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History teaches NFL fans not to rely on old quarterbacks

Aside from a massive outlier or two, quarterbacks rarely play into their 40s,. Those that do generally don’t play well or stay healthy.

NFL: DEC 01 Packers at Giants Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I don’t think most people realize how rare it is for a quarterback to play into his 40s. Much of this is driven by Tom Brady, the outlier among outliers, the best quarterback of all time, with the most championships, who will turn 46 in August. The fact of the matter is that no one else is Tom Brady and comparing any other player to Tom Brady is silly. For old-timers, there’s also George Blanda, who famously played through his age 48 season, but Blanda never attempted over 100 passes in a season after his age 39 season, serving mostly as a backup.

NFL fans also, I think, collectively tend to think of older quarterbacks as 40, or near 40, which causes people to misremember the specific ages of older quarterbacks. Kurt Warner seemed old to me for almost all of his post-Rams career from 2004-2009. He retired after his age 38 season. Peyton Manning seemed positively ancient when he retired, having lost most of his arm strength. He retired after his age 39 season and never made it to 40. Philip Rivers retired after his age 39 season, Tony Romo after his age 36 season, Eli Manning after 38, and Ben Roethlisberger after 39. I’m actually surprised Carson Palmer made it to 38. Good for him.

While modern training, nutrition, and medicine allows athletes to perform at high levels longer than ever before, football is a tough game and it’s hard for those in their late 30s to get hit repeatedly and keep popping back up. The fact of the matter is that it’s exceedingly rare for any quarterback to continue to play at a high level into their 40s. It almost NEVER happens. In fact, almost no one plays quarterback into their 40s at all.

In the history of the NFL, only 11 quarterbacks have thrown over 100 passes in a season where they turned 40 or older: Tom Brady (6 times), Vinny Testaverde (4), Warren Moon (3), Drew Brees (2), Brett Favre (2), Sonny Jurgensen (1), Doug Flutie (1), Matt Hasselbeck (1), Len Dawson (1), Vince Evans (1), and Charlie Conerly (1). Again, outside of Tom Brady, most of the players on this this list battled availability and ineffectiveness in their post-40 seasons.

In fact, only Brady and Favre managed to get through an entire season without missing a game. Vince Evans only started 3 games, Conerly and Jurgensen only 4, Dawson and Flutie only 5, and Hasselbeck, just 8. Even Drew Brees, who owns the single best age-40 season of all time (2019) per Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) at 8.33, missed 5 games.

In 2022, among QBs who attempted at least 200 passes, the league average ANY/A was right around 6.0, with Washington’s Taylor Heinicke (6.07) representing the exact middle between Tua (8.37) and Justin Fields (4.63). The only quarterbacks in NFL History to post an age-40 season with at least 200 attempts and at least a 6.0 ANY/A are Brady (of course), Brees, and Favre. Warren Moon’s 1997 season for the Seahawks was also pretty good, just missing the threshold. He completed 59.3% of his passes for 3678 yards and 25 TDs, but also threw 16 picks.

Most quarterbacks don’t make it to 40. When they do, they get hurt a lot. When they aren’t hurt, they’re often bad.

2023 will be Aaron Rodgers’ age 40 season.

Aaron Rodgers’ Age 40 Season

The Packers face a big decision with Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is coming off a poor season for him, in which he was 20th in ANY/A (5.95) and 16th in DVOA. Basically, he was average, which isn’t good enough when you’re getting paid like an MVP. There are some mitigating factors, including an inexperienced supporting cast and a pesky thumb injury, but there’s a good chance that the thumb injury is more of a harbinger than an excuse. Athletes getting older is best explained as “time between injuries.” You will still see occasional brilliance from once-great athletes as they age, but all of the nagging injuries hit harder and more frequently. Speed and reaction times wane, exposing players to more hits. You hurt more, and it hurts your play.

I mention these facts about Rodgers on twitter with some regularity, and the most frequent response I receive is that Rodgers is a better athlete than Tom Brady and may very well last longer for this reason. This is a fair point in a vacuum, but Brady is, again, a huge outlier and pretty much every quarterback is a better athlete than Brady, a fact that hasn’t helped any of them. The other thing Brady really has going for him is frequency of hits. 2022 was Brady’s 23rd season and he has taken 565 sacks (for 3576 yards) over his career. Rodgers has played for 18 seasons and started for 15 of them, and over his career he has suffered 530 sacks for 3596 yards. Sacks don’t even begin to account for the total number of hits a player takes, but it’s clear based on the way he plays the game that Rodgers takes more. A lot more.

Indeed, Rodgers is has even been sacked more than Brett Favre (19 seasons as a starter, 525 sacks for 3487 yards), a player who I basically picture being concussed whenever I think of him. Brady’s career sack% is 4.5. Favre’s is 4.9. Rodgers’ is a healthy 6.5. In the Next Gen Stats era, Brady has almost always been in the top five in their fastest time to throw metric, as was Drew Brees near the end of his career. Both generally take about 2.6 seconds to get the ball out. Rodgers is a different kind of player, happy to hunt big plays and taking closer to 2.8 seconds to get the ball out. Rodgers, to his credit, has been quicker in the LaFleur era (around 2.7 on average), but he’s still slower than his longer-lived contemporaries most of the time.

I’m also not sure that Rodgers’ athleticism will age gracefully because I think it’s a big part of how he plays the game. Brady and Brees are surgeons from the pocket and barely lost anything when their mobility declined. Rodgers, on the other hand, was at his best when he could move and buy time in the pocket. As his athletic skills decline, I think it’s an open question as to whether he has the soft skills to compensate. He has struggled with the simple throws of the RPO game this season, he struggles with easy throws to the flat, and while he can still drop the occasional dime in the deep game, he lacks consistency as a pure pocket passer. When you get old, you need to improve as a pure pocket passer, not decline.

Rodgers is also clearly hurting as a runner, where he failed to amass 100 yards on the ground for the first time in his career as a starter and averaged a career-low 2.8 yards per carry. The Packers used to be able to count on Rodgers for a few easy conversions with his legs. As recently as 2019, in Matt LaFleur’s first season, he was 3rd in QB rushing DVOA, picking his spots and gaining 183 yards on 46 carries. In 2022 he ranked 28th in rushing DVOA, 13.6% below average.

Injuries, speed, and a downward trajectory in passing efficiency are all alarming red flags for next season. Rodgers’ contract, and its bizarre structure that becomes more punitive as time goes on, will be crushing next year whether he stays or goes. Given all of the signs on Rodgers in addition to the history of 40-year-old quarterbacks in the league, the team should really look to trade him. If they can get a few first rounders back it would be well worth it and even if some team can coax one more decent season out of the former MVP, it will likely be his last.

Looking even farther out to those older than 40, there are only 5 quarterbacks in NFL history to throw over 200 passes in their age 41 season or later: Brady, Brees, Favre, Moon, and Testaverde. Of those, only Brees and Brady managed an above average ANY/A. Only Brady did so while playing more than 12 games.

Keeping Rodgers is playing with fire. It’s time to move on.