As Peyton Manning looks for a new home after 14 years with the Colts, it's important to remember one thing: It rarely ends well for the great ones, especially the quarterbacks.
They habitually hang on too long, bringing broken bodies and declining skills to new towns in a desperate attempt to rekindle the old magic. Hard to blame them, really. The intoxicating mix of fame, power, competitive zeal and the boisterous acclaim each Sunday before thousands of faithful fans must be an awful tough drug to kick.
Precious few quarterbacks have switched teams late in life and still made an impact at the highest levels of the game. The most recent was the ultimate Iron Man himself, Brett Favre.
The Packers were consistent contenders when Favre was at the helm. But the team finally had to part ways with the aging quarterback to make way for Aaron Rodgers -- a move which paid off handsomely for the organization. It nearly paid off perfectly for Favre, too.
The Jets were a contender in 2008, until the 39-year-old Favre's performances fell off the table at the end of the year. Miraculously, he was better than ever in Minnesota the following year at age 40, with a career-best 107.2 passer rating.
But Favre's old "gunslinger" bugaboo, interceptions, hijacked Super Bowl hopes for both teams. Favre led the NFL with 22 INTs during his year with the Jets, low-lighted by nine in the final five games -- four of them defeats -- as New York tumbled out of playoff contention down the stretch. The following year with the Vikings, he threw a critical pick in overtime of the 2009 NFC title game, handing New Orleans its chance to kick the game-winning field goal.
You really have to go old school to find the other QB to excel after making a move late in life: Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle was a 35-year-old, 13-year NFL veteran when he was acquired by the Giants in 1961. (Manning will be a 36-year-old, 14-year veteran when the 2012 season kicks off).
Tittle responded to the cross-country move from San Francisco with some of the greatest passing seasons in NFL history, including 33 TD passes in 1962 and then 36 in 1963, an NFL record that stood for 21 years until broken by Dan Marino. Tittle led the Giants to three straight NFL championship games from 1961 to 1963, but they lost all three.
Otherwise, the record of aging quarterbacks who land with new teams is spotty at best -- a highlight season here and there. But mostly they fizzle out, often in dramatically ugly fashion.
Here's a look at several quarterbacks, both from the Hall of Fame and merely those of notable recent vintage, who switched teams late in their careers.
Favre will always be remembered as the greatest iron man in NFL history, a guy who started 297 straight games at a position that's the target of so much violence. He pulled off something of another physical miracle when he left Green Bay after 16 straight seasons and celebrated his 39th birthday in a Jets uniform. After one year in New York he spent two in Minnesota, adding to his legend with the greatest statistical season of his career in 2009 -- a 107.2 passer rating with the Vikings at age 40. Favre was a Hall of Famer as a young QB in Green Bay, and actually produced at a higher level overall as an old QB in New York and Minnesota.
McNabb was the face of the Philadelphia franchise for 11 years, putting up nice numbers over that time -- his passer rating was just 0.2 points shy of Favre's in Green Bay -- but never quite winning over its fans. McNabb, who turns 36 in November, spent the 2010 season in Washington and the 2011 season in Minnesota. His production has fallen off the face off the earth and his career is all but over at this point.
Montana helped reinvent pro football when paired with Bill Walsh in San Francisco, where he played 13 seasons before injuries, age and upstart Steve Young conspired to end his time there. He was 37 when he landed in Kansas City and recaptured enough of the old magic to help lead the Chiefs to the 1993 AFC title game. But K.C. lost badly that day to the Bills, Montana was once again injured, and he lasted only one more year before calling it a career. Montana put up some nice numbers in Kansas City, but rarely played at the elite level we saw in San Francisco.
Moon was already 27 years old when he left the CFL to sign with the old Houston Oilers. He consistently put up gaudy -- though not particularly efficient -- numbers during his 10 years there and in seven more seasons with the Vikings, Seahawks and Chiefs. He was very productive up through age 41, before finally retiring at age 44, after two back-up years in Kansas City. Like most QBs, though, his biggest seasons all came by his mid 30s.
Namath is remembered fondly as one the great figures in NFL history, but his on-field production was never great, even by the standards of the era -- as a look at the chart below makes evident. Injures and his own proclivity for picks made for a bad combination, and Namath suffered through several bad seasons with the Jets in the early 1970s. The Rams took a final shot with him in 1977, but the results for the wounded Namath were ugly. Second-year QB Pat Haden went 8-2 with the same team, helping lift Los Angeles to an NFC West title.
Unitas was a transformative figure in the history of pro football and a quarterback still on everybody's short list of "best ever." He's also the poster child for QBs who hung on one season too long. Unitas played 17 years with the Colts and, after dwindling playing time in later seasons, new owner Bob Irsay traded the quarterback to San Diego, where Unitas played just four games before giving way to a rookie named Dan Fouts.
Warner will always remain one of the great stories in NFL history, rising from supermarket stock boy to Super Bowl champion, as essentially a 28-year-old rookie with the 1999 Rams. After a brief stint with the Giants, he came out of nowhere again as a grizzled 37-year-old veteran in 2008, leading the sad-sack Cardinals to their first and only Super Bowl appearance. He was borderline brilliant for three straight years in Arizona, but was never quite as productive as he had been during those incredible years in St. Louis. Warner was 38 when he retired after the 2009 season.