The first game of the 2018 NFL season, at least initially, looked like a nightmare for the New York Jets. Huddled in front of televisions across the metropolitan area, Jets fans tuned in with anticipation to see 21-year-old rookie Sam Darnold become the youngest quarterback to ever start an NFL game. But 12 seconds into the Sept. 10 game, on his first NFL pass, Darnold threw an interception that was returned for a Detroit Lions touchdown. The dream seemed over. As the game progressed, though, Darnold proved unflappable, and by night’s end, his pick-six was an afterthought.
The Jets routed the Lions 48-17, with Darnold racking up 198 yards and two touchdowns after the ugly start. Darnold’s recovery was part of a dramatic transformation that’s taking hold of the league. This movement isn’t unique to specific skill sets or hybrid positions. No, the current quarterback revolution is all about birth certificates, particularly those with DOBs creeping up on the 21st century. Across the NFL, young quarterbacks are leading playoff contenders — a stark contrast from the days when inexperienced passers mostly took the field only out of necessity.
I think we’re seeing a rebirth of the quarterback position.
Boomer Esiason, former Jets quarterback
Patrick Mahomes, the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs this year, is 23 (the man he replaced, Alex Smith, is 34). Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans is also 23. Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams will soon turn 24, the same age as Mitch Trubisky of the Chicago Bears. None of them have had more than two seasons in the NFL. But these young quarterbacks are learning on the fly and are already the go-to passers for their coaches. In 1998, the average age of starting QBs in the NFL was 30.1. In 2008, it was 29.1. This year, at the moment, it’s 27.8.
In 2008, only five NFL teams had starting quarterbacks with three or fewer years of experience in the league. This year, 12 of the league’s 32 quarterbacks have played three seasons or fewer. A decade ago, nine of the league’s starting quarterbacks were 25 or under. In 2018, it’s 14. The reasons are many, but one thing’s for sure: Starting in the NFL has never been easier.
“There’s an influx of dynamic young talent at the position,” says Boomer Esiason, the former Jets quarterback turned radio host and CBS analyst. “I think we’re seeing a rebirth of the quarterback position.”
Traditionally, most highly drafted quarterbacks had to wait their turn. But teams are embracing offensive innovation and are more readily trusting of young quarterbacks: It’s safer than before and makes financial sense.
The NFL’s emphasis on player safety now allows rookie passers to dodge some of football’s most painful lessons. According to former NFL receiver–turned–CBS analyst Nate Burelson, young quarterbacks used to serve as target practice for the defense. “They were getting blindsided a handful of times per game, at least,” he says. But today, violent hits on a quarterback almost always result in a penalty. Hits that once served as growing pains, or spirit-breakers, for meek young quarterbacks navigating choppy waters, have become few and far between. “If you’re an athletic QB with a decent offensive line and decent football IQ,” says Burelson, “you can go your whole rookie year without getting beat up.”
The quarterback position is by no means easy to play, say experts. NFL success still requires incredible talent, a tireless work ethic, unique athleticism, quite a bit of luck and quick decision-making. “The main thing I look for [in young quarterbacks] is decisiveness,” says Tony Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback turned star broadcaster for CBS. “I don’t mind interceptions, just make a decision rather than taking a sack when the pocket is closing in.”
But a new and younger band of coaches in the NFL is making those decisions simpler for quarterbacks today. Coaches like Doug Pederson (Eagles), Sean McVay (Rams) and Kyle Shanahan (49ers) have embraced the spread and run-pass option concepts that most young quarterbacks use in the amateur ranks. That familiarity breeds comfort — and NFL success.
After arguably the worst rookie season in history in 2016, Goff made the Pro Bowl while leading Los Angeles to the playoffs in his second season. His 32-year-old boy genius head coach, McVay, is widely considered one of the NFL’s leading offensive minds. Shanahan with the San Francisco 49ers is a quarterback guru at the age of 38.
Then there’s the quarterback-friendly coaching tree of Chiefs coach Andy Reid. After three straight playoff appearances with veteran quarterback Alex Smith, Reid named 2017 draft pick Mahomes, who threw four touchdowns in his Week 1 debut, Kansas City’s starter. One Reid protége, Matt Nagy, is a first-year head coach starting a second-year quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, in Chicago, while another, Eagles coach Doug Pederson, just won the Super Bowl in his first season in Philadelphia. Pederson started second-year quarterback Carson Wentz until injury ended his season in December.
Of the five rookie quarterbacks drafted in the first round this year, Darnold, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield and Arizona’s Josh Rosen have already started a game. Lamar Jackson (Baltimore) could take the reins soon too.
“Young quarterbacks are more prepared to play today,” says Esiason, noting that most of today’s quarterbacks grow up facing intense scrutiny and extensive training before they even hit puberty. “With modern recruiting and social media, these players are used to the spotlight, and they’re able to handle themselves in the NFL.”
And while NFL organizations trust their young quarterbacks more than ever before, playing a quarterback early is the right fiscal choice too. Without a high-priced veteran quarterback on payroll, teams can pay superstars at other positions, building depth on defense and the offensive line. When the young quarterback proves capable — like Wentz and Goff — that’s when a Super Bowl contender is born.
These days, there’s no time to wait and see. Teams like the Bears and Chiefs have built talented rosters around their respective quarterbacks, hoping the gamble will pay off. “The easiest way to protect a young quarterback is by giving him a great defense,” says Romo. “You don’t want winning to depend on him, but there’s a fine line. The great ones figure it out.” These days, the code is being cracked early, and often.