A golden age of quarterbacks is slowly coming to an end. It started with Peyton Manning’s nosedive and subsequent retirement in 2016. Hall of Fame locks, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, are knocking on the door of 40. The New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers both invested mid-round draft picks on an heir apparent for Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger respectively. These four quarterbacks, all 35 and older, have combined for 10 Super Bowl victories. They sit in the top ten in both career passing yards and passing touchdowns. Even the departure of very good quarterbacks such as Arizona’s Carson Palmer and Los Angeles’ Phillip Rivers will pose problems for teams in the near future.
Replacing a Hall of Fame quarterback is a daunting, unenviable task. The shadow of past success weighs heavily on both the front office and the player’s successor. More often than not, the unfair expectations fall far short of reality. There have been 26 quarterbacks inducted into the Hall in the “Modern Era.” The replacement plans have ranged from Hindenburg-esque to dreamlike. Let’s take a look at the eight best and seven worst players to take the reins from a Hall of Fame QB.
15 Best: Brad Johnson (Warren Moon)
There is somewhat of a logjam at the eighth position for “Best” replacement quarterback, and it’s not necessarily because of talent. There are slim pickings. The honorable mentions that challenged for Brad Johnson’s spot are David Woodley and Brian Griese. Woodley served as Miami’s bridge between Bob Griese and Dan Marino at the beginning of the 1980s. He actually reached a Super Bowl, but he lasted only six years in the NFL. Woodley also started thirteen games for the Steelers in the two seasons after Terry Bradshaw’s retirement. Brian Griese was the unlucky man to take over in Denver following two consecutive Super Bowl victories. A serviceable quarterback, Griese made one Pro Bowl in five seasons as a Bronco. Brad Johnson joined the Vikings as a ninth und pick in 1992. He had it far easier than the other successful players. Warren Moon put up big numbers for Minnesota, amassing over 4,200 passing yards in both 1994 and 1995, but he was always a temporary solution for the Vikings. Moon wasn’t revered as he was with the Houston Oilers. It made the transition much easier when Johnson nudged him out of the starting job. Brad Johnson had two separate stints with Minnesota, made two Pro Bowls, and won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay.
14 Worst: Christian Ponder (Brett Favre)
Brett Favre joined the Minnesota Vikings an aging gunslinger in need of one last ride. He powered the Vikings to a NFC Championship birth, the closest the team had been to a Super Bowl since 2000. He predictably waffled back and forth before returning for a second season in purple. The encore performance did not go as planned. Favre went 5-8, snapped his Iron Man streak of 297 consecutive starts, and officially retired. Minnesota elected to replace Favre by reaching for Christian Ponder in the 2011 Draft and trading for Donovan McNabb. McNabb bombed. Ponder took over and started ten games in his rookie season, but he was never able to find solid footing in the league. He achieved career highs in passing yards and touchdowns in 2012, an unimpressive 2,935 yards and 18 touchdowns. Ponder eventually fell behind Matt Cassel on the depth chart and saw the Vikings draft his replacement, Teddy Bridgewater, in 2014. The former first rounder is currently a free agent after spending last season on San Francisco’s bench.
13 BEST: Jay Fiedler (Dan Marino)
It is not inaccurate to say that Miami has essentially been wandering in the desert since Marino’s departure. At the same time, Jay Fiedler doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for his time as a Dolphin. Fiedler never lit up the scoreboard, but the Dartmouth product did enough to let Miami’s vaunted defense take care of business. The Dolphins enjoyed three 10+ win seasons during Fielder’s tenure, reached two postseasons, and captured one AFC East title. Those years provided a glimmer of hope before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick placed the division in a nearly two-decade stranglehold. Fiedler retired with 11,844 passing yards, 69 touchdowns and 66 interceptions. Brad Johnson may have longevity and statistics over Fiedler, but he wasn’t under the same pressure. Dan Marino had been building an impenetrable legacy in Miami for 17 years.
12 WORST: Mark Malone (Terry Bradshaw)
Mark Malone was a dual threat when he went to the Pittsburgh Steelers 28th overall in 1980. The Steelers held Malone on the bench behind Bradshaw for several seasons. Even when the four-time Super Bowl champion missed almost all of the 1983 campaign with an elbow injury, Cliff Stoudt remained higher on the depth chart. After Bradshaw’s retirement the following year, Malone stepped in and went 6-3. He struggled with injuries, averaging a shade under 11 games per season as Pittsburgh’s starter. Malone only managed more touchdowns than interceptions once (1985). He did, however, reach an AFC Championship Game with the team. Malone was traded to San Diego in 1988 and went 2-6 during his effort to replace another Hall of Famer, Dan Fouts. The selection appears unfairly skewed by the warped perception of following a Hall of Famer, but USA TODAY’s “For The Win” named Malone the worst QB in Steelers franchise history due to durability issues and a lack of return on investment.
11 BEST: Jeff Garcia (Steve Young)
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart. The 49ers lucked out by stumbling upon Jeff Garcia. Steve Young was entering his 13th season when the 49ers set their sights on what they hoped was a third straight Hall of Fame quarterback, Jim Druckenmiller, with the 26th overall selection in the 1997 NFL Draft. It was a catastrophic failure. Druckenmiller started one game in two seasons and was traded to Miami before 1999. Steve Young only played three games that year due to concussions. Jeff Garcia, who San Francisco signed out of the CFL as a backup, started ten games. Young then retired, and Garcia held onto the starting spot. From 2000-03, Garcia made three Pro Bowls, achieved two 30+ TD seasons, never had more than 13 interceptions, and led the 49ers to two postseasons. He bounced around the league for several more years before retiring with 25,537 yards, 161 touchdowns, and 83 interceptions.
10 WORST: Todd Collins (Jim Kelly)
If the Dolphins have been wandering around in the desert during the post-Marino era, then the Buffalo Bills have given up and buried their head in the sand. Jim Kelly provided Buffalo with the team’s most consistent success in franchise history. With Kelly under center, the Bills made eight postseason appearances from 1986 to 1996. They had made four previous playoff trips since the AFL-NFL merger. Buffalo invested in Todd Collins with a second round pick in 1995. All signs pointed to him being Kelly’s successor. The plan came to fruition in 1997. Kelly retired. Collins started thirteen games with a 5-8 record. He threw for 2,367 yards and completed 55% of his passes with 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Buffalo missed the playoffs for just the second time since 1988. The team promptly parted ways with Collins. He spent the rest of his career as a backup. He was last seen doing his best to lose the 2010 NFC Championship Game in relief of Jay Cutler. Chicago replaced him with Caleb Hanie in the third quarter of an eventual loss to Green Bay.
9 BEST: Andrew Luck (Peyton Manning)
The Indianapolis Colts likely have no regrets after transitioning from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. Luck could potentially be even higher on this list, but recent struggles and an “incomplete” grade at this stage of his career relegates him to this position. The Colts faltered to a Manning-less 2-14 record in 2011 when Peyton’s neck imploded. A combination of Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins steered the ship right into an iceberg. Luckily, doing so provided Indianapolis the first pick in the 2012 Draft. Andrew Luck, a bulldozing quarterback with off-the-charts intellect, awaited them. Although Manning shortly rewrote NFL record books in Denver, the Colts set themselves up for the future. Luck started fast out of the gate with three consecutive 11-5 playoff seasons, including a 40-touchdown, 16-interception quarterbacking display in 2014. Still, Luck failed to make the postseason in his last two years. He suffered a lacerated kidney in 2015 and recently underwent shoulder surgery. Luck also tends to throw too many interceptions (12 through 7 games during 2015). If the Colts can build around him and he can guide the team back into the playoffs, Luck should continue to ascend the replacement ranks while building a legacy of his own.
8 WORST: Quincy Carter (Troy Aikman)
Troy Aikman endured a string of concussions later in his career and also suffered from back pain. He retired due to these injuries following the 2000 season. The Cowboys’ contingency plan involved picking Quincy Carter in the second round of the 2001 Draft. Carter started eight games during his rookie season. The other half of the schedule was split between Ryan Leaf (0-3), Anthony Wright (1-2), and Clint Stoerner (1-1). Carter finally became entrenched as Dallas’ starter in 2003. He went 10-6 and amassed 3,302 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. The Cowboys abruptly released Carter before the following season because he failed a third drug test. He faced a four-game suspension. Carter spent only one more year in the NFL. Although he burned out in big D, his failure cleared the way for undrafted free agent Tony Romo to make the roster.
7 BEST: Danny White (Roger Staubach)
Danny White took an interesting journey to replacing a Dallas icon. The Cowboys selected White in the 53rd overall in 1974. Instead of sitting behind Roger Staubach and Craig Morton, White spent two years in the World Football League. He joined the team in 1976 and served as their punter for four seasons. Upon Staubach’s retirement, White added quarterback to his duties, promptly leading the team to a 12-4 record in 1980. He reached three straight NFC Championship Games as the quarterback of America’s Team, but his failure to gain a Super Bowl birth led to criticism and scorn from a fan base used to winning. Apart from a temporary benching in 1984, White led the Cowboys for the majority of the 1980s. He lost the starting job in 1988 and retired after the team decline to pick up his option the following season. He sits fourth the Cowboys’ all-time passing yards list (21,959) and third in passing touchdowns (155). Tom Landry said of White, “No one could have done a better job in following Roger. Danny was a solid winner.”
6 WORST: Scott Hunter (Bart Starr)
Scott Hunter played 10 games as a rookie in 1971 when injuries limited Bart Starr to three games. Hunter flashed potential but ultimately ended the season with middling stats: seven touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Starr retired before the 1972 season. He stayed with the team as a quarterback advisor. This meant Hunter had to play with the added pressure of having the surefire Hall of Famer looking over his shoulder. He responded with a 10-4 record. It was the last time Green Bay won the division before the Brett Favre era. Despite the strong showing as a team, Hunter had little to do with it. A run-oriented offense and strong defensive output created the conditions for success. He lost his starting job early in 1973 and was traded to Buffalo that July. Hunter retired in 1979 after seven years in the NFL. He threw more touchdowns than interceptions during a season only once (five TDs, four INTs in 1976).
5 BEST: Jim Plunkett (Ken Stabler)
It was never supposed to be Jim Plunkett. The Oakland Raiders traded Ken Stabler, their future Hall of Fame quarterback, to the Houston Oilers for Dan Pastorini prior to the 1980 season. They also spent a first round pick on quarterback Marc Wilson. Plunkett, by now a 32-year-old forgotten man in the NFL, was staring at another year in Oakland with minimal playing time. Then, Pastorini fractured his leg during a week five game. Plunkett received the starting nod thanks to Wilson’s inexperience. He led the Raiders to a 9-2 record, good for a wildcard birth. Four games and eight total touchdowns later, Plunkett was a Super Bowl MVP. Plunkett subsequently lost his starting role to Wilson in 1981 and again during the 1983 season, but a Wilson injury allowed Plunkett to rise from the ashes a second time. He put together a 10-3 record in 1983 and won another Super Bowl. When all was said and done, Plunkett had 25,882 career passing yards, 164 touchdowns, and 198 interceptions. He also won more Super Bowl rings than his predecessor.
4 WORST: Cody Carlson/Bucky Richardson/Billy Joe Tolliver (Warren Moon)
The Houston Oilers eventually got their man in Steve McNair, but they had to struggled through the 2-14 1994 season first. The Oilers utilized a dismal, three-headed carousel of quarterbacks after trading Moon to Minnesota. Cody Carlson, Moon’s longtime backup, received the first shot. He posted a 1-4 record (the same as his TD-INT total) and only completed 44.7% of his passes before an injury ended his season. Bucky Richardson fared somewhat better with a 1-3 record, 51.9 completion percentage, and six touchdowns to six interceptions. Billy Joe Tolliver closed out the season by going 0-7. He completed just 50.4% of his attempts while throwing six touchdowns and seven picks. Carlson and Richardson never played another regular season down in the NFL. Tolliver had to rebuild his resume in the CFL and didn’t make an NFL team again until 1997. He retired as the most accomplished of the trio with 10,760 yards, 59 touchdowns and 64 interceptions in nine seasons.
3 BEST: Steve Young (Joe Montana)
The trade that netted the 49ers Steve Young proved to be one of the greatest quarterback acquisitions in NFL history. Bill Walsh felt Young’s talent was being wasted in Tampa Bay and acquired him to serve as Montana’s backup. Young displayed his ability to be the team’s starter someday, but San Francisco was still Montana territory. He finally received his shot after Montana suffered an elbow injury in the 1990 NFC Championship Game. Montana missed all of 1991. Young performed inconsistently, losing time to second string Steve Bono before returning with elevated play. There were rumblings that fans wanted to keep Montana and Bono in favor of Young heading into the 1992 season. Montana was ultimately unable to return for the beginning of the season. Young led the 49ers to a 14-2 record and captured his first of two MVPs. The door finally closed on Montana with a trade to Kansas City, ending one of the most talent-packed quarterback controversies in recent memory. Steve Young’s crowning moment came during the 1994 Super Bowl. After winning his second MVP, Young capped a stellar season with six touchdowns to obliterate the San Diego Chargers. He retired after the 1999 season with 33,124 passing yards, 232 touchdowns, and 107 interceptions.
2 WORST: Marty Domres (Johnny Unitas)
Marty Domres (#14) spent three years in San Diego before joining the 1972 Baltimore Colts as a backup quarterback. He soon learned how difficult a task it is to replace a living legend. The Colts benched Johnny Unitas, then considered the greatest quarterback in NFL history, in favor of Domres. He performed well enough. His numbers compared favorably to Unitas. Unitas had a 1-4 record, a 56.1 completion %, four touchdowns and six interceptions. Domres went 4-5 with a 51.8% for 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. When Unitas left to finish his career with Domres’ old team in 1973, things spiraled for the replacement. He completed less than 50% of his passes and tossed 13 picks in nine starts. Domres started six games in 1974. That year, he threw twelve interceptions without a single touchdown. He spent three more years in the NFL, including one with the Jets the year Namath retired (he went 0-2). He retired with 4,904 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 50 interceptions. Domres once recalled his experience replacing Unitas in a Sun Sentinel interview. He walked into Johnny’s restaurant after a game and a woman asked him if he was Marty Domres. When he confirmed, she told him, “You should be ashamed of yourself for what you’re doing to John.”
1 BEST: Aaron Rodgers (Brett Favre)
Packers fans have been spoiled since the early 1990s. Brett Favre seemed to set an impossible bar with his 508 career touchdown passes and 71,838 passing yards. He treated Lambeau to a wild roller coaster ride of overly aggressive, flame-throwing passes. Aaron Rodgers’ numbers may never surpass Favre’s, but the 2005 first round selection is every bit the quarterback and more. He employs the same improvisational style during broken or extended plays while multiplying ball security tenfold. Favre threw 336 career interceptions. Rodgers currently sits at 72. With his current interception rate as a starter, Rodgers would need to play 33 more seasons to match that number. Conversely, it would take him six and a half seasons throwing his current seasonal touchdown average (32.88) to eclipse Favre’s touchdown total. Looking past the what-ifs, Rodgers simply makes throws that the majority of current and past quarterbacks can’t physically match. Detractors can point to his lone Super Bowl ring or recent funk from mid-2015 to the mid-2016, but Rodgers is certainly the best of the replacements – and he stands among the best of the best.