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The end of the QB era, Part I: The departed quarterbacks

Just when is it ultimately time to severe ties with a team’s beloved franchise quarterback?

New Orleans Saints v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Bill Walsh once famously said, “it’s better to get rid of a player a year early rather than a year too late.” That predicament is especially acute when it is the franchise/HOF quarterback. Not only is there the risk that the player might not be as effective, but he also stands in the way of developing his intended successor. As much as we would like to think our favorite player is everlasting and irreplaceable, nostalgia ultimately does not win championships.

Is it better to let the player go a year early, and hope you don’t look foolish should he lead his new team to a Super Bowl? Or keep him until the bitter end, and hope the rest of the team rallies around to get one last title for the revered old man? No team is approaching this impasse more quickly than the New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees is a player that transcends his NFL position as a symbolic leader for the city of New Orleans in a way that’s unprecedented. The departure of Drew Brees will represent the loss of something much greater for the New Orleans Saints.

The eve of Drew Brees’ potential last Monday Night Football game of his career, one between the only two franchises he’s ever donned a uniform for, presents a perfect opportunity to ask a difficult question. At the heart of the debate surrounding Drew Brees, including his potential recent decline, exists a much deeper dilemma. Was his most recent contract extension, irrespective of his play the remainder of the 2020 season, ultimately a grave mistake?

In Part 1 of this series, we examine several teams who let their famous quarterback go on to achieve success with another team; in turn, allowing the successor to take the reins and forge their franchise’s new path. In Part 2, we’ll examine the cases of teams who stuck with their star until his retirement, whether by choice or injury. In Part 3, we will apply the lessons learned to the situations of three contemporary examples – Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and our own, Drew Brees. Ultimately, do the lessons of the past give us a hint of what lies ahead for them and their teams?

Part 1: The Departed Quarterbacks

Green Bay Packers vs Chicago Bears

Brett Favre

Green Bay Packers (1992-2007)

The case of Brett Favre is perhaps the ugliest quarterback divorce in this case study. Favre (unfortunately) began his NFL career in Atlanta when he was drafted in 1991 with the 33rd overall pick; he was traded to Green Bay the following year. His first successful season would be in 1993 when he led the Packers to their first playoff berth since 1982. Favre only continued this upward trajectory of consecutive playoff appearances; this culminated with the Packers becoming the champions of Super Bowl XXXI. Despite an unsuccessful Super Bowl appearance the following year, Favre championed a dominant NFC squad until 1999 when their postseason run came to a halt.

The Heir Replacement: Aaron Rodgers is Drafted (2005)

Despite multiple playoff appearances, the Packers’ front office lost faith that Favre was capable of reaching another Super Bowl. There began an internal push to edge Favre to retirement; in the 2005 draft, they were actively surveying replacements. An uncomfortable atmosphere descended upon the organization, and the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers as his replacement.

What ensued between the heir apparent and the aging quarterback was an ugly team divide in training camp; unsurprisingly, the veteran players backed Favre, while the younger players felt rejuvenated by Rodgers’ presence. The sequential season, and Green Bay’s first 0-4 start in 17 years, only strengthened the cries for Favre to hang up his helmet. By the end of the stunning 4-12 2005 season, it was abundantly clear that the Packers had an acute, albeit difficult, decision to make.

Favre’s Departure: The New York Jets (2008), Minnesota Vikings (2009-2010)

Not wanting to bolster a divisional opponent in the Minnesota Vikings, Favre was shipped off to the New York Jets in 2008. This was all despite Favre leading the team to an NFC Championship in his final season. While Favre’s tenure on the Jets was less than memorable, much of that had to do with a covered up bicep injury the Jets were eventually fined for. The complaints about an aging quarterback’s throwing strength, for once, were unwarranted.

Just one year after his miserable post-Packers tenure in New York, Favre got his initial wish and signed in 2009 with the Minnesota Vikings. Favre’s 2009 season in Minnesota culminated Favre’s best season-long performance; Minnesota’s 6-0 start was the best of Favre’s career. Awarded his 11th Pro Bowl selection that year, Favre finished the season throwing for over 4,000 yards, 33 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions.

His stellar 12-4 season was the Vikings best franchise record since 2000, and their first record to break 11 wins since 1998. As Saints fans, we all know how Favre’s 2009 season with Minnesota ended, which was a 31-28 overtime loss that sent New Orleans to its first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. More importantly, however, Favre faced his former team in Week 4 that season, and ultimately got the last laugh with a victory over Green Bay as the head of the Minnesota Vikings.

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers Era

As for the Packers, the 2008 season with Aaron Rodgers at the helm wasn’t so much marred by transitional issues as an abysmal defense plagued by injury. Rodgers’ first season under center, as the first QB to start other than Favre for 16 years, saw him throw for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns. The 6-10 record had nothing to do with the switch; 7 of those losses were by 4 points or less, and unsurprisingly, the team’s defensive coordinator, Bob Sanders (along with seven other assistant coaches), were fired at the end of the season.

In 2009, despite the loss to the team’s former leader, Aaron Rodgers became the first QB in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards in his two first seasons, and led Green Bay to a Wild Card playoff bid with an 11-5 record.

In 2010, the Green Bay Packers became one of 10 Wild Card teams to ever make it to the Super Bowl. Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers led the team to a 31-25 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, making the Packers one of six Wild Card teams to win a Super Bowl. Since 2008, Rodgers has amassed a Super Bowl title, 2 MVP awards, and led the Packers to the playoffs eight consecutive seasons from 2009-2016. Currently, MVP candidate Rodgers is playing perhaps his best football yet, with multiple star receivers out due to injury, leading Green Bay to its first 4-0 start since 2015.

While Brett Favre deserved a better pat on his back on his way out the door, it’s hard to argue that Green Bay isn’t the barometer for the case to cut your franchise favorite earlier than desired. Favre’s departure, despite his brief success with Minnesota, ultimately allowed Aaron Rodgers to succeed, and the early transition set Green Bay up to be playoff contenders for the subsequent decade. Ironically, round two of this tactic may currently be transpiring with current backup and first-round draft pick, Jordan Love.

Classic NFL Photo by Icon Sportswire

Joe Montana

San Francisco 49ers (1979-1993)

“It’s not easy to go to another team and get accepted, no matter how much success you’ve had and how many years you’ve played,” Joe Montana told NFL’s Michael Silver days before his two former teams faced off in Super Bowl LIV. As that matchup loomed, another decision, one familiar to Montana, was unfolding in New England with the city’s beloved, Tom Brady. Montana’s opinion on the potential departure of Brady? “I just can’t see how they would let him leave there, myself.”

If you asked 49ers fans in the late 1990s, they likely would’ve echoed this consensus – at the time. The saga of Joe Montana’s legacy with the San Francisco 49ers, and his bitter eventual departure, began at the helm of Bill Walsh’s legendary coaching career; the duo’s tenure made the 49ers a dynasty. Montana was drafted by San Francisco in 1979 with the 82nd overall pick, and as the fourth quarterback taken in the draft – the preceding three all selected in the first round. After a year on the depth chart as the backup to Steve DeBerg, Montana became the 49ers starting quarterback midway through the 1980 season. Despite a 6-10 record that year, Montana threw for 1,795 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions – including a league-leading 64.5% completion rate.

In 1981, Montana began his tenure as San Francisco’s starting quarterback, and began an era that saw eleven playoff appearances, nine divisional championships, and four Super Bowl titles. He led the league in passing yards five times, his starting year in 1981 being the first. His first full season culminated in the 49ers Super Bowl XVI win that famously featured The Catch.

Despite a nearly career-ending back injury in 1986, Montana led San Francisco to back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1988 and 1989, and elevated the 49ers to “dynasty” status, ultimately cementing his legacy as one of the Greats. These two Super Bowl appearances, however, were not without a burgeoning controversy behind the scenes.

The Heir Replacement: Steve Young trade (1987)

Though he would never utter it publicly, Walsh was both unconvinced Montana would fully recover, and even if he did, that his end was nearing. In a room of personnel who emphatically disagreed with the decision, Walsh famously acquired Steve Young from Tampa Bay in 1987 to serve as Montana’s heir apparent. While Young arrived in San Francisco ready to assume the reins from an injured Joe Montana, Young’s presence only fueled Montana’s competitiveness; in 1988, Walsh straight up pitted his quarterbacks against one another.

“Well, our strength is at quarterback but our problem is we have two. There’s a quarterback controversy developing. We’ll have to select between Steve Young and Joe Montana,” Walsh remarked in a 1988 preseason interview. The ensuing season saw the 49ers run a two quarterback system for 10 games; unsurprisingly, this only fueled frustration between the respective quarterbacks, and Young became increasingly impatient at his repeated delegation to the bench in favor of Montana.

Montana sustained a season-ending elbow injury sustained in the 1991 preseason; in turn, Young finally got his opportunity to lead the 49ers through the 1991 season. After a 10-6 outing with no playoff appearance, cries for Montana to reassume the starting role grew stronger. Young, unsurprisingly, grew increasingly impatient, and his agent started shopping for trade options.

As it turns out, Young’s near-trade to the Los Angeles Raiders fell through and, simultaneously, Montana indeed would not recover from surgery in time to start the 1992 season. This time, Young didn’t waste the opportunity; he would go on to win the NFL MVP award that season, and led the league in completion percentage, touchdowns, yards per attempt, and passer rating.

Montana’s Departure: Kansas City Chiefs (1993)

Nostalgic fans, perhaps unwilling to enter the unknown, cried for Montana’s return, but Young’s NFC Championship run the previous year had made the quarterback controversy come to its climax; the team’s owner at the time siding with Montana only complicated things further. Just as the introduction of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay split the locker room, this was simply a re-enactment of what transpired in San Francisco in the 1993 offseason.

Young made things quite simple, and gave the team an ultimatum: start him or trade him. His 1992 MVP performance forced San Francisco’s hand, and he was announced as the starting quarterback in March of 1993. Unsurprisingly, this quickly led Montana wanting out of San Francisco immediately; he was granted permission to seek a trade, and he had chosen the Kansas City Chiefs instead of the then-Phoenix Cardinals. The team had previously nixed the offer and wanted him to go to the Cardinals, but Montana refused.

Upon news of Young winning the starting role, Montana promptly reminded the 49ers they’d granted him permission to trade, and he was going to the Chiefs. Though he ultimately landed at his desired designation, the departure was not without bitterness from Montana. “Not to be afforded at least an opportunity to compete for the job, I think, was the most difficult part,” Montana recently remarked on the DA show. “I could understand if I had had a bad year, but statistically, I just had one of the better years of my career that year, and the two prior to that, we won two Super Bowls. I just thought that the way it was handled was not done properly the way it should have been.”

Prior to Montana’s tenure in Kansas City, the Chiefs had won exactly one playoff game from 1972 to 1991. In 1993, Montana led his new team to their first divisional win for the first time in 22 years, and an AFC Championship game appearance. His final year of his football career would come the following year; Montana led the Chiefs to a consecutive playoff appearance in 1994 before losing to Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card round. As Brett Favre would eventually go on to achieve, Montana got the last laugh against his former team, defeating Young and the 49ers in Week 2 of his final season.

San Francisco 49ers: Steve Young Era

Young quickly found success in an offense now designed for his play style, setting the tone for his own quarterback era in San Francisco. His first season as Montana’s successor would end in a 10-6 record and an eventual NFC Championship game loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He found his true footing in 1994, and in turn, the start of his legacy; in just his second season, Young led the 49ers to the Super Bowl XXIX and was named MVP in their 49-26 win against the San Diego Chargers. In addition, he became the first player to ever be the game’s leader in both rushing and passing yards in a Super Bowl.

Not only did Young win the ultimate championship that year, but he also set both league and franchise records, and became the 7th player in NFL history to win both the league and Super Bowl’s MVP title in the same season. Ironically, a Brett Favre-led Packers team would eliminate the 49ers in the playoffs the three subsequent years; Young would end his career with a postgame win over Green Bay in the 1998 Wild Card game as his final victory. The team was defeated by the Falcons in the ensuing divisional championship game.

After suffering his seventh career concussion during the 1999 season, Young was informed he would see the same fate as his predecessor, and would be released if he decided not to retire. While he was offered a starting job in Denver with his former offensive coordinator as head coach, the concussions ultimately forced his hand, and he retired due to safety concerns. While there was always a shadow looming over Young’s head during his tenure, he led San Francisco to six consecutive playoff appearances from 1993-1998, and a Super Bowl championship. Had they instead traded Young years prior, the 49ers would have only gotten two years out of Montana, rather than six successful years with the bewilderingly athletic Steve Young.

New York Jets v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Peyton Manning

Indianapolis Colts (1998-2011)

The infamous case of Ryan Leaf. Prior to eventual quarterback controversy, Peyton Manning would first face this dilemma in the 1998 NFL Draft. With the No. 1 overall pick, the Colts were quarterback-less and knew whoever they didn’t draft, the Los Angeles Chargers would select whichever one was left over. But while scouts touted Leaf as the next elite quarterback, the front office of Indianapolis favored Manning.

Manning called owner Jim Irsay before the draft, and urged the Colts to tell him their intended choice. When Irsay declined, this prompted Manning to show up at his office and, in an unprecedented move, give the team an ultimatum. “I would like to play for you,” Manning told Irsay, “but if you don’t pick me, I will kick your ass for the next 15 years.”

Irsay heard Manning, and ultimately selected Manning with the first overall pick to become the face of the Colts’ franchise. The ensuing tenure is well-known history; as the league’s only-five time MVP, Manning led the Colts to eleven playoff appearances, eight division championships, and the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI. Manning was also the first Colts player to be named Super Bowl MVP in the 2006 season; he would lead the Colts to one more Super Bowl appearance in 2009, but they were defeated by the New Orleans Saints in the 31-17 loss.

Manning’s demise wasn’t so much an impending decline as much as an abrupt injury. After becoming the NFL’s first quarterback to lead his team to nine consecutive playoff appearances in the 2010 season, Manning had apparently played through a nagging neck injury that required surgery the following offseason. A subsequent MRI that summer led to Manning undergoing spinal fusion surgery, and a possible end to his NFL career. Manning’s surgery and corresponding recovery kept him out of the 2011 season entirely, and the 2-14 Colts once again found themselves with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft.

The Heir Replacement: Andrew Luck is Drafted (2012)

First and foremost, the NFL remains a business. Painful as it may have been, the Colts were in the position to draft their next franchise quarterback (though his career would end in eventual immense tragedy) in Andrew Luck. Moreover, Manning was due a $28 million dollar roster bonus that year and his return to the NFL was not definite.

While Irsay insists this was an unimaginable decision, the fact of the matter is the perfect scenario fell into their lap. The Colts could make the emotional decision to keep their beloved quarterback, who may not be able to ever play another down, and in turn, be unable to field a team around his contract hit, and indeed they tried; Manning, however, refused to restructure his contract that would only provide incentive should he make a full recovery. The team’s future, unlike the other instances of controversy, became imminently clear.

“Times change, circumstances change, and that’s the reality of playing in the NFL,” Peyton remarked in the March of 2012 press conference. While he preferred to remain a Colt, the salary-cap hit and uncertainty of his future forced a rebuilding of the organization to enter a new quarterback era. “I’m a great believer in history and continuity. Anyone who knows me knows how dear those things are to me. It just wasn’t meant to be,” Irsay said at the time, ultimately pointing to a “perfect wrong storm.”

In a move that was incredibly bittersweet, the Colts would indeed go onto select Andrew Luck with the first overall pick, and Manning was released as a free agent in 2012. This split, in contrast to the aforementioned crowded locker rooms, was swift and decisive.

Manning’s Departure: Denver Broncos (2012-2015)

Manning made the most of his second chance at the head of the Broncos, and led his new team to a 13-3 record in 2012, a playoff berth, and a first-round bye. Though they would lose to eventual Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens, in the divisional round, Manning finished his comeback season with 4,659 passing yards, 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He was awarded the Comeback Player of the Year award, finished second in MVP voting, and was ranked by his peers as the No. 2 NFL Top 100 Players of 2013.

He would go on to lead Denver to a Super Bowl appearance in 2013, becoming the third quarterback to reach the Super Bowl with two teams. They lost Super Bowl XLVIII to the Seattle Seahawks, but set a Super Bowl record with 34 completions (broken the following year by Tom Brady) and earned his fifth MVP award that season. In 2014, he became the NFL all-time leader in passing touchdowns, and reached the playoffs after a 12-4 record. His final season, 2015, would end with the ultimate narrative; Manning became the first quarterback to lead two teams to a Super Bowl victory in Super Bowl 50. He would promptly ride off into the sunset on the highest note possible, and announced his retirement in March of 2016.

Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck era

The story of Andrew Luck’s NFL career is a harrowing tragedy; his potential was ultimately cut lightyears short by his abrupt retirement right before the start of the 2019 season. Although his incredibly justified, and understandable, decision severed any chance to surpass Manning’s legacy, Luck forged a legacy of his own in just seven seasons as an Indianapolis Colt.

Luck went on to lead the Colts to a record-breaking 11 wins in the 2012 season for first overall drafted quarterbacks, and took the previous 2-14 Colts promptly back to the playoffs. Three consecutive playoff appearances culminated in Luck’s best season as a Colt in 2014. He broke numerous league and franchise records, including his predecessor’s franchise record for passing yards in a single-season, and while they fell to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game that year, Luck had decisively stated his case as the face of the franchise moving forward.

He only had six fully healthy NFL seasons, but Luck both made the Pro Bowl and led his team to the playoffs four times. Luck’s final season in 2018 ended with 4,593 passing yards, 39 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and one last playoff run with the team. Fittingly, he received the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award for his perseverance and tenacity. Unquestionably equipped with a level of athleticism not even remotely present in Manning, with incredible accuracy and elite cerebral abilities, had tragedy not repeatedly struck Luck over and over until he retired out of mercy, who’s to say who ultimately have had the paramount Indianapolis legacy.

In the three famous cases of early franchise quarterback departure, not only did those quarterbacks go on to achieve success with their respective new teams, but the original teams saw almost immediate success for multiple seasons. All three retired prior to their predecessor’s end of their tenures, and the transition was nearly seamless in all cases. It remains to be seen whether these were strokes of luck, or whether teams that held onto the bitter end should have taken a cue from Bill Walsh.

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