January 5, 2019 was a great day for fans of Andrew Luck, but also for NFL prognosticators, as Luck led the Colts to a playoff win over the Texans, a team that had solid coaching and one of the young talents that seemed to have usurped Luck as the future of the league. Finally, the player once most emblematic of the generation of quarterback that the golden era players at the position would hand the baton to, was truly back, a comeback story for the ages. And yet from there on, that story would be crumpled up and thrown in the garbage like nothing more than the random musings of some second-rate novelist, reifying the very doubts that those in the NFL thought Luck’s season had dispelled. What happened less than nine months later was something that would’ve shocked the NFL’s audience then, not to mention how incomprehensible it would’ve been to NFL fans when Luck was drafted in 2012.
To back up a bit, Andrew Luck as an idea came out of the learned experiences of the 2000’s NFL. The NFL in the 2000’s was marked by franchise quarterbacks that seemed to be larger than life talents, vitally important to their teams, and who willed their teams to victory, sometimes almost single-handedly. Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, the Manning brothers, a bit later Aaron Rodgers. These were the guardians of the sport. You could either have the privilege of watching them do their magic for your teams or look on in envy and hope to find your own answer to them. And when the 2010’s rolled around, the first in the new generation’s answers was supposed to be Andrew Luck. The man that soon enough, would surpass them as they entered their natural decline and who would mark the beginning of the new age of NFL quarterbacks. Or so was thought.
Instead, something strange has happened, a confluence of events that seems almost like a rip in the space time continuum of the NFL. For as unbelievable as it is, it can’t be denied that the reality of the NFL at the end of the 2010’s, is that the current elite quarterbacks include none other than Drew Brees and Tom Brady. And the only player who has stepped away from the game, an old soul whose time has passed- is the very player that was supposed to replace them- Andrew Luck, who tearfully announced his retirement on August 25th.
But Luck is just the tip of the iceberg. Six quarterbacks drafted in the 2000’s who started for one team for at least five seasons won a Super Bowl starting for that team; Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Drew Brees. If you count Peyton Manning, who was drafted in the same ten year period as the other players mentioned and played mostly in the 2000’s, that number goes to seven. Yet, of the quarterbacks drafted in the 2010’s who meet the requirement of years started for a team, just one, Russell Wilson, started a Super Bowl win, and this was on the backs of one of the league’s most legendary defenses. As well, the number was already up to 3 (4 counting Peyton) at this point in the 2000’s, but it has remained at 1 in the 2010’s, without a clear end in sight, especially for those drafted in the early 2010’s. Many of the early 2010’s draftees that were supposed to be the new faces of the league have fallen short. Newton, Luck, Carr, Bidgewater, Winston, Mariota-and certainly all the quarterbacks from that terrible 2013 class- never won a Super Bowl, with many of their careers seemingly up in the air. This creates an environment where going into the coming NFL season, those considered contenders are some of the teams with the same old generation of quarterbacks, along with some more recent additions to the NFL’s quarterback class, like Carson Wentz and Patrick Mahomes, the latter of whom began to put the cracks into Luck’s redemption story with a 31-13 beatdown of the Colts a week after the Texans game. Of the top Vegas odds for Super Bowl 54 per CBS Sports, none of the top 11 teams are quarterbacked by draftees from the early 2010’s. Five are quarterbacked by draftees from the 2000’s and six are quarterbacked by late 2010’s draftees. It isn’t until 15th on the list, that a quarterback who has started at least five seasons, drafted in the early 2010’s has their team appear, and it’s Russell Wilson, the same QB who’s already won a Super Bowl. The first one to have their team appear who meets these qualifications and hasn’t already won a title is Marcus Mariota, whose Titans appear at 19. This success gap has left a void in the NFL, one impossible to ignore. This leads to an inevitable conclusion. One that says, maybe the old notions about franchise quarterbacks were incorrect. Maybe the generation of the 2000’s was an unreplicable fluke.
So what is the cause of all this? A period of poor drafting? This is certainly part of the story. But it might go deeper than that. There were certainly great, or at least good, talents from the drafts of the early 2010’s. The aforementioned, Newton, Carr, Luck, Bridgewater, Winston and Mariota, as well as someone like Kirk Cousins, are all players that, if not all being able claim the status of elite quarterbacks, could at least all claim to be at the level of Eli Manning or Joe Flacco. In truth, the story of the NFL’s beleaguered middle generation of quarterbacks is more generally the story of the decline of the franchise quarterback. The old idea that you could plug in one man under center and have a decent shot at a Super Bowl just by virtue of his presence, is one that seems to be less tangible than ever. Newton and Luck were brought down by poor coaching and talent around them. The same could be said to a lesser extent for Mariota and Carr. Throw in how poor offensive lines can derail careers with injuries specifically, and you get the ingredients for the morass of the NFL’s middle quarterback generation. Indeed, some of the younger quarterbacks with the best prospects are those whose teams’ successes have been as much about the team around them as their own talents. Philadelphia, the team with the fifth best Super Bowl odds, built a team good enough to be taken to the promised land by their backup, Nick Foles, when their “franchise” quarterback, Wentz, went down. Yet, they were comfortable enough with the team to let the quarterback who had won them the Super Bowl leave, not worrying about losing a potential “franchise” QB. Similarly, the man drafted in front of Wentz in 2016, Jared Goff, was not highly regarded after his rookie season. But with an improved roster and much improved coaching, he became part of a prolific offense that made the Super Bowl and led to a team that is fourth in the Super Bowl odds heading into this season. In this way, maybe we see the 2000’s generation as an exception, not something to put too much stock into when building a team for the future. This could possibly explain how these players seem to be staving off the natural decline expected from most quarterbacks. So instead of watching great talents will so-so teams and incompetent coaches to glory, we now see teams realizing they must do what they can to build a complete team, not just draft a great quarterback. And the great tragedy of the middle generation of quarterbacks will always be that the league didn’t see this until it was too late for them.