It's been said before, time and time again, that football is a young man's game. And for every Tom Brady, one could list hundreds of prominent quarterbacks whose play steadily waned, if not outright fell apart, as they approached age 40.
Father Time. Sickle. Undefeated. (Except for TB 12.)
We've seen it in recent years with numerous quarterbacks who entered the league in the early-to-mid 2000s: Eli Manning slip sliding away, and the Giants getting it right the first time when they benched him; Peyton Manning going from setting records to losing his job to Brock Osweiler; Drew Brees no longer pushing the ball downfield; Philip Rivers opting to coach high school ball rather than see how tepid a market formed for his services; and Joe Flacco enduring injury-after-injury and holding on as a backup.
And though we are just one week into this, the longest season in NFL history, there are no shortage of troubling signs for the nearly 40-year-old set. Alas, it was not pretty for Aaron Rodgers (37), Ben Roethlisberger (39) and Matt Ryan (36), and one cannot help but wonder how things will play out with 16 games yet to play. More than ample time to reverse the trend -- though for Big Ben and Ryan, the downward spiral began well before Sunday -- and even Rodgers, coming off an MVP season, gave off troubling signs and triggered no shortage of chatter in front offices around the league about how this Last Dance season might play out for him in Green Bay and what his future holds.
Rodgers' brutal outing against the Saints came with the fewest cautionary pretext on the field -- he nearly lifted the Packers to the Super Bowl a few months ago -- although there were suitcases of baggage in terms of off-field drama, infighting and PR warfare. Rodgers spoke candidly about all of this (too candidly for the Packers likings) and how close he came to retiring and how conflicted he was about playing for this outfit again and the litany of grievances he held/holds against the organization.
You don't just wash all of that away during six weeks of training camp. You can't just turn that dial off and immediately heal the scar he is carrying and the grudge he is holding for the way the Jordan Love draft selection was made and the fallout from it. That doesn't just go away. And based off his performance Sunday, during which he seemed at times confused, dismayed, frustrated, aggravated and disengaged, you can forgive NFL scouts and executives who watched it live or on tape from jumping to some conclusions. Given the backdrop of the Summer of Scorn (sounds like a WWE pay-per-view) between him and Packers brass, and given how deliberate he can be, and given how ugly this offense looked at the end of the Mike McCarthy era, and how suspect the unit was for the three quarters-plus-one series he played before making way for Love while behind 38-3, is anyone surprised that people are talking?
"His head did not look like it was in the game to me," said one exec who watched the game closely. "I'm not sure he was up for it, or into it once it started going poorly."
Another said: "That was not the guy we saw last year. He looked old. Looked a little brittle. You have to be concerned."
Another called me on Monday, asking what others were saying about the situation and offering the following: "Didn't look like he wanted to be there. Do you think they trade him if this keeps up for another couple of weeks?"
One game and all ... but it really was that bad. The looks shot at the sidelines. The gesticulating with his hands. The body language on the bench. The game film itself and the boxscore itself (15-for-28 passing for 133 yards, two picks and no scores) all told a sordid tale coming on the heels of his offseason-long feud. Hosting the lowly Detroit Lions in primetime, with extra rest on a Monday night, should be just the homecoming game this group badly needs; and it better be. Rodgers attributed one interception to a shot to the groin and opined about the team's lack of energy on his buddy Pat McAfee's show the other day; one can't help but wonder what else he will utter should this perennial playoff team slump into October.
Ryan looked equally stupefied by the Eagles on Sunday. His lack of mobility and the inability to build the kind of elite offensive line he needs continue to be problems, and rookie head coach Arthur Smith seemed overwhelmed at times (not constructing a red zone package around massive rookie tight end Kyle Pitts?). Being an offense-in-transition does Ryan no favors at this stage of his career.
Ryan's days of being able to carry a team seem long ago, this roster is in tatters, and the decision not to move on from the aging quarterback while picking so high in draft loaded with QB talent threatens to haunt this franchise for years. We know they aren't all that effective running the ball, and we know Ryan is vulnerable to sacks and that ball has best come out very quickly behind this line. Mustering two field goals and 164 passing yards in a home opener on a staggering 4.7(!) yards per attempt will naturally beg questions, especially given the Falcons' recent history of uninspired and uncreative starts to the season.
Waking up in November ain't going to cut it this year, new coach or not. Sure, they have some dynamic pass catchers, but will they be able to get the ball to them as needed and enough to offset the continued liability of this defense? Not promising.
Roethlisberger became the poster boy for the aging QB set last year, as he and the Steelers rode into November as the league's last undefeated team. Then the offense completely fell apart and they stumbled into the playoffs and got trounced by the Browns at home in the wild card round. Living in a shotgun empty set and throwing three-yard medicine balls to JuJu Smith-Schuster is no way to go through the winter. Against the Bills, many problems persisted.
Huge win for Pittsburgh at Buffalo, but this was all about the Steelers defense and special teams. A blocked punt was the biggest play in the game, and at halftime the team's drive chart read: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, end of half. They amassed 53 net yards in the first half against a Bills defense still with much to prove and scored one offensive touchdown in the game (on a drive that started at midfield). They lost the time of possession battle by more than five minutes, the run game remains a major work in progress and the offensive line offers more questions than answers right now.
For all of that chatter of a rebirth, the scope of the passing game remained quite constricted (5.9 yards per attempt), and their longest play of the day (at a mere 25 yards) was a run by receiver Chase Claypool. A learning curve of some degree was expected, with new coordinator Matt Canada (QB coach in 2020) at the helm, and, sure, they were on the road, but I can assure you there are skeptics abound as to how markedly better things will go from a year ago.
"The guy I saw on Sunday (Roethlisberger) was the guy I saw in January," said one exec who reviewed the game.
Time, indeed, keeps ticking on, and turning back the clock is anything but easy in this sport, especially at this position despite whatever Brady continues to accomplish. This is far more the norm, and even Rodgers may fall prey.
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