NFL Teams Whose Super Bowl Windows Are Closing

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 4, 2019

NFL Teams Whose Super Bowl Windows Are Closing

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    We live in an age of NFL parity. That's the nature of a league that has a short average career span, a salary cap, a crapshoot draft and free agency. It's hard to sustain greatness (or awfulness) for a long time. 

    The New England Patriots are the obvious exception to that rule, but New England and several other heavyweights led by legendary quarterbacks soon could be forced to rebuild.

    The Super Bowl windows for the following six teams appear to be nearing their end. 


Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned 37 in March, although he says he wants to play for at least three more seasons. However, years of physical punishment appear to have taken a toll on him. 

    Big Ben is coming off his first non-Pro Bowl campaign since 2013. He passed for a league-high 5,129 yards but also threw a league-worst 16 interceptions. He posted a sub-97 passer rating for the fourth straight year, ranking in the middle of the pack in that category. And all of that happened even though he had two standout receivers, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, along with one of the NFL's best offensive lines. 

    Brown is gone, which means the Steelers are left trying to replace a wideout who caught at least 100 passes for 1,200-plus yards and eight or more touchdowns in each of his last six seasons and is coming off a 15-touchdown campaign. 

    That might be impossible, especially since three-time Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell won't be coming to the rescue, either. 

    Pittsburgh's O-line remains strong, but all four returning starters are 29 or older, and 26-year-old projected starting right tackle Matt Feiler is the weakest link. 

    The Steelers aren't devoid of young talent—the 22-year-old Smith-Schuster is rising fast, as are key defenders T.J. Watt (24), Stephon Tuitt (26) and Devin Bush Jr. (a 20-year-old rookie with a wildly high ceiling). But if Roethlisberger continues to slowly decline, it'll be difficult for this team to keep pace with the younger Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. 

New England Patriots

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    If often feels as though it'll never happen, but these Patriots will eventually have an expiration date. And it might arrive sooner than many expect.

    Tom Brady is not, in fact, a cyborg. Instead, the 41-year-old is the oldest position player in the NFL. He experienced a statistical decline in 2018 despite winning the Super Bowl, and tight end Rob Gronkowski's retirement and left tackle Trent Brown's free-agent departure won't help him bounce back in 2019.

    No quarterback has ever entered a season at or beyond the age of 42 and passed for even 1,000 yards. The only semi-notable age-42 season in NFL history came from Warren Moon, who finished with 1,632 passing yards and threw 11 touchdown passes to eight interceptions in 10 starts in 1998. However, Moon went 4-6 in those 10 starts and turned 42 that November. 

    Brady has defied similarly daunting precedents, but even if he kills it for another year or two, the Pats are approaching the end of an era. Brady's wife will eventually get through to him, or he'll come to his own realization that enough is enough.

    The Pats may remain competitive after Brady retires because they're so well-coached, but the 67-year-old Bill Belichick is the second-oldest head coach in the NFL. 

    The rest of the AFC East is showing promise, with second-year top-10 picks giving hope to the Buffalo Bills (Josh Allen), New York Jets (Sam Darnold) and Miami Dolphins (Josh Rosen) under center. Put it all together, and it's hard to envision New England competing for titles deep into the 2020s. 

New Orleans Saints

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Among NFL position players, only Brady is older than 40-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. However, Brees just posted the sixth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history. 

    Plus, he's better-supported than Brady, who was the only Patriots offensive player to be elected to the Pro Bowl in 2018. Meanwhile, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford and Max Unger joined Brees on the Pro Bowl roster in 2018.

    Still, any team relying on a quarterback in his 40s is living season to season. And even though 55-year-old Saints head coach Sean Payton might be further from retirement than Belichick, those Dallas Cowboys rumors refuse to die. 

    The Saints could easily find themselves without Brees and Payton in a year or two, which would put them back at the drawing board regardless of the talent they have elsewhere. 

    New Orleans may also be left with a bare cupboard if it continues to build around Brees. Barring a more complicated restructure, a simple one-year contract extension for 2020 would likely push Brees' cap number above the $40 million mark. And even if the Saints avoid that, it'd only delay an inevitable massive dead-cap charge in 2021 or 2022. 

    That could make it tough to bring back talented young players like Kamara, Thomas, Armstead, Warford, Ryan Ramczyk, Sheldon Rankins, Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams. 

    The Saints will likely take an all-or-nothing approach in the next few seasons and then try for a quick rebuild, possibly with Teddy Bridgewater taking over for Brees under center. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are only team here without an aging star quarterback. They fell just short of a Super Bowl appearance in 2017, but they have since spent their way into an impending salary-cap quagmire. 

    Up against the cap this year after several spending sprees in previous offseasons, the Jags were able to land free-agent quarterback Nick Foles at a reasonable rate (four years, $88 million). But they also lost Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Donte Moncrief and Carlos Hyde, and they have to try to keep younger players like Jalen Ramsey, Yannick Ngakoue, Myles Jack and Cam Robinson on board despite having little money in the coffers. 

    Spotrac currently projects the Jags will enter the 2020 offseason more than $35 million over the salary cap. While that'll likely change, no other team is even close to a $30 million projected overage right now.

    It might only be a matter of time before the Jags are forced to blow up their roster and start from scratch, especially if the well-accomplished but inconsistent Foles isn't able to live up to expectations and make up for diminishing support in the next few seasons. 

Los Angeles Chargers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is three months older than Roethlisberger, but he's significantly younger than Brady and Brees. His rate-based numbers were also far superior to Roethlisberger's in his Pro Bowl 2018 campaign in which the Chargers went 12-4. 

    It helps that Rivers has one of the best supporting casts in the NFL, with running back Melvin Gordon and wideout Keenan Allen coming off Pro Bowl seasons. The Bolts also have a strong offensive line with a nice mix of young and proven talent and a top-10 defense led by stars Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Derwin James. 

    Gordon, Allen, Bosa, James and 2018 Pro Bowler Adrian Phillips are all 27 or younger. 

    Third-year head coach Anthony Lynn is only 50, so the Chargers could feasibly contend for another five-plus years. However, Rivers has said he's not interested in playing deep into his 40s, which could cause L.A.'s window to close sooner than expected.

    If Rivers walked away in a year or two, the Chargers would likely have to spend a few seasons recalibrating around his replacement under center before they returned to contention.

Green Bay Packers

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers have a new head coach, a new-look offense and a revamped defense entering the 2019 campaign. But quarterback Aaron Rodgers will turn 36 this season, which means he's closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

    Rodgers has also talked about playing until he's 40, but he and the team have endured a tumultuous stretch in recent years. If he and incoming head coach Matt LaFleur don't see eye-to-eye from the get-go or struggle early on, this experiment could fail quickly.

    If that happens, the Packers could find themselves in a bad spot.

    Rodgers might not be willing to tolerate another regime change. And even if he remains on board as a 36- or 37-year-old after another coaching debacle, what will he and the team have left?

    The Packers spent big bucks on the defense this offseason, and Rodgers is the second-highest-paid player in league history. That leaves little margin for error, and it could leave the team in rebuilding mode well before its Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback turns 40.