Quarterbacks in the NFL playoffs are getting younger. Here’s why their age is important
By Ben Morse, CNN
As British two-tone band The Specials once sang: “You’ve done too much, much too young.”
That brings us to the ages — 27, 26, 24 and 23 — of the starting quarterbacks this weekend in the NFL conference championship round of the playoffs.
There’s no 45-year-old Tom Brady. There’s no 39-year-old Aaron Rodgers. Even Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson — both aged 34 — have found no home this year in the postseason’s latter stages.
As the playoffs have developed, the starting quarterbacks have gotten younger; perhaps signposting a seismic changing of the guard and a shift in teams’ priorities of the sport’s most heralded position.
Patrick Mahomes is the elder statesmen of the last four signal-callers left standing this season at 27. The youngest is Brock Purdy, who is enjoying a charmed rookie season at the tender age of 23.
A combination of good coaching, maturity beyond their years and the benefits of rookie contracts have enabled teams to thrive with inexperienced quarterbacks. In Purdy’s case, injuries opened the way for the 2022 ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ to showcase his talents as a quarterback for the the San Francisco 49ers.
The quartet of teams left in the 2022 NFL season — the Kansas City Chiefs, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco 49ers — all rank in the top seven scoring offenses in the league, with the Chiefs holding the top position.
Being a high-scoring offense is usually largely in part due to having a successful quarterback. For example, the six quarterbacks selected to the Pro Bowl this year play on teams ranked in the top nine scoring offenses in the NFL.
So with these remaining four teams just two wins away from etching their names in Super Bowl history and why are coaches having more success with the up-and-coming stars of the future instead of seasoned veterans?
The joys of youth
When 24-year-old Jalen Hurts of the Eagles and Purdy of the 49ers take to the field for the NFC Championship game, it will be the lowest combined age for a pair of starting quarterbacks ever in a conference championship game.
Mahomes was drafted by the Chiefs in 2017. Since then, he has been named the league’s Most Valuable Player, won the Super Bowl and claimed the Super Bowl MVP trophy, as well as helping transform the team into one of the league’s premier offensive juggernauts.
Nonetheless, the 2022 season was just his sixth year in the league. By his sixth season, Brady — widely considered to be the greatest NFL player of all time — had won three Super Bowl rings. Four more were to follow as well as three NFL MVP accolades for a quarterback who has spent half in his life in the NFL.
Ahead of Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Bengals, Mahomes revealed that Brady had reached out to him after the Chiefs’ 27-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I talked to Tom [Brady] a little bit, we have a good relationship now, he gives me a lot of advice, he gives me some advice to help me, I mean why would you not want to learn from the GOAT man,” Mahomes told reporters.
When the Chiefs won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2019 season, Mahomes was still on a four-year, $16.42 million rookie deal he signed after being drafted.
The rookie contract, if said quarterback develops into a star in those first few years in the league, provides the team who drafted him with the flexibility to mold their roster in ways they aren’t afforded once a player like Mahomes signs their first big deal after becoming eligible for it.
Wiith Mahomes on smaller deal, it allowed the Chiefs to sign a host of free agents to bolster their team, notably Tyrann Mathieu and Bashaud Breeland, both of whom made significant impacts during the 2020 postseason run, including the latter’s Super Bowl interception. In the second quarter, Breeland swooped to pick off an errant Jimmy Garoppolo pass.
Although Mahomes subsequently signed a 10-year extension worth a reported $503 million with $477 million in guarantee mechanisms — the most lucrative contract in sports history — after that season, his brilliance has helped keep the Chiefs at the top of the league.
The other three quarterbacks in the playoffs are still playing on their rookie deals, freeing up plenty of cap space for their respective franchises.
According to Spotrac, the 26-year-old Burrow earns $9.1 million a year, Hurts $1.5 million and Purdy $934,252. Both Hurts and Purdy earn less per year than the Chiefs’ backup quarterback, Chad Henne.
While in the past having a young quarterback may have come with a ceiling on a team’s potential due to inexperience or naivety, recent years perhaps suggest that coaches now prefer to load up on veteran talent around young quarterbacks.
For the Eagles and Hurts in particular, who is in just his second season as the starter, Philly general manager Howie Roseman has been able to sign a slew of free agents and trade for star talent — AJ Brown, Haason Reddick, James Bradberry, CJ Gardner-Johnson and Robert Quinn to name but a few.
The addition of those extra players and Hurts’ evolution as a quarterback have propelled Philadelphia to a joint-league-best record.
The 49ers’ choice quarterback was more fluid. Purdy only got the job after second-year quarterback Trey Lance and Garoppolo suffered injuries. Being the final pick of the 2022 draft has meant his team is stacked with experienced players, including the midseason acquisition of Christian McCaffrey from the Carolina Panthers.
For the Bengals, in what is likely to be Burrow’s final year on his rookie deal before a huge extension — having reached the Super Bowl last season only to lose to the Los Angeles Rams — it is a final opportunity to win a ring before having to reshuffle the whole roster to accommodate a contract for its star quarterback.
These are fleeting windows of success — and often need innovative coaching staffs and front offices to capitalize on them — but the flexibility provided on rookie deals has become a gamechanger for those teams to take advantage of.
All four of the remaining quarterbacks display poise and authority that belie their relative experience in the league, running smooth and explosive offenses to guide their teams into the latter stages of the NFL postseason.
Even the four quarterbacks knocked out of the divisional round of the playoffs — 29-year-old Dak Prescott, 26-year-old Josh Allen, 25-year-old Daniel Jones and 23-year-old Trevor Lawrence — are on the younger side of the position group.
But the necessity of having creative and flexible coaches for young quarterbacks cannot be understated.
There are no better examples than those of Purdy and Lawrence.
Purdy — 2022’s ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ — has blossomed into an efficient starter despite no previous NFL experience and no realistic chance of playing at the beginning of the year under the tutelage of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who is often credited with producing some of the league’s most explosive offenses.
Lawrence floundered in his rookie year under Urban Meyer in a calamity-ridden season for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But under an experienced, Super Bowl-winning head coach in Doug Peterson, the 2021 No. 1 overall pick has shown why he was billed as a generational talent coming out of college.
Mahomes, Hurts, Burrow and Purdy are all examples of what good, offensive-minded coaches can do to help young quarterbacks, providing the guidance for them to thrive as they took their first steps in the league.
Ready for the big stage
The readiness of quarterbacks fresh out of college to deal with the demands of the NFL has been something that has steadily improved in recent years.
Gone are the days of Aaron Rodgers sitting behind Brett Favre at the Green Bay Packers for three seasons to learn the ropes.
Rookie quarterbacks are now expected to start and be productive from their first year.
Purdy is a prime example of not being flustered despite being a rookie and he has yet to lose a game during his time at the helm.
Colleges utilizing elements of offensive plays used in the NFL has also helped make the transition easier for some, allowing rookies and young players to impress when they are given a chance.
Historically, quarterbacks often don’t reach their peak until their late 20s or early 30s, but Mahomes, Purdy, Hurts and Burrow have shown that they’ve already done an awful lot despite their youth.
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