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Longevity of NFL quarterbacks is evident as older ones soar in 2018

Longevity of NFL quarterbacks is evident as older ones soar in 2018
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has thrown 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions this season at 36. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The eyes have it.

Those experienced eyes of seasoned quarterbacks, some in their late 30s or even early 40s, are paying off in today’s NFL, with players putting up offensive numbers at a record pace.

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Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, and for a while Ryan Fitzpatrick, all puzzle pieces of the paradox that, in a young man’s game, it’s entirely possible to age gracefully.

Part of it is the rules, which have cracked down on defenders delivering the most punishing hits to quarterbacks, and have widened the cushion around defenseless receivers, somewhat reducing the danger of playing catch in heavy traffic.

But another part of the longevity of these players is their ever-increasing awareness of how to elude Father Time bearing down on them like a blitzing linebacker.

“Where there’s been a shift is the focus on lifestyle habits,” said John Spanos, Chargers president of football operations, whose team is led by 36-year-old Rivers. “I think a lot of the same principles with strength-and-conditioning training still apply, but now it’s been enhanced with a focus on things like amount of sleep, hydration, stress levels, nutrition, factors that previously weren’t thought to contribute significantly to durability on the field.”

Make no mistake, there is a wave of young quarterbacks who are making their mark on the game, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, and Carson Wentz among them, but also a senior class —– a gray area, if you will — that’s keeping pace.

New England’s Brady, 41, threw for 340 yards, passing for one touchdown and running for another, in last Sunday’s 43-40 victory over Kansas City. With that, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to record 200 regular-season victories.

New Orleans’ Brees, 39, who in Week 5 became the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (72,103) needs one touchdown pass to become the fourth player in league history with at least 500 touchdown passes.

“I’ve always had a goal that I want to continue to get better each and every year. Sometimes you can’t always measure that,” Brees said recently.

“There’s certain things stats don’t always show as to your true production. I want to build confidence with my offense. I want to be in control of the huddle. I want to lead the huddle. I want to make those guys believe and get the best out of them.

“And I want to make great decisions when I have to opportunity — and then produce. So as long as I’m able to do those things, that’s what drives me.”

NFL scoring is at an all-time high through the first six weeks of the season. The 4,489 points, 504 touchdowns and 328 touchdown passes are the most through Week 6 in NFL history.

“Really good quarterbacks get better and better until the end,” said Stephen Jones, chief executive and director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys. “The only thing that goes is the body. If the body goes, you can’t do anything about it. But if you keep your body in that kind of shape…”

It was a conversation Jones has had many times with quarterback Tony Romo, who retired in April 2017 just before his 37th birthday. He decided to end his 14-year career after battling back from injuries that included a broken back and two collarbone breaks.

“Tony said it broke his heart that he couldn’t get back in there, because he said, `I can play the game better than I’ve ever played it,’” Jones said. “It’s just the health, the back.”

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One of the biggest factors of longevity, Jones said, is a quarterback’s ability to make quick decisions to avoid hits.

“Getting rid of it is everything,” he said. “Most quarterbacks, they’ve got good arms. It’s just the anticipation to get rid of the ball, how to read a defense, work through the disguises.

“I think you’ll see it more and more as these players get good at it. You can play the quarterback position until you’re pretty old. Can’t play the rest of them, but that one you can do it.”

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