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NFL teams are wasting all of their top players’ primes

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How did this trend go unnoticed for so long, and what can be done to fix it?

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been doing a ton of research to prepare for the upcoming NFL season, and while I generally focus on numbers and analytics, I also take in a great deal of scouting and team news to familiarize myself with every last detail of every team. What I’m about to tell you has gone unnoticed for so long it’s almost unbelievable, but it is a grave threat to our ability to enjoy professional football, to the athletes involved, and to the viability of the sport itself. I suspect that it has flown under the radar mainly because a fan of a single team would never notice it. If you’re a Packer fan, there is no reason you would pick up on this league-wide trend. Local media would be similarly situated, and the national guys, well, they’re too busy deciding who is elite and who isn’t. Only someone scouring all of the various local media outlets could pick up on this. My good friend @AKSchaaf first discovered this alarming trend, and the two of us dug deep, leaving no stone unturned in our search for the truth.

You see, the problem is that NFL teams are wasting primes. Not just some of them. All of them. All of the teams are wasting all of the primes. Don’t believe me?

It all started with this piece in the Guardian by DJ Gallo:

Rodgers is playing like a quarterback in his prime. The question is: Why are the Packers wasting his prime?

But it doesn’t end there. This was just the tip of the iceberg. Additional research revealed that the Patriots have also wasted Tom Brady’s prime:

What stings even more if you’re a Patriots fan is the fact that they have now essentially wasted ten years of Brady’s prime. At 35, Brady is at the back-end of his career, and his numbers have been extraordinarily ordinary for several years now in the playoffs. Including the infamous Super Bowl loss to the Giants at the end of the 2007 season, a loss that prevented the Pats from going down as the best team ever, Brady has been very un-Brady like in four of his last five playoff performances.

If Brady and Rodgers, two sure-fire Hall of Famers - one of which has won multiple Super Bowls as part of the NFL’s most recent dynasty - could be affected, how deep did this go? As it turns out, it went deeper than we ever could have imagined. NFL front offices started freely admitting they’ve wasted the primes of first ballot Hall of Famers Here’s Jim Irsay on the Peyton Manning Colts:

"I think that the disappointment of not winning more than one [Super Bowl] with some of the things we did -- out of 11 [playoff] chances, seven times out after the first playoff game -- that’s really disappointing and we had some great teams," Irsay said, via the Associated Press

Even though Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger has two rings, his prime is anything but safe:

The Steelers are in danger of squandering the last prime years of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger:

Andrew Luck has not even entered his prime, and already, his prime has been dashed by an NFL that just isn’t trying hard enough.

Worse still, is the fact that Indianapolis handed head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson - the two men responsible for wasting Luck's rookie contract years - extensions that contractually tie them to the star quarterback through his prime.

And the disease has spread to other positions, as hometown hero and left tackle Joe Thomas has seen his prime destroyed:

At 31 years old and coming to the end of his prime, it appears Cleveland has wasted the elite seasons of a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer.

The stories kept on coming. Drew Brees’ prime fared no better than Brady’s:

But that has proved to be a tall order in recent years, as they have been wasting the back half of quarterback Drew Brees’ prime.

Cam Newton, fresh off a Super Bowl appearance, isn’t safe:

The culture of losing in Carolina, poor coaching, and the litany of bad decisions by Hurney have led to very sad possibility: Cam Newton becoming a wasted “franchise” quarterback.

Some of this was not terribly surprising. It’s not a huge shock that some of the second tier of quarterbacks like the Falcons’ Matty “Ice” Ryan, have had their primes wasted.

Give credit to quarterback Matt Ryan, who's in his prime and putting up career-best numbers. However, are the 2-3 Falcons squandering Ryan's offensive abilities?

And Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers’ prime has certainly taken a beating.

As the prime years of his career wind down, Rivers finds himself surrounded by less and less talent.

Perhaps no one’s prime has been wasted as carelessly as Dallas Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo’s. Jerry Jones’ constant meddling and porous defenses have squandered more prime years than almost any other front office.

They haven’t putting the surrounding cast around Romo to win it and I think they’ve wasted the prime of his career.

If the NFL doesn’t up its game soon, more primes will go to waste and fans will lose interest. In our research, we learned that 30 years ago, it was considered adequate for a quarterback to win one Super Bowl in his career. The Dan Marinos and Jim Kellys of the world would have been perfectly happy with a single ring, but prime inflation has been consistent, and even mediocre talents with two Super Bowl victories cannot escape the prime-wasting epidemic.

There will also be shame in wasting another year of (Eli) Manning's prime, no small thing given the Giants' investment in a new offensive coordinator and Eli-friendly system designed to reduce his interceptions and keep him upright.

Baseball has suffered these issues a bit, but MLB has also taken some measures to combat the problem.

If the NFL continues to waste the primes of its great quarterbacks, it’s hard to imagine how members of teams’ front offices will keep their jobs. The primes of several big name quarterbacks are not being realized, and the lack of Big Moves to provide the support that they need is appalling. The numbers back this up.

The 2011 NFL playoffs featured 12 teams. Four of those teams were quarterbacked by certain hall of famers (the Patriots, Steelers, Packers, and Saints). Several other teams were led by good quarterbacks or borderline Hall of Famers (the Giants and Falcons). Yet, despite the appearance of 6 quarterbacks with excellent primes, only Eli Manning’s prime was not wasted. When five of six primes are being wasted every season, your league has a huge problem.

The situation only got worse in 2012, when 5 potential Hall of Famers, plus Matt Ryan, and a pre-injury Robert Griffin III all qualified for the playoffs. All seven excellent quarterbacks saw the prime-less Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco play in the Super Bowl. 7 primes expended, for nothing.

Solving this issue is no easy task. NFL teams could sign more good players, but whether it is due to the high injury rate or the concussion epidemic, good players are in short supply. For example, the Seattle Seahawks employ tackle J’Marcus Webb, the Vikings still have Trae Waynes on the roster, and the Chicago Bears actually start Jay Cutler at quarterback. Without additional good players in the league, more and more primes will go to waste, and the league may have to look to adding additional Super Bowls to preserve the primes they do have. One thing is certain: this is Roger Goodell’s greatest challenge since slightly deflated balls.

The NFL is in its prime, but all of its players are wasting their individual primes - is the NFL therefore, wasting its own prime?

NFL continues to grow in popularity, despite doomsday predictions

It turns out that an average of 49.7 million Americans watched the AFC and NFC championship games last Sunday, an 8 percent increase over last year. We are now a football nation, plain and simple, and maybe there’s no turning back.