It’s not as though it’s a new phenomenon for quarterbacks to finish their careers with a franchise other than the one where they became great. The “Johnny Unitas was on the Chargers” and “Joe Montana was on the Chiefs” statements are well trod talk-itory. But maybe it wasn’t until very recently, when late-career quarterbacks turned out to not be as “late-career” as many had expected, that the conversation turned from a mediocre team giving a worn out veteran one last hurrah to it being the player who appeared to be in control of his destiny.
I feel as though it has become so natural at this point to accept the fact that Brady is on the Bucs — a transition that might have been easier to settle into last year given that we were all adjusting to a much more important new reality — that it is worth repeating and emphasizing:
Tom Brady, 43, was shown the door by a franchise with which he had won an unprecedented six championships, signed with a team that hadn’t been to the postseason since 2007, recruited a couple of the best players of the previous decade, was supported by his head coach throughout the year to do it his way, helped them score a Tampa Bay-record 492 points, defeated Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs, and the Bucs had their most complete team in franchise history.
As skeptical as I am that Brady would allow himself to be seen drunk — or at least, to tweet drunk given the likelihood that nothing from him fails to pass through a social media team first — it’s understandable that he may have gotten “boat trashed” despite having been in this position six times before.
Because no quarterback has ever quite won a championship in the way that Brady just did. And now it seems as though every quarterback wants to win a championship like Brady just did.
Perhaps the pot started to boil over with Brett Favre.
Favre won his first and only Super Bowl in 1996, when he was 27. He reached the Super Bowl again in ‘97, but Favre went just 2-5 in the playoffs between 1998 and 2006. It was at the end of that ‘06 season, when Favre was 37, that retirement talk really started to become a reality. Further complicating the matter for the Packers was Aaron Rodgers, who had now spent two seasons behind Favre, unsure of when he would finally leave — like a party host who looks at the clock and realizes that the one guest is still here at 2:06 AM and you’ve been done having a good time for over three hours.
But Favre did return to Green Bay in 2007 and at 38 years old, he led the Packers to a 13-3 record and made the Pro Bowl. This is typically filed under “Good News” but Favre was beyond the expected age limit for a QB at the time and Rodgers was burning a hole in Green Bay’s pocket so everyone, including fans, seemed to be okay with Favre retiring after an NFC Championship loss in overtime to the New York Giants.
Imagine that today. It would be like if Rodgers hinted at a retirement tomorrow, coming off of the heels of an MVP season and his own NFC title game loss. Instead, Rodgers is involved in trade rumors, and not as a veteran than Green Bay is looking to pawn off for spare parts just so they can take a look at Jordan Love.
There’s an expectation now that Rodgers could play at least another five years.
Montana retired after his age-38 season and hadn’t been elite since his age-34 season.
Dan Fouts retired after his age-36 season and began to fall off by his age-35 season.
These are just a couple of examples (and I’m intentionally leaving out players like Steve Young, whose careers were cut short for injury reasons) but these players had long careers. What’s fascinating about Brady is that while it does seem to be true that quarterbacks have managed to extend their career average, he’s still far outpacing his peers.
Drew Brees, 41, played well last season. But there’s been a clear decline in abilities since his age-39 season and injuries caused him to miss nine games in the last two years.
Peyton Manning went from being an MVP winner at 37 to getting benched for Brock Osweiler at 39.
Philip Rivers is 39 and his retirement seems to be right on time. Ben Roethlisberger was 38 last season. Is he as self-aware as Rivers?
Eli Manning entered the NFL four years after Brady, had a 16-season career, beat Brady in the Super Bowl twice (by the way, have you ever considered that if Eli had won a Super Bowl in 2012 or 2013, he would have at one point been tied with Brady in rings with two head-to-head victories?) and retired at least two years before Brady will. Manning stepped down at 38.
So there does seem to be some consensus around the league now that because Tom Brady has won three Super Bowls since turning 39, that now any great quarterback could be viable in his 40s. But we actually don’t know yet if that’s true, because even his contemporaries are fading away as he continues to collect rings and pitch the Lombardi.
Yet quarterbacks will want to emulate what Brady just did and teams will want to emulate what the Bucs just did equally and that’s where we could see dramatic shifts in the mentality of stars and the relationships they have with their teams.
Such as Matthew Stafford just casually having a conversation with his front office that he no longer wants to play for them and the Lions just being like, “Yeah, makes sense.”
The fact that Stafford’s divorce from Detroit after 12 years seemed so normalized — just like how we might kind of be forgetting how ridiculous it is that Tom Brady just won a Super Bowl with the Bucs — is also what the future could look like for quarterbacks and teams, despite what their contracts say. But there is nothing normal about a 33-year-old franchise quarterback getting traded when he remains the team’s best player and he presumably has several years left of viability.
Not that it doesn’t make sense as to why the Lions traded Stafford, it’s just that these conversations never used to happen. There haven’t been many players with 45,000 career passing yards who got traded without some other extenuating circumstances.
Drew Bledsoe got traded at 30 because Brady happened (a move that was two decades ago and yet “that guy” just won another Super Bowl); Carson Palmer got traded at 32 because he was sick of losing, similar to Stafford. But they didn’t have a conversation. The Bengals turned him down and he retired, only returning after he was traded to the Raiders; Brett Favre got traded at 39 because after a semi-retirement, he was actually not finished but the team was.
The Packers wanted to get Favre far away from the NFC North, so they traded him to the Jets. Of course, it took all of one season before he was back in the NFC North.
Having gotten to choose his destination this time, Favre picked a Vikings team that had gone 10-6 the year before, had an all-pro 23-year-old Adrian Peterson, an up-and-coming receiver in Sidney Rice, one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, a talented defense, and a coaching staff that he liked, including offensive coaches Darrell Bevell, Eric Bieniemy, and Kevin Stefanski.
Minnesota seemed to be “a quarterback away” and sure enough they went 12-4 with a near-upset win over the Saints in New Orleans in the NFC Championship game. Favre had the most efficient season of his career at the age of 40.
I wonder if Brady took notice. Peyton Manning certainly could have.
Manning’s exit from the Colts in 2012 was, like Bledsoe with the Patriots or Drew Brees with the Chargers, circumstantial. Had he not missed the 2011 campaign and left the Colts holding the number one pick in the Andrew Luck draft, Manning probably plays for Indianapolis in 2012 and beyond.
Instead, he took free agency as an opportunity to pick the best team for his talents. The one that could get him to the Super Bowl in the shortest amount of time. The Broncos were clearly building something special on defense, they were high on Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Ryan Clady was an all-pro left tackle, and Denver looked assured to win the AFC West. The Broncos even brought in Peyton’s buddy Jacob Tamme to play tight end.
“Wait, I can bring my friends too?”
Of course, the Broncos broke offensive records in 2013, Manning won MVP, they made the Super Bowl in his second campaign there, and while he was by far the worst thing about them in 2015, a champion in his final run.
And still, good quarterbacks — what few of them there actually are — continued to stick it out with their all-time teams.
Eli Manning rolled with the Giants for six losing records over his final seven seasons. To his credit, he knew that New York only needed to go 8-8 to have a shot at the Super Bowl. And he was to blame for a lot of it. But Manning never asked for a better situation before it was too late.
If Aaron Rodgers has had good reason to be frustrated with the Packers for years, would he regret having not asked for a trade when he was 32?
Philip Rivers ... forget it. What do I need to say about Philip Rivers? This whole section could just say: “Philip Rivers.”
Then an interesting thing happened in 2019, even if it wasn’t a case of a quarterback choosing his destination. It was just a matter of him lucking into a perfect one. The Dolphins traded Ryan Tannehill to the Titans so that he could be Marcus Mariota’s backup, but only by way of a Mariota injury did they realize that Tannehill had simply been stuck on a sunk ship.
Gifted an elite offensive line, an elite running back, and a wide receiver who is certainly coming into that elite territory, Tannehill played really well and got paid really well.
“If Ryan Tannehill can go from a backup to a $118 million contract in less than a year because he went to a better team, then what am I leaving on the table?”
Highest rate of positively graded throws this season:— PFF (@PFF) February 5, 2021
1. Ryan Tannehill - 31%
2. Tom Brady - 29%
3. Deshaun Watson - 28%
4. Baker Mayfield - 27% pic.twitter.com/o1F9FXvkMU
I wonder if Brady took notice. Rivers seemed to. I think so did Deshaun Watson.
Last offseason, Rivers made that same mutual goodbye that Stafford recently did, but at age 39. He was able to go from a no-win situation with the Chargers to a very nice setup with the Colts. It did help him get into the playoffs. Brady went to Tampa Bay. And Cam Newton also had an easy separation from the Panthers, though that divorce was impacted by the circumstances of Newton’s injury concerns. But Newton was able to choose a better situation for himself in New England, even if it didn’t have the individual results he was hoping for.
Now it seems like every quarterback is asking himself, “Can I do better than this?”
When The Last Dance became a popular topic of conversation early on during the pandemic, I thought to myself, “Man, if I was a great athlete — like the top 2% of my sport — this would really piss me off.” I’m not just talking about the average professional athlete, I’m sure that the Michael Jordan documentary motived many people in different ways, I’m talking about the greats.
The greats who don’t have six championships. Maybe they only have one or two. Or none. What impact would The Last Dance have on Aaron Rodgers, Steph Curry, Mike Trout, Drew Brees, Aaron Donald, LeBron James, or even Tiger Woods? “I see Michael giving it that much effort. Am I doing enough?”
Do I start preparing a busier offseason workout schedule immediately? Do I get in touch with my teammates more often? Do I become harder on people? On myself? Do I study more often? How can I reach that next level of my career?
Now imagine doing all of that and then the quarterback who ends up winning the Super Bowl is Tom goddamn Brady.
Tom Brady: *wins 7th Super Bowl*— Philip Lyons (@plyons10_) February 8, 2021
Michael Jordan: pic.twitter.com/ouxLjy33DY
What if the person most motivated to out-do Jordan was the one guy who could out-do Jordan?
Stafford: We’re done here.
Watson: I’m done here.
Wilson: I’m getting sacked too much here.
Wentz: I’m not respected here.
Rodgers: Do I belong here?
Goff: I’m outta here!
Darnold: Should I stand here?
Ryan Fitzpatrick: Will somebody look over here?!
At first, I thought all this “quarterback carousel of chaos!!!” stuff was nonsense, but I underestimated just how much the landscape has changed over the last 12 months. It’s clear that since Brady got out of New England at the exact right time and won a Super Bowl, the evolution of how quarterbacks see themselves has advanced faster than I expected.
It’s obvious that Deshaun Watson’s situation is not just rumors. Battle Red Blog speculated that he may have been planning this since the moment he signed his contract extension last September. Watson views the Texans as losers and he wants to go to a winner. He wants the Brady treatment before he even turns 26.
There seems to be virtually no traction behind Aaron Rodgers trade rumors, but it was obvious on The Pat McAfee Show this season that the MVP won’t be subtle in his frustrations. Perhaps the only reason that Rodgers isn’t making it worse is that Green Bay probably is his best situation already.
Pat McAfee: I'm so thankful Patrick Mahomes brought the no-look pass to the NFL.— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) November 24, 2020
Aaron Rodgers: Yeah I know. Since none of us have been doing it for a long time.
Rodgers then goes on and praises Matthew Stafford and says he doesn't get enough credit. pic.twitter.com/bXOyS354s7
Russell Wilson, for the first time ever, appears to be talking to the media with some semblance of being a person instead of a positive message sounding board. Of course, it is still very orchestrated, but instead of selling a cheap product on Instagram, Wilson is selling himself as being the lead voice of what the Seahawks should do to get back to the Super Bowl.
And I can’t be sure, but it is possible that every single rumor you’ve heard about the Eagles and Carson Wentz has been leaked by the Eagles. That entire news cycle might have come out of Howie Roseman’s burner phone.
A lot of great players spent time with unexpected organizations. But not many quarterbacks have won Super Bowls with two different teams — Manning and Brady are the only two. And that now accounts for two of the last six. And Brady, who got to leave behind New England’s mess for a situation that had a strong defense, up-and-coming offensive line, multiple offensive weapons, and a coach who let him lead, has now won the Super Bowl in four of the last seven years.
How many more quarterbacks will be forcing their way out in 2022 if Brady or Stafford or a relocated-Watson win the Super Bowl next season?
It seems that as the salaries for quarterbacks has risen, so too has their desire for power. That might not be what every organization thought they were paying for.