Top 100 NFL Quarterbacks of the 21st Century: Part VII (10-6)

If you missed the beginning of my series on the top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 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. In part VI, we had a few Hall of Famers and some players who may have gotten there had it not been for injuries.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Part III (#71-51)

Part IV (#50-31)

Part V (#30-21)

Part VI (#20-11)

10. Philip Rivers

I am going to miss Philip Rivers in the NFL. I’ll miss the shot-put throwing motion, the epic rivalry with beating the 40-second play clock, and all the games he pulled out and the jokes about the times he didn’t pull out of his wife. I’ll miss the memes and GIFs, the sideline reactions, and the post-game interviews where he did his best to be fiery while avoiding swear words.

But I’m really going to miss predicting all the game-ending interceptions as he was one of the safest bets for that. Rivers had 82 games with a failed game-winning drive opportunity in his career, an NFL record. When you combine that fact with a shoddy playoff resume (5-7 record, 59.4% complete, 85.3 PR) and this fact below, it is why I would vote no on Rivers for the Hall of Fame.

I am content with drawing the line just above Rivers and making him the best QB not in the Hall of Fame. He’s probably still going to end up there, but I’m just explaining why I placed him 10th and would vote no. He just never had that one special year where everything came together, and that stings extra hard in an era where just about every other notable quarterback won an MVP or got to a Super Bowl (or both). Rivers clearly peaked early with his initial run as starter in 2006-10 back when the Chargers were considered the most talented team in the league. His 2008-09 seasons specifically were him at his best.

But he never had that great playoff run like Eli and Roethlisberger, his 2004 classmates, did to get to Super Bowls. He was a hell of an ironman and competitor, but he lacked the mobility to make plays that way and a great pass rush could really disrupt him. He loved throwing to running backs more than anyone not named Drew Brees, and he certainly played with many of the most talented to catch the ball. He also loved Antonio Gates in the red zone and throwing deep to really tall receivers, but I felt like there was something lacking in the more intermediate ranges. When Keenan Allen became his best receiver, those offenses were just not as special as the ones he led in his prime.

It was in that 2010 season where I think he started becoming more of a hollow stat QB and the struggles in all those close games piled up. He finished 36-82 (.305) in game-winning drive opportunities, a record only surpassing Ryan Fitzpatrick (18-49-1, .272) among experienced starters. Vintage Rivers only really showed up again in those 2013 and 2018 seasons. He was steady with the Colts and gave them a good effort last year before retiring.

I can acknowledge that Rivers did not have an easy job sharing a conference with Manning, Brady, and Roethlisberger, then later sharing a division with Manning (2012-15) and Patrick Mahomes (2018-19). While the Chargers had the Colts’ number in the 2000s, they were usually had by the Patriots and Steelers. Rivers was 0-8 against the Patriots with Brady at quarterback. In a cruel twist of fate, Rivers started 252 consecutive games, the second longest streak in history behind only Brett Favre. But in the biggest game of his career, the 2007 AFC Championship Game in New England, he played through it on a torn ACL and was very ineffective in a 21-12 loss. Also, being saddled with a choker kicker (Nate Kaeding) did not help Rivers in his prime.

Could Rivers have won a Super Bowl under better circumstances? Of course he could. But when you look at the paths all 15 champions had to take since 2006, I really struggle to see Rivers winning with most of those teams. Not when most of them had to go through the Patriots or overcome their offensive line (2008 Steelers, 2013 Seahawks, 2015 Broncos) or win a lot of close games.

I just don’t trust Rivers not to screw things up eventually. And we know he is really damn good at screwing. Enjoy retirement, king.

9. Matt Ryan

Ah, the NFC’s answer to Philip Rivers. I have always been intrigued by Matt Ryan ever since he threw a 62-yard touchdown pass on his first dropback in 2008 and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. You see, unlike Rivers, Ryan had that instant success, he had a historic number of comebacks and game-winning drives at one point, and he had an all-time peak season in 2016. Including the playoffs, Ryan’s YPA never dipped below 7.9 in any game that year, a completely absurd and consistent season. It was one that should have ended in a Super Bowl MVP and maybe the best postseason run since 1989 Joe Montana, but Atlanta did what Atlanta does. 28-3.

For a solid eight years, I called Ryan the Poor Man’s Peyton. That was about the closest comparison for his playing style as someone who plays from the pocket and does a really good job of avoiding sacks and fumbles. Ryan had his own early playoff struggles, but he still had a flair for the dramatic with 32 4QC/GWD in 2008-15 (several starting in the final 60 seconds of the game), and we watched his Falcons blow a 17-point lead in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.

The 2016 Falcons also blew a lot of leads, which is why that team was only an 11-5 No. 2 seed despite Ryan’s historic season. But never could I have expected they would blow a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. I’ve written before about the many breaking points in that game where if just one play went right for Atlanta, the Falcons win. Many of those plays had nothing to do with Ryan too. While I cite the Hightower forced fumble on a third down strip sack as the biggest turning point, we know the blame is more on OC Kyle Shanahan for calling a pass on third-and-short in the first place.

Alas, that’s in the past. While Rivers is retired, Ryan’s career continues with a new head coach and weapon in tight end Kyle Pitts. For his career, Ryan’s average offense ranks 6.8 in yards per drive, trailing only Peyton (4.5) and Brees (5.8) at the top. Ryan’s average offense ranks 8.8 in points per drive, trailing only Rodgers (7.8), Brady (6.0), Brees (5.4), and Peyton (5.1).

Ryan has continued to put up very good numbers in the four seasons since 28-3, but Atlanta continues to blow leads and not win enough games. He has thrown for over 4,000 yards in 10 straight seasons, but the Falcons have missed the playoffs six times in that span. I think he is going to need one more deep playoff run under Arthur Smith to really cement a Hall of Fame spot in the future. People are so generally unenthused by Ryan that even in 2016 he only got 25 MVP votes when it should have been a bigger margin of victory. He cannot continue to miss the playoffs and just retire in a couple years and expect voters to pound the table for him. He needs that noteworthy part in his final act to get over the top.

8. Tony Romo

If Tony Romo needed to hire an apologist, I could have filled that role during his playing career. Some of my earliest articles were in defense of him. I’d share the links, but they are no longer active, unfortunately. However, one of the posts was so good that Dallas radio host Chris Arnold blatantly plagiarized it in 2013, and you can still read that absurd example of plagiarism right here as I broke it down.

That happened right after the all-time Tony Romo game against the 2013 Broncos, a 51-48 loss. He threw for 506 yards, five touchdowns, but the defense blew the lead late, and when he was asked to break the NFL record for yardage in a game to break this 48-48 tie, he threw an interception that set up Denver’s winning field goal. You got the full Romo experience in that one.

I think Romo is the greatest undrafted success story of the 21st century in the NFL (Kurt Warner was 20th century). Yet he still got criticized so much, and I think the main reasons for that are that people hate Dallas and love to root against Jerry Jones, and since they are in prime time so often, we see them a lot in high-profile games. Romo was already a “future Hall of Famer” after throwing five touchdowns on Thanksgiving in 2006, his fifth start. People get annoyed with that stuff. So, when he has a boneheaded moment like the botched hold on the field goal against Seattle in the playoffs, millions are watching that and taking delight in his failure. That play likely was the impetus for teams ending the practice of using their quarterback as the holder. If Romo started his career now, he’d never be in that position.

When Romo throws a game-ending interception against the Giants in the playoffs a year later as the No. 1 seed, people take note of that too. When he loses 44-6 to the Eagles in Week 17 in 2008 and misses the playoffs, a lot of people probably watched that game. So, for years you had a quarterback who had a lot of his bad moments in front of national audiences, and a lot of his clutch moments and game-winning drives were in the early Sunday afternoon games that not so many eyes were on, especially in the pre-RedZone era.

I think that created a lot of the negative stigma for Romo, who did end up leading 25 4QC and 30 GWD in his career, both franchise records. He was 30-34 (.469) at all 4QC/GWD opportunities, which ranks very favorably to Ben Roethlisberger (51-56-1, .477), Drew Brees (57-73, .438), Russell Wilson (35-39-1, .473) and Aaron Rodgers (27-46-1, .372) to name a few.

Romo had a slight case for MVP in 2014, his best overall season, and you better believe #DezCaughtIt. But just when it seemed like Romo was going to be healthy and had things figured out, his body started giving out in 2015, limiting him to four starts. Then it happened again in 2016 and the team moved on with Dak Prescott, who was so good as a rookie that it just made it clear that Romo should retire before his age-37 season. Now he is a beloved announcer, though frankly I liked him better as a quarterback.

If you include all 16 games in 2016, then Romo missed 43 starts due to injury in his career. That’s after he was a bench player for his first three seasons and the beginning of his fourth in 2006. We basically got a decade of Romo (2006-2015) with a couple of throwaway seasons (2010 and 2015) in that mix. For that reason, I would not vote him into the Hall of Fame since I don’t think he excelled long enough.

But when Romo was at his best, he was fun to watch, he was a great quarterback, and his playmaking ability separates him from Rivers and Ryan for me. Now if only he had their durability combined with the fact that most people just don’t care enough to hate on the Chargers and Falcons.

7. Russell Wilson

Wilson is one of the very few quarterbacks in the top 15 with a chance to still add to his legacy. Since I started writing about the NFL on a full-time basis in 2011, that makes his career among the first of the great ones that I got to cover from the start. I have been a very big fan since his rookie season in 2012, and again, the links are dead now, but I had articles about people overlooking him for his height and how he was a better rookie than RGIII. And in case you forgot, I also infamously defended Golden Tate’s game-winning touchdown, The Fail Mary, against Green Bay as a touchdown.

I have also written that Wilson threw the costliest interception in NFL history in Super Bowl 49, and that his zero career MVP votes has been totally justified. Frankly, I am still mystified that the Seahawks threw in that situation and how last year ended after Wilson had the best start of his career. If two MVP awards were handed out for each half season, I think Wilson would have about four by now (2012 2H, 2015 2H, 2019 1H, 2020 1H).

Seattle’s record competitive streak of 98 games of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter never happens without a quarterback like Wilson joining the team.

Wilson has the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (27) and game-winning drives (35) through a quarterback’s first nine seasons in NFL history. Not only does Wilson have a flair for the dramatic, I swear he and head coach Pete Carroll get off on playing these really tight games. It has mostly worked out for them but had Marshawn Lynch needed an extra run at the goal line to score on the 2012 Falcons (NFC Divisional) and if Lynch got multiple carries at the goal line against the 2014 Patriots, we could be talking about a three-peat for this team. Alas, the Seahawks have not been back to the NFC Championship Game ever since Malcolm Butler, and they remain only a DVOA Dynasty and not the real thing, which I once predicted they would be prior to the 2013 season.

During the 2012 season, Wilson was one of the hyped young quarterbacks who used their legs to aid their success. But when you look at what’s happened to the careers of Colin Kaepernick (regressed, blackballed), Cam Newton (regressed, injuries), Robert Griffin III (regressed, injuries), and even Andrew Luck (injuries, retired), Wilson looks like a unicorn in retrospect given his size and durability. He has started all 160 games of his career despite taking 443 sacks and running the ball over 880 times when you include the playoffs. That is remarkable.

But I have also made many comparisons between Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger over the years as they are probably the two best quarterbacks in NFL history to never receive a single MVP vote. Both had to earn respect as elite quarterbacks who did not throw the ball a ton at the beginning of their careers on teams that featured the run and a top scoring defense. Both were very efficient passers who made things happen off script, but they did take their share of sacks too as it’s a double-edged sword. Both showed they can still handle a bigger volume of passes and maintain their efficiency while leading the team to the playoffs without a top defense. Was there as much playoff success when that happened as the defenses eroded? No, but that’s just how the NFL works.

Now Wilson needs to follow Roethlisberger’s lead from 2012 (his ninth season) when he began to get rid of the ball quicker and cut down on the sacks after the Steelers replaced Bruce Arians with Todd Haley. Wilson is going into his 10th season and has a new offensive coordinator too. While he doesn’t need to adopt Ben’s 2020 style of treating the ball like a hot potato, Wilson does need to start cutting down on the sacks to make sure he extends his career deep into his thirties and maybe beyond.

With the youth movement at quarterback right now, Wilson could soon be the elder statesman of the NFC. Maybe then he’ll get that MVP vote.

6. Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger is the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL. No respect. All he’s done since his NFL debut in 2004 is put himself on the path to being a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It is no coincidence that the Steelers have not had a losing record in the 17 years since he was drafted. While his days are numbered now, he has changed the standard forever for future quarterbacks in Pittsburgh. As someone who grew up with no choice but to watch Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox, I am grateful for Roethlisberger’s career.

So, why does he not get more respect?

You can say it was his off-field issues that turned people sour on him, but a lot of that stuff was unknown to the public or didn’t even happen until 2009. By then, he had already led the Steelers to two Super Bowls wins, including the first run by a No. 6 seed where he played fantastic on the road, and his game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl 43 to Santonio Holmes, capping off one of the all-time drives. In the years since, Roethlisberger grew into a better leader, started a family, and the only stories you hear about him nowadays are him playing up his injuries or someone in the media fabricating team drama. Given the way Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, and Antonio Brown have acted since leaving Pittsburgh, it’s ridiculous to paint Roethlisberger as the villain there.

But it has always been difficult on Roethlisberger to carve out his place in an NFL that has always had someone better to promote at the top. Timing is so important to success in life, and most of the time things happen out of your control. While Roethlisberger’s 2004 rookie season was incredible, it was overshadowed by a year where MVP Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdowns, Drew Brees had his breakout year in San Diego, and Tom Brady had his best statistical season yet in leading the Patriots to a third ring in four years.

Roethlisberger would spend his career in their shadows (as well as a few others).

While Roethlisberger had his own incredible run to the Super Bowl in 2005, people may have missed just how good his season was since he missed four games to injury. He led the NFL in TD%, YPC, and YPA in leading the most vertical passing game in the league. He was outstanding on the road in the playoffs against the Bengals, Colts, and Broncos, and his tackle of Nick Harper after Jerome Bettis fumbled is the best non-traditional quarterback play someone at his position has ever made in this sport. But since he had a down game in the Super Bowl against Seattle, people can look past the build up to that game even despite a win. A 22.6 passer rating does not care about his rushing touchdown or that he converted eight third downs, including a third-and-28, still a Super Bowl record.

If 2006 was his time to shine, then his carelessness to ride a motorcycle without a helmet was his own undoing. His accident put his season in question, then an emergency appendectomy delayed his season debut. He really struggled with zero touchdowns and seven interceptions as he started 0-3. But after shredding the Chiefs and Falcons for six quarters, things looked back on track. Then he had a concussion in Atlanta and had to leave that game. He came back too soon – recall the Tommy Maddox game in 2002 against Houston – and threw four picks against an awful Oakland team in another loss. The hole was too big to climb out of that year.

Roethlisberger returned with a great 2007 season, throwing 32 touchdowns and a 104.1 passer rating. But Brady’s 50 touchdowns and New England’s 16-0 season overshadowed everything that year. When Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 of 2008, that opened the door in the AFC for the Steelers. They came through with a Super Bowl win with Roethlisberger leading that masterful touchdown drive.

But if he was ready to jump into the Manning-Brady conversation, that offseason put a pause on things when a woman accused him of sexual assault in a hotel room. In March 2010, another woman came forward with allegations after an encounter in a nightclub bathroom in Georgia. Roethlisberger was suspended for six games, reduced to four, to start the 2010 season. Had this happened now, I’m not sure he would have been able to continue his career in Pittsburgh or any NFL city. I guess we’ll see how things are handled with Deshaun Watson, though that’s a whole different level with 22 accusers. You can read the case details on Roethlisberger and draw your own conclusions. I’d compare my thoughts on what Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant, and Watson did, but that seems beyond foolish to say publicly in 2021. None of us know the truth.

Back to the field, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers both won Super Bowl MVP honors in the 2009 and 2010 seasons while Roethlisberger missed the playoffs and was outplayed by Rodgers in Super Bowl 45. Instead of joining Manning and Brady, Roethlisberger was lucky if he could get a No. 5 ranking behind that foursome.

But I’ve always had him with those four guys. Many people have tried to hype other quarterbacks ahead of Ben in the last decade or longer. I never bought the idea that Rivers, his 2004 classmate, was better. If you want rings, you can go with Eli. If you want stats, you could go with Rivers. If you want both, you take Ben in that draft class.

Then what good did that prove when people tried to put Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck, Derek Carr, Carson Wentz, etc. above a future first ballot HOFer? Luck could have been one, but we know what happened there.

That’s because health is definitely a big deal, and Roethlisberger has struggled in that department. However, 2019 was the only long-term injury he had. Like with Russell Wilson, Roethlisberger never receiving an MVP vote is totally justified. For starters, he only made it through a full 16-game season four times in 17 years, and one of those seasons (2008) was his worst statistically when he battled multiple injuries and left multiple games injured. He was great as a rookie in 2004, but Peyton threw 49 touchdowns. He was great in Mike Tomlin’s first year in 2007, but Brady threw 50 touchdowns. He was great in 2009 and 2014, but so were most of the top quarterbacks in those two years. He had a darkhorse MVP shot in 2017, but the NFL’s pathetic catch rule screwed Jesse James out of a game-winning touchdown against the Patriots, leading to a tipped Roethlisberger interception that gave the Patriots the No. 1 seed and locked up MVP for Brady that year.

Then you add Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen as fresh blood to the AFC in the last few years, and it’s just really hard for Roethlisberger to carve out his own records and history in this golden era of passers that spans his whole career.

He has some though. When he was on his A-game, Roethlisberger was incredible. Roethlisberger has four 500-yard passing games, or as many as Brees (2) and Brady (2) combined. No other quarterback has more than one, and Roethlisberger’s first three 500-yard games were all wins against teams with winning records. The one he had against the 2014 Colts is as good as any game you’ll see a quarterback play. He was 40/49 for 522 yards, six touchdowns, no picks, and no sacks. A week later against Baltimore, he threw six touchdowns again, the first QB to do that in consecutive games. He joins Peyton as the only quarterbacks to hit a “perfect” 158.3 passer rating four times.

He also completed an NFL-record 47 passes in his last outing, a playoff loss to the Browns. That was not a good night, but I wrote about Pittsburgh’s baffling history of falling apart on defense in the playoffs. Roethlisberger’s defense is responsible for the best playoff moments in the careers of David Garrard, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow, Blake Bortles, and now Baker Mayfield. Rodgers is one thing, but the rest are ridiculous. That’s also just quarterbacks as I did not point out the atrocity of letting New England’s Chris Hogan go for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the 2016 AFC Championship Game.

Finally, I would point out that no quarterback has seen his career more impacted by running back fumbles. Jerome Bettis lost three big ones in the 2004-05 playoffs, and had Roethlisberger not saved his ass on that Nick Harper play in Indy, I honestly don’t think Bettis or Bill Cowher ever make the Hall of Fame. Then there was the Rashard Mendenhall fumble to start the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 45 when it looked like the Steelers were driving for the lead. That’s a real legacy changer if Ben gets to three Super Bowl wins and keeps Rodgers at zero. Then in 2015, Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill fumbled late in the game, allowing Ben to re-enter the game after being injured and leading a game-winning drive. But a week later in Denver, Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled for the Steelers with a 13-12 lead in the fourth quarter when Pittsburgh was driving. Denver went on to score the game-winning touchdown. Roethlisberger, without Antonio Brown, played better against Denver’s tough defense than Brady and Newton did that postseason.

A lot of legacy-changing moments in there just based on which team recovers a fumble. That’s the breaks in the NFL. By the way, Rodney Dangerfield died two days after Ben’s second career start, so if you believe in reincarnation…

No one expects Roethlisberger to go out on a high note. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is the year the wheels fall off entirely. But in the future when you catch the Steelers in an island game and some bum like Mason Rudolph is struggling for four quarters, maybe then you’ll have some respect for what Roethlisberger brought to the Steelers.

Coming in the part VIII finale: you know the five names, but you probably won’t predict the order I am going with.

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