There are two types of teams in the NFL: the ones that have their quarterback, and the rest that continue to search.
We thought the Denver Broncos were one of the teams with a quarterback when they signed Peyton Manning to a five-year deal worth $96 million in March. Out with Tim Tebow, in with a future Hall of Famer.
Yet, when it came time for the 2012 draft, John Elway and the Broncos made one of the worst picks any team in their position can make: They used a high draft pick on a successor quarterback. They picked Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler No. 57 overall.
This is not a slight against Osweiler as a NFL prospect. He may be good one day, though it probably will not happen in Denver.
It is a knock on a poor drafting method some teams choose to utilize despite the fact that they have an established, franchise quarterback.
Why would any team waste their potential to win now for the future?
- Was Todd Collins (No. 45 pick in 1995) the successor to Jim Kelly in Buffalo? No.
- Was Kevin Kolb (No. 37 pick in 2007) the successor to Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia? No.
- Was Marques Tuiasosopo (No. 59 in 2001) the successor to Rich Gannon in Oakland? No.
- Was Jim Druckenmiller (No. 26 pick in 1997) the successor to Steve Young in San Francisco? Hell no.
Denver should know better than anyone about this illogical method of team building. After coming off an AFC Championship loss, they drafted Tommy Maddox with the No. 25 pick in 1992, despite a healthy John Elway entering the season as a 32-year-old.
The pick was a huge flop, though you could at least blame part of it on head coach Dan Reeves’ feud with Elway. Regardless, Elway the player did not appreciate the selection, so Elway the VP should know that Peyton Manning is not going to value such a pick.
When you have a franchise quarterback, the goal should be to suck every last ounce out of that player before they retire or finish up elsewhere. You have done something most teams fail to do. You found a quarterback. Now maximize his chances for success.
There is something to be said for building a team for the future, but the future is turning into “right now” in the NFL. Coaching regimes do not get four or five seasons to get the job done. They are lucky if they get two full seasons. Maybe even one if they were in Oakland.
You have to win now. Signing Peyton Manning is a move to win now. Wasting a high draft pick on his successor instead of a player who could be a key contributor at one of the many positions of need is the exact opposite mindset.
Denver screwed up. By signing Manning to a five-year contract, there is a real possibility they could get four or five years out of him. By that time, Osweiler will be a free agent or already on a new team. Even if he has Hall of Fame potential when it comes to holding a clipboard, Manning gains nothing from Osweiler.
At age 57, why should coach John Fox even care this far into the future? He will be lucky to still coach this team. Fox, like most coaches, is trying to win right now.
If the Broncos used the draft properly, they would realize bringing in a cornerback like Trumaine Johnson (taken No. 65 by St. Louis) to learn and play with Champ Bailey would be far more beneficial to the team than Osweiler.
Hell, Jacksonville’s third-round punter, Bryan Anger, would project to have a bigger impact on the Manning-era in Denver than Osweiler ever would.
There is no logical reason to take Osweiler when you have Peyton Manning trying to win another Super Bowl in the final stretch of his career.
History of Quarterback Succession Plans
When you do not have a franchise quarterback, you are basically always looking for a succession plan in an attempt to find the right player.
But when you have a franchise quarterback, the team cannot take him for granted. You also need to consult some history before thinking you can simply replace him with one move.
Colts and Broncos tied together
Perhaps it is fitting how Peyton Manning and John Elway offer many examples of quarterback succession plans.
A little over a year ago, no one in Indianapolis would have envisioned anything other than Peyton finishing his career with the Colts several years down the road. How else could it end for the beloved four-time MVP?
Enter a few neck operations, and just like that, the Colts end up with Stanford’s Andrew Luck thanks to having the first pick in the draft. Owner Jim Irsay did not plan a single part of this.
It truly was luck. And now it’s Luck in Indianapolis. What Colts fans hope to be one of the all-time great quarterback torch passes was built on their ironman quarterback finally getting hurt.
Some criticize the 2011 Colts for not having a proper backup. Sorry, but how is the sixth-round pick they used on Curtis Painter in 2009 less valuable than the seventh-round pick New England used on Matt Cassel in 2005, or the seventh-round pick Green Bay used on Matt Flynn in 2008?
Some quarterbacks are just more valuable than others. The Colts never placed much value on the backup quarterback spot, because they never needed to.
Manning’s arrival in Indianapolis in the first place was a similar result of a terrible Colts season (3-13 in 1997) resulting in the top pick in the draft, and the good fortune of a highly touted quarterback prospect there for the taking.
It was the same position the Colts had in 1983 when they were still in Baltimore. In the great quarterback class of 1983, which also produced Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, it was the Colts taking John Elway out of Stanford with the No. 1 pick.
Of course Elway did not want to play for the Colts, and instead made his legacy in Denver, where he is now Manning’s boss.
There was the aforementioned Tommy Maddox first-round draft pick in 1992, but other than that, the Broncos did not try to prepare for post-Elway until they picked Brian Griese with the No. 91 pick (third round) of the 1998 draft.
Elway had just come off his first Super Bowl win, and it was abundantly clear he was coming back for just one more season. Denver had a loaded team, so this was hardly the same as the current Broncos taking Osweiler much higher.
Denver has done a lot in the quarterback department since Elway retired, and you can easily make the case they are hoping Manning is that true successor to Elway.
Brian Griese was not a franchise quarterback. Jake Plummer had a good revival under Mike Shanahan when he joined the team in 2003, but by 2006 he was a below-average starter, and the team had already drafted Jay Cutler in the first round.
While many were high on Cutler, just three seasons later he was traded to Chicago. Oh yeah, they also drafted some Tebow guy in the first round in 2010, so the Broncos are very spontaneous in their quarterback moves.
AFC East: Marino made Miami matter
Denver’s not quite as sporadic as the Miami Dolphins, who have started 16 different quarterbacks since Dan Marino retired in 2000.
The list is not pretty, nor is it successful. In the last 12 seasons, the Dolphins have three playoff appearances, and one playoff win. Only once did their quarterback reach 20 touchdown passes (Jay Fielder had 20 in 2001).
Is it any wonder that Tom Brady and the New England Patriots dominate the AFC East? Buffalo has failed to replace Jim Kelly; the New York Jets are still hoping for someone with the success of Joe Namath;and then, you have the Dolphins in this post-Marino muck.
Miami drafting a quarterback in the second round in three consecutive years (John Beck in 2007, Chad Henne in 2008 and Pat White in 2009) is not even the most embarrassing part.
How about Nick Saban going with Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees in 2006 because the Dolphins thought Brees’ shoulder injury was too severe? Never mind the fact that it was Culpepper’s 2005 knee injury that halted his career.
Marino is 50, but he could probably still lace them up today and be his own best successor for Miami.
NFC North: What Are They Succeeding?
It remains to be seen how long Miami’s wait at quarterback lasts. A division that knows the subject better than any is the NFC North. Some of the teams have searches for quarterbacks that seem to go back into the age of the Vikings.
The Detroit Lions spent half a century looking for Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne’s successor after trading him to Pittsburgh in 1958. They believe they found him by drafting Matthew Stafford with the top pick in 2009: a pick they “earned” with the first ever 0-16 season.
Bobby Layne is at least a few years more current than the Chicago Bears’ Sid Luckman, who retired after the 1950 season. Luckman still holds the franchise records for passing yards (14,686) and touchdown passes (137).
Jay Cutler may pass him up in the future, but it has been a long wait for Chicago.
The Minnesota Vikings started their franchise with a bang in 1961. Fran Tarkenton threw four touchdown passes in the team’s first ever game to beat the Bears. They were in good hands with the wild scrambler, though he was still traded to the New York Giants in 1967.
Tarkenton returned to Minnesota in 1972 and led the team to three Super Bowl appearances. In 1977 with Tarkenton at age 37, the Vikings used the No. 27 pick in the draft to take Tommy Kramer. Tarkenton retired after the 1979 season.
Kramer played 13 seasons for the team, though he only led them in passing seven times. Kramer was 54-56 as a regular season starter. He never really came close to matching Tarkenton’s Hall of Fame career.
Usually the Vikings like to go for retreads at quarterback. They have given veterans like Jim McMahon, Jeff George and Brad Johnson another shot. Sometimes it has worked really well with Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, and of course Brett Favre for that one season in 2009.
Speaking of Favre, finally we have the Green Bay Packers. After Bart Starr, the Packers really had to wait two decades to finally land a legit franchise quarterback when they traded for Favre in 1992.
After a good playoff season in 2004, Favre was to turn 36 in 2005. The team probably had no real plans to draft a quarterback, but after we all watched California’s Aaron Rodgers in the green room continue to fall in the draft, the Packers made a bold move and drafted him.
It may not have been as easy if Favre was not already starting on his “should I stay or should I go?” routine, but it obviously has paid off for the Packers.
16 Super Bowl Wins
How about the three teams with the most Super Bowl wins?
The best precedent for Favre-to-Rodgers is the San Francisco 49ers succeeding Joe Montana with Steve Young.
Even though everyone succumbed to failure in Tampa Bay at the time, Young was traded to the 49ers in 1987 with Bill Walsh giving up a second and fourth-round pick. He would be Montana’s backup, but showed a lot of promise off the bench and making some starts early on with the team.
Young finally took over for good in the 1992 season, and it completed the most successful quarterback transition in NFL history.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were not as successful. After winning four Super Bowls with Terry Bradshaw in the 1970s, the team used a first-round pick (No. 28) in 1980 to take quarterback Mark Malone as Bradshaw’s successor.
Instead of trying to add another starter and win a third consecutive Super Bowl, the Steelers went for their 32-year-old quarterback’s successor.
That was a lousy move, and Malone was a lousy quarterback. After getting his chance in 1984 after Bradshaw’s retirement, things never got any better for Malone, and he was just 21-24 as a starter with a 62.4 passer rating in Pittsburgh. It did not take long for the Steelers to draft Bubby Brister in the third round in 1986.
Pittsburgh had to wait until they got Ben Roethlisberger with the No. 11 pick in the 2004 draft to truly find the successor to Bradshaw. The results speak for themselves. Three Super Bowl appearances, and two more wins.
Two of those record six Super Bowl wins for Pittsburgh came against Roger Staubach and the Dallas Cowboys. When Staubach retired after the 1979 season, the team already had Danny White ready to take over.
White was the No. 53 pick in the third round of the 1974 draft, but Dallas saw him as more of a punter than quarterback. After two years in the World Football League—yeah, I never heard of it either—White returned to the Cowboys.
After serving as the team’s punter, it was a long wait to become a starting quarterback in 1980. White had a more than respectable career for Dallas, almost leading them to the Super Bowl.
When Troy Aikman became the next Hall of Fame quarterback for the Cowboys, his succession plan was much less successful. Following Aikman’s retirement, Dallas drafted Quincy Carter in 2001 with the No. 53 pick.
Carter did return Dallas to the playoffs in 2003, but he was gone after the season. They tried veteran Vinny Testaverde in 2004, and then Drew Bledsoe in 2005.
Little did we know that undrafted Tony Romo, a member of the team since 2003, would burst onto the scene in 2006 and become a franchise-caliber quarterback for Dallas.
Even some of the most successful franchises in the league still prove how difficult it is to find that next great quarterback.
Stop Wasting Premium Draft Picks
Statistically, your best chance for a franchise-caliber quarterback is in the first round of the draft. You can get them in the second round too, but the percentages continue to drop as you move through the draft.
If you already have a real franchise quarterback, then why use a premium pick on one that’s all potential?
Why bother? As long as they are still playing well and the team is competitive, draft someone they could use while you still have them.
Even Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have botched this in the past.
They drafted Kevin O’Connell in 2008 with the No. 94 pick. Why? Beats me. Mario Manningham went a pick later at No. 95. Surely makes you think of the biggest play in Super Bowl XLVI, and the fact that Belichick has not figured out how to draft wide receivers.
A year ago it was a bigger surprise pick of Ryan Mallett with the No. 74 pick. If all goes according to plan in New England, Tom Brady, 35 in August, plays until he’s 40. That means Mallett will be long gone, and ideally without a single regular season start under his belt.
Mallett will not be the successor to Brady, so why even bother drafting him? You are basically hoping some team makes a Matt Schaub/Charlie Whitehurst/Kevin Kolb/Matt Flynn type of move based (perhaps) exclusively on preseason results by Mallett.
Maybe some sucker will bite, or maybe the lack of success from these types of quarterbacks will scare enough people off.
If history teaches us anything, Mallett has about as much of a chance to be Brady’s true successor as some guy that will only enter the league 20 years from now.
A problem results when people take this line of reasoning:
But the 49ers had Young mentored by Montana, and Rodgers got to sit behind Favre. They all won a Super Bowl!
There was very little mentoring going on here. Those were contentious situations, and kudos to Young and Rodgers for shining in their opportunity.
But using the two gold standard examples is a foolish way to justify wasting a draft pick on a franchise quarterback’s successor. That is akin to saying you should always draft a quarterback with the No. 1 pick, because look at how well Manning and Elway turned out.
When you have a league where most teams cannot even find one Favre or Rodgers, let alone both, then it is just being greedy to think your team can repeat that kind of luck. History even suggests having an off-year and getting a high draft pick is a much better succession plan than wasting a pick like the Broncos did with Osweiler.
Use your premium draft picks to give your franchise quarterback as many pieces as he needs. Ride him until the wheels fall off, and worry about the successor later.
Plan or not, chances are you will become one of the searching teams anyway.