Top Ten with a Twist: Those who had to replace legends

Steve Young replacing Joe Montana turned out well for San Francisco. (USATSI)
Steve Young replacing Joe Montana turned out well for San Francisco. (USATSI)

No matter how Colts owner Jim Irsay feels about Peyton Manning’s tenure in Indianapolis and if he led the team to enough Super Bowls, there’s no doubt that Manning’s absence in the 2011 season left an enormous hole that quickly swallowed up quarterback Curtis Painter, then-coach Jim Caldwell and, really, the entire organization.

Luckily for the team, Andrew Luck, thus far, has rescued the franchise, restored it to mid-to-upper level status in the AFC and given the Colts a real chance to become Super Bowl contenders for, say, the next decade or so.

Replacing a legend like Manning hasn’t proven too difficult for Luck. He’s no Peyton Manning at this point in his career -- and believe me, Peyton Manning was no Peyton Manning in just his second season in the league -- but when you watch Luck, you see the type of player who can become one of the league’s best.

When it comes to replacing a legend, Luck has been very good.

And that got me thinking about 10 other replacement players who had to fill in when a superstar left the team (either by retirement, free agency or a trade). The following top-10 list isn’t necessarily a top-10 list. By that, I mean these aren’t the ten best legend-replacements. It’s just 10 players who had the unenviable task of following a legend at his former position. Some succeeded. Some sucked. But for all of them, it wasn’t an easy chore.

10. James Stewart, replacing Barry Sanders in 2000: Making matters worse for Hill was the idea that Sanders was still retiring at the top of his game (kind of like when Leroy Kelly had to replace Jim Brown in 1966). I mean, Sanders had totaled 1,491 yards on a career-high 343 attempts in his final season. Meanwhile, the free agent Stewart seemed promising in his first season as the Lions featured back, gaining 1,134 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns (Greg Hill was a stopgap replacement for Sanders in 1999). But Stewart turned 30 and suffered a shoulder injury in the final two seasons, and by the 2003 season, he was gone from the team. Kelly, meanwhile, averaged 1,195 yards per year in the three seasons after Brown retired. Stewarts’ replacement status: A shooting star that burned out quickly.

9. Ryan McNeil, replacing Deion Sanders in 2000: Although Sanders played for five teams, we’re looking at the time he left the Cowboys following the 1999 season before finishing his career with the Redskins and Ravens. At the time, Sanders wasn’t quite as dominant as he’d been in Atlanta, but McNeil, as a free agent signee, still had a huge hole to fill. “If there is anybody that can take the spot of Deion after Deion moves on, I think Ryan's the guy that can handle the pressure and make some plays," said then-Dallas safety Darren Woodson. Unfortunately, McNeil had a great season in 2002 -- the year AFTER he left Dallas. In that season with the Chargers, McNeil had eight interceptions (four times the amount he had in 2001 with the Cowboys) and earned his first Pro Bowl berth. McNeil’s replacement status: Turned out great -- after he left the team.

8. Kevin Sargent, replacing Anthony Munoz in 1993: How do you replace an 11-time Pro Bowler and a nine-time All-Pro who had helped the Bengals reach their only two Super Bowl appearances? If you’re Sargent, an undrafted free agent who was 24 when he took over full-time for Munoz in 1993, you don’t for very long. He started eight games in 1992 while Munoz struggled with injuries, and after missing most of 1993 with a broken arm, Sargent started at left tackle for most of the next four seasons. But he experienced tingling his hands because of a nerve problem in his shoulder, and soon after, the Bengals had to find somebody else to take the position. As the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Butch Hobson wrote at the time, “Kevin Sargent could only match Anthony Munoz in decency and humility.” Sargent’s replacement status: An impossible task turned out to be just that.

7. Dave Wannstedt, replacing Don Shula/Jimmy Johnson in 2000: So many of us think of Wannstedt simply as the Wannstache because, of well, his glorious upper lip grooming habits and because he flamed out in two NFL jobs, one college job (Pitt) and as the Bills defensive coordinator last year. After Shula, the all-time coaching wins leader, was replaced by Johnson, the team was still viable. Johnson didn’t have the Super Bowl success he fashioned in Dallas but still managed to make the playoffs in three of his four seasons in Miami. Enter Wannstedt, and you know what: the team was pretty good in his hands. From 2000-03, he went 41-23 and made the postseason in the first two seasons. But he missed the playoffs in 2002 and 2003, and after starting the 2004 season 1-8, he was forced to resign. "Let's get this straight: Dave didn't quit," defensive end Jason Taylor said at the time. "Ricky Williams quit. Dave stepped aside. There's a big difference.” Wannstedt’s replacement status: Remembered less fondly than probably deserved.

6. Marty Domres, replacing Johnny Unitas in 1972: For 17 years, Unitas was the face of the old Baltimore Colts, leading the league in passing yards four times, touchdowns four times and quarterback rating three times. He was -- and still is -- considered one of the best of all time, but after leaving Baltimore for one more season with the Chargers, Domres was tasked with trying to replace him. Domres actually started eight games in 1971 after the Colts benched Unitas. Apparently, it didn’t make Unitas happy.

From the Gettysburg Times:

The next season, it was all Domres. It did not go well. He won four of the 15 combined games he started in the next two seasons, completed less than 50 percent of his attempts and tossed 25 interceptions to nine touchdowns. His quarterback rating in 1974 was a hefty 33.2. After that season, he never started another game for Baltimore, and after the 1975 season, he was gone from the team. He’d play only two more years in the league, but he always remembered that he was the one who had to replace Unitas. "I never forget one night walking into Johnny's restaurant, The Golden Arm, after a game," Domres told the Sun Sentinel in 2000. "It was 8:30, and some woman walked up to me and said, `Are you Marty Domres?' When I told her I was, she said, `You should be ashamed of yourself for what you're doing to John.' At that moment, I realized how poignant it was for John and the entire community. Benching John was a big jolt to the community, and I realized what replacing a legend meant." Domres’ replacement status: Not very good (but at least he was recognized in the community!).

5. Marcellus Wiley, replacing Bruce Smith in 2000: At 200 career sacks, Smith has the most in NFL history. He was an 11-time Pro Bowler and a future Hall of Famer for the Bills. He never won a Super Bowl, but he played in four of them. Wiley played behind Smith for three years in Buffalo, accumulating a combined 8.5 sacks, and when Smith left, he took over Smith’s spot. For a season anyway. After recording 10.5 sacks in 2000, he left the next year for a big-money deal with the Chargers, where he got 13 sacks. Wiley gave way to Aaron Schobel, who had a strong two-time Pro Bowl, 78-sacks career. But for Wiley, who played running back in college, apprenticing under Smith was key. “It was great to learn from him,” Wiley said in an interview with The Starting Five in 2007. “Sometimes it was scary and humbling. He knew so much and he was so talented. I never could catch on to what he did. He wasn’t the guy you wanted to mimic out there because his talent was better than everyone else.” Wiley’s replacement status: Solid, but it was too short an experiment.

4. Aaron Rodgers, replacing Brett Favre in 2008: After sitting behind Favre for three reasons, Rodgers finally took over the Packers starting quarterback job in 2008. Ever since, he’s been one of the best quarterbacks in the league. There’s been plenty of discussion about the acrimony the two felt for each other for many years after Favre left the team, but all of that seems to have smoothed over in the last year or two. Which is good news for fans who love when legends like Favre and contemporary greatness like Rodgers get along. Both have won a Super Bowl ring, but statistically, Favre is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. By the end of his tenure in Green Bay, Favre and many others were ready for a change, but still, that couldn’t have been easy for Rodgers. Rodgers’ replacement status: Almost too good to be true.

3. Sam Francis, replacing Bronko Nagurski in 1938: From 1932-37, Nagurski reigned havoc on his opponents as a Bears fullback where he rushed for touchdowns, threw for touchdowns and kicked extra points. But after that season, when Bears owner George Halas refused Nagurski’s request for a raise, Nagurski retired. His backup, Sam Francis, was one of the Bears to try to replace his production. Francis, who was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1937 draft (five spots ahead of Sammy Baugh), didn’t last long. He tied for a team-high 297 rushing yards and three touchdowns in 1938, and the next season, he split time between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Brooklyn Dodgers. In other words, it didn’t go well. “He struck the fear of God into people,” Francis said when discussing Nagurski’s legacy. Francis, alas, did not. Francis’ replacement status: 70 years later, it’s hard to tell, based on his career stats and because Francis joined the military for World War II. It seems like Francis was fine as Nagurski’s replacement, but really, there was no replacing Nagurski.

2. Corey Miller, replacing Lawrence Taylor in 1994: Though Bill Parcells originally drafted Miller to be a tight end, former Giants coach Ray Handley, who took over when Parcells resigned, moved him to linebacker. When Taylor retired after the 1993 season, it was up to Miller to take over the spot of the future Hall of Famer who made 10 Pro Bowls as one of the fiercest linebackers of modern times. Miller, though, couldn’t fill that vacancy, as he didn’t accumulate a single sack the next two seasons. He eventually lost his starting job, and he had clashes with at least one of his coaches. Miller’s replacement status: Michael Strahan, not Miller, would become the cornerstone on defense for the Giants.

1. Steve Young, replacing Joe Montana in 1991: In case you don’t remember, Young started his NFL career in Tampa Bay, where he went a combined 3-16 in two years as the starting Buccaneers quarterback. Then, he went to San Francisco to sit behind Montana for another four seasons. But in 1991, Montana missed the season with an elbow injury, leaving the team with Young. It was not a smooth transition. “On the one hand, nobody had expected the loss of Montana, and it took the team a long time to adjust not only to the rhythms and timing of Young, but also to the idea that anybody other than Joe could lead [it],” writes SB Nation. “Young struggled to win the complete trust of his teammates, and it took him a long time to get in synch with his receivers.” Young ended up hurting his knee and played 11 games that year, but by 1992, he was in charge of the team for good. He ended up becoming a Hall of Famer, and his career passer rating of 96.8 is the second-best in NFL history. Young’s replacement status: One Hall of Famer transitioning to another Hall of Famer turned out rather well for San Francisco. 

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