How the Patrick Mahomes generation has finally conquered the NFL

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Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers declined this season. All eight quarterbacks left in the playoffs are in their 20s. The next wave of quarterbacks has taken over the league.

The best way to feel a little bit older this weekend will be to turn on an NFL playoff game.

The past few years in the NFL have been marked by a gradual generational shift in the sport. There was a group of legendary older quarterbacks who refused to go away. And there was a new age of passers like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen who were vying to not only take over a game but also completely reshape the way it’s played.

This is the year the young guys took over for good.

Tom Brady had the worst record of his career, Aaron Rodgers missed the playoffs, and both are mulling retirement. All eight quarterbacks left in the postseason are in their 20s.

This shift in the balance represents something far bigger than a figurative torch passing. Brady became the game’s greatest ever passer by mastering the textbook mechanics that had been drilled into players for decades. The ones assuming the mantle from him have lit that textbook on fire.

They run. They throw on the run. They routinely make side-arm, off-balance throws that were once coached out of their predecessors.

“The days of the slow-footed pure pocket passer are dying,” said longtime NFL quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’s now an analyst for Amazon. On the breadth of dazzling young passers, he added: “I don’t recall a time when there’s been this many.”

The emergence, and in some cases dominance, of these young quarterbacks ultimately defined this NFL season. Jalen Hurts’s rise made the Philadelphia Eagles the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Mahomes, the presumptive most valuable player for the second time in his career, led the Chiefs to the top spot in the AFC — and at 27, he’s the oldest quarterback for a playoff team in his conference.

It adds up to a historic divisional round this weekend: With an average age of between 25 and 26 years old, the eight remaining quarterbacks are the youngest group ever at this stage of the playoffs.

This shift in the balance represents something far bigger than a figurative torch passing. Brady became the game’s greatest ever passer by mastering the textbook mechanics that had been drilled into players for decades. The ones assuming the mantle from him have lit that textbook on fire.

They run. They throw on the run. They routinely make side-arm, off-balance throws that were once coached out of their predecessors.

“The days of the slow-footed pure pocket passer are dying,” said longtime NFL quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’s now an analyst for Amazon. On the breadth of dazzling young passers, he added: “I don’t recall a time when there’s been this many.”

The emergence, and in some cases dominance, of these young quarterbacks ultimately defined this NFL season. Jalen Hurts’s rise made the Philadelphia Eagles the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Mahomes, the presumptive most valuable player for the second time in his career, led the Chiefs to the top spot in the AFC — and at 27, he’s the oldest quarterback for a playoff team in his conference.

It adds up to a historic divisional round this weekend: With an average age of between 25 and 26 years old, the eight remaining quarterbacks are the youngest group ever at this stage of the playoffs.

What most of these quarterbacks have in common is their brash approach to the game. And there are now enough of them that it’s changing the sport’s fundamentals. Quarterbacks accounted for 15.5% of the league’s rushing yards this season — the most since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, according to Stats.

Many of these quarterbacks have been stars for years. It was nothing new when Mahomes, Allen and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow continued to mercilessly carve through opposing defences this year. But it took a while for them to fully take charge. When they began their careers, their no-look passes or breathtaking scrambles didn’t initially erase the giants who loomed over the sport longer than anyone imagined.

As Brady entered his late 30s, and even mid-40s, he remained the most powerful force in the game. He was the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl when he was 41. Then he broke his own record when he was 43. Even last year, he led the Buccaneers to being one of the best teams in football. Tampa Bay sneaked into the playoffs this year — as the NFL’s fourth-ever division winner with a losing record — before getting walloped by the Cowboys.

Rodgers also continued to experience out-size success with the Green Bay Packers, who just a year ago were the No. 1 seed in the NFC. In each of the past two years, he was named MVP, until this season the team slipped so dramatically that it missed the postseason entirely with a loss in the final game of the regular season.

When Matthew Stafford and the Rams beat Burrow and the Bengals in last season’s Super Bowl, it was yet another moment when an older quarterback — and traditional pocket passer — triumphed. Mahomes is the only quarterback currently in his 20s who has won a Super Bowl as a starter.

This season, a 20-something is now guaranteed to win it all, except in the case of an injury. That’s not simply due to a decline from Brady and Rodgers or the Rams breaking down. The crop of young passers suddenly became more crowded during the 2022 season.

Hurts, the 24-year-old dynamo for the Eagles, broke out in a season when he led Philadelphia to a tie for the NFL’s best record. Daniel Jones turned around his struggles and led the Giants to their first playoff appearance in years. Trevor Lawrence, a year after quarterbacking the NFL’s worst team during a disastrous rookie season with ex-coach Urban Meyer, led the Jaguars both to the postseason and an epic wildcard round comeback win over the Chargers.

The Jaguars win also demonstrated Lawrence’s bravado, a trait he shares with his young peers. After throwing four first-half interceptions, he rallied to throw four second-half touchdowns. Then, on the key 2-point conversion, which put Jacksonville in position to later win on a game-winning field goal, Lawrence freelanced the play and decided to just sneak it into the end zone himself.

“I knew I could get it in, so I just took it,” Lawrence said. “If you make the play, you’re good.”

The most unlikely story of the bunch belongs to the San Francisco 49ers’ rookie Brock Purdy. The 23-year-old was the last pick of the most recent NFL draft. He only got the job after two guys in front of him got hurt. He now has won every single game since he took over as starter, including a four touchdown performance that lifted his team past the Seahawks last weekend.

There are so many of these tantalising quarterbacks that there just wasn’t room for all them at this stage of the postseason. Lamar Jackson’s Ravens and Tua Tagovailoa of the Dolphins both saw their teams get knocked out when they missed their respective playoff games due to injury. The Chargers’ Justin Herbert is now the first quarterback ever to throw for 4,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, but he got bounced by Lawrence.

The oldest quarterback left happens to be the one who sent Brady packing. At a ripe 29 years, Dak Prescott delivered the Cowboys their first road playoff win in 30 years — or six months before Prescott was born.

At this stage, there’s nothing left for these quarterbacks this season other than to duel each other. Lawrence (23 years old) and the Jags will try to topple Mahomes’s Chiefs. Jones (25) will be trying to keep the Giants’ improbable season going with an upset over Hurts and the Eagles. Burrow and Allen, both 26, will square off in a rematch of the Bengals-Bills game that was cancelled during the penultimate week of the season. Purdy’s unlikely story will get another chapter if the Niners can beat the Cowboys.

It’s no longer a matter of if one of these quarterbacks will break through and win the Super Bowl. Now the only question is which one.

-The Wall Street Journal

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