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In 1998, Randall Cunningham may have been the best quarterback in football.  Cunningham was 35.4 years old as of September 1st of that season. If it wasn’t Cunningham, it was probably Vinny Testaverde (34.8 years old as of 9/1/98), or  Steve Young (36.9), or Chris Chandler (32.9), or John Elway (38.2).  Troy Aikman (31.8) and Doug Flutie (35.9) also had great seasons, three other quarterbacks — Dan Marino (37.0),  Steve Beuerlein (33.5), and Rich Gannon (32.7) — finished in the top 20 in passing yards.

That means 10 of the top 20 quarterbacks in passing yards in 1998 were 31.8 years old or older as of September 1st of that year.    Thirteen years later, things were very different, as 8 of the top 16 passers in 2011 by passing yards were under 28 years old as of September 1st, with four being under 25: Cam Newton (22.3), Matthew Stafford (23.6), Josh Freeman (23.6), Andy Dalton (23.8), Mark Sanchez (24.8), Matt Ryan (26.3), Joe Flacco (26.6), and Aaron Rodgers (27.7).

I calculated the average age of quarterbacks in the NFL for each season since 1950, using the methodology described here. The short version: calculate what percentage of league-wide passing yards was produced by each player, calculate that player’s age as of September 1st of that season, and that calculate the league-wide age of all passers, weighted by their percentage of league passing yards. The results below:

So is the average age of quarterback play rising in the NFL? Yes and no. It actually declined last season from 2015, and the average age is still lower than it was at multiple points in the 1990s.  But the average age has also risen noticeably since 2011, although not at unprecedented levels.

Last year, 14 passers topped 4,000 yards, with half being over 31 years old. Those seven were Drew Brees (37.6), Carson Palmer (36.7), Eli Manning (35.7), Philip Rivers (34.7), Aaron Rodgers (32.8), Joe Flacco (31.6), and Matt Ryan (31.3). In addition, Andy Dalton (28.8), Matthew Stafford (28.6), Kirk Cousins (28.0), Russell Wilson (27.8), Andrew Luck (27.0), and Jameis Winston (22.7) all did, too. The first list ignores Tom Brady (39.1), Ben Roethlisberger (34.5), and Alex Smith (32.3), but the second list excludes young talent such as Derek Carr (25.4), Trevor Siemian (23.7), Carson Wentz (23.7), Dak Prescott (23.1), and Marcus Mariota (22.8).

So how do you answer the question of is quarterback play getting older in the NFL?  I’d say yes and no.  Guys like Brady, Brees, Palmer, Roethlisberger, Manning, and Rivers have been around forever, and Rodgers, Flacco, and Ryan are all squarely in the older category, too.  That definitely is a lot of older talent: for reference, in 2011, only two of the top 13 passers by passing yards were over 32, and those two were Brady and Brees who are still playing! And it’s worth noting that while I picked 2011 because it represented the low point since 1990, it’s worth considering that 2011 was also the year of the new CBA (which, perhaps, has impacted these results – what do you think?) But there’s a lot of young talent in the NFL, too, and the NFL actually got younger last season.  And while the short-term trend may be towards older quarterbacks, that’s not really a long-term trend when you see what happened in the ’90s.  So if you think quarterbacks are old now because of X, Y, and Z, you should think through how that logic applies to quarterback age in 1996 or 1998, too.

  • sacramento gold miners

    It’s very unclear to me if we’re going to have the number of HOF QBs moving forward. As I said in the earlier post about Matthew Stafford, it was a great signing, but he’s not in HOF territory yet. After the over age 30 crop of QBs leave the league, I don’t know how many of the younger QBs will really emerge as HOF players. Russell Wilson played well in winning a SB, but it wasn’t mostly on him in the blowout win over Denver.

    The CBA has played a factor in the development of these young QBs, some of whom left college too early, like Christian Hackenberg. I continue to advocate for a developmental league.

    • Deacon Drake

      I think that we are moving into the age of prolific compilers (Flacco, Stafford, Bradford, Tannehill… maybe Alex Smith, possibly Luck next year if he bought Sam Bradford’s shoulder off eBay)… basically guys that would have been phased out (or knocked out) 20 years ago, but the rules allow for them to stay healthy and put up volume. Volume make it look like a good investment at 20% of the cap to justify the GM’s actions, never mind trying to win games.

      Brady, Brees, and the class of 2004 (and Palmer, different story) will all likely be out of the league the next 3 years, leaving Rodgers (if he wants), Newton, Ryan, Wilson, and Dalton as the only true franchise QBs that have proven they can do anything. Surely one of the Carr, Winston, or Mariota group will make it (Wentz and Goff are likely trash, a bit early on Prescott).

      Makes it more perplexing that Cousins and Kaepernick can’t get contracts in their prime.

      Meanwhile, look at the trash on league-wide depth charts: http://www.ourlads.com/nfldepthcharts/depthchartpos/QB

      • This is an interesting point. I think you have GMs looking at the stats of some of the guys you mentioned and think they have a potential franchise guy on there hands, but they aren’t accounting for how much, dare I say, EASIER it is to play quarterback nowadays. Sam Bradford’s 2016 traditional stat line looks basically like the stat line that won Steve McNair the co-MVP award just 14 years ago, but if you watch the games, he’s not a very effective quarterback. I’m not even sure how to assess those middle QBs anymore statistically. It’s easy to spot who’s elite and who’s terrible, but everyone in between? Good luck. Is Andy Dalton really that much better than Bradford or Ryan Tannehill? How much better is Cam Newton than any of those? I think GMs get a little fooled by the stats and stick to the status quo for fear of being wrong and becoming the Jets or Texans or Browns that can’t find anyone not terrible to be their QB for years and years.

      • Wolverine

        I’m kind of perplexed at how you’re including Dalton as a “true franchise QB”. He’s had the probably one of the best supporting casts in the league for years, and can’t win a playoff game to save his life. I’m not saying he stinks, but he’s had one very good year (2015), but the rest is kind of just “meh”. He got exposed when the Bengals offense was hit with injuries in 2016. Since the Bengals don’t seem interested in re-signing their best offensive linemen, I’m a bit skeptical about how he will fare this season and the coming seasons.

        Conversely, it’s equally perplexing that you left Andrew Luck off the “franchise QB” list. Have you seen the Colt’s roster from 2012-2017? He’s the opposite of Dalton in that he has very little help. It’s nothing short of stunning that the Colts had three straight 11-5 years given their overall talent level…and it was Luck carrying them. And unlike Dalton, he’s won 3 playoff games. Yes, his play did drop off in 2015-16, as he started to take too many hits…..and took too many risks trying to overcome the shortcomings of his offensive teammates, and make up for the all of the points that his terrible defense allowed. If he ever gets healthy, and if the new Colts GM can actually build a team around him…look out.

        Otherwise, I agree with the overall point, and that passing statistics have become artificially inflated, and you actually have to watch the games to figure who’s good, not the end of season counting stats or passer rating, like you could in the old days (Blake Bortle’s 2015 is a prime example).

  • macatawami

    I think the reason for the trend toward older QBs is obvious: the NFL has become much more protective of QB safety in the last 20 years. Now QBs can’t be hit in the head or lower legs, and roughing the passer is called more strictly than ever before (no more two-steps-and-take-a-shot hits). And teams are using shotgun spread offenses more than ever, which lets the QB see the rush better and get rid of the ball faster.

    QB depends more on intelligence and experience and less on athleticism than virtually any other position, so it makes sense that older guys would have an advantage, if they can stay healthy. And now they can.

  • Richie

    Just out of curiosity, I wanted to break it up a different way. I took every QB-season over the last 20 season who had: at least 320 attempts and an ANY/A+ of 100 or greater. (Basically, this is all the starters who were above average.) There were 299 qualifying seasons.

    I then grouped the seasons into buckets for each season: Up to age 25, age 26-31 and age 32+ (This is based on the PFR definition of “age”) https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8ba39bbc29a288a07913c7bc139426424d352a3cfc2a38596df73da632856051.png

    • Thanks, Richie. What do you take away from this?

      • Richie

        haha. Nothing. I was curious if looking at medians, grouping ages, and only looking at “above average” QB’s might tell a different story. But it doesn’t seem to.

        I just thought I’d share my inconclusive result.

  • Frank Yi

    Haven’t we seen great passers come in clusters? Through the 90’s, you had Elway, Aikman, Young, Marino, Kelly, Testaverde, etc, all of whom were products of 80’s draft classes. But then by the end of the decade, all (except Vinnie) were retired. The 90’s didn’t produce any great QB draft classes until the end of the decade (Manning, Brady. McNabb, Culpepper). Then you had Eli, Big Ben, Rivers, Rodgers, Smith in the mid 2000’s. The end of the 2000s produced Ryan, Flacco and Stafford. Great QBs age better than any other position, so naturally, when you get a cluster of them entering the league around the same time, they’ll stick around for a while and age the position. Manning’s retirement clearly led the dropoff.

    I expect that the aging will rebound after the retirements of Brees and Brady (and possibly the 04 class), leaving Rodgers and Smith as the elder statesmen for a bit. 2008-12 produced a fairly solid group, Ryan, Flacco, Stafford, Bradford, Cam, Dalton, Luck, and WIlson. These guys aren’t going anywhere for a while, so we should see the position age again. The aging will probably then be dependent on the next wave, Carr, Bortles (probably not), Jameis, Mariotta, Goff, Wentz, Paxton (probably not) and Dak. If those guys continue to do well or overcome struggles, we could see another strong sustained period of QB aging, but if few of them work out, the position could drop it’s average age real quick

  • Mark Growcott

    Another contributing factor that stands out for 2011 albeit a small one was the absence of Peyton Manning due to injury when otherwise another veteran QB would have featured.

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