“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” ~ Gabriel García Márquez
The image has become iconic. Broadway Joe exiting the Orange Bowl following Super Bowl III with a single digit raised. Everyone remembers the guarantee, but Namath’s flamboyance and optimism is only a small part of one the most momentous games in the history of pro football.
A movement was afoot in the late 1960’s that was far more significant than any football game. America was still recovering from President Kennedy’s assassination. The country was in the throes of the Vietnam War. And within the preceding 12 months, the nation mourned fallen leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. America’s young men and women were angry, despondent and divided. America’s youth sought freedoms, independence and heroes.
One of those heroes was the brash and talented 25 year old Namath. He spoke his mind. He marched by his own drum. He was pro football’s youth movement. Namath’s New York Jets played in the American Football League (AFL) – the NFL’s younger brother, so to speak. The maverick AFL was a free-wheeling, vertical brand of football threatening the NFL’s old school mentalities and conservative approaches.
In January of 1969, the AFL’s Jets met the NFL’s heavily favored Baltimore Colts and their pair of mid-30’s quarterbacks, Earl Morrall and Johnny Unitas. The Colts were the suits and the Jets were the dungarees. Baltimore was the establishment and New York was the movement.
Namath made that guarantee because he knew the Jets wanted it more. They had something to prove. They had carried that chip on their shoulder that younger brothers do after years of taking it from big brother. New York knew change was possible. And pro football would indeed change after their 16-7 victory over the Colts. Leagues merged. New tactics and systems emerged. And young men believed they could make an immediate impact, take on experienced all-pros head-to-head and be champions too – just like Broadway Joe.
RUSSELL WILSON VS. TOM BRADY
Not unlike a year ago, Super Bowl XLIX features diametrical starting quarterbacks. Russell Wilson leapt from the 2012 NFL Draft into a starting role with the emerging Seattle Seahawks and has never once looked back. In three full seasons, he’s started every one of Seattle’s games, produced and unheralded 42-13 record and won a Super Bowl. Not bad for a 26 year old.
Tom Brady will be across the sideline from Wilson on Sunday. Brady is no stranger to the bright lights. Since assuming New England’s starting job from an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Brady has taken the Patriots to the playoffs in 12 of 14 seasons, reached Super Sunday on six occasions and held Lombardi three times. Even when we all think his time has passed – ahem, after a 41-14 Week 4 Monday night loss to Kansas City – the 37 year old Brady bounces back better than ever.
Despite being a mere sophomore, Wilson did not fear or succumb to the veteran Peyton Manning last year. In fact, the Seahawks thumped Peyton and the Denver Broncos 43-8 in one of the most lopsided Super Bowls in a decade.
Brady, too, was in his second pro season when he led the New England Patriots to an upset over 30 year old Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams. The Patriot quarterback didn’t stop there. New England would win two of the next three championships and Brady would have three rings before he ever turned 30.
Could Wilson and Brady be proof that younger quarterbacks are more likely to beat their veteran opponents? This season, Brady would plea to the contrary; however, his career would be admissible as Exhibit A. Since New England’s three titles, the Patriots reached the Super Bowl twice more subsequent to Brady turning 30. In both instances, the future Hall of Famer lost to the New York Giants and their quarterback Eli Manning – who is three years younger.
DO YOUNGER QUARTERBACKS BEAT OLDER QUARTERBACKS?
This isn’t actually true, right? How often do you see Peyton Manning lose to Derek Carr on a Sunday afternoon? Or is Peyton the exception? Perhaps the new wave of pivots like Wilson, Andrew Luck and Matthew Stafford are challenging the old guard successfully with some regularity. I decided to look back over the past 25 NFL seasons in search of the truth.
For this analysis, I defined a “young” quarterback as one in his 20’s. Those 30 and above are considered “old”. The chart below depicts how often young quarterbacks are victorious when facing veterans 30 and above. In order to evaluate trends, I split the data into five year segments.
Within almost every five season period, over all NFL games (regular season and playoffs), younger quarterbacks struggle versus more experienced passers. This result is represented by the lighter blue color above. But should this be surprising? When factoring in all regular season contests, I included blue chip prospects like the Mannings, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. But I have also included the injury replacements unprepared for prime-time, the late season interviews and the talented arms hopeless behind patchwork lines.
I decided to narrow my analysis to playoffs only, since the end goal is evaluating two Super Bowl combatants. This would eliminate most of the situations where a young quarterback is not the team’s first choice to lead them onto the field. When focusing on playoffs only, the success of quarterbacks below 30 years old jump up in every period. The results are still below .500 over the past ten seasons, but are well over .500 between 1990-2004.
Looking at Super Bowls only tells an even more convincing story. Since the 1990 season, quarterbacks below 30 are 8-3 facing 30-something pivots. The last time a “young” quarterback lost a Super Bowl to an “old” one was when Peyton Manning defeated Rex Grossman eight years ago. Peyton Manning was only 30. And it was Rex Grossman, after all! Prior to that, you have to go back to John Elway’s first title following the 1997 season against the forever young Brett Favre.
Another way to analyze the youth versus experience question is to chart the age difference between two starting quarterbacks. The following graph shows the average difference in age each season for the winning quarterback over their opposition, i.e., a line above zero translates into older quarterbacks winning and, vice versa, if the line drops below. For better visualization, I have smoothed the results over three seasons. For example, the average difference in age for 2012, 2013 and 2014 were 0.52, 0.75 and 1.28, respectively. These figures have been represented graphically at 2013 as 0.85, the average of the three seasons.
This graph shows that there have been several trends over the past 25 seasons. In the 90’s, very few young quarterbacks emerged as Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Dan Marino ruled the regular season. But some young quarterbacks like Troy Aikman and Brett Favre did find success in the playoffs. Denver has been long known for its Rocky Mountains and the peaks around 1998 and 2012 are primarily attributable to the playoff success of veterans like John Elway and Peyton Manning.
Over the past decade, there was a long stretch where the older quarterbacks performed better in the regular season than they did in the playoffs. Despite recent runs by Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick (all in their 20’s), the average difference in age of playoff starting quarterbacks has exceeded the average in the regular season for the first time in over ten years. Could things be looking up for veterans like Tom Brady?
WHAT MAKES THE SUPER BOWL DIFFERENT?
The regular season is a grind, but each win and loss means so much with only 16 games on a schedule. Quarterbacks excel during the regular season as a result of consistency, durability and excellence. Come the playoffs, quarterbacks must still be all of the above; however, they must continue to succeed against the best of the best. The Super Bowl is not much different, except for one fact: once you’re there, it’s only one game. Once you’ve scaled the mountain to play on Super Sunday, quarterbacks like Joe Namath know it’s all about winning the next one. Who has the drive? Who can lay it all on the line one more time?
I have extended my age differential analysis from above to include the Super Bowl. Again, the results have been smoothed over three years. Only now you can see what separates the Super Bowl from the regular season and the remainder of the playoffs.
Over the past quarter century, younger quarterbacks have been consistently defeating older quarterbacks in the big game. The lone exception is Mt. Elway, circa 1997-98. For five consecutive years, following the 1996-2000 seasons, the Super Bowl was won by an older quarterback – two of which were Elway. Another was by Trent Dilfer who was only months older than Kerry Collins. And what did Dilfer have to do about winning that title anyways. Since then, only Peyton Manning’s Colts (over Grossman’s Bears) and Flacco’s Ravens (over Kaepernick’s 49ers) were won by the older quarterback.
The following is a summary of the past 24 Super Bowls and the quarterbacks who started for each team:
I also charted the comparison of age between the Super Bowl’s winning and losing quarterback since the first Super Sunday. Similar to the previous graphs, I have used three year smoothing.
The results above show that many trends have emerged over the almost 50-year history of the Super Bowl. The 1970’s were marked by Terry Bradshaw and Pittsburgh’s four victories over veterans who were well over 30 like Minnesota’s Fran Tarkenton and Dallas’ Roger Staubach. The dip in the 1980’s includes Montana’s win over Marino following the 1985 season, but is more attributable to John Elway’s agony. The future champion lost three Super Bowls with the Broncos over four seasons; each loss coming to a 30-something opposing QB. So now we have Mt. Elway in the 90’s and Elway Valley in the 80’s.
But what does John Elway have to do with this year’s Super Bowl? Until he finally won the big one with Mike Shanahan and Terrell Davis, Elway was best known for choking in the big game. To be fair, he was known for late game heroics too, including “The Drive” versus the Browns. In fact, that’s the perfect word – drive. Or determination. Or grit. Or resolve. Words that best describe Elway’s final pursuit for a championship.
What made Elway such an outlier in the results above is what made others fail to win the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner tried twice in his 30’s. So did Brady. So did Peyton. Each had ascended to the top once or three times before and was rewarded with the game’s greatest prize. But Elway never had. Even well into his 30’s, the fire still burned inside.
Sure, regular season competition can ignite an all-pro quarterback to succeed. But it’s all about what can set you apart in a young man’s game when everything hinges on one battle. The Russell Wilsons of the world (of whom there are few) are fresh – they have young arms, dynamic legs. It’s been another long season for the 37 year old Tom Brady. Does he still have the drive? Has enough time passed since New England’s last title that Brady’s long absence from ticker-tape parades will help him regain the fortitude to close the deal? This Sunday we will see if this old quarterback has what it takes one more time.
Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.