We’re beginning to reach a time where many of the NFL teams we have seen throughout the “golden age of quarterbacks” are entering transitional periods; players have retired. Regimes have moved on. The eras of old are passing by.
However, we’re incredibly fortunate to have the league we have now; the young talent might be as skilled as it’s ever been. The teams that defined the last two decades are passing the torch. So who is who? Based on future projections, play styles, and personnel, these are the current teams that can take over for some of the defining “characters” of the league we’ve had for so long.
Baltimore Ravens- “Legion of Boom” Era Seattle Seahawks
The “Legion of Boom” era Seahawks could have ultimately been a dynasty had Pete Carroll decided to hand the ball off at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX. This was when Russell Wilson wasn’t the Russ we now know as one of the elite passers in the game- he didn’t throw the ball 500 times in a season until 2016- the Seahawks offense came through pounding the ball to Marshawn Lynch and allowing Wilson to create magic outside of the pocket. They were dead last in passing attempts in 2013, 2014, and bottom 5 in 2015, while being in the top 5 in rushing attempts in those seasons. The formula was to control the possession and limit mistakes while the defense of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, and Michael Bennett would prevent any form of scoring.
That might be all this Baltimore Ravens team does going forward. They had the least-productive passing offense last year, but have led the league in rushing the past three years because of how dynamic of a runner Lamar Jackson is- he creates plays out of nothing, just like Wilson, but in a style more focused on speed. From a roster construction standpoint, they don’t necessarily have the same bell cow running back in Lynch that Seattle did, but they value the run just as much so that they can control the clock and let their defense of Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphrey, and Calais Campbell dominate. They’re also led by two “culture-building” pro-player coaches! (Jim Harbaugh will know not to pass it at the goal line, though.)
Cincinnati Bengals- Tony Romo Era Dallas Cowboys
I promise this isn’t merely because Joe Burrow is coming off of an injury and Tony Romo infamously had several seasons that were obliviated because of season-ending injuries throughout his career. However,
part of what made Romo great are the plays he made when he was, unfortunately, running for his life from pass-rushers, which is essentially all that Joe Burrow did last year behind his offensive line put together with cardboard cutouts. It was a small sample size his rookie year, but the #1 overall pick looked as good as advertised in the games he played. This Bengals team is set up similarly to the one that Romo was often stuck with in Dallas: a lot of talented skill position players with not a lot of protection or defensive help- meaning A LOT of dropbacks for Romo and Burrow. Romo at least benefited from the construction of one of the best offensive lines in football in the twilight of his career, so hopefully Cincinnati takes a look at history and makes a proper investment to build one for Burrow.
Dallas Cowboys- Philip Rivers Era San Diego Chargers
This is somewhat ironic because you have the Cowboys, the most famous franchise arguably in American sports, and then the Chargers, who are now buried in irrelevance in Los Angeles despite their talent. The drama that the Cowboys have undergone in their games with Dak Prescott trying to will the team back to life by creating magic with his skill players is completely reminiscent of a tale as old as time: Philip Rivers in a one-possession game played in the afternoon as the sun is setting with two minutes to go. The Cowboys live and die with their skill players; Ezekiel Elliott is by no means LaDainian Tomlinson, and those Chargers teams fielded defenses that were miles ahead of this abysmal Cowboys roster, but Dak forcing the ball down the field to his weapons to overcome stupid or unlucky mistakes made by coaching is exactly what Rivers was faced with for years.
San Francisco 49ers- Alex Smith Era Kansas City Chiefs
With all due respect to Alex Smith, who was a very skilled quarterback throughout his entire career, those Chiefs teams were such a well-oiled machine in Andy Reid’s system that consisted of diverse offensive players that almost anyone who had the keys to that car was going to be set up for success. From a plethora of running backs that could catch the ball that filled in seamlessly any time one would go down, to gadget wide receivers, to Travis Kelce, Smith was the perfect quarterback to come in, be a facilitator, and not make mistakes for those Chiefs teams to succeed.
That is exactly what Kyle Shanahan has done in San Francisco. He’s only had one full season with a quarterback not going down, and that year was when they made the Super Bowl. Even when he was stuck starting Nick Mullens, the 3rd-string quarterback, he accounted for the third-most passing yards in his first 13 career starts in NFL history. Shanahan just needs someone to drive the car.
The Niners also have a similar roster-construction- obviously there’s the Kelce to George Kittle comparison at tight end, and rather than the one big “go-up-and-get-it” receiver that teams often have, they too have the targets with a wide-variety of tools in guys like Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk who get yards after the catch. Defensively, they might be even stronger. The Chiefs had several great seasons of pass rushers like Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe, and Justin Houston, but the ceiling of this Niners defense is much higher due to their youth. Shanahan is simultaneously the most and least like Andy Reid in the NFL.
Buffalo Bills- Early Big Ben Era Pittsburgh Steelers
Big Ben isn’t nearly the mobile, athletic super freak that Josh Allen is with his scrambling ability at his size, but they both are absolutely massive human beings with rocket arms that you simply can’t take down. Ben would stand stoically in the pocket and shove pass-rushers off of him, whereas Allen will stiff arm whoever comes at him to the ground as he runs backwards, looking like it’s a broken play, before throwing the ball 30 yards downfield.
Both teams have these bowling ball quarterbacks that have fantastic receiving threats- the Bills with Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and Emmanuel Sanders, and the Steelers over the years have had guys like Antonio Brown, Hines Ward, and even Emmanuel Sanders at the start of his career. Until Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers didn’t necessarily have a balance with their run game, similarly to Buffalo as of now, which is why their offensive scheme of a lot of passes with very little play action mirrors one another.
The defensive side of the ball isn’t necessarily fair to the Bills considering those Steelers teams fielded some of the best defenses of all-time with James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, and Ike Taylor over the years, but the Bills have still had solid defensive performances; they regressed last season in the secondary, but they had the 2nd-best overall defense in 2019 and doubled up on pass rush in the draft this year.
Lastly, you can just see the similarities between the head coaches in Sean McDermott and Mike Tomlin- both have been able to maximize whatever cards they’re dealt; McDermott came into a terrible situation in Buffalo and has only brought the team to greater heights every year.
Mike Tomlin had to manage the diva personalities of Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown all at once and still fielded a winning team. Enough said.
Kansas City Chiefs- Peyton Manning Era Denver Broncos
Plain and simple, you have the two of the most-dominant passing offenses in history. Peyton obviously didn’t have the same mobility that Mahomes has, and those Broncos teams were very short-lived given he was in the twilight of his career, but when he was upright before becoming a decrepit old man during his “ride off into the sunset” Super Bowl retirement, Manning could sling the ball down the field to any of his receivers deep down the field in the same manner that Pat does. They both are quarterbacks who rarely make mistakes and put together the long drives that seem to never end, crippling their opposition and destroying their spirit any time they feel a glimmer of hope of getting a stop. They don’t necessarily have a solid rushing attack, but the passing alone just elevated them both to where it always feels like an outlier. Peyton would make adjustments at the line after reading the defense to ensure he could get Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker open, similarly to Andy Reid scheming up Mahomes’s weapons of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Mecole Hardman creatively. The Broncos are obviously significantly stronger on the defensive side of the ball- they were in the top 5 in total defense throughout the Manning run and single-handedly carried them to their Super Bowl victory, but the Chiefs aren’t necessarily a slouch- they’ve ranked 7th and 11th the past two years. Frankly, the Chiefs offensive firepower makes up for anything lacking when it comes to giving up points.