I always wanted to be a quarterback.
The girls, the press, the accolades, the fame, the money, the girls.
Unfortunately for me, my perfect spiral betrayed me sometime around the age of eight. I could tell by the wobbly ducks I was floating from the front porch to the mailbox that the NFL was not in my future.
I’ve always marveled at quarterbacks for their ability to scan through progressions faster than I can open a beer or tie my shoes. I’ve always envied them for their ability to effortlessly fit a giant wad of pigskin into an open space no thicker than a sheet of paper – usually between ball-hawking defensive backs or into the back corner of the end zone.
These awe-inspiring specimens of human ability, moxie and acumen find ways to leave even the hardest of grown men shaking their heads in wonder and giddy like school children after leading the home team to triumphant victory.
However, in an American society today where 30 is the new 20 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are still bringing the funk (and well-placed socks) while creeping up on 50, the quarterback has not aged as well.
Many great quarterbacks fizzle out or wash up by age 35.
Thirty-five! Imagine going into work one day feeling great about the future. You’re newly married, you just bought your first house, you can still run an eight-minute mile, and you still have your wits about you (or whatever you didn’t kill off doing keg stands in college.) Your boss pulls you into his office and tells you to shut the door behind you.
“Kid … we like what you’re bringing to the table, but this organization needs to get younger. We want to move into a new direction. We’re, sorry but we have to let you go.”
Just like that, you’re packing up your cubicle and out on the street looking for work. You’re a has-been; a relic of a bygone era.
Drew Bledsoe and Jake Plummer retired this year at 35 and 33, respectively. Jim Kelly was done by 35; Troy Aikman by 34. Steve McNair is pretty much finished, and he’s just 34 as well. All big names, all retired before some of us move out of our parents’ basements.
So, grab the latest issue of Seniority, sit back with a cognac and a pipe, turn the temperature in your room up to 83 and let’s peruse through the all-time greatest seasons by a quarterback over the age of 37.
Why 37? Because there’s a certified cluster of QBs who had outstanding years at age 36. Curve wreckers!
It’s time to salute the brave men who were well past the point of expiration yet still tasted great. You know, like Velveeta. Do you trust cheese that sits at room temperature for six months and doesn’t spoil? Seriously?
10. Johnny Unitas – 1970 – Age 37: What list would be complete without the great Johnny U? Unitas sent Baltimore Colts fans home happy quite often. He ranked in the NFL’s Top 10 in completions, yards, yards per attempt and yards per completion upon his retirement. Unlike most QBs old enough for Boca Raton, he was one of the least sacked in the league. He was nothing if not a winner, and true to form, led his Colts to Super Bowl V. He was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, but not before he launched a 75-yard touchdown pass (a Super Bowl record at the time) that helped lift his team to victory.
9. Vinny Testaverde – 2004 – Age 41: Let’s be serious here, Vinny Testaverde could have appeared on this list multiple times. Not because of any particularly stellar year he had (seriously, other than his 1998 campaign with the Jets, how many stellar years did he really have?), but because he kept starting long after conventional wisdom threw up its hands in surrender. A testament to human persistence and dumb luck, his career will forever be remembered for how often he ended up starting a boatload of games more than most of us thought was humanly possible, usually due to injuries to quarterbacks above him on the depth chart. (Conspiracy theorists unite!) The Cowboys came down with Vinny-itis in the 2004 season, and he delivered as only Long Island’s favorite son could. Though his legs screamed “prune juice,” his arm was all cannon, throwing for 3,532 yards and 20 touchdowns. As an addendum, he became the oldest quarterback to ever lead his team to victory when he did so this year at age 44 for Carolina, despite having just a few days to learn the playbook. Vinny doesn’t need to find the fountain of youth; he has that water running directly to his house and showers in it daily.
8. Phil Simms – 1993 – Age 39: Some of you are young and only know Simms as that folksy, knowledgeable CBS analyst with the sizeable man-crush on Tom Brady. Those of us old enough to drink remember him as one damn fine signal-caller. Simms spent 1991 and 1992 splitting time backing up the porn-stache that is Jeff Hostetler and nursing his aching Kentucky-bourbon soaked body. In 1993, he was once again named the Giants’ starting quarterback and started all 16 games despite tearing his labrum (sounds painful.) He completed 62% of his passes for over 3,000 yards and threw just nine interceptions en route to leading the G-Men to an 11-5 record and a playoff victory. He retired after the season, but can rest easy knowing he went out while still at the top of his game, unlike so many quarterbacks who refuse to answer the call of the golf course. (The white courtesy phone, Mr. Dilfer.)
7. Steve Young – 1998 – Age 37: Along with Jim Kelly, Steve Young was one of the two best quarterbacks ever to come out of the USFL. Unlike Kelly, though, Young was still giving defenses fits into his late 30s. Also unlike Kelly, Young’s a descendant of Brigham Young, the founder of Mormonism. Do you think he had to pay for his tuition at BYU? Young’s 1998 campaign defies logic. He completed 62% of his passes for almost 4,200 yards, led the league by throwing for 36 touchdowns, and had a QB rating of 101.1. Most famously, he bested Brett Favre in one of the greatest wild card playoff games on record by threading a perfect needle into a then still-quiet and unknown Terrell Owens for a last-second 30-27 victory.
6. Brett Favre – 2007 – Age 38: At the risk of fanning the flames of media slurping, it should be noted that Brett Favre’s 2007 season ranks as one of the best old-guy years of all-time. Not that any of this is jogging your memory, but during this season, he completed 67% of his passes for almost 4,200 yards and 28 TDs. His late-career renaissance led Green Bay’s resurgence to a 13-3 season and easily cemented his status as greatest American athlete ever with the middle name of Lorenzo. He could end up ranking much higher on this list if the cheese-heads from America’s tundra make some noise in the playoffs. And to think he’s been seriously contemplating retirement the past three years.
5. Warren Moon – 1997 – Age 41: Warren Moon earns a lifetime achievement award for being the single greatest geezer quarterback of all-time. It’s not like his 1997 season was some kind of fluke at age 41, where they wheeled him out after years of ineffectiveness or inactiveness and he managed to flourish. You can pick any of his years from 1992 through 1998 and put them on this list. He threw for 21,000 yards and 134 touchdowns … after he turned 36!! For the record, at age 41, he passed for 3,700 yards and 25 touchdowns. This is easily the best season ever by a quarterback in his 40s. When I’m in my 40s, I’ll probably be on my third shoulder surgery and fourth liver.
4. Earl Morrall – 1972 – Age 38: Don Shula claimed Earl Morrall off waivers for $100 and a fifth of moonshine. When Bob “It Ain’t Easy Being” Griese went down for the season with injury, it was Morrall (not Griese – as commonly believed) who led the Dolphins to their perfect 14-0 regular season before Griese returned in the playoffs to lead the ‘Fins to the Super Bowl championship. Morrall won AFC Player of the Year, NFL Comeback Player of the Year and had a passer rating of 91 before passer ratings were the end-all be-all of QB statistics. In this business world, they’d say Shula recouped great R.O.I. on that transaction.
3. Rich Gannon – 2002 – Age 37: Nobody; and I mean nobody, bloomed later in their career than Rich Gannon. Given up by the Vikings after six lackluster seasons, he was reduced to clipboard holding until age 33. That’s when he went off. Gannon produced what may be the most unpredictably prolific four-year body of work by a 30-something quarterback in the history of the National Football League, when he shredded defenses between 1999 and 2002 with the Oakland Raiders. Like your grandfather’s 1974 Massetto you accidentally drank before you knew what good wine was, Gannon got better with age, culminating in 2002 with a season that baffles statisticians to this day. A completion percentage of 68%, despite chucking a record 618 balls in the air, 4,700 yards passing and only 10 interceptions – Gannon had one of the 10 best quarterbacking seasons ever while leading the Raiders to an AFC title. His season ended sort of miserably, as he was intercepted five times by the Buccaneers in the All-Pirate Super Bowl. Yarrrr indeed.
2. John Elway – 1998 – Age 38: By now, you all know the story. Elway finally won a Super Bowl at age 37 after being the greatest quarterback ever not to win a Super Bowl, blah blah blah. He inexplicably came back for another season instead of retiring on top, yada yada yada. He then led his Broncos back to the big game where he gave his last dying breath to lead the Broncos to victory again. But it’s worth telling again. It’s worth telling your kids. It’s worth telling your grandkids. His performance in the 1998 season was solid at any age. He passed for 2,800 yards and 22 touchdowns, but it was his Super Bowl performance – his 336 yards through the air and his three-yard rushing touchdown – that really turned back the clock and transcended time.
1. Y.A. Tittle – 1963 – Age 37: Y.A. Tittle? “Y. NOT A.” Tittle, I say. At age 37, the greatest New York Giant of them all ripped the NFL to pieces with a year that gets lost in the shuffle of all the glitz and glamour of modern quarterback seasons. Tittle set NFL records by throwing for 36 touchdowns and had a passer rating of 105. To put that into some kind of context, imagine Trent Green (seriously, he’s 37) not being knocked senseless this year – and instead passing for 50 touchdowns, 4,500 yards and having a passer rating of 120 … all while leading the Dolphins to the Super Bowl. By yesteryear’s standards, that’s how great Tittle’s season was. I know you can’t compare eras, but that kind of perspective should cause your mouth to descend a little farther to the floor.
So, there you have it. Questions? Comments? Concerns? I’ll be out practicing my spiral and getting my resume together.
I hear they want to get a little younger around here.
– originally posted 1.14.2008 at The Love of Sports