How Quarterbacks Became the MVPs in American Sports

Collage of football players
Rick Osentoski/AP/Shutterstock (Rodgers); Jeff Bottari/Shutterstock (Herbert); Boston Globe via Getty Images (Brady); John Munson/AP/Shutterstock (Lawson); Perry Knotts/AP/Shutterstock (Mahomes)

NFL quarterbacks have been transformed from mere stars to the most valuable figures in American sports. Here’s how it happened.

Arm 1993

Quarterback gains right to throw the ball away without being flagged for intentional grounding, sparing sacks and INTs, helping stats and spines.

Ankle 2006

Low hits outlawed “when a rushing defender has an opportunity to avoid such contact.” Shoulders, hands and ankles are still quarterbacks’ most injured body part.

Knee 2009

Defender “cannot initiate a roll or lunge and forcibly hit the passer in the knee area or below, even if he is being contacted by another player”—aka, the Brady Rule, after TB12 missed 2008 season with ACL injury. Don’t worry, he bounced back.

Torso 1995

Defenders banned from “unnecessarily and violently” throwing down quarterbacks and “landing on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.”

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Head 2002

NFL bans helmet-to-helmet collisions with quarterbacks after a turnover. In general, this is get-out-of-the-way time.

The Outliers: Stat kings in any era.

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William Helburn/Corbis via Getty Images

Johnny Unitas 1956–1973
290 TDs, 40,239 yards. Not bad for a guy who started playing in 1956.

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Superstock/Alamy Stock Photo

Fran Tarkenton 1961–1978
Going 0–3 in Super Bowls stained his rep, but 130 more TD passes and nearly 20,000 more passing yards than ‘70s rival Terry Bradshaw.

Miami Dolphins football player taking helmet off
Eric Miller/AP / Shutterstock

Dan Marino 1983–1999
Had over 400 TDs and 60,000 yards in an era when 250 and 40,000 made you a Hall of Fame lock.

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Collage of football players
Tony Gutierrez/AP/Shutterstock (Brown); Steve Marcus/Getty Images (Flacco); Daniel Kucin JR/AP/Shutterstock (Burrow); John Amis/AP/Shutterstock (Williams); Bill Ray/The Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock (Dawson)

Receiver Respect

2007: Illegal cut block becomes 15-yard penalty, instead of just 5.

2009: 15-yard penalty for hitting defenseless receiver in head or neck.

Completing passes is way easier when your best receivers are around to catch them.

Financial Incentive

As a rookie in 1969, Cowboy Roger Staubach earned $25,000. He retired after 11 seasons to become a real estate magnate now worth $600 million. Meanwhile, Joe Flacco has a decent shot at $200 million in career earnings — not Staubach money but pretty good.

Surgical Advances

In November 2020, Bengals QB Joe Burrow’s rookie season ended when his ACL, MCL, PCL and meniscus were torn in a game against Washington. The next season he almost won a Super Bowl. Joe Theismann is extremely jealous.

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Blindside Makes Bank

Not only are QBs paid a ton, so are the guys who keep them upright—witness San Francisco left tackle Trent Williams averaging $23 million per season.

Superior Training

We all know about Tom Brady’s avocado ice cream. Whereas in the ‘70s, Hall of Fame QBs like Lenny Dawson huffed smokes on the sidelines and Kenny Stabler happily discussed spending his off-season boozing in the “Redneck Riviera.”

I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times: NFL legends whose numbers now look paltry.

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Hulton Staff/Archive (Starr)

Bart Starr 1956–1971
152 career TD passes. Brady threw 83 in his first two seasons as a Buc.

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Shutterstock

Roger Staubach 1969–1979
153 career TD passes. Manning has 366. Eli, that is. Peyton has 539.

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Getty Images

Joe Namath 1965–1977
173 TD passes, 220 interceptions. Fur coats, bold predictions and great nicknames are sometimes more important than numbers.

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