PHOENIX — Thirteen years ago, there were three teams vying for the top quarterbacks in the draft. Everyone seemed to realize that Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers would wind up with the Giants, Steelers and Chargers. It was just a matter of who would go where and when.
Those decisions provided the teams with more than a decade of stability, and likely few regrets about how it all worked out.
Now, though, the teams that found their franchise quarterbacks in 2004 are on the prowl again.
The Giants have made it clear that they are thinking about finding an eventual replacement for Manning this offseason. If you assume that current backup quarterbacks Josh Johnson and Geno Smith are not candidates for the job — although coach Ben McAdoo suggested that Smith indeed might be — that leaves only one more option when looking for the crown prince of the Giants.
And the Giants again are in competition with the Chargers and Steelers to find the right player at that all-important position.
“I think we do have to get a young quarterback on campus,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said at the NFL annual meeting in Arizona last month. “We need to start developing someone because we have two veteran quarterbacks [Rivers and former Jets draft pick Kellen Clemens] and both of them are long in the tooth. I think they have some good years left in them, don’t get me wrong, but you have to start thinking about down the line, too.”
The Steelers may be in a more precarious situation. Roethlisberger has yet to tell the team definitively if he will return in 2017. He hinted at retirement after last season.
“I am proceeding with that assumption [that he’ll be back],” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He and I have been in continual communication all offseason in the ways that we normally communicate. It’s been business as usual in that regard. I don’t know that there is a line in the dirt. I guess we’ll know when we come to it.”
As for getting a direct answer to the big question, well, Tomlin apparently doesn’t think it’s all that big.
“I haven’t asked,” he said of querying Roethlisberger on his intentions.
All of this adds an interesting dynamic to this year’s draft. There will be the usual assortment of teams looking to find a day-one starter, just as there always are. The Browns, 49ers and Texans are the obvious ones. Maybe even the Jets. But there also are teams that haven’t had to look at the quarterback market for many years — the Giants, Chargers and Steelers — that now will be studying this year’s draft class. And the timing couldn’t be better for that kind of strategy, especially for a group stacked at the top with mostly younger quarterbacks who might not be ready to step into a starting job in 2017.
“Who knows?” Lynn said. “They didn’t think Dak Prescott was ready and he stepped in and did a hell of a job last year. It’s how you coach them.”
Just as the Packers did in 2005, those teams might be looking for an Aaron Rodgers to sit and learn behind their Brett Favre before eventually making the switch.
“I don’t think it could have gone any better,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “You look at the production at the position from ‘07 to ’08 to ’09, the transition was really about as smooth as you can get.”
That’s the green-and-gold standard.
“I’d love for a young quarterback to get in here and learn from Philip,” Lynn said. “Philip is the ultimate pro in my opinion, so we have a good situation for a young quarterback who doesn’t have to come in and play right now but can sit and watch and learn.”
Of course, what the Packers gained in bridging from one franchise quarterback to another, they lost in some ugliness and bitterness that resulted from Favre’s departure. That might not be the way to go for every team.
“I don’t know that we’re looking at models or looking for models,” Tomlin said. “We do business how we do business, and it’s worked pretty well for us.”
McAdoo was a young assistant on the Packers when they had both Favre and Rodgers and lived through that transition.
“What I recall from it is there was a future Hall of Fame quarterback who was starting and there was a young player who was working, trying to get better and work on his fundamentals and learn the system and trying to find his way,” he said. “I don’t know that there were many feelings involved along the way. Everyone was just trying to do their job.”
Asked about any lessons he learned from that experience that could help with the Giants’ eventual quarterback transition, McAdoo said: “I haven’t thought about that one bit.”
He should start. Replacing a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback — whether it is this year or five years from now — does take some planning.
“You do it in the same ways that you replace other people, obviously with the understanding of how important the position is, but the process is the process,” Tomlin said. “You look at available talent via the draft or via free agency and you make decisions that are best for the organization moving forward from a talent standpoint and from a fit standpoint.”
No matter whether your quarterback is 36 or 26, that’s something all teams look at. Or should be.
“The one thing about the position is you don’t ever pass up a quarterback,” said McCarthy, whose team drafted Brett Hundley in 2015 just a few months after Rodgers was named NFL Most Valuable Player. “It’s the most important position in the game of football and I think you always need to try to develop it. If the timing is not right in terms of making that transition, obviously that player has value, and that’s healthy value for your football team.”
One need only look to New England and the teams clamoring to pry Jimmy Garoppolo away from the Patriots for a sense of that. The Giants tried that with Ryan Nassib, trading up to draft him in the fourth round in 2013 and then publicly hoping that he would never have to play for them. Mission accomplished!
But that’s not what the Giants, Chargers and Steelers will be doing in this next month leading up to the draft. Will any of them take a quarterback project in the first or second round? That’s hard to say. It depends, obviously, on who is available and what their projection is as a player.
“Aaron was too good of a player to be on the board that long,” McCarthy said of the Packers’ decision to take him with the 24th overall pick. “Ted [Thompson, the Packers’ general manager] wasn’t expecting him to be there, but they were obviously talking about it as the draft went on. It was a no-brainer when they picked him.”
Or maybe they can find a franchise quarterback in later rounds, just as the Cowboys did with Prescott and the Seahawks did with Russell Wilson.
Both of those players started as rookies. These teams might not be interested in that. Yet.
“Philip is the type of guy you’re going to eventually have to run off,” Lynn said of his quarterback. “I don’t think he’s ever going to retire. He’s the ultimate competitor. And that’s how you like them. Guys who start talking about wanting to play one or two more years, those aren’t the type of guys I want to coach. I want to coach the ones who want to play forever.”
In this league, though, no one ever does.