LOS ANGELES -- From the time he was a young boy, Joe Burrow wanted the ball in his hands when a game was on the line. It is why he was the best shooter on his basketball teams. It is why, when he first started playing pee wee football and he figured they wouldn't be throwing the ball much, he wanted to be a running back or wide receiver.
And it is why Burrow, fortuitously made a quarterback from those earliest days, has thrust himself so quickly into an extraordinary relay playing out in the NFL this postseason, as one storied generation leaves the field, and the next solidifies its grip on the game.
Matthew Stafford has straddled those generations, toiling in what passed for anonymity in the NFL in Detroit. He has been an elite quarterback for more than a decade, but has been largely overlooked, a product of geography, certainly, but also of the long shadows cast, first by those who were much older than him and then by those much younger. His trade to the Los Angeles Rams before this season has allowed Stafford to finally escape superstar limbo and step into the spotlight. General manager Les Snead said the Rams suspected that bringing Stafford to the Rams would actually bring to life what he had already been doing in Detroit. That is what happened -- a reintroduction to the NFL for Stafford that has made him something of a bridge between eras.
The Super Bowl is an annual crowning of stars and a sanctifying game for greatness. For Burrow and Stafford, Sunday is a chance to win their first championships. And for the NFL, Super Bowl LVI will propel the league into something it once worried about and now seems exceptionally well-prepared for -- its next era.
"Quarterback is what drives the league, in my opinion, and we have a lot of really good young players that I think are going to be here for a long time and continue to play well," Burrow said this week. "That's exciting for me as a fan. When I get home from a game on Sundays, I enjoy watching football, too. That's exciting to watch guys like (Patrick) Mahomes and Lamar (Jackson) and Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, all these young guys. Fun for me to watch, as well as be a part of it."
Look at all those names. The transition to that next generation of quarterbacks has accelerated this postseason, in part, because of Burrow's rapid ascendance. This matchup, while introducing casual fans to new faces, is a reminder of the depth of the group that is taking the torch now. It is no longer simply Patrick Mahomes and everyone else. That is especially important for the future of football.
Less than a decade ago, the game's leaders fretted about what would happen when the dominant quarterbacks -- Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger -- retired. Their angst was not without reason. This will be the 21st Super Bowl held since the 2001 season. It will be just the fourth game that did not feature Brady, Manning or Roethlisberger, a staggering reflection of how those superstars shaped the last two decades of the NFL.
In the last month, Roethlisberger and Brady retired, leaving Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, the league's MVP the past two seasons, as the elder statesman of quarterbacks, and one who is contemplating his own future. The Packers' early exit from the playoffs, though, created room for the emergence of the others. The best game of the postseason, one of the best of any postseason, was the AFC Divisional Round shootout between the Chiefs' Mahomes (age 26) and the Bills' Josh Allen (25). Then Burrow (25) led the Bengals to an overtime upset of the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
Stafford, 34, who had never won a playoff game prior to joining the Rams, has now won three in a row, toppling Murray and Brady in the process and returning the Rams to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years. Stafford has long been highly regarded by people in the league. But these playoffs -- in which he has thrown six touchdowns and just one interception, and led three straight fourth-quarter scoring drives for the come-from-behind-win in the NFC Championship Game -- have answered the question that encased his career: Was it Detroit or Stafford that kept him from going further?
"What he's done, he's elevated everybody around him," Rams Coach Sean McVay said after the NFC Championship Game. "He's made me a better coach. He's made his teammates better. We talk about competitive greatness all the time. Being your best when your best was required."
It is not just the faces that are changing. So, too, is the style of play. A common denominator of the next generation is how much more often, and with intention, they make plays with their legs. Allen is the most dangerous runner on the Bills, and Murray and Lamar Jackson are among the fastest players in the NFL at any position. Much of Mahomes' magic derives from his ability to create something from broken plays. Burrow said that he started to feel more like himself halfway through this season, as his recovery from last year's knee injury ended and he felt more able to extend plays with his scrambling ability. That was especially obvious in the AFC Championship Game, when Burrow ran for four first downs.
"He's got a great natural feel for moving the pocket. It's a huge part of playing quarterback in the NFL these days," said Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. "Guys have to be able to do that."
That is both thrilling and, when it is taken to the extreme, treacherous. What Burrow does is use his legs to create opportunities for his arm. But in recent years, the NFL has featured a brand of quarterback derring-do, with electrifying runs a prominent part of their games. It, inarguably, makes those quarterbacks more dangerous. But it also presents a significant level of risk. And it raises the question of whether that style of play will define the next era or if quarterbacks will be forced back mostly to the pocket, where so many of the earlier greats excelled, and which inevitably provides more protection. It may be more of a rarity to see statues in the pocket in the style of Brady and Manning, but can Murray and Jackson, both of whom missed games because of injuries this season, lead teams to championships and have long careers if they don't substantially reduce their reliance on the run?
"We've all thought we've got some good, young athletic quarterbacks, but we hadn't seen them make those postseason Super Bowl-type runs," said Kurt Warner, the Super Bowl champion quarterback. "Mahomes is a crossover pocket guy and athletic guy. That's what I've been waiting on -- someone has to show me they can make it in the playoffs. Who makes it to the Super Bowl? Guys that play in the pocket. If you look at Joe and Matt, these guys are still pocket passers. Everything else is a bonus. There will come a time when you can't do that anymore. We're waiting to see can Lamar play that way for 10 years? Josh Allen takes a beating, how long can he do that? People are going to take that away."
Perhaps. Warner believes Mahomes is still the preeminent quarterback of the next wave, because he is the complete package and, especially earlier in his career, played extremely well from the pocket. Allen, though, closed some of the gap with Mahomes this season. And then Burrow, late in the season, began to make up ground on both of them.
Mahomes, of course, retains a significant edge over this group. He is the only member of the fresh faces who has already won a Super Bowl, who has even played in one. That changes on Sunday, when either Burrow or Stafford will join Mahomes. With the 2021 season complete, their generation will no longer be next. It will be now.