The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For these aging NFL star quarterbacks, this season is already getting old

The Broncos are off to a 2-3 start in Russell Wilson's first season in Denver. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

Russell Wilson, normally cloaked in self-affirmation, looks distraught right now. Aaron Rodgers, normally the most unbothered star in sports, looks annoyed. Tom Brady looks haggard, Matthew Stafford looks overwhelmed, and Matt Ryan looks done.

After roughly one-third of this ragged NFL season, several prominent quarterbacks have been left to do a lot of soul-searching. Most of them are highly productive veterans or surefire Hall of Famers attempting to handle more responsibility than they should be expected to at this stage in their careers.

Standout quarterbacks receive adulation and high salaries because they maximize a team’s strengths and conceal its flaws. The belief is the same around the league: If you have the quarterback, you always have a chance. Good ones, never mind great ones, are rare and coveted. But as saviors, they are more limited than portrayed. It’s the combination of quarterback and organizational competence that opens a Super Bowl window. As that window starts to close, a special player can prop it open for a while. But injuries turn up, roster-building mistakes add up, and the rules of a parity-based league catch up. After a while, there is only so much a quarterback can do, especially once defenses adjust to stopping him.

It’s true even for Wilson, the youngest of the bunch at 33, who convinced the Seattle Seahawks to trade him to the Denver Broncos in March because he wanted to play in a more autonomous, quarterback-driven system. But instead of amplifying his talent, the Broncos have exposed Wilson in a tenuous situation — rookie coach in over his head, new owner, new team president, more roster holes than perceived. He has been a great player for a decade, but he’s an aging, 5-foot-11 quarterback who needs to adjust his style of play for the sake of longevity. That requires the right talent around him, the right offensive strategist to orchestrate it and the right mind-set from Wilson.

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No matter how much we glorify those precious athletes who extend their careers the way Brady has, age isn’t transcended as much as it is circumvented. Masking the body’s growing limitations is just as important as accentuating what you can do. It’s a mental game combined with a physical persistence, and the equation is one that must be constantly adjusted.

At 2-3 under Nathaniel Hackett, Denver has trouble managing games, let alone the big picture with Wilson. The quarterback signed a $245 million extension last month and is now under contract through the 2028 season. Before the season, the deal felt like stability for a franchise that had cycled through bad quarterbacks since Peyton Manning retired. Now, it’s starting to seem like an inescapable burden.

“I’m looking forward to turning it around,” said Wilson, who has completed just 59.4 percent of his throws and posted an 82.8 passer rating through five games, alarmingly below his career numbers of 64.8 percent and 101.1. “Because when we do, it’s going to be a special story.”

The Denver offense ranks 18th in yards per game and has averaged just 15 points, second worst in the NFL. As an individual performer, Wilson probably will play better. The question is whether it will be enough to impact winning.

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In the NFL, a confluence of factors is making it far more difficult for quarterbacks of all ages to carry weakening rosters. A year ago, the season ended with these six quarterbacks leading the league in passer rating: Rodgers (111.9), Joe Burrow (108.3), Dak Prescott (104.2), Kirk Cousins (103.1), Wilson (103.1) and Stafford (102.9). Through five weeks, Rodgers is the only one who ranks in the top 10, and he’s 10th at 95.8, well off his MVP pace of the previous two seasons.

Burrow is 14th. Cousins is 16th, Wilson 22nd and Stafford 23rd. Prescott hasn’t been on the field since breaking his thumb in Week 1. Admittedly, I’m comparing a slow start to the sample size of an entire season, but quarterbacks who have great seasons usually start fast. Look at the struggles, then consider the causes, and there’s significant reason to think most of these quarterbacks will labor for the remainder of 2022.

Rodgers, the four-time MVP who turns 39 in December, is operating without wide receiver Davante Adams, who was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders. Rodgers agreed to a $50 million-per-season extension to stay in Green Bay, but now he’s trying to chase the second Super Bowl of his career with a green group of pass catchers. Although he is playing the same efficient style he has since Coach Matt LaFleur came to the Packers, he doesn’t have an elite top target anymore, and no wide receiver has averaged even five receptions and 60 yards so far.

After a shaky, 27-24 overtime victory against New England in Week 4, Rodgers told reporters, “This way of winning, I don’t think, is sustainable because it puts too much pressure on our defense.” Then the Packers went to London in Week 5 and lost, 27-22, to the New York Giants.

They’re 3-2, on the strength of their defense and running game. But Rodgers is right: They’re not a sustainable championship contender functioning this way. As the game in London proved, they’re too vulnerable when their defense isn’t stellar.

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The margin for error is smaller in a lot of places. Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay said Stafford “needs more help” after a 22-10 loss to Dallas dropped the reigning Super Bowl champions to 2-3. Playing behind a substandard offensive line, Stafford has been sacked 21 times and has committed 10 turnovers. Ryan, 37, seems a bad fit with his new team, Indianapolis (2-2-1).

Like Green Bay, Brady and the Buccaneers are 3-2 because of their elite defense. Brady threw for 351 yards Sunday in a 21-15 victory over Atlanta, but the postgame conversation centered on a terrible roughing-the-passer call on Atlanta defensive lineman Grady Jarrett late in the game, reinforcing the perception that the league protects Brady too much. But he’ll take that controversy over scrutiny of the Bucs, who avoided what would have been just the second three-game losing streak of Brady’s career.

“Five games in, and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Brady said. “We’re not nearly at the point of where we’re capable of being.”

Brady came out of a brief retirement for another championship chance, and as this season unfolds, he endures rumors of an eroding marriage. During media sessions, he seems burdened most of the time. For quarterbacks used to shining, there’s a lot of that going around.