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Time for them to fly ... or work it out?

By Steve Makinen  () 

It has been over 40 years since REO Speedwagon released its iconic hit “Time for Me to Fly.” I heard the song last week, and it got me thinking about Tom Brady leaving the Patriots for Tampa Bay. Then it got me thinking of Philip Rivers departing Los Angeles for Indianapolis. And then Brett Favre had to spout his thoughts of Aaron Rodgers eventually leaving my beloved Packers. 

After I stepped away from the emotional ledge, it led me to dig into some data about quarterbacks who have left their primary franchises after elite runs of a decade or more. I hoped to discover whether these MVP-caliber players did in fact fly once they left. For the most part, the answer is no, with the exception of Peyton Manning. But they weren’t exactly grounded either. Let’s look at the varying levels of success these quarterbacks achieved after leaving the franchises that made them famous, and then let’s predict what the future might hold for Brady, Rivers and Rodgers for 2020 and beyond. 

The song talks of a worn-out relationship, someone having had enough and finally deciding it was time to set himself free. Of course, we all know it hurts to say goodbye, but the reality is that it isn’t always time to fly. Some of these quarterbacks should have worked it out — or better yet, said goodbye, as in retire. 

Peyton Manning

Primary franchise: Indianapolis ’98-10

Regular-season record (playoffs): 141-67 (9-10)

Key stats: TD: 399, INT: 198, QBR: 94.9, YPA: 7.6

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 12-4, 14-2, 10-6 (2-3, LSB)

Rest of career: Denver ’12-15

Regular-season record (playoffs): 44-11 (5-3, WSB, LSB), 35-24-4 ATS (59.3%)

Key stats: TD: 140, INT: 53, QBR: 101.7, YPA: 7.9

In hindsight: Time to fly

Analysis: Manning has been the biggest success story among elite quarterbacks ending their careers with other franchises. Not only did he appear in two Super Bowls with the Broncos, winning one, he posted the best statistical season of his career in 2013, when he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 TDs. He was a four-year godsend for bettors, too, winning over 59% of his Broncos starts against the spread.

Donovan McNabb

Primary franchise: Philadelphia ’99-09

Regular-season record (playoffs): 92-49 (9-7)

Key stats: TD: 216, INT: 100, QBR: 86.5, YPA: 6.9

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 8-6, 9-6-1, 10-4 (2-2)

Rest of career: Washington ’10, Minnesota ’11

Regular-season record (playoffs): 6-13 (0-0), 7-8-4 ATS (46.7%)

Key stats: TD: 18, INT: 17, QBR: 78.5, YPA: 7.1

In hindsight: Work it out

Analysis: McNabb’s Eagles fell just a game short of a second Super Bowl berth in his final season in Philadelphia. Furthermore, his record as a starter improved in each of his last four seasons with the franchise. The Eagles plummeted thereafter, bottoming out at 4-12 in 2012. McNabb, meanwhile, won just six of 19 starts with Washington and Minnesota the next two seasons and then was out of football. This seems like a situation that would have been better had both sides worked it out after the ’09 campaign.

Brett Favre

Primary franchise: Green Bay ’92-07

Regular-season record (playoffs): 160-93 (12-10)

Key stats: TD: 442, INT: 286, QBR: 85.8, YPA: 7

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 4-12, 8-8, 13-3 (1-1)

Rest of career: N.Y. Jets ’08, Minnesota ’09-10

Regular-season record (playoffs): 26-19 (1-1), 22-24-1 ATS (47.8%)

Key stats: TD: 66, INT: 48, QBR: 88.1, YPA: 7.2

In hindsight: Time to fly

Analysis: Favre’s final season in Green Bay was one of his finest, as the team went 13-3 and advanced to the NFC title game. However, his final pass was an interception that cost his team a shot at the Super Bowl. The same thing happened on his final pass of a magical 2009 season in Minnesota. Of course, the Packers wound up fine in committing to Rodgers. Favre took us on a wild three-year ride after the Packers. For as divisive as the situation was at the time, this in hindsight was extremely entertaining and looks like a situation that played out the way it should have.

Steve McNair

Primary franchise: Tennessee ’95-05

Regular-season record (playoffs): 76-55 (5-4)

Key stats: TD: 156, INT: 103, QBR: 83.3, YPA: 7

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 10-4, 3-5, 4-10 (1-1)

Rest of career: Baltimore ’06-07

Regular-season record (playoffs): 15-7 (0-1), 10-13 ATS (43.5%)

Key stats: TD: 18, INT: 16, QBR: 79.9, YPA: 6.2

In hindsight: Say goodbye

Analysis: McNair’s first season after leaving Tennessee was somewhat successful, as the Ravens went 13-3. However, it could be argued that Baltimore’s success came despite McNair, as he threw for fewer than 200 yards per game and had a modest 16-12 TD-INT ratio as the team rode the legs of RB Jamal Lewis and its top-ranked defense. The Ravens were eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs as McNair threw two key interceptions. He lost all six of his 2007 starts against the spread. All of this, combined with a miserable final season with the Titans, suggests retirement should have been the card played.

Joe Montana

Primary franchise: San Francisco ’79-92

Regular-season record (playoffs): 100-39 (14-5)

Key stats: TD: 244, INT: 123, QBR: 93.5, YPA: 7.6

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 8-5, 11-2, 14-1 (7-1, 2 WSB)

Rest of career: Kansas City ’93-94

Regular-season record (playoffs): 15-8 (2-2), 14-13 ATS (51.8%)

Key stats: TD: 29, INT: 16, QBR: 85, YPA: 6.9

In hindsight: Say goodbye

Analysis: The Montana-to-Kansas City move was on a par with LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach in enormousness. Although we didn’t see Montana in 1991-92 when he was injured and replaced by Steve Young, his final two seasons as the starter in San Francisco produced a Super Bowl win and a 25-3 regular-season record. He was at the top of his game when he last played. He was decent in Kansas City and upgraded the position, but having been away for two years, he just wasn’t the same. This was another story that was highly entertaining, but this one shouldn’t have happened.

Warren Moon

Primary franchise: Houston ’84-93

Regular-season record (playoffs): 70-69 (3-6)

Key stats: TD: 196, INT: 166, QBR: 80.4, YPA: 7.4

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 11-5, 6-4, 10-4 (1-3)

Rest of career: Minnesota ’94-96, Seattle ’97-98, Kansas City ’99-00

Regular-season record (playoffs): 32-32 (0-1), 30-34-1 ATS (46.9%)

Key stats: TD: 95, INT: 67, QBR: 81.9, YPA: 6.9

In hindsight: Work it out

Analysis: While Moon’s best statistical season with the Oilers came four years before his departure, his seven-year career with other organizations was checkered and inconsistent. Although he wasn’t statistically superior in ’93, he did go 10-4 as the starter. Perhaps had the Oilers known he had seven years left, including a fantastic ’95 season in Minnesota, something could have been worked out. But it wasn’t, and Moon went just 32-32 without a single playoff win in his post-Houston career.

Joe Flacco

Primary franchise: Baltimore ’08-18

Regular-season record (playoffs): 96-67 (10-5)

Key stats: TD: 212, INT: 136, QBR: 84.1, YPA: 6.7

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 8-8, 9-7, 4-5 (0-0)

Rest of career: Denver ’19

Regular-season record (playoffs): 2-6 (0-0), 4-4 ATS (50%)

Key stats: TD: 6, INT: 5, QBR: 85.1, YPA: 7

In hindsight: Time to fly

Analysis: Admittedly, I’m a Flacco fan. I don’t think you can argue with his record as a starter, which includes a Super Bowl win and an MVP. But it is inarguable that the Ravens made the right decision to move on from him after the 2018 season. His replacement, Lamar Jackson, was the league’s MVP last season. Equaling or bettering Flacco’s postseason success will define him, however. Flacco had a somewhat ugly 2019 season in Denver as the fit just wasn’t there. I wouldn’t frown on another team giving him a shot to run the show.

Randall Cunningham

Primary franchise: Philadelphia ’85-95

Regular-season record (playoffs): 63-43-1 (1-4)

Key stats: TD: 150, INT: 105, QBR: 78.7, YPA: 6.8

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 4-0, 7-7, 1-3 (1-1)

Rest of career: Minnesota ’97-99, Dallas ’00, Baltimore ’01

Regular-season record (playoffs): 17-8 (2-2), 15-12-2 ATS (55.6%)

Key stats: TD: 57, INT: 29, QBR: 91.4, YPA: 7.7

In hindsight: Work it out

Analysis: Considering that the Eagles had five starting quarterbacks in the five years after Cunningham, you can surmise that this situation should have been worked out. Though he struggled with injuries after his “retirement season” of 1996, Cunningham enjoyed great success with Minnesota in ’98, going 13-1 in the games he started while leading the Vikings to the NFC title game. That team was widely considered the best in football that season, and he won his third MVP award.

Those are the stories behind eight of the best quarterbacks who left franchises after a decade or more of success. That leads us to the here and now — specifically, what does the future hold for Brady, Rivers and Rodgers? Take a look at their profiles and my thoughts on their situations.

Tom Brady

Primary franchise: New England ’00-19

Regular-season record (playoffs): 219-64 (29-10)

Key stats: TD: 541, INT: 179, QBR: 97, YPA: 7.5

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 13-3, 11-5, 12-4 (5-2)

Rest of career: Tampa Bay ’20-?

Assessment: Time to fly

Analysis: In addition to his massive regular-season success and six Super Bowl wins, Brady had a remarkable 189-128-7 ATS record with the Patriots. His situation trumps any other quarterback’s, so comparisons are futile. But considering that he thrives by picking apart defensive weaknesses and has inherited a cast of weapons comparable to or better than Manning, Favre and Cunningham enjoyed in their huge late-career seasons, there is no reason to think Brady can’t reach ultimate success with the Bucs. This looks like a situation in which the new team appreciates what the old one may have taken for granted.

Philip Rivers

Primary franchise: San Diego/L.A. Chargers ’04-19

Regular-season record (playoffs): 123-101 (5-6)

Key stats: TD: 397, INT: 128, QBR: 95.1, YPA: 7.8

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 9-7, 12-4, 5-11 (1-1)

Rest of career: Indianapolis ’20-?

Assessment: Say goodbye

Analysis: Rivers has probably made more out of his long career with the Chargers than any expert could have predicted. But postseason success has eluded him, as his teams have reached the conference championship game only once and never scored more than 28 points in a playoff game. I guess you can’t blame the Chargers for moving on, especially since Rivers comes off what was arguably the worst statistical season of his career with a 23-20 TD-INT ratio. His play was a key reason the talent-rich team was just 5-11. Can he be rejuvenated in Indianapolis? Can he make the Colts a better team than they were with Jacoby Brissett, who had a better QBR and a 18-6 TD-INT ratio last year? It doesn’t look like a great situation to me. In a couple of years, we might look back and say retirement was the best option.

Aaron Rodgers

Primary franchise: Green Bay ’05-19

Regular-season record (playoffs): 113-60 (10-8)

Key stats: TD: 364, INT: 84, QBR: 102.4, YPA: 7.7

Last 3 regular-season records (playoffs): 4-3, 6-9, 13-3 (1-1)

Rest of career: Still with Green Bay

Assessment: Work it out

Analysis: The Packers drafting QB Jordan Love with their first-round selection has fueled speculation that Rodgers’ days in Green Bay might be numbered. This comes even though the organization went 13-3 last year and was one win from the second Super Bowl of Rodgers’ career. Sounds like the Favre situation, doesn’t it? But this one feels a lot different. When the Packers moved on from Favre, Rodgers had spent three years in training for the position. Favre also had a recklessness of which coaches had grown wary. Rodgers comes off a season in which he threw 28 TDs against just four interceptions despite a group of weapons deemed substandard by most NFL personnel people. With an emerging running game and a defense that made huge strides in a single year, Rodgers seems like the perfect quarterback to man the ship in Green Bay. Work it out, sign another weapon or two and let this guy go after another ring.

 

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