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It doesn’t always end well. But the greats usually find it difficult to quit. Infused with the pinnacle of gift and craft and confidence their ambition and access to one final payday, they often extend their careers beyond the sensible end point.
What we’re seeing from Tom Brady, expected to move to Tampa Bay according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, we’ve seen before from many of the best quarterbacks of all time. Can his departure from the New England Patriots after 2 decades, and emigration to another franchise to play a 21st season at 43 years old, find a glorious championship conclusion?
History suggests it’s improbable, though increasingly possible. A lot will depend on how his support develops. There’s also the likelihood that merely playing a season or two more isn’t Brady’s only objective, but that acquiring interest as part-owner will eventually be part of any deal.
Still, just to examine this sort of end-career move from past greats, the picture has often not been pretty. We’ll get to them in a sec.
First, a list of the best NFL QBs who spent their entire careers with the same franchise. Considering how many Hall of Fame players in other position groups have been dealt around or jumped in free agency, it’s pretty remarkable:
• Sammy Baugh, Redskins, 1937-52
• Sid Luckman, Bears, 1939-50
• Otto Graham (from AAFC), Browns, 1946-55
• Bart Starr, Packers, 1956-71
• Roger Staubach, Cowboys, 1969-79
• Terry Bradshaw, Steelers, 1970-83
• John Elway, Broncos, 1983-98
• Dan Marino, Dolphins, 1983-99
• Jim Kelly (from USFL), Bills, 1986-96
• Troy Aikman, Cowboys, 1989-99
Of course, the first 4 of these 10 played in an era before viable free agency. They didn’t move essentially because they couldn’t and their teams opted to keep them.
But, the consensus greats of all time, mentioned most often at the tip-top, have all tried to make a go of it very late in their careers. They are included in this list of some terrific QBs who made such moves:
John Unitas, Chargers (1973)
Maybe the saddest of all final stops, the symbol of all that made the great late-‘50s and ‘60s Baltimore Colts perennial contenders, the virtual creator of the 2-minute offense, a strategic passer before there really was such a thing. Unitas was traded by just-arrived GM Joe Thomas straight up to a Chargers organization about to enter a particularly chaotic period. The price: $150,000 cash paid by San Diego owner Gene Klein.
Adding a pinch of bitter spice to the transaction: Unitas would play for a couple of old Giants whom he defeated in the legendary 1958 NFL championship – head coach Harland Svare and OC Bob Schnelker. Not a good match in any respect.
Never has there been a more incongruous image than Johnny U. in Chargers bolts wearing just-retired Lance Alworth’s old number. Here he poses with former Giants adversary Harland Svare, his 1973 head coach.
Not only was the 40-year-old Unitas physically a shot fighter, he was playing with no support. It never got a lot better than a season opener in Washington in which the Chargers were shut out 38-0 while Unitas went 6-of-17 with 3 picks and a fumble for a scoop-n-score.
Unitas was eventually benched. The team finished 2-12 and spent much of its free time smoking dope. The only bright side for Unitas: He briefly tutored a rookie from Oregon named Dan Fouts before retiring the following training camp when he realized he just couldn’t go on.
Joe Namath, Rams (1977)
A guy whose statistics always baffle millennials; they cannot fathom why he would be in the Hall of Fame. Boomers understand why because they lived it. But Namath’s final year with head coach Chuck Knox and the Rams in Los Angeles was fated to end because young Southern California product Pat Haden was just better.
After a dozen seasons as “Broadway Joe” with the Jets, Joe Namath tried to go Hollywood with the Rams, but only lasted 4 games.
The old Jet began his career in 1965 with bad knees he’d hurt at Alabama. In LA, he was playing with a torn left hamstring and an arm that couldn’t supply its former zip. Namath lasted 4 games with the Rams going 2-2 including a pitiful showing in Chicago in which he threw 4 interceptions in a 24-23 loss to the underdog Bears. Haden started the next game; Namath didn’t play again. Then again, he was set on attempting to continue a career in show business in Los Angeles.
Like Unitas’, this situation from more than 4 decades ago is different than Brady’s because of the era. The protection Brady received through rules changes and the way the game is officiated, not to mention advances in nutrition and conditioning he’s embraced, separate him from Namath.
Ken Stabler, Oilers (1980-81); Saints (1982-84)
The longtime Raiders gunslinger had attempted a holdout in 1980 and ended up landing with Bum Phillips and the Houston Oilers – at age 35 – thanks to a trade for Dan Pastorini. While mobility and arm strength had never been particular strengths, Stabler didn’t have the support of a superior offensive line (something he’d enjoyed his entire career throughout the 1970s in Oakland) to conceal his flaws. The Oilers made the playoffs in 1980 but were ousted by the eventual Super Bowl champion Raiders – now led by Jim Plunkett.
Kenny “The Snake” Stabler looked bitten by age during his final season in New Orleans.
Phillips was fired at the end of 1981, was hired by New Orleans in 1982, and recruited Stabler, now 37, who replaced traded Archie Manning. He managed to get the Saints to .500 but no better before he mercifully retired in 1984. Those final 5 seasons with the Oilers and Saints: 44 TD passes, 79 interceptions.
Joe Montana, Chiefs (1993-94)
Catalyzed by a lingering quarterback controversy with much younger Steve Young, the reigning GOAT asked for and received a trade from the 49ers. So began 2 very good years with the Chiefs at 37 and 38.
The advantage for Montana in Kansas City was the support of a really good defense led by Derrick Thomas and a custom-built West Coast offense designed for him with the help of former Pitt head coach and 49ers assistant Paul Hackett under smash-mouth convert head coach Marty Schottenheimer.
Joe Montana departed San Francisco amid a QB controversy with Steve Young and had a very good 2-season run in Kansas City but fell just short of his 5th Super Bowl.
Montana’s 1993 season ended up just short of the Super Bowl with two playoff wins before a painful 30-13 defeat in the AFC championship in freezing Buffalo in which he suffered a concussion and was knocked out of the game.
Montana played one more season in 1994 and again the Chiefs made the playoffs. But this time, KC and Montana were eliminated in the wild card round. He retired the following spring.
Brett Favre, Jets (2008); Vikings (2009-10)
Notice a trend? The more recent the example, the more successful the old superstar’s move. After an abortive late season in New York in 2008 in which Favre’s right shoulder had a torn tendon, the former Packer moved to Minnesota and actually had a great shot at not only reaching but probably winning the Super Bowl in 2009 with the Vikings.
Brett Favre looked strange playing in the purple of his longtime intra-division enemy, but came within inches of a Super Bowl in 2009.
Favre made the Pro Bowl and led them to what should have been a win over the Saints in the NFC championship game. It became an overtime loss because of one of those impetuous cardinal-sin throws Favre so often converted, but this time ended in a crushing pick. Would the Vikings have beaten the Colts in the post-’09 Super Bowl? Many believe they would have.
Favre’s last year in 2010 ended with a concussion against the Bears and he finally decided to get out. But his late career absolutely provided fireworks.
Peyton Manning, Broncos (2012-15)
This is the ultimate example of a diminished old rifleman finding an ideal situation and coaxing a final burst of glory. Manning not only found adequate protection from the Denver offensive line but was supported by one of the elite defenses in the NFL led by Von Miller.
After spinal-fusion surgery on his neck, Peyton Manning risked 3 more years, and his first in Denver was MVP-worthy. But he emerged with a final Super Bowl ring only because the Broncos’ defense was so good.
After 13 seasons with the Colts including a Super Bowl title, Manning was sidelined by a neck injury and had spinal fusion surgery to extend his career. And he came back with a flourish – an unexpected MVP season in 2013 ruined by a dreadful Super Bowl loss to the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense.
By the time Manning finally found the combination to winning his 2nd Super Bowl at the end of 2015, he was a shell of his former self and fully credited that nasty Denver defense for carrying him to the Lombardi Trophy.
So, what of Brady?
It seems to be down to the Chargers and Buccaneers, with Tampa holding the inside track according to ESPN and some reports calling it a done deal. What’s the best situation for an old professor, arguably the best ever at dissecting a defense, but with skills inexorably being chipped away by age? Best to start with where not to go.
The Chargers’ offensive line was not very good a year ago. That’s why Philip Rivers is out of LA and into Indy to replace retired Andrew Luck. He was beat up a year ago beyond what his 34 sacks would indicate and Los Angeles’ 5-11 record was evidence. How much that protection can be remedied quickly is debatable. Further, you have the defending Super Bowl champions (Chiefs) and two other competitive teams, one with a tough defense (Broncos) in the AFC West.
The Bucs’ situation just looks more inviting. They can offer longtime QB guru Bruce Arians as an old master Brady can respect. Maybe more important, they deploy weaponry Brady has consistently lacked in Boston. In wideouts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and tight end O.J. Howard, Tampa has an array tough to match anywhere in the NFL. Can you imagine defenses trying to blitz Brady with those young studs at his disposal?
Were it not for the knuckleheaded direction and scattershot throws of Jameis Winston (30 interceptions that could easily have been 40), the Bucs could easily have made the playoffs last year even with their erratic defense. It did improve late.
Moreover, the NFC South appears there for the taking. Though the Saints are still formidable, Drew Brees looks to be on fumes, the Falcons are inert, and the Panthers seem on the verge of a total rebuild under a proactive new owner. And finally, lots and lots of temperate weather with 11 guaranteed games in Tampa, Charlotte, Atlanta and New Orleans (the last two domes). In 2020, a game in Las Vegas is thrown in. Only dates at the Lions, Giants, Broncos and Bears could possibly be as cold as New England. That’s a climate an old man can love.
Can a 43-year-old possibly drive a team to the championship? Hey, George Blanda had one amazing 5-game streak at the end of the 1970 season in relief of injured Daryle Lamonica, nearly getting the Raiders to the Super Bowl before the Colts picked him off twice in the 4th quarter of the first AFC championship game.
That was a half-century ago in the age of wafer-thin helmets as well as legal QB abuse and muggings of receivers. Brady has some advantages over Blanda. If he finds the right situation for him.
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