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NFL

The Six Stages Of NFL Quarterback

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - JANUARY 23: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills walks off the field after being defeated by the Kansas City Chiefs 42-36 in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 23, 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)
David Eulitt/Getty Images

We have all gotten lots of mileage in our time out of the human evolution chart, because it simplifies a complex idea, and gives us both pictures of cute primates and the revolting end product: a nude guy with excellent posture and bone structure who is walking toward a clothing store to buy suits for his hedge fund job.

Thus, in the wake of the weekend’s cavalcade of Drunk Football Made Drunker, Too Drunk To Drive, and finally Too Drunk To Sit On Your Couch Trying To Figure Out How Drunk You Are, we have two excellent examples that the chart can serve. The first is the Nature Of Madness, in which the four divisional playoff games went from cute (Bengals-Titans) to bizarre (49ers-Packers) to oh-for-Christ’s-sake (Rams-Buccaneers) to abandon-the-rules-of-logic-entirely (Chiefs-Bills). When a blocked punt caught in the air and turned into a game-tying touchdown in a freaking blizzard can barely get you on the medal stand, you’ve got yourself a football weekend, my friend.

But while you contemplate the notion that scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds left is still scoring too soon, and have kickoff strategy explained to you by people you wouldn’t let squeegee your window, let us contemplate the other chart: The Evolution And Devolution Of Quarterbackus Erectus, in six stages.

Stage The First is Too Cute And Doesn’t Know What He Doesn’t Know, as in Joe Burrow. Spectacularly unaware that he is playing in seven-on-seven non-contact drills when the defense is playing 11-on-11 full contact and homicidal, this quarterback is simply too young to fully contemplate the meaning of real danger and is essentially there to throw balls like they are hot bricks and expect for someone just as daft (Ja’Marr Chase) to catch them. This works awhile, but eventually knowledge will dull his daring and he will feel the cumulative effects of getting his face kicked in. But for the moment he is unformed joy with feet. He really should be smoking cigars in the huddle and have a pocket for a bourbon bottle where the towel usually hangs.

Stage The Second is Fearless, But With The Development Of Some Emotional Scarring, as in Josh Allen. Fully attitudinal in all the football-acceptable ways, he has found out that being spectacular in a losing effort is still losing, and that the more it happens, the more corrosive it is. By himself, Allen has been a marvelous postseason performer, but the look on his face Sunday was the self-explanatory essence of “Well, shit.” He is now thinking, “What if it’s always this?” This is the stage at which resignation and despair may begin to set in, and scoring with one second left will forever leave the notion, “Did we leave too much time on the clock?”

Stage The Third is Fully Developed And Nearly Smart Enough To Know That It Won’t Last Forever, as in Patrick Mahomes. In adding a new development to his slow-motion assault on the notion that Tom Brady shall always be the zenith of this chart, Mahomes has shown the full meaning of invulnerability in the face of the odds board at Satan’s casino, has combined the concepts of championship, artistic effervescence, and triumph (he has won more than 80 percent of his games), and frankly could also be the end of the evolutionary chart—if we didn’t know what these bastards end up becoming. Indeed, the rot is already showing, as his omnipresent ads with that steamer trunk of get-off-my-screen Jake from State Farm are proof of what overexposure awaits him and us.

Stage The Fourth is Tempered For Years By The Suck Of Others But Finally Rewarded, as in Matthew Stafford. Always playing under the withering judgments of people who know less and speak more, but finally getting the moment he was promised at Georgia, Stafford is the guy who slayed the Galactus Brady … well, actually, Cooper Kupp slayed Brady, but in the quarterback-is-the-only-position-we-notice world in which we now reside, Stafford is credited with his first road playoff win, and he hasn’t thrown a playoff interception of any kind, let alone the soul-crushing kind, since 2015. He is the figure in the chart carrying the club that he used to beat himself with in his years in Detroit, but this is his moment.

Stage The Fifth is The Ruined Chevy That Still Works Too Well To Junk, as in Jimmy Garoppolo. He is that rarest of all athletic figures, bagged on so much by so many objectionable self-obsessives that he has finally become a sympathetic figure even in the worst football market for quarterbacks in all the world, San Francisco. They loved his Dreamy McDreamboat looks when he first came west, but since then his rep has measurably deteriorated to the point where his list of believers had shrunk to porn actress Kiara Mia and his head coach, the supremely headstrong Kyle Shanahan. Niners fans have been shrieking for Trey Lance and his invisible résumé to be the starter since the day of the draft, but Shanahan refused repeatedly, and now, after absurd wins at Los Angeles, Dallas, and now Green Bay, Shanahan’s obstinacy on Garoppolo’s behalf has now made him the living embodiment of a middle finger to the rest of football-speaking America. As for Garoppolo, he has a broken hand and a bum shoulder and is at best the sixth reason why his team ever wins, but he has become admirable even as he trails body parts behind him as he walks. If the 49ers win the Super Bowl, he will be the much beloved inheritor of the legacies of Joe Montana and Steve Young until February 15, where the clamor to be rid of him will resume with increasingly unhinged vigor.

And finally, Stage The Sixth is The Defeated Old Guys Slinking Off Stage, as in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. These two contrarians of both great and ill repute who had done enough to win their games but didn’t because sometimes IT ISN’T ABOUT THE GODDAMN QUARTERBACK, are now done for ’21, and predictably, the immediate reaction to their mutual heartbreaks over the weekend was, “So, when are you quitting, and can you announce it here at this podium so that my producer back at the studio will get out of my ear about ‘Ask him about retirement!’?” It was a shining example of why teams are far too generous about credentialing postgame pressers, and why media members don’t turn on their own often enough. Their twin legacies at the top of the quarterback list have not been harmed in any way, and nothing happened over the weekend except the mutual cries of “Can you stop lecturing us on health concepts you don’t really know?” and the even more pernicious, “Are you old yet?” They are, of course, but not so old that they should stop playing, and anyway, as is usually the case, when it is time they’ll be the last to know.

As for the evolutionary chart, the beauty here is that you can also move the figures around, and put Garoppolo first and Mahomes last if your mood so strikes. Just so you remember that on the right side of the chart is the edge of the screen, and no matter in what order you choose to align them, everyone eventually steps into the abyss beyond. Have a nice rest of your day.