The search for a franchise quarterback can be grueling. Ask the Cleveland Browns. They have been stuck in a franchise quarterback-less vortex for 25 years, and they are hardly alone in their search to find the one.
Finding that quarterback can be a thankless journey seemingly without end. It can take years, decades even, if teams pick the wrong players or make flawed decisions.
But creating a succession plan to replace a franchise quarterback can be just as hard. With a franchise quarterback in place, a team has a limited window in which to capitalize on its financial and draft resources. It also could have a quarterback with an ego, who might not appreciate the task of grooming his successor.
Former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf was known to draft a quarterback almost every year, even with Brett Favre on his roster. He selected seven quarterbacks in the 10 drafts after trading for Favre.
“I had determined that the one position that determined your welfare in the game was the quarterback position. And you better protect yourself as best you can at that position,” Wolf told ESPN in a recent telephone interview. “You want to keep adding to it. Always want to get better at that position. I didn’t think two was enough. I thought you needed three.”
Teams such as the New York Giants, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Chargers have been fortunate to rely on one quarterback for some time — each has had its current franchise quarterback in place for more than a decade. Combined, Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers have won more than 60 percent of their games and 10 Super Bowls.
But like most good things, there will be an expiration date. Quarterbacks can’t last forever. And recent history shows most teams don’t properly prepare for the end.
The Miami Dolphins signed the undrafted Jay Fiedler to replace Dan Marino in 2000. They’re still looking for their first Pro Bowl season at the position since Marino.
The Buffalo Bills had Todd Collins and Alex Van Pelt ready to step in when Jim Kelly retired in 1997. They signed Doug Flutie from the CFL in desperation the following year, and are hoping this year’s first-round pick, Josh Allen, develops into the franchise quarterback they have been looking for ever since Kelly retired.
The Denver Broncos‘ answer for John Elway was third-round pick Brian Griese. That didn’t work out long term. It took until Elway signed Peyton Manning as a free agent 13 years later for the Broncos to solidify the position.
The Seattle Seahawks had Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst set to replace Matt Hasselbeck, who played in three Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl in 10 years in Seattle. Fortunately for the Seahawks, they hit the jackpot with Russell Wilson in the third round in 2012.
Only the Packers, with Aaron Rodgers replacing Favre, and the Indianapolis Colts, with Andrew Luck taking over for Peyton Manning, have seamlessly transitioned in the past 24 years from legend to Super Bowl-caliber franchise quarterback. And even the Colts have hit a roadblock in recent years with Luck’s shoulder injury.
Making the transition from one quarterback era to the next has proved difficult, and in many cases frustrating, no matter the approach. The Tennessee Titans drafted Vince Young third overall to replace Steve McNair and that didn’t work out. The Patriots had second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo waiting in the wings to replace Brady before finances forced him to be traded.
This is what the Giants, Steelers, Patriots, Chargers, Saints and Packers have to look forward to. They are trying to win now while simultaneously positioning themselves for the future. They are walking a delicate line, and it’s likely to be an even bigger challenge when the time comes to replace their franchise quarterbacks.
“I listened to one big press conference from [Gettleman] talk about Eli and I said to myself immediately there is no way this guy is drafting a quarterback in the first round. No way. No chance because that is his guy.”
The Giants’ approach
With the No. 2 overall pick, this year appeared to be a golden opportunity for the Giants to solidify their future at quarterback. They have a new coach and general manager and are installing new offensive and defensive schemes coming off a 3-13 season with a 37-year-old quarterback. Eventual top-10 picks Sam Darnold, Allen and Josh Rosen were all there for the taking.
General manager Dave Gettleman passed on the game’s most important position (at least for a few rounds) to select the top player on his board: Saquon Barkley. The Penn State running back was the only player since Peyton Manning in 1998 to receive a perfect grade from Gettleman.
Gettleman’s view: If you have to sell yourself on a player at No. 2, he probably isn’t the right move. That’s how he felt about the draft’s top quarterbacks.
The Giants put their quarterback succession plan on the back burner. They took Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta in the fourth round and now have Eli Manning backed up by last year’s third-round pick Davis Webb and Lauletta. It’s a similar approach to the Steelers, who have two midround picks — Josh Dobbs from the fourth round last year and Mason Rudolph from the third this year — behind Roethlisberger. The difference is the Steelers also have veteran backup Landry Jones.
“Kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer” is how Hasselbeck, currently an ESPN analyst, explained the approach. It is similar to how Wolf, who drafted Hasselbeck with the Packers in 1998, went about addressing the quarterback position.
Gettleman doesn’t appear concerned with gambling the long-term future on two midround picks with Eli Manning still on the roster.
“What’s the long-term plan with the quarterback?” he said after passing on a signal-caller in the first round. “[Manning’s] going to play. What do you want me to tell you? He’s our quarterback. We believe in him. He threw the hell out of the ball for three days [at minicamp]. He has not lost one bit of arm strength and I’m coming back five years later, watching a quarterback in his prime, and now he’s 37. You have to stop worrying about age.
“Oh, by the way, Julius Peppers played last year at 38. … There are some guys that are just freaks. [Tom] Brady is 41. I mean c’mon. [Manning] is our quarterback.”
It will take only a few years to determine whether Gettleman was right to be bullish in his approach. Eli Manning will be 38 before the end of this season. Only three quarterbacks (Brady, Elway and Peyton Manning) have started a Super Bowl at 38 or older.
The Giants will get another year or two (maybe three) out of Manning before Gettleman’s succession plan will be put to the test. Webb or Lauletta might bail him out, but recent history shows that third- and fourth-round picks probably aren’t the best option to replace a franchise QB. Seattle’s Wilson and Dallas’ Dak Prescott are outliers.
The other approaches
The Giants and Steelers at least have some possibilities in place for their aging quarterbacks. The Saints and Patriots do not at this point. New Orleans contemplated it last year but couldn’t land Patrick Mahomes in the first round. The Patriots had their succession plan in place with Garoppolo, except Brady outlasted the plan and his successor.
Brady, 40, is a freak. He is the rare ageless wonder who won the MVP award and reached the Super Bowl last season. With no end in sight for Brady, Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers.
It’s back to the drawing board for coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots. They will likely unveil their new succession plan next year.
“Teams today are not investing,” Hasselbeck said. “They don’t have their succession plan on the roster. They’re basically like, ‘You know what, that is somebody else’s problem. We don’t have NFL Europe, we’re not developing a third quarterback.’
“So I just think teams are like, ‘Somebody else needs to develop a quarterback for us and we’ll trade for him, overpay for him or just draft a new one.’ Very few people are developing a stable of young quarterbacks.”
The salary cap, lack of practice time and cost of a quarterback are some of the reasons. Both Wolf and Hasselbeck feel it’s a cop-out. Teams need to find ways to make it work given the importance of the position to the overall health of the franchise.
The Ravens were the only team to start their process with a first-round pick this year. General manager Ozzie Newsome’s final draft included trading up to select Lamar Jackson with the final pick of the first round. Jackson is now Baltimore’s future after Joe Flacco.
“Lamar is going to have a great chance to develop,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I think you get to this stage in a quarterback’s career — you’ve seen it done in New England, we’ve seen it done in a lot of places — it’s time to start thinking about drafting a quarterback. When the opportunity came to get a really good one, I think you have to jump on it and take it.”
The past 24 years do show that using a first-round pick to supplant the franchise QB is the best path to travel, even if it’s not foolproof.
Not so easy to replace a franchise QB
It’s rare that a team with a franchise quarterback, like the Giants, gets to pick second in the draft. It takes a perfect storm of events (injuries, poor play, internal strife) for it to happen. Not everyone is as fortunate as the Colts, who stunk just enough in the right season to land Luck, in a year Peyton Manning sat out because of a neck injury.
Most teams with proven quarterbacks don’t get picks that high in the draft to stabilize their succession plans. Even when they do, they’re faced with several factors that could steer them in another direction.
Gettleman and the Giants wanted to surround their quarterback with the best possible talent. It’s a win-now rather than big-picture philosophy that puts the long-term health of the franchise on the backburner.
Applying draft and financial resources with a quarterback isn’t ideal for the short term when there is a quarterback already on the roster. And then teams have to worry about the dynamic that drafting a quarterback would create. The Steelers are already getting a taste after selecting Rudolph in the third round, at No. 76 overall.
“I was surprised when they took a quarterback because I thought that maybe in the third round, you know you can get some really good football players that can help this team now,” Roethlisberger said in a post-draft radio interview. “Nothing against Mason; I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid. I just don’t know how backing up or being a third [string] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now.
“But, you know, that’s not my decision to make. That’s on the coaches and the GM and the owner and those kind of things. If they think he can help our team, so be it, but I was a little surprised.”
Roethlisberger later extended an olive branch by texting Rudolph and wishing him luck before rookie minicamp.
But drafting a quarterback is a tricky situation that forces teams to tread carefully. The frosty relationship between Favre and Rodgers has been well-documented. Favre wasn’t exactly welcoming to a player who was inevitably coming for his job.
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Sentimentality is also a factor. It’s difficult to sever ties with a player who has meant so much to a franchise. The Giants saw firsthand the backlash an organization can face. Super Bowl-winning quarterback Eli Manning was benched late last season but reinstated as the starter immediately after the coach and general manager were fired.
“I listened to one big press conference from [Gettleman] talk about Eli and I said to myself immediately there is no way this guy is drafting a quarterback in the first round. No way. No chance because that is his guy,” Hasselbeck said. “If someone else had gotten the job … you might be talking about a whole other situation.”
The best successions
The San Francisco 49ers had Steve Young on their bench behind Joe Montana for five seasons. Those days are gone. The salary cap won’t allow it to happen.
This leaves only the bold, brave and lucky capable of making the successful transition from franchise QB to successor. The only two cases that have worked for more than a few years are the Packers and Colts, with Rodgers and Luck, respectively. Both were first-round picks. The jury is still out on Prescott (fourth-round pick).
The Giants are among the teams that will be positioning themselves in the coming years to be added to that list. They can’t afford to get it semi-right or wrong.
“You’re not going to go anywhere in this game unless you have a quarterback,” Wolf said. “And you better have more than a quarterback. You better have a championship-caliber quarterback.”