The story’s screen time may have been limited by the pre–Super Bowl hype cycle, but Ben Roethlisberger’s will-I-or-won’t-I retirement nugget in late January was enough to make Steelers fans chew their fingernails clean off. Pittsburgh had recently completed its third straight trip to the playoffs, a run that included three combined postseason wins. Its Roethlisberger-led offense had finished eighth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA after ranking in the top three in both 2014 and 2015. The notion that the centerpiece of a perennial contender needed to "take some time away to evaluate next season, if there’s going to be a next season" came as a shock to many.
Roethlisberger announced that he would return to the Steelers in April, and a move that plenty of people around the league considered inevitable. And while such an assumption makes sense on the surface, NFL history would suggest it wasn’t so simple: For most of the past 50 years, quarterbacks in their mid-30s were considered prime candidates to walk away from the game. Roethlisberger spent the past few seasons playing some of the best football of his career. He’s also on the wrong side of 35, has started 16 regular-season games just three times since his rookie campaign in 2004, and has taken more snaps than all but a handful of quarterbacks in league history.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 14 quarterbacks have started at least 175 regular-season games. Five of those players — Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers — are still in the league. Passers are hanging around longer than ever before, and that means scenarios like Roethlisberger’s are guaranteed to be a fixture of NFL offseasons for the foreseeable future.
The development of the quarterbacks at the top of the 2015 draft and the record-setting deals handed to Andrew Luck and Derek Carr have driven conversations about what the hierarchy of the NFL’s next QB crop could look like, but a more pressing question at the position may be what the future holds for teams like the Steelers, Giants, and Saints. A younger batch of passers will almost surely take up the mantle when the likes of Brees and Brady retreat to lives of par-5s and network-logo-emblazoned sport coats. Whether their teams can move on as smoothly is far less certain.
For most teams with aging star quarterbacks, the process of building for the next generation is daunting. That’s largely because the sheer presence of a high-caliber QB provides these teams with the chance to be relevant every season. As long as Roethlisberger is on Pittsburgh’s roster and (relatively) healthy, the team won’t draft toward the front of the first round, where franchise quarterbacks are historically found. And while the murkiness surrounding Roethlisberger’s future should push general manager Kevin Colbert to keep an eye toward the future, the Steelers’ legitimate Super Bowl aspirations should prevent him from looking too far ahead. Teams on the precipice of a title can hardly afford to squander assets in an effort to pluck their passer of the future.
The Chiefs seemingly rejected that line of thinking earlier this year when they traded a package including a 2017 third-round pick and a 2018 first-rounder in order to move up 17 spots and take Texas Tech gunslinger Patrick Mahomes. But the difference between Kansas City’s reality and that of teams like Pittsburgh is the former’s recent success often came in spite of its play under center, not because of it. Without more firepower on offense, the Chiefs’ hopes of unseating the Patriots in the AFC or even keeping pace with high-powered division challengers like the Raiders would remain restricted. Roethlisberger’s role in perpetuating the Steelers’ status as a contender — or the hand that Brees or Rivers have had in keeping their teams afloat — necessitates his organization choosing a different route.
To that end, it’s helpful to cite two recent examples of teams with proven veteran QBs seamlessly finding star replacements and moving into a new era. The first involves the Colts; when Peyton Manning was forced to miss the entire 2011 season after having neck surgery, Indianapolis crumbled. The Colts finished 2–14 that year and landed the top spot in the following draft, which happened to include a highly sought-after prospect named Andrew Luck. Having your all-time great, future Hall of Fame passer — who had never previously missed a game in his career — go down just as a generational talent becomes available is not a plan. It’s divine intervention.
The second instance involves the Cowboys, who didn’t fall into the no. 1 pick like the Colts did, but still saw the planets align in an uncommon way. Dallas never could have imagined that Dak Prescott, the 135th pick in the 2016 draft, would go on to post the best statistical season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history after he took over for an injured Tony Romo during the preseason. To the Cowboys’ credit, they facilitated some of that success with the infrastructure they created — assembling the league’s best offensive line and a dominant running game led by Ezekiel Elliott — to maximize the final years of Romo’s career. Still, they didn’t bank on their fourth-round pick approaching a fraction of the success Prescott enjoyed in his debut season.
The most recent success stories of teams transitioning from one franchise quarterback to the next look more like blessings than blueprints. For the next set of teams that will have to replace aging stars under center, striking the perfect combination of timing and fit almost certainly won’t be as easy.
Dallas’s original plan for Prescott, when it seemed as though he’d serve as Romo’s short-term backup while being groomed as the franchise’s QB of the future, is the route most of these teams will be expected to take in the coming years. In this draft alone, the Giants picked Cal quarterback Davis Webb in the third round, while Pittsburgh grabbed Tennessee product Josh Dobbs a round later. Using selections outside the range where teams have typically located quarterback starters represents the middle ground for organizations with both aging QBs and playoff aspirations. For the Steelers, spending the 135th overall pick on Dobbs (weirdly, the same one that Dallas used a year earlier to find Prescott) allows them to mold a young passer while not sacrificing the chance to add top-tier talent at other positions.
Players drafted in this range historically haven’t grown into franchise pillars, but that’s the trade-off teams in this spot are forced to make. Every front office would love to follow the Packers’ plan that involved drafting Aaron Rodgers in 2005’s first round and molding him into Brett Favre’s successor as the former’s career was winding down. But that approach can bring complications. In April, the Chargers were considered a dark-horse candidate to draft an eventual replacement for Philip Rivers. Instead, they added three offensive players who could contribute as rookies. This might come as a shock, but Rivers took notice. "I’m glad we made a move that I think helps us right now," Rivers told KLSD-AM in San Diego. "As I’ve told you guys, and as I truly believe, I think we’re almost in a window as we were in ’06, ’09, and that part is pretty exciting." Appeasing a star quarterback while simultaneously looking to the future is a tough needle to thread. It’s led to futures built on QBs taken outside the first round, trajectories that rarely play out as teams imagine.
The ideal outcome looks a lot like what the Patriots have, with a trusted arm waiting in the wings in Jimmy Garoppolo. As a second-round pick in 2014, Garoppolo will finish his rookie deal at the end of this season, and the 25-year-old’s trade value is immense on the heels of a standout performance during Brady’s Deflate-induced suspension. With New England staring down a reality in which Brady could stick around a few more seasons and Garoppolo could walk in free agency, teams in the market for a quarterback tried to pry Garoppolo away from New England this spring. Yet here we are, on July 6, and Garoppolo is still a member of the Pats.
Bill Belichick and Co. decided that having a contingency plan under center was worth missing out on the resources that Garoppolo could have brought back in a trade. That may be the most significant personnel choice that New England has to make between now and the end of Brady’s career, but it’s far from the only one affected by the five-time Super Bowl winner’s eventual exit. The Patriots would publicly deny that Brady’s age was their motivating factor behind trading more than half of their 2017 draft picks for veterans, but his time frame certainly makes the moves easier to understand. It’s a tactic the Saints are familiar with, from their dealings to help Drew Brees.
No team has kicked the salary cap can down the road more casually than New Orleans has over the past five seasons, as it’s rarely shied away from moving up in the draft to grab a skill-position player it coveted. One such maneuver came in 2014, when the Saints dealt the 27th overall pick and a third-round selection to be able to take Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks. In March, New Orleans dealt Cooks to the Pats for a package headlined by the 32nd pick in this year’s draft. That was used on Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who will likely open 2016 on the sideline before eventually replacing 11-year veteran Zach Strief at right tackle.
Dealing Cooks represents one of the first moves in recent Saints history that was made solely with the future — and Brees’s expiring contract — in mind. Taking the Patriots’ side of the trade into account, it also shows two NFL franchises trying to find the right balance between getting the most of their longtime quarterbacks and setting up their rosters to achieve future success. Accomplishing both goals at once is a tricky process, and one that many front offices have mishandled in the past. For as good as Roethlisberger, Brady, Brees, and the like have been over the years, their careers could end at a moment’s notice. That’s a scary thought for the people in charge of these organizations, but not nearly as scary as ignoring what’s coming.