No Country for Old Men: Older, Franchise Quarterbacks in the NFL Have to Hang it Up

Cam Newton and the New England Patriots were one point away from tying the Buffalo Bills at ten points each until kicker Nick Folk missed the extra point. After that kick, the Bills played the Patriots like a playoff team and bludgeoned them.

Newton was pulled in the middle of the third quarter, throwing for 34 yards and sacked twice for 20 yards. That’s a finish of +14 yards for the reigning 2015 league MVP. Newton hasn’t looked right since he caught COVID-19, and it’s fair to ask has that affected his play.

All of this is important because Newton said at the beginning of December that he isn’t done playing and has a lot to prove. Anyone who’s watched Newton since he contracted COVID, knows he has nothing left to prove. Minus the upcoming Sunday game, Newton came back to start 14 games and was critical to the Patriots not being worse than the New York Jets. His foot injuries seem to have taken a toll, and he’s a shell of that 2015 greatness.

Bill defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson (90, white) sacks Cam Newton (1, blue) in the first half of Week 16’s Monday Night game. This was one of two times Newton was sacked.

None of this is to antagonize him for clinging onto his starting spot. In fact, it’s the opposite. There are at least a half dozen starting quarterbacks holding teams back from playing at their best, and it’s time for them to retire or step down. Think about it this way; if this was a politician who served a state/country over 25 years, citizens would want a fresh face. It’s the same with sports, the only difference is sports wins championships.

Starting quarterbacks who need to retire

  • Drew Brees – Probably 95% of football fans (outside of Louisiana) agree with this one. Brees is not the same player he was even five years ago. There are valid reasons why Brees should retire. To start, he’s had issues throwing deep passes consistently. Early this season, New Orleans had the fewest yards per pass (just over five yards). It’s not much better heading into 2021. The final clue was the number of broken ribs Brees sustained mid-November against the San Francisco 49ers. With close to a dozen ribs out of place and a punctured lung, he came back a month later to play. Brees is an icon in New Orleans and a relic of the culture change he and coach Sean Payton brought to a losing franchise. That’s a problem. He’s a relic, not a quarterback who can carry a team to a championship. The Saints have to find a young quarterback in the offseason.
  • Ben Roethlisberger – The Steelers are a mess even with a comeback win against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday. In order to see where the Steelers and Roethlisberger are, watch game-tape of December 21st’s Steelers-Bengals game. Roethlisberger, who’s one of the 2004 drafted quarterbacks on this list, struggled to throw downfield. Yes, he threw well in Lucas Oil Stadium the following Sunday, but Pittsburgh was down double-digits in the second half and Indianapolis made few second half adjustments. The focus for the Steelers offense is to get the ball out of Ben’s hands at record speed, hoping his receivers catch the passes and make plays after. It’s not sustainable. Whoever the sixth seed heading into wild card weekend is, that team has the advantage of shutting down a rapid fire offense with few answers when contained. Mason Rudolph isn’t the solution long-term, so the Steelers must look in free agency and the draft for their future.
  • Philip Rivers – The other 2004 drafted quarterback is on a one year $25 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts. Rivers’ odd throwing motion has shown the downside of his career. He’s made efforts to get the Colts’ best receiver T.Y. Hilton the ball the past month and a half, but there may not be enough tape for general manager Chris Ballard to consider re-signing him this offseason. Along with his throwing motion, his lack of mobility outside the pocket and lack of game winning drives against playoff opponents says Rivers is likely to go within the next few years, if not after this season. Unlike the other two names above, Rivers can call it quits before he plays like a shell of his former self.
  • Cam Newton – Newton was hit a lot during his tenure in Carolina, and those hits took a toll. His lis franc injury was enough to not play a season and a half, which is why New England took a chance on him with a small contract. There aren’t many talented receivers in New England (outside of Julian Edelman) and COVID-19 possibly affected him before the Patriots played Kansas City. It’s evident he is not comfortable and nowhere near the top threat even three years ago. Despite him saying he has much to prove, there’s nothing left he has to do almost ten years in the NFL.
  • Alex Smith – the Comeback Player of the Year winner is a great story after a year and a half out of the NFL for breaking his leg and an infection right after. If we take emotions out of this, Smith is the fifth quarterback on this list who’s 35 years or older who’s been in the playoffs multiple times. The Washington Football Team needs to find a franchise quarterback, which is on the list of things the franchise faces in the upcoming years. While Smith brings stability, how can we be sure Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen, or an outsider such as Mitchell Trubisky or Brandon Allen isn’t the answer if they don’t have opportunities to prove themselves?
  • Matt Ryan – Last year might have been the last good year we see from the tenured Atlanta Falcon quarterback. Despite a fantastic receiving core and a solid offensive line, Ryan has yet to throw 20 or more touchdowns this season. The Falcons are a punchline for choking games, but Ryan isn’t a game-changer like he was middle last decade. At 35, it’s best he retire before his career ends sour.
  • Matthew Stafford – The eye-opening one on here and understandably so. He has two years remaining on his contract and could get traded to a team that needs a quarterback such as New Orleans, San Francisco or Pittsburgh. Stafford’s been consistent enough to keep the Detroit Lions competitive most of the seasons he’s played. There are some things that warrant him being in this category. His injury list is longer than most starting quarterbacks. Last time he finished a season healthy, he threw 21 touchdowns. His offensive line has been better this season, but he still takes sacks he shouldn’t go down on, an issue most of his career. Adding to his decision making, consider quality play against winning teams. He can get to the playoffs, but can he take the extra step with a better roster on all three sides of the ball? At 32, we might have seen his peak since he entered the league in 2009, so it’s possible he has a steady decline.

Just how life is outside of sports, there are exceptions to the rule. 37 year old Aaron Rodgers is the front runner to not just win league MVP this season, but to lead Green Bay back to the Super Bowl. Tom Brady’s the oldest quarterback to start on any team, and he’s looking pretty good despite being 43. Brady winning six championships with no losing seasons in his NFL career is a talent we may not see from anyone else in our lifetime. Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick have accepted their 1B/backup roles, helping their teams when needed most.

Alex Smith (11, burgundy) has had a wild NFL career, and his best story is leading the Washington Football Team to a possible playoff berth. However, injuries have been a factor in his career, and there are good reasons why he should retire after this season.

It’s possible that Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers could be great backup/1B options, but there are valid questions and cases on why new quarterbacks should have a chance to start without controversy. Sam Darnold needs a coach who can teach him consistency. Mitchell Trubisky is finally thriving with an offensive coordinator who understands how to use him. Jimmy Garappolo may do well in New England since Bill Belichick knew how to get the best out of him. Sit back and ask how many talented quarterbacks are we not watching the best of week-to-week because they don’t have the chance to show it?

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