If there were a quarterback in this year's draft that Bill Belichick was convinced would be a 10-year NFL starter -- and this player was on the board when the Patriots picked 22nd -- would they pull the trigger?
Is it time to get a plan in place? We all know that Tom Brady is going nowhere (Bob Kraft pretty much confirmed that this week at the owners meeting) but with a growing list of injures and the mid-30s creeping up (he'll be 33 in August) it is at least time to consider the what was once the unthinkable.
Life without Tommy.
And the Patriots, of course, will not be the first team in history with the task of trying to replace a first-ballot Hall of Famer at the most important position in football. Here's a look at six all-timers from the last 40 years and what their respective franchises did (or did not) do to find the next guy.
Terry Bradshaw (Steelers, 1970-83)
Replacement plan: Hey, at least the Steelers tried to find the guy to replace the guy. Bradshaw was 31 years old when the 1980 draft rolled around. He was by no means past his prime (he had just led Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl the year prior,) but it wasn't unfair to think that he may be heading for the back nine of his career. With that in mind, the Steelers decided to take a shot and pick a quarterback with the 28th overall pick. The only problem? The pick was Mark Malone.
Now Malone wasn't a head of the class stinker, but he was bad enough (54-68 TD/INT ratio in 60 games with Pittsburgh.) Give Malone points for this, though: He has never given up the mustache. Selleck did for awhile. So did John Oates. But not Malone. And that should count for something.
Can we have a mulligan? Perhaps because they were still invested in Malone, the Steelers did not take Dan Marino (a University of Pittsburgh alum) with the 21st pick of the 1983 draft. The instead used the pick on Gabe Rivera, who played just six games before a drunk driving accident left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Life after Terry: Well, now things are swell (assuming Big Ben is cleared,) but it took over 20 years for the Steelers to find another "franchise quarterback." Neil O'Donnell, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox all had their moments, but the position never felt settled until Roethlisberger was drafted (11th overall) in 2004.
Joe Montana (49ers, 1979-92)
Replacement plan: Bill Walsh was always enamored with Steve Young and traded a second and fourth round pick to steal the future Hall of Famer from Tampa Bay (where he was a bust -- 11-21 TD/INT ratio in 19 games with the Bucs) in April of 1987.
At the time Montana was 31 years old and coming off a back injury that cost him half of the 1986 season. So Young was both an insurance policy as well as the future for the 49ers.
Can we have a mulligan? Not needed here. OK, Montana and Young didn't get along, but who cares? After the trade, the 49ers won two more Super Bowls with Montana as the starter under center. He was also the league MVP in 1989 and 1990. After the 1990 season, Montana would play just one more game with the 49ers, battling injuries (and Young) before leaving for the Chiefs in 1993.
Young took over in 1991 and led the NFL in passer rating in six of his first seven seasons as the starter. He also won a Super Bowl, two MVP awards and was selected to seven Pro Bowls.
Really, what Montana and Young are is the NFL equivalent of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, giving one city Hall of Fame play at a position for decades without losing a beat in the transition. And the comparison works even better when you realize that Williams and Montana are viewed as among the top three or four ever at their positions, and Yaz and Young are probably somewhere in the 8-12 range.
Life after Joe (and Steve): Well, Jeff Garcia (or Mike Greenwell) stepped right in for Young in 2000, making the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons as a starter. It has been a struggle since Garcia left in 2003 (always a franchise killer when a top overall pick misses, and it looks like that's going to be the case with Alex Smith,) but a down stretch is a near-lock after a quarter-century of elite play at perhaps the hardest position to fill in all of sports.
John Elway (Broncos, 1983-98)
Replacement plan: Again, I think the Broncos are another example of a team that prepared for the inevitable but just didn't quite find the guy that they wanted. They drafted Brain Griese in 1998 (91st overall) and gave him the starting job the next year after Elway retired. Griese had his moments (led the league in passer rating in 2000) but just couldn't escape the Elway shadow. He spent five years in Denver before leaving for the Dolphins in 2003.
Can we have a mulligan? Don't forget, the Broncos did use a first-round pick to draft a quarterback during Elway's career. In 1992 they picked Tommy Maddox 25th overall. Elway played seven more more seasons after that, winning a pair of Super Bowls and securing a spot in the top half dozen or so at his position in history, so it's easy to point to the pick of Maddox as a curious one. But the truth is that Elway, from 1988-92, was statistically the kind of quarterback that teams look to replace. In those five years he threw 72 TD passes and 80 INTs. And since the list of quarterbacks in history that had the best six seasons of their career starting at age 33 begins and ends with John Elway, you can understand why the Broncos in 1992 thought they might need a backup plan.
Life after John: In the 11 seasons since Elway retired, the Broncos have exactly one more playoff win than the cast of "Gossip Girl."
Dan Marino (Dolphins, 1983-99)
Replacement plan: The Dolphins played the "Let's close our eyes and hope Marino plays until he's 100 years old" card. Historically not the best way to go. There was never the heir apparent, not even at the end. For the last three or four seasons of his career Marino was clearly on the decline and the Dolphins never came close to addressing the issue.
Can we have a mulligan? Following a 2000 season that saw 29-year-old Jay Fielder take over for the retired Marino and post a perfectly mediocre 14-14 TD/INT line, the Dolphins entered the 2001 NFL Draft with an no-doubt need at the quarterback position. However, they used the 26th overall pick to draft Jamar Fletcher, who started six games in his three seasons in Miami. Six spots later the Chargers picked Drew Brees (the Dolphins also had the chance to sign Brees as a free agent in 2006 and passed, opting to trade for Daunte Culpepper.)
Life After Dan: In Dan Marino's 17 seasons in Miami he was named to nine Pro Bowls and the Dolphins had a total of 10 quarterbacks start a game. In the 10 seasons since he retired the Dolphins have had no Pro Bowl seasons from a quarterback and have started 14 different players at the position. Good plan.
Troy Aikman (Cowboys, 1989-2000)
Replacement Plan: See Marino, Dan.
Can we have a mulligan? This is almost forgotten today, but the Cowboys used the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft AND the 1989 NFL Supplemental Draft to select quarterbacks. And the pick of Steve Walsh (who would play only nine games in just a year and a half with the Cowboys) in that supplemental draft meant Dallas had to surrender its first-round pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. That turned out to be the top pick overall. Jimmy Johnson loved Walsh, who he won a national title with at Miami in 1987. But it didn't take Johnson long to realize that Aikman was on a different level and quickly shipped Walsh to New Orleans.
Life after Troy: The failure to plan for the post-Aikman world led to five years of chaos under center in Dallas. You had the bust (Quincy Carter), a couple of guys that stunk in both baseball and football (Chad Hutchinson and Drew Henson), the hold-the-fort veterans (Drew Bledsoe, Vinny Testaverde) and the obligatory Last Gasp for An All Time Flop (Ryan Leaf.) Really the worst case scenario for when a team doesn't plan at all. But the good news is that Jerry Jones had a spectacular run of plastic surgery during those same five years, earning "Lisa Rinna" status in the parking garage of Dr. 90210's office in Beverly Hills.
Brett Favre (Packers, 1992-2007, 2018-22)
Replacement Plan: Favre was 35 years old and had been talking retirement when the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005. The fact that Rodgers was even available at the 24th pick was a shocker, some thought just a week before that he might go to the 49ers as the top pick overall. But the Packers caught a break and made an investment for the future. This kicked off the beginning of the "Hey, maybe Brett Favre isn't just 'one of the guys' like we've been told for years, but actually an insecure, half-paranoid diva who doesn't care about the long-term health of a franchise that he tells us he loves every eight seconds" era.
Can we have a mulligan? Maybe the Packers could have handled things differently at the very end with Favre, but I'm not sure what they could have done. Again, he retired. Watch the press conference. If only to watch him weep. He earned a 2008 Daytime Emmy nomination with that performance, only to lose to the guy that wears the patch on "All My Children." I think, if memory serves, that his name is Patchy.
Life After Brett: Aaron Rodgers has only played two full seasons, but his 97.2 passer rating is the best in NFL history. He is, in every sense of the word, a franchise quarterback. And when Brett Favre is 48 years old, doing lousy work on the NFL Network as a cliche-stuffed studio analyst, Rodgers will still be one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
There is nothing in Brady's career to suggest that he would pull a Favre if the Pats picked a quarterback and started grooming him as the eventual replacement. I think Brady simply has enough confidence in his own abilities that he just wouldn't worry about it. So that's an absolute non-factor as I see it.
But I don't think, ultimately, that it makes a whole of sense for the Pats to draft a quarterback in the first round this year. Brady stated back in January that he wants to play until he's 40 years old. Assume that isn't going to happen, but it's not unfair to think that Brady might play until he's 38. If you draft a quarterback now is he really going to sit behind Brady for five, six or seven years? There is really no precedent for that in recent NFL history. It seems like Rodgers had to wait forever to behind Favre, right? It was three years. I'd be shocked (injuries aside) if Brady wasn't still a top five NFL quarterback i three years.
Also there is this: Unlike, say, four or five years ago the Pats aren't exactly in a position to "waste" a first rounder on a player that, if everything went as planned, wouldn't see the field in a meaningful spot for the next half-decade or so. If you watched the first five minutes of the Ravens game you know that there are serious needs on defense that have to be addressed in this draft.
And that is what Bill Belichick will focus on. He knows that this is too early to worry about the next guy at quarterback. On the list of problems for the Pats "Finding a Replacement for Brady" is somewhere around No. 12,688.
But he also knows that there will be a day when Brady is gone. He got away with it in 2008, but the odds of another seventh-round pick stepping in and winning 11 games are about the same as another sixth-round pick stepping in and winning 11 games. As great a story as Brady or Kurt Warner have been, the reality is that most franchise NFL quarterbacks have been first-round picks, including four of the six that we looked at earlier.
So that day will come, maybe three years down the line. The Pats might be on the decline, picking somewhere in the teens. And maybe -- maybe, there is a kid that they really like. And sure, Brady might still have another two or three years left, but now the end is at least in sight.
Will Bill Belichick go the route of the Dolphins or Cowboys, or will he use the Packers as the model on how to replace a Hall of Fame quarterback?
I don't know, but I know it's a question that doesn't need to be answered this year.