Age no longer a friend to NFL coaches

Bill Kilmer (L), George Allen (R) photo courtesy of the Washington Redskins

2015 New Orleans Saints Redskins 47 - Saints 14 All Images Copyright Michael C. Hebert

(Drew Brees photo courtesy of  Michael C. Hebert/New Orleans Saints)
(Cover photo of George Allen and Bill Kilmer courtesy of the Washington Redskins)

By Rick Gosselin

Talk of Fame Network

Hall-of-Famer George Allen would have struggled as a coach in today’s NFL.

Allen loved veteran players and hoarded them when he was coach of the Washington Redskins, readily swapping future draft picks for experienced hands. A coach can trust veteran players. They don’t make the mistakes that can cost you games like young players do.

When Allen took the Redskins to the Super Bowl in the 1972 season, 17 players on his 40-man roster were 30 years of age or older. Nine were in the starting lineup — a lineup that averaged 29.31 years per player.

Allen’s two quarterbacks were 33 (Bill Kilmer) and 36 (Sonny Jurgensen). He had a 36-year old linebacker (Jack Pardee), a 35-year-old safety (Rosie Taylor), a 33-year-old defensive end (Ron McDole) and a 32-year-old cornerback (Pat Fisher) in his starting lineup. He also had a 34-year-old safety (Richie Petitbon) and a 33-year-old linebacker (Myron Pottios) on his bench.

But that was in an era before the salary cap. NFL players coveted free agency back in the 1990s, and the trade off in the collective bargaining agreement was a salary cap. The fear then was that the cap might eliminate football’s middle class. And that’s exactly what has happened.

If you’re going to give your franchise quarterback a $100-million contract, you need cheap, young labor at the bottom of your roster to offset that spending. That’s why NFL teams kept a record 81 percent of all their 2016 draft picks on opening-day rosters. The draft provides NFL rosters an annual infusion of fixed, relatively inexpensive contracts.

Ten years ago, the average age of an NFL roster was 26.70 years, and the average age of starting lineups was 27.56 years. There were 346 players over the age of 30 on NFL rosters in 2006, including 187 starters.

This season, the average age of an NFL roster is 26.11 years — the youngest in NFL history. The average age of the 32 starting lineups is 26.86 years, also the youngest in NFL history. There are a record-low 264 players over the age of 30 on NFL rosters, 82 fewer than in 2006. There are only 144 starters over the age of 30 on NFL rosters, 43 fewer than in 2006.

Of those 264 players in their 30s, 28 are quarterbacks and 42 are special teamers (kickers, punters and deep snappers). The older a player is, the more money he makes. The more money he makes — unless he’s a Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Larry Fitzgerald — the more precarious his NFL employment becomes. It’s simple economics. Everyone on an NFL roster can’t be paid $3 million under the salary cap. The minimum salary for rookies is $450,000. So teams are opting for the younger, cheaper players to stay afloat financially.

In 2006, 11 teams had rosters that averaged at least 27 years of age. In 2016, there was only one — the Atlanta Falcons at 27.11. In 2006, there were seven teams whose starting lineups averaged at last 28 years of age. In 2016, there were three. The Minnesota Vikings were the oldest at 28.4 years. The oldest in 2006 was Denver at 29.0 years.

In 2006, the Green Bay Packers had the fewest players 30 years of age of any NFL roster with six. In 2016, the Los Angeles Rams carried only two players over the age of 30 on their opening-day roster, Denver had three, Kansas City and Oakland four apiece and Jacksonville and Kansas City five apiece.

The youngest roster in the NFL in 2006 was the Packers at an average age of 25.57 years. There were five teams younger than that on opening day in 2016: Cleveland (25.06), Los Angeles (25.11), Kansas City (25.42), Denver (25.49) and Green Bay (25.55).

The youngest starting lineup in the NFL in 2006 was the Houston Texans, at an average age of 26.36 years. There were seven teams with younger lineups in 2016: Cleveland (25.72), Los Angeles (25.86), Jacksonville (25.90), Kansas City (26.13), Chicago (26.18) and both Houston and Tampa Bay at 26.27.

Age was a friend of the coach in the George Allen era. It’s now an enemy of the salary-cap era.

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