"You are old, Coach William", the young writer said,
"And your players are all going gray;
And yet you keep winning and beating the spread --
Do you think that will all end someday?"
"In my youth," said the coach, "I did what I can,
From the above-board to the quite shady;
But as our players age, I'll need a new plan;
It's time to get rid of Tom Brady."
The New England Patriots were old in 2019.
Football Outsiders has been tracking snap-weighted age since 2006 -- calculating a team's age not by just averaging the ages of the players on the roster, but by weighting the age of each player by the number of snaps he played in the regular season. For the past four years, we have seen the league-wide SWA drop to record lows, as the benefit of players on cheap rookie contracts continues to drive roster construction. The NFL's SWA was 26.42 last season; 83 players on their rookie contracts started all 16 games. Rotational spots that might have gone to savvy veterans a generation ago are being given to fresh faces straight out of college. That's the way the modern NFL is built.
But that's not the way the Patriots are built. They have been old, year after year, for sure, but they set a new bar last season. They were the oldest team in the league by a wide margin, nearly a year and a half older than the Philadelphia Eagles in second place. They were the oldest offense in the league, more than a year older than the Green Bay Packers. They were the oldest defense in the league, a year older than the Carolina Panthers. And they managed to squeak past the Buffalo Bills for oldest special teams in the league, as well.
2019 Snap-Weighted Age: By Unit
The following table shows SWA for the overall team (TOT) along with the unit breakdown for offense, defense, and special teams. Units are ranked from oldest to youngest.
|2019 Snap-Weighted Age|
|Team||TOT SWA||Rk||OFF SWA||Rk||DEF SWA||Rk||ST SWA||Rk|
That's the trifecta. The 2019 New England Patriots are the first team in our database to rank as the oldest team in every phase of the game. Teams have come close before -- last year's Patriots missed out because they were only the fifth-oldest defense, and the 2013 Carson Palmer/Bruce Arians Cardinals managed a top-three performance in all three phases -- but never before have we seen one team hit such a level of outstanding achievement in the field of aging.
Nearly as impressive as their ranks are the Patriots' raw totals. With a snap-weighted age of 28.6, the Patriots are now the second-oldest team in our database, and by a wide margin the oldest since the 2011 CBA introduced the rookie wage scale. At 29.3, their offense is also the oldest since 2011, and still manages to make the top-10 all-time, as does their 27.9-year-old special teams.
|Oldest Snap-Weighted Ages, 2006-2019|
|Bold: Teams since the 2011 rookie wage scale|
Only two months separate last year's Patriots and the 2008 Redskins -- close enough under any circumstances, and insanely close considering how much younger the league is now than it was a decade ago. As mentioned before, the league SWA in 2019 was 26.4; in 2008, it was 27.2. Last year's Patriots are, therefore, the oldest team ever compared to league average. The fact that any team from the past decade can come within spitting distance of Daniel Snyder's aging, free-agent bloated squads from the 2000s is an astounding feat; Washington averaged a SWA of 28.3 from 2006 to 2010.
The Patriots had eight players in their 30s or 40s play at least 500 snaps for them last season: Tom Brady (42), Julian Edelman (33), Patrick Chung (32), Jason McCourty (32), Devin McCourty (32), Marshall Newhouse (31), Marcus Cannon (31), and Jamie Collins (30). There were only 134 30-somethings who played 500-plus snaps last season, so the Patriots had nearly 6% of all the elder statesmen in the league.
Now, Washington had more 30-somethings in 2008 -- Pete Kendall (35), Jason Taylor (34), Mike Sellers (33), Antwaan Randle El (33), James Thrash (33), Randy Thomas (32), Jon Jansen (32), Cornelius Griffin (32), Casey Rabach (31), and Chris Samuels (31) for a total of 10. But there were 194 30-somethings playing 500-plus snaps in 2008, so Washington had a smaller proportion of the league's greybeards in 2008 than New England did last year. And while both teams had just four players 25 or younger contribute 500-plus snaps, that was four out of a league-wide 357 for the 2019 Patriots, and four out of 273 for the 2008 Redskins.
In short, while both teams were significant outliers -- you have to be to top a leaderboard, after all -- Washington's roster-building strategy in 2008 was only one or two standard deviations outside the norm. Other teams in that era were veteran-heavy and rookie-light, if not quite to the extent Washington managed. But New England is bringing that 2000s roster construction to the modern era, and it looks so, so strange in comparison.
The Patriots had 5,736 snaps from players 25 or younger in 2019. The Bears had the second-fewest with 9,511; everyone else was up over 10,000, with Washington leading the way with over 17,000 such snaps (oh, how times change). New talent has not been finding its way onto New England's roster. Some of that, of course, is because the existing talent was really, really good; no one was asking Brady or Collins to take a seat for some untested young guns last season. But it's also a matter of the talent pipeline drying up over the past few seasons:
- Their 2015 first-round pick, Malcom Brown, left without a second contract;
- they didn't have first-round picks in 2016 or 2017;
- 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn has missed a year and a half with injuries;
- and 2019 first-round pick N'Keal Harry missed half of his rookie season on injured reserve as well.
It's not that there has been no successes in recent drafts; Sony Michel, Joe Thuney, and Shaq Mason have all produced well, but they're kind of it.
And, as such, the Patriots got 0.7 years older than they were in 2018, which was itself 0.9 years older than they were in 2017. And now Brady and Collins are gone, and everyone else is a year older, and you have to wonder if the lack of recent draft success will cause the Patriots dynasty to crumble into dust. Or they'll have the world's greatest draft in 2020 and we'll all have to sit though another decade of New England victories. One or the other.
But, it turns out, there were 31 non-Patriot teams playing last season, so we should probably talk about some of them.
Last year, we reported that correlation between SWA and DVOA, which usually hovered around 0.30, vanished almost entirely. We said that that might be a one-year blip; that while we had seen correlation dropping slightly over the past few years, there was not a clear and obvious reason why experience was suddenly not a factor. Well, we can report now that yes, last year was a clear and obvious outlier. Correlation between SWA and DVOA rocketed back up to 0.44, though that falls to 0.34 if you take out the relatively obvious outlier of New England, who were both very good and very old. A correlation of 0.34 falls right back into historical averages, which is nice after a few years of weird results. Experience does, in general, remain a positive attribute for a team -- as does filtering out bad players, who don't get those second or third contracts and stick around into their 30s. All in all, nine of the 12 playoff teams were in the upper half of SWA, while nine of the 12 teams at the top of the draft were in the lower half.
Of course, there are exceptions. Our two Super Bowl teams ranked in the bottom half of SWA -- the Chiefs with a SWA of 26.2, the 49ers five spots behind them at 26.1. Both teams were actually built quite similarly, from an age perspective -- each with one of the six youngest defenses in the league, and then with an offense that was just slightly above league average. That's not to say that's a surefire recipe for success, but SWA does typically have a higher correlation on offense than on defense -- excluding New England, the correlation between offensive SWA and DVOA in 2019 was 0.22, while the correlation between defensive SWA and DVOA was -0.16.
Without looking at the numbers, I would have guessed Baltimore would have joined the 49ers and Chiefs as exciting young teams, with Lamar Jackson and those young receivers and tight ends. But while their offense was the second-youngest in the league, that defense was the third-oldest; we would probably have spent a long time talking about the age of players like Earl Thomas, Brandon Carr, and Brandon Williams if someone else hadn't shattered some all-time records. Fortunately for Baltimore, most of the age on the defensive side of the ball comes from players in their late 20s as opposed to early 30s. They're projected to have five defensive starters age 30 or older in 2020, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to add some serious youth on that side of the ball in this year's draft, but they're not ready to fall apart just yet. Instead, it was the Titans who were the third younger-than-average playoff team, but only barely: 26.38 to 26.42. That's about two weeks of age below average, and they only squeak under the bar because they started the season with Marcus Mariota rather than Ryan Tannehill.
If you're young and bad, you can point to young players still developing and hope for things to improve next year. The Jaguars are still shedding off all their talented veterans as they get into squabbles with their front office; that's a big reason why they were the youngest team in the league last season. Cleveland's offseason hype didn't develop into wins, but all that talent is still around, with an extra year of experience and hopefully a better coach to lead them to victory. The Dolphins weren't even really trying to win last season, with a defensive SWA of 25.1, nearly impossibly low. If you're old and bad, you've got some more painful spring cleaning to do -- hence why Philip Rivers and Cam Newton are no longer in Los Angeles or Carolina, and why Arizona…
… wait, how did Arizona rank as the fourth-oldest team, despite beginning yet another new regime under Kliff Kingsburgy? They were 10th in 2018, and yet somehow got a little older last season. It was especially noticeable on offense, where they went from a SWA of 26.1 in 2018 to 27.3 in 2019. The answer is the return of veteran offensive linemen, mostly -- J.R. Sweezy came in and played a full season at age 30, while A.Q. Shipley returned at age 33 after missing the entire 2018 season, replacing Mason Cole (22 two years ago). That means Arizona's offensive line SWA jumped from 26.2 in 2018 to 28.5 last season. Finding young, talented replacements sometimes takes a few years, especially when you have to replace your first-round quarterback with a different (albeit apparently much better) first-round quarterback.
2019 Snap-Weighted Age: By Position
The Cardinals segue us nicely into this section. Not all teams are old in the same ways. Because offensive SWA is so affected by the offensive line, and defensive SWA tends to give teams with young secondaries an advantage, it can be useful to see where teams are young or old in particular.
The following table lists every team's SWA in each positional group, and is fully sortable. The colors trend from red (older) to blue (younger).
|2019 Snap-Weighted Age by Position|
You really did need a program to tell who was on the field in Florida this past season. Both the Dolphins and Jaguars were younger than league average at every position but one. Ryan Fitzpatrick (37), ultimate journeyman and wearer of many uniforms, gave the Dolphins the fifth-oldest quarterback situation in the league (Brady, Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Fitzpatrick -- five names of equal skill, I'm sure), so they'll be looking for a new signal-caller. Jacksonville's defensive line ranked 17th, so they were below the league median, but very young lines in Washington, New York, and Green Bay put them below the average. That's pretty much all Calais Campbell (33) there, and the Jaguars made sure that wouldn't happen again by trading him to Baltimore for peanuts this offseason; crisis averted. By comparison, Tampa Bay ending up older than average in the trenches and the front seven make them seem positively old!
The Patriots were not older than league average everywhere, thanks to Bill Belichick's love of specialists. Punter Jake Bailey (22) was a fifth-round pick in 2019, and long-snapper Joe Cardona (27) was a fifth-round pick in 2015. Obviously, the age of your long snapper plays a massive role in your teams' prospects, so we shouldn't have been so blunt about their overall team age earlier in this article.
The writer replied, "So now Brady's a Buc,
"And the rest of your squad is younger.
But with a new team, there's a chance they might suck
Do you really have the same hunger?"
"You sure that's the question that you want to ask?"
The coach growled; "I've said more than plenty.
You'll find that my staff is still up to the task,
And now we're on to 2020."