No matter what poor Aaron Rodgers does for the Green Bay Packers, it’s highly unlikely that he will ever be able to live up to the legacy of a certain quarterback who wore #4 and whose name has been mentioned way too much for my liking lately.
But while most of the media focus has been on the story of another aging star quarterback moving to a new team (invoking names like Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas in the process), what about those like Rodgers, who are left behind to deal with the aforementioned legacies? While some have managed to step out of the long shadows cast by their predecessors, most have not. Here’s a sampling:
Scott Hunter, Green Bay Packers – Selected by the Packers in the 6th round of the 1971 NFL draft, Alabama University’s Hunter had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Bart Starr, who retired that year. It was Starr, after all, who helped lead Vince Lombardi’s team to dominance in the ’60s, winning five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls. But age and Lombardi’s retirement in 1968 took their toll on the mighty Pack, and the team quickly descended into mediocrity despite Starr’s best efforts.
With Hunter under center, the 1972 Green Bay squad regained some of their past glory. They won 10 games and took their first divisional title since 1967, but lost 16-3 to the Redskins in the Divisional round of the playoffs. They never made it back the postseason for the rest of the decade.
After 1973 Hunter bounced to the Bills, Falcons, and finally the Lions, where he ended his career after the 1979 season. He finished with a career record of 21-18-3, and threw for just over 4,700 yards. The Packers, meanwhile, were never more than mediocre for a few decades before head coach Mike Holmgren and the quarterback-who-shall-not-be-named arrived in 1992.
Steve Young, San Francisco 49ers – You may have heard of this guy, as he did one or two good things in the NFL during his career. You know, seven Pro Bowls, two league MVP awards, one Super Bowl title (two more as a backup) – that sort of thing. But before all that, things weren’t exactly rosy for this BYU product. In 1984 Young signed with the Los Angeles Express of the upstart USFL out of college. His (and the league’s) last season was 1985, where things got so grim for the team that he was forced to play running back.
After a brief and rather inauspicious stint with the Buccaneers from ’85 to ’86, Young was traded to San Francisco to serve as Joe Montana’s backup. It was here that he began to flourish, and by 1993 Montana was history (traded to the Chiefs) and Young was the undisputed starter. It then took only a few seasons for him to get the proverbial monkey off his back and lead the 49ers to a blowout win over the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX.
Concussions finally got the best of Young, whose last season in the league was 1999. While he couldn’t eclipse Montana’s greatness, he left behind a pretty impressive legacy of his own. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005 and still holds the records for career QB rating (96.8), career rushing TDs by a quarterback (43), and TD passes in a Super Bowl (6 in XXIX).
Jay Fiedler, Miami Dolphins – Somewhere in between Hunter and Young comes Jay Fiedler. Fielder entered the league from Dartmouth in 1994 and spent most of his time holding a clipboard with the Eagles, Vikings, and Jaguars (where he got his first start in 1999). He came to the Dolphins in 2000, the first year of the post-Dan Marino era.
The Fins made the playoffs twice under Fiedler and new head coach Dave Wannstedt, in 2000 and 2001. The 2000 team finished 11-5, won the AFC East for the first time since 1994, and beat the Colts in the Wild Card round before getting blanked by the Raiders the next week in Oakland. The team matched their 11-5 mark in 2001 but were suffocated by the stout Baltimore Ravens defense in a 20-3 Wild Card round loss. Fiedler threw one touchdown and seven interceptions in his Miami postseason career.
Although Miami posted winning records in two of Fiedler’s next three seasons with the team they failed to make the playoffs, and by the end of 2004 both he and Wannstedt were finished. Fiedler signed with the division rival Jets as an unrestricted free agent in 2005 (as a backup for Chad Pennington) but suffered a season-ending injury in week 3. He hasn’t played in the league since, while the Dolphins are still looking for a true successor to Marino.
Mark Malone/David Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers – Four-time Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw staggered to the finish line of his career in the Steel City, missing most of the 1983 season after elbow surgery. His lone start that year (December 10 against the Jets) was his final game, ending a run under center as part of the most dominant franchise of the ’70s.
Cliff Stoudt, who started in Bradshaw’s place during the ’83 campaign, signed with the USFL in 1984. So the Steelers opted for a two-headed approach to quarterback in ’84, and those two were Mark Malone and David Woodley. Malone had seen little action as a backup since being drafted by Pittsburgh in 1980, while Woodley came from the Dolphins (whom he led to an appearance in Super Bowl XVII just two seasons earlier) via trade after losing his starting job to Dan Marino.
The 1984 season began with Woodley as the starter, but by season’s end the job was Malone’s. Pittsburgh took the AFC Central with a 9-7 record, won their first playoff game since Super Bowl XIV, and advanced to the AFC Championship, where they were swamped by Marino’s Dolphins. The pair resumed co-starting duties in 1985, but finished just 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
Woodley unexpectedly retired before the 1986 season, leaving Malone to assume the role of full-time starting QB. He kept that job until he was traded to the Chargers before the 1988 season, and was replaced by Bubby Brister. Malone’s final season was with the New York Jets in 1989, where he played just one game.
Woodley, who was 24 when he made his Super Bowl appearance with Miami, never again lived up to the potential he showed when he replaced another legend – Bob Griese. He fell hard into alcoholism and received a liver transplant in 1992 (not yet 35 years old at the time). Woodley died in 2003 of complications from kidney and liver failure. He was 44.
Todd Collins, Buffalo Bills – Despite falling short in four straight Super Bowls, Jim Kelly is to this day an icon in Buffalo. A few years after he came to the Bills from the USFL in 1986, Buffalo became the most dominant team in the AFC. It all finally came to end for Kelly when the Bills lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 30-27, at home in the Wild Card round of the ’96/’97 postseason.
At the time of Kelly’s retirement, only Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts, and Johnny Unitas among Hall of Fame quarterbacks had passed for more yardage. His replacement was Todd Collins, who was drafted by Buffalo out of the University of Michigan in 1995. He had performed fairly competently in a handful of spot starts over two seasons before winning the starting job outright in 1997 (over such luminaries as Alex Van Pelt and Billy Joe Hobert).
Collins started 13 games in ’97, and threw for 2,367 yards, 12 TDs, and 13 interceptions as Buffalo went 6-10 (their worst record since Jim Kelly’s first season) and finished fourth in the AFC East. With that, he headed west to Kansas City (the Bills didn’t exactly throw themselves on the hood of his car), where he spent eight years doing little more than taking up space on the Chiefs’ bench. Collins didn’t play a down until being appointed the team’s #2 QB in 2001. He finished his Chiefs career with 229 passing yards and one touchdown.
In 2006 Collins signed with the Redskins but again saw no action. His shot finally came in 2007 when starter Jason Campbell injured his knee late in the season. Collins rallied the ‘Skins, already reeling from the murder of teammate Sean Taylor, to four straight victories and an improbable postseason berth.
Although the Redskins were pasted by the Seahawks in the Wild Card round, Collins’ accomplishment can’t be denied. After playing precious little football outside of practices and scrimmages for a decade, he led a team numbed by tragedy to a place few thought they could go. Although he enters the 2008 season as the team’s backup once again, he was rewarded for his contributions with a new 3-year, $9 million contract.
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