The modern NFL has always been a quarterback-driven league, but never more so than now. Passing numbers have never been better, and so have the quarterbacks.
“In this day and age, I expect quarterbacks to do well,” former Giants great Phil Simms said. “They’re trained better, they have more at their disposal and it’s easier now. The coaches are smarter, they give [the quarterbacks] more options, and they’re not holding the ball for five seconds.”
And there is a tinge of sadness for the 63-year-old Simms, who played in an era when rules weren’t nearly as quarterback-friendly as they are now.
“Do you think it’s a little too late for me?” he quipped.
It may be for Simms, but not for today’s quarterbacks. And not just the greats such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. Many younger quarterbacks have achieved remarkable success at an early age, with the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Deshaun Watson, Baker Mayfield and Carson Wentz off to impressive starts. And “middle-aged” quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton are in their prime.
With this week’s draft about to inject even more quarterback talent, the NFL finds itself in a golden age at the position. And there’s no reason to believe that Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, Daniel Jones, Ryan Finley and Will Grier can’t elevate the position even further once they begin their pro careers.
“It’s a quarterback league, for sure,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. “What we’ve seen is teams that covet quarterbacks in general, whether that’s draft picks or not. You see players every year, where teams trade up to take these quarterbacks in the draft.”
This year’s rookie quarterbacks will join a league where the passing game has never been more productive.
In 2018, 24 starting quarterbacks had a rating above 90.0 and nine were better than 100.0. Thirty starters had better than a 60 completion percentage, 20 had at least 20 touchdown passes and 21 had at least 3,000 yards passing.
Go back 20 years and the numbers were far more muted. In 1998, only six quarterbacks had a rating of 90.0 or above, and just four were 100.0 or better. Just seven quarterbacks had at least a 60 completion percentage, and 13 had 20 or more touchdown passes, while just 11 had 3,000 or more passing yards.
The evolution of the quarterback continues in an upward trajectory, and the league’s frequent rules tweaks that often benefit offenses only adds to the improvement. That is likely to continue as the combination of quarterback talent and league-wide emphasis on creating more offense makes for a more spectacular aerial display.
“You’re always evolving [as a quarterback],” said Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, a former college quarterback. “You’re never a finished product. People don’t understand, like when some of the quarterbacks retired – when Jim Kelly and Dan Marino retired – I guarantee you there was still something that they felt like they didn’t grasp, or they wished they were a little better at.
“Being a quarterback and being a football player is just like being a human,” he said. “You’re always evolving, you’re always trying to get better, and if you’re not, you’re staying the same and someone else is evolving and you’re going to get passed up or you’re never going to reach your full potential.”
Kitchens himself has benefited from the quarterback play of Mayfield, who enjoyed a terrific rookie season once he took over for Tyrod Taylor. When it came time to finding a permanent replacement for Hue Jackson, who was fired midway through last season, it was Kitchens – and not interim head coach Gregg Williams – who got the full-time gig.
He’s not alone. Coaches who specialize in quarterback development have dominated the head coach hiring cycles the last several years. That includes Giants coach Pat Shurmur, a former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Jets coach Adam Gase, the former Dolphins’ head coach who had previously worked with Peyton Manning.
Gase has the benefit of working with a franchise-caliber quarterback in Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in last year’s draft. And Shurmur may get a highly-regarded rookie quarterback by the end of the week, as the Giants are giving serious consideration to drafting a quarterback as an eventual replacement for Eli Manning.
“Everybody is trying to make sure that they have that [quarterback] position solidified,” Gase said. “It’s not an easy thing to find.”
But it’s not as hard as it was before. Even young quarterbacks who have struggled early offer potential for the future. Case in point: Bucs first-year coach Bruce Arians likes what he sees from Jameis Winston, who has been inconsistent through his first four seasons in Tampa.
“I can honestly say I’ve never walked into a situation with skill players of this magnitude, quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, and running backs that are there already,” Arians said.
This from a coach who has worked with teams led by Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger. Arians isn’t about to put Winston in a class with those two, but the fact that he sees hope from an underachieving offense points to the possibilities that lie ahead.
With more help on the way in the draft, it looks like the NFL’s most important position is as healthy as ever. And with plenty of room to grow.