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Tara Sullivan

Checking in with Phil Simms on the state of NFL quarterbacks

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have their teams near the top of the AFC.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have their teams near the top of the AFC.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff/file 2017)

The excitement level for young NFL quarterbacks is on the upswing once again. It seems we get a weekly contest over who is going to dominate the highlights and headlines with his latest antics. From the ridiculousness of Patrick Mahomes’s arm to the audacity of Baker Mayfield’s attitude, from the emergence of Lamar Jackson’s skill set to the octane in Jared Goff’s gas tank, the talent pool is as enticing as it is exhilarating. And that’s the starting point for the conversation that insists NFL offenses have tilted inexorably toward the college game that feeds its ranks, with spread packages and screen games eclipsing the age-old pocket passer.

And all of that may be true. There was Mahomes again Thursday night, rolling to his right, buying time, in the grasp of a defender, and still delivering an exceptional sidearm touchdown throw, left on the losing sideline when Chargers coach Anthony Lynn elected to go for the win rather than allow Mahomes his shot in overtime.

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But before you crown Mahomes as the model for the next generation of NFL QBs and the harbinger of a changing of the guard that feels as if it’s been years in the making, don’t forget that traditional pocket passers can still rule the day. Philip Rivers reminded us Thursday, and, come Sunday, watch the Patriots and Steelers for one more potent example the old guard isn’t done yet.

I, for one, love it.

Not because I don’t enjoy the young guys — they’re fantastic — but because I appreciate a league so long steeped in mimicry and ruled by convention is finding room for different kinds of quarterbacks in various types of schemes.

“The Tom Bradys, the Ben Roethlisbergers, the Philip Rivers, they will always survive. They’re always going to be the big guys in the league,” CBS and Showtime analyst Phil Simms said in a conversation this week, when I called the former Giants quarterback to talk about the state of the position, a subject that has fascinated me lately as the latest generation of young stars begins to emerge.

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“The running, here’s how it goes,” Simms said. “You come into the league in the greatest running shape you’ll ever be in. You’ll never get faster. You will slow down. It happens a lot faster than you think. And guess what? Defenses get faster, too. I know it’s a different league, there’s more deception.

“People are playing the best athlete at quarterback, if he happens to be a born thrower, you’ve got something. But it’s the best athlete and the best athlete a lot of times means it’s an athlete playing quarterback, not a quarterback who’s athletic. There’s a tremendous difference.”

The question now is who will last. Who among a young crop of QBs that also includes the likes of Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Derek Carr, Carson Wentz, and Mitch Trubisky has any chance to endure the way veterans such as Brady, Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Rivers, and Matt Ryan have? Reality insists those mainstays are on the back nine of their careers, and because the group that bridges the young and the mainstays is small (Cam Newton, Russell Wilson), the focus is on who’s next. And the way Simms sees it, the game as it’s played now should allow for plenty of them to hang around.

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Never mind the talent — they all have that. But as the rule book tilts ever more in the offense’s favor, as QBs take fewer and fewer of the vicious hits that hastened the retirements of everyone from Simms to Troy Aikman to Peyton Manning to Brett Favre, as play design and play calling remove much of the impromptu decision-making that defined their predecessors, they have plenty to help them out.

“We were taught to stand in and take the hit,” Simms said. “Offenses have changed dramatically. If a play isn’t there, get rid of the ball. There are more pass plays that count as a run. They find another way to run the ball, throwing to the running back more than ever. I’m not going to tell you the teams, but there are some teams that throw at least 10 screens a game, they get eight completions, and those drive up the numbers. Last week, you look and Roethlisberger is 25 for 29, Cam 18 for 22, it’s incredible. The numbers look like a shootout and then you see they scored 13 points.

“Anybody can throw the damn screen. It’s about more deception now. The position of quarterback, it’s probably less and less about making great decisions than it’s ever been. So many plays are made for them before the snap. There is a group of offensive coordinators who are going to win the game themselves, not the quarterback, with play calling and play design.”

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Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson played an overtime thriller in Week 14.
Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson played an overtime thriller in Week 14.(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

That being said, however, Simms loves Mahomes as much as the rest of us do.

“He is not going to change. He’s going to get better,” Simms said. “I know he is. He’s going to see more, make better decisions, his ability to move around is greater than anyone thought. Did I like him coming out of college? No. I loved him. One quality about being a quarterback, we’ve never seen a player like it at this time of our lives, his ability to throw, his calmness and movement are better than expected, and he’s thrown so much and played so many sports all that athleticism shows through. It’s not just football.

“He can throw all directions and ways. It should be that way for all quarterbacks. He has extra long arms for a guy his height [6 feet 3 inches]. His thinking on the run, his throwing across his body, he makes it [look] easy.

“He’s not the athlete who plays quarterback, he’s a quarterback who is athletic.”

He’s a wave of the future for sure. But the beauty of the game right now? There’s plenty of room in the water.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com.