It’s better to get rid of a player a year early rather than a year too late. – Bill Walsh
This three-part series explores the inevitable predicament teams face: the dreaded plight of replacing a longtime franchise quarterback. Teams that arrive at this apex, historically, take one of two distinct paths – let their franchise leader go, or allow them to leave on their terms. Ultimately, when is it time to severe ties with a team’s beloved quarterback?
In Part 1, we saw that teams who let their famous quarterbacks go early watched them lead their new franchise to postseason success; in turn, their heir successors quickly flourished, and the team remained prosperous for years thereafter. In Part 2, we saw that teams who held on to their star until the bitter end often found short-term success, but the franchise suffered long-term consequences.
For the final part of this series, we turn to our own, Drew Brees. No team is acutely approaching this impasse more than the New Orleans Saints. Part 3 applies these lessons from the past to three contemporary examples – Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and ultimately, what lies ahead for Drew Brees and the Saints.
To see previous Parts, click below:
Is There an Unequivocal Model That Works?
The empirical evidence strongly points to Bill Walsh’s famous sentiment: It’s better to get rid of a player a year early rather than a year too late. While historical cases seem to blatantly drive this conclusion, the underlying factors of success or failure may not be as plain and simple. What further insight can be gained by the decisions made by these teams?
In the case of the Departed Quarterbacks, the teams all had very qualified replacements already on board – who ultimately pushed out the old star. When you look back on what worked, the Green Bay Packers pushed out Favre in 2008 because they had Aaron Rodgers primed and ready; drafted three years prior, Rodgers had ample time to learn and develop. Bill Walsh proactively traded for Steve Young in 1987, and while Joe Montana’s injury led to Young taking over in the 1992 season, Walsh had been running a two quarterback system the four years prior. Young would have eventually assumed the reins regardless, but the substantial playtime to develop his skillset led him straight to an MVP season. In the case of Indianapolis, the Colts frankly got lucky with Andrew Luck. That said, rather than retain blind faith in their aging and injured star, they swiftly took advantage of the opportunity awarded by the circumstances. Rather than emotionally keep their beloved quarterback to retire as a Colt, the team moved on to the future of their franchise; in contrast to the previous instances of controversy, this split was immediate and decisive.
In the case of Quarterbacks Kept Until the Bitter End, no team had a contingency plan past their aging quarterback. There was no successor. When you look at what went wrong, the Denver Broncos had ample notice of John Elway’s impending departure. Denver had won their first Super Bowl title in Super Bowl XXXII, and Elway nearly retired after the 1997 season; Mike Shanahan flew down to Palm Desert, Calif. to convince him to play one final season. At that point, all quarterback successor plans are purely reactive. There may not have been particularly strong QB draft classes in the 1990s, but Kurt Warner was perplexingly fully available as an undrafted rookie in 1994. However, unlike the early departure cases, Elway’s retirement was abrupt, and there was no ability to develop a successor in a year’s time, like they attempted with Brian Griese. At that point, they erred in failing to look for a trade instead of drafting a fresh replacement out of the third round in 1998. Moreover, they previously brought 37-yr old Bubby Brister in 1997 and made him the backup over Griese. Likely, and this may have been a good strategy had they stuck with it, Brister presumably was to serve as the interim replacement that Griese could learn behind. Instead, the second Brister struggled in the preseason, he was promptly benched in favor of Griese.
The Pittsburgh Steelers erroneously overlooked successor plans for an extremely injured Terry Bradshaw. Unlike the case of Elway, Bradshaw’s career ended without warning due to injury; they had no ability to develop a successor. However, much unlike the case of Elway, the Steelers had a sea of worthy heir apparents in the 1983 draft. Dan Marino fell to 27th due to a butterfly effect stemming, ironically, from John Elway; the Steelers didn’t skip over Marino because they felt he wasn’t their next franchise quarterback, it was because they though Bradshaw still had a good year left. Okay, but then what? The decision to skip over Dan Marino in favor of a maybe-healthy Bradshaw is just irredeemable. One that, by the way, saw Bradshaw retire prior to the 1984 season.
With Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills, it was a bit different – Todd Collins was drafted in 1995 hand-picked as Kelly’s successor. The fatal error was their decision to alert Kelly that they were moving on and intended for him to develop his heir apparent; Kelly decided to promptly retire, citing the case of Joe Montana as his reasoning to end his career in the place he started. Were the Packers and 49ers incredibly lucky that their first pick future quarterback was a star? Absolutely. The lesson gleaned from Buffalo is that the first pick might be the entirely wrong guy – explicitly telling the mentor in advance, subsequently forcing him out, was Buffalo’s grave mistake. Favre was certainly never naive, but he wasn’t told outright that his new role was to develop his successor and, in turn, push himself out the door. As a result, Todd Collins was thrust into the heir apparent role without much mentoring time at all.
The fundamental problem in waiting is that, in riding your aging star’s success out to the end, you resultantly never have a great draft choice to pick a premium replacement. Moreover, the team is usually desperately trying to cash in on those final years of their franchise beloved, and draft for immediate need rather than a development quarterback a few years in advance. Until time runs out.
Historically, the case for early departure is overwhelmingly supported. As the league has decidedly moved into the ultimate quarterback era, with dozens of high-powered offenses as the new norm, does this same trend ring true in contemporary cases?
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots
The incredible dynasty of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots eventually culminated in a blowup. Brady had made it clear that he was playing football until his mid-40s, and was fairly outspoken about this in 2014; later that year, Belichick drafted Jimmy Garoppolo. The first fracture? Clear signs that Bill Belichick had zeroed in on Brady’s successor. The root of their eventual divorce likely ties strongly back to the Jimmy Garoppolo trade of 2017, and how feverishly Belichick fought for Garoppolo to stay.
By the time his one-year contract ‘extension’ was up in 2020, Brady was clear that he preferred to sign a deal to ensure that he retired a Patriot, but if the team refused, he was fine moving on. He wanted clarity. He met with Belichick, and the meeting allegedly ended with a blowup. He met with Kraft. He got mixed signals. Team president Jonathan Kraft told NFL Network in January 2018 that Brady had “earned the right” to decide when he wanted to stop playing for the team. On the other hand, that right never came in the form of a contract extension, at least not one Brady felt would last the rest of his career.
New England let Tom Brady go, and he’s showing in Tampa that he still competes at not just a high-level, but has the ability to get a good team to the playoffs and perhaps the Super Bowl. As it’s Bill Belichick, and we’ll never truly know his inner thoughts, it’s hard to say whether Belichick had a real contingency plan; he lost Garoppolo in 2017 despite wishes, and made no real move to find another heir apparent. Well, past Jarrett Stidham, a fourth-round pick in 2019.
Eventually, in a very Belichickian move, he picked up Cam Newton. And we should’ve seen it coming. Under Brady’s tenure, New England oscillated between a pass-heavy offense and a run-system; in fact, Brady had complained about the lack of offensive weapons in his final years. Belichick knew he wasn’t going to land another Brady on his next go – after losing Garoppolo. Rather than find a Brady Lite C- passer, Belichick scooped up the the mobile Cam Newton. His refusal to surround Brady with ample receiving weapons the last few years was likely a strong sign that the Patriots were imminently heading in a new direction.
The success of the move remains to be seen. Will Newton lead them to the playoffs? Or will he crash and burn, and leave the team with no path forward, with no time to develop Stidham? None of the quarterbacks who were pushed out early left an empty quarterback room (well, impending the 2012 draft for the Colts). No one actually believed Belichick was moving forward with Jarrett Stidham. What was his grand plan? Likely, he planned for exactly what transpired – waited for the open market and picked a primed previous league MVP as the heir apparent. It remains to be seen whether this was intended all along, or whether everything fell through with Garoppolo and they’re the exception to the model.
Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers GM, Tom Telesco, was a Colts exec when Peyton Manning left in 2012. This wasn’t his first rodeo; he wanted to ensure it was a clean break. It was clear that Philip Rivers had markedly declined; in his final season with the Chargers, he threw 20 interceptions and had eight fumbles, with rumors swirling of benching Rivers midseason. Rivers’ contract was up at the end of the year; rather than delay the inevitable and franchise tag him, the Chargers decided to move on. Moreover, they had seemingly found their heir apparent that same year in Tyrod Taylor.
It’s not to say that just because a team has a necessary backup quarterback means they’re confident he’s the successor. For the Chargers, they had fastidiously pursued Taylor for just that. Head coach Anthony Lynn was the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills in 2016. Tyrod Taylor was that season’s starting quarterback, and Lynn knew exactly what he would be getting out of Taylor. “We couldn’t have a better backup right now,” Lynn told AM 570 L.A. Sports in 2019, “and now he has an opportunity to maybe step up into a starting role. I’ve had Tyrod before [in Buffalo], and I know what this young man brings to the table, in the passing game and the running game.”
Why, then, draft Justin Herbert sixth overall in the 2020 draft? Perhaps it was nothing more than due diligence. It’s hard to feel that it wasn’t omniscient. Clearly Herbert was the long-term intended successor for Rivers. Perhaps, Newton to the Patriots is Taylor to the Colts: a primed starter, one who will keep the team competitive in the transition for the next heir apparent. In turn, having several years under their predecessor to develop.
What instead transpired in Los Angeles was gross negligence at best, medical malpractice at worst. Taylor was primed to take over and led the Chargers to a season-opening win, where he suffered broken ribs. Minutes prior to the Week 2 matchup, Taylor received a painkiller injection to alleviate the pain. This led to a team doctor somehow puncturing his lung; in turn, opening the door for now-starting quarterback, Justin Herbert.
Herbert has performed lights out, but this was likely not the intended plan outright. Was this a case of the team letting a star go early and having the replacement on board in Taylor? Or just dumb luck with Herbert? Regardless, unlike the Steelers view on Bradshaw, the Chargers were sure to stack their quarterback room with ample replacements – through free agency, and the draft.
Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints
Undoubtedly a cornerstone of the Saints franchise since his arrival in 2006, perhaps no quarterback has meant more to a city than Drew Brees. Brees and New Orleans, in a way, were kindred spirits – a city devastated by tragedy, a quarterback whose career was seemingly destroyed by a ‘one-in-500 injury’. The record-reaper shattered expectations, innumerable statistics, and for a long while, the concept of time. Time is no longer on his side.
Could Drew break the mold and lead the team to one last Super Bowl? Or, did they wait too long, his apparent lack of arm strength is catching up to the team, and they are consigned to drift for years in quarterback wasteland? No one will be complaining if Drew goes for two and rides off into the sunset with a Super Bowl win. Either way, history tells us that one of two things are nearly certain: the successor is (maddeningly) indeed in the quarterback room, or the Saints will pay the price for keeping Brees till his bitter end.
All that said, it’s not as if the Saints have remained idle in anticipation of his departure. Teddy Bridgewater was undoubtedly brought in to interview for the heir apparent. He went 5-0, but that appeared not enough to deem him Aaron Rodgers. They brought in an intriguing pocket passer at an absurdly low price tag as a replacement in Jameis Winston. But then they signed Taysom Hill to a 2-year contract and declared him Brees’ backup. While we’ve griped at Payton’s incessant use of Taysom Hill this season, look carefully at his role in comparison to years’ past. Absolutely no work on special teams. He rarely lines out as a tight end, and while they’ve been obvious run plays, Hill has exclusively been a quarterback – for once.
Winston is currently serving as Bridgewater, an immediate replacement in the case of injury. However, Belichick’s handling of the quarterback transition gives me pause to Winston being the obvious future starter; Belichick and Payton operate very similarly. Payton is simply the chaotic version. After this extensive case study in franchise replacement trends, the parallels between the Saints and Patriots are quite apparent.
Initially, the contingency plan in New England was Jimmy Garoppolo. Given that Brees nearly retired last year, and almost assuredly is in his 20th and final NFL season, why did the Saints decline to aggressively retain Bridgewater? If the Saints wanted Bridgewater as the heir apparent, they would’ve done just that. Instead, they signed Taysom Hill to an actual quarterback contract, and replaced Bridgewater with a similar subset in Jameis Winston. And if Winston was simply the next successor attempt, why is he delegated to QB3? There have been calls for the Saints to go after someone like Sam Darnold in free agency. But in the immediate future, if the Saints intend to stick with a middle-tier passer, then Jameis Winston is already the best person for the job, and he’s already in the building.
New Orleans is not playing for an early draft pick; they’re going lights-out with their beloved quarterback to try and get him one last championship. The Saints have barely even pretended to try finding Brees’ successor in the draft. The heir successor for Drew Brees, accordingly, is most likely in the building. And frankly, all signs glaringly point to Taysom Hill. “Taysom’s earned this opportunity to be our two,” Payton said in an interview with WWL Radio in March. “But he’s also earned the opportunity to play and help us win football games as a one. Whether you call him a tight end, a receiver, a specialist, a quarterback, he’s going to play. He’s too good of a football player — he’s one of our better football players.”
Payton promptly named Hill the Saints’ second-string quarterback. One month later, they signed Hill to a 2-year, $21 million, $16 million guaranteed contract; the yearly average, $10.5 million, is second highest of backup quarterbacks in the league. Despite limited reps throwing a football, Payton felt Hill “earned that opportunity” to be Drew Brees’ primary backup. Payton then went on to declare that Hill will be “an outstanding NFL quarterback” in an interview with Jason LaCanfora on 105.7 The Fan in May. “He’s a very good athlete, but I think that’s a normal reaction for any fan relative to someone that is getting ready to play that position and they haven’t had the same amount of snaps to look at. For those that aren’t sold, it’s probably because they haven’t seen enough of him in games, and I can certainly understand that,” Payton told LaCanfora.
“Now, that being said, we’ve seen hundreds of reps that weren’t necessarily regular-season games and we’ve seen some of the things we feel he can do on a consistent basis. That’s often the case with any new player, new meaning that time comes where Taysom is transitioning into quarterback-only, people are excited or anxious to see, hey, how does this guy function down-in and down-out at that position?”
Despite urgent fan pleas, Payton has increased Hill’s usage as if he can do no wrong; he was nonplussed when Hill fumbled the ball against the Packers and basically lost the game. And importantly, he’s not using him to block punts, line up to block as a tight end, or in the end zone as a behemoth receiver. It is quite clear that he is being used primarily as a mobile quarterback — successfully, or not — but purely as a quarterback. Much like Belichick slowly stopped prioritizing receiving weapons, the Saints have had a long-standing WR problem. One that Payton has been unfazed by for years; the weapons they’ve brought in, Jared Cook and Emmanuel Sanders, are aging stars intended to bolster their aging leader’s last push. Besides that, not much attention paid to an elite passing game long-term. Brady wanted weapons, and he got the door; Stidham was never the long-term plan, and Belichick decided to switch gears rather than go for a mediocre contingency option.
Is Taysom Hill Sean’s creativity plug in an undervalued replacement like Belichick is trying to do in New England? Bill Walsh ran a two quarterback system in 1998, pitting his quarterbacks against one another. We might hate it, and it’s largely unsuccessful, but all things considered, the Saints are playing a watered-down version of Bill Walsh’s quarterback controversy. When Walsh declared that he only had eyes for Steve Young in 1998, who had flailed in Tampa Bay and didn’t fit the traditional role, everyone in the trade room thought he was insane. Revisionist history claims lots of people knew Young was destined for greatness in the NFL, but that was simply not the case. Not one staffer raised their hand in support for the trade; Walsh did it anyway.
As the saying goes, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. And Sean Payton has told us in spades that Taysom Hill is the next Steve Young. He just has no plans to push his Joe Montana out the door early. What remains to be seen, is whether the Saints fall into Part 1 or Part 2. Should Taysom really be the quarterback Payton says he is, or Jameis Winston takes over and his LASIK eye surgery actually worked, then the Saints did due diligence in transitioning their franchise quarterback. But, should this all fall down, or the Saints draft and start someone immediately, then there was no plan at all, and Sean Payton was truly just conducting a science experiment. It will make a very convincing case, either path it goes, for the need for a qualified replacement primed to take over a year early, rather than a year too late.
Now, for the hard part. The legacy of Drew Brees will end as a New Orleans Saint. It’s all but certain that he’s on his Farewell tour. If nothing else, this research series really made me appreciate what we had with Drew Brees on a new level, which isn’t a feat I thought possible after all these years. Heir apparent aside, the takeaway from this series of franchise quarterback struggles is that we should be grateful for his time here, and the afterthought of successors is negligible in comparison.
No matter what, the Drew Brees Era was a transformative success that reshaped a franchise that previously donned paper bags on game day. No Saints fan would trade a minute of our time with Brees the last 15 years for the future.
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