After losing the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history in free agency, the Patriots have a need at the position for the first time in 27 years. Their Tom Brady plan ended the Drew Bledsoe era and keyed one of the most successful stretches in sports history. Brady’s defection to the Buccaneers creates a sobering fallout: journeyman Brian Hoyer and 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham battling to succeed him.
History offers a few directions the Patriots could go to replace Brady. Other franchises’ plans for replacing legendary quarterbacks involved several types of transactions, producing wildly disparate results. Here are some of the most notable succession strategies teams have used to replace Hall of Famers, ranked in order of effectiveness.
Packers: Favre to Rodgers
Thirteen years after pilfering Brett Favre from the Falcons, the Packers set up an old-school developmental program. First-year GM Ted Thompson drafted Aaron Rodgers at No. 24 overall in 2005 and managed to groom a historically talented passer for three seasons. Since 2006, 36 of the 38 quarterbacks taken in Round 1 started at least a game as rookies. Thirty-five of those started multiple games. Rodgers waited until his fourth season to earn a start, but he validated the Packers’ plan and has kept them an NFC frontrunner for most of his starter run.
The two-time MVP has elevated the Packers to nine playoff brackets in 12 years and booked eight Pro Bowl invites. Rodgers missed the 2010 Pro Bowl but delivered rarely seen quarterback aesthetics in those playoffs to give the Packers their fourth Super Bowl title. If anything, the Packers have underserved Rodgers, who for years operated as the centerpiece of a franchise that refused to make essential free-agency additions. Free-agency stinginess is no longer an issue for the Packers. Their passing-efficiency artist is signed into the mid-2020s and poised to give Green Bay an unprecedented 30-plus-year stretch of Hall of Fame quarterback employment.
49ers: Montana to Young
The Patriots surpassed the 49ers’ streak of 10-win seasons, running theirs to 17 last season. But the 49ers’ 16 straight slates with double-digit victories featured two quarterbacks and three head coaches. Bill Walsh made it possible by sending second- and fourth-round picks to the Buccaneers in 1987 for Steve Young, the deal happening despite the Cardinals offering a first-rounder for the dual-threat southpaw. The 49ers groomed Young and used him as a starter 10 times during Joe Montana’s starter tenure. But when Leonard Marshall KO’d Montana in the 1990 NFC Championship Game, the Young deal proved vital to creating one of the longest championship windows in sports history.
Young started eight-plus seasons –- under George Seifert and Steve Mariucci -– and finished as a three-time first-team All-Pro. Since the 1970 merger, only Peyton Manning (seven) has more such honors. Young won two MVPs, quarterbacked the 49ers to four NFC title games and threw a Super Bowl-record six touchdown passes in the 49ers’ 49-26 rout of the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. The former USFL gunslinger and Bucs No. 1 overall pick made the 49ers a near-two-decade superpower.
Colts: Unitas to Bert Jones
Unitas played 18 NFL seasons but was no longer reliable by the early 1970s. Days after trading the soon-to-be 40-year-old icon to the Chargers, Colts GM Joe Thomas somehow convinced the Saints to give up 1973’s No. 2 overall pick for defensive lineman Billy Newsome and a fourth-round choice. A day later, the Oilers passed on LSU super-prospect Bert Jones, and the Colts landed their quarterback of the future.
Jones stayed healthy from 1975-77, and the Colts opened another contention window (albeit at a bad time in an AFC dominated by the Steelers/Raiders). The talented but injury-prone passer led the Colts to a 31-11 record from 1975-77, claiming MVP honors in 1976. The Colts, though, faced the Steelers twice and Raiders once in mid-’70s playoff brackets and went 0-3 in those postseasons. Jones battled injuries in the following years and was traded to the Rams in 1982.
49ers: Young to Garcia
Aeneas Williams’ concussive hit on Young made the 49ers’ Jeff Garcia signing critical. A five-year CFL standout, Garcia signed with the 49ers in 1999. Williams’ hit, like Marshall’s eight-plus years prior, altered San Francisco’s plans. Although Garcia did not deliver on Young’s level, the elusive San Jose State alum made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three full seasons as a starter. The first three of Terrell Owens’ five first-team All-Pro appearances came with Garcia, and the 49ers ventured back to the playoffs in 2001 and ’02 –- seasons featuring 63 TD passes by the undersized QB.
The 49ers gave Garcia a lucrative extension in 2003 but cut him a year later. He piloted the franchise to 10-win seasons in 2001 and ’02. From Montana’s 1981 breakout through Garcia’s fourth season in 2002, the forward-thinking 49ers compiled 19 10-win seasons.
Chiefs: Montana to Bono
After their 1983 Todd Blackledge pick failed, the Chiefs spent 25-plus years signing or trading for veteran quarterbacks. Early in this decades-long strategy, a trend emerged. The Chiefs ended up acquiring four different 49er backups to be their starter between 1993-2013. Kansas City laid the groundwork for its post-Joe Montana plan in 1994, sending San Francisco a fourth-round pick for Steve Bono. Montana’s one-time third-stringer in San Francisco became his QB2 in Kansas City, in what turned out to be the Hall of Famer’s final season. Instead of looking toward the draft or going outside the organization to replace Montana, Chiefs GM Carl Peterson simply gave Bono the reins.
A 10-year backup entering 1995, Bono started 16 games that season and made the only Pro Bowl of his 15-year career. The defense-powered Chiefs earned home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Bono threw three interceptions in an upset loss to the Colts and struggled to fend off Rich Gannon in 1996. The Chiefs signed 49ers backup Elvis Grbac in 1997 before cooling on 49er passers until a 2013 trade for Alex Smith.
Dolphins: Marino to Fiedler
Ryan Tannehill is the only Dolphins quarterback since Dan Marino to start for more than five seasons, but the team’s best post-Marino period came with Jay Fiedler. Transitioning from Jimmy Johnson to Dave Wannstedt in 2000, the Dolphins made the interesting decision to sign Fielder before Marino announced his retirement. The 38-year-old legend had voided his contract to become a free agent, and Wannstedt began his Dolphins tenure by signing an ex-Jaguars backup who had made one career start in six NFL seasons.
Fiedler reminded no one of Marino, but on a three-year, $3.8 million deal the Dartmouth alum helped the Dolphins to playoff berths in 2000 and ’01. Fiedler threw seven INTs in his three Dolphins postseason starts, but the team gave him a five-year, $25M extension in 2002. Fiedler went 14-7 as Miami’s starter from 2002-03 but was benched in 2004. The Dolphins have not made consecutive playoff berths since Fiedler’s first two seasons at the controls.
Steelers: Bradshaw to Woodley/Malone
Miami turned to an eighth-round pick to replace Bob Griese in 1981, giving David Woodley the keys to a talented team. Woodley started in Super Bowl XVII the following season. The Dolphins, however, sought an upgrade and benefited from several quarterback-needy teams’ mistakes in the 1983 draft. They landed Marino at No. 27 overall. The Steelers passed on the Pittsburgh native and ex-Pitt Panthers standout at No. 21 and saw their long-term QB need become immediate when Terry Bradshaw's elbow injury in 1983 ended his career. After longtime Bradshaw backup Cliff Stoudt defected to the USFL in 1984, the Steelers traded for the player Marino supplanted.
Woodley won the Steelers’ ’84 starting job, beating out 1980 first-round pick Mark Malone. The Steelers ventured to the AFC Championship Game to face Marino that season, but Malone had become the starter by then. Malone and Woodley split time in 1985 as well. While the Dolphins employed Marino until the end of the century, it took the Steelers until Neil O’Donnell in 1991 to re-establish quarterback stability.
Cowboys: Aikman to Carter
Down their 2001 first-round pick because of an ill-fated trade for wide receiver Joey Galloway, the Cowboys used their first draft pick that year on Troy Aikman’s immediate successor. At No. 53 overall, Quincy Carter was the third quarterback chosen in 2001 –- behind Michael Vick (No. 1) and Drew Brees (No. 32) -– and the Cowboys tabbed him to succeed Aikman.
Not a statistically dominant passer at Georgia, Carter topped out at 17 touchdown passes in a season. He threw for six touchdowns and 10 interceptions his junior season in 2000. Leaving before his senior year, Carter made 15 Cowboys starts between 2001-02 -- a mostly uneven stretch following Aikman's exit. Despite being benched for Chad Hutchinson during Dave Campo’s second and final season as head coach, Carter started 16 games for Bill Parcells’ 2003 Cowboy team. The Cowboys made the playoffs that season, but they cut Carter the following summer, turning to 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde. A drug problem ended Carter’s Cowboys career after three seasons and his NFL career after four.
Broncos: Manning to Siemian
Only two quarterbacks have retired after winning the Super Bowl; they played for the same franchise. Seventeen years after John Elway’s walk-off win, Peyton Manning followed suit to create a familiar bind for the Broncos. They responded by trading for Mark Sanchez and using a 2016 first-round pick on Paxton Lynch. However, Denver decided to go with 2015 seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian -– the third-stringer on the Broncos’ Super Bowl champion team -– as its Manning successor.
An unremarkable starter at Northwestern who was considering a real estate career, Siemian played well given his strange backstory. The Broncos started 4-0 in 2016, finished 9-7, and Siemian ended the season with 18 TD passes and 10 interceptions. However, their plan unraveled a year later. Lynch did not come especially close to unseating Siemian in 2017, and the latter performed worse that season. This triggered multiple Broncos swings at veteran QB competency -- Case Keenum in 2018 and Joe Flacco last year.
Packers: Starr to Hunter
Bart Starr started 157 games over the course of 16 seasons with the Packers, residing at the center of the football universe during Vince Lombardi’s nine-season stay. The five-time NFL champion quarterback retired in 1972, and the Packers selected Green Bay native and Nebraska standout Jerry Tagge 11th overall that year. Holdover Scott Hunter, a sixth-round 1971 pick, won the subsequent QB competition and guided a run-oriented Packer team to a 10-4 record -- the franchise’s last non-strike-season playoff berth until Brett Favre’s arrival.
Hunter, however, was gone by 1974, and Tagge could not justify the investment. He finished his Packer career with three TD passes and 17 INTs. Coach-GM Dan Devine orchestrated a midseason trade for John Hadl in 1974, sending the Rams a stunning haul (two first-rounders, two seconds and a third) for the 34-year-old All-Pro. Hadl played only 22 games with the Packers.