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Turning Back the Clock: Aging QB Performances

Old is such a relative word.

A car you bought 12 years ago is definitely on the old end of the spectrum, but a child who was born 12 years ago isn’t old by any means. Being a 33 year old guy, I don’t view myself as being old by any stretch of the imagination; however, if I was a professional athlete, I could very easily be past my prime or maybe even out of my sport all together. This article is the first of a three part series that will look at exactly what is “old” for various positions. The goal is to better assist you in buying and selling elite level talent before the drop off truly begins so that you can maximize your value.

In order to accomplish this, I will simply be looking back at five elite level talents at a position (quarterbacks in this case), and tracking how they produced as they aged. Again, these are elite level talents – guys who were in the top three of their position several times.

This isn’t going to help you figure out how long someone like Kevin Kolb or Alex Smith will be productive. However, this is meant to assist you in predicting elite guys like Drew Brees and Tom Brady, so you know what to expect as they get up there in years. Hopefully if you know what has happened in the past, it will help you to make informed buying and selling choices.

When I asked some of the other DLF writers what their prediction was, the general consensus was that there would be a drop off for quarterbacks right around 35 years old. In this article, I will look at the careers of five elite quarterbacks (Dan Marino, John Elway, Steve Young, Daunte Culpepper, and Brett Favre) to see if that is indeed the case. One quick note, all ages mentioned are their age at the start of the NFL season.

Dan Marino, QB Miami Dolphins

When you look back at Marino’s statistics, the first thing that jumps out to you is just how impressive his numbers were for a time when passing wasn’t what it is today. Not only that, but he did some amazing things when he was pretty young. If you thought that Cam Newton and Sam Bradford had impressive seasons when they were 22, you need to look at Marino’s. He set then records for passing yards (5,084) and touchdowns (48) when he was only 22! His second best year came at the age of 24, followed by his age 32 season.

Marino didn’t age all that well, though.

After he turned 32, he didn’t have a single season where he posted over 225 fantasy points by standard scoring, which is right about the cutoff between QB1s and QB2s. He was the odd ball of the group that I looked at in that he never really produced at an elite level once he was outside of his 20s (other than his age 32 season). He continued in the league until he was 37 years old, but never recaptured the dominance of his 20s. His 30s were still decent and didn’t show any signs of a steady decline, they just weren’t as good as his 20s. During his 30s, he was more of a high end QB2 instead of the elite QB1 he was in his 20s.

John Elway, QB Denver Broncos

As I looked at Elway’s numbers over the years, I was a little surprised at the trends that I saw. He started slow like most quarterbacks, not posting solid numbers until he turned 25. He stayed solid for a few years before hitting a mid-career slump.

Kind of like fine wine, Elway then became better with age!

His best years came during his age 37, 35, 36, and 33 seasons, respectively. While there was a significant drop in stats during his age 38 season (he missed 3 games with injury) his per game production was right on par with his best seasons. He retired after his age 38 season, never really showing a strong drop off in his stats over his last few years.

Steve Young, QB San Francisco 49ers

Most people know how Young stepped in after Joe Montana and continued the winning ways of the 49ers dynasty. What a lot of people don’t realize, or remember, is that Young was actually drafted by Tampa Bay and was so terrible over his first few years that the Bucs earned the first overall pick and took a quarterback (Vinny Testaverde) before trading Young to the 49ers.

It wasn’t until his age 29 season that he actually started significant games for the 49ers, and his age 30 season was his first full season as a starter. From then on, Young never looked back. He posted elite numbers from his age 30 season all the way through his age 36 season. There were a few missed games from injuries (mostly concussions), but when he was playing he was elite. During his age 37 season, all of that came to an end though as he suffered a major concussion during week three and never played another down.

Daunte Culpepper, QB Minnesota Vikings

Before Cam Newton, there was Daunte Culpepper. He exploded onto the scene with the Vikings in 2000 with nearly 4,000 passing yards, 500 rushing yards, 33 passing touchdowns, and another seven rushing touchdowns. The league hadn’t seen anything like him. He was big, fast, strong, could pass and run. Sound familiar?

Culpepper posted elite numbers from his age 23 season through his age 27 season, with his record setting age 27 season being the best (4,700+ passing yards, 400+ rushing, 41 total TDs).  What many thought was going to be a record breaking and potential hall of fame career abruptly came to a halt during his age 28 season when he suffered a major knee injury (ACL, MCL, PCL tears). After that, he bounced around to three other teams, but never regained what he once had since he had lost the ability to use his legs like he did before.

Brett Favre, QB Green Bay Packers (plus Jets and Vikings)

When discussing aging quarterbacks and how they played throughout their careers, no analysis would be complete without discussing the old Silver Fox himself, Brett Favre.  While he definitely made some questionable choices through his career with the constant retirement talk towards the end, the sexting scandal, choosing to play for the Jets (sorry Jets fans), and nearly being run out of the league due to a drinking problem right after he was drafted by Atlanta, he was one of the elite for nearly two decades.

His four best years were in his mid-twenties, ages 24-27, with his age 25 season being the best. During his age 39 season, he wasn’t far behind those numbers. In fact, he was just a few points off for the whole season! Favre put up QB1 numbers for many of his years during his 30s including the seasons where he was 31, 32, 33, 34, 37, and 39. His football career ended after his age 40 season, the first season in which he ever missed a game due to injury, but he produced almost his entire career.

What does all of this mean?

After looking at guys like Elway and Favre, I’m pretty comfortable saying quarterbacks that are elite level talents into their early and middle 30s seem to have the ability to remain elite for as long as they are playing the game, regardless of age. This is a very good sign for guys like Tom Brady and Drew Brees. As long as they are still playing, I’m calling them a QB1 regardless of age.

The one thing that seems to be able to stop an elite talent at the quarterback position isn’t age, but instead a major injury. That makes me a little concerned about Peyton Manning (neck), but there is still some hope for him. The injury issue seems to be more true for the mobile quarterbacks like Young and Culpepper, than it is for your pocket passers like Manning, Brady (torn ACL a few years back), and Brees (shoulder) who seem to be capable of coming back from major injuries. Young had major concussion issues (word of caution for Aaron Rodgers) that caused his career to come to a rather sudden end, though he did make it all the way until he was 36. For Culpepper, it was the knee injury that he couldn’t make it back from, which is something to keep in mind if someone like Newton ever blows out his knee.

Overall, elite quarterbacks seem to be able to keep it up into their late 30s without much of a drop off in production from where they were in their early 30s. Feel free to hang onto them and expect solid production all the way through their careers. Hope that they don’t get injured, especially the mobile quarterbacks, because it is the only thing that will stop them. Then the only real question you need to figure out is when they will retire so you can trade them the year before!

Good luck!

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9 years ago

Good piece, Jacob. Injuries were a major hinderence to Dan Marino as well. The achilles tendon rupture occurred at age 32. He was never the same after that. He also had knee surgery almost every offseason. He no longer ha the legs to be elite. Your conclusions are 100% dead on. Elite QBs stay elite unless a major injury occurs in their 30s.

Eric MacKenzie
9 years ago

So you’re using a sample size of five and making a call on all elite QBs because two guys fit a profile you seemingly constructed on the fly? Needs more research for this to tell us anything.

For instance, Montana’s last elite season was at 34. Moon was strong until 39 and put up a solid season at 41. Cunningham was solid until he was 27 and then disappeared until he was 35 with a couple blips at 29 and 31. Everett was only good until 32 and he wasn’t particularly mobile. Boomer was really only solid until he turned 29. Fouts didn’t really get going until 27 and then was useless after he turned 32.

The list goes on and on and I’m not seeing much of a pattern. Interesting idea, not the greatest execution.

Eric MacKenzie
Reply to  Jacob Feldman
9 years ago

Fair enough, though I’m not really sure what injury you’re referring to with Everett. He played two solid seasons in New Orleans and then was pretty much useless in his third season which sent him to San Diego and ended his career. Marino also played pretty solid at age 33 after the rupture, and if you’re talking consistent problems with the knees, that has to red flag Peyton. I’m pretty comfortable with Brees and largely agree with you there. My concern with Brady is more about his drive to play into his late thirties than production falling off, so I agree with you there as well. Peyton worries me.

I disagree with your assessment of Cunningham. 88-90 & 98 were elite seasons in my view. 87 was elite production over 12 games. If you include Culpepper and his four and a partial season, I don’t see how you can exclude Cunningham.

Eric MacKenzie
Reply to  Jacob Feldman
9 years ago

In fairness, I mainly remember Cunningham for his dominance in Super Tecmo Bowl. I didn’t realize how good he was until trying to forecast Cam Newton against other monile QBs and looking it up.

Kevin Sproles
Reply to  Jacob Feldman
9 years ago

Cunningham tore ACL in game one of 1991 season

Toby Miller
9 years ago

Coaching changes also seem to be a factor in some of these.
Elway’s big seasons came late because Mike Shanahan became head coach after years of the conservative approach under Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips.
Marino’s numbers went south partly because Jimmie Johnson wanted to throw less than Shula.
Favre was great under Holmgren, McCarthy and Childress, but not so great under Ray Rhodes and Mike Sherman.

Amoo
9 years ago

Looking at his career stats, I find it very hard to put Elway in the “elite” group. And this comes to me as very big surprise. A pedestrian 56.9% completion rate for his career (only 3 times did he surpass 60%). Only one 4,000+ yard passing season. And more often than not, he put up less than 20 passing TDs. I realize this was a different era, but looking at the other players you mentioned in this article, Elway was at least a tier behind them, much like Aikman.

Amoo
Reply to  Jacob Feldman
9 years ago

Top 6 consistency is very strong, but it took a lot of patience to get those numbers from him. For a comparison to today’s league, I have Romo on my dynasty team, who is usually right around QB #6 or #7. While I certainly can’t complain about his numbers, he really has only had 1 elite season, and is generally a tier or 2 below the elite level guys.

Amoo
Reply to  Jacob Feldman
9 years ago

Would Phillip Rivers be a better comparison?

Anthony
9 years ago

Hey man, I have a question about a trade. I’m in a league where we still haven’t dropped the players from last year yet. We each have 16 players but keep 8. I have a trade offer for Eli Manning straight up trade for reggie bush. I have cam, he had tebow last year and really needs my qb? Should I pull the trigger?

Johnny Vegas
9 years ago

Elway was never drafted as a elite fantasy QB even in his mid to late 30’s.
I recall drafting 2 RBs and 3 WRs and Elway was still a fall back at QB for those who subscribe to drafting a QB late..
Elway was never in Peyton or Bradys league even in a era that ran to set up the pass..
Not even close..
At least Randell and Culpepper had years that they were drafted in the first round..
I don’t recall Elway ever being drafted before round 5 and much later most years..

9 years ago

good article. gives a guy a good feeling for the older, “wiser” qb. its a position that needs brains as well as athletic ability. remember george allen’s philosophy???? “age brings wisdom, wisdom makes less mistakes, perfection wins championships.” take the old guys. oh, and a side note…..given the success that troy aikman has had in the booth. given his appeal for the camera audience as well, imagine brady’s appeal for tv networks when he does call it quits. he’ll have one hell of a career as a analist/game anouncer if he wants.

Johnny Vegas
9 years ago

Elway was never a QB 1 at any point of his career!
And plenty of QBs of that era were early RD picks..
Young, Culpepper, Montana , Marino and Cunningham all were first RD picks in the same era.
Clearly you were not playing fantasy during Elways era?

SJ
9 years ago

So what does for A.Rodgers and Vick? Their both top tier guys (at least Vick was just a year ago) that are mobile qbs – don’t forget Rodgers is always at the top for qb rushing each yr?

Is this Vicks last hurrah? Maybe the last time to get elite value for him?

What about Rodgers? I can’t see starting the selling block early in a couple yrs with him hitting 30. He’s just too good.

SJ
9 years ago

*So what does this mean

Johnny Vegas
9 years ago

I’ll give you Elway being a QB1 in a 10 man league but he was never a elite fantasy QB.
Shouldn’t be compared to Brady, Brees or Payton.

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