Coming Up Small Filling Big Shoes: Replacing Legendary Quarterbacks

With their victory in Super Bowl XLV, the Packers as an organization have been able to do something few franchises have done in pro football history: immediately replace a legendary quarterback. While it may be tempting to dismiss the significance of Aaron Rodgers playing in Brett Favre’s “shadow,” this successful transition is a rarity in the NFL. When looking at the great quarterbacks of the game, one thing almost all of them have in common is a successor who struggled. Take, for example, the most recent cases in Denver and Miami. More than a decade after the retirements of John Elway and Dan Marino, both franchises are still looking for replacements. The Packers today, as well as San Francisco who saw Steve Young replace Joe Montana, are exceptions, not the rule.  

Here are a number of cases of franchises struggling to replace iconic quarterbacks:

  • Green Bay Packers: Bart Starr (1956-1971): The years between Starr’s retirement and the arrival of Favre in 1992 was a period of mediocrity for the franchise, as the club qualified for the postseason just twice during this two decade span. Starr was succeeded by Scott Hunter, who lasted thee seasons in Green Bay and threw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns in this time. After Hunter, the Packers shuffled through a long list of substandard quarterbacks, such as Jerry Tagge, John Hadl, and Don Majkowski. Lynn Dickey managed to last nine seasons in Green Bay, leading the team to a playoff victory in 1982, and did throw 133 touchdowns as a Packer, although he also threw 151 interceptions with the team. The acquisition of Brett Favre from Atlanta ended this era of failure, as it helped turn the Packers into championship contenders again.    
  • Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts: Johnny Unitas (with the Colts from 1956-1972): Unitas was immediately succeeded by Marty Domres, who had a brief and unsuccessful career in Baltimore, starting games from 1972-1974. Domres would be followed by Bert Jones, who did find success with the Colts. Jones would win a league MVP award in 1976, and should be considered the third best quarterback in franchise history, behind Unitas and Peyton Manning. Injuries plagued his career in the late ‘70s, and he would leave the Colts after the 1981 season. For much of the two decades that followed Jones’ departure, the Colts would be on a futile search for a new quarterback. The team had little success with Mike Pagel at the helm in the early ‘80s; the highly touted Art Schlichter, the number four overall pick in the 1982 draft, would be suspended by the NFL on gambling charges; the team drafted John Elway first overall in the 1983 draft, but he refused to play for the Colts; after receiving the first overall pick in the draft again in 1990, the team selected Jeff George, who was widely regarded as a bust. Finally, after Jim Harbaugh led the team to its first playoff wins since the Unitas era, the team found a new franchise quarterback in Peyton Manning in 1998. The third quarterback the team would select with the first overall pick in two decades would turn out to be the first one to find success with the Colts. Manning would quickly establish himself as a future hall of famer, and would help the organization win its first Super Bowl since Unitas was the starter.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers: Terry Bradshaw (1970-1983): The four-time Super Bowl winner was replaced by Cliff Stoudt in 1983, who started for the majority of the season due to Bradshaw being injured. While Pittsburgh made the playoffs that year, Stoudt’s numbers were poor, as he threw 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Stoudt would be followed by Mark Malone, who spent four mediocre seasons starting for the club (ironically, after Malone left Pittsburgh, he went to San Diego, where he would try to fill the shoes of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts; this did not work out either). Bubby Brister succeeded Malone, and after more mediocrity, the team turned to Neil O’Donnell. While O’Donnell was not necessarily an elite quarterback, the Steelers won games while he was with the team, making it as far as the Super Bowl in the 1995 season, where Pittsburgh lost to Dallas. Following O’Donnell’s departure, the team progressed through the likes of Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox, before drafting Ben Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004. Roethlisberger has brought stability to the position, and with him starting, Pittsburgh won its first Super Bowls since Bradshaw was with the club.
  • Buffalo Bills: Jim Kelly (1986-1996): Todd Collins. Rob Johnson. Alex Van Pelt. Kelly Holcomb. J.P. Losman. Frankly, the names speak for themselves. It is true that Doug Flutie had arguably his best NFL seasons for the Bills, and Drew Bledsoe spent a few years with the club while he still had some production left in him. As a whole, however, Buffalo has struggled greatly since Kelly’s retirement, making the playoffs only twice since then, and not winning a single game in either postseason trip. Currently, Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter, and despite a respectable season in which he threw for 3000 yards and 23 touchdowns, it is unclear how the Harvard man factors into the team’s long term plans for the position.
  • Denver Broncos: John Elway (1983-1998): Coming off back-to-back Super Bowl titles in Elway’s final two seasons, Denver would put its offense in Brian Griese’s hands in 1999. Excluding a strong 2000 season, Griese would have an unremarkable four year career with the Broncos, during which Denver would play in only one playoff game. Griese was released after the 2002 season, and was succeeded by Jake Plummerwho signed as a free agent. While Plummer had some success with the Broncos and took the team to the playoffs three straight seasons, he was inconsistent and had problems with turnovers. In 2006, Denver drafted Jay Cutler in the first round of the NFL draft, and when Plummer struggled that season, the rookie was inserted as the starter. Cutler showed signs he could be a franchise quarterback, as he would throw for just under 3,500 yads in his first full season as a starter, and would earn a Pro Bowl appearance in his second, with 25 touchdown passes and over 4,500 yards passing. However, following the dismissal of head coach Mike Shanahan in 2008, Cutler and new head coach Josh McDaniels apparently could not coexist, prompting Denver to trade Cutler to Chicago. In return, the Broncos received Kyle Orton, a solid starter but by no means an elite passer. The team’s hopes at the position now lay in the hands of former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, Denver’s first round selection in the 2010 draft, who showed positive signs after taking over for Orton near the end of his rookie season.  
  • Miami Dolphins: Dan Marino (1983-1999): After Marino’s retirement in 1999, the Dophins have brought in a long list of quarterbacks to try to replace him. A few were decent, none were great, and no one lasted particularly long. This process began with Jay Fiedler, who lasted four seasons as the starter. In his time with the Dolphins, he would throw 66 touchdown passes, yet would also throw 63 interceptions. During the 2004 season, AJ Feeley replaced Fiedler, but did not fare any better. After journeyman Gus Frerrotte took the reins for the 2005 season, Miami traded for former Pro Bowler Daunte Culpepper who could not remain healthy, and appeared in only four games for the Dolphins. The following season, Culpepper was released, and the team traded for Trent Green, who would suffer a season-ending injury himself after just five games. In 2008, Miami signed Chad Pennington, who would help the team earn an unlikely playoff berth, its first since 2001 when Fiedler was starting. In 2009, however, the injury bug would claim another Dolphins quarterback, as Pennington was knocked out and replaced by Chad Henne. While Henne showed some promise that season, in 2010 he was terribly inconsistent and would eventually be benched in favor of Pennington (until Pennington got hurt again). As things appear now, eleven seasons after Marino’s retirement, Miami’s search for a new quarterback will continue. [Interestingly, the Dolphins have not spent a first round draft pick on a quarterback since selecting Marino in 1983; lately, however, the team has attempted to address this issue using second round selections, as Adam Gretz of Fanhouse.com notes. The team used second round picks by drafting John Beck in 2007, Henne in 2008, and Pat White in 2009, while also trading second rounders for Feeley and Culpepper].
  • Dallas Cowboys: Troy Aikman (1989-2000): In its attempts to replace the three-time Super Bowl champion Aikman, Dallas turned to three former professional baseball players (Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, and Drew Henson), a pair of aging veterans (Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe), and an undrafted player from Eastern Illinois University (Tony Romo). Of the group, Romo has had the most success with Dallas, as he has earned multiple trips to the Pro Bowl, and is considered the long-term answer at the position. Still, as a team, Dallas has not had much success following Aikman’s retirement, as they have won just one playoff game since.   

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it does give a good indication of the difficulties teams face after the departure of a Hall of Fame quarterback.

[Statistics according to Pro-Football-Reference]


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3 Responses to Coming Up Small Filling Big Shoes: Replacing Legendary Quarterbacks

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  2. Pingback: Colts Reportedly Looking at Dalton and Kaepernick | SCN

  3. Pingback: Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck Can (And Should) Coexist | Sal's Sports Blog

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