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.