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Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford present ideal Year 3 models for Sam Darnold

Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, and Sam Darnold
Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

These two modern-day star quarterbacks had shaky starts to their careers before ascending to elite status in Year 3.

Drew Brees (2004)

Drew Brees spent his 2001 rookie season on the bench behind Doug Flutie, being elevated into San Diego’s starting role ahead of the 2002 season.

Already 23 years and 236 days old on the afternoon of his first NFL start in 2002 (an age Sam Darnold will not reach until after the conclusion of his third season as a starter), Brees did not hit the ground running. Out of 29 qualified quarterbacks from 2002-03, Brees ranked 28th in yards per attempt (6.1) and 25th in passer rating (73.1) while posting a record of 10-17 (.317). In 2003, the Chargers even elected to bench Brees for a five-game stretch in favor of Flutie.

Ahead of the 2004 season, Brees’ fourth in the NFL and third as a starter, the Chargers drafted Eli Manning and subsequently traded him for Philip Rivers. Brees had a boatload of pressure placed upon his shoulders heading into year No. 3 at the helm.

NEW YORK – APRIL 24: Eli Manning holding up a San Diego Chargers jersey was selected first pick overall by the Chargers then traded to the New York Giants for Philip Rivers and 3 draft picks during the 2004 NFL Draft on April 24, 2004 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Brees’ 2004 season started off similarly poorly, putting his job in apparent jeopardy. Through three weeks, the Chargers were 1-2, while Brees was ranked 21st in passer rating (77.1), 24th in passing yards (476), and 31st in completion rate (54.2%).

Was there any reason to believe in Brees at that point? He was a 25-year-old fourth-year professional who seemed to be on his way to a third consecutive poor season to begin his career. The Chargers’ acquisition of Brees’ future replacement was a major showing of skepticism from the people who saw him play on a consistent basis, only further denting any sliver of hope that he might have a bright future in San Diego.

In Week 4 of the 2004 season, everything turned on a dime. Brees shredded the Titans defense with 16-of-20 passing for 206 yards, three touchdowns, and no picks, posting career-bests of 10.3 yards per attempt and a 149.3 passer rating while leading San Diego to a career-best 38 points in a blowout victory.

From that point through the conclusion of the 2004 season – and until this very day – Brees has been one of the most unstoppable quarterbacks in NFL history.

Brees was named to his first of 13 Pro Bowls that season. He wound up posting the league’s third-best passer rating (104.8), trailing only Daunte Culpepper and Peyton Manning. It was the first of what currently stands as 16 consecutive seasons with an above-average passer rating for Brees, tied for the second-longest streak in league history with Fran Tarkenton and Dan Marino. Tom Brady holds the record with 18 consecutive seasons (snapped in 2019).

None of those accomplishments seemed remotely possible prior to that Week 4 game against the Titans in 2004. Just over three months ahead of his 26th birthday, Brees’ career was circling the drain.

It usually takes a good amount of time until a quarterback reaches his prime. Oftentimes, in hindsight, a quarterback’s ascension to consistent stardom turns out to be an overnight breakout from one week to the next, just as it now appears with Brees’ 2004 season.

Give your quarterback a few years. Once you do, allow him to work through his rough patches. You never know which dominant performance will mark the beginning of a long and successful prime.

Chargers quarterback Drew Brees hands off to runningback LaDainian Tomlinson in the first quarter as the San Diego Chargers defeated the Oakland Raiders by a score of 27 to 14 at McAfee Coliseum, Oakland, California, October 16, 2005. (Photo by Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary)

Matthew Stafford (2011)

Stafford dealt with many of the same hardships in his early career that Darnold has, making his career arc one of the most realistic paths to success for Darnold to follow.

Most of these detriments and circumstances sound eerily familiar.

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