Identifying trends in sports is a sport itself. So the addition of several young starting NFL quarterbacks over the past three years suggests we might be witnessing the start of a renaissance at the position, or at least seeing the sport transitioning from the old to new.
Part of that process will be on display Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium when 21-year-old Josh Rosen will lead the Cardinals against 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Mahomes, in his second season, is a contender for offensive MVP. He and three other young quarterbacks — Deshaun Watson of the Texans, Mitchell Trubisky of the Bears and Jared Goff of the Rams — are with teams that lead their divisions.
And last season, Carson Wentz was excelling for the Eagles before suffering torn knee ligaments in early December.
The NFL appears to be in good hands whenever Tom Brady (41), Drew Brees (39) and Ben Roethlisberger (36) retire. But let’s top short of saying any of the current youngsters will be that good.
“We’ll wait and see in five years from now to know exactly how all these guys ended up,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Talented guys come out a lot, but it’s a very hard position to play. There’s only 32 in the world, and there’s probably only 15 that people are really saying is ‘that guy.’”
Mahomes is making it look easy. Not only is he talented, but he also has a coach, Andy Reid, who is astute at identifying and developing quarterbacks. And, Mahomes is surrounded by speed and talent.
That’s not the case for Rosen, and the three other quarterbacks taken in the first round this year. The Cardinals, Browns (Baker Mayfield), Jets (Sam Darnold) and Bills (Josh Allen), are a combined 9-25-1. All four teams are at least three games under .500.
Not all opportunities are equal, but there is one thing every young quarterback drafted high does for any organization.
“The opportunity to develop a young guy gives the team hope, right?” Reid said. “That’s a great thing, and it’s no different than what we’re sitting with and some of these other teams with these young quarterbacks are sitting with. It’s a neat deal. I think it’s great for the NFL. It’s great for the fans.”
Contributing to that hope is that young quarterbacks are better prepared to play early in their careers than their predecessors. A smart coach, such as Reid, can take advantage of that by incorporating into their offenses what a young quarterback likely has done since high school, such as the run-pass option and using every inch of the field, both horizontally and vertically.
“There’s an obvious next wave of talent that has to come in,” said former Cardinals quarterback Rich Bartel, who now coaches both quarterbacks and their coaches. “There’s a natural progression.”
So is this the next great wave of quarterbacks, the ones who will replace Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees and others?
Like Shanahan, Bartel said it’s too early to say that.
“History will only tell us that,” he said. “When I look at this last batch — the Bradys, the Favres, the Breeses, they were a bridge between old school football and today’s new brand of football.
“Now, you have the new-age NFL, and I think this age will stick. The last generation remembers what it was like to get your head chopped off and take the shot below the knees and not be flagged for it. To have to fight for the roughing-the-passer call. That’s not the case anymore.
“You’ve seen Brady and Brees and those guys evolve from that, and I think it’s given them an extra breath in their careers to extend themselves into their last 30s and 40s.”
Partly because of rule changes that favor quarterbacks and the passing game, quarterbacks have never had it this easy in the NFL. It’s remains a difficult job, but a young quarterback has a better chance of success early in his career than his predecessor 20 years ago.
Last year, the completion percentage on run-pass option plays was 78 percent, according to profootballfocus.com.
Prior to this season, only seven times in NFL history had a quarterback playing a full season completed at least 70 percent of his passes, according to profootballreference.com.
Five are currently doing it.
The game has changed and so has the way quarterbacks have developed. Most grew up passing the ball, from Pop Warner through college. Many had private coaches and for years have trained specifically to play the position.
“We just worked out; they trained,” said Cardinals offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who was in the NFL for 10 years. “I think the talent level has risen in every sport. Guys start training as kids now. They’re eating right and doing all the things they need to do to become special, unique athletes.”
Young quarterbacks entering the NFL are better equipped to handle defenses than ever.
“It’s not like they’re running the wishbone or something,” Reid said. “They can actually get in, and they know the Cover 2 and the (Cover) 4 and what all these things are. They’ve seen the blitz here and there. They’re not in awe over throwing the football and trying to figure out, ‘How am I going to do this thing?’ College football’s in a different place. High school football’s in a different place.”
Through training and practice, kids today develop good habits at an early age. Their technical skill is better, Bartel said, but that doesn’t mean there is a deeper pool of talent than there was decades ago.
“In today’s rules, Marino would shred, Favre would shred,” Bartel said. “Elway was every bit the athlete that exists today. There isn’t a quarterback today who was as good an athlete as he was.”
It’s impossible to predict with certainty that a few of these young quarterbacks will become the next Favre, Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Brees or Roethlisberger.
Are they as tough? As smart? As durable? As competitive?
Success can be fleeting, as we’ve seen with the Cowboys and Dak Prescott. In 2016, Prescott’s rookie year, the Cowboys finished 13-3 and Prescott passed for 23 touchdowns and had just four passes intercepted.
He was the next big thing.
Since then, the Cowboys are 12-12. In his last 16 games, Prescott has thrown for 16 touchdowns and had 14 passes intercepted.
What sets the great ones apart is the ability to perform season after season. Luck is involved, sure, but so are other things that can’t be measured.
“It’s not just temporary success,” Shanahan said. “In order to do it year-in and year-out, you’ve got to be a special type of athlete, but you’ve also got to be a special type of person.”