The King is Dead? The Dark Art of Replacing a Star Quarterback
The NFL team roster is a tumultuous place, especially in the off season. Winning matters, and every piece of the puzzle has to fit for this to be possible. No other position in the roster is more scrutinised than that of the Quarterback. This position is the only one that retains a win-loss record, has a hand on the play for every offensive move, as well as remembering all the plays which could be in the 100s, and this is all before the media obligations. The Quarterback is the face AND voice of their particular franchise. It is a big responsibility and with the type of money in football today, an investment. An expensive investment. Longevity for a Quarterback is a rare thing, with the pressure of success and limited cap space. Staying valuable with the franchise is paramount. That basically means battling to gain a play-off place and hopefully a Super Bowl ring. Easier said than done.
The reason I wanted to write this article stemmed from a conversation I was having with Josh Gilbert, fellow Third & Long cohort during the last season in regards to the New Orleans Saints. The Saints were the team to beat at the beginning of the season. On a hot streak through September and October that only the Kansas City Chiefs and the LA Rams were running close to. Their star Quarterback, Drew Brees had just overtaken Peyton Manning’s 71940 yard record with a 62 yard long dart for Tre’Quan Smith to score a touchdown in the 43-19 victory over the Washington Redskins. Brees was 39 years old, and his team were a shoe-in for the play offs maybe the Super Bowl , Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were in devastating form too. We surmised that if the Saints were successful in making the Super Bowl and were victorious, Brees might retire, go out on top. He seems like a ‘go-out-on-top guy’. As it turns out, Brees couldn’t hold onto his rich vein of form through November and lost to the Rams in the NFC Championship game. Not to say Brees isn’t capable of performing at the top level, he has shown he can. However, is there a plan in place when he does hang up his boots? Will Teddy Bridgewater or Taysom Hill fill the void temporarily or permanently? We simply don’t know and when do you call time on a Quarterbacks career? When he says so? Or wait until there is a decline in fitness or form? Can there really be a smooth transition, or is it simply down to circumstance, fate or the fickle mistress known as luck? More importantly can a star Quarterback be replaced seamlessly, or at all?
‘Have the New York Jets really replaced Joe Namath?’ Despite it’s ridiculousness this statement is true in a sense. The only Super Bowl victory the Jets had was in 1969 at Super Bowl III in which Joe Namath was named MVP. Sure, they have had decent quarterbacks since then, but no one has carried that franchise like Broadway Joe did. Their current QB, Sam Darnold has potential and is only one season into his tenure there. We will see. The Denver Broncos are in a similar scenario, though they haven’t strayed from glory as long as the Jets. They have also had some of the most storied Quarterbacks in NFL history in Peyton Manning and John Elway. Elway is more intricately linked to the Broncos than (Manning who did win a Super bowl, but stayed for only three seasons) as he is currently their General Manager and President of football operations. The difference to the Jets scenario is more abstract in Denver, as Elway is trying to replace himself. Elway was a Bronco for 16 seasons, and played nowhere else. Elway unfortunately since becoming Broncos GM, has made some lousy QB choices. A different one every year since their 2015 Super Bowl win. This year they acquired Joe Flacco from the Baltimore Ravens, who was unseated by the rushing Lamar Jackson, and picked up Drew Lock in round two of this years draft. Their starting QB for last year, Case Keenum was moved on to the Washington Redskins. Lots of change and transition in a short time to settle in. Flacco is a Super bowl winning Quarterback, his biggest strength is his arm, but he isn’t what I consider elite. Like Brees, there are successful quarterbacks who are still performing at a high level, but are nearing the end of their careers. Philip Rivers at the Chargers, Eli Manning at the Giants, and even though he won the Super bowl last season, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. It is something that will certainly come up again if he has a shaky moment in any game. Last season after the Patriots less than convincing start, the question arose a few times. You could argue Aaron Rodgers is in that group of Quarterbacks where their franchises must be considering the next stage, as he is the same age as Brett Favre, more on that later.
The New York Giants made a somewhat left field pick of Duke Quarterback, Daniel Jones at this years draft, critics and fans have been howling for a replacement for Eli Manning for a couple of years, and after avoiding picking a blue chip prospect in a favourable QB draft and opting for the sensational running back Saquon Barkley. Those voices remain pretty loud. There is a belief that Manning is diminished as a force, though in his defence he isn’t surrounded by a particular strong group of players. A recurring theme on our young site seemingly. Here at Third and Long towers, we believed the smart money was on Rosen vacating Arizona for the potentially incumbent Kyler Murray for New York. Rosen looked like a decent successor in the Eli Manning mould, but alas he went to Miami when as predicted, Murray landed in Arizona. Is picking Jones the right move? I must say, I like him. I wasn’t sure on him from what I read,but from the tape I saw I was impressed. He isn’t risky and will probably finish his career with no Hail Marys in the last 30 seconds of the 4th Quarter, but he is an efficient player, who makes excellent in game decisions. He is a safe pair of hands. It will be interesting how big a part he plays this incoming season, but I imagine it depends on how Eli does in the first few games and Jones might be thrown in. A gamble either way.
The Chargers probably have a more difficult decision in my opinion. Quietly, in Los Angeles the Chargers have been amassing a superb roster of players. Derwin James as Safety has been a revelation, and I love Melvin Gordon at Running Back, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit by and large in my opinion. Oddly, the weak link may be Philip Rivers. Wait, wait. Hear me out. He is 38 years old and has been incredibly consistent. He has one year on his contract, with no talks held so far. Why? Despite 8 pro bowl appearances, and never really putting a foot wrong. Rivers is unable to boss the field in the big games. He is 3-4 in play-off games, and has never appeared in the Super Bowl despite throwing 101 more touchdown passes than the legendary Joe Montana. A perennial nearly man. He is competitive, but he isn’t a winner.
A Quarterback I consider to be similar, at least in a stylistic sense to Philip Rivers is Tom Brady. Both are pretty static in terms of movement, and throw from the pocket. Accuracy is also a statistic both excel in, as well as releasing the ball pretty sharpish after the snap. The difference being is that Brady along with the indomitable Bill Belichick have managed to secure six Super Bowl wins. The victory over the Los Angeles Rams coming along with Brady being 41 years of age. Unheard of in this sport to this point. Three years senior to Rivers too. Though success doesn’t necessarily stop the calls for Brady’s retirement. Brady lives and breathes football, winning matters as I stated earlier. It could be argued that in terms of the weapons that Brady possess as a Quarterback; arm strength, throwing ability, physicality, rushing ability etc. Brady isn’t going to blow anyone’s skirt up. What he does possess is the ability to prepare, and implement strategy successfully and be a cog in a successful systematic footballing machine, in turn creating one of the more successful dynasties in football history.
The Quarterback is the cornerstone to each franchise, but the most successful teams and to some extent, dynasties exist in a symbiotic system. A combination of factors; whether it is the coach/quarterback relationship like Brady has with Belichick and the New England Patriots, and the defensive heft of the Seattle Seahawks’ ‘Legion of Boom’ with the rushing quarterback stylings of Russell Wilson to name two. Though these combinations only last so long. Steve Young can only throw to Jerry Rice for so long. Time has to be called on a career, it is inevitable though how do you make that transition, is it necessary for there to be a lull so teams can be rebuilt. Before Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe was the QB for New England, winning one Super Bowl and spending eight seasons there. How did the six time Super Bowl winning Quarterback gets his opportunity in Bledsoe’s last season in 2001? Bad luck on Bledsoe’s end, he was caught by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, and suffered a torn blood vessel in his chest, which was almost fatal. Leaving Brady to lead NE through the play-offs and when Bledsoe recovered, he moved on and the Patriots started a period of almost complete domination. They switched up for more success.
The most contentious replacement in my lifetime, though it may be the best transition of replacement of a high level Quarterback is when Aaron Rodgers replaced Brett Favre. In my opinion, hindsight has protected the decision of the Green Bay Packers though at the time it seemed unthinkable. In his pomp, not only was Favre the face of the Packers, he was probably the highest profile active NFL player. Favre was not only exciting to watch; using his gun-slinger arm to make big throws and took risks government win games. Remind you of anyone? He was also hugely charismatic, what you would call larger than life, and not always without controversy. Of course, he was outspoken too. In his tenure in Green Bay, he won one Super bowl in 12 seasons, which despite his popularity cannot be dismissed, and Rodgers’ reputation couldn’t understated and became a big figure behind the scenes when Mike McCarthy took over as Head Coach, who took it upon himself to hone Rodgers’ skills and he became fully integrated in the system McCarthy wanted to implement even as a back-up. It was Rodgers himself who coached Favre into learning McCarthy’s way of doing things, as he integrated his system in place of the outgoing coach, Mike Sherman’s system. Also to his detriment, Favre also teased retirement, though in his defence he suffered a lot of personal issues in this time. He later rescinded his retirement plans but in 2008, Rodgers was finally given his chance after nearly three years as a back up. Favre would move onto the Jets and the Vikings respectively after a couple more retirement announcements, he finally left the game in 2010. Rodgers picked his sole Super Bowl victory in 2010 and is still generally thought of as one of the better Quarterbacks in the modern game. Some nutters think he is the best, I disagree but he is at least equal to Favre.
We will see in the next few years a changing of the guard for at least a couple of Quarterbacks, and to change your Quarterback changes the whole dynamic of the team and how it plays. Also if that team is strong and successful, can it remain so? It will be interesting to see what happens with the New York Giants and how the Daniel Jones/Eli Manning transition happens, if it happens at all. There are lots of possibilities. Game to game decisions can be made and favour can fluctuate in a second. Also with no real tried and tested method of transitioning to a new Quarterback, it is a risk or as my title suggests, a dark art.