First I heard it on the radio...
"...Peyton Manning can't hold up for another season."
Then, while making the rounds in the newsroom. "So are the older quarterbacks due for a letdown this season?" asked NFL.com Fantasy Editor Michael Fabiano.
Fabs was inquiring specifically about Manning and Tom Brady. A lot of people are these days, considering that both their clubs are dependent on, shall we say, a non-erosion of their franchise quarterbacks' skill set. And, obviously, if you are one of the 35 million or so people playing fantasy this year, you might have a vested interest as well.
So here's the deal fans, radio hosts, and fantasy owners: there is no substantive data to suggest these guys are going down, at least not when you consider modern NFL history.
By modern, let's just take a swing and say from the 1970 merger on. In fact, there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence that paints a pretty straightforward picture of what the 37- and 35-year old QBs will be doing. Look for both to have big seasons.
Each are Hall of Fame shoo-ins, so we should only hold up Hall of Fame-level guys as comparable examples, players who excelled from 35 (Brady's age) to 37 (Manning). Of the quarterbacks who've made the Hall of Fame that played the majority of their career since 1970 -- or are locks like Kurt Warner -- almost all have had multiple prolific seasons past age 35. In fact, the guys who didn't had retired by 35.
Warren Moon set a completions record (404) at Brady's age. Take a more recent example: Brett Favre, who threw for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns at age 35 in 2004. The former Packer is an appropriate QB to cite in regards to Brady, as he had to turn to a couple of receivers that year who were yet to have much as far as skins on the wall is concerned. Donald Driver had one 1,000-yard season in five years up to that point, and was coming off a 621-yard campaign. Javon Walker was an unknown commodity. Both ended up being monsters in '04, combining for nearly 2,600 yards and over 20 touchdowns ... thanks to Favre.
Meanwhile, Manning's boss, John Elway, was awesome at 35 as well. Elway tossed 26 touchdowns en route to a 3,970-yard campaign in 1995 -- his second-highest total ever. Let me tell you, 4,000 then was equivalent to about 5,000 now, given the rules changes. Like Brady will have to do this year, Elway accomplished his season with a great tight end (Shannon Sharpe), and his best receiver being an on-the-downside-of-his-career Anthony Miller. Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey were nobodies at that point.
We can go back farther, if you'd like ... as in, back to the '70s. Roger Staubach led the NFC in passer rating in at age 35, finished third in the NFL in touchdown passes, and even ran for three scores. At 36 -- which Brady will turn this year -- Staubach led the NFL in passing.
In 1979, when Staubach was the same age Manning is now, the former Cowboys ace set career-highs in passing yards, touchdowns, while leading the NFL in passing with a 92.3 passer rating. That was the equivalent of well over a 100 passer rating these days, given the liberties defensive backs could take while the ball was in the air as well as the unnecessary roughness allowed to pass rushers. Quarterbacks got punished 34 years ago, and yet Staubach played his guts out at 37 years old.
He's far from alone. One year prior to Staubach's career season in '79, Fran Tarkenton came back from significant injuries to lead the NFL in completions, attempts, and yards at age 38! The only downside (the old minus two in fantasy) was that he inexplicably threw a lot of picks. It should be noted, though, that when Tark was Brady's ripe old age of 35, all he did was lead the league in attempts, completions and touchdown passes ... and win an NFL MVP. Point is, age wasn't a factor. The man was productive.
No quarterback was ever more productive than Dan Marino. Like so many quarterbacks that played at a premium level, as Marino's body wore down with an Achilles tendon injury and knee issues, as well as failing arm strength, the game slowed down. Why? Because of a brain that could process the equivalent of what a decade and a half of playing pro football teaches a player with the highest level of talent. Essentially, the decision-making is faster than ever.
It's like playing Madden. Once you've played the games for years, you just know what receivers will be open on what routes without having to think about it. You're on autopilot, and call plays with a handful of Cool Ranch Doritos like it's nothing.
Speaking of playcalling, it should be noted that Marino's numbers did go down, but only because Jimmy Johnson was insistent on running the football (and playing defense.) Even still, at 36, Marino finished third in the NFL in passing yards. At 37 he was seventh in touchdowns and passing yards.
Similar to Marino, Brett Favre's body finally started showing signs of wear and tear in 2008, when he was 39. Yet, in 2009, despite moving around like a calcified sleestak, the Vikings quarterback threw for 33 touchdowns, only seven picks, and set a career high with a passer rating of 107.2 -- the only 100 passer rating of his career.
So what does this all mean? Well, that no matter how unathletic Manning looks right now, he can still get the job done. His arm won't allow 50-yard throws. No matter, he'll get it done with touch, like a 37-year old Joe Montana did with the Chiefs in 1993, leading them to their first-ever AFC Championship despite only starting 11 games.
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On that note, injury is always a concern. But going over the Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks, only a few had major bouts with injury late in their career. For every Montana who missed some time, there's a Kurt Warner who started every game in 2008 at 37. He also threw for 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns that season.
Injuries should actually be just as much a concern for the young quarterbacks who are getting all the publicity now. Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and third-year vet Cam Newton all figure to go high in fantasy drafts this year, yet the slow-as-Danny Devito Manning could not only outscore them all, but lead his Broncos club to a better record. Part of that is because as much as those kids run with the football, they expose themselves to injury. Ask Robert Griffin III.
So whoever's saying these crusty Hall of Famers-to-be might slow down, tap the brakes. Hall of Fame quarterbacks of similar ilk to Manning and Brady in the modern era have mostly shown that only one thing truly slows them down in their late 30s: retirement.