The end of an era in the NFL


By Will Graves - AP Sports Writer



Tom Brady always had an innate sense of timing. Ben Roethlisberger too. Consider it a prerequisite — perhaps the most important one — if you want to spend a generation in the NFL.

They were two sides of the same coin. Old school in their own way.

Yes, really.

Strip away the “TB12 Method” branding, shield your eyes from the bling of Brady’s seven Super Bowl rings and his supermodel wife and all the “GOAT” merch and you’ll find perhaps the most successful grinder in league history.

A slow, unremarkable sixth-round selection who squeezed every last ounce of talent — and then some — out of a body that hardly screamed “eventual all-time leader in just about everything” when the Patriots took a flyer on the scrawny kid from Michigan with the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft.

Roethlisberger arrived with more fanfare four years later when Dan Rooney insisted the Steelers grab the 6-foot-5 manchild from Ohio with the 11th choice.

Yet while Brady did everything to distance his image from the prospect who ran the 40-yard dash in 5.28 seconds (that’s not a typo), Roethlisberger embraced his “Big Ben” persona while — just like Brady — evolving from game manager to franchise icon.

“Ben defied the TB12 Method in favor of the ‘Throw Some Ice On It’ method his whole career, and ended up an all-time-great with 6 Pro-Bowls and 2 Super Bowls,” Brady tweeted after Roethlisberger retired on Jan. 27. “There’s more than one way to bake a cake!”

Maybe, but the cake looks a lot different now than it did when Brady and Roethlisberger began their respective ascensions in the early 2000s. The position Brady and Roethlisberger helped define is changing.

When the Steelers and the Buccaneers stress they’re not trying to find the next Roethlisberger or Brady this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, they’re not kidding. For all of their greatness and the gold jackets that await them in Canton, Ohio, the game has moved on.

The proof has been broadcast into millions of homes over the last month during perhaps the most compelling playoffs in a century-plus of professional football. The future Roethlisberger and Brady fended off to the bitter end is finally here. The baton they carried for capably for so long has been passed to (or taken by) players who grew up idolizing them.

Patrick Mahomes. Josh Allen. Joe Burrow. The list goes on. Lamar Jackson. Justin Herbert. Dak Prescott. Maybe Jalen Hurts one day. Justin Fields too.

While they are all being asked to win like Brady and Roethlisberger did for so long it’s the manner in which they are asked to go about it that is changing.

Quarterbacks can no longer just stand in the pocket as Brady did and make a series of micro-decisions as chaos envelops them. They need to do more than fend off defenders with one arm and fling game-altering passes with the other as Roethlisberger did.

Watch Allen lower his shoulder to take on linebackers. See Jackson spin defenders into the ground. Or Mahomes zig-zagging like a kid running away from classmates during a game of tag.

Even Burrow, as close to a Brady clone as perhaps there is, used a pair of scrambles to key Cincinnati’s stunning rally past Mahomes and the Chiefs in the AFC championship game last week.

“The AFC is the quarterback conference,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on Monday. “You’ve seen that the last two weeks.”

And likely for years to come.

Mahomes is 26. Allen, Burrow and Jackson are 25. Herbert is 23. They will likely spend the next decade-plus taking turns appearing in the Super Bowl, gracing the cover of “Madden” — heck, Jackson and Mahomes have already done it — and crowding the top 10 in annual jersey sales.

Their rise has helped fuel another TV ratings surge for a league that already has an ability to capture the public’s attention in ways other sports simply cannot.

Their arrival en masse serves as a paradigm shift. As improbable as Brady’s ascendance to GOAT-status seemed 20 years ago, he and Roethlisberger both fit the archetype of what an NFL quarterback should look — and play — like.

A month and a day before Brady was drafted, Dan Marino retired as the NFL’s career leader in yards passing and passing touchdowns, a crown he passed on to Brett Favre, then Manning, then Brees, then Brady. Back then, Michael Vick was the anomaly.

And while Vick’s singular talents may always make him the ultimate outlier, he provided a blueprint that Allen, Jackson and others are using to carry the league into its second century.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin became keenly aware of this during the fall while his team struggled to contain the likes of Mahomes, Burrow and Herbert, who went a combined 5-0 against Pittsburgh this season, sometimes putting up eye-popping numbers in the process. Asked repeatedly during the year about what he’s looking for in finding Roethlisberger’s successor, he repeatedly talked about quarterback mobility.

That doesn’t mean Tomlin is searching for Vick version 3.0. But the job requirements for what Tomlin and his brethren are asking their quarterbacks to do in 2022 bears only a passing resemblance to what Roethlisberger and Brady were tasked with in 2004.

Winning never goes out of style. It’s the way teams are going about it that is changing. Brady and Roethlisberger’s records will likely fall one day — expanded schedules and quarterbacks playing at a high level into their late 30s and beyond will see to that — but after 100-years plus of having a position dominated by a certain paradigm, the tide has shifted.

Perhaps for good.

Maybe Brady, as astute a student of the game as anyone, could see it coming. He accepted the mantle as the position’s standard-bearer and took it to once unimaginable heights.

He heads into the next phase of his life watching the players who grew up idolizing him playing a game — to paraphrase something golfing great Bobby Jones once said of a young Jack Nicklaus — with which Brady is not familiar.

Brady and Roethlisberger took one form of a position as far as it could go. The Old School has been dismissed. The New School is in session. Sit down. Strap in. And enjoy the ride.

The GOAT certainly will.

By Will Graves

AP Sports Writer