. Look how quickly Jim Harbaugh got the 49ers to such a high level.
It may be a quarterback-driven league, but there is a downside to having one of the best in the salary cap era. You sacrifice other pieces of the roster because you think that quarterback can overcome it, but in the ultimate team game, those weaknesses will often be exposed by playoff competition.
Will the youth movement continue?
The younger quarterback has won 10 of the last 12 Super Bowl matchups. Before 2000, the younger quarterback was just 12-20 (.375), and that includes four wins over Buffalo’s Jim Kelly. From 1982 to 2000, Kelly was the only older quarterback to lose a Super Bowl (three were played with quarterbacks of same-age seasons), so things have really changed this century.
While the opportunity to play on deeper teams and making less money is the key, the fact is we are seeing younger quarterbacks (rookies even) continue to have more instant success in the NFL.
Some teams will start to reach even more in the draft on quarterbacks, especially the athletic type with the trendy zone-read/pistol offense. But you still have to have quality players entering the league. The 2012 draft class was special, and the 2013 class will likely not measure up at all.
Still, players like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson all give their teams a shot to win now, and any of them could be a Super Bowl team in the near future. The Seahawks were already a stop away from the NFC Championship this year.
In fact, history proves these teams may be best served to win a title in the next five years than further down the road, because of the ability to pay these quarterbacks their rookie contract while building up the rest of the team. The rookie-wage scale really helps in drafting a first-round quarterback now.
Someone like Colts’ GM Ryan Grigson may be one or two offseasons away from making the right moves that put the Colts right back into the 12-win juggernaut that is always in the mix for a Super Bowl. Luck’s rookie contract is just $22.1 million for four years.
How can you not picture a 26-year-old Luck leading the Colts into Foxboro and ending the last great shot at a Super Bowl for Brady and Belichick in the 2015 playoffs?
That can happen, and that is the dilemma players like Brady, Manning, Brees and the other active Super Bowl winners will be facing the rest of their careers. There will always be the next crop of quarterbacks coming into the league, and some of them are going to be really great players that may be playing on teams better suited to win now.
Then those quarterbacks become the new Manning’s and Rodgers’, and they start making $20M per year (or more with inflation). But then they run into the same problems of living up to the elite standard of performance by carrying the team, and the championship success dissolves.
The cycle continues, and it does not appear it will stop any time soon under the league’s current setup.
The postseason has been whittled down to a Vegas table game where anything can happen, and the regular season has little to no impact on it. There is no point in dominating the regular season anymore if your goal is to win a championship. Those teams just do not make it to February. They can barely get past the first playoff game.
In a 16-game season, your best bet to win the most games is a team with an elite quarterback. But in the playoffs where it is one-and-done and anything can happen, smart money is on the best team.
As the Giants and Ravens have shown, you do not need a veteran elite quarterback to win a Super Bowl. You just need someone who thinks they are elite, and can play at that level for one month at the end of the season.
It is easier to find that player and build the team around them than it is to find the next Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.