Rules, habits, passion keep NFL aging quarterbacks around

Tom Brady didn’t get things started on a strong note for the growing group of greybeard quarterbacks when the Chiefs spoiled the Patriots’ latest Super Bowl celebration with a big comeback of their own Thursday night in the NFL opener.

Few doubt Brady will bounce back from that stunning 42-27 loss with another stellar season, however.

At 40, Brady says he’s more efficient in his training than when he was in his 20s.

“I think it’s a lot easier for me now than it’s ever been,” he said. “I feel like my routine’s better than it’s ever been. When you’re younger you don’t know what to do, and after 17 years, going on my 18th year I know what to do. I know how to prepare.”

Brady is the elder statesman of starting QBs , seven of whom are 35 or older for the first time ever.

Brady is joined by Drew Brees (38), Josh McCown (38), Carson Palmer (37), Eli Manning (36), Ben Roethlisberger (35) and Philip Rivers (35) in the club of QBs who have circled the sun 35 times or more.

Quarterbacks are delaying retirement while making more money, eating better, working out year-round and benefiting from rule changes that have resulted in fewer hits and less wear and tear on their bodies. Bolstering veterans’ value is the paucity of QBs running the pro-style system in college.

“It starts with better conditioning and nutrition,” said Hall of Famer and ex-general manager Bill Polian. “As a people we’re living longer and being more productive.”

The spate of rule changes over the last two decades that fed the offensive explosion is bearing fruit now that quarterbacks are elongating their peak performance years and prolonging their careers.

“Back in the day, those quarterbacks, you could just come down on their shoulders, you could do all those types of things,” said coach-turned-broadcaster Rex Ryan. “And you know I think the league has nipped that and taken away some of those unnecessary shots that guys have taken and that probably shortened careers quite a bit.”

Rivers is preparing to face the Denver Broncos on Monday night for the 24th time as he begins his 14th NFL season.

“First, I’m very thankful. I feel like I’ve been blessed to be healthy enough to continue to go out there each and every year as long as I have,” Rivers said. “I think certainly the rules set up to help you a little bit, no question as far as where that target area is, it’s not as vast as it used to be as far as the hits you used to take.

“And I’m still excited about doing it. I’m still fired up to come in here and prepare for the Broncos and prepare for a season, to go to training camp and all those things.”

That’s what drives all QBs, that internal fire, whatever its fuel.

“The seven that we could name, they all love it and have a great passion for it,” Rivers said. “Not that the guys in the past didn’t. I don’t mean that. But, shoot, some guys are ready to be done at 35, 36, and some just enjoy it so much they don’t want to put it down.”

On the other end are the greenhorn quarterbacks coming out of college and having to adjust on the fly to the pro style schemes after operating in the spread going back to high school, or even Pop Warner.

Broncos general manager John Elway moved up in the draft last year to select Paxton Lynch out of Memphis. But he’s been beaten out two summers in a row by 2015 seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian, a heady Northwestern grad who benefited from his year under Peyton Manning’s tutelage and made a quicker transition from the spread.

“There’s always been a dearth of quarterbacks,” Polian said. “And we survived the wishbone era, which couldn’t have been more disparate compared to what was done in the NFL. So, we’ll survive the spread — and at least they’re throwing the ball, so they develop stronger arms and, ostensibly, a little bit better accuracy than wishbone guys did.”

Elements of the spread dot the NFL landscape, but as a whole, it’s unsustainable against the bigger, stronger, faster defenders in the pros.

“I think there’s always some of it that comes in anytime you’re involved in the passing game,” said Polian. “Whether or not the play-calling via cards would make any sense, I have no opinion on. The no-huddle predated the spread, so that’s not an issue. But the one thing I’m sure of is that there are no old running quarterbacks in the National Football League.

“So, the idea of the read-option, once a guy sustains his first injury, i.e. RG3,” Polian added about Robert Griffin III, “that sort of goes by the board. I don’t think that’s coming into professional football as a steady diet anytime soon.”

The ones that do adjust and can thrive have an ever-increasing lifetime expectancy in the NFL. Just ask them.

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