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Chiefs and 49ers Super Bowl quarterbacks kick off a new offensive era. But can it last?

Today’s offenses are built for creative quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo. But they may not be able to protect the NFL's new class of nimble stars.
Image; The old guard quarterbacks, like Tom Brady and Eli Manning, are passing the baton to a new class of players like Jimmy Garoppolo and Patrick Mahomes.
The old guard quarterbacks, like Tom Brady and Eli Manning, are passing the baton to a dynamic new cohort.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Super Bowl LIV looks a little bit different this year. There is no Tom Brady. There is no Peyton or Eli Manning. I know that this is disorienting. Do not adjust your set.

The Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers are playing in the first Super Bowl since 2013 that has not featured either Brady or Peyton Manning (and twice both Brady and Eli Manning.) The 2013 contest featured Colin Kaepernick in a prominent role, so you know that Super Bowl was a long time ago. In fact, 15 of the last 16 Super Bowls have had either Brady, a Manning brother or Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger behind center. Those men, all future NFL Hall of Famers, have dominated nearly two decades of Super Bowls, in a way no cohort of quarterbacks have at any other time in NFL history.

Those men, all future NFL Hall of Famers, have dominated nearly two decades of Super Bowls.

But that is changing now. Both Mannings have retired — Eli Manning just this season Roethlisberger missed almost all of this season with an injury and Brady will be 43 years old when the 2020 season begins (and may not even be playing for the New England Patriots when it does). While Brady could possibly have a Super Bowl or two left in him (though honestly, it’s unlikely), this is almost certainly the end of an era. Quarterbacks have looked like Brady, the Mannings and Roethlisberger (and Aaron Rodgers) for decades. But they’re not going to look like that much longer.

The game of football has changed in recent years, turning away from big, lumbering, rocket-armed types like Brady and Manning and toward more nimble players like Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (the 2018 NFL MVP), Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (this year’s unanimous MVP) and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (this year's offensive rookie of the year). But Chiefs and Ravens fans may need to temper their expectations somewhat. Quarterback has long been the position with the longest lasting career; the way offenses run now, that’s changing too.

Brady and Peyton Manning were cut from the same cloth of past stars like John Elway and Dan Marino; they were big, tall, mostly immobile (and almost always white) quarterbacks who stood in the pocket as long as they could and used their Howitzer-like arms to deliver the ball to receivers in stride. Offenses were built around their arms and their height, and the game had a certain rigid structure to it: These quarterbacks either threw the ball, handed it off or got sacked right there in the pocket. This was the NFL for the first 50 years of the Super Bowl era.

But, inspired by the college game, in which school coaches from smaller, lower-profile coaches like Hal Mumme and Mike Leach at smaller programs like Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State were forced to creative strange, innovative offenses to overcome their inherent talent disadvantages, the NFL in recent years has been remade. Now quarterbacks are increasingly leaning on the run-pass option, in which the QB can throw the ball or take off and run in an offense that’s designed to do either.

This kind of offense requires someone with speed who can make quick decisions. Height doesn’t matter as much, and neither does build. What matters is that the defense must respect the possibility that the quarterback will run — something you almost never have to worry about with Brady — which often leads to more space for receivers downfield. It’s the primary reason offense has exploded across the NFL: They’re just playing the game differently.

Players like Mahomes, Jackson and Murray would likely not have played quarterback two decades ago. (For reasons other than just offensive formations, of course: The NFL has had notorious issues with African American quarterbacks throughout its history). A quarterback like Brady, for all his genius, has a style that’s actually a hinderance to most offensive coordinators: Knowing that he’s just going to sit in the pocket takes half the playbook off the table. Offenses aren’t built for Brady anymore; they’re built for Mahomes.

So, then, we should expect the next 20 years to be dominated by Mahomes, Jackson and Murray like Brady and company dominated the last 20? Not necessarily. While today’s offenses are built for quarterbacks to be efficient and creative, they are not built for quarterbacks to, well, last. The thing about leaving the pocket and running down the field is that you tend to get hit more, and harder.

Just ask poor Cam Newton. Four years ago, Newton was the league MVP and a Super Bowl starter, the future of the league. Now? He was riddled with injuries during a disappointing 2018 season and only played two games in 2019. It is possible the Carolina Panthers will release him this offseason for salary cap considerations. His career is far from over, but the fall has been fast. And the reason is because Newton’s body couldn’t take the constant abuse that a quarterback who runs the ball a lot can expect.

Mahomes, Jackson and Murray may be able to avoid Newton’s fate. But it’s undeniable that their offenses rely on their athletic ability more than Brady’s ever did, and athletic ability typically fades faster than smarts and savvy. Eventually Mahomes and his ilk will be replaced, just like what's happening to Brady and his cohorts now. But it’s probably going to happen a lot more quickly for these youngsters. In 10 years, there will likely be a new version of Mahomes. But, for better or worse, there will probably never be another Brady.