The arrival of Jimmy Garoppolo has sparked plenty of conversation about the Patriots and their plans for a post-Tom Brady world. While the incumbent signal-caller, who turns 37 in August, has stated he wants to play for several more years, it’s only natural to start to think about the transition.
Can the Patriots take any pointers from teams that have parted ways with a Hall of Fame quarterback at the end of his career? And is there a transition out there that provides a realistic blueprint for New England? Here’s a breakdown of five teams that were forced to adapt and rebuild their offenses after their Hall of Fame quarterback either retired or left town.
Colts, Peyton Manning -- The Colts neglected the backup quarterback position for the better part of a decade and then stumbled backward into someone who has quickly become one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation in Andrew Luck. Manning sat out the entire 2011 season with a neck injury, the Colts released him following a 2-14 season and then Indy drafted Luck, who immediately stepped into the starting role and already has taken his team to the postseason twice.
This situation obviously is the outlier -- no team can expect such a smooth transition from one elite-level quarterback to another. Timing was huge for Indy. If this happened a year earlier, the Colts likely would have been inclined to take Cam Newton, who went first overall in 2011 and matured into an elite-level quarterback this past season. A year later, they’re choosing between EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon, the only three QBs who went in the first three rounds of the draft. For what it’s worth, Bill Belichick is on record as saying he has no plans to operate the way the Colts did, as they fundamentally neglected the backup spot until they were forced into doing something about it.
Broncos, John Elway -- Elway won back-to-back titles with the Broncos in 1997 and 1998. The following season, the Broncos went 6-10 with Brian Griese -- a third-round pick of the Broncos in 1998 -- starting the majority of games. (The Broncos suffered a double body blow that offseason, as Elway retired and Terrell Davis fell off a cliff. In 1998, Davis ran for a league-best 2,008 rushing yards. He had a combined 1,194 rushing yards over the next three seasons, the last three of his career.)
Griese sat behind Elway for one year before assuming the starter’s role on a full-time basis. Under Mike Shanahan, the Broncos rebuilt their offense the next few seasons behind a stout offensive line and a maturing Griese, as Denver went 11-5 in 2000 and 8-8 in 2001 behind a steady and consistent ground game that featured a variety of backs.
Shanahan and the Broncos didn’t have the good timing of the Colts or 49ers (see below), but they did have a system offense in place with a number of veterans that allowed them to plug in a variety of running backs behind an excellent offensive line, and survive as a team that played good complementary football for a few seasons while Griese and then Jake Plummer figured it out. Plummer eventually got them to the AFC title game in 2005, but that would be as far as the Broncos would get prior to this year’s Super Bowl run under Manning.
As it relates to the Patriots, this might be the most possible blueprint for the future, with Garoppolo playing the role of Griese, gradually easing into the job. Belichick has long been tight with Shanahan, and he could view this as the most palatable transition, particularly when you consider how the Patriots have loaded up on running backs in recent years. New England also drafted three oversized offensive linemen this spring. (Belichick has only taken three offensive linemen in one draft on one other occasion.)
49ers, Joe Montana -- Montana was the centerpiece of a truly great San Francisco team for more than a decade. But as he entered his mid-30s, it was clear the Niners were thinking about the post-Montana era. Turns out, they were the beneficiaries of the collapse of the USFL, as well as some shortsightedness on the part of the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay picked up Steve Young off the USFL scrap heap, but the Buccaneers were a bit of a mess. After two disappointing seasons with Young as their QB, the Bucs shipped Young to the Niners in April 1987 for a second- and fourth-round selection in that year’s draft. (The Bucs then proceeded to take Vinny Testaverde first overall.) Young ended up starting just 10 games in his first four seasons in San Francisco, but he assumed the full-time job in 1991 when Montana was unable to bounce back fully from an elbow injury he suffered in the 1990 NFC title game against the Giants.
In the end, the transition of Montana to Young would not have been possible if not for three things: the collapse of the USFL, the mismanagement of the Bucs and a case of good timing in the pre-salary cap era. In today’s NFL, there’s no way a team could have two quarterbacks of this caliber on the roster at the same time. (This setup probably is closer to the good timing enjoyed by the Colts in the Luck situation.) Montana played two seasons with the Chiefs before calling it a career following the 1994 season. Meanwhile, Young went on to lead the Niners to a Super Bowl that same season before retiring after the 1999 campaign. Probably not as unlikely as the Manning-to-Luck scenario, but not too far off.
Packers, Brett Favre -- Setting aside Favre’s will-he-or-won’t-he routine that played out over the last few years of his career, the Packers provided a nice template for a transition from one elite-level quarterback to another, using a first-round pick on a quarterback even though they had a signal-caller who was a three-time All-Pro who still had one more deep postseason run in his arm.
Like New England has been under Belichick, Green Bay was vigilant when it came to the backup quarterback spot. Over the years, the Packers drafted and developed future starters Matt Hasselbeck, Mark Brunell and, of course, Aaron Rodgers, all of whom started as backups to Favre. And on the surface, there are more parallels between the teams' approach: Like Brady, Favre was years removed from the idea of moving on. (As much of a punchline he became in his later years, it’s worth noting that he led Green Bay to the NFC title game in 2007, getting the Packers all the way to overtime. By that game, Rodgers had been in the league for three seasons.) The Packers certainly weren’t focused on the idea of landing a quarterback in the 2005 draft, but with Rodgers on the board late in the first round (24th), in hindsight they were the smartest guys in the room.
But at the same time, there was also some good timing, There was some mismanagement from the rest of the league, as you could make a real argument that Rodgers should not only have been drafted higher, but perhaps the No. 1 overall pick. Ultimately, while Luck’s ascension in Indy is more of a case of good timing, the Favre-to-Rodgers transition represents the singular best move from one great quarterback to another the league has seen in the salary cap era.
Cowboys, Troy Aikman -- Dallas was in the final years of its dynastic run in the late-1990s when it became clear that Aikman had a finite shelf life. Beset by concussions and stripped of so many of the offensive options he employed in the Cowboys’ three titles in four years, he struggled over the final four seasons of his career, posting one season where he had a better than .500 record as a starter (7-4 as a 32-year-old in 1998).
Following Aikman’s retirement, it was clear that the Cowboys had no real fallback plan if newcomer Quincy Carter failed. They employed a series of quarterbacks in the early days of the 21st century, bouncing from Carter (who did get them to the postseason in 2003 under Bill Parcells) to Ryan Leaf to Chad Hutchinson to a 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde in 2004 before settling on old friend Drew Bledsoe in 2005 and Tony Romo in 2006. However, the bottom line remains: Dallas has one postseason win since Aikman retired.
In many ways, the Cowboys of that era are a cautionary tale, the flip side of what happened to the Colts. While Indy was able to land Luck after a generation of not doing much of anything to develop the backup quarterback spot, Dallas’ record at finding depth behind Aikman was almost as bad. From 1991 -- Aikman’s third year -- until 2000, Dallas drafted one quarterback, the immortal Bill Musgrave, taken in the fourth round of the 1991 draft out of Oregon. (Carter was a second-round pick in 2001.) Romo was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2003.