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)• New team: Minnesota Vikings (1972-78)• Highlights after the trade: Three Super Bowl starts and 1975 NFL MVP award.
• 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)• New team: New York Giants (1961-64)• Highlights after the trade: Led New York to three consecutive Eastern Conference championships from 1961 to '63, losing the league title game to Green Bay in 1961-62, and Chicago in 1963. Tittle earned the NFL MVP award in 1963, throwing a then-record 36 touchdown passes.
• 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)• New team: Philadelphia Eagles (1958-60)• Highlights after the trade: Led the Eagles to their most recent NFL championship, when his 1960 club defeated Green Bay 17-13, the only postseason loss in Vince Lombardi's NFL coaching career.
• 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)• New team: Washington (1964-74)• Highlights after the trade: Threw for more than 3,000 yards three times as a Redskin, leading the NFL in touchdown passes with 31 in 1967. That same year, Jurgensen set league single-season records for completions (288) and attempts (508).
• 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)• New team: Pittsburgh Steelers (1958-62)• Highlights after the trade: With Layne acquired early in the 1958 season, the Steelers went on to post their first winning record since 1949, finishing 7-4-1. But while he helped them reach respectability (6-5-1 in 1959, and 9-5 in 1962), he could never recreate the success of his years in Detroit, later labeling his lack of winning a championship for Steelers owner Art Rooney as his career's biggest disappointment.
• 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.
6. Craig Morton• Old team: Dallas Cowboys (1965-74)• New team: New York Giants (1974-76)
• Highlights after the trade: There weren't any, at least in New York. Morton played what amounts to 2½ seasons on some awful, cellar-dwelling Giants teams, getting pounded by the pass rush and throwing 49 interceptions to go with just 29 touchdowns passes. But his career had a remarkable third act, with him leading the 1977 Broncos to the Super Bowl as the pinnacle of his six-year tenure in Denver.
• Summary: Morton was drafted by the Cowboys out of Cal in 1965's first round, and after four years of playing behind Don Meredith, got his shot to start with Dallas in 1969. Though he and Roger Staubach essentially shared the job for a three- or four-year span, Morton started Super Bowl V against Baltimore, and his 89.8 passer rating in that 1970 season put him among the league leaders. After being beaten out by Staubach, Morton, 31, was traded to the Giants early in the 1974 season, what would have been his 10th year in Dallas. He didn't get his revenge until his renaissance in Denver in 1977, leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl (and a loss to Dallas) at 34. Morton and the recently-retired Kurt Warner are the only quarterbacks who have started a Super Bowl for two different teams.
• Bottom line: You don't think of Morton as one of the NFL's all-time greats, and he'll never reach the hallowed hall in Canton. But he played 18 years in the league, started those two Super Bowls, and was a member of 11 playoff teams. His career wound up lasting seven years longer than Staubach's.
7. Kenny Stabler• Old team: Oakland Raiders (1970-79)• New team: Houston Oilers (1980-81)
• Highlights after the trade: After the Oilers lost to the Steelers in the AFC title game in both 1978 and '79, they acquired Stabler from the Raiders and labeled him as the missing piece that would help them get past Pittsburgh. But while Houston made the playoffs again in 1980, going 11-5, the Oilers lost in the wild-card round -- to Stabler's old team, the Raiders. After a second season in Houston, he joined ex-Oilers head coach Bum Phillips for three final years in New Orleans.
• Summary: Some believe Stabler is among the finest NFL quarterbacks who are not enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but one of the likely reasons is that he never matched the success he had in Oakland in either of his final two career stops. He was 34 when he was dealt to the Oilers in exchange for Dan Pastorini, but his passer rating never topped 71.8 during his final five seasons, and his interceptions far outnumbered his touchdowns.
• Bottom line: Other than the Super Bowl ring Stabler earned with Oakland in early 1977, his finest accomplishment might have been becoming the fastest quarterback to 100 career wins (in 150 games), a mark since topped by Joe Montana and Tom Brady.
8. Drew Bledsoe• Old team: New England Patriots (1993-2001)• New team: Buffalo Bills (2002-05)• Highlights after the trade: After getting the rock-star treatment upon his arrival in Buffalo in 2002, Bledsoe started his Bills tenure well, passing for 4,359 yards and 24 touchdowns while earning a Pro Bowl nod. But after an 8-8 finish that year, the Bills dipped to 6-10 in 2003. Bledsoe's third and final year in Buffalo ended with the Bills just missing the playoffs at 9-7 in 2004.
• Summary: The first overall pick in 1993 by New England, Bledsoe led the franchise back to glory by 1996, when the Patriots won the AFC and battled Green Bay for a half before losing Super Bowl XXXI. After he signed a 10-year, $103 million contract with New England in March 2001, fate intervened in the form of a life-threatening hit that Bledsoe took from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis in Week 2 of 2001, and then the wildly improbable ascension of Tom Brady. Only 30 when he was sent packing to Buffalo, Bledsoe seemed to have a bright future. But he would never start for another playoff team, and his career basically ended when he was replaced by Tony Romo in Dallas, six games into the 2006 season.
• Bottom line: With more than 44,000 passing yards and 251 touchdowns to his credit, Bledsoe had a 14-year NFL career that featured plenty to be proud of. But his being eclipsed by Brady just as New England's glory era was about to dawn will always be a big part of the Bledsoe story.
9. Archie Manning• Old team: New Orleans (1971-82)• New team: Houston (1982-83)• Highlights after the trade: His final two-plus seasons in Houston and Minnesota were brutal, but on the bright side, Manning did continue to raise two future NFL quarterbacks as sons.
• Summary: After the losing and the beatings Manning absorbed as the Saints' quarterback from 1971 through early 1982, things got even worse after he was dealt to Houston during the strike-shortened '82 season. The Oilers were a 1-8 team that year, and Manning did the best he could with the sorry cast of characters around him. The next year, he was dealt in midseason once again, going from Houston to Minnesota, where he joined a Vikings team that was in the process of bottoming-out. Combined, his Oilers and Vikings teams had a dismal 6-35 mark from 1982 to '84, quite possibly making Manning the most often-defeated quarterback in NFL history.
• The bottom line: Manning was only 33 when the Saints traded him to Houston, but he was a very old 33. Toiling for those losing New Orleans teams tended to put what amounted to dog years on an NFL player's life.
10. Dan Pastorini• Old team: Houston Oilers (1971-79)• New team: Oakland Raiders (1980)• Highlights after the trade: Pastorini was traded by Houston to Oakland in exchange for Stabler in 1980, and the deal was considered a blockbuster at the time. But he broke his leg just five games into that season and never played for the Raiders again. He had brief stints with the Rams (1981) and the Eagles (1983) before retiring at 34.
• Summary: Pastorini was only 31 when the Raiders acquired him in 1980, and because he was three years younger than Stabler, it looked like a decent move at the time. After all, Pastorini had led the Oilers to consecutive AFC title game appearances in 1978 and 1979, throwing for a career-best 2,473 yards and 16 touchdowns in '78. But his broken leg in Oakland opened the door for backup Jim Plunkett in 1980, and his fellow member of the celebrated 1971 draft class of quarterbacks went on to lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl title that season.
• Bottom line: Despite playing on some dreadful Oilers teams early in his career, Pastorini was a tough and productive quarterback for nine seasons in Houston, missing just five regular-season games in that span. He was named to the AFC Pro Bowl team in 1975, and his Oilers won four playoff games in 1978-79.