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The Series of Unfortunate Franchise Quarterback Events.
This three-part series examines the perils of replacing a longtime franchise quarterback with respect to Bill Walsh’s famous sentiment: is it better to cut a player a year too early rather than a year too late? In the case of replacing beloved QBs nearing the end of their careers, is there an unequivocal model that works?
Part 1 of this series analyzed three cases where teams 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 examine the cases of teams who stuck with their star until his retirement, whether by choice or injury, and the success of the team thereafter. Part 3 will ultimately apply this insight to three contemporary examples – Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and our own beloved, Drew Brees. Have past efforts tried and failed? Is the successor in the building? Ultimately, what will empirical evidence and present-day efforts illustrate lies ahead for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints?
To see previous Parts, click below:
Part 2: Quarterbacks Kept Until the Bitter End
Denver Broncos (1983-1998)
Prior to John Elway’s tenure, the Denver Broncos had a habit of retaining aging quarterbacks with no apparent successor plan. The 1977 trade for 12-year veteran Craig Morton, albeit briefly successful, was just the start of an ill-advised contingency plan, if there existed one at all. By the end of 1982, the Broncos were led by a declining Morton in his final season; the only successor in the building, ironically, was Steve DeBerg, the quarterback relegated to Joe Montana’s backup in 1980. Decidedly unsold on DeBerg, Denver acquired the 1983 first overall pick, quarterback John Elway, in a trade with the Baltimore Colts.
Elway’s rookie season, understandably, saw a year of growing pains that culminated in a 9-7 record. Elway was benched in favor of Steve DeBerg after three straight losses midway through the season. His moment would come against Baltimore, the team that drafted him, in Week 15 of the season; Elway would lead his first of many fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, throwing for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to overcome a 19-0 deficit and revive Denver’s playoff hopes. In Elway’s sophomore year, he led the Broncos to a franchise-best 13-3 record and 1st place in the AFC West. Elway’s infamous orchestration of “The Drive” came just two years later in 1986’s AFC Championship game; he led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances from 1986-87 and just two years later in 1989.
The Broncos entered a lull period of decline until 1997, when Denver won their first Super Bowl title in Super Bowl XXXII. The following year, Elway led the franchise to become just one of seven to win back-to-back Super Bowls and was named MVP in their 34-19 win against the Atlanta Falcons – the 1998 game would be the last of Elway’s career. As the face of the franchise for his entire 16-year career, Elway led Denver to 10 playoff appearances, six divisional championships, five Super Bowl appearances, and two titles.
Post-Elway Era (1999)
Elway’s retirement didn’t exactly come as a surprise, nor should the Broncos had been so unprepared for a contingency plan. Elway had flirted with the idea of retiring prior to the 1998 season; as Denver residents that year would vote to fund a new downtown stadium, Elway felt an obligation to team owner, Pat Bowen. He was the oldest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl at 38 – broken, ironically, under his tenure as Broncos vice president by Peyton Manning in 2016 – and was afflicted by a multitude of injuries that kept him out of four games that season. His imminent retirement was spelled out for everyone, apparently, besides Denver’s front office.
Buddy Brister/Brian Griese (1999-2002)
Bubby Brister appeared to be next in line – at a spritely 37 years old. Brister came to Denver in 1997 as third on the depth chart behind Elway and Jeff Lewis. Head coach Mike Shanahan made him the backup in 1998 and he started in relief for Elway in the four games he missed that season. Denver went undefeated through all of Brister’s starts; not only did he register a higher passer rating than Elway, but he broke his record for the longest rushing touchdown by a quarterback at 38 yards. All signs pointed to Brister as next up to replace his predecessor – until Denver drafted Brian Griese in the third round of the 1998 draft.
Brister struggled in the preseason, resultantly losing the starting role to Griese; he would be gone the following season. Meanwhile, Griese led the Broncos to 6-10 in 1999, their worst record in the past decade, and his four-season tenure culminated in a 27-24 record and one brutal Wild Card loss to the Ravens in 2000. Griese was released in 2002 after failing to reach the postseason and Denver signed free agent Jake Plummer as his replacement.
Jake Plummer (2003-2006)
Plummer came from the Arizona Cardinals, who went 3-8 as a starter in 1999 and was ranked that year as the league’s worst quarterback. By the time he arrived in 2003, nearly all the stars from the two-peat championship roster had left the team and there was seemingly no development or rebuilding plan in sight. Plummer would take Denver to their first playoff birth since 2000 that year with a 10-6 record, but they’d be blown out by the Colts in a 41-10 Wild Card loss. The Broncos made the playoffs the two subsequent seasons and made it to the AFC Championship game in 2005 – their first since Elway’s departure. Mike Shanahan, however, was seemingly nonplussed by Plummer and traded up to select Jay Cutler as the 11th pick in the 2006 draft. After back-to-back losses, Shanahan announced in November of that year that Cutler would replace Plummer at quarterback to finish out the 7-4 season.
Jay Cutler (2007-2008)
While Cutler relieved Plummer for the last five games of the 2006 season, his first season as starting quarterback marked the second year in a row that Denver missed the playoffs and their 7-9 record was the worst of the millennium. After they went 8-8 in the 2008 season, Shanahan was fired and replaced by Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels; rumors of trade offers soured Cutler’s relationship with the team, and a failed trade attempt for New England’s Matt Cassel severed any chance at rectification. Cutler went through a fairly ugly team divorce reminiscent of Favre’s departure from Green Bay after just two seasons; he eventually requested to be traded and went to the Chicago Bears in 2009. That trade included Cutler’s successor, Kyle Orton.
Kyle Orton (2009-2011)
Orton was certainly not the answer, despite a promise 6-0 start to the season; injuries plagued the starter and the the team missed the playoffs again and finished at 8-8. Denver had traded up in the 2010 draft to select Tim Tebow with the 25th overall pick; the Broncos went 4-12 that season and Orton was replaced by Tebow for the final three games after throwing three interceptions the previous week. Orton retained the starting role for the 2011 season, but was benched again after a 1-4 start; he was released in November that year.
Tim Tebow (2011)
Tebow took Denver to their first AFC West title since 2005, sadly, at 8-8, as well as their first playoff win in overtime. Despite attempts to find a long-term successor for over a decade, Tebow’s potential for the franchise was acutely severed – ironically, by the man who started the 13-year tumble, new Broncos general manager, John Elway.
“Tim Tebow’s a great kid. If I want someone to marry my daughter, it’s him,” Elway said. As the Broncos face of the franchise, however? Emphatically not. And he promptly ran straight to his modern day clone fresh off multiple neck surgeries, 35-year old Peyton Manning.
Peyton Manning (2012-2015)
For those of you who read Part 1, you know where this heads. Manning, despite a quickly-expiring career, rerouted a hapless Broncos team that failed to find a modicum of success prior to his tenure. Manning went 13-3 in his first season with his new team, landing them both a playoff berth and a first-round bye. They failed to reach the Super Bowl after a divisional round loss to eventual champions, the Baltimore Ravens, but the Comeback Player of the Year would forge that path just one year later.
As the third quarterback to reach the Super Bowl with two teams, Manning led the Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII; while Denver ultimately fell to the Seahawks, league MVP Manning finally steered them back on a competitive course. Manning would find ultimate victory with his new team in Super Bowl 50, and ended his career on a high after the 2015 championship.
In an apparent never-ending loop, the Broncos promptly reverted back to 1999 following Manning’s retirement. Since the 2015 Super Bowl season, Denver has made unsuccessful return attempts under Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, Trevor Sieman, Case Keenum, and Joe Flacco.
The Denver Broncos went 6-10 the year following Elway’s retirement in 1999. They wouldn’t win another playoff game until 2005; they’ve made the playoffs 9 of the 22 seasons, and have amassed just six postseason wins and one Super Bowl championship under Peyton Manning. The 1-3 Broncos look to return to the playoffs for the first time since Manning’s 2015 departure with current quarterback, Drew Lock.
Pittsburgh Steelers (1970-1983)
“The city should know how much I care about Pittsburgh,” Bradshaw recently told KDKA Sports’ Bob Pompeani and Rich Walsh. “I’ve never stopped loving the Steelers. I have always loved Pittsburgh. If Pittsburgh would have tried to move me, I would have just quit. I wanted to play for one team and that was Pittsburgh.”
Prior to the 1970 draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers had made the playoffs exactly one time in the pre-merger era, in 1947. When the AFL-NFL merger transpired in 1970, mid-dispute over which three teams would switch to the AFC, Browns owner, Art Modell, was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital. Along with the owners of the Giants, Steelers’ owners Art and Dan Rooney visited Modell; Modell decided he would break the deadlock, and join the AFC upon one condition – that the Steelers would join the Browns. Further enticed by the $3 million dollar relocation fee, the Rooneys went with Modell, and the Browns and Steelers joined the AFC.
Three things took place in 1970 that led to the creation of the Steelers’ dynasty of the 1970s: the relocation fee, which allowed them to stabilize the foundations of the team, the hiring of Chuck Noll prior to the 1970 draft, and the coin flip the Steelers won against the Chicago Bears to obtain the first overall pick. Noll promptly selected Terry Bradshaw with the No. 1 pick, and thus began the 1970s dynasty that dominated the NFL for decades. Well, by 1972.
Like many, Bradshaw saw growing pains in his early seasons; after splitting time with Terry Henratty in his rookie year, Bradshaw would be viewed as an erratic, poor-decision maker who threw too many interceptions. This would all change in 1972. The Bradshaw-led Steelers ended the 1972 season with an 11-3 record, their first ever AFC division title, and the team’s second playoff game ever since 1947. Their first playoff win ever would come against the Oakland Raiders in that year’s divisional playoff game, and came at the controversial hands of the “Immaculate Reception.”
Bradshaw would subsequently lead the Steelers to eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1972-1979, eight AFC Central championships, and four Super Bowl titles in a six-year span. After Bradshaw’s second straight Super Bowl MVP award in 1979, the team saw an abrupt drop-off and missed the playoffs the subsequent two seasons. Bradshaw then sustained an elbow injury in training camp and underwent surgery prior to the 1983 season; this injury would end his career. He missed the first 13 games of the 1983 season, and returned, unknowingly, for what would be his final game ever in Dec. of 1983. His last throw as an NFL quarterback was a touchdown pass in the second quarter of the matchup against the New York Jets – he felt a pop in his elbow, and was promptly replaced after the immense incurred pain. He would never play again.
Post-Bradshaw Era (1983)
Bradshaw’s abrupt retirement following the elbow injury was entirely unforeseen, both by the team and Bradshaw himself; both had no idea that the Dec. matchup would be the last game of Bradshaw’s NFL career. The events of 1983, however, would culminate in a massive butterfly effect – all leading back to Bradshaw. The first round of the 1983 NFL draft produced six Hall of Famers and a record-breaking six quarterbacks. One of these quarterbacks was John Elway, and one was Dan Marino. When Dan Marino, much due to the reverberating effect of Elway’s refusal to play for the Baltimore Colts, plummeted down the draft board, he was primed and available for Pittsburgh to select with the 21st pick. The Steelers had drafted a quarterback just three years prior with the last pick of the first round, Mark Malone; head coach Chuck Noll also wanted to rebuild their defense.
But the real reason they passed on Marino was that they thought they had several years left with Terry Bradshaw, when in reality, his career was already over prior to the draft. Rather than seek out the “Tommy John surgery” under Dr. Frank Jobe, Bradshaw underwent surgery on March 3, 1983, under THE most ironic pseudonym, Thomas Brady, by an orthopedist in Shreveport, LA. By the time he got in front of Dr. Jobe, he had already undergone the March procedure, and made the perhaps-fatal decision to decline further surgery and elect to attempt healing it through rehab; Bradshaw admits he did a poor job following up in rehab, but there were no strength coaches, passing coaches, or anything of the sort in 1983 to provide any guidance.
Thus, while Bradshaw’s career was over before he even knew it, in April of 1983, Pittsburgh elected to pass over his potential heir apparent in Marino in the NFL draft. Not due to any qualms about Marino, but potentially blind levels of faith in Bradshaw.
Mark Malone (1984-1987), David Woodley (1984-1985)
Mark Malone had been selected in the first round of the 1980 NFL draft as the presumed successor of Bradshaw. That all sounds fine in hindsight, but had Pittsburgh been truly assessing the trajectory of their future, and emphatically felt it was with Malone, there wouldn’t have been so much controversy over the decision to pass on Marino just 3 years later. The Steelers decidedly had no idea that Bradshaw had hit the point of no return, and had no contingency plan past Malone. Or really, any formulated future for the quarterback role at all – if they had, they may not have passed up on Pittsburgh native, Joe Montana, in the 1979 draft.
Malone wasn’t drafted as a Day 1 starter, but as a developing understudy for presumably the next several years. He expected to finally take the reins in 1984; in likely a hasty immediate replacement attempt for Bradshaw, the Steelers acquired David Woodley in February of 1984. Bradshaw would announce his retirement in July of that year, and Malone was relegated to backup in favor of Woodley. Woodley suffered a concussion in the third quarter of the opening game, and Malone was brought in as his one-game relief. A carousel of injuries to Woodley kept giving Malone a shot, and Malone led the Steelers to the playoffs after winning five of the last eight regular-season games. His highlights that year include the 49ers sole loss of the 1984 season and an AFC Championship game berth against the Miami Dolphins. Woodley and Malone split the reps for the 1984 and 1985 seasons, and the Steelers went 9-7 and 7-6, respectively.
Mark Malone (1984-1987), Bubby Brister (1986-1989), Steve Bono (1987-1988), Todd Blackledge (1988-1999), Etc.
The Steelers told Woodley he wouldn’t have the starting role in 1986; he promptly retired. Pittsburgh then drafted Bubby Brister, who would be brought to Denver for post-Elway relief thereafter, in the 1986 draft. From 1986 on, it’s genuinely unclear what the perceived plan was in the quarterback room in Pittsburgh. Brister was drafted to backup Mark Malone, and served as just that through the 6-10 season that year, and then he was joined by free-agent Steve Bono in 1987. Bono then became the Steelers strike replacement quarterback in the three-game 1987 strike.
Bono would go 2-1 and only made two more appearances at quarterback in Pittsburgh’s 1988 season, before losing the backup role to Todd Blackledge in 1988. Quite frankly, the Steelers’ quarterback carousel, from Bradshaw’s retirement in 1983 until Ben Roethlisberger finally breathed life into the hapless franchise in 1984, could be its own chapter book. And I would strongly bet that none of the remaining names that lasted a season tops would have as much to say about their years on the team as I do at current.
The Steelers attempted to replace Terry Bradshaw with the following names until Roethlisberger took the reins in 2004: Mark Malone, David Woodley, Bubby Brister, Steve Bono, Todd Blackledge, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Jim Miller, Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham, and Tommy Maddox.
The Pittsburgh Steelers went 9-7 the year following Bradshaw’s retirement in 1983. They wouldn’t break 10 wins until 1992, and had ultimately no sense of direction until Ben Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004, where he remains at the helm of the team today, one year after undergoing eerily similar elbow surgery. Perhaps the Steelers would do just as well, if not better, with this empirical analysis as the New Orleans Saints. Mason Rudolph, more likely than not, is more of a Malone than a Marino.
Buffalo Bills (1986-1996)
Much like John Elway would rather have gone to the Yankees than be drafted by the Baltimore Colts, Jim Kelly had no interest in the cold weather of Buffalo. Much like John Elway, the team drafted him anyway. While Elway played draft day musical chairs, Kelly’s mentality was, “Would you rather be in Houston or Buffalo?” The answer, emphatically, was Houston’s climate-controlled Astrodome; despite the Bills selecting Kelly with the 14th overall pick, he signed with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers while in the middle of contract negotiations with Buffalo.
When the USFL eventually collapsed, Kelly, who had retained his NFL rights, finally joined the Bills in 1986. Implementing his famous “K-Gun” no-huddle offense, something contemporarily reserved for fourth quarter two-minute drives, typically, Kelly’s ability to read opposing defensive schemes and audible real-time play calls was a cornerstone in the Bills’ offensive tear of the 1990s. He led the Bills to a record four consecutive Super Bowl appearances from 1990-1993, eight playoff appearances, and six divisional championships in his 11-year tenure.
After a career-high 37 sacks at a rate of nearly 9% of his dropbacks in just 13 games of the 1996 season, a beat-up Kelly faced a critical juncture in his NFL career. With knowledge of the team’s sparse funds against the salary cap, as evidenced by their restructuring of their 1996 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Smith’s contract, Kelly knew the chances for an ugly divorce were high. He assuredly did not want to go beg for a job elsewhere at 37. And so Kelly decided to take charge of his future and announced his retirement in 1996. “I didn’t like it when Joe Montana went to the Chiefs,” Kelly admitted after his press conference. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I just think it’s right that Elway plays his whole career in Denver and Marino plays his whole career in Miami. I wanted to go out with dignity.”
Todd Collins (1997)
Todd Collins was drafted by the Bills in the second round of the 1995 draft, hand-picked to be Kelly’s successor. The lesson with Buffalo, however, is that the first intended heir may be the entirely wrong guy, and waiting until your legendary quarterback retires to preserve his dignity to test that out may be an ill-advised strategy. In fairness to the Bills, they did alert Kelly that they were moving in a new direction with intent for him to develop his predecessor; he simply decided to abruptly retire thereafter.
Without much mentoring time at all, Todd Collins became the heir apparent to Kelly and led the Bills through an unmemorable 6-10 season. Collins had one solid year as a failed successor experiment and was promptly released after the 1997 season.
Doug Flutie, Rob Johnson (1998-2000)
Flutie and Johnson were brought in tandem in the 1998 offseason to replace the failure that was Todd Collins. Though Rob Johnson was the presumed starter, a Week 1 concussion would give backup Doug Flutie an attempt at the role. After Johhnson led the Bills to a 1-3 start, he was injured in Week 5 and Flutie scored 24 unanswered points when he appeared in relief. Flutie then led Buffalo through four consecutive wins that season and was named the starting quarterback in November. The 1998 Bills would ultimately go 10-6 and lose to Miami in the first round of the playoffs.
Buffalo vacillated between their “co-number ones” through 2000’s 8-8 season; their 11-5 1999 season would be their last playoff appearance for the next 17 years. Johnson ultimately retained the starting role until 2001 when they finished at an abysmal 3-13 record. Under the guise of new head coach Gregg Williams, Buffalo traded for Tom Brady’s backup, Drew Bledsoe, to take over the team.
Drew Bledsoe (2002-2004)
Bledsoe brought Buffalo back to another non-losing record at 8-8 and his 2003 start was so promising that longtime play-by-play announcer Van Miller, after calling the Bills’ stunning 31-0 upset to the New England Patriots, the opponent in his first broadcast in 1960, prematurely announced his season retirement at the end of the game – he expected the Bills to make a run for that year’s title again, finally. Miller and the rest of Buffalo would be rather displeased with their ultimate 6-10 finish.
J.P. Losman (2005-2008), Kelly Holcomb (2005), Trent Edwards (2007-2010), Ryan Fitzpatrick (2009-2012), Etc.
Losman was drafted with the intent to replace Bledsoe should his struggles continue; Losman, unfortunately, broke his leg in the preseason and missed the majority of the 2004 season. After another disappointing 9-7 finish, the Bills gave the starting reins to Losman; in turn, a blistered Bledsoe demanded, and was granted, release in 2005. Losman promptly led the team to a 1-3 start and was replaced by Kelly Holcomb. The two would trade off upon various injuries and their eventual 5-11 record led the Bills to draft Trent Edwards in the third round of the 2007 draft.
Edwards did fine and started out with an extremely promising 5-1 record when he started for the 2008 season; after his concussion midseason, the team fell to a 7-9 record and incurred the longest active streak of missed playoffs alongside the Detroit Lions. Edward’s injury the following season led to Ryan Fitzpatrick, a free-agency signing in 2009, taking over the reins; he would remain the starter until 2013, where a myriad of quarterback carousels were attempted until Josh Allen finally showed up in 2018 and put everyone out of their misery.
Buffalo attempted to replace Jim Kelley with the following people, all unsuccessfully, until Josh Allen was drafted in 2018: Todd Collins, Doug Flutie, Rob Johnson, Alex Van Pelt, Drew Bledsoe, J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Brohm, EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis, Kyle Orton, Tyrod Taylor, Nathan Peterman.
The Bills thought they had their heir apparent in Todd Collins; Kelly’s abrupt 1996 retirement didn’t give them much time to see that development out in full. A perhaps premature Collins led the Bills to a 6-10 record following Kelly’s retirement in 1996. After back-to-back Wild Card losses in 1998-99, Buffalo wouldn’t see the postseason for 17 years – not one sniff of the playoffs in the millennium until Josh Allen showed up in 2018 as the first legitimate successor for Jim Kelly. A man who retired the year Josh Allen was born.
In the three famous cases of abrupt quarterback retirement, with no comprehensive path for an heir apparent, not one team achieved a modicum of success for the next several decades. Comparatively, in the cases where franchise quarterbacks were let go by their respective teams, not only did all three quarterbacks achieve success with their new teams, but the original teams all saw nearly immediate success. Part 3 will examine the…somewhat obvious, conclusion this points to, and the immediate insight implies the Broncos, Steelers, and Bills should have all taken a cue from Bill Walsh. Or perhaps drafted Dan Marino.
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