McNabb's second act with a new team will be a risky venture
Star QBs who switch teams in mid-career thrive as often as they fail
Fran Tarkenton and Y.A. Tittle cemented their Hall of Fame credentials
Drew Bledsoe and Bobby Layne never recaptured their original magic
Maybe it'll be the Raiders who at long last pull the trigger on the deal we've all been awaiting for years, or maybe there's an 11th hour surprise entry when it comes to the Donovan McNabb sweepstakes. But one way or another, the Eagles quarterback appears closer than ever to ending his love-hate relationship with Philadelphia after 11 always-eventful seasons.
Let's presume an impending McNabb trade of some sort and move the story ahead by looking to the past. What does history teach us about the track record of NFL star quarterbacks who are moved while still in their prime, after being the face of a franchise for so long? With apologies for borrowing from Dr. Z's gig, I've dug into the history books and come up with the 10 most high-profile examples of successful quarterbacks who had to start over in mid-to-late career, relocating in the neighborhood of their early 30s.
Suffice it to say, it's been done before, and sometimes fairly well, a fact that the 33-year old McNabb should take heart in -- even if he can't replicate the sustained excellence of his five NFC title-game appearances in an eight-year span in Philadelphia. Some star quarterbacks have had superb second acts, with even more success for their new teams than they enjoyed with their old ones. Then again, it's not foolproof. For every Fran Tarkenton going out in a relative blaze of glory, there's a Drew Bledsoe and a Bobby Layne failing to recapture the magic that made them headliners to begin with.
In order of the late-career impact they created, here are the top 10 quarterbacks who changed teams mid-career after making it big elsewhere. (Worth noting is that for the purposes of this piece, we did not consider quarterbacks who had brief, career-capping tenures with a team in their mid-to-late 30s, a'la Joe Montana's two final seasons in Kansas City, beginning when he was 37.)
1. Fran Tarkenton
Old team: New York Giants (1967-71)
Summary: Tarkenton's Hall of Fame career is quite unique, of course, in that he spent his first six seasons in Minnesota with the expansion Vikings, was traded to the Giants at 27, and then was dealt back to Minnesota after five years in New York.
At 32, having never made the playoffs in his first 11 NFL seasons, Tarkenton had arguably the greatest career-closing run in league history among second-act quarterbacks. He led the Vikings to three Super Bowl berths in four years (1973-76), losing all of them, but he won the NFL's MVP award in 1975 and helped Minnesota to six consecutive NFC Central titles. At retirement, Tarkenton held the league record for yards passing (47,003), touchdowns (342), attempts (6,467) and completions (3,686).
Bottom line: It turns out that you can go home again, and Tarkenton's interesting career proves it. From Minnesota to New York to Minnesota, Fran's rambling, scrambling ways made him one of the NFL's all-time greats.
2. Y.A. Tittle
Old team: San Francisco 49ers (1951-60)
Summary: Tittle was 34 and a savvy veteran of 13 seasons in professional football when he debuted with the Giants in 1961, but he made the most of his career's fresh start, leading New York to a regular-season record of 33-8-1 and three conference championships over the next three years. His New York teams lost all three title games they played in from 1961 to '63 (an almost Buffalo-esque frustration), but the Giants of that era were one of the NFL's most glamorous teams and were led by superstars such as Frank Gifford and Sam Huff. Before New York, Tittle had been a quality starting quarterback in San Francisco for parts of 10 seasons, but he shared playing time early on with veteran Frankie Albert, and late in his tenure alternated with the younger John Brodie.
Bottom line: Without the four seasons in New York at the end of his 17-year career, Tittle probably wouldn't have been considered Hall of Fame material. But he was elected in 1971, and he retired with seven Pro Bowl berths and three All-Pro selections to his credit.
3. Norm Van Brocklin
Old team: Los Angeles Rams (1949-57)
Summary: Van Brocklin was 32 and had nine ultra-successful years under his belt in the NFL when the Rams shipped him to the Eagles in 1958. The "Dutchman'' had helped Los Angeles to three NFL title games in the 1950s (1950-51-55), winning three passing titles in the process and the only league championship (1951) the Rams ever claimed while in Southern California. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and also led the NFL in punting twice. Almost 60 years later, Van Brocklin's 554 yards passing against the New York Yanks in September 1951 still stands as the league's one-game record.
Van Brocklin retired after winning the NFL championship in Philadelphia and, ironically, began his first head coaching job with the expansion Vikings in 1961, where he and quarterback Fran Tarkenton often sparred for the six seasons they were together.
Bottom line: After Van Brocklin had to share time early in his career with fellow Rams Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield, his three-year stay in Philadelphia helped cement his greatness, and he too was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
4. Sonny Jurgensen
Old team: Philadelphia (1957-63)
Summary: McNabb might want to ask Jurgensen if there's still life after being given up on by the Eagles organization. Philly dealt the 30-year-old Jurgensen to Washington for quarterback Norm Snead in 1964, despite Jurgensen having enjoyed huge seasons in 1961 and 1962 as the replacement for the retired Van Brocklin. After seven years in Philadelphia, Jurgensen picked up the pieces and went on to play another 11 years in D.C., becoming a Redskins legend in the process. Though he played in just one playoff game in his career, Jurgensen was named to five Pro Bowls and won three passing titles, the last of which came at age 40 in 1974.
Bottom line: Jurgensen was in essence a part-time player in the first four and final four years of his career, but he is considered one of the best pure passers of any era, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983. From 1961 to '70, there may not have been a more prolific quarterback in the NFL.
5. Bobby Layne
Old team: Detroit Lions (1950-58)
Summary: In his eight full seasons with the Lions, Layne won three NFL championships (1952-53-57) and lost the title game in 1954 to Cleveland. While his trade from the New York Bulldogs to Detroit in 1950 is hailed as one of the NFL's greatest steals of all-time, the deal that sent from the Lions to the Steelers after just two games in 1958 is remembered quite differently. Layne was just two months shy of 32 when Pittsburgh acquired him. Upset by the trade, he supposedly said Detroit would "not win for 50 years'' as penance for its blunder. Thus was born the Lions' "Curse of Bobby Layne'' that has been, while perhaps apocryphal, very effective nonetheless. Detroit's last NFL title came in 1957 -- meaning we're at 52 seasons and counting without a crown in Motown.
Bottom line: The rough and tumble Layne was a one-of-a-kind NFL legend, and he punched his Hall of Fame ticket in 1967, just five years after his playing career ended. Eagles fans can only hope that dealing McNabb doesn't doom Philly to the kind of unending regret that Detroit has experienced during the past five decades.
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