Brady and Rodgers have played badly but that will change, right?
By Mike Tanier
The 2022 NFL season is shaping up to be an extinction-level event for several once-mighty dinosaur quarterbacks.
Each week, Tom Brady looks less and less like a champion for the ages and more like a character who skipped from the middle of “Hamlet” straight to the end of “King Lear.” His Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 3-4 and coming off back-to-back losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Carolina Panthers, teams with a combined 4-10 record, by a combined score of 41-21.
In his 23rd season, Brady has scattered incomplete passes and labored to his feet after sacks and knockdowns; his patented fourth-quarter comeback attempts fizzle, if they arrive at all. Brady screams at teammates on the sideline, delivers bitter and sometimes inciting postgame barbs, deflects speculation about a midseason retirement and avoids any mention of his marital woes.
When Brady, 45, un-retired in mid-March, only about a month after announcing the end of his football career, he almost certainly did not have an embarrassing October slump in mind.
But at least Brady is miserable in good company.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, 38, stood at the lectern for his news conference after Sunday’s loss to the lowly Washington Commanders wearing what appeared to be a bathrobe; he looked like a cross between a Star Wars cosplayer and a young billionaire who just started jarring his toenail clippings.
“This might be the best thing for us,” the ever-cryptic Rodgers said of his team’s third consecutive loss. Rodgers-ologists began fiddling with their decoder rings to interpret his meaning. The Packers are now 3-4 heading into a showdown with the Buffalo Bills (5-1) that looks more like a potential knockout blow than a Super Bowl preview.
Russell Wilson, acquired by the Denver Broncos in a blockbuster trade with the Seattle Seahawks and signed to a $245 million contract extension before the start of the season, led the Broncos to a 2-4 record before he missed Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets with a hamstring injury. Denver ranks last in the NFL in scoring at 14.3 points per game.
Wilson, 33, a proponent of visualization exercises, “intentionality” and other self-help concepts that 1970s quarterbacks would have chucked whiskey bottles at, has been upbeat to nearly the point of toxic positivity throughout the Broncos’ early-season scoring drought.
Matt Ryan, 37, threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for the Tennessee Titans’ only touchdown, in a 19-10 loss that dropped the Indianapolis Colts to 3-3-1. The Colts rank 30th in the NFL in scoring at 16.1 points per game. Colts coach Frank Reich announced Monday that Ryan would be benched in favor of untested backup Sam Ehlinger for the rest of the season.
Four aging superstars with hefty salaries and stratospheric expectations, four different flavors of disappointment: Each of these unhappy quarterbacks is unhappy in his own way.
Ryan’s skills have been in gradual decline since his MVP award-winning season for the Atlanta Falcons in 2016. The Colts hoped a change of scenery and a better supporting cast would rejuvenate Ryan when they traded for him in March.
Instead, opponents quickly realized that Ryan, never a scrambler, is now about as mobile as a cellphone tower. Ryan has been blitzed a league-high 88 times this season, per Pro Football Reference. He leads the NFL with nine interceptions and is tied for second in times sacked with 24.
Wilson’s miscommunications with his new teammates and coaches are most glaring inside opponents’ 20-yard line, where he has completed just 13 of 31 attempts for 64 yards and a single touchdown. For comparison’s sake, Patrick Mahomes has thrown 17 red zone touchdowns, and 28 NFL quarterbacks have thrown at least four.
Wilson ignored wide-open teammate K.J. Hamler for what could have been an easy game-winning touchdown in overtime of a Week 4 loss to the Colts; Hamler lamented after the game that he “could’ve walked in” to the end zone. It often appears that the plays the Broncos are executing are different from the ones Wilson is visualizing.
Rodgers feels the absence of All-Pro receiver Davante Adams, whom the Packers traded to the Las Vegas Raiders in the offseason, in large part because they needed cap space to pay Rodgers. Packers coach Matt LaFleur uses presnap motion and other window dressing to help inexperienced receivers get open for short passes, and Rodgers has never been fond of motion, inexperienced receivers, short passes or head coaches.
A four-time MVP, Rodgers has been one of the NFL’s most effective deep passers for more than a decade, but his average completion now travels a league-low 4.2 yards downfield through the air, per Pro Football Reference.
No one statistic stands out as a problem for Brady. Everything just appears slightly off, and the recent returns of top receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans have not helped. Age may finally be catching up, but the same thing has been said after every poor Brady performance since roughly 2013.
Brady, Rodgers or Wilson could bounce back, at least modestly, once Wilson recovers and the others adjust to their circumstances. Unfortunately, all three come with Super Bowl-or-bust expectations that they are now unlikely to meet. The Buccaneers are getting 13-to-2 odds to reach the Super Bowl, the Packers 15-to-1 and the Broncos 50-to-1.
The Buccaneers’ and the Packers’ odds are buoyed by a weak field of NFC contenders: Neither team would stand a chance if their most probable path through the playoffs included Buffalo or Kansas City.
While the declines of Brady and others may feel tragic, they are really just cases of the NFL ecosystem healing itself. Declining skills, increasing salaries, prickly egos and long-indulged eccentricities hollow out preeminent quarterbacks from within. Mighty redwoods must fall so Mahomes and Josh Allen can fully bask in the sunlight and saplings like Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts have room to grow strong. Lionized quarterbacks aren’t going extinct; they’re merely participating in the circle of life.
Just don’t let Brady or Rodgers hear that.