Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part VI (20-11)

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. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Part III (#71-51)

Part IV (#50-31)

Part V (#30-21)

20. Matt Hasselbeck

After sleeping on it, I realized I messed up here, but it is too late for an edit. Matt Hasselbeck should be closer to where Trent Green (No. 28) is. When the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry really took off after 2003 and the two camps of stats vs. rings formed, Hasselbeck was on a short list of quarterbacks who had multiple playoff seasons and could compare favorably to Spygate-era Brady. He just didn’t have the defensive support, his receivers (Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson) were known for dropping the ball, his star running back (Shaun Alexander) was also known as The Tiptoe Burglar, and he had that “we want the ball and we’re going to score” moment in the playoffs in Green Bay. He scored alright, throwing a pick-six in overtime.

But from 2002-07, Hasselbeck was a very good quarterback in Mike Holmgren’s West Coast Offense in Seattle. He was 52-32 as a starter, 133 TD, 76 INT, 7.2 YPA, and 88.0 passer rating. Seattle made the playoffs five years in a row, including Super Bowl XL. Hasselbeck threw a critical interception in that Super Bowl that not a lot of people seem to remember because of the bogus penalty that was tacked onto the end of it for a low block, but he still threw one in the fourth quarter at the Pittsburgh 27, down 14-10. One drive later the Seahawks were down 21-10 and that was the ballgame.

Hasselbeck’s last big season was in 2007. He started to regress in Seattle but did manage a playoff berth for that 7-9 team in 2010. He had arguably the best playoff game of his career when he threw four touchdowns against the Saints in one of the bigger upsets of this era. He also had a solid season for the Titans in 2011 that just missed out on the playoffs.

Russell Wilson has since arrived to be the best quarterback in Seahawks history, but Hasselbeck had a run to appreciate there in the 2000s. I just went a little too high in slotting him into the top 20.

19. Rich Gannon

Gannon is basically here on the strength of just two seasons in 2001-02. The timeframe here hurts him more than most since it cuts off half of his four-year Pro Bowl run with the Raiders at ages 34-37. Gannon had achieved very little in a long career prior to joining Jon Gruden in Oakland in 1999, but he ended up accumulating two first-team All-Pro seasons, an MVP award in 2002, and he got the Raiders back to the Super Bowl.

Gannon could run and he was a very effective dink-and-dunk quarterback who could move an offense without a running game. I still remember him shredding the Steelers in 2002 when he threw 64 passes and completed 43 of them for 403 yards in a game the Raiders led for more than 45 minutes. He led the NFL with 4,689 yards that year.

But Gannon suffered some real playoff heartbreak during his run too. He was injured in the 2000 AFC Championship Game against Baltimore, a 16-3 loss. He lost to the 2001 Patriots in the snowy Tuck Rule game after he never got the ball in overtime and after Adam Vinatieri bailed out the Patriots with the greatest kick ever, only made possible by that horrible rule being applied. Then when he got to the Super Bowl in 2002, he just so happened to face an all-time great pass defense (2002 Buccaneers) with his former head coach (Gruden) calling out his plays. Gannon had that “deer in the headlights” look after he threw five picks that night in a blowout loss.

After the Super Bowl, Gannon only started 10 more games before retirement. But the Raiders have not had a quarterback as good as him ever since then.

18. Daunte Culpepper

Get your roll on, Pep. Before he tore his ACL in 2005 and it ruined his career, Daunte Culpepper was one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch. Was he as consistent as you’d like? Absolutely not. He followed up his breakout year in 2000 with a so-so season in 2001, then he fumbled 23 times and threw 23 picks in 2002. Yikes. But in 2003, he had another strong Pro Bowl year, and the Vikings missed the playoffs after the defense allowed Josh McCown to throw a game-winning touchdown pass on 4th-and-25 in Week 17.

I personally liked Culpepper more than the other mobile quarterbacks of that era because his size made his runs a little more impressive, and he was still a high completion rate passer (64.4% with Minnesota) who got the ball to his wide receivers down the field. Sure, having Randy Moss helps a ton for that, but Moss was injured or ineffective for a huge portion of that 2004 season when Culpepper was at his best with 39 touchdowns and a 110.9 passer rating. Had his defense not been so terrible and if Peyton Manning didn’t throw 49 touchdowns, that could have easily been an MVP year for Culpepper.

Culpepper’s 2005 season was also a teaching moment for me that the NFL preseason is bullshit and should not be taken seriously. That August, Culpepper looked MVP ready again without Moss as he completed 81.8% of his passes for 520 yards and 11.82 yards per attempt. Nothing was going to stop him in his prime. Flash forward to Week 2 in September and the Vikings were 0-2 while Culpepper had zero touchdowns with eight interceptions. Oof. Things were that bad before the ACL tear, which just made him a shell of his former self when he went to the Dolphins, Raiders, and Lions.

With smaller quarterbacks starting to dominate the league, we may never see another one who was 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, and could throw it deep while also running for first downs like Culpepper.

17. Carson Palmer

This must be the section for ridiculously skilled passers with amazing peaks who were ruined by injuries in the 2005 season. Carson Palmer had all the accolades from college as a Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick, but the Bengals made us wait a year to see him. His debut in 2004 was not good after 10 games, but then he played the Browns and threw four touchdowns in a 58-48 win. Then he led an incredible comeback win against a very good Baltimore defense, throwing for 382 yards and three touchdowns. Then he played well against New England before leaving the game injured and his season was over. This would be a precursor of things to come.

The young quarterback seemed to figure things out in those last three games. In the 2005 preseason, he was the opposite of Daunte Culpepper, who had those incredible stats I just referenced. Palmer only completed 52.2% of his passes with 6.45 YPA that August. It didn’t look pretty, but then again, neither did the preseason for rival Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. He was 16-of-36 and averaged 4.03 YPA. The Colts were also 0-5 that preseason. I remember being worried about all these things, then the real games started. Culpepper was awful, Palmer and Ben were terrific, and the Colts started 13-0 that season. So yeah, 2005 was the end of taking preseason seriously for me.

Palmer had a stellar season in leading the Bengals to a division title. His passer rating was over 100.0 in 11 of the first 12 games. He won the pivotal game in Pittsburgh that regular season. The Bengals were the No. 3 seed and finally back in the playoffs. Then disaster struck on the first drive against Pittsburgh as Palmer was rolled into after completing a 66-yard pass on his first dropback. He tore both his ACL and MCL and his season was over.

Palmer had good numbers in 2006-07, but he was never quite up to his 2005 level. Then injury cost him 12 games in 2008, he had a ton of close wins in 2009 that led to another wild card loss, then a ton of close losses after regression hit hard in 2010. Just like that, he demanded a trade out of Cincinnati and was with the Raiders where he did nothing of value. Palmer wound up with Bruce Arians in Arizona in 2013 and had a so-so season that still resulted in 10 wins, but no playoffs. In 2014, he was 6-0 as a starter, but once again injury took him out early and the team was stuck with Ryan Lindley come postseason time.

In 2015, Palmer seemed to put it all together again for the first time since 2005. He led the league’s most vertical offense and led the NFL in YPA (8.7), YPC (13.7), and QBR (76.4). He had big-time wins in prime time against the Seahawks and Bengals in consecutive weeks. He was the most consistently great quarterback from Week 1 to Week 17 that year, which is why I will always say he should have won MVP over Cam Newton.

But that injury to his index finger late in the season seemed to bother his performance down the stretch. Palmer barely got past the Packers in the divisional round, a 26-20 overtime win, for the first and only playoff win of his career. I made a naïve bet on a message board back in 2005 or 2006 that Palmer would never win a playoff game in his career. It was foolish, but damn if I didn’t nearly win that one. Sack-less Packers should have gone for two after the Hail Mary.

I was hyped for the NFC Championship Game in Carolina, but the Cardinals didn’t bother to show up. Palmer threw four picks and it was a blowout loss. The team lost too many close games in 2016 to return to the playoffs, then Palmer was injured again in 2017 and missed nine games before retiring.

It is very unusual to see a quarterback have his two peak seasons a decade apart, but Palmer did that. He helped lift two franchises in Cincinnati and Arizona that we are used to seeing struggle. But his career definitely leaves you wanting more as there were just too many injuries. With some better health, he had a shot at the Hall of Fame.

16. Lamar Jackson

I’m not sure if I have been vague or clear as day with my thoughts on Lamar Jackson so far. He is obviously ranked very high after only three seasons and 41 starts. There are outstanding numbers everywhere from his record (31-10) to his passing stats (68 TD-18 INT, 7.5 YPA, 102.6 PR) to rushing for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He could easily eclipse Michael Vick’s rushing if he stays healthy, and I think he’s much further along as a passer. His unanimous MVP was 100% legit and earned in 2019.

Yet, timing is not on his side as he’s doing this in the shadow of Patrick Mahomes, who has taken the position over since 2018 and is a far better passer than Jackson. While Mahomes succeeds in multiple ways, I still feel like Jackson has a limited number of game scripts that he can follow to success. You don’t want him throwing a lot or getting into a shootout or needing a big comeback. The Ravens are a front-running team, and when they match up with Mahomes and the Chiefs, Jackson just can’t keep up.

I’m also worried that Buffalo with Josh Allen could leapfrog the Ravens as the main rival to the Chiefs in the AFC if January’s playoff game is any indication. Jackson leading the Ravens to their lowest point total of the season in three straight playoffs is very concerning. I also still have my doubts that he can maintain this rushing volume over an extended period without suffering significant injuries. As we have seen with other quarterbacks, those injuries can really wear a quarterback down and limit his career success.

I want to see Jackson improve his passing ASAP because he has definite Hall of Fame potential already.

15. Donovan McNabb

McNabb is a perfect example of a quarterback who was able to improve his passing and rely less on his legs when he got older and more experienced. From 1999-03, he only completed 57% of his passes and was at 6.2 YPA. The Eagles won largely on the back of a great defense while McNabb relied on his legs and a lot of screen passes and timely calls from Andy Reid. Even though he went to four straight Pro Bowls after his rookie season, I was not as impressed with him as McNair or Culpepper from that era.

There were also the postseason losses where you can count on McNabb to have multiple turnovers as he did all seven times he lost. Having as many picks as points (3) in the 2003 NFC Championship Game loss at home was worse than his uneven performance against the Patriots in Super Bowl 39.

But it was in that 2004 season where McNabb was at his best after he got Terrell Owens. While it never got better than that year, McNabb improved his time in Philadelphia (2004-09) by getting his completion percentage up to 60.6% and his YPA up to 7.5. He was still never the most accurate passer, and I used to joke that his ground ball incompletions were attempts at killing Earthworm Jim. His inaccuracy combined with a tendency to scramble and take an above-average number of sacks kept his interceptions down.

McNabb was mostly healthy through 2004, but injuries started to plague him after the Super Bowl loss. I can recall a sports hernia (2005) and a torn ACL (2006). He had one more NFC Championship Game run left in him in 2008, but he was outdueled by Kurt Warner in that one. He never won another playoff game and his chances for the Hall of Fame went in the toilet after Philadelphia traded him to Washington in 2010. Getting benched for Rex Grossman there and giving way to Christian Ponder in Minnesota in 2011 was the end of the line for McNabb.

But he was definitely one of the top quarterbacks in the 2000s. He just did not deliver enough in crunch time outside of that one time the Packers lost Freddie Mitchell on 4th-and-26.

14. Eli Manning

I’ve been warning people for a long time that the Eli Manning Hall of Fame debate is going to brutally linger in the room for years. It seemed like no matter how bad he played down the stretch of his career, people want to make his induction inevitable while I think it is a real challenging debate.

I’m not going to lay out the debate today because I only have a few days left to write four game previews, a full season preview, and get ready for Thursday’s opener, but even my placement of Eli at 14th was very difficult for me.

On the one hand, we should be bowing down to this guy for his superhero act of taking out the Patriots in the Super Bowl twice, especially sparing us a world where that team finished 19-0 in 2007. I’ve said Eli led the greatest drive in NFL history in Super Bowl 42 and I’m sticking to it. That drive four years later with the throw to Mario Manningham was pretty sweet too, his eighth game-winning drive in 2011, Eli’s best season in the NFL.

On the other hand, when Eli wasn’t going on those incredible Super Bowl runs, he was either 0-4 in the playoffs with shoddy numbers or failed to get there at all. He finished 117-117 as a starter in the regular season, which is a fairly accurate representation of his career. He had weeks where he could look like Peyton, then he had weeks where he looked like Cooper Manning. Hell, he had quarters where he could fluctuate between those levels of play. He was just not the mark of consistency like his older brother, though he was quite durable and a total flatliner no matter the situation.

From 2005-12, Eli was 77-51 as a starter in the regular season, always leading the Giants to a record of .500 or better. He had the volume stats but never the great efficiency stats. Combined with the two Super Bowl runs, that may not be the foundation for an elite quarterback, but it is the foundation for a Hall of Fame career. But starting in 2013 when he threw 27 interceptions, Eli finished just 39-60 as a starter with pretty bland numbers while the rest of the league’s averages only got higher. He had a losing record in six of his last seven seasons, and that 2016 playoff season was nothing to write home about.

Look, I love that Eli’s career happened, but I just would not vote him into the Hall of Fame. But I’m sure there will be much more to say about this going forward.

13. Andrew Luck

Luck might be the hardest player to rank in the whole list because I have to balance the expectations of what we thought he was coming into the league, what he actually did when he was here, and the potential of what he could have been if he had better health and support from the Colts.

When Luck shocked everyone and retired before the 2019 season, I wrote about my top 10 Luck moments, so you should read that here since I don’t want to repeat them now. But since I started this list by saying that 2001 was my first full season watching the whole league, I missed out on any of the pre-draft hype for Peyton Manning in 1998. As we know, a lot of people considered Luck the best prospect since Manning or even since John Elway in 1983. By coming out of Elway’s alma mater (Stanford) and going to the Colts to replace Manning, it just seemed like the stars were aligning for Luck to be a generational talent and player. Someone who was smart and could lead an offense like Peyton did, but with more mobility and athleticism.

The truth is Luck was closer to a young, sandlot football Ben Roethlisberger than he was to an accurate, methodical Manning. He was a gunslinger and sometimes he shot wildly. Luck had his share of dumb interceptions and sacks where he was trying to play hero ball. Maybe starting out in a Bruce Arians offense had that effect on him, but it carried on after Arians left in 2013.

But even if the passing efficiency was never quite what we wanted to see with Luck, there was no denying he could carry a team like only the all-time greats did. Luck could catch fire and lead a comeback with the best of them. The Colts were unrecognizable from the Manning days as much of the roster was turned over, and head coach Chuck Pagano was less than an asset, but Luck put that team on his back for three straight 11-5 seasons to begin his career. I’m not sure how many other quarterbacks in the league at that time would have been able to do that with those rosters.

With the passing numbers exploding around the league, maybe Luck won’t look that interesting to future generations. But for someone who twice threw for over 4,500 yards and 39 touchdowns, that puts him in rare company with only Marino, Peyton, Brees, and Brady.

It still is shocking that Luck walked away from the NFL before his age-30 season at a time when the Colts finally looked to have an offensive line and good coach in place for him. His best was yet to come, but as we get ready to start a third season without him, the sad reality is that we’re all out of Luck.

12. Kurt Warner

This list has gone through many strange career arcs from Tommy Maddox, Matt Cassel, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, and Michael Vick. But no one can match the magic of Kurt Warner’s story: something so surreal that it has been turned into a Hollywood movie.

From undrafted to the Arena Football League to bagging groceries to taking over in the preseason as an unknown and winning Super Bowl MVP after one of the finest seasons ever, even just the first part of Warner’s career sounds like a movie. But then he led one of the most prolific three-year runs of offense in league history, won his second MVP in 2001, and nearly won his second ring after a spirited comeback in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.

Then the injuries started, the fumbilitis took over, the sacks piled up, the scoreboard dried up, and he was benched for Marc Bulger, Eli Manning, and Matt Leinart in three different cities. Well, it’s a good thing Leinart always enjoyed the hot tub, because in 2007, Warner won his job back in Arizona and was able to prove that there was still something in the tank.

In 2008, Warner nearly had another MVP season after starting every game, but he settled for going 3-for-3 at making the Super Bowl every time he started 16 games in a season. He once again nearly had another epic Super Bowl comeback, but the defense let down against Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes. Warner still had one more playoff season and 51-45 playoff win over Aaron Rodgers left in him before getting injured against the Saints, his final game.

Warner only started more than 10 games in six seasons, but he had two incredible peaks with the Rams and Cardinals, lifting two of the weakest franchises in the NFL in the process. That is why he is in the Hall of Fame and one of the game’s great legends. He would be higher here if I was putting emphasis on 1999-00. To this day, 1999 Warner is still the last player to win MVP and a Super Bowl in the same season.

11. Brett Favre

More than anyone on this list, Favre is hurt by the emphasis on since 2001. It was before that period in the first 10 seasons of his career when he won three MVPs in a row, started two Super Bowls in a row, and led the league in touchdown passes three times and yardage twice.

In the last 10 years of his career, Favre led the league in interceptions (2005, 2008) more times than he did touchdown passes (2003). But it was still a very notable decade where he went 95-62 as a starter, was MVP runner-up multiple times, and he threw 253 touchdowns and 37,132 yards. Four times he led his team to 12 or more wins in the second half of his career, or something he did twice in the first half.

It’s just that those postseasons ended so badly, which is why I do not have him in the top 10. Favre threw six picks against the 2001 Rams, lost 27-7 at home to the 2002 Falcons, threw an awful pick in overtime against the 2003 Eagles (4th-and-26 game), threw four picks at home against a lousy 2004 Vikings defense, threw the big interception in overtime against the 2007 Giants in the NFC Championship Game, and threw a pick to Tracy Porter late in regulation against the 2009 Saints in the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings lost in overtime after Favre never touched the ball again. Favre also flopped late in the season with the Jets in 2008 after an 8-3 start. He also just had generally bad non-playoff seasons in 2005, 2006, and 2010 before he retired for good.

Favre gave us a lot of moments in that decade. The game against the 2003 Raiders the night after his father died was an incredible performance under any circumstances, but even more amazing under those. With the 2009 Vikings, his sweep of the Packers and the Hail Mary winner to beat the 49ers were must-see moments.

Favre was a lock for Canton before this portion of his career even started. Would he have made it just based on these last 10 years? I don’t think so. But that’s why I have him at No. 11 on my list.

Coming in Part VII (10-1): the top 10 are revealed. You probably know who I have at No. 1, but can you guess the top five?

3 thoughts on “Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part VI (20-11)

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