Replacing a legend: How the Packers stack up « Ol' Bag of Donuts

Replacing a legend: How the Packers stack up

Each week, Chris and I burn through cell phone minutes like a couple of teenage girls after the Packers game in an effort to, as Chris likes to say, “recap this beeyatch.” It’s in those conversations, dear OBOD readers, that many of our best ideas are born. So, you’re welcome.

Anyway, this week, with a playoff spot in hand, we started kicking around this idea: Have the Packers replaced Brett Favre more effectively than any team has replaced a legendary quarterback in the last 20 years?

So I went to the stats, and while it’s too early to say that Aaron Rodgers — the first QB in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in his first two seasons and a Pro Bowl selection this year — represents the most seamless transition in recent NFL history from quarterbacking legend to successor, it certainly looks headed that way.

First, let’s look at the teams that have seen Hall of Fame quarterbacks retire in the last 15 years and who replaced them:

2001: Dallas Cowboys (Troy Aikman, Quincy Carter)

2000: Miami Dolphins (Dan Marino, Jay Fiedler)

2000: San Francisco 49ers (Steve Young, Jeff Garcia)

1999: Denver Broncos (John Elway, Brian Griese)

1997: Buffalo Bills (Jim Kelly, Todd Collins)

(Note: I thought about including the Kansas City Chiefs with Joe Montana in this, but it didn’t seem like an apropos comparison, since Montana was only there two years. For all you Joe Cool fans–and I’ve always said he’s the best QB in NFL history–let’s include him in the 49ers phase.)

Of the five teams I included, four (!) made a playoff appearance within two season of their quarterback retiring. All but the Cowboys did it. But there’s an important distinction between those teams and the Packers: None of them did it with a long-term solution at QB.

The Dolphins went the next two years after Marino retired with Jay Fiedler. But they still haven’t found a franchise QB since Marino. The Broncos had a couple decent years with Brian Griese and then with Jake Plummer. But now that they’ve traded Jay Cutler, they’re hoping Kyle Orton is the guy to finally give them a long run post-Elway. The Bills used Doug Flutie, and while the 49ers come the closest to a permanent replacement with the 5 1/2 seasons they got from Jeff Garcia, they still had to draft Alex Smith with the No. 1 pick in 2005 once Garcia got too old. (Alex Smith–how’d that work out? Seems to me there might have been some other guy that could’ve been better…local kid, I think. Boy, I’d hate to be the offensive coordinator who vouched for that pick.)

The Cowboys didn’t make the playoffs until 2003 post-Aikman, but they compare favorably to the other teams in one regard: They appear to have a young successor in Tony Romo who can produce for a long time. Romo still hasn’t won a playoff game, and I’ve always thought the team he plays for and his off-the-field exploits grant him more attention than his play should warrant. But is he one of the eight or 10 best QBs in the NFL right now? Absolutely.

So where does that leave Rodgers? He’s the only first-round draft pick of the bunch to catch on with the team that picked him, and in keeping the aggressive element of the Packers’ offense alive while throwing fewer interceptions than Favre ever did and leading all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards, he’s got a chance to make the offense more dangerous than it was under Favre. He’s thrown 515 passes this season and been picked off just seven times–an astounding interception rate of 1.4%, which leads the league. He seems to have better command of the offense’s timing than he did early this year, and he’s starting to make the tight throws that he seemed reluctant or unable to make before. But wins in the playoffs and success over the long haul are what counts, and in that sense, Rodgers still has plenty to prove.

Still, he’s unique in several senses: He’s the only first-round pick in recent history to successfully replace a legend, and he’s done it amidst a media crush that, even for QBs in his unenviable position, has been daunting. Having Brett Favre first try to come back and reclaim his spot, then force a trade and resurface with the Packers’ biggest division competitor isn’t something that any other replacement has even come close to facing. It’s been the biggest media circus in the NFL the last two years, and possibly one of the largest in NFL history. And the way Rodgers has handled it speaks to how coolly he’ll prepare for his first playoff appearance. You can argue he looked spooked in the first game against Favre this year, but that might have had more to do with Jared Allen continually able to read the washing instructions on Rodgers’ jersey. Most of the abstract or contrived stuff doesn’t faze Rodgers, and should he stay healthy, keep making smart decisions with the ball and maintain the impressive cast of weapons he currently has, Rodgers could be on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

Could he be better than Favre? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He’s already 26, and Favre’s greatness is largely burnished by his staggering ability to show up and produce every single week, even into his late 30s.

But Rodgers clearly has the game and the mettle to make us move on from Favre quicker than any other team has gotten past a legendary QB in recent history.

It doesn’t matter how many times Favre shows up with Greta Van Susteren.

Gene Bosling

4 comments to Replacing a legend: How the Packers stack up

  • There’s no question that replacing TOG could have meant 10 years or so of tryouts at this most important position. It also probably would have if Rodgers hadn’t had 3 yrs. to learn the NFL. (See Alex Smith) Since I believe the Lord is a Packer fan (He favors virtue) He made sure that Aaron would be available to us; I don’t credit TT because Rodgers’ pick was a gimme. It’s also a relief that Aaron has proven to be as bulletproof as his predicesser. Rodgers will be a great QB for at least 12 yrs.

  • David

    Unless my NFL history is incorrect, didn’t Steve Young replace Joe Montana? I would say that has to be at the top of this list.

  • admin

    David–He did, but I didn’t include Young simply because he practically split time with Montana in 1987 and 1988 and played all of 1991 and 1992 while Montana was hurt. It was more of a gradual transition, rather than the abrupt switch caused by retirement. If we’re including that transition in the list, though, you’re right. There’s absolutely no question it’s at the top of the list.

    –Gene Bosling

  • David

    That makes sense. I agree, it’s got to be Rodgers.

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