Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and the Challenges of Being an Old Quarterback

Drew Brees didn’t get enough credit in 2016. Brees was a legitimate MVP candidate for most of the season. Had the Saints not been such a poor overall team, his play would have been given the attention it deserved. It’s something we’ve become accustomed to with Brees. His spectacular plays are received less with awe and more with the indifference that comes with someone fulfilling expectations.

Brees was truly great for 15 games. The final game of the year not so much.

Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 17, the then 37-year old quarterback threw the ball 50 times, completed 58 percent of his passes and had two touchdowns to one interception. His raw numbers weren’t awful even considering the unusually low completion percentage, but they also flattered him.

Over the first 15 games of the season, Brees was accurate on at least 78 percent of his passes in 10 games. In six of those 10 he was accurate on at least 85 percent of his attempts. Twice he eclipsed 90 percent. Brees’ accuracy percentage in a single game only once fell below 75 percent, he was accurate on 72.97 percent of his passes against the San Francisco 49ers. To put that into perspective, 72.97 percent would have ranked 20th in the league for the whole season.

Brees’ overall accuracy percentage last year was second only to Sam Bradford. He was one of only three quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers being the other) who was accurate on at least 80 percent of his passes.

In that final game of the season against the Falcons, he was accurate on 67.39 percent of his passes. It happens. Quarterbacks have bad days. Sometimes they are just off. Sometimes it’s a bad matchup or just an outright more talented defense. Except in this instance it was less an off day and more a sign of something potentially more sinister. In that final game Brees wasn’t facing extra pressure or being asked to throw into tighter windows. He was simply missing throws. He wasn’t generating velocity on the ball and repeatedly failed to hit his mark on downfield throws.

His arm was shot.

This was highlighted on his interceptable passes. Only once last season did Brees have as many as four interceptable passes in a game, that week against the Falcons. Only one of the four was caught. It came during the fourth quarter when Brees tried to push the ball outside the numbers to Michael Thomas. It wasn’t a far pass to complete because he was throwing from the near hash. Despite this, the ball still floated badly infield. Thomas had no chance of catching the ball as it went straight into the defender’s chest.

Signs of Brees’ tired arm could be seen through previous weeks. The full collapse only came in Week 17. Brees has always thrown a lot of passes and it’s much harder to sustain arm strength that late into the season when you’re 37 years old.

This was a trend discovered during the charting for the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue 2017. Older quarterbacks suffered significant drop offs in velocity and effectiveness as the season wore on. There were five quarterbacks who played last season at 35 or older. Brees was one. Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer and Eli Manning were the others.

Rivers was the most clear cut of all quarterbacks. Rivers got no help in San Diego. He hasn’t for a while. As such he threw the ball 578 times last year. For the first half of those attempts, he was simply spectacular. Rivers opened the season with accuracy percentages over 80 in six of his first seven games. The only game where he didn’t reach 80 he finished with a 78.38 percent mark.

Over the final nine games of the season, Rivers reached 80 percent three times and was at 75 percent or lower on five separate occasions. Twice he dropped below 70 percent and once he hit 60 percent.

In those first seven games, Rivers threw six interceptable passes. Four of those came in one game, leaving four games where he didn’t throw an interceptable pass at all and two games where he threw one in each game. Rivers had 26 interceptable passes for the season. He threw 20 interceptable passes over the final nine games. To be more precise, he averaged an interceptable pass once every 40.83 attempts over the first seven games and one every 16.65 attempts over the final nine games.

Rivers’ ability to push the ball downfield had completely disappeared by the end of the season. His arm was dead. This was highlighted by a five-interceptable pass performance against the Panthers and a four-interceptable pass performance against the Chiefs. In both of those games his errors could be directly attributed to a lack of arm strength.

Super Bowl winner Tom Brady had a more abrupt drop in arm strength.

Brady was phenomenal during the regular season. He was more deserving of the MVP than Matt Ryan was (though Aaron Rodgers deserved it more than either of those guys). Winning the Super Bowl and being given the MVP for the game suggests that Brady’s arm was just as good at the end of the season as it was during the regular season. That wasn’t the case. Brady struggled through two of his three playoff games. The exception being the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers who had the worst gameplan you’ll ever see from a defense facing Brady.

In his first playoff game, Brady had a season-low accuracy percentage of 57.14 percent. It must be acknowledged that the Houston Texans had the best defense that he had faced to that point in the season, but that alone doesn’t explain such a severe drop off. Brady’s lowest accuracy percentage before that was 65.63 percent and he had only been below 70 percent twice in 12 games.

The Texans also got four interceptable passes from Brady. Only the Seattle Seahawks had pushed him to two and most teams couldn’t even get him to one.

Acknowledging the quality of the Texans defense and the potential for aberration games lets us explain that game away. However, that Super Bowl performance against an unheralded Falcons defense paired with the Texans display makes for a concerning sample. The Patriots won the Super Bowl so Brady got all the plaudits. Yet it was by far his worst game of the season. He repeatedly tried to give the game away.

The Falcons were gifted five interceptable passes in that game. They caught one and brought it back for a touchdown, but couldn’t catch a second to seal the game in the fourth quarter when presented with three opportunities. That famous Edelman reception came on a play where Brady threw the ball straight to the defender who was running underneath Edelman’s route. Robert Alford should have caught that ball.

Brady had nine interceptable passes in three playoff games. He had seven in 12 regular season games. He had two sub-70 percent accuracy games during the regular season, he had two during the playoffs.

There might have been some credence to the idea that Brady’s suspension to start the season worked in his favour. Had he been tasked with playing four more games before the Super Bowl last year, his arm strength would have been pushed right to its limit.

Eli Manning’s season ended before he got an opportunity to face Brady in another Super Bowl. Arm strength was clearly an issue for Manning after the first couple weeks of the season.

Playing behind Ereck Flowers meant that Manning was regularly forced to throw from uncomfortable platforms. Those situations stressed Manning’s arm strength significantly more than when he could plant his feet in the pocket. Those situations also highlighted how Manning can no longer throw the ball accurately without his feet set beneath him.

Over the first eight games of the season, Manning had an accuracy percentage above 80 percent on five occasions. He opened the season with three games above 80 percent, one of which reached 90 percent. After his eighth game, Manning reached 80 percent again once in 10 games. Three times he was below 70 percent and once he fell as far as 53.85 percent.

Manning had 10 interceptable passes over the first eight games and 18 over the final 10 games. He finished the season with four interceptable passes against the Packers in a game where he repeatedly overshot Odell Beckham when the receiver was open downfield.

Carson Palmer was the final quarterback who played last season at or above the age of 35. Palmer played in an injury-hit offense where inconsistency was the only consistent theme of his supporting cast. He was put through such situations that there was no clear drop-off to be charted because the offense as a whole was such a mess he was constantly stressed more than he should have been throughout the season.

NFL quarterbacks can last much longer into their careers now than before. There are a variety of reasons for this. Medical advancements, a greater understanding of nutrition and training methods allow for slower physical declines and more prolonged physical primes. Rules that protect passers make it less likely for each player to suffer a career-ending injury. Schemes now emphasize shorter passes and shotgun plays where the quarterback’s acumen and accuracy are emphasized more than his ability to generate velocity on the ball.

Even considering all that, this trend must serve as a warning sign for teams with older quarterbacks. You can’t expect a 35+ year old quarterback to carry your offense and throw the ball 600 times in the regular season and then go on a playoff run. It’s difficult to limit your quarterback’s attempts unless you have a stacked roster, but that is the quandary of relying on an elder starter.

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