It took just one dreadful year for the Colts to put themselves in position to have decades of elite quarterback play.
In going from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck, Indianapolis went from having a four-time MVP to a player believed by many to be the next truly great quarterback. Luck appears to be on that track thus far, as he has made the Colts a contender in his rookie year and, if the season were to end today, would likely edge the likes of Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
It was probably tough for Colts fans to imagine the team ever moving on from Manning, the first overall pick in 1998, but any such concerns were alleviated with Luck at the end of the tunnel.
Just like folks in Indianapolis probably never envisioned a day that Manning wouldn’t wear blue and white, Patriots fans would rather not consider that Tom Brady’s time in New England will one day come to an end. The question is this: Will the Patriots be able to transition to their next quarterback as easily as the Colts did?
The answer is no, a thousand times no, not even close. Though the Pats have a tall, intriguing signal-caller with a cannon for an arm who’s spent the last season and a half learning the offense in Ryan Mallett, it isn’t fair to expect anyone to be able to pull off taking over a team as well as Luck has with the Colts.
Nevertheless, with Brady 35 years old and in his 13th season, there’s no question that he’s on the back nine, if not skill-wise then certainly age-wise as it pertains to his playing days. The Patriots will almost certainly face a much greater challenge in replacing a Hall of Fame quarterback than the Colts did. Here are the Patriots’ options:
The end of Brian Hoyer’s days in New England brought about a bit of confusion. It was surprising to see Brady’s primary backup of the previous three seasons just let go for nothing, and it’s been equally perplexing to see that he hasn’t caught on with any other teams since his August 31 release.
Either way, the move was a vote of confidence for Mallett, the 74th pick in the 2011 draft. It’s hard to tell where he is in his development since he isn’t playing, but he did earn practice player of the week honors for playing the role of Manning as the Patriots prepared to face the Broncos in Week 5.
Mallett remains a big unknown, but here’s what we do know about the 24-year-old: He has the size at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, was ranked the fourth-best prospect in the nation before committing to Michigan (he transferred to Arkansas), has a very strong arm and was a debatable fringe first-round pick in his draft year before character concerns caused his stock to plummet. He’ll never be a mobile quarterback, but he has the skill-set to be an effective pocket-passer.
The Patriots obviously have some history of success with developing starting quarterbacks under Brady. When Matt Cassel had to take over in 2008, he led the Pats to an 11-5 record and improved his stock so much that the Patriots were able to get the 34th overall pick in the 2009 draft from the Chiefs for Cassel and Mike Vrabel.
“Suck for _______”
Entering last season, there was no doubt that Luck would be the first overall pick. The only question was which team would “earn” the pick by having the worst record in the league, causing fans of struggling teams to plaster the internet with their wishes for their team to “Suck for Luck” and get the No. 1 overall pick.
One can’t predict the future, but as long as Brady is around, the chances are miniscule that the Patriots will finish with the worst record in the league unless the Pats experience a situation similar to that of last year’s Colts: The quarterback misses the season while age and ineffectiveness catches up to the supporting cast.
Of course, the Patriots wouldn’t need the first overall pick in order to select a high-profile quarterback, but if they feel the need to add another quarterback with the intention of acquiring a franchise player at the position, they’d be wise to do so in the first round. Sure, Brady himself was a sixth-rounder, but he was a lesser prospect who blew up. From the standpoint of getting a quarterback early in the draft, history says it's typically the first round or nothing.
Since Matt Schaub was drafted in the third round in 2004, the quarterbacks drafted in the second and third rounds are as follows: Charlie Frye, Andrew Walter, David Greene, Kellen Clemens, Tarvaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst, Brodie Croyle, Kevin Kolb, John Beck, Drew Stanton, Trent Edwards, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne, Kevin O’Connell, Pat White, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Mallett, Brock Osweiler, Russell Wilson and Nick Foles.
Of those 23 players, three are starters right now (four if you include Foles, who is starting this week in place of the concussed Michael Vick), while eight of them (Frye, Walter, Greene, Croyle, Beck, Brohm, O'Connell and White) are currently out of the league.
Catch a falling star
The Pats don't need to wait until Brady retires to draft a first-round quarterback. They could always do what the Packers did in 2005 when they took Aaron Rodgers, who some saw as first-overall pick material, with the 24th overall pick. The Packers then had Rodgers spend the majority of his first three seasons on the bench before deciding to move on from Brett Favre.
One could make the argument that this scenario is similar to what the Patriots have with Mallett, but Rodgers appeared a much safer bet to eventually be a starting quarterback in the NFL than the risk/reward type of prospect that Mallett is.
Bring in a veteran
This is the toughest of the three scenarios of the three to project. There’s no telling where the league’s current quarterbacks will be when Brady decides to call it a career.
There is a plethora of talented young signal-callers in the league, but top quarterbacks rarely go to free agency. Still, there is always the possibility that a team could have what the league perceives to be two starting-caliber quarterbacks (the Patriots after the 2008-09 season with Brady and Matt Cassel, the Falcons after the 2006-07 season with Vick and Schaub, etc.).
With Brady fifth in the league in passing touchdowns this season and still clearly one of the top signal-callers in the game, Pats fans obviously hope it will be a long time before his time in New England comes to an end. Like it or not, that day will eventually come, just like it did in Indianapolis. The Patriots can only hope they get through it as well as the Colts have.