When Dan Fouts walked off the field following a 20-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in December 1987, no one knew that he suffered a shoulder injury during the game that would end his year, and ultimately, his career.
Instead, the San Diego Chargers legend played through the pain, as was the case for much of his career. He finished the day with three interceptions and no touchdowns in a game that was the fifth consecutive loss for a team that was 8-1 one month earlier.
The losing streak extended to six when Mark Herrmann took over at quarterback in the season finale for a 24-0 loss to the Denver Broncos. The Chargers missed the playoffs for a fifth straight year, despite the fact that it was the franchise's first winning season since 1982.
"After 15 years, this body has taken about as many hits as it can," Fouts said a few months later in a retirement press conference. "It's just time for me to move on to another phase in my life."
While John Elway and Peyton Manning were lucky enough to end their careers with confetti, for most quarterbacks, their time in the NFL ends in flames. Only one team can hoist the Lombardi Trophy, so in most cases, great quarterbacks finish their time in the NFL like Fouts did: With pain and disappointment.
Many memorable careers had forgettable endings
Dan Marino's Hall of Fame career with the Miami Dolphins ended with a 62-7 blowout in the playoffs to the Jacksonville Jaguars, but many legendary quarterbacks didn't even get a last crack at the postseason. Troy Aikman's 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys included eight trips to the playoffs, yet his final year was a 5-11 season with just seven touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
The stellar career of Joe Montana ended with two seasons in Kansas City that didn't yield the Chiefs the Super Bowl ring they had in mind when trading away a first-round pick for a 36-year-old quarterback. However, he did get the team to an AFC Championship and finished his final two seasons with a 17-8 record as a starter and two trips to the playoffs.
The Chiefs haven't been to the AFC Championship since Montana, so it's hard to say the short time with the San Francisco 49ers legend was anything close to a failure. But after five Super Bowls with the 49ers, Montana's time with the Chiefs didn't produce nearly as much success and is considered an odd footnote in his 16-year career.
On the other hand, Johnny Unitas wasn't as lucky as Montana in his final season after switching teams. He threw three touchdowns and seven interceptions in the five games he played with the Chargers during a 2-11-1 season in 1973. It didn't do much to dent his reputation after 17 seasons with the Baltimore Colts, though.
A legacy can survive a bad season or two, but when a good quarterback spends the better half of a decade as a second option, he will be remembered as such. Even Brett Favre's roller coaster end to his career that included stints with the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, along with what felt like seven retirements, didn't cost him much. His final NFL season with the Vikings was one of only two in his career that ended with a losing record, but he still easily earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.
But the lengthy careers of Warren Moon, Kerry Collins and Vinny Testaverde ended with backup roles on middling teams. Moon's nine Pro Bowl seasons -- six with the Houston Oilers, two with the Minnesota Vikings and one with the Seattle Seahawks -- helped him reach the Hall of Fame, even after two forgettable seasons on the bench for the Chiefs.
For Collins and Testaverde, players with two trips to the Pro Bowl each and spots in the top 15 of the all-time passing yardage list, several years as backups served to redefine their careers -- and not for the better.
A handful of quarterbacks are in danger of disappointing final chapters
For older quarterbacks in the NFL today, like Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Tony Romo, tough ends to strong careers could be on the way. They're all expensive and on teams that finished with losing records in 2015. For some, the pricey contracts mean it could be difficult for their teams to turn things around, as is the case with Brees.
Romo, 36, told James Palmer of NFL Network that he believes he could play as many as five more seasons, but many have their doubts. Despite playing behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines for the last few seasons, Romo has struggled with injuries and multiple breaks of his collarbone.
"This last year he broke it twice and he wasn't hit very much," Aikman told Sports Illustrated in January. "He has missed some time, and as a guy who continues to get older, and I certainly know as a quarterback, it's harder to come back and it's harder to play week in and week out as you get older."
Romo, Manning and Brees are the all-time leaders in passing for their respective franchises and Rivers is likely to eclipse Fouts for that mark in San Diego soon.
But they are all running out of time to make a final run at the Super Bowl and could finish their careers gritting through losing seasons on subpar teams -- something many Hall of Fame quarterbacks have had to endure before them.