Changing of the Guard: A Quarterback Revolution is Starting in the AFC

by Derrik Klassen

The AFC is on the verge of a forced swing toward parity. Over the past 15 years, only four quarterbacks have won the AFC championship and represented the conference in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger have each made at least three trips to the Super Bowl on behalf of the AFC. Joe Flacco rounds out the group with his one miraculous playoff run that included an all-time disastrous play from Raheem Moore to help the Baltimore Ravens advance through the postseason. 

What is more is that these four quarterbacks have often been battling each other for Super Bowl bids. 8 of the past 15 AFC championship games featured two of Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, or Flacco facing off against each other. Only 11 unique quarterbacks have even appeared in the AFC championship game. Compare that to the NFC, where 19 unique quarterbacks have played for the NFC championship and 13 unique quarterbacks have won it. There has been a much more defined power structure atop the AFC than in the NFC over the past decade and a half. 

The quartet of winning AFC quarterbacks is on its way out, though. Manning already started the exodus when he retired three years ago at the age of 39. After suffering a career-threatening neck injury in 2011, Manning was traded from the Colts to the Broncos, where he found a temporary fountain of youth and broke a number of passing records. After four successful seasons in Denver, Manning’s body finally gave out in 2015. Manning had so quickly deteriorated over the course of the 2015 offseason that the Broncos turned to Brock Osweiler for parts of the regular season. Oddly enough, the Broncos won the Super Bowl that season on the back of an all-time great defense, but Manning had run smack into the “wall” of old age that many quarterbacks fear and retired as a result. 

Brady is likely the next domino to fall. Now 41 years old, Brady is approaching nearly uncharted territory for players his age. Warren Moon (42) and Vinny Testaverde (44) are the only quarterbacks since the 1970 merger to start at least six games in a season at 42 years of age or older. Testaverde is an odd case of an unkillable journeyman quarterback whose career does not align with Brady’s. Moon, however, was a Hall of Fame passer who had helped define his era of quarterbacks and remained successful into his late 30’s. Moon made a Pro Bowl in 1997 at the age of 41 before falling off in his age 42 season, ultimately marking the end of his days as a starting quarterback. After spending the following two seasons as a backup, Moon retired after the 2000 season at the age of 44. Though Brady has had a more illustrious career and is a different style of passer than Moon, their careers are at least partially comparable as age-defying Hall of Famers. 

In addition to his almost unprecedented longevity, Brady has recently walked back some of his confidence that he can or will play until he is 45 years old. During an interview this summer with Oprah, Brady acknowledged that he thinks about retirement more than he used to in the past. Throughout the interview, Brady laced in introspective comments about his family life and experiences outside of football, which is uncharacteristic of someone who has appeared to have a one-track mind about football since entering the league. For once, there are real signs from Brady himself that retirement is on the way.

There is no telling how long Roethlisberger plans to keep playing either. Roethlisberger has always been one to throw out the possibility of retirement during the offseason, but he has become especially open about it over the past two years. He changed his tune when the team drafted Mason Rudolph in the second round this spring, but that only serves to cloud which sentiment from Roethlisberger is legitimate. Roethlisberger’s sudden willingness to continue playing also does not nullify his injury history, particularly in regards to concussions. Roethlisberger has three confirmed concussions on his record, one as recently as 2015, and went into concussion protocol last week after a scare in practice. Thankfully, results came back negative and Roethlisberger was cleared, but even a scare at this stage in his career should give him pause. After a certain point, Roethlisberger has to recognize the diminishing returns of furthering his career. 

Flacco is the only recent AFC champion whose team has made a clear effort to push him out of the building. Over the past three seasons, Flacco accrued 5.8 adjusted yards per attempt and a measly 52 passing touchdowns to 40 interceptions. Flacco has been neither efficient nor explosive and the team has suffered as a result. The Ravens posted a 20-22 record when Flacco was healthy over that three-year stretch, missing the playoffs in all three seasons. In response to Flacco’s replacement level play, the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson, an explosive runner and passer who serves as the perfect antithesis to Flacco. 

With all of the AFC’s winningest quarterbacks gone or on their way out, someone has to pick up the slack. Rookies and veterans alike will have a better chance at securing Super Bowl bids as the old guard falls by the wayside. The AFC is about to turn into the Wild Wild West. 

New Kids On the Block

Six AFC teams drafted a quarterback in the first round over the past two years. The Cleveland Browns’ selection of Baker Mayfield was the only one of those six selections which did not involve a trade to move up or back in the first round. 

Drafted QuarterbackPrevious Quarterback

Kansas City Chiefs (2017)

Patrick Mahomes (10th overall)

Alex Smith

Houston Texans (2017)

Deshaun Watson (12th overall)

Brock Osweiler

Cleveland Browns (2018)

Baker Mayfield (1st overall)

DeShone Kizer

New York Jets (2018)

Sam Darnold (3rd overall)

Josh McCown

Buffalo Bills (2018)

Josh Allen (7th overall)

Tyrod Taylor

Baltimore Ravens (2018)

Lamar Jackson (32nd overall)

Joe Flacco

Deshaun Watson is the only quarterback out of this group who has already had a real chance to show his talents in the NFL. In just seven games last season, Watson threw a whopping 19 touchdowns and held an 8.3 yards per pass average. He also rushed for nearly 300 yards and two scores, including a 49-yard touchdown run versus the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday Night Football during his first start.

Most memorably, Watson dismantled the remnants of Seattle’s Legion of Boom. It was a volatile performance, to say the least, but Watson’s four passing touchdowns and nearly 500 total yards versus one of the league’s most fearsome defenses solidified Watson as a legitimate starter in the NFL. The confidence, poise, and sense of control that Watson showcased in that particular game are rare for a rookie quarterback. It is a shame that Watson’s season was cut short by an ACL injury during the following week of practice. 

Patrick Mahomes and Sam Darnold can be labeled as the gunslingers of the group. Both passers play with loose, unique mechanics that do not fit into the conventional mold. Likewise, Mahomes and Darnold each win through brash confidence in and out of the pocket, as well as a propensity to attempt throws many others would not dare. They are also quietly effective in the short area of the field, which often gets overshadowed by their chaotic playstyles. Trouble is bound to find these two with as aggressive and freelancing they can be, but there is plenty to be excited about. 

Despite 30 picks between them in the 2018 draft, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson can also be thrown into the same category. Mayfield and Jackson both dominated the college circuit, earning Heisman trophies one after the other and shattering records of all sorts. Both quarterbacks possess an ideal blend of efficiency, ball security, and explosiveness. Furthermore, Mayfield and Jackson ranked first and second in their class, respectively, per Football Outsiders’ QBase projection system. Jackson is less consistent and more of a rushing threat than Mayfield, but their overarching styles still mesh well. Both quarterbacks will force their offenses to adopt spread and option concepts, and they will be glad they did. 

Josh Allen is the odd man out. Whether you prefer to trust QBase, Bill Connelly’s quarterback metrics, Justis Mosqueda’s explosivity ratings, or your own eyes, there are too many red flags in Allen’s profile and film catalog to put him in the same territory as the other five quarterbacks. Given his otherworldly arm strength and impressive mobility, Allen will get a number of chances to prove himself, but it is a long-shot that he is one of the quarterbacks to rise to the top of the AFC. That said, he is still another first-round quarterback to keep an eye on as the conference opens up. 

Familiar Faces

Andrew Luck, Derek Carr, and Marcus Mariota are not exactly grizzled veterans, but they know the ropes of the league by now. They have each been in the league for at least three seasons and have either received massive contract extensions or, in the case of Mariota, almost certainly will in the near future. 

Whether or not Luck fully regains form in the wake of his shoulder surgery is to be seen, but he has proven before that he can carry sub-par Colts teams to and through the playoffs. He is one of the few non-winners to make it to the AFC championship game as of late, a game in which the Colts were obliterated by none other than the Patriots. If Luck plays like his old self, he will have a chance to solidify a top spot in the AFC. 

Carr is coming off a down season, so the idea of him being a possibility to rise to the top may feel out of place. That said, Carr had an impressive 2016 season, but was inhibited by health and poor play calling in 2017. It is plausible that Carr finds his 2016 form again and guides the Raiders back to the playoffs year after year. Carr is not a special quarterback, so he will need more help than some of his peers, but he is plenty capable of supplying baseline quality quarterback with the added bonus of incredible throws from time to time. It may also help that there should not be much disturbance by way of the offensive structure given the 10-year contract head coach Jon Gruden signed. 

Though plagued by injuries and the ever frustrating Mike Mularkey, Mariota has the talent to become a premier AFC quarterback. The Titans were not wrong to spend the No.2 overall pick on Mariota in 2015, they just have not been able to put together good enough receiving talent or proper play-calling to enable his strengths. With offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, a Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay disciple, into the fold, Mariota is going to get a better opportunity to showcase his talents and finally carry the Titans offense. 

Though these known commodities are not as fun to cast as the potential kings of the AFC, it is well within their capabilities to snatch that crown. They have just as good a chance as the rookies, even if excitement and projection regarding the rookies is naturally higher. 

Related: Using 2018 Fantasy Projections to Create On-Field Quarterback Tiers

Between a slew of promising rookies and established veterans, at least half of the conference has a shot to climb to the top, not to mention teams such as the Steelers and Patriots who will soon need to draft quarterbacks of their own. There may be a new handful of quarterbacks who take a stranglehold on the conference, or the conference could become more like the NFC and send a revolving door of quarterbacks to the Super Bowl. No matter which possibility unfolds, it is high time for a new era of top-tier quarterbacks in the AFC.