Various blueprints exist throughout NFL history of how to orchestrate quarterback transitions. Some have panned out, while the failures show how difficult this task can be. Here are the most memorable QB succession strategies throughout NFL history.
The storied franchise has lacked quarterback stability, for the most part, since this transition. Lujack took over as Chicago's primary passer in 1949, and Luckman retired after the 1950 season. The Bears' succession plan veered off course quickly. Lujack threw an NFL-most 23 TD passes in 1949 and made the next two Pro Bowls. Injuries and an insurance job led to the ex-Notre Dame star retiring at 26, following the 1951 season. Compounding Chicago's sudden QB issue: George Halas had traded Bobby Layne after his 1948 rookie season. Leading the Lions to multiple titles, Layne became a Hall of Famer.
This transition featured multiple chapters. Graham retired after the 1954 season, which ended with a Browns 56-10 demolition of the rival Lions. Graham remains the only quarterback to rush and throw for three TDs apiece in a playoff game. The Browns' first QB left the door open to return in 1955 if Paul Brown needed him. He did. Graham then led the Browns to a seventh championship, going out on top twice. A four-year Browns backup, Ratterman took over to start the 1956 season. A Week 4 knee injury nixed Cleveland's succession plan and ended Ratterman's career. The Browns went 5-7 in 1956, halting their playoff streak at 10.
The Rams lit up scoreboards in the early 1950s with two Hall of Fame QBs, Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. By 1958, Van Brocklin and future Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman were at odds to the point Van Brocklin threatened to retire rather than play for Gillman again. The Rams traded the hard-edged passer to the Eagles, leading to Billy Wade taking over. The ex-No. 1 overall pick-turned-backup made the Pro Bowl in his 1958 starter debut but only lasted three years As L.A.'s QB1. Both Van Brocklin and Wade won championships elsewhere, the former with the Eagles (1960) and the latter with the Bears (1963).
Layne powered the Lions to two championships, bettering the powerhouse Browns on both occasions, but a broken leg prevented him from commanding a loaded 1957 Detroit team. Instead, Rote -- whom the Lions acquired via trade that July -- orchestrated a playoff comeback in San Francisco and led Detroit to a 59-14 trouncing of Cleveland for the title. Though the Lions gave Layne his job back, they stunned the brash QB by trading him to the Steelers in October 1958. On his way out, Layne may or may not have said the Lions would go titleless for 50 years. Rote was in Canada by 1960 but won an AFL title as a Charger in 1963.
The Giants' triggerman for over a decade, Conerly was still going at 40 -- largely uncharted waters for the era. The Giants obtained Tittle from the 49ers in late summer 1961 but kept the 40-year-old Conerly at the controls. Tittle, San Francisco's starter for most of the previous nine years, Tittle took over by Week 2. The future Hall of Famer moved the Giants back to the top of the NFL's Eastern Conference, guiding them to three straight title games (all losses). The baldheaded talent threw a then-record 36 TD passes in 1963, claiming MVP honors over a top-shelf Jim Brown season. Tittle played until 1964, retiring at 38.
Briefly a Tittle teammate with the 49ers, Kilmer mostly backed up John Brodie during seven San Francisco seasons. The Saints selected Kilmer in the 1967 expansion draft. By 1971, Kilmer went to Washington in a trade just before draft weekend, when the Saints took Archie Manning. This deal was one of trade-happy George Allen's first moves in Washington. Kilmer, then 32, beat aging out future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen for Washington's job in 1971 and by '72 had Washington in Super Bowl VII. The Dolphins finished their unbeaten season. But Kilmer remained Washington's starter through 1977, holding off Joe Theismann for years.
A strange transaction that saw the Colts and Rams' owners trade franchises preceded Unitas' final season in Baltimore. In 1973, new Colts owner Bob Irsay had hired GM Joe Thomas, who shipped the legendary passer to San Diego for next to nothing. This came before Thomas knew if Jones would be available in the draft. The Colts swindled the Saints by trading a D-lineman and a fourth-round pick for New Orleans' No. 2 overall choice. That became Jones, an LSU alum straight out of QB central casting. The rocket-armed thrower led a Colts rebuild, which produced three mid-1970s playoff berths, and won MVP honors in 1976.
The Packers' three-year Aaron Rodgers apprenticeship is the modern standard; Livingston waited eight years for his promotion. Despite making several starts for an injured Len Dawson during the Chiefs' 1969 Super Bowl-winning season, Livingston worked as the team's backup well in to the '70s. He finally supplanted a 40-year-old Dawson in 1975; Livingston did not make his first Week 1 start until he was 31 in 1976. Dawson retired after the '75 season, and the Chiefs were in decline when Livingston received his shot. Kansas City still stuck with its longtime backup until 1979. Livingston finished his career years later in the USFL.
More of a classic blueprint, the Vikings began preparing for the then-all-time passing kingpin's retirement in 1977 by taking Kramer in Round 1. After a two-year developmental period behind Tarkenton and veteran backup Bob Lee, Kramer took over in 1979 following Tarkenton's retirement. Not gifted with the supporting cast Tarkenton had, Kramer led the Vikes to just one non-strike-year playoff berth. However, he hobnobbed near the top of various passing lists and his Hail Mary lob to Ahmad Rashad gave Minnesota the 1980 NFC Central crown. Kramer lasted nearly nine seasons as the Vikes' starter.
Tom Landry groomed White to take over his intricate system when Roger Staubach retired, but that did not occur until 1980. A 1976 third-round pick, White waited his turn for four years and once at the controls, the Dallas heir apparent kept the car on the road. The Cowboys made three straight NFC championship games with White, who delivered a memorable comeback to beat the Falcons in 1980 and dueled with Joe Montana at the scene of "The Catch" a year later. But the Cowboys lost all three NFC title tilts under White, a one-time Pro Bowler. White was with Dallas the rest of the way with Landry, retiring after Landry's 1988 finale.
A simpler version of Matthew Stafford-for-Jared Goff, the Raiders and Oilers traded their starting QBs straight up in 1980. Although the Raiders employed Jim Plunkett as Stabler's backup from 1978-79, they went with the ex-Oilers starter in 1980. Picked two spots behind Plunkett in a 1971 draft that started QB-QB-QB, Pastorini only lasted five games as Oakland's starter. An injury brought in Plunkett, a former Patriots, and 49ers bust. Plunkett and Pastorini each collected Super Bowl rings for the Raiders' 1980 run, but the former started a career revival while the latter was a Ram by 1981.
The Dolphins tabbed an unlikely passer to succeed Griese, and Woodley took over as Miami's starter during Griese's final season (1980). An eighth-round pick out of LSU, the mobile Woodley stuck around to become the youngest starter in Super Bowl history two seasons later. Woodley led the Dolphins to a 10-2 record ahead of Super Bowl XVII and had the team up on Washington at halftime, but the Dolphins could not hold on. They were able to upgrade on Woodley months later, capitalizing on Dan Marino's draft tumble. The Dolphins traded Woodley to the Steelers in 1984.
Lomax was not the preferred candidate to succeed Hart. The Cardinals initially tabbed first-round pick and St. Louis native Steve Pisarkiewicz to do so. But Hart's would-be heir apparent's struggles kept the aging incumbent going until 1981. An '81 second-round pick out of Division I-AA, Lomax won the job by his second season and fared well despite leading overmatched teams in a tough NFC East era. Lomax's 4,614 yards in 1984 were then fourth-most in history. Lomax made two Pro Bowls and nearly guided St. Louis to the playoffs in '84, but a severe hip injury ended his career in 1988. Hart retired after 19 seasons in 1984.
Manning started for 11 suboptimal Saints teams, but New Orleans gave his job to an older quarterback entering the 1982 season. Stabler, who signed with the Saints that offseason after the Oilers cut him, beat out Manning for the post despite being 37 by then. Stabler reunited with ex-Oilers coach Bum Phillips in New Orleans and started all nine games in 1982's strike-shortened season. He added 14 more starts in 1983 and finished his Saints career with a .500 starter record (11-11). His TD-INT ratio was a bit below .500. The ex-Raider icon hung around until 1984. The Saints traded Manning to the Oilers early in the '82 season.
The USFL's first season did not feature too many big names, but the upstart league began to pay up for talent. Sipe represented a key strike for the league. The New Jersey Generals signed the former NFL MVP after the 1983 Browns' season wrapped, offering a much bigger contract (two years, $1.9 million) than the Browns did for the veteran's services. Sipe played just one season for Donald Trump's Generals, teaming with star attraction Herschel Walker. This left the Browns in a bind. They greenlit a transition year, starting Sipe's longtime backup, McDonald, for all 16 games (5-11). They maneuvered for Bernie Kosar in 1985.
The USFL also signed Steelers backup Cliff Stoudt for its 1984 season, removing Bradshaw's backup -- and Pittsburgh's primary 1983 starter -- from the equation. Bradshaw's 1984 retirement opened the door for new blood in Pittsburgh. A 1980 first-round pick, Malone also had to wait behind trade acquisition David Woodley in '84. But the Steelers ventured to the AFC championship game -- their first in five years -- with Malone at the helm. After finishing his debut campaign with playoff games against John Elway (a win) and Dan Marino (a loss), the mustachioed QB started the next three seasons for the Steelers.
The Chargers were not well-positioned after Fouts retired following the 1987 season. The Hall of Fame passer's exit left a three-man derby between Malone (acquired for two late-round picks in 1988), Laufenberg, and Mark Vlasic. A true journeyman who had been with the Bolts briefly in 1985, Laufenberg won the job and made six starts. This would be it, however, with a rib injury relegating him to the bench henceforth. The Chargers tried Jim McMahon in 1989 but did not land on an answer post-Fouts until trading for Stan Humphries in 1992. The Bolts lost at least 10 games each year from 1988-91.
Perhaps the most famous NFL succession plan came about years before the actual transition. Montana missed half the 1986 season with a back injury and was knocked out of a 1986 playoff game, leading Bill Walsh to pilfer Young from the Buccaneers for second- and fourth-round picks (and cash). An annoyed Young battled Montana but mostly rode the bench for the rest of his 20s. A Montana preseason elbow injury finally summoned Young in 1991, and the agile lefty built a Hall of Fame resume in just eight seasons as San Francisco's primary starter. Montana was Young's backup in 1992 before being traded to the Chiefs.
Clearly, bad karma from injuring Bo Jackson engulfed the Bengals, who went 3-13 in 1991. They then promoted wide receivers coach David Shula to head coach and used a top-10 pick on David Klingler, a Houston Cougars Run and Shoot wonder. This meant Esiason, the 1988 MVP and a three-time Pro Bowler as a Bengal, went to the bench during his age-31 season in 1992. The Bengals traded Esiason to the Jets in 1993; he promptly returned to the Pro Bowl. Klingler did not pan out, and Jeff Blake was calling the shots for Cincinnati by the 1994 season's end. Esiason lasted until 1997 when he finished his career back with the Bengals.
The most popular post-Otto Graham quarterback in Browns history saw his Cleveland run halt in 1993. Bill Belichick benched Kosar and then cut him that November, ending an eight-season run that had produced a slew of playoff berths in the '80s. Belichick and the Youngstown, Ohio, native feuded about the direction of the offense, and the head coach cited Kosar's diminishing ability. Kosar signed with the champion Cowboys one day later. Kosar's successor with the Miami Hurricanes as well, Testaverde was with the Browns franchise two years into its Ravens metamorphosis. He took the Browns to the playoffs in 1994.
Ten years after signing Moon to a record-setting contract as a free agent, the Oilers traded him to the Vikings. The team asked the future Hall of Famer to take a pay cut from his $3 million-plus salary in 1994; he declined and went to Minnesota. Moon booked his Canton credentials by manning the Oilers' pass-happy offense, but he cemented them in Minnesota. Despite heading north at 37, Moon went 2-for-3 in Pro Bowl nods with the Vikings. Carlson, Moon's six-year backup, went down with an injury early in Houston's dreadful 1994 season and never played again. This drop from 12-4 to 2-14 mapped the runway for the team's Tennessee move.
In Year 1 of the salary cap, the Giants made Simms one of the NFL's first cap casualties. The June release surprised Simms, a 16-year Giant who had led the team back to the playoffs in 1993. Simms did not play again, opting to retire. His exit led to the Giants giving their young backup some run. A first-round supplemental pick in 1992, Brown debuted in 1994 and was given three seasons and change. The Giants, who saw Lawrence Taylor retire in 1994 as well, did go 9-6 in Brown starts in 1994. They slumped to double-digit losses the next two years, leading Brown to a lengthy stay as Jake Plummer's backup in Arizona.
The two-is-a-trend principle came along with the 1995 Chiefs, who replaced Montana with another ex-49er. A pipeline was effectively formed. Bono stood as Montana's backup in his second Chiefs season, 1994, and took over a loaded roster a year later. Bono spent four years in San Francisco but debuted as a starter at 33, steering the Chiefs to a franchise-best 13-3 record in 1995. Bono made the Pro Bowl, but the Chiefs' upset loss to the Colts defined their season. Bono was elsewhere by 1997, being replaced by fellow ex-Steve Young backup Elvis Grbac. Alex Smith's 2013 Missouri arrival closed the pipeline.
The Bills tried an in-house succession strategy after Kelly's 1997 retirement. It did not last. Kelly opted not to return for a 12th Bills season. His 11th ended with a first-round upset loss to the Jaguars -- a game Kelly did not finish due to injury. Collins, a second-round 1995 pick, received his only long look as an NFL starter in '97; the Bills finished 6-10 to wrap Marv Levy's tenure as head coach. Buffalo retooled a year later, trading a first-round pick for Rob Johnson and signing CFL legend Doug Flutie. Collins ended up in Kansas City, where he was a backup for the next eight seasons. He enjoyed a 16-year career.
Elway decided against chasing a three-peat, retiring after 16 seasons in May 1999. Bubby Brister, who had led the Broncos to a 4-0 record with Elway sidelined in 1998, was the presumed successor. But Mike Shanahan went with Griese, who was the team's third-stringer as a rookie in '98. The first team to see a Super Bowl champion QB execute a walk-off, the Broncos struggled in Griese's debut. Season-ending injuries shelved Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe early in the year, headlining a 6-10 showing. Griese did work as Denver's starter for four seasons, making one Pro Bowl, prior to free agent Jake Plummer succeeding him in 2003.
Like the Jim Hart-era Cardinals, Young-to-Garcia this was not the 49ers' initial succession plan. But 1997 first-round pick Jim Druckenmiller did not pan out, leading San Francisco to sign Garcia out of the CFL in 1999. That became a prescient addition. Young's decorated tenure, which stretched the 49ers' Hall of Fame QB run to 20 straight seasons, came to a halt after a crushing hit from Aeneas Williams in a September Monday-night game. An ex-Grey Cup champion, Garcia took the reins and accounted himself well. A new era began quickly, with a restocked 49er team in the playoffs again by 2001. Garcia was the team's QB1 through 2003.
Marino hung around longer than his 1983 class contemporaries but had sharply declined. The statuesque passer, however, had not yet retired when the Dolphins signed Fiedler in 2000. Early in a power transition from Jimmy Johnson to Dave Wannstedt, the Dolphins gave Fiedler a three-year deal after Marino voided his contract and became a free agent. This brought about an interesting retirement path for the passing legend. Marino did not try to play an 18th season elsewhere. An ex-Jaguars backup, Fiedler was Miami's starter for the better part of four seasons. Two of those resulted in playoff berths.
Bledsoe's 10-year, $103 million extension showed this was not an expected power transfer, but Bill Belichick knew enough to allow it to commence. Months after agreeing to that contract in 2001, Bledsoe wound up in the hospital after a now-infamous Week 2 collision with Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. In came Brady, New England's sixth-round pick from 2000. Although Bledsoe made a cameo in the AFC championship game to help New England to Super Bowl XXXVI, Belichick traded him within the division (to Buffalo) by 2002. Bledsoe retired after the 2006 season in Dallas. Brady ended up signing seven Pats extensions during his 20-year career in Massachusetts.
After Aikman's injury-filled 2000 season, the Cowboys cut their 12-year starter. Citing concussions and his forthcoming broadcast career, the Hall of Fame-bound passer retired in 2001. Dallas tabbed a rookie to replace him, drafting Georgia's Carter in Round 2. The third QB taken in 2001 -- behind Michael Vick and Drew Brees -- Carter took over in Week 1 of the '01 season. The young QB started 31 games in Dallas, including all 16 during a 2003 season in which the team made the playoffs under Bill Parcells. Carter threw 21 INTs that year, and a failed drug test led to his departure in 2004. Vinny Testaverde, then 40, took over.
Months after Favre's first retirement, in March 2008, he backtracked and ended up at odds with the Packers. The team had pivoted to Rodgers, who was going into his fourth year, but did engage in several conversations with Favre after the Packer legend revealed he planned to come back. Final talks between Favre and Mike McCarthy led the third-year coach to believe a split was necessary, sending Favre to the Jets. After a 6-10 debut, Rodgers began his ascent. Favre's former apprentice led the Packers to eight straight playoff brackets from 2009-16 and has now passed his predecessor (and every non-Peyton Manning NFLer) in MVPs with four.
A day after trading for Favre, the Jets released their six-season starter. The late-summer quarterback musical chairs routine led Pennington to Miami, where he won a second Comeback Player of the Year award after piloting the Dolphins to the AFC East title. Favre's Jets tenure began well; the team started 8-3 with its 39-year-old QB. Favre's torn biceps tendon, which he of course played through, led to Gang Green sliding to a 1-4 finish and missing the playoffs. The Jets only gave up a third-rounder for Favre and, because of a poison-pill clause in Favre's Green Bay-to-New York trade, agreed to release him after Retirement No. 2 in 2009. He soon signed with the Vikings.
Andy Reid has developed a history with controversial players -- none more so than Vick, whom the Eagles signed after his two-year prison sentence ended in 2009. The ex-Falcons franchise cornerstone played sparingly behind McNabb in '09; McNabb both made the Pro Bowl and led Philly to another playoff berth. But the Eagles still dumped their 11-year starter after the season. And they sent McNabb to a division rival (Washington). Vick looked reborn under Reid in 2010, but injuries and inconsistency defined his Eagles tenure. Vick lasted through the 2013 season in Philly, eventually seeing Nick Foles usurp him.
Warner's 2010 retirement keyed a steep decline for the Cardinals, who had trekked to back-to-back playoff brackets and their only Super Bowl with Warner. The Cardinals signed Anderson, an ex-Browns starter, in March 2010. In between Warner and Carson Palmer, Arizona went 5-11 in two those years (2010 and '12) and moved between Anderson, late-round pick John Skelton and trade acquisition Kevin Kolb. Anderson was only present for the first of these seasons, going 2-7 as a starter in 2010. One of those losses featured an entertaining Anderson press conference.
Before Palmer made his way to the desert, he staged a pseudo-retirement in Cincinnati. Fed up with the penny-pinching organization by 2011, Palmer demanded a trade. The Bengals moved on and drafted Dalton in one of the better QB second rounds in modern history; it also included Colin Kaepernick. AWOL for months, Palmer got his wish once a Jason Campbell injury created a Raiders QB need. The Bengals sent Palmer to Oakland for first- and second-round picks (Dre Kirkpatrick and Giovani Bernard). While Palmer lasted less than two seasons in Oakland, Dalton took Cincinnati to five postseasons and was a nine-year starter.
Manning signed a five-year, $90 million extension in July 2011, but because of his neck trouble at the time, he constructed the contract to protect the Colts. They cut Manning in March 2012, before a $28M bonus was due. While Manning had offered to stick around and mentor Luck, the Colts had hired a new GM and head coach and moved on. The Colts landed the decade's top QB prospect and rebounded quickly from their Manning-less season, going 11-5 in 2012. Manning turned the Broncos into a powerhouse, but he only went 1-3 against his former team. Luck stunned the football world by retiring before the 2019 season.
The Cowboys have built their modern teams around two unusual quarterback investments. Prescott went 135th in 2016, succeeding Romo, who was undrafted in 2003. A Romo back injury sustained during the 2016 preseason thrust Prescott -- 2016's eighth QB chosen, behind the likes of Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, and Connor Cook -- into action in Week 1. Prescott played well enough the Cowboys kept Romo on the bench when he returned to health. To CBS' delight, Romo retired at season's end, ending a 14-year career. But his early-career waiting period and injuries allowed him to play 15 games in just six seasons.
The Super Bowl's winning QB has retired the following offseason just twice. Both instances involved the Broncos, Manning's exit coming 17 years after John Elway's. Manning turned the Broncos into an instant contender. They won at least 12 games from 2012-15. From 2006-10 and 2016-21, Denver totaled zero 10-win seasons. Beating out Mark Sanchez to succeed Manning, Siemian is easily the most random QB to lead a defending champion. The 2015 seventh-round pick did well in 2016, all things considered, leading the Broncos to a 4-0 start. They went 9-7. He was worse in 2017. After a staggering 11 starting QBs from 2016-21, the Broncos have since acquired Russell Wilson.
Flacco was one of the players the Broncos tabbed during their time in quarterback wilderness. The 11-year Ravens starter became available after suffering a hip injury in 2018, a setback that began the Jackson era in Baltimore. The Ravens redid their playbook for the raw, run-centric QB, and the ex-Heisman winner transformed the team's fortunes. The Ravens traded up to No. 32 to make Jackson 2018's fifth QB selected. He became the class' first MVP. While playoff success has eluded Jackson, he might already be the greatest running quarterback in NFL history. After a quick Denver flameout, Flacco has found a home as a Jets backup.
The Patriots effectively punted on the 2020 season, one that saw a few key players opt out because of COVID-19 concerns. Brady's final Pats contract prevented the team from franchise-tagging him in 2020, leading the legendary passer to the Buccaneers. The Pats did not sign Newton until late June, and the former MVP said that affected his preparation. That said, Newton was shot as a passer by this point -- even at 31. The former star led a depleted Patriots team to a 7-9 record. This gave New England an unusually high draft slot (No. 15), allowing Bill Belichick to select Mac Jones, who is on track to be Brady's true successor.
This became a bittersweet season for Lions fans, who saw Stafford finally experience postseason success but do so in another city. The Lions did recoup two first-round picks and a third-rounder in addition to Goff, who is essentially Detroit's stopgap starter. Goff's contract becomes easier to shed in 2023. As expected, the ex-Rams Super Bowl starter struggled on a rebuilding Lions team, which started 0-10-1. After battling injuries in his final Lions year, Stafford started all 21 Rams games and threw 50 touchdown passes. A sizable sect of Lions fans cheered him on as he delivered the Rams their second Super Bowl title.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.
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