Hall of Fame coach George Allen had a fondness for veteran players.
The older the player, the more experience he brings to the field. Those players don’t make the mistakes that can cost you games that younger players do.
So Allen would always create room on his roster for great players toward the end of their careers – veteran Pro Bowlers like Maxie Baughan, Mike Curtis, Dave Robinson, Jack Pardee, Richie Petitbon, Walt Sweeney, Duane Thomas and Jim Tyrer. Allen valued their contributions on Sunday afternoons.
His philosophy flourished. Allen won 70.1 percent of his games, the third-best mark in NFL history. He took the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl in 1973 with a team that averaged 28.1 years of age. He had 16 players over the age of 30 on his 45-player roster. The average age of his starting lineup was 29.2 years with 10 starters over 30 for that championship game against the undefeated Dolphins.
But when the salary cap arrived in 1994, the dynamic of NFL roster building changed. The older the player, the higher his wage. So age no longer became a luxury – it became an enemy. Over the last 10 years, in particular, there has been an absolute sprint in the other direction.
In 2007, the average age of an NFL roster was 26.6 years. The average age of starting lineups was 27.4. There were 345 players 30 years of age or older on NFL rosters then with 191 of them in starting lineups.
In 2017, the average age of the NFL’s opening-day rosters was 26.0 years. The average age of starting lineups was 26.7 years. There are only 239 players 30 years of age or older on NFL rosters – that’s 106 fewer than 10 years ago – and only 126 of those 30-somethings were starting. That’s 65 fewer than 10 years ago.
Of the 239 players over the age of 30 in the NFL today, 39 play special teams (kicker, punter or deep snapper) and 26 are quarterbacks. There are five 40-year-old players in today’s NFL and four of them are either kickers or punters. The other is Tom Brady, the best player in the NFL.
Of the 129 30-somethings in starting lineups, 14 are quarterbacks and 27 are offensive linemen. In 2007, there were twice as many offensive linemen over the age of 30 starting -- 55 of them. Offensive lines allowed 1,102 sacks in 2007. They are on pace to allow 1,302 sacks in 2017.
The Arizona Cardinals field both the oldest roster (27.47) and oldest starting lineup (28.4) in the NFL this season. The Cleveland Browns field both the youngest roster (24.17 years) and youngest starting lineup (24.68 years). In 2007 there were 11 starting lineups with an average age under 27. In 2017, there are 24 such lineups.
This is the youngest the NFL has ever been. Those experienced hands who don’t make mistakes have been disappearing, replaced on rosters by the salary cap-friendly younger players who do make the mistakes that can cost a team games.
Is there any wonder why play has become so ragged and fundamentals so forgotten in today’s NFL? The salary cap has made the NFL a young man's game -- but not necessarily a better one.