- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

Eli Manning didn’t just slay the mighty New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The baby-faced New York Giants quarterback also struck another blow for the NFL’s young passers.

Ten years after John Elway, looking as craggy as some of the Rocky Mountains where he’s beloved, finally won his first title for the Denver Broncos at 37, Manning knocked another hole in the theory that it takes a veteran quarterback to claim the championship.

Manning, who had turned 27 in January, was the fourth quarterback in five years and the fifth in seven years to win the Super Bowl before his 28th birthday.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger had been the youngest champion two years earlier at 23. New England’s Tom Brady won his first title at 24, his second at 26 and his third at 27.

The only quarterbacks so young to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the previous 25 years were Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers, who was 27 in 1996; Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys, 26 and 27 in 1992 and 1993; Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears, 26 in 1985; and Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers, 25 in 1981.

That’s just five championships claimed by young passers in a quarter-century compared with five in the past seven seasons. And Favre, Aikman and McMahon were all in at least their fourth years as starters (Montana was a first-year regular), making them veterans compared with Roethlisberger (second year as a starter), Manning (third) and Brady (first and third years for his first two titles).

At first glance, the recent run of young championship quarterbacks doesn’t make sense with defenses so much more sophisticated and with free agency and the salary cap ruining the chemistry needed to win a title.

But consider the change in college football over the last three decades. Where the Pac-10 was a rare pass-first conference when Elway was raining footballs at Stanford in the early 1980s, almost every big-time program is pass-happy these days. So quarterbacks are hitting the NFL more prepared to play than they ever have been.

At the same time, when quarterbacks are drafted early as Manning and Roethlisberger were, it’s difficult for owners to see those major investments standing on the sideline and not contributing — especially when their salary cap numbers preclude the addition of players who can help at other positions.

Of the 27 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the last 10 drafts, 10 started most of their rookie seasons while 10 more were regulars by that end of those years. The exceptions include the Cincinnati Bengals’ Carson Palmer, the Buffalo Bills’ J.P. Losman and the Washington Redskins’ Jason Campbell, all starters by mid-November of their second seasons; Chicago’s Rex Grossman, who kept getting hurt; and Brady Quinn of the Cleveland Browns, a rookie in 2007.

Only the Chargers’ Philip Rivers, who sat two years behind Drew Brees in San Diego, and Aaron Rodgers, who has sat three years behind Favre in Green Bay, have served traditionally full apprenticeships.

So in today’s NFL, Manning was right on schedule. Maybe the Tennessee Titans’ Vince Young, who’ll be in his third season in 2008, or Rivers, who’ll be in his third year as a starter, are good bets to be holding the Lombardi Trophy a year from now.

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