Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part I (100-87)

As I get ready for the 2021 NFL season, an update to my largest database – stats on every game since 2001 – gave me an opportunity to write about a perfect collection of round numbers.

Including the playoffs, there are 100 quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). If you love top 100 lists, the central limit theorem, or the 21st century, then there is something there for you. As we near the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, I thought this would be a good time before final predictions to reflect on these two decades of football given that 2001 was the first season where I really became a die-hard viewer of all things NFL. It was the season where I started watching far more than just the Steelers game and the occasional Monday Night Football game and the Super Bowl.

So, how about a ranking of those 100 quarterbacks? This is an exercise I like to do every few years to test where my values are in analyzing quarterback play. How does one weigh a career like Josh Allen’s after he blew up in his third season to someone like Matt Schaub, who had several years of solid play (2007-12) but never up to the level of Allen’s 2020?

What really stood out to me about this process was just how difficult it was to sort the quarterbacks ranked 18-86. The top and bottom of the list came together rather easily, but in between there was a lot of mediocrity and tough calls.

But right now, this first part is focusing on the bottom 14 quarterbacks. Remember, a player had to start at least 30 games to make the list. I have seen plenty of worse quarterbacks play in the NFL in the last 20 years: Nathan Peterman, Ryan Lindley, Curtis Painter, Caleb Hanie, JaMarcus Russell, Cody Pickett, Jeff Tuel, etc. Who said you need experience to suck so good? (I can make that joke since being the host of Jeopardy! is not in my future.)

On to the list…

100. Blaine Gabbert

It pains me to see that Blaine Gabbert has more Super Bowl rings than Dan Marino and Andrew Luck (and many others) combined. Even more painful than Cecil Shorts in 2012 (Colts fans know that one). But seriously, Gabbert may be the worst quarterback in NFL history who got to play this many games. By getting in a game against Detroit and throwing two touchdowns so that Tom Brady would not get all the stat-padding, Gabbert broke the 1,500-attempt mark that day to officially qualify for NFL rate stats. His 72.3 passer rating is hardly the worst of all time because the era we are in will not allow it. But his ANY/A+ at Pro Football Reference, which does adjust for sacks and era, is 77, beating out Rick Mirer (80) and Kyle Boller (82) for the lowest among all passers with at least 1,500 attempts.

Gabbert is also such a chickenshit quarterback that he makes Alex Smith look like Aaron Rodgers when it comes to throwing past the sticks on third down. I may have called the stat BLAINE instead of ALEX had I known better. Behind Line Attempts Is Nurturing Existence. It just doesn’t flow as well.

99. Joey Harrington

Yikes, what a draft class in 2002. David Carr went No. 1 to expansion Houston and couldn’t stop taking sacks. Joey Harrington went No. 3 to Detroit and couldn’t get rid of the ball quicker. He wanted no part of that smoke. Harrington still has two of the top 10 seasons in lowest sack% in NFL history. Unfortunately, it made him lead ineffective offenses. Harrington was 1-11 when he threw for at least 255 yards. He was 1-34 as a starter when his team allowed more than 21 points.

My top memory of him was in 2004, his best season. He threw for a season-high 361 yards and what should have been a game-tying touchdown to force overtime with the Vikings. But the Lions botched the extra point and lost 28-27. Harrington looked crushed on the sideline. At least he got some revenge with three touchdowns on Detroit as a member of the Dolphins in 2006. But in six seasons as a starter, Harrington never cracked 6.5 YPA in any season. His 5.79 YPA is still the lowest in NFL history, and if you know how much I like that stat, then you know he was going to rank near the bottom of this list.

98. Kyle Boller

This may be stretching the truth, but let’s go with the alleged story that Brian Billick and the Ravens drafted Boller in the first round because he could throw a football 70 yards from his knees. That sure came in handy as he struggled to throw for 70 yards in the first half of games. But that night in 2007 when this bust nearly upset the unbeaten Patriots was when I knew that team would not go undefeated. Not when you should have lost to Kyle Boller a week after A.J. Feeley gave you a scare.

I did not plan this, but my first three quarterbacks have the lowest YPA of any quarterbacks to enter the league this century and throw at least 1,500 passes. Harrington (5.79) and Boller (5.88) did not even crack 6.0 YPA, but Gabbert (6.08) actually looks worse if you adjust for era.

97. Trent Edwards

Any quarterback known as “Captain Checkdown” will be on my shit list. Oddly enough, Edwards was probably still better in the pros as a third-round pick than JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn were in that 2007 class. But I gave up any hope for him after that 2009 opener against the Patriots when the Bills literally coughed up a 24-13 lead by fumbling a kickoff in between touchdowns. All Edwards had to do was lead a game-winning field goal drive, but he took two sacks and that was that. Not sure I ever watched another game from him.

96. Colt McCoy

Fun fact: McCoy has the worst record as a starter against the spread (9-20-1, .317) of any of the quarterbacks in this top 100.

My memories of McCoy are from college when it was so sad to see him injured at the start of a national championship game. In the NFL, I definitely saw his first start against the Steelers in 2010, a 28-10 loss where he was not that bad given the circumstances. Then the Browns upset the Saints and Patriots, but those games were more about the defense and making a Madden cover star out of Peyton Hillis than anything McCoy did.  Sounds like the Seattle upset last year he started for the Giants. He threw for just 105 yards in that one. He is still in the league (Cardinals), but if I had to venture a guess at something McCoy is actually good at, I would go with standing for the national anthem.

95. Christian Ponder

I never believed in Ponder, but it would have been nice if he got to start that 2012 NFC wild card game in Green Bay instead of Joe Webb. Especially since the Vikings beat the Packers in Week 17 with Ponder having arguably the best game of his career. But he was someone who had to be carried by a running game (Adrian Peterson). Ponder had 136.8 rushing yards per start to support him in his career. The only other quarterback in this top 100 with more than 130 yards per game is Jimmy Garoppolo (139.2), but we know Ponder never had a season like Garoppolo had in 2019. He never had a five-game run like Garoppolo did when he joined the 49ers either.

94. Rex Grossman

The Sex Cannon himself. It is still hard to believe the 2006 Bears got to the Super Bowl with this guy. He may have started the “will good [QB name] or bad [QB name] show up today?” with his play being so erratic that year. His performance against the Cardinals on Monday Night Football that year gave us the great Denny Green meme that will live in infamy, and it’s also the worst quarterback performance you will ever see during a 20-point comeback win.

If “Peyton Manning won his only Super Bowl with the Colts against Rex Grossman” is a diss, then maybe Drew Brees and the Saints shouldn’t have lost to them by 25 points in the damn NFC Championship Game. That one always bugs me. Amusingly, Grossman swept the 2011 Giants with Washington. Yep, the same Giants that swept the Patriots that year and won the Super Bowl.

The only positive thing I’ll say is that Grossman had that “fuck it, I’m throwing deep” mentality that is refreshing to see in a league where guys like Gabbert and Edwards play so scared. This is why Grossman is ranked a little higher because he could actually have some decent games. But his lows were also really god damn low.

93. J.P. Losman

If the 2004 quarterback class is compared to the 1983 quarterback class, then I guess Losman is the Todd Blackledge eyesore of the group. Go figure, Buffalo picked the rotten apple. But looking at his stats again, I am amused that he raised his completion percentage from 49.6% in 2005 to 62.5% in 2006, his best season. Wow, I thought only Josh Allen did that kind of increase?

Relax, #BillsMafia. Allen was much better in 2020 than Losman was in 2006, which proved to be fool’s gold as he never got better. But at least that 2006 season was better than anything Captain Checkdown Trent Edwards did for the team.

92. Chad Henne

Man, this guy went 0-4 against Ohio State only to get payback on the Browns in the playoffs 12 years after being drafted. F’n savage. Yes, Henne finally has a career moment after stepping in for an injured Patrick Mahomes last postseason. He scrambled unexpectedly for 13 yards on a third-and-14 before icing the game with a fourth-down completion to Tyreek Hill.

What else can I say about Henne? He is tied with John Elway and Steve McNair for the most seasons in NFL history (three) with no more than 15 touchdown passes on at least 450 pass attempts. Also, I don’t feel like updating this, but Henne has barely played since 2014 so the numbers probably are similar. Apparently, he has had some great fumble luck.

Finally, with the way the game is going statistically, it is very likely that Henne will be the last player who will ever have three seasons with more interceptions than touchdowns (min. 400 attempts).

91. Sam Darnold

I may be hedging a little that he will get better away from Adam Gase and the Jets, but so far, I am not buying anything Darnold is selling except that 46-yard touchdown run against the Broncos last year. That was a sweet play, but overall, he’s a sub-60% passer who takes an inordinate number of sacks and throws too many picks. He has also been trending in the wrong direction, but Carolina is a fresh start for him. Just sweep for ghosts first.

90. Geno Smith

Christ, do you see why the AFC East played out the way it did for two decades? I’m on my 11th quarterback, and so far, we have two draft picks by the Bills, one by the Dolphins, and two by the Jets. Believe it or not, Geno was once thought to be an option for the No. 1 pick to the Chiefs in that dreadful 2013 draft.

Smith led five game-winning drives as a 2013 rookie, but I know somewhere I wrote that they weren’t impressive ones. The one against the Patriots in overtime saw him complete just one 12-yard pass early in the drive. Everything else was a run. Geno just never sold me. He made modest statistical improvement in 2014, but the team got worse, and he only has started two games since. Just a brutal quarterback draft where Smith is in competition with Mike Glennon and EJ Manuel for best in class.

89. Quincy Carter

Carter last played for the Jets (2004), but he was supposed to still be Dallas’ starter that season. However, the team cut him in August after substance abuse problems. This actually saved Tony Romo’s roster spot that year as an undrafted player in his second year. But Carter was carried by the defense to the playoffs in 2003 and was never anything special. His most notable game, which was his only 300-yard game and his only high-scoring win, started with a pick-six actually against the Giants on MNF. The Cowboys won 35-32 in overtime, but just getting there took a 26-yard completion from Carter in the final seconds to tie the game.

To think, we may never have seen Romo do anything in this league if Carter was more professional in his youth.

88. David Carr

Once upon a time, Carr was only the third true rookie quarterback to start 16 games, joining Rick Mirer and Peyton Manning. We did not see this again until 2008 when Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco flipped the script on starting rookies in Week 1. Now, we see it all the time, but it was a bit risky to do that to Carr on an expansion Texans team that was not good like the Panthers and Jaguars were in 1995.

Carr took a beating that first year and was sacked 76 times, an NFL record unlikely to be broken. His 68 sacks in his third season (2005) rank third all time. Carr’s career sack rate (10.54%) is the highest in NFL history by anyone not named Greg Landry.

But I feel like Carr’s career is a good case study in QB statistics. I was in high school when he came into the league, and given all the historic sack numbers he was taking, this led naïve, inexperienced me to believe that sacks are an offensive line stat. It’s all on the line to protect the quarterback. Of course, as I gained experience in studying the game, I saw that sacks are much more of a quarterback stat. He must get rid of the ball in a timely fashion or else you get pressure and sacks. The line obviously still shares some of the responsibility, and quick sacks can be utilized to place proper blame, but overall this is more reflective of the quarterback’s performance than the line’s.

While Houston was absolutely weak in the OL department in Carr’s career, note that he went to Carolina in 2007 and still had a sack rate of 8.7%. I think if we had the advanced metrics for Carr’s Houston career, we would have seen a quarterback who did his line few favors.

Then there is completion percentage. Carr’s 2006 season under new coach Gary Kubiak always felt so fishy to me because he led the league in completion percentage at 68.3%, which was one of the highest seasons ever at the time. But he was 24th in DVOA, 21st in QBR, threw more picks than touchdowns, and the offense was still 20th in yards per drive and 23rd in points per drive. Carr’s other numbers were just bad. It was a lot of dinking and dunking to cut down on sacks and boost that completion percentage. This season felt like a blueprint for Sam Bradford to follow years later and make completion percentage a meaningless metric when depth of target is not taken into account.

So, Carr had a pretty shit career and I think he would have been a bust in any city. With that said, do you think this tweet had anything to do with all three Carr brothers blocking me on Twitter?

Truthfully, I think I was already blocked before it. I’ve pulled no punches in saying that this is the softest family in football. These guys do not handle criticism well at all, and now we see David showing a lot of favoritism for his brother as a media analyst.

So, why even rank him this high? His 2004 season is probably the best season by any of the quarterbacks listed so far. He was not carried to team success like a Ponder or Grossman or Carter. It actually seemed like Carr turned the corner, and despite still taking a league-high 49 sacks, he cut his percentage down and the Texans had somewhat of a functioning offense (14th in yards per drive, 21st in points per drive). This was Andre Johnson’s second year on the team, and there is nothing wrong with giving your young quarterback a legit No. 1 receiver.

Of course, we learned that playing the defenses of the 2004 AFC South and NFC North were very beneficial to putting up great numbers that year, one where all offensive numbers were up after the NFL reminded officials that illegal contact after five yards is still a rule. If that schedule boost helped produce career years for Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper, it could also work for Carr and Joey Harrington as both peaked that season and never came close to repeating it.

If Carr was “broken” by his 2002 rookie situation, then 2004 never should have been possible, right? This is why I will never buy into the idea that you can “ruin” a quarterback by playing him too early. The only way that happens is if you physically break him, which is something that could happen in Joe Burrow’s case with Cincinnati’s offensive line. But I’m not even sure we got to October last year before I could confidently say that Burrow will be better in the NFL than this original Carr brother was.

87. Brock Osweiler

If Robert Pattinson was six inches taller and had no discernible talent, he would be Brock Osweiler. This is a hard one since I know that 2016 season in Houston was awful, and the playoff win against the Raiders was some Connor Cook’d up bullshit. But unlike the first 13 players here, Osweiler did serve a role in helping a team win a Super Bowl, and helped my favorite player retire as a champion again.

While I always rejected the notion that Osweiler should have continued to start over Peyton Manning for Denver that year, I do not see an injured Manning getting those pivotal wins against the Patriots and Bengals that helped the Broncos secure the No. 1 seed and homefield in the playoffs.

Still, John Elway’s Tall QB fetish likely cost the Broncos a better shot at a dynasty by drafting Osweiler over Russell Wilson in 2012. He gave rise to a Seattle team that beat the Broncos convincingly in 2013 while screwing with the future of the team in the post-Peyton years. Imagine if Wilson got to step in there once Manning retired, which could have come sooner if 2013 ended with him on top after breaking multiple records that year. But nope, the Broncos won one ring, and when Osweiler came back in 2017, he failed to win a start for the team.

But I have to say his existence in this timeline came with some personal benefits.

Part II: Some of your favorite journeymen and one-year wonders coming soon (#86-51)

7 thoughts on “Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part I (100-87)

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