Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part IV (50-31)

Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Part III (#71-51)

These next 20 quarterbacks were some of the hardest to rank in the list, but the one thing I know is they are in the right tier together.

50. Ryan Fitzpatrick

I may have purposely slotted Fitzpatrick at No. 50 and moved players above or below him based on whether or not I think they were good. I want to start seeing more good careers rather than just good seasons as we get into the top 50, but here we are with one of the most unexpected careers in NFL history.

I said that Josh McCown is the RC Cola version of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Like McCown, Fitzpatrick’s first big moment was his NFL debut when he came off the bench to lead an insane comeback against Houston in 2005. It’s ironic that he made an epic comeback his first impression since he went on to have a career as one of the worst clutch QBs in NFL history. His 4QC record is 13-48 (.213) and only Philip Rivers (36) had more interceptions in a failed 4QC/GWD attempt than Fitzpatrick (28) since 2005. Fitzpatrick went from a 21-point comeback win in his NFL debut to leading his team to 21 points as a starter in one of his next 18 starts (5-12-1 record). He threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns in that debut, or numbers he would not hit again until nearly five years later in a 2010 game with Buffalo.

Did some of the quarterbacks already ranked have better peak seasons than Fitzpatrick? Yes, you can say that, especially since Fitzpatrick has played for eight teams in 16 seasons and never once made the playoffs. Not even finishing 10-6 twice in the AFC East (2015 Jets and 2020 Dolphins) led to more January football. But it is such a long, strange career that you have to give him some props. Fitzpatrick is one of 21 quarterbacks since 2001 to have at least five seasons with 3,000 yards and 20 touchdown passes, but he is the lowest ranked of those 21 on my list, so I feel that I’m being fair and not going overboard with his ranking. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400 yards in three straight games, a title he could never lose. He is on a short list of quarterbacks to throw six touchdowns in one game.

Maybe the real magic in Fitzmagic is that he continues to find starting jobs in this league. He is going to start for Washington this year, a team hoping to return to the playoffs. If it doesn’t happen, then here is another record that may never be broken, especially with the addition of a third wild card team in each conference.

49. Baker Mayfield

As I have given extra credit to quarterbacks for making the Washington franchise relevant over the years, I am doing the same for Cleveland signal callers. Baker Mayfield is a polarizing figure right now, but the Browns actually have a winning record (25-23) when he plays. The Browns. A winning record. These things are not supposed to mix, but he even threw for three touchdowns and 263 yards in a playoff win in Pittsburgh.

Mayfield made his NFL debut against the Jets in 2018 at a time when the Browns were 7-51-1 in their last 59 games. They won seven games in 2018 and he threw 27 touchdown passes as a rookie, a short-lived record before Justin Herbert (31) broke it last year. Mayfield regressed in 2019, but with a better coach last year, the Browns went 11-5 on the strength of their offense and won a playoff game, two things the team had not done since 1994. Mayfield finished 10th in QBR (65.5) last year. Does he take advantage of a good line, running game, and play-action passing? Yes, but he won’t be the first or last quarterback to do so. Now we just need to see him do this consistently, but I think last year was a step in the right direction.

48. Brad Johnson

He hit his statistical peaks earlier on with the Vikings (1996-98) and Redskins (1999), but in Tampa Bay, Johnson just needed to manage the game with one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. In that 2001 season with Tony Dungy as his head coach, the offense was tough to watch, ranked 28th in yards per play as Johnson only threw 13 touchdowns on 559 attempts. The Bucs lost 31-9 in the playoffs with Johnson throwing four picks against the Eagles.

Enter Jon Gruden in 2002, and the offense actually took some steps back statistically. The Bucs went from 20th in yards per drive and 12th in points per drive in Dungy’s last year to 24th in yards and 23rd in points in Gruden’s first season. The running game still was weak as “Alstott up the gut!” only averaged 3.8 yards per carry. But Johnson had a very steady season, throwing 22 touchdowns against six picks. He took 21 sacks in 13 games while backup and human pinata Rob Johnson took 19 sacks to go with 88 throws.

Those three games Johnson – the starter one, not the masochist – missed had a lot to do with the poor season numbers for that offense. In those three games, the Bucs kicked nine field goals and got one garbage-time touchdown against the Steelers in a 17-7 loss.

In the playoffs, Johnson was nothing special. He threw one pick in all three games, but he only took one sack and generally stayed out of the way. Let the defense dominate as it did to win that Super Bowl, intercepting MVP Rich Gannon five times. The defining play that postseason was also a Ronde Barber pick-six off Donovan McNabb in the NFC title game. This is why I don’t want to give Johnson too much credit for that Super Bowl win, because I feel like most starting quarterbacks that year could have won one with this team and defense.

But that was a different time when defenses were really dominating the postseason and allowing quarterbacks to come out of grocery stores, NFL Europe, or the bottom rounds of the draft to play in and win Super Bowls. After the championship win, Johnson never started another playoff game and was 21-25 in his starts.

47. David Garrard

Garrard was the backup to Byron Leftwich in Jacksonville, but he was clearly the more mobile quarterback. When Leftwich was injured in 2005, Garrard started the last five games, and the Jaguars were 4-1 on their way to the playoffs. To this day I still think Garrard deserved to start that wild card game in New England, but Leftwich came back and played terribly before he was benched. It was already too late, and the Jaguars lost 28-3.

Garrard took over Leftwich’s job for good in 2006 after an ineffective start. However, the team lost three straight to end the season and miss the playoffs. In 2007, Garrard had his career year, throwing 18 touchdowns to three picks in 12 games while leading the Jaguars to a 9-3 record. They were 2-2 without him. His 80.9 QBR that season still ranks as the seventh highest among seasons from 2006 to 2020. That formula really has a hard-on for quarterbacks who run, but Garrard had good passing numbers that year too (64% complete and 7.72 YPA). In the playoffs, he had a rough night in Pittsburgh in the wild card, but his 32-yard scramble late in the game on a fourth down set up a game-winning field goal. And yes, there was a hold on the play that was not called, but water over the bridge. Garrard actually played better in New England the following week despite the loss.

Garrard was 20-26 in his last three seasons as Jacksonville’s starter. There were no more playoff appearances. He made one Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2009, though it is clear that 2007 and 2010 were his best seasons. I watched him give the Colts and Steelers a lot of tough games in that era. He played the Patriots well in 2006-07 too. We’ll see what Trevor Lawrence does, but I think Garrard is the second-best quarterback in Jacksonville history after Mark Brunell.

46. Jake Plummer

When Jake Plummer was in Arizona, he was one of those quarterbacks who had poor efficiency metrics, but he could catch fire and lead a comeback. He had seven game-winning drives in 1998 alone, and I believe he had this type of play in him going back to college too. His accuracy was just never consistent enough to make him a reliable quarterback, and things only continued to get worse in Arizona.

When he went to Denver in 2003, it was a good fit. Plummer had the mobility to excel in Mike Shanahan’s bootleg heavy, play-action system that made running backs into stars and boosted a lot of quarterback numbers as well. Plummer saw his passer rating jump from 69.0 in Arizona to 84.3 in Denver, which is why I often cite him as an example of a quarterback taking a big leap forward on his second team. But in three straight playoff seasons, Plummer ran into Manning’s Colts, who destroyed his defense, and Ben Roethlisberger had maybe the best playoff game of his career with the 2005 Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Plummer turned the ball over too much in that one and he never got Denver back to the playoffs, losing his job to Jay Cutler in 2006.

Plummer retired before his age-33 season, but when you read that he went to live in the mountains with his Denver cheerleader wife, well how can you criticize that? Smart move. It also means he retired with a 3-0 record against Tom Brady.

45. Andy Dalton

Now it gets interesting. Had Dalton been a better passer, he could have trademarked “The Ginger Assassin” and sold his own merch. Instead, he’s arguably the worst island game QB in the 21st century. Dalton is 6-17 in prime time games and 0-4 as a playoff starter where he always played poorly.

Yet, I probably give him more credit than the average analyst. He never had it easy going into the AFC in 2011. He shared a division with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, two of the most consistent, stable franchises in the league. He shared a conference with Manning, Brady, and later Mahomes, making it almost impossible for the Bengals to get a first-round bye.

Then at his peak in 2015, Dalton finished third in QBR (72.5). Things finally looked to be going his way, then he fractured his thumb against the Steelers in December when the team still had a shot at a bye. They lost that game, lost to Denver, and lost to the Steelers again in the playoffs while Dalton was unable to play again that season. After that peak, it was all downhill from there, though I’ll be damned if I know why he got his third Pro Bowl invite in 2016. The fact that he didn’t get one for 2015 is also mind boggling, but this is why that achievement is so pointless these days.

Now we just expect Dalton to get through his ginger snaps before Justin Fields take over in Chicago ASAP.

44. Jimmy Garoppolo

Oh, you handsome devil. The only thing more attractive than Garoppolo is his stats, yet the stigma surrounding him is that he’s as brittle as your grandpa and he’s a system QB. Garoppolo is the answer to “what if Matt Schaub was hot?”

But what if this is all misguided and we are witnessing a legitimate quarterback who just hasn’t been able to stay healthy yet? With Garoppolo coming up on 1,000 career pass attempts, how many people realize he is fifth in NFL history in YPA (8.23), third in completion percentage (67.5%), and 26-9 (.743) as a starter? This is why I cannot support starting raw rookie Trey Lance in Week 1 this season. Garoppolo deserves another chance to prove he can stay healthy and have a productive season.

In very small sample sizes with the 2016 Patriots and 2017 49ers, he looked good and his QBR was over 82, or MVP territory if he did it for a full season. He tore his ACL just three games into 2018, so cancel that season from memory. Then he had that 2019 season where, yes, the team was stacked, but he still had them tied or in the lead of every game in the fourth quarter, including a 10-point lead in that Super Bowl before WASP happened. He led them to a 48-46 win in New Orleans to help get the No. 1 seed. He did very little in the two playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl, but I’ve seen worse things get rewarded in January. And yes, he missed the big throw to Emmanuel Sanders in the Super Bowl that could have been a career-defining moment for him. Maybe it still is, but not a positive one. Then he was injured in Week 2 last year and just never looked right in the four games he came back to play before his season ended short again.

Note where Garoppolo and Schaub appear on this chart that looks at games against winning teams. Garoppolo is to the far right with future HOFers. Schaub is buried in the center around Derek Carr, Tyrod Taylor, and Sam Bradford.

I know some of the numbers are misleading because of the way Kyle Shanahan schemes up big plays and YAC plays, and George Kittle is a YAC machine at tight end. I know that Garoppolo gets 139.2 yards per game of rushing support, the most of any of the 100 quarterbacks on this list. But I think this mixture of efficiency and winning is worth exploring for another year. Besides, he’ll probably be hurt before Halloween and Lance can start then. But we need to see more of Garoppolo as few quarterbacks ever post numbers like this in the NFL.

43. Carson Wentz

Seeing some Indianapolis fans turn on Wentz before he even takes a snap for them has been comical, but I’ve been trying to warn people since September 2016 that this guy is not someone to trust.

Just three games into his career with Philadelphia, the praise for Wentz was overwhelming. The “he’s pre-snap Peyton, post-snap Rodgers” bit by Brian Baldinger especially stuck in my crawl. I watched two of his first three games live and did not understand it. When I looked at the numbers and saw Wentz near the bottom in air yards through Week 3, I made a comment about it on Twitter, and I proposed that Dak Prescott has been just as good, if not better as a rookie for Dallas. This led to a bunch of pissed off Eagles fans – and some antagonistic media people – who had no sense of the differences between YPA and aDOT trashing me on Twitter. I was the “air yards guy” at that point just for pointing out that Wentz was not throwing down the field and his biggest play against the Steelers was basically Darren Sproles forcing a missed tackle for a 73-yard gain.

Sure enough, Wentz has never completed another pass for 73+ yards in his career and Prescott, the OROY, has proven to be the better pro. In the first game after my air yards stuff drove Philly wild, Wentz had his first game-winning drive opportunity against the Lions, only needing to set up a field goal. He came out and uncorked a deep ball that was so uncharacteristic of his first 16 quarters of action, and it was intercepted by Darius Slay to end the game. Given how thin-skinned we’ve learned Wentz is, I wouldn’t be surprised if I got in his head about the air yards thing and he tried to show he could deliver deep.

Realizing we are a week away from the season and I am not writing a book here, I need to start picking up the pace on these write-ups. So, I will not rehash everything I’ve written about Wentz before here. His peak season was clearly 2017, and while I don’t think it was MVP caliber, I can acknowledge that he probably wins the award if he didn’t get hurt.

I can also acknowledge he may have had a better career without tearing that ACL. Would he still have won a Super Bowl that year? That I do not feel good about, because I’ve never seen Wentz step up against playoff-caliber competition the way Nick Foles did against the Vikings and Patriots. I think Wentz would have folded again.

We know last year Wentz regressed into one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, which even I did not see coming. On this blog I was highly critical of the fool’s gold I saw from his four-game winning streak to end 2019, so I was not surprised to see it not carry over to 2020. But even I wouldn’t have predicted such a brutal, negative play filled season that cost him his job and got Doug Pederson fired.

Wentz’s 2017 is a season that almost no one on this list so far can say they had, and his play in 2018-19 is decent enough to where you cannot call him a one-year wonder. But I just wish Eagles fans would have been more open to the criticisms. Guess they learned some hard truths last year.

42. Derek Carr

Another one of my whipping boys? Now you can see why it was so hard to slot this part of the list. Much like Wentz, Carr is a bruised ego quarterback with an obvious peak season (2016) that garnered unjustified MVP love and ended prematurely because of injury. Though while Wentz never got back to his level, I could make an argument that Carr had his best season in 2020. It did not result in the win-loss record Raiders fans would have hoped for, but the defense was terrible, and Carr actually came close to sweeping the Chiefs.

I wish Carr would take more chances as a passer. He is a better player than his brother David was, but it almost seems like the excessive sacks David took scared Derek so much that he makes it a point to get rid of the ball quickly, even if there is no pressure around. That is why the uncharacteristic deep balls and conversions on third-and-long in that Kansas City upset made it such an unusual Carr game, and also the best win of his career.

Carr has the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (21) in a quarterback’s first seven years in NFL history. That list is usually dominated by Hall of Famers, but here is Carr, who also shares the record for the most through a player’s first three, four, five, and six seasons too. He is 24-29 (.453) at game-winning drive opportunities, the 10th-best record among active starters. I’ve always said that if you can keep the game close, Carr is surprisingly good in these moments. I’ve also pointed out that he gets a lot of bogus penalties to help these winning drives, but so be it. He still comes through more than you’d expect and that is a good thing.

You just would like to see him avoid some of the clunkers he usually has a few times a season, and if he does that, then he should be able to do better than one winning season in seven tries.

41. Jared Goff

Similar to the Garoppolo-Shanahan situation in San Francisco, I think people go way overboard in crediting Sean McVay and blaming Malibu’s Most Wanted for what happened on the Rams. The quarterback still has to make the throws, and when Goff was at his best in 2017-18, he looked the part of a franchise quarterback. His game against the 2018 Vikings (465 yards, five touchdowns) was as good as anything a quarterback did that season. He also had that 54-51 win over the Chiefs; albeit Orlando Scandrick dropped an interception that should have won the game for the Chiefs. But they won that game with Goff having a huge night. Unfortunately, he never seemed to be the same player after that game as I’ve highlighted before:

  • Goff’s first 27 games with McVay up to 54-51: 21-6 (.778) record, 578/903 (64.0%), 7,610 yards, 8.43 yards per attempt, 5.5% sack rate, 55 TD, 13 INT, 104.8 passer rating.
  • Goff’s last 41 games with McVay since 54-51: 24-17 (.585) record, 959/1510 (63.5%), 10,772 yards, 7.13 yards per attempt, 4.1% sack rate, 51 TD, 37 INT, 85.8 passer rating.

Goff is 28-10 (.737) when he throws for at least 250 yards and 10-4 (.714) when he throws for at least 350 yards. Both are among the best records in NFL history. He is 8-14 (.364) when his team allows at least 28 points. Out of 46 quarterbacks since 2001 who started at least 20 games where their team allowed 28+ points, only Tom Brady (27-39, .406) has a better record than Goff. But one big difference: Brady’s teams allowed 32.3 points per game, the lowest in the sample, while Goff’s Rams allowed 37.7 points per game, the highest in the sample. Goff’s eight wins are also as many as Kirk Cousins (3-28-1), Carson Wentz (1-12), Teddy Bridgewater (1-11), Tyrod Taylor (0-12), Sam Darnold (1-15), and Deshaun Watson (2-18) combined.

Shanahan simply doesn’t win games without Garoppolo in San Francisco. We’ll see if it holds true for McVay without Goff, but there should be a lot of pressure on Matthew Stafford to make that offense work at a high level like Goff used to. I still am shocked that I even have him this high given how horrific his rookie season was, but if we are always blaming Adam Gase for everything that goes wrong with the Dolphins and Jets, then why not apply the same thing to Jeff Fisher on the Rams? Case Keenum left that team and had that magical year in 2017 with the Vikings. It’s not like McVay inherited a bum and turned him into gold. Goff was the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Not any quarterback could shake off that rookie season and lead a team to back-to-back playoffs and over 30 points per game like Goff did in 2017-18. Like with Garoppolo, I will not go overboard in crediting him for reaching a Super Bowl since we know the refs robbed the Saints on that no-call in the title game. And Goff only scored three points in the Super Bowl anyway, one of the biggest eyesores on his resume.

I do not expect Goff to shine in Detroit because that team looks like a department store in the final weeks of its going out of business sale. But if he somehow does, then maybe people will show some more appreciation for what he did with the Rams.

40. Alex Smith

I am going to miss Alex Smith after he retired this year. I am going to miss him throwing a 3-yard pass on 3rd-and-10. It was something he did so often that I made a stat called ALEX (Air Less EXpected) in honor of him in 2015 back when he finished last in ALEX for the third year in a row. Sure enough, he still finished last in ALEX in his final season too, which is why I’ve said it is a metric to judge a QB’s playing style and DNA.

I was clearly never a fan of Smith’s style. For years I criticized him as a bust in San Francisco. I said Shaun Hill outplayed him on the same team. Then Jim Harbaugh became the head coach in 2011 and suddenly that talented roster stared to click with Smith having an above-average season for the first time. Sure, he still was coddled by the run game and defense, and he chose to take sacks and settle for field goals instead of forcing passes for picks. But it worked for a 13-3 record, and he even delivered a signature moment with his game-winning touchdown drive against the Saints.

The only other playoff win in Smith’s career was the Bill O’Brien Saturday Wild Card Special in 2015. He was 2-5 in the playoffs, but definitely played better than his record with 14 touchdowns to two interceptions and a 97.4 passer rating. But whether it was in San Francisco or later Kansas City, Smith’s old habits of playing conservative and struggling to stay healthy doomed him.

He lost his job to Colin Kaepernick in 2012 after an injury led to the 49ers sticking with an exciting, dynamic player who led them to a Super Bowl. The Chiefs had long winning streaks in 2013 and 2015 with Smith, but I was highly critical of both given the nature of their performance and the level of competition they were facing. But in 2016, I thought the Chiefs and Smith were on the right track before they lost to six Pittsburgh field goals in the playoffs. That led to the team drafting Patrick Mahomes in the first round, but Smith still had his best season in 2017, a rare 13th-season peak year. But after another postseason run ended too soon, the Chiefs made the right move and went all in on Mahomes.

Smith had a shot at leading Washington to the playoffs in 2018 before suffering one of the worst leg injuries we will ever see. It is the Joe Theismann injury of our generation, and the eerie fact is they happened on the same date (November 18th) to the same team (Washington). It is a miracle he was able to return to the field last season. He still performed as one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, but that was good enough to win the worst division race since the merger. Smith’s last good game was in Pittsburgh, handing the 11-0 Steelers their first loss of the season.

I guess that was karma getting back at me for 15 years of criticism.

Smith was a bust until he was a “he just wins” quarterback in the eyes of mainstream media. But he was always ALEX to me, and I think 40th is more than generous.

39. Jay Cutler

It probably says something that in his only Pro Bowl season (2008), Cutler still threw 18 interceptions and blew a huge division lead and missed the playoffs. But it was just his luck that in two of his best seasons (2008 and 2013), he was saddled with the No. 30 scoring defense.

I still remember before Cutler’s first game with the Bears, the 2009 opener against Green Bay, Brian Urlacher was interviewed before kickoff. There was some statement about “you finally have a quarterback!” referencing Cutler and this very skeptical look washed over Urlacher’s face as if he didn’t believe it yet. Maybe he just knew better as Cutler threw four picks that night and led the NFL with 26 that season.

Things got much better the next year, but Cutler’s only playoff win came at the expense of a 7-9 Seattle team in 2010. He left the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay injured as we watched Caleb Hanie throw a crushing pick-six. Cutler never made the playoffs again despite going 17-8 as a starter in the next two seasons. But injuries cost him some crucial starts and the Bears flopped without him.

He even had a solid season with Adam Gase as his coordinator in 2015. I’d say something about his post-retirement season with Gase in Miami in 2017, but this is already plenty long enough for a quarterback who just didn’t care about anything.

But I will say Mike Mayock was right in fawning over Cutler more than he did Vince Young and Matt Leinart in that 2006 draft class. Mayock was on NFL Network at the time, and you’d think Cutler was his lovechild the way he hyped him up. But he was onto something there.

38. Kirk Cousins

I just wrote a lot about Cousins recently in the Vikings preview. I would say he’s replaced Tony Romo in the current quarterback stratosphere, but the truth is no one cares enough about the 14th-best quarterback in the NFL to have strong feelings either way. So, if Jimmy Garoppolo is Hot Matt Schaub, then Cousins is Anti-Vaxxer Matt Schaub. The stats are there, but the wins never are as Cousins seemingly can never stray more than a game from .500. Fuck it, I might as well quote myself from a couple weeks ago.

“Cousins is an absolutely fitting 51-51-2 as a starter in the regular season (plus 1-2 in the playoffs). Since 2015, his records have been 9-7, 8-7-1, 7-9, 8-7-1, 10-5, and 7-9. It is as if he is incapable of straying more than a game from .500 or the Earth will spin off its axis. The one time he did in 2019, the world was thrown into a global pandemic. That is just the facts.”

Cousins is 0-28 when he has a passer rating under 85.0 on at least 20 attempts, the worst record in NFL history. That is why I brought up Romo since he was notorious for having great stat lines in losses. But with Cousins, he’s never been able to have a mediocre stat line and win a game. Maybe that will change some day, but for now, Cousins is basically your hollow stat guy. He could be dangerous on an elite roster, but I would not trust him to have the killer instinct that a few of our quarterbacks coming up had that led to playoff success.

37. Matt Schaub

There he is. Our system quarterback who had a QBR of 61+ in each of his first six seasons with Houston (2007-12). During that stretch, Schaub was 44-36 as a starter, completed 65.1% of his passes, 114 TD, 64 INT, 7.9 YPA, and 93.3 passer rating. You could look at advanced charting metrics like passing plus-minus (think CPOE) and you would find him ahead of Brady and others.

Yet no one seemed to ever really buy into Schaub because he had some ill-timed turnovers in clutch moments. Specifically, he threw a pick-six against the 2009 Cardinals, had three turnovers in two games against the 2009 Colts, and he threw a pick-six in overtime against the 2010 Ravens. Those were all playoff teams and the kind of teams he’d have to beat in the playoffs. The only team he ever beat in the playoffs was Cincinnati, and we know Marvin Lewis handed out playoff wins to all comers like they were Halloween treats.

Oh yeah, Schaub also threw a game-ending pick in the end zone against the 2011 Raiders after owner Al Davis died. I remember laughing hysterically at the play when it happened. But I also feel a little bad for Schaub since that 2011 season was his chance to do something great and he was injured for the last six games, leaving the team stuck with T.J. Yates in the playoffs. Then in 2012, it was another great start for Houston before a late-season implosion. Come 2013, Schaub led Houston to two comeback wins for a 2-0 start, but he couldn’t shake a bad pick-six streak. Against the Seahawks in Week 4, he thew a pick-six to Richard Sherman late in the game that tied it for Seattle and sent the game to overtime where the Texans lost. I swear to this day that the Sherman play broke him for good. After that game, Schaub threw eight touchdowns to 15 interceptions and only started seven more games.

When you have your own pick-six montage on YouTube, that is a bad sign.

36. Marc Bulger

Bulger was a sixth-round pick by the Saints in 2000, but he first made an impact in replacing Kurt Warner in the 2002 season for the Rams. Warner turned into a hot mess that year while Bulger lit things up in his place, much like Warner did in 1999 when Trent Green got hurt. Bulger finished 6-1 as a starter with 8.5 YPA and 101.5 passer rating. When he again took over for Warner after one game into the 2003 season, he led the Rams to 12 wins and a first-round bye in his first Pro Bowl season. However, he saw his ratio drop to 22 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. The Rams lost a wild double overtime game to Carolina.

Bulger was sharper in 2004 and won a playoff game in Seattle, but the lack of protection in Mike Martz’s system combined with the aging of the weapons (Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk) led to the Rams no longer being that scary on offense. Bulger was injured in 2005, rebounded with a solid season in 2006, but he was a mess himself in 2007 and beyond. Bulger went from 36-24 as a starter to 5-30 in his last 35 starts. The talent on the Rams really declined, but he also threw 27 touchdowns to 34 picks and all his stats plummeted.

While Bulger lasted longer in St. Louis than Warner did, there was never any real comparison between their runs. Warner was a two-time MVP and Super Bowl starter. The Rams scored over 500 points in his first three seasons. Bulger had good stats for the time, but he never threw 25 touchdowns in a season, he was never in the MVP race, and the Rams only ranked high in scoring in that 2003 season where he led the league in interceptions.

I rooted for him since he was a local kid, and he threw a pretty ball when he was healthy. But he was only relevant for about five years (2002-05) and two of those seasons were half seasons.

35. Jake Delhomme

Jake Delhomme and the Cardiac Cats. What a fun season that was in 2003 when he came out of nowhere. It started with a Week 1 comeback win off the bench. By season’s end, they were in a tied Super Bowl with the Patriots before John Kasay sent a god damn kickoff out of bounds to give New England the ball at the 40. Delhomme threw three touchdowns in that game and they all were on third-and-long against the No. 1 defense. He missed out on a chance at his ninth game-winning drive that season. He already had eight to set the NFL record, which has only since been tied by Eli Manning (2011) and Matthew Stafford (2016).

He was not just a one-year wonder either. From 2003-08, Delhomme was 49-30 with the Panthers, 112 touchdowns, 71 interceptions, 7.3 YPA, and a 85.7 passer rating. He started 5-1 in the playoffs (4-0 on the road) with historically great numbers, but his career also serves as a reminder of just how small the sample size is in the postseason. In the 2005 NFC Championship Game in Seattle, the Seahawks put a box around Steve Smith, the only receiver worth a damn on the team at the time. Delhomme had a terrible game, throwing three picks in a 34-14 loss.

In 2008, Delhomme tried to recreate his 2003 magic with Smith and company. The Panthers were 12-4 and had a first-round bye. They hosted Arizona in the divisional round. Kurt Warner played a great game while Delhomme had the worst game of his career with five interceptions and a lost fumble. It was a stunning upset.

That game absolutely broke Delhomme, who threw 11 touchdowns to 25 interceptions in his final starts. You wonder what could have been if Kasay did not send that kickoff out of bounds, or if Steve Smith didn’t get injured one game into 2004, or if Delhomme wasn’t lost for 13 games in 2007 after his hottest start (111.8 passer rating in three games).

Back when you had these random quarterbacks making the Super Bowl, I have to say Delhomme was among the easiest to root for. I certainly wanted to see him win more than I ever did Brady or Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson.

34. Colin Kaepernick

To this day, I believe Colin Kaepernick’s career was cut short because the NFL blackballed him to silence his social justice movement. I wrote in 2017 just how unprecedented it would be for a quarterback of Kaepernick’s caliber, experience, age, and health status to not play again in this league. We are now going into a fifth season without him playing and it is safe to say that chapter of his life is finished.

So, we are left with a quarterback who played six seasons in the NFL. I thought he was electric in 2012-13 when he took over for Alex Smith and led the 49ers to two NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. Had he just made two slightly better throws in the end zone against Baltimore and Seattle, he could be wearing two rings right now. Maybe then a team would have felt like bringing him on.

There was definitely regression in 2014, then the team just started gutting out talent in a way we normally don’t see happen in the NFL. He also lost a very good coach in Jim Harbaugh and was stuck with bums like Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly. But even in that 2016 season, I thought Kaepernick was impressive, throwing 16 touchdowns to four picks on a team that had very little going for it.

But that was it for his playing career. A damn shame if you ask me.

33. Ryan Tannehill

Had Tannehill withered away in Tennessee behind Marcus Mariota, I’m thinking he would have ranked around 75-85 on this list. But these last two seasons in Tennessee have changed everything. The fabled Ryan Tannehill breakout year that we joked about for years actually happened in 2019. It was real, it was spectacular, and he even managed to do it for a full season in 2020.

I was never all that down on Tannehill in Miami. It was usually a case of semantics where someone on Twitter would call him an above-average quarterback, and I’d respond with placing him closer to 20th, or below average. In 2014, he seemed to be moving in the right direction, but then things went backwards again. Then the injuries started, and I just saw a guy feasting on some big YAC plays and not playing that impressively.

But when he took over for Mariota in 2019 in Tennessee, everything just clicked. The offense was fun and productive, outstanding in the red zone, and he was pulling out more crazy unique wins. They really took the air out of the ball in that first playoff run, but I can’t hate on someone who eliminates the Patriots and Ravens on the road. Tannehill still outplayed Brady and Jackson in those games. Then he seemed to be getting the best of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City before that went the Chiefs’ way.

But I still probably would rank him outside the top 50 if this was a year ago. I needed to see him do it again and for a full season. Well, he did that in 2020. He overcame a pretty weak defense to win 11 games while throwing 33 touchdowns to seven picks, a 106.5 passer rating, and he led the league with five comebacks and six game-winning drives. The playoff loss was ugly, but that happens from time to time.

The eighth-year breakout quarterback is almost unprecedented, but Tannehill really did that. He has earned my respect after all these years.

32. Joe Flacco

In the 21st century, only Joe Flacco (2012) and Nick Foles (2017) can say they won a Super Bowl after averaging over 9.0 yards per attempt in the playoffs. That’s it. Not Brady or Mahomes or Peyton or Rodgers or Brees. Just these two flatliners. Throw in Eli Manning (twice), and they are four of the last five players to throw at least six touchdowns with no more than one pick in the playoffs on their way to a ring.

You know the playoffs are a different beast when Flacco and Foles have arguably the two best runs in the last two decades. In the case of Flacco, you cannot say 2012 was a one-year fluke. It was Flacco’s fifth-straight postseason with a win. While he did not play that well in his early playoff games, by 2010 he started to be an asset in those games. He saw his defense blow leads in Pittsburgh (2010) and New England (2011) in back-to-back years.

In 2012, Flacco got through a whole playoff run with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. But wait, what about the Rahim Moore play in Denver? That was definitely the breaking point to that season in the divisional round. Flacco threw a bomb that you’d expect a defensive back to intercept or at least knock down, but Moore played the ball terribly and Jacoby Jones caught a touchdown to force overtime where the Ravens won.

Fair point, but you have to consider that it was a year earlier where New England’s Sterling Moore knocked away a pass from Lee Evans in the end zone, or else Flacco would have had a game-winning touchdown pass and gone to that Super Bowl against the Giants. So, we have the Moore Complex here. Flacco probably shouldn’t have gone to the Super Bowl in 2012, but he should have gone in 2011. In the end, he got to the proper number of Super Bowls (one), but he was that close to going to two after outplaying Brady in New England for the third straight time.

Trust me, I hate that the Rahim Moore play happened since I wanted Denver to win, but also because I think it ruined quarterback contracts as we knew them. Maybe things were always trending that way, but the Flacco deal sure seemed to make it a guarantee that any halfway decent quarterback would get at least $16 million a year, or a million per game. Now we are seeing that number in the $45 million range for the top quarterbacks.

After winning the Super Bowl, Flacco has gone 45-52 as a starter with only one more playoff appearance in 2014. He nearly beat New England again, but that time he threw a crucial pick late. Outside of 2014, Flacco has not had any more good seasons and he is on his fourth team since 2018. He is also the only quarterback to throw 6,000 passes and never make a Pro Bowl. His days of being relevant are over.

But at a time in the AFC where Brady and Manning were dueling for Super Bowls and the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger were always a threat, Flacco was good enough to start three AFC Championship Games. From 2008 to 2015, he won just as many rings as those three quarterbacks did in that time. He also notched a playoff win over all of them. Was he ever truly elite or on their level? No, but the Ravens could win big games with him and without having to hide him at his best.

It takes more than a good team to win multiple big games. Not just any quarterback can do it. I think if you gave these guys like Wentz/Cutler/Cousins/Schaub the 2002 Tampa Bay defense or the 2013 Seahawks defense or the 1999 Rams offense, they’d still find ways to not win a championship.

You may not need an elite passer to win a Super Bowl, but you need someone who can look elite for a stretch or just get hot at the right time. Flacco, Foles, and Eli did that. The Giants have been irrelevant since Eli declined. The Ravens are great in the regular season with Lamar Jackson, but they have really struggled offensively in all three postseasons. Foles is the only Eagles quarterback to win a playoff game in the last dozen seasons.

History may not shine brightly on these quarterbacks, but they will be remembered, and if their teams continue to flounder in the playoffs without them, they will be better appreciated.

31. Nick Foles

While I cannot explain the source of the flatliner gene in Eli and Flacco, I guess with Foles we allegedly have to chalk it up to Big Dick Energy. That seems like the most plausible explanation for the most bizarre career arc since Kurt Warner.

Why did I rank Foles ahead of Flacco when Foles has one-third of Flacco’s career attempts and both look finished as starters? I think Foles’ 2013 season is better than any regular season Flacco ever had. That was the Chip Kelly debut year where he threw 27 touchdowns to two picks for a 119.2 passer rating. Foles threw seven touchdowns against Oakland that year, tying the NFL record. I just think at their best, Foles had the bigger games. Flacco’s playoff run may have been stronger from start to finish since Foles was iffy against the Falcons, but in back-to-back championship games as an underdog, Foles threw for over 350 yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings and Patriots. You may also recall a touchdown he caught in the Super Bowl, the Philly Special.

It’s not like 2017 was Foles’ only playoff success either. He had a good wild card game against the 2013 Saints, but Drew Brees ran out the clock on him for a game-ending field goal. Foles did his job the last time he had the ball. Playing Brees again in 2018 after fixing Wentz’s mess and leading the Eagles back to the playoffs, Foles nearly had another deep playoff run. But Alshon Jeffery dropped his pass in scoring range and that resulted in a game-ending interception in the divisional round.

Flacco was certainly more durable than Foles, who is often injured. But what an improbable run in 2017.

Coming in Part V: We technically have one more one-year wonder left, but the top 30 is about to bring us legitimately good, multi-year starters and franchise quarterbacks. I may not even have to write as much since a lot of these names speak for themselves.

6 thoughts on “Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part IV (50-31)

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