If you’re paying attention, this season keeps making the shift indisputably clear. Let’s start with an exciting MVP race, led by Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson with Deshaun Watson just on the outskirts of the discussion. They’re putting on dazzling displays, racking up ridiculous stats and collecting the wins necessary to win the coveted award. But more than that, the way they play and their impact on success is allowing us to have a richer conversation about their value and contributions.
The NFL MVP may always be a quarterback’s award; over the past 12 seasons, Adrian Peterson (2012) is the only non-QB to win it. But there is more nuance to this race, however, than simply asking which traditional ol’ dropback quarterbacks on good teams are playing well. To appreciate the greatness of these candidates, you can look into how their teams are built around them, how they influence the running and passing games and how they each approach the position differently. They also happen to be African American, and if you include the prolific play of Dak Prescott (leading the NFL with 3,221 passing yards), the consistent wow factor of reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and the solid first season of No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, there has never been this many black quarterbacks receiving this much acclaim at once. The social significance matters, but it’s even bigger than race. No matter the color of the quarterback’s skin, the stodgy NFL is adapting better to the evolution of its athletes and realizing that there should be no singular way to play the most challenging position in sports.
On the other hand, the steady quarterbacking greats, many of whom have defied Father Time for so long, have endured their challenges in 2019. Ben Roethlisberger succumbed to an elbow injury two games into the season. Drew Brees, another quarterback who never gets hurt, missed five games with a thumb injury. Eli Manning lost his starting job to Daniel Jones. With Philip Rivers struggling, there’s the thought that the Los Angeles Chargers might move on from their 37-year-old star, who is a free agent at season’s end. Even Tom Brady has been human of late — which will probably result in him winning playoff games and calling out the haters again come January — but to cover our bases, we must remind you that he is 42 years old just in case he is truly starting to act 42.
A year ago, we witnessed a wonderful year for quarterbacks all around, a remarkably convergent season in which young, middle-aged and old passers lit up scoreboards and showed us just about every intriguing facet of modern and classic offense. It wasn’t meant to last multiple seasons, though. The fireworks of 2018 — which included the dynamic debut of Mahomes, the prologue of Jackson’s NFL story, 16 QBs who posted passer ratings of at least 95, 12 who threw for at least 4,000 yards and nine who reached at least 30 touchdowns — provided the most compelling evidence that a horde of talent was available to replenish the league.
And this has been the year of separation. The best of that horde has emerged in unmistakable fashion. The best are ready to elevate the game. And the persistent legends? Well, they’re old now. Many of them are still capable of greatness, but they’re not the story. They’re better off pacing themselves than trying to carry the game.
The point isn’t that Brady, Brees and Co. are done. In fact, it’s more likely that those quarterbacks, both in their 40s, meet in the Super Bowl than any other QB combination. But if the New England Patriots are to play for a seventh championship, it figures to be because their elite defense has taken pressure off Brady and the offense. And if the New Orleans Saints advance all the way to Miami, it figures to be because they have the league’s most complete team, which they showed in going 5-0 without Brees.
The point is that the new era is here. And it has staying power, even though it’s doubtful that many of these quarterbacks — more mobile, more susceptible to injury — will enjoy the same longevity of their predecessors. And this movement, after years of NFL resistance, could advance the sport in a way Brady, Brees and Peyton Manning couldn’t.
Consider that, since 2003, there has only been one season in which the NFL all-pro team didn’t include Brady, Brees, Aaron Rodgers or the retired Manning as one of its honorees. That lone season was 2015, when Cam Newton (MVP) made the first team and Carson Palmer (insert astonished face emoji) was on the second. If you add Brett Favre to that list, you can go back 20 years and declare that, since 1999, there has only been one season in which one of those five quarterbacks wasn’t on the all-pro team.
Keep that in mind when pondering the historical significance of this QB quintet. The league was blessed to have such crossover among legends who rank as elite even among the all-time elite. You’re talking about five of the top 10 or 12 quarterbacks ever to play the game, all in a cluster, all of whom played or are playing for as long as possible.
But if the 2019 season ended today, Wilson and Jackson would be the all-pro representatives at quarterback. Watson would be the next in line. Wilson, who turns 31 next week, is the only of the three even in his prime. This is a big deal. The ageless don’t own the path anymore.
One final stat to chew on: From 2003 to 2017, 10 combined MVP awards went to Manning (five times), Brady (three) and Rodgers (two). In that time, there have been just two instances in which multiple seasons passed without one winning the award. Mahomes got it last year. Another first-timer is poised to win it this year. And these aren’t one-hit wonders. We have arrived at a watershed moment.
“It’s great to be in the conversation,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, when I come into this season, I’m trying to be the best player in the National Football League every time I step on the field, every time I get a chance to play. . . . What helps is finding a way to win in tough moments and everything else, and I look forward to that opportunity just to play one game at a time, one moment at a time, and just embrace it all. It’s a great thing.
“I think about where I come from. Being a guy from Richmond, Virginia, where a lot of people told me I wouldn’t be able to do it, and just being able to play in the league, it means a lot just to be able to play and have this opportunity to play the game.”
Despite having doubters because of his 5-foot-11 frame, Wilson has been a star since his rookie season. He won a Super Bowl in his second year. He is a six-time Pro Bowl honoree, and he has an unfathomable record (83-38-1) so far in his career. But it took him eight seasons to have this prominent a seat at the elite table, and while he certainly has improved over the years, it was mostly because he was blocked by those everlasting greats.
But there’s so much value in having to fight for it. Work your way up this list, and you’re legit. There’s little need to worry about the game during this quarterback transition. The execution of this handoff has been extraordinarily smooth.