The departure of Wes Welker (and possibly Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman and Deion Branch) and the arrival of new faces like Donald Jones and Danny Amendola heralds a fundamental change in the Patriots passing game -- on the current roster, there are no wide receivers who caught a pass from quarterback Tom Brady last season.
Because of the changeover, Brady, who turns 36 before the start of the 2013 season, now steers a course into uncharted waters. While he’s always been able to do a good job acclimating new faces into the New England passing game in the previous incarnations of the Patriots offense, it can be an occasionally bumpy transition for a quarterback on the plus side of 30 to go from one personnel grouping into another. (Just ask Carson Palmer, who joined his third team since turning 31 Tuesday when he was dealt from the Raiders to the Cardinals.) In your 20s, you’re more willing to bend. If you’re a QB who has made it into your 30s, chances are you’ve become a bit more dogmatic in your approach -- coaches are more inclined to adapt to you as opposed to the other way around.
One big thing that Brady has going for him is that he will remain part of the same system where he matured as a signal-caller and with the same head coach he had as a rookie. Many of the quarterbacks over 30 who have been forced to change late in their careers -- including Brady's childhood hero, Joe Montana – have had to start all over with a new team and an occasionally new offense. That won’t be the case with Brady, who also will have the benefit of having some familiar faces around him in Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Stevan Ridley. But still, when spring passing camps begin, things will be different for the veteran quarterback, who already has started working with at least one of his new receivers in hopes of getting up to speed as soon as possible.
Can Brady draw inspiration from the great quarterbacks of the past who have had to make some adjustments because of personnel changes relatively late in their careers? There’s certainly historical precedent he can draw from: Here are five instances of elite quarterbacks who had to deal with significant turnover in offensive personnel after they turned 30 (whether because of a trade to a new team or wholesale changes on their own team), and how they responded.
Joe Montana -- Montana was fairly lucky in that he played almost his entire second half of his career in San Francisco with Jerry Rice -- in all, from 1985 to 1992. (Rice was with the Niners from 1985 until 2000, spanning the glory days of both Montana and Steve Young -- in retrospect, it’s amazing to see that Montana actually won two Super Bowls before Rice even showed up.) In his time with the Niners, probably the closest thing Montana ever had to deal with to Welker’s departure came when tight end Dwight Clark was gradually phased out of the Niners offense. Montana’s pal went for 50-plus catches from 1980 until 1986, but dropped to 24 receptions in 1987, his last season in the game. By that point, Montana was 31 years old and Rice and (to a lesser extent) John Taylor had started to emerge as truly elite pass catchers (not to mention running back Roger Craig, who was in the midst of a five-year stretch of 65 catches or more), which made Clark expendable. Montana and the Niners wouldn’t miss a beat -- he’d win another two Super Bowls with San Francisco before leaving after the 1992 season.
From a "personnel change" standpoint, the biggest change for Montana was the move from San Francisco to Kansas City prior to the start of the 1993 season. In 1993 and 1994 with the Chiefs -- at the age of 37 and 38, and after spending almost all of 1992 out of the game -- he completed more that 60 percent of his passes, had a combined 5,427 yards passing and a 29:16 TD-to-interception ratio in two seasons. (But even then, the change wasn’t all that dramatic: the Chiefs imported Paul Hackett, a former QB coach for Montana in San Francisco, and installed the West Coast offense to make the transition easier for Montana.) While he wasn’t the quarterback he was earlier in his career, it’s remarkable to think that he still managed to lead the Chiefs to the AFC title game in 1993, where they lost to the Bills. It’s maybe even more remarkable to think that Kansas City hasn’t won a playoff game since. Ultimately, if you’re a quarterback on the plus side of 30 and you’re changing teams, this is probably a template for success.
Dan Marino -- Maybe a study in how too much change and not enough stability in other areas can harm a veteran quarterback. The 1995 Dolphins had four players catch 50 or more passes from a 34-year-old Marino, including running back Terry Kirby (66), wide receivers O.J. McDuffie and Irving Fryar (62) and fullback Keith Byars (51). That team -- which finished at 9-7, second in the AFC East to Buffalo -- lost a wild-card playoff game to the Bills in Buffalo. The following season saw an offensive overhaul, as Fryar (Philadelphia) and Kirby (San Francisco) were gone, and Byars was picked up by the Patriots four games into the season. As a result, the 35-year-old Marino was working with an almost entirely new group of offensive skill position players, as well as a new coach in Jimmy Johnson. McDuffie was the only player on the 1996 Dolphins to finish with at least 50 catches (he had 74 on the year). That team finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
(The failure here is with the Dolphins not surrounding Marino with enough, but at the same time, it’s important to remember that by the mid-1990s, Marino was a shell of himself as he battled knee and hip injuries. He still started 59 of a possible 64 games between 1995 and 1998, but by then, he and the franchise were on borrowed time. It didn’t matter that Don Shula stepped aside at the end of the 1995 season and Johnson took over the Dolphins. In the end, Marino’s statistical peak -- and his real window when it comes to winning a title -- was between 1984 and 1988.)
Steve Young -- Like Montana, Young was gifted by the fact that he was able to play with Rice for an extended period -- even though Young didn’t assume the full-time starting role until 1992 (a position he held until he retired in 1999), he had Rice with him for the duration of his career with the Niners. And like Montana, he played in a familiar system for many of the same coaches for the bulk of his career. However, there was plenty of turnover at other spots, as many other offensive skill position players came and went over his eight-year career as a starter. The three most notable players that were eventually phased out under Young (all of which happened when he was older than 30) were wide receiver John Taylor (who went from 56 catches in 1993 to 29 in his final season of 1995), tight end Brent Jones (who had a four-year string of 45-plus catches snapped in 1996, and was gone following the 1997 season) and running back Ricky Watters (who had 66 catches and 877 rushing yards in 1994 before departing for Philadelphia as a free agent). However, on each occasion, the Niners were able to pick up the slack, as new faces like wide receivers Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes, running back Garrison Hearst and the aforementioned Terry Kirby were able to pick up the slack.
Despite those changes, Young’s worst career mark as a starting quarterback was 10-6 in 1993. In all, as a starter for the Niners, he was 91-33 in 124 games, and won the Super Bowl at the age of 33.
Brett Favre -- Favre found a way out -- he simply outlasted most of his trusted targets over the course of his career. However, he went through plenty of turnover just after turning 30, an era where the Packers were still in the process of transition away from the group that helped win Super Bowl XXXI to one that would soon again challenge for a conference title. To that point, from 1999-2002, Green Bay had four different players lead the team in receptions: wide receivers Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder (each with 74 catches in 1999 from a 30-year-old Favre), running back Ahman Green (73 catches in 2000 and a team-leading 62 in 2001) and wide receiver Donald Driver (70 in 2002).
Favre never won another title, and while you can argue with his decision making from time to time (both on and off the field), he did manage to put up good numbers well into his thirties in multiple offensive systems.
(Favre is a statistical marvel on a number of levels: You could argue that no quarterback had a greater post-35 career swing than he did. At the age of 36 and 37, Favre led the Packers to a combined 12 wins in two seasons while delivering an apocalyptically bad 38:47 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a career-worst 56 percent completion rate in 2006. Thanks in large part to a more conservative approach – one that marked the most of the rest of his playing days -- he rebounded with an impressive 2007 that included a 67 percent completion rate, 4,155 passing yards and a 28:15 touchdown-to-interception ratio as Green Bay made it all the way to the NFC title game. And in 2009 at the age of 40, he had one of the best individual seasons of his career, completing 68 percent of his passes and throwing for 4,202 yards and ending up with a career-best 33:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.)
Peyton Manning -- Brady could take some lessons from Manning -- as we explained here, he’s one of a few contemporary passers who has been forced to undergo as many personnel changes on offense as Brady. Marvin Harrison was Manning’s No. 1 for nearly 10 years until he left the game following the 2008 season. But by that time, Manning, who turned 32 before the start of the 2008 season, had already begun to lean more on wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark, who had become integral parts of the Indianapolis offense by that time. And even though he moved from Indy to Denver at the age of 36 (and the fundamental tenets of the offense around him remained the same), the personnel was dramatically different.
(There are some similarities to be drawn between Manning and Drew Brees. However, while you can also make a case that Brees has had to adjust on the fly to new personnel, as well as a whole new team -- on multiple occasions -- Brees did most of that in his twenties, as he was dealt from the Chargers to the Saints after the 2005 season when he was 25. While he does get points for adjusting to life without his head coach for a season as a 33-year-old -- Sean Payton served a year-long suspension in 2012 for his role in the Bountygate scandal -- he hasn’t quite done enough as a thirtysomething quarterback to be included on this list.)