In football, you can get old slowly like Philip Rivers, or not at all like Tom Brady. You can get old for a few years, but then find a new offense or trainer or set of wide receivers and get young again. You can get old and plummet off a cliff statistically and retire before it gets worse.
The career of a quarterback, it seems, is never really a linear journey. That’s why teams will sacrifice anything and everything to believe that there is still a chance they get young again, so long as they want to play.
Then weeks like this happen and make you realize the relative fragility of it all. On Sunday, Drew Brees thwacked his thumb off Aaron Donald’s helmet and now needs surgery. He’ll be out for more than a month. Ben Roethlisberger tried to play through a busted elbow but got pulled at halftime against the Seahawks. He needs surgery too and will be out for the season. Over in East Rutherford, the Giants are now considering a hard right turn to rookie quarterback Daniel Jones after watching Eli Manning flail in the pocket ineffectively in two straight losses.
While every situation is different, these are the kind of days in which eras pivot. Tentacles from these three tidbits of news, and what happens next, will underline the remainder of their sterling careers.
Here’s what the news means for each team involved…
• It would be a miraculous personal feat from Sean Payton to keep this team afloat emotionally. The Saints seem to have exhausted so much emotional energy warring against both the officials, and any other nebulous force that seems to be torpedoing their chance to maximize the talent-coated roster they have now. It would be hard to see Brees walking away without one more legitimate title shot, but that would take some contractual gymnastics this offseason and another premium salary to a player who was already facing questions about his ability to weather a season at age 40.
• One has to wonder how these last few years have truly aged Roethlisberger. By all indications, he took seriously the charge that he was not a great leader in the past this offseason, and tried to fill the void left behind by some of the most important statistical players in franchise history. But this is also a player who has talked about long-term health and retirement. This is a player who had a brief window into life without most of his best skill position players. This is a player who is going to enter next season at 38, in a division that may be unrecognizable by the time 2020 kicks off. Should Mason Rudolph not be able to rally this roster, Pittsburgh will have missed the playoffs twice in a row. How different might the team look 365 days from now?
• The spotlight is now on Pat Shurmur, who opened the door for a change at the quarterback position. Ben McAdoo was let go due in part to his inability to sell and legitimize a transition that would see the Giants look at both Geno Smith and, eventually, Davis Webb before the end of the season. He was let go before the completion of said season. Because of Manning’s standing in the organization, any type of movement here has to be swift and definitive. Daniel Jones looked excellent in the preseason, and had more snaps with the team’s starting offensive line than Manning, even if Manning may have had more playing time against starting-caliber defenses. I don’t think a coach in the same situation could have handled the situation any better, but now, even if it’s too much to ask, Shurmur’s concepts need to continue to produce the same Jones fans are longing for… or else, if the team somehow floats in contention, the possibility of a toxic pivot back to Manning arises.
Right now, it’s safe(er) to say that we have not seen the last of any of these three. Manning may follow in his brother’s footsteps and skip over to a contending roster threadbare at quarterback for one more run should Jones get the starting job and hold onto it. The time away for Brees could provide some beneficial rest for the other parts of his body beaten down by decades of football. And Roethlisberger may relish the chance to actually command the roster he started this season with.
But, with all of these quarterbacks we are much closer to the end. Seismic moments like these serve as a reminder.
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