Quarterbacks are putting up numbers like never before. Assuming the big numbers are a direct result of modern rule changes that promote offense, the Breakout Live teams debates which of today’s successful quarterbacks would have struggled decades ago under the old rules.
Senior News & Fantasy Editor
Until this season, I would’ve said Cam Newton. Completion percentage numbers were much lower in the days before the rules changes. Newton is a career 59.1% passer, but Norv has him up over 67% this season.
Aaron Rodgers may not have been very successful decades ago due to the playground approach he operates under. This season, with his knee hurting and causing him to become more of a pocket passer like the old days, he’s posting career lows in completion percentage. Only the 4 rookies (Mayfield, Darnold, Rosen and Allen), as well as C.J. Beathard and Blake Bortles, have a lower completion percentage than Rodgers this season.
Of course, there was Fran Tarkenton, who ran around like nobody else but he was a career 57% passer and an outlier for his era. The quarterbacks with accuracy issues who don’t play from the pocket would really struggle back in those days.
I think the first question you have to ask is, are the high-powered offenses exclusively a result of the rule changes? The answer is no. Unlike in decades past, quarterbacks today are running pro-style offenses as early as reserve high school football. Long gone are the days when a high percentage of high school and college quarterbacks were running the wishbone down the throats of defenses, when major programs like Nebraska and Oklahoma could win national titles without really throwing the ball.
Today, college junior and senior quarterbacks already have years of experience throwing the football in pro sets. So with a far bigger talent pool for the NFL to draw from, there are simply that many more qualified quarterbacks entering the NFL and ready to run a franchise, as evidenced by the sheer number of rookie or second-year quarterbacks that have successfully helmed an NFL team the last decade or so.
But let’s not diminish the role of rule changes that protect quarterbacks and make it harder to cover receivers. More than just elevating mediocre quarterbacks, the rising tide has lifted all ships. It’s simply much easier to complete a pass or get a pass interference called, so as a result the play-calling has greatly increased passing and reduced the running game, padding quarterback stats across the board.
But to answer the question more directly, I’m fairly certain Brady, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Luck, Brees and Rivers would have excelled in any era. Most of the other guys I’m not so sure about, although their years of throwing the football prior to entering the NFL would have given them a fighting chance.
George “Cannonball” West
You don’t have to look far for a quarterback who is flourishing under today’s offense-enhancing rules, but would have suffered (and actually did suffer) when he faced the rules of the past. That quarterback just beat the undefeated Rams with said rule changes, an innovative head coach, and a modern offensive system. He is of course, Drew Brees.
But Drew Brees was not always the future Hall of Fame, Super Bowl Champion, 5,000 yard/30+ TD passing a season dynamo whom you see now epically performing in Sean Payton’s watershed passing offense in New Orleans. In 2003, Drew was an undersized QB, having average to poor arm strength, playing for the San Diego Chargers and facing defenses that were allowed to pummel the quarterback with physical play and jam up receivers at the line of scrimmage. In 2003, in his 3rd NFL season, Brees was 2-9 as a starter, with a completion percentage of 57.6, throwing only 11 touchdowns against 15 picks. That season, Drew was benched for Doug Flutie, and his disappointing play inspired the Chargers to draft his replacement early in the 2004 Draft in Philip Rivers. At this point, Brees’ career was at the crossroads of becoming a back-up or an outright bust, mainly because his talent set did not give him the possibility to succeed vs. old school NFL defensive size and the physicality that they were allowed to use to terrorize QBs and their WRs.
Fortunately for Brees, his small stature worked in his favor, as he suffered a savage shoulder injury at the end of the 2005 season. With the labrum of his throwing shoulder destroyed, Brees was released by the Chargers and his career seemed over, but a revolutionary surgical technique by the revered Dr. James Andrews repaired Brees’ shoulder to good as new. And fate then paired Drew with a new head coach, Sean Payton, who was a genius at creating a passing offense to exploit pass defenses under the newly installed rules.
The rest is history, with the pass rush now regulated, and receivers allowed to run free. Running an offense that was perfect for him, Brees won a Super Bowl and became the most prolific QB in the history of the NFL, but he would not have done that in the system of the past. Brees needed an inventive system that had been Paytoned by a genius, under a new set of rules, to rise from failure to success.
Everybody loves offense and the NFL knows it. I’m certainly a big fan of great offense and tons of points, but there is a part of me that feels like the integrity of game has been compromised for the sake of one side of the ball.
I’m not big on hypotheticals, but for the sake of argument, let’s say the rule changes that have benefitted today’s QBs the most are related to downfield coverage and roughing the passer. These changes have a direct effect on two types of players: guys who struggle with accuracy and who take a lot of hits. Two QBs who fall into both categories are Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson. Newton is completing 67.3% of his throws (nearly 6% higher than his previous career-best.), Watson 64.9%. Both would be closer to high 50s percentage-wise back in the day. Similarly, both guys take shots. Most of it has to do with their ability to run, but Watson has already dealt with some injuries and that would only be exacerbated if he took additional hits in the pocket. Another guy I could see having issues is the slightly-built Jared Goff, just out of pure speculation that he’d have a tougher time staying healthy if D-Linemen could tee off like they wanted to.
Guys like Brady, Brees and Rodgers are transcendent talents. They’d be great in any era. But most QBs today are built in the mold of the new rules, so they’ll be able to have success, we as fans get to enjoy the weekly shootouts, and no one will care about what they would have done (or not done) in previous decades.