As we celebrated our newest national holiday — Tom Brady’s 40th birthday — last week, the talk in Wisconsin naturally turned to the longevity of NFL quarterbacks.
As in, how long can Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers continue to perform at an elite level?
Rodgers is 33 (he’ll turn 34 in December), which isn’t as old as it sounds when compared to recent quarterbacking greats such as Brady, Peyton Manning and the Packers’ own Brett Favre. But it is still a time when a quarterback starts thinking about his football shelf life.
When Rodgers, a nine-year starter in Green Bay and a two-time NFL most valuable player, said earlier this summer that he was just starting the back nine of his career, it got peoples’ attention. After all, nine more years would take him to 2025.
And when Brady, the Super Bowl MVP for New England in February, hit the big 4-0 Thursday, Rodgers responded to reporters’ questions by saying he would like to play until he’s 40 and that he would love to do it with the Packers. Rodgers will turn 40 during the 2023 season.
Is it possible that Rodgers will be quarterbacking a Super Bowl contender in Green Bay at age 40? Of course, it’s possible. It’s also fairly realistic.
There are no guarantees, though. Too many things can happen between now and then in a violent, volatile sport such as football.
There are three things no one should worry about with regards to Rodgers’ future. He loves the Packers organization and the state of Wisconsin and has no desire to play anywhere else. He keeps himself in superb physical condition and is agile enough to avoid thunderous hits by defenders. And he is so competitive there is no chance of him burning out mentally.
Still, I must admit to some pessimism about Rodgers’ chances of matching Brady’s longevity, simply because of what I’ve seen over the years. With a few exceptions, careers seem to end badly for great athletes. Whether they need the money or simply don’t realize when their skills have eroded, there are many examples of athletes who didn’t know when to pull the plug on a stellar career.
Rodgers pointed out that baseball’s Derek Jeter and the NBA’s Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan recently ended lengthy careers, all with one franchise. He could have mentioned 1990s examples such as the Milwaukee Brewers’ Robin Yount and Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway as well. Those, however, are the exceptions.
I watched with sadness as Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, on everyone’s short list of baseball’s greatest players after 21-year careers with the Atlanta and San Francisco, respectively, finished up toiling in obscurity for different franchises. In his 40s, an overweight Aaron played his final two seasons as the designated hitter for the Brewers, batting .232 with 22 home runs. Also in his 40s, Mays, the greatest center fielder ever, spent two seasons with the New York Mets, playing mostly first base and hitting .238 with 14 homers.
It was equally painful watching Michael Jordan play for a non-competitive Washington Wizards team or, back in the NFL, seeing great quarterbacks hanging on for a year or two after their original teams decided they were no longer an asset. Among the saddest sights were Johnny Unitas in San Diego, Joe Namath with the Los Angeles Rams and Joe Montana in Kansas City. There are others — Miami’s Dan Marino and Dallas’ Troy Aikman come to mind — who lost their effectiveness and/or health and had to be nudged into retirement.
On the other hand, there are some encouraging signs that Rodgers could become one of the few all-time greats who defies age, plays into his 40s and goes out on top, all with the same team.
The NFL has been making rules to protect quarterbacks for years and that has greatly aided their longevity. Starting this year, for example, it will be illegal to hit a quarterback at or below the knees with anything more than an arm swipe.
Quarterbacks have generally retained their effectiveness longer than other NFL players, too. Over the past 60 years, five quarterbacks were named NFL MVP at 34, two at 35 and three — Manning in 2013, Rich Gannon in 2002 and Y.A. Tittle in 1963 — at the ripe old age of 37.
In addition to Manning, there are other recent examples of quarterbacks thriving beyond 35. Favre was second in the 2007 MVP voting at 38 and fourth in the 2009 voting at 40. Brady hasn’t been the NFL’s MVP since he was 33, but he finished second in three of the past four years.
Still, there are too many what ifs to consider Rodgers a sure thing, most of them out of his control.
What if he suffers an injury that impacts his arm strength or movement skills? What if general manager Ted Thompson drafts the Packers’ next great quarterback (as he did with Rodgers in 2005) and decides it is time to move on (as he did when he traded Favre in 2008)? What if the Packers hierarchy changes and the new coach and general manager want to start over? What if the team becomes non-competitive? What if Rodgers’ performance falls off?
Of all those things, the last one is the least likely to happen. Barring injury, Rodgers is so competitive and so driven that he should be quarterbacking the Packers for years to come.
At a high level, too.