The only thing more difficult to stomach than Sunday’s loss to the New England Patriots was the inane, baseless and downright absurd criticism of Mark Sanchez that followed it on SNY, Twitter, and the other usual outlets, despite the fact that he played well enough for the Jets to win. However, this is the age we live in. Every game is a referendum on a team, and thereby, their quarterback. Every loss raises the question: can this guy cut it? Wins almost always lead to inordinate and undeserved amounts of praise.
So as I consumed and contributed to the discussion, I came across the following sentence, ironically in a gossip article about Sanchez’s supposed split from Eva Longoria: “Quarterback Sanchez, 25, who was already partying at the club…” blah blah blah. I literally went back to the beginning of the sentence, semi-shocked: Wait…Sanchez is 25 years old! 25! He’s practically a child! How easily we forget this. At least I did.
But, it’s his fourth season, the season where quarterbacks are supposed to “turn the corner”. Consistency is expected. Accuracy should improve. Yardage, YPA and touchdowns are supposed to increase; turnovers expected to decrease. Realistically, this should only be expected if the quarterback has been put in a stable and sustainable situation for growth. Sanchez has had the same head coach for the first four years of his career, but little else has remained constant. He’s dealt with a revolving door of receivers, right tackles and backup tight ends. He’s in the midst of learning a new system. And oh yeah, he who shall not be named. But that’s all besides the point.
Sanchez’s age made me wonder: when do most of the league’s most productive quarterbacks make the proverbial leap? As someone who is at least semi-interested in the statistical revolution that’s happening throughout all sports – started of course in baseball by Bill James and put into practice famously by Billy Beane – one of the more fascinating theories was that players have a discernible prime age. In baseball, the magic number is the Age 27 season. This is the power prime for hitters. It’s also around the time when a lot of players become free agents, so it’s advised that teams on a budget (anyone not named the New York Yankees) not overpay for talent that will almost certainly decline over the coming years. But there seems to be something about that 26-28 age range where something clicks.
So, who’s up for a little experiment? Let’s apply this theory to the last five Super Bowl winning quarterbacks and see how the numbers look. They are: Eli Manning (twice), Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning. All of them are indisputably “elite”. Jets fans would be happy if Mark Sanchez developed into HALF of any of them. But at what age did Eli become Eli? Brees become Brees? READ ON (all statistics from Pro Football Reference).
Sanchez has rightly been compared to Eli Manning before for many reasons, but mainly because of how similarly their careers began and the fact that they both play in New York. There isn’t a Giants fan on earth who was sold on Eli until he threw the Super Bowl winning touchdown to Plaxico Burress. And even still, Eli’s 2007 regular season (Age 26) was nothing to brag about. He completed 56.1% of his passes, his YPA a rather poor 6.3 (good for 26th in the league behind stalwarts such as Tavaris Jackson and Vince Young). He also threw 20(!) interceptions. Amazingly, Eli turned 27 on January 3rd and EXACTLY one month later, he lifted the Lombardi trophy. In subsequent seasons, Eli has certainly raised his play to a consistently high level. He threw for only 3,238 yards in 2008, but his completion percentage jumped 4 points and he cut his interceptions in half. Eli was on his way to the “elite” status he has rightfully earned.
Aaron Rodgers may well be the outlier in this discussion, but bear in mind, he didn’t start a game in the NFL until his age 25 season. After playing understudy to Brett Favre for three years, Rodgers came in and dominated right away. That he threw for 4,038 yards in his first season on the job is borderline ridiculous. His 63.6% completion percentage that year is, laughably, a career-low. But even after such an unfathomable start to his career, Rogers found another gear. 2011 was one of the all-time great years by any quarterback ever. Rodgers posted an insane 9.2 YPA and an aggregate QB Rating of 122.5. He amassed 45 touchdowns and threw only 6 interceptions. This was Rodgers’ Age 28 season (though he didn’t actually turn 28 until December). I’m noticing a trend. Are you?
Drew Brees’ story is well-documented. The 6-foot-nothing quarterback that the Chargers couldn’t wait to get rid of got a second chance in New Orleans and three years later delivered the former laughingstock franchise its first Super Bowl title. But Brees’ first two years in the league were rocky to say the least. He was benched in his second season. And while he did get his act together and produce in San Diego, Brees’ leap took place in his first season in New Orleans at – you guessed it – age 27. Brees outpassed his career-best yardage total by nearly 1,000. He attempted 54 more passes and threw 4 fewer interceptions (though to be fair, Brees’ interception rate has held pretty steady throughout his career). By his 2009 Super Bowl season, Brees had cemented himself as one of the NFL’s best.
Ben Roethlisberger’s case is an interesting one, but the magic number comes into play here as well. Yes, he went 13-0 in his rookie year and won a Super bowl in his second season, but he had certainly not been handed the keys to the car. Similar to Sanchez, Roethlisberger received a ton of support from a run-heavy system, stellar defense and tremendous coaching. He was asked simply not to lose games. What happened when the Steelers leaned more heavily on Roethlisberger, following their championship season and the retirement of Jerome Bettis? Roethlisberger struggled. His completion percentage fell three points. His YPA dropped from 8.9 to 7.5. He was intercepted 23 times. He threw for a career high 3,513 yards, but only because he attempted 201 more passes in 2006 than he did in 2005. And oh yeah, Pittsburgh went 7-8 in games started by Roethlisberger.
Can you imagine if this happened in New York? Can you imagine if management went out and made an asinine trade for a flashy backup quarterback? Fortunately for Steelers fans, their organization isn’t owned by Woody Johnson. Yes, they had the tonic of a recent Super Bowl championship to ease the pain, but they stuck with their quarterback. He was only 24, after all. Age 25 was good to Roethlisberger, but he was statistically mediocre in 2008 as a 26 year old, until the playoffs. It was here, just a month before turning 27, that Roethlisberger cemented himself as a big time NFL quarterback. From 2009 on, Roethlisberger has put up two 4,000+ yard seasons and generally earned his place among the league’s best.
Finally we come to the granddaddy of them all: Peyton Manning. Let’s be clear: Peyton is a freak. He’s the best quarterback of this NFL generation, and this is not disputable (Brady‘s three rings be damned; Manning was busy changing the game while Brady was battling Drew Henson for playing time at Michigan). He’s been putting up 4,000 yard seasons like nothing since 1999 (Age 23). But if you look at his stats, there is a shift as Peyton hit his prime at 27: mainly, he stopped turning the football over. Through his first five seasons, Manning was intercepted on 3.54% of his pass attempts. In 2003, that number dropped off a cliff to 1.8%. It didn’t go above 2.2% again until 2007, Manning’s age 31 season. Because the interceptions fell, Manning’s QB rating spiked, jumping 22 points between 2003 and 2004.
So you may be thinking: I just wasted 10 perfectly good minutes of my day reading that garbage. Mark Sanchez sucks! He’s never going to be any of these guys.
Maybe. But the bottom line is, we don’t know. As the New England game has been dissected, the one thought that’s prevailed is that Jets fans still don’t know what to make of their starting quarterback. Game to game, quarter to quarter, throw to throw, the only thing consistent has been the quarterback’s inconsistency. In truth, Sanchez may be one of the hardest quarterbacks to pin down in the league right now, because of all of the external factors that may or may not be affecting his growth. The only way for the Jets to find out what they really have in Sanchez is to give him a solid and consistent supporting cast (this includes getting rid of you know who), and be patient. How patient? Sanchez turns 27 in 383 days.