The NFL is a business. Decisions are often made based on money with the goal of bettering the franchise more often than not. It’s led to teams parting ways with their iconic players earlier than expected, sending shockwaves through the league. Even Peyton Manning was released by the Colts after it seemed like he’d spend his entire career in Indianapolis. The same happened to Drew Bledsoe with the Patriots after Tom Brady emerged as the team’s best option.
Could Tony Romo be next in line for a surprising split with the Cowboys now that Dak Prescott has taken over as the best option in Dallas? It’s certainly possible, and he could easily be added to this list in just a few months.
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Johnny Manziel and the Browns
The Browns had been searching for a long-term solution at quarterback since returning to the NFL in 1999. They thought they had found it in Manziel, when the Browns selected him 22nd overall in 2014. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out as Manziel is now out of the league and looking to get his life back on track after run-ins with the law and a handful of allegations against him. The college football legend and Heisman winner Manziel started just eight games, throwing for 1,675 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions before the franchise ended the experiment in March.
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Robert Griffin III and the Redskins
Few quarterbacks went from franchise savior to backup quarterback as quickly and as shockingly as Griffin. He was the second overall pick in 2012, the Offensive Rookie of the Year and had already reached the postseason before the age of 23. Along with Andrew Luck, Griffin was expected to be the NFL's next great quarterback, but by 2015, he couldn’t crack the starting lineup. Injuries and a disconnect with his coaches doomed Griffin’s stint in Washington, leading to his eventual release last offseason. The breakup was surprising but also necessary as the Redskins were in the process of ushering a new era with fellow 2012 draftee Kirk Cousins. Griffin said this in an Instagram post after his release.
“It was a blessing guys. After 4 years, my days as a part of this team have come to an end. I just want to take the time to say thank you #SkinsNation. Thank you for welcoming my family with open arms in 2012. You guys made it truly an honor to play for you and I couldn't imagine starting my career anywhere else. Thank you to Dan Snyder, Bruce Allen, all the Skins coaches, training staff, equipment managers and everyone in the organization for giving me an opportunity to play this beautiful game at the highest level here in Washington.”
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Donovan McNabb and the Eagles
McNabb was one of the greatest quarterbacks to suit up for the Eagles, leading them five NFC Championship games and Super Bowl XXXIX. He never won a ring, but his accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed in Philadelphia. McNabb remains the franchise’s all-time leader in attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns. Toward the end of his career, however, McNabb’s connection with the franchise went a bit sideways.
Despite being told he’d be the starter in 2010 from January until a month before the draft, McNabb was shockingly traded April 4 to the division-rival Redskins for a couple of draft picks.
"I'm really excited about my future with the Washington Redskins," McNabb told reporters. "I'm eager to work with Coach [Mike] Shanahan. He's been a very successful coach with a couple of Super Bowl victories on his resume. While it has been my goal to win a Super Bowl in Philadelphia, we came up short. I enjoyed my 11 years, and know we shared a lot more good times than bad."
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Jay Cutler and the Broncos
Cutler spent the first three years of his career in Denver and was the primary starter for two of those seasons. He threw for 9,024 yards and 54 touchdowns in that span, making the Pro Bowl in 2008. When head coach Mike Shanahan was fired and replaced by Josh McDaniels after the 2008 season, however, Cutler wasn’t exactly pleased. After the Broncos denied they were engaging in trade talks, Cutler demanded a trade, which was granted shortly thereafter. On April 2, the Broncos made a deal to send Cutler to the Bears for Kyle Orton, two first-round picks and a third-rounder.
"I'm upset. I mean, I'm really shocked at this point," Cutler told reporters of trade rumors beforehand. "I could see why they want (Matt) Cassel. I don't know if they think I can't run the system or I don't have the skills for it. Or if they don't think they can sign me with my next contract. I just don't know what it is. I've heard I'm still on the trading block."
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Sonny Jurgensen and the Eagles
It’s not often a franchise trades a championship-winning quarterback, or one that led the league in passing yards twice, at the start of his prime, but the Eagles opted to do so in 1964. Jurgensen won an NFL championship as a backup in 1960 before setting an NFL record with 3,723 yards and tying another with 32 touchdowns in his All-Pro 1961 season. The following year, he once again paced the league with 3,261 yards before an injury riddled 1963 season in which he played just nine games. That season led the Eagles to trade him to Washington, where he was a four-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in 1969. Jurgensen was eventually elected into the Hall of Fame, rubbing salt on the Eagles’ wound for dealing him in his 20s.
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Jim McMahon and the Bears
McMahon won a Super Bowl with the Bears in 1985, also making the Pro Bowl behind his career-high 15 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions and becoming the face of a brash and dominant franchise. Four years later, he was on his way out of Chicago due to a spat with team president Michael McCaskey and head coach Mike Ditka. During the offseason leading up to the 1989 season, he and McCaskey had a falling out. Additionally, he and Ditka were constantly butting heads to the point where it was no longer beneficial for the franchise to keep him around. Before the 1989 season, McMahon was traded to the Chargers, where he only spent one year due to another issue with the coach and other players.
“I think he [Ditka] believes he can win with anybody,” McMahon told reporters after the trade. “It's his coaching that gets it done, so now I don't have to deal with that anymore,”
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Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings
Tarkenton was the Vikings' quarterback in the franchise’s first-ever NFL game, coming off the bench to lead Minnesota to victory with five total touchdowns and 250 yards. At the time, he was the only player in NFL history with four touchdowns in his first game (Marcus Mariota also did it). Despite his close ties to the franchise, Tarkenton was traded in 1967. Five years later, Minnesota had a bit of seller’s remorse and made a move to reacquire him from the Giants by trading three players, as well as a first- and second-round pick. He led the Vikings to three Super Bowl appearances but never netted a win.
Carson Palmer and the Bengals
One of the most bizarre falling-outs in recent memory came when Palmer and the Bengals split. After an underwhelming 2010 season, Palmer threatened to retire at age 31. He was no longer interested in playing for the Bengals and would have hung up his cleats if not for a trade, which he demanded. The Bengals, considering the circumstances, had no choice but to deal the disgruntled quarterback for fear of not getting anything in return. As a result, they recouped a first-rounder in 2012 and a second-round pick in 2013, ultimately working in their favor.
"It ended in a very colorful, heated argument. We disagree with each other. That's how it ended. Now's not the time or place to get into what he said, what she said, type of deal,” Palmer told reporters of a conversation he had with owner Mike Brown after the 2010 season.
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Steve McNair and the Titans
The late McNair was the face of the Titans from 1997 to 2005, the years in which he was the primary starter. He was a three-time Pro Bowler and led the team to Super Bowl XXXIV, only to come up just short. McNair was also a co-MVP in 2003, when he had 24 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions. But his time with the Titans ended in 2006 after season-ending injuries cut his playing time short the previous two years. As a result, the Titans locked him out of the team facilities to avoid having to pay him more than $23 million if an injury were to occur. An arbitrator ruled that the team violated his contract, thus opening up a possible trade from Tennessee. He was sent to the Ravens in June 2006, ending his tenure with the Titans.
"We have no choice but to protect the club and its future from the possibility of having a significant amount of our salary cap at risk in a single player should he sustain a major injury," the team said in a statement Tuesday. "This is entirely a risk management problem."
Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots
Bledsoe signed a then-record 10-year, $103 million contract with the Patriots in 2001. One year later, he was playing for the Buffalo Bills – and not by choice. Bledsoe was injured in the second game of the 2001 season after a brutal hit by Mo Lewis that threatened his life. The injury gave way to Tom Brady, of course, who hasn’t surrendered the job since then. The Patriots had no choice but to trade Bledsoe despite signing him to a decade-long contract just one year prior, considering Brady was the future after helping New England reach the Super Bowl in his first season as the starter.
''Drew Bledsoe is a special player,'' Patriots owner Robert Kraft, said. ''I have great respect for all he has done for this franchise. He gave our fans some of the greatest memories in the franchise's history, and there will always be a special place reserved for him in the hearts of Patriots fans. ''For many reasons, and at many levels, this was a difficult trade to make.''
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Drew Brees and the Chargers
In his final season with the Chargers, Brees was seen as a good quarterback but not necessarily one who could alter the course of a franchise for a decade or more. That’s what he’s become with the Saints. With the Chargers, however, he played four seasons, averaging 3,032 yards, 20 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. Decent numbers but not good enough to lead the Chargers to sign him – especially considering he tore his labrum in his last game of 2005. He was offered a five-year, $50 million contract by San Diego in the offseason, but it wasn’t enough to pique his interest. After meeting with other teams, Brees discovered his worth and wound up with the Saints on a six-year, $60 million deal. The rest, of course, is history.
“I just felt that energy in New Orleans," Brees told reporters at the time. "From the very beginning there was a genuine feeling that they wanted me there. They believe I can come back from this shoulder injury and lead them to a championship. They were as confident as I am, and that meant a lot."
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Brett Favre and the Packers
Favre is synonymous with the Green Bay Packers. He’s an iron man, a record-holder and a world champion, epitomizing what it means to be a part of the league’s most revered franchise. His split with the Packers wasn’t exactly graceful, though. In March 2008, Favre announced his retirement. Four months later -- after changing his mind and realizing that the Packers had moved on with Aaron Rodgers -- he asked for his release from the team, which GM Ted Thompson said he wouldn’t grant. A few weeks after his request was denied, Favre returned to Green Bay for training camp, where the two sides finally and awkwardly agreed to part ways. That came by way of a trade to the Jets for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2009 draft. He’ll always be well-respected in Green Bay, but his split from the team wasn’t the cleanest.
"We talked about it last night," coach Mike McCarthy told reporters at the time. "The players want resolution, they want what everybody wants. To come out here every day and talk about somebody that is not here and then shows up, it's gone on too long, and understandably so. They want to play football."
Favre only became a villain in Green Bay when he migrated from the Jets to the rival Vikings after one season in New York. The Packers finally forgave and forgot and eventually retired his number in 2015.
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Kurt Warner and the Rams
Warner was the centerpiece of the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf.” He led the team to a 14-2 record in 2001 with a Super Bowl appearance to go along with his second MVP award in three seasons, but the following year was a disaster. Warner posted a passer rating of 67.4 and threw seven interceptions in his first three games.
In 2003, the Rams opted to move on from the Warner era. He fumbled six times in the season opener against the Giants due to a later-revealed broken hand, landing him on the bench for good. Marc Bulger came in and played well, leading the team to release Warner in June 2004.
Here’s what he had to say when he was benched for Bulger, which didn’t go over well with the organization. He would later apologize for his comments.
"I actually had coaches say I was reading the Bible too much and it was taking away from my play. It was OK when we were winning, but now I was [messing] this thing up? People were saying I had lost my job because of my faith."
Warner went on to make it to another Pro Bowl -- and another Super Bowl -- as Arizona's QB from 2005-09.
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Joe Montana and the 49ers
Montana is arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game of football, but his career wasn’t without a bit of discontent. Before the 1993 season, Montana expressed his displeasure with the 49ers after learning that the team would likely transition to Steve Young as the starting quarterback. Young filled in for the veteran while he was hurt the previous two seasons, but Montana was healthy and ready to reassume his role as the starter. The 49ers had other plans, which led to Montana’s trade request. It was granted as he was shipped to Kansas City in April 1993. There were no hard feelings between the two quarterbacks, to say the least.
"People always think that we fought," Young said years after the deal. "We never had a cross word, never had an argument, and I've always said to people that it went as well as it possibly could with two hypercompetitive people. But it wasn't easy; it was difficult, difficult for both of us."
Peyton Manning and the Colts
Back in 2012, the Colts made the unfathomably difficult decision to sever ties with Manning. Coming off of a series of neck surgeries and with Andrew Luck sitting in their lap as the No. 1 overall draft choice, the Colts had little choice but to release Manning and allow him to begin the next chapter of his career. Owner Jim Irsay and Manning held a joint presser to announce the sad news as the two sides parted ways amicably. Manning, of course, went on to reach two Super Bowls – winning one – with the Broncos, while the Colts began a new era with Luck at the helm.
"Nobody loves their job more than I do. Nobody loves playing quarterback more than I do. I still want to play. But there is no other team I wanted to play for,” Manning said. “We all know that nothing lasts forever. Times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL."