With less than two minutes left in the Buffalo Bills vs. Kansas City Chiefs divisional playoff game, the Bills took the lead on a fourth-down touchdown pass from Josh Allen to Gabriel Davis. Patrick Mahomes responded with a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill. Allen then responded with another touchdown pass to Davis, leaving 13 seconds on the clock. The game, it seemed, was over.
But never count Mahomes out. Two quick passes set up a field goal to send the game into overtime. The Chiefs promptly drove the ball down the field and won on a Mahomes touchdown pass.
The Bills-Chief showdown was highly entertaining. But it also had broader significance. Gone were the days of the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry. The focus was now on the burgeoning Mahomes-Allen rivalry and competition among other young quarterbacks in the league, including the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow, who Mahomes went on to face in the AFC championship game.
The quarterbacks who dominated the first two decades of the 21st century were notably absent from the conference championship games. In 15 out of 16 seasons from 2004-19, at least one of the quarterbacks from a cohort drafted around the turn of the century that includes Peyton Manning, Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers appeared in the Super Bowl.
Aside from Brady, who recently “unretired,” the aforementioned group is now all out of the league. In their place, a new crop of young quarterbacks in their mid-20s that includes Mahomes, Allen, Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Justin Herbert are ascendant. A changing of the guard is underway. How does the new cohort compare to the previous generation of quarterbacks?
The turn-of-the-century draftees’ names sit atop of the career statistics leaderboards. Over the course of lengthy careers, they accumulated more passing attempts, completions and yards than most others. They were proven leaders who were fixtures of the postseason.
The new crop of emerging quarterbacks have certainly shown promise. They mostly seem to be on pace to match some of the earlier cohort’s achievements, with similar completion percentages, yards per attempts, yards per game and overall quarterback ratings. Mahomes stands out statistically, even from Brady and Manning, with slightly higher numbers in yards per attempt, touchdown passes per attempt, yards per game and overall quarterback rating.
The quarterbacks currently in their mid-20s are early in their careers, of course. They will need to sustain a high level of play for many more years to challenge the previous generation’s career statistical accomplishments. They are nonetheless off to an impressive start.
And in at least one way, the current crop of quarterbacks have already surpassed their elders. Jackson, Allen and Watson have more career rushing yards than each of the turn-of-the-century draftee standouts even though they have played in far fewer games. The younger cohort averages roughly twice as many yards per rushing attempt. Aside from Roethlisberger, who averaged 5.5 yards rushing per game, the turn-of-the-century draftees averaged only 2 to 3 yards rushing per game in their careers.
Today’s emerging standout quarterbacks, in contrast, average from 10 (Burrow) to over 60 (Jackson) rushing yards per game. Though those in the previous generation were skilled pocket passers (who could effectively scramble to varying degrees), today’s mid-20s quarterbacks have an added downfield rushing dimension to their game.
Matching the success that the turn-of-the-century draftee greats had in the postseason will not be easy. The group collectively won 12 Super Bowls (Brady five, the Manning brothers two apiece, Roethlisberger two and Brees one). The current young standouts have won only one so far — Mahomes in 2020. But Mahomes came close to winning a second in 2021, and Burrow came close to winning his first this year. There will be more opportunities, as the playoffs are sure to feature Mahomes and his generation of quarterbacks for years to come.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, a few caveats are in order.
First, caution should be exercised when comparing quarterbacks over time in part due to rule changes such as measures that have been put in place to better protect quarterbacks in the pocket and defenseless receivers. Though today’s defensive players may be better conditioned due to advances in sports science and medicine, they are more limited in what they can do legally on the field to prevent or slow down offensive progress.
Second, despite enhanced safety provisions, today’s quarterbacks may be particularly vulnerable given their propensity to run with the ball. Having a dual-threat quarterback can add a potent dimension to an NFL offense. But it comes with the risk of being hit outside of the pocket where roughing the passer rules do not apply, which can shorten or end a career.
Finally, average statistics for today’s quarterbacks do not yet reflect the end of their careers during which numbers can tail off. Brady’s staying power has been exceptional. He had one of the best seasons of his career this year at the age of 44. Few athletes can sustain such a high level of play into their middle ages.
The quarterbacks of the new cohort will not be the same as the turn-of-the-century draftees. They will make their own legacies. We do not yet know how they will be remembered. But if the competitive play at the level of the Bills-Chief divisional playoff game is any indication of what is to come, I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Dr. David Dreyer is a political science professor (and avid sports fan) at Lenoir-Rhyne University.
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