I could go back to 2003 (Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Tony Romo), or I could factor in the great 2004 class of Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub (who threw for 330, 436, 221 and 357 yards Sunday, respectively). But I'll throw out this 10-man class of Sunday's young starters -- all those who started and are 26 or younger -- and rank them by how I think their careers will pan out:
Player, Team Age, Starting seasons, Skinny
1. Matt Ryan, Atlanta, age 24, 2: Started this season 2-0. Now 13-5 as a pro.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay, age 25, 2: Threw for 261 yards in loss to Cincinnati
3. Jay Cutler, Chicago, age 26, 4: Rebounded from opening nightmare to beat Pitt.
4. Joe Flacco, Baltimore, age 24, 2: Finally has Baltimore O on equal footing with D
5. Mark Sanchez, NY Jets, age 22, 1: Even Namath didn't start the '65 opener
6. Trent Edwards, Buffalo, age 25, 2: Masterful at NE in opener, and beat TB Sunday
7. Matthew Stafford, Detroit, age 21, 1: Lions know they can't rush the kid
8. Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia, age 25, 0: Could back up McNabb for 2 more years.
9. Brady Quinn, Cleveland, age 24, 1: He'll get too beat up in Cleveland to be judged fairly.
10. JaMarcus Russell, Oakland, age 24, 2: A 52% passer in 21 career outings.
A final note: Think of all the talent headed to the league in 2010: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow of Florida and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead, and more. It's going to be a young-armed league for a while.
The odd thing -- especially considering the topic of this column -- is how well the older quarterbacks are playing. The three who have found the fountain of football youth:
Brett Favre. "Every game I play at this point, I'm pretty grateful,'' he said after his record-setting 271st consecutive start, the most by a position player in NFL history. "I know how difficult it is.''
What was all the more admirable about the performance by Favre -- who turns 40 in three weeks -- is that he got sacked three times by the Lions and hit hard on four other occasions, and still had one of the most accurate days of his NFL career, completing 23 of 27 throws. He came out of the game for the last series after banging his right hand in the process of throwing a touchdown pass to Percy Harvin in the fourth quarter. "He's fine,'' said Brad Childress. "He's an ironman.''
Now, we all assume that no one will ever break this record of Favre's, but should we? Let's say Favre plays 16 games this regular-season, then retires. (For good.) That would give him 285 straight starts. Peyton Manning is now at 177. If he starts the rest of this year, he'd be at 192. So he'd need 94 starts to pass Favre; Manning would have to start every game 'til December 2015 to get to 286. By that time, like Favre, Manning would be 39. Now that Manning has started to have knee issues, my money's on Favre to keep the record, but it wouldn't stun me if Manning -- who is conscious of his place in history and loves football as much as he loves breathing -- worked tirelessly to stay healthy enough to play that long.
Kurt Warner. One incompletion was a "sight-adjust'' route mixup with Anquan Boldin, which happens to every quarterback in every game. On the other, Jacksonville was blitzing, and Warner had to throw a fade he knew probably wouldn't be caught. That's the extent of his imperfections Sunday. His 24-of-26 day in a 31-17 win at Jacksonville was the most accurate (.923) in NFL history.
"I've had days where I felt like this before,'' he said. "The NFC Championship Game last year. The Super Bowl. Those weren't as accurate, but I felt like I was going to complete every ball. This was one of those days where you see things so quickly and feel comfortable about making the decisions so quickly. I knew where to go with the ball the second I got it. I haven't had many of those days, but this was one of them.''
Warner, 38, looks like he could play another three or four years. He's his typical immobile self, and maybe even a little moreso after offseason hip surgery, but since when did that matter? "The one thing I've learned about the game is you always have to figure out what you've lost and how to play with what you have left," he said. "If I'm slower, fine. But I think my feel for the game makes up for that.''
We can see.
Drew Brees. The young kid of the Trifecta at 30, Brees is playing some sick football. He doesn't have a franchise running back, nor a franchise receiver (though Marques Colston is angular, tough and sure-handed), nor a reliable tight end -- at least not until Jeremy Shockey proves he can stay healthy for a season.
"Every time we touch the ball, we think we're scoring,'' Brees said from the team bus in Philly, after the Saints routed the Eagles 48-22. "This game says a lot. We played in a hostile environment, played well in all three phases, and played a team that always makes the playoffs. It's big for us.''
I told him he reminded me of Warner a decade ago, where every game he played I thought he'd throw for 350. Well, he's got a way to go. He's averaging 334.5 yards a game. That'll do. If the Saints' D holds up its end, New Orleans will be play deep into January.
I can't let this column top pass without acknowledging the greatness of Ray Lewis.
On fourth-and-two in the final minute at San Diego, with the Ravens trying to protect a 31-26 lead, the Chargers had the ball at Baltimore's 15. With Darren Sproles in the backfield, San Diego pulled left guard Kris Dielman to the right, and had back Jacob Hester blast up behind right tackle to great push for Sproles to get the two yards. And then Lewis came roaring, unblocked, through the left guard-center gap. Amazingly, he pinned one of the quickest players in recent history, Sproles, to the ground for a four-yard loss.
"The greatest play of Ray Lewis' career,'' Rodney Harrison said on NBC's Football Night in America.
I spoke with Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron by phone after the game. "You couldn't believe it when you saw it,'' said Cameron. "First the speed of the play. You can't appreciate how fast Ray was going and how hard he hit Sproles unless you were there live. But that play was so big in the game, and to have Ray make it as powerfully as he did. Just amazing.''
I thought so too. And I bet the Ravens are pretty happy they re-signed Ray Lewis instead of lowballing him and pushing him to go elsewhere -- when he still, obviously, has some great football left.
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