Trust me, the title sounds way more ambitious than what the post is actually going to be. I’m settling into this new role of writing more on this blog during the season, but it’s going to come in the form of quick data dumps of interest rather than epic-length projects like the 43,000 words I wrote in a week on my top 100 quarterbacks of the 21st century.
Today’s topic is quarterback rivalries. These often drive the league’s intrigue, though we haven’t always seen a lot of great quarterbacks meet numerous times in the past with the way schedules used to work. For example, Dan Marino and John Elway were both drafted to the AFC in 1983, both active through 1998, both on a lot of winning teams, yet they only met a total of three times and two of those happened in 1998 when they were old. That’s just stunning. We’re about to see Round 4 of Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson Sunday night, and Round 3 of Mahomes vs. Allen in Week 5.
But it’s not a real rivalry until the other side starts to win too, and that’s where we are stuck waiting right now.
The AFC: Patrick Mahomes vs. ?
I keep stressing that this is a transition period in the NFL, and perhaps the biggest story in the whole league is the reshaping of the AFC. We need to find the best challengers to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs as the best QB and team in the conference. He just beat Baker Mayfield and Cleveland again. He has yet to lose to Josh Allen/Buffalo and Lamar Jackson/Ravens. He also will have his second meeting with Justin Herbert and the Chargers, who took him to overtime last year after Herbert got the surprise start following a team doctor’s incompetence.
Someone has to step up here, or Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to have an easy run to the Super Bowl year after year a la what we’ve seen recently with Tom Brady and LeBron James in the NBA. But even Brady needed his rival in Peyton Manning, who stopped him from getting to the Super Bowl more often than the other way around, and LeBron had the Golden State Warriors as a super team to deny him Michael Jordan’s ring count. Even Magic Johnson had a Larry Bird to deal with in the 80s. You need that rival or else it’s one-sided and the results are too predictable. It gets boring, even if watching Mahomes operate is anything but boring right now.
Oddly enough, Brady and his teams have been the biggest Mahomes stoppers so far, taking away a potential three-peat in 2018-20 for the Chiefs. These teams very well could meet again in February.
The NFC: The Future Is What Exactly?
Brady’s run is unlikely to go on forever, though his quack trainer Alex Guerrero has done a magnificent job of keeping the Lazarus Pit running for him. As for Aaron Rodgers, I swear he looked like he aged five years this weekend and I don’t even mean by the way he played, which was terrible in the first 35-point loss of his career. I mean when I saw the teaser for his FOX interview, he looked like a 44-year-old quarterback in the NFC. Maybe he just got out of practice and skipped makeup and a shower, but he just looked haggard to me.
With Brees tapped out and those two probably not far behind, it will soon look different in the NFC. But is it too soon to predict a Matthew Stafford vs. Russell Wilson showdown now that they’re in the same division? Or are we headed for a Trey Lance vs. Justin Fields run where Wilson still doesn’t get MVP votes and Stafford still can’t beat teams with winning records? It’s probably going to have to be those two rookies as the future unless Kyler Murray is ready to take that next step or Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. You know I love Dak too, but that coaching combo of Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn is bound to fail.
Not only has the AFC taken Mahomes, 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, and 2020 MVP runner-up Josh Allen, but the AFC has drafted Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow with the last two No. 1 picks. Baker Mayfield was No. 1 in 2018 and even if you’re not sold on him yet, he’s really not that bad of a quarterback. The AFC also recently drafted Tua, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson, Herbert, and would have another stud in Deshaun Watson if he wasn’t an alleged sexual predator.
With respect to Dak possibly throwing for 6,000 yards this year to make up for his defense, there’s just not a lot of intrigue built into the NFC yet. We have to see how Winston and Stafford continue to do with their upgraded coaching and team situations. It’s only been one week.
The Sweet Sixteen to Meet a Dozen Times
Finally, the data dump. From 2001 to 2020, there were 16 quarterback matchups that had at least a dozen meetings when you include playoff games. I gathered the stats on win% and ANY/A (so I can account for sacks) for each quarterback in the matchup, so this chart has 32 points on it.
I have some good news for fans of the Falcons and Giants. Brees vs. Ryan and Romo vs. Eli are the only two matchups where the winning QB (Brees and Romo) had a lower ANY/A than the losing QB. No two quarterbacks were closer in ANY/A than Eli and Romo (0.14), though Manning-Brady (0.22) was a close second on the list. Considering this doesn’t adjust for the quality of the defense faced, that looks very good for the Manning brothers.
No matchup was more lopsided than Rodgers vs. Jay Cutler. Rodgers was 11-2 and +3.37 in ANY/A over Cutler, the biggest gap on the list. Rodgers vs. Stafford was also the second-biggest difference in ANY/A at +2.46 for Rodgers. We’ll see if Stafford can close that a little this year. The closest matchup by record was Philip Rivers going 7-6 vs. Derek Carr in the AFC West despite a difference of 1.27 ANY/A in Rivers’ favor. That speaks to the Chargers blowing games late while Carr inexplicably wins a lot of those games.
How many of these 16 matchups are still possible in the future? Brady-Fitzpatrick, Rodgers-Stafford, Ben-Brady, Ben-Dalton are about the only four realistic ones. Maybe something with Cam Newton if he ever gets another job and plays Matt Ryan again. Stafford vs. Rodgers is scheduled for Week 12 this year. The Bears are in Pittsburgh in Week 9, but Fields has to take over for Dalton by then, right? Fitzpatrick could face Brady in Week 10 if he doesn’t already lose the job to Taylor Heinicke by then. Hey, Brady could get a second win over Heinicke in that case.
But this was a great era with a lot of memorable and important games in that chart. New rivalries will emerge, but nothing is certain in this league. If you thought Mahomes-Watson in 2019 would be the first of several playoff meetings between the two, no rational person would have disagreed at the time. Now? Oof.
And if you’re a disappointed Ravens fan not looking forward to the Chiefs this week, then just remember that Manning’s Colts lost six straight to Brady’s Patriots in 2001-04 before turning that one around. For it to be a real rivalry, the other side has to start winning at some point. Maybe Sunday night is that turnaround moment for the Ravens.
In my last post about the high number (52) of fourth down attempts in Week 1 of the 2021 season, I briefly mentioned that it was a bad weekend for costly fumbles too. Lamar Jackson’s second lost fumble, something he’s only done in one other game (Pittsburgh last year), put the bow on Week 1 as it led to the Raiders’ game-winning drive in overtime.
In total, there were 22 lost fumbles in Week 1 of the 2021 season. That is something we’ve seen happen plenty of times in the NFL, but there were also just 17 interceptions, tied for the second-lowest total in the 32-team era (since 2002) when all 32 teams were in action. That fumble-to-INT ratio of 1.29 sounds unusually high.
But is it?
Since I’ve compiled so much data to get ready for this season, I figured I’d better start sharing it more frequently. If we look at the 172 weeks where all 32 teams were in action, this Week 1 is only the 17th week where there were more fumbles lost than interceptions thrown. Here is a chart in chronological order of the weekly fumble-to-INT ratio in the 32-team era:
Week 1’s 1.29 fumble-to-INT ratio ranks second behind only the 1.35 in Week 2 of the 2015 season when there were 31 fumbles and 23 interceptions. That Week 2 in 2015 was most memorable for Peyton Manning leading a comeback in Kansas City in prime time and Derek Carr throwing a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute of the game to beat the Ravens.
So, I guess six years later, some things never change. But with interceptions continuing to be harder to come by for defenses, we may start to see more weeks where the fumble, whether it’s a strip-sack or a lucky recovery of a botched snap, becomes the No. 1 way for a defense to take the ball back.
With Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season in the books, we certainly saw some different things again. Underdogs won nine games and produced a winning record (9-7) for the first time in Week 1 since 1983. It was also a big week for costly fumbles as fans of Dalvin Cook, Antonio Gibson, Damien Harris, Nick Chubb, Josh Allen, Carson Wentz, and Lamar Jackson can attest to. Daniel Jones fans, if they exist, are simply used to this while Chris Godwin had a good luck charm on his side to alleviate his screw-up. Deebo Samuel was just fortunate to be playing the Lions.
But something else that really stood out in going over the games was just how many fourth downs some teams were trying. The Falcons, Packers, and Titans all had three attempts on fourth down as they were trying to make huge comebacks after horrible performances. Buffalo was another team that had three attempts after getting stuck in no man’s land a few times.
In total, 11 teams tried at least three fourth downs, the most in any single NFL week since at least 2001. Overall, there were 52 fourth-down attempts in Week 1, the second-most in any week since at least 2001. Back in Week 14 of the 2009 season, there were 53 fourth down attempts, the only other week over 50 since 2001.
This chart looks at how many fourth downs were attempted around the league, in chronological order, for all 172 weeks since 2002 when all 32 teams were in action.
Given the deep conservative roots in football, and the fact that there were fewer teams/games before this period, it is probably safe to say that these are the only two weeks in NFL history where over 50 fourth downs were attempted.
How did the offenses fare on fourth down this week? They were 25-of-52 for a not-so-special conversion rate of 48.1%.
Will we see more of this? Teams like the Falcons, Titans, and Packers probably won’t play as terribly on offense again to make that necessary, but we also saw teams like the Browns and Broncos use some aggressive fourth downs to their advantage on Sunday.
It’s just another thing to keep track of this season.
Finally, the top five in my top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century. Something that started as a thought exercise last Tuesday has turned into an eight-part trip down memory lane totaling over 43,000 words. If you missed the beginning of the series, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 6:
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. In part VII, I unveiled the first half of the top 10, including a detailed story on witnessing Ben Roethlisberger’s whole career unfold as a local.
I do not know if Green Bay fans are still mad at me, but they might be after reading this. On the other hand, maybe the last decade has worn them down to say, “he was onto something after all.”
Ten years ago, Aaron Rodgers was on top of the NFL world having just won Super Bowl MVP honors and leading the Packers back to championship glory in his third season as a starter. I was just a newbie writer covering my first NFL season as a freelancer, and I was known as “the comebacks guy” for my work on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, the latter stat being officially adopted into record by the NFL after my work went viral.
One of the first times I ever did a 6,000-word opus was a piece called Aaron Rodgers: Front-runner Extraordinaire for Cold Hard Football Facts. The link no longer works, but basically I defined what a front-runner is, if it’s a bad thing or not, and how Rodgers and the Packers have an incredibly low number of comebacks and game-winning drives despite their overall success under head coach Mike McCarthy. At the time, Rodgers was 3-16 at 4QC opportunities with one of the wins against the 0-16 Lions in 2008.
I mentioned the long list of crucial interceptions the defense made off Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Caleb Hanie, and Ben Roethlisberger in that 2010 Super Bowl run, and concluded with “Is it a repeatable strategy? Probably not, as that was a heavy reliance on key interceptions. But if they can figure it out and get more team performances like the Atlanta game, then this could be the league’s next dynasty.”
Well, the defense never returned to 2010’s level, and not only did they fail to become a dynasty, but we have gone 10 seasons and the Packers have yet to return to the Super Bowl with Rodgers. They are 0-4 in the NFC Championship Game. He has still never had more than three game-winning drives in any season (including playoffs), something that has been done 92 times by other quarterbacks since 2008.
Right after I wrote that article, the 2011 Packers started 13-0 without trailing once in the fourth quarter. Combined with their similar six-game winning streak to end 2010, that marked 19 straight wins without trailing in the fourth quarter, an NFL record. The previous record was 13 games by a World War II-era Washington team, so Green Bay smashed it. Greatest front-running team ever just like I said.
When a bad Chiefs team punched the Packers in the mouth that year, they folded and lost for the first time. Then in the playoffs against the Giants, they lost another game that was within one score early in the fourth quarter before New York won in shocking fashion, 37-20.
The whole time my thought process was that we need to slow down before proclaiming Rodgers as the next GOAT when I was able to pick up on this pattern throughout his first three seasons as a starter that showed up again in spades in 2011, his first MVP season. I knew from my research and general study of quarterback play that he could never reach GOAT status if he continues to practically never win any close games. When is front-running a bad thing? When it’s the only thing you do. I tried to tell Green Bay fans that if this continues, it is going to cost your team wins, division titles, higher playoff seeds, and ultimately Super Bowls.
I’d say I rest my case with the last decade as proof, but there’s so much more here to unpack. In 2012, the Packers again blew three close games early in the season to the 49ers, Seahawks (Fail Mary), and Colts (Andrew Luck’s coming out party). I continued to write about this close game subject at all the sites I was working with at the time, including Bleacher Report when I shared that Rodgers was 0-18 at 4QC opportunities against teams better than .500. The line “To reach the goal of another Super Bowl, the 2013 Packers will be looking for the balance the team had in 2010 between the offense and defense” could literally be reused every year for the last decade for Green Bay.
In 2013, Rodgers had a rough outing in Cincinnati in Week 3 and Green Bay blew a lead in a 34-30 loss. He came up short again on the final drive. I immediately wrote about “Aaron Rodgers’ Hidden Weakness” for a piece on ESPN Insider. “Rodgers is 9-26 (.257) when he has to score the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime, but 49-5 (.907) in all other games, meaning the Packers are often on the winning end of blowouts. That .650 difference in winning percentage is the largest I have found in a sample of 67 quarterbacks.” I concluded by saying that for Rodgers to earn the status as the best quarterback in the league, he has to deliver more in these moments.
Shortly after, I was made aware that ESPN’s First Take did a segment about my Rodgers article. There has probably been nothing more surreal in my career than watching Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless holding a printout of my article in their hands as they screamed at each other about it on TV.
For better or worse, I got this comeback talk into the mainstream media. Rodgers broke his collarbone that season and missed seven starts. The team mostly flopped without him, but it sure was interesting when backup Matt Flynn led a comeback tie against Minnesota after trailing by 16 points and a 23-point comeback win over the Cowboys. These were the kind of games Green Bay never had with Rodgers at quarterback. So that started creeping into my stats, because Flynn also had a 9-point comeback against the 2011 Lions when he threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in Week 17.
Soon you started seeing me put out stats with tables like this one:
Eventually, Rodgers snapped that 0-for streak with a Hail Mary win in Detroit in 2015. But it was during that 2015 season that things changed drastically in Green Bay. Rodgers won his second MVP in 2014’s “Relax” run. A deserving choice, though I think Tony Romo at least had a case. In 2015, he lost Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL, but the Packers were still 6-0 and his numbers were what you expect and in line with his peak of 2009-2014. However, the team then went on a bye week and came back and played Denver’s outstanding defense on Sunday Night Football. Rodgers looked lost and threw for 77 yards in a 29-10 loss. Without that Hail Mary in Detroit, which followed a bullshit facemask penalty on the Lions, the Packers would have lost five out of six following a 6-0 start.
What the hell kind of Palm Springs cave did Rodgers stumble into during that bye week that sapped him of his powers?
It was all pretty peculiar as Rodgers continued to rely on Hail Mary passes late that year just to keep the team competitive. He hit one in the playoffs in Arizona to force overtime, though I think the play on 4th-and-20 that preceded it was far more impressive. The Packers never touched the ball in overtime, losing on the final play for the third postseason in a row.
In 2016, the Packers started 4-6 with Rodgers continuing to underwhelm from what we’re used to seeing from him. There were also some uncharacteristic losses that weren’t even close games. My other advice for Green Bay fans about the front-running critique was to treat it as a positive since it shows that your team is in almost every game with Rodgers. No one blows him out. From 2008 to 2012, the Packers had a nice 69-game streak of being at least within one score in the fourth quarter. The 2012 Giants ended that one with a 38-10 blowout. The only longer streak in NFL history that I’ve found was 98 games by Seattle in 2011-16.
But now the Packers were not keeping it close, and Rodgers still had no comebacks in 2016. However, he talked about running the table, and that kicked off an eight-game win streak where he was hot and in his MVP form, reaching the NFC Championship Game again after an impressive game-winning drive in Dallas in the divisional round. But the real MVP that season, Matt Ryan, lit up Rodgers’ defense and the Packers lost 44-21. Prior to that game, I unveiled a crazy Rodgers stat that I have since regretted posting because of how Brady fans have used it so recklessly. I’m not repeating it here, but if you’re curious, you can click those links.
In 2017, Rodgers had the Packers off to a solid 4-1 start, but another collarbone injury derailed his season. Again, the team flopped without him, but boy was it amusing to see Brett Hundley lead a 14-point 4QC win against Cleveland. There was no magic this time when Rodgers returned late in the season, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since his 2008 season.
In the 2018 opener against the Bears, the Packers were down 20-3 to start the fourth quarter. Rodgers’ success rate was 0-for-10 in the first half, and he suffered what looked like a season-ending injury. But something crazy happened. Rodgers returned after being carted off the field, and he led the biggest comeback of his career and the Packers won 24-23. It ended a record of 0-31 when Rodgers trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter.
That was Rodgers’ sixth game-winning drive in his last 16 appearances, the hottest clutch streak of his career. Maybe 2018 was going to be the turning point. In Week 16, Rodgers led a 15-point 4QC against the Jets. He finished the season with 25 touchdowns to two interceptions. If I told you that Rodgers led two 15+ point 4QCs and had that touchdown-to-interception ratio, you would predict a great season, right? Wrong. The Packers finished 6-9-1 with a middling offense as Rodgers was too conservative with taking sacks and making throwaways to keep his picks down that season. In the end, Mike McCarthy was fired as his stale offense was often the scapegoat for Rodgers’ decline.
Whatever the cause, the change from Peak Aaron Rodgers (2009-14) to Not Peak Aaron Rodgers (2015-19) was fascinating to see and unprecedented for a player of this caliber.
That does not have the numbers updated for 2018-19, but they could not have been much better. Even after bringing in Matt LaFleur as the head coach in 2019, the Packers were still middling on offense and Rodgers had his lowest QBR (52.5) yet, which ranked 20th in the league. The difference in going 13-3 was that the defense played better, and the Packers hung on from ahead in a lot of one-score games in the fourth quarter. But the 49ers pushed them around twice and beat them badly, 37-20, in the NFC Championship Game.
Last year, Prime Aaron Rodgers made his unexpected but triumphant return for his third MVP season despite the biggest offensive change being Robert Tonyan taking over for Jimmy Graham at tight end. I detailed that rise here. I feel like it was the weakest of his MVP seasons, and his record for 1-yard touchdown passes (eight) in a season did not impress me. But overall, it was a great season, I can understand why he won the award, and it was good to see him back to playing at that level. I just wish he didn’t implode in Tampa Bay, because that sure seemed to give the Buccaneers confidence that they could win in Green Bay in the title game. Rodgers played much better that second time around, but the uncharacteristic red-zone struggles hurt on a day the Packers needed more touchdowns. But nothing hurt more than the play of corner Kevin King and Aaron Jones’ fumble, the double whammy in the middle of the game that led to a 28-10 deficit.
We could have had two straight Super Bowls with Rodgers vs. Mahomes, but instead we are still hoping to see their first matchup this regular season. The Packers have been swept out of the playoffs seven times since the 2012 season. They just never seem to figure out these teams that get the best of them in the regular season.
Being pushed around by those NFC West and NFC South teams has really taken over as my preferred talking point on the Rodgers-era Packers. He tends to own his division and Dallas and the crummy East, but the 49ers (2012-13, 2019), Seahawks (2014), Cardinals (2015), Falcons (2016), and Buccaneers (2020) are the seven NFC teams that have swept Green Bay since 2012.
There is still a shortage of comebacks in Green Bay, but I can say that Rodgers has at least improved his record and my expectations of him in that department. Through 2014, he was 12-29 (.293) at 4QC/GWD opportunities, which would be one of the worst records in the league. Since 2015, he is 15-17-1 (.470), which would be just behind the career records of Ben Roethlisberger (51-56-1, .477) and Russell Wilson (35-39-1, .473) near the top of the league.
I have often said that Rodgers’ A-game is as good as any quarterback in the history of the NFL. From a pure talent standpoint, he has to be right up there with Mahomes and Steve Young as the best players. His highlight reel could run the longest of anyone on this list, which speaks to his skill and longevity.
But when it comes to having to brush off a bad start or when the game does not go according to plan, I still have a hard time trusting Rodgers as much as I do some other quarterbacks. The lack of comebacks has always bugged me with him, but beyond that, I think the abyss he fell into during 2015-19 eliminates him from the conversation of the greatest to ever play. That kind of thing just does not happen.
When Peyton Manning became an elite quarterback in his second season (1999), he basically stayed that way until his quad injury late in 2014. When Tom Brady finally started producing good numbers (2004) and he then had his statistical down years (2006, 2013, 2019), he didn’t let it linger beyond those seasons. When Drew Brees broke out in 2004, he basically rode that wave all the way through retirement after 2020 with only a couple short-lived slumps. For five whole seasons, Rodgers basically had his six-game hot streak to start 2015 and his eight-game hot streak in 2016. The rest of the time he was hovering around mediocrity, which is unacceptable for someone this talented.
We’ll see just how long Peak Aaron Rodgers 2.0 sticks around too. Was it just a one-year revival, or does he do it again this year, which could very well be his last with Green Bay? Does he go to another team in 2022 and add to his legacy a la Manning and Brady? The book isn’t finished here, but I’ve sure as hell written a good draft for my time in covering the one and only Aaron Rodgers.
4. Drew Brees
That’s right, we have a change at the top of my list. In December 2019, I wrote about how Drew Brees was the Hypothetical GOAT. Already the passing king with records for touchdowns and yards, Brees also dominates the metrics that look at passing accuracy (things like CPOE and plus-minus), so he has a good argument as the most accurate quarterback of all time. But he also could have been the biggest playoff winner with the best playoff stats of his era as well, not to mention hold records for the most comebacks and game-winning drives. That’s the hypothetical part.
“Imagine if Brees was 5-0 in Super Bowls with wins over Peyton (2009), Roethlisberger (2010), and 3-0 against Brady (2011, 2017-18). He’d be considered the GOAT for sure, also having kept Rodgers to zero rings. Remember, it was Rodgers’ run in 2010 that propelled him ahead of Brees during the year where Brees was supposed to join the Manning/Brady tier after 2009’s win.”
How did I get to that? All I did was change five outcomes in his career that had nothing to even do with his play, including a 29-yard field goal being made instead of missed, three defensive stops instead of scores allowed, and a flag for pass interference on the 2018 Rams. It’s really that simple and that thin of a margin between the multiple Super Bowls he played well enough to make and only the one appearance he got.
That was my epiphany moment on Brees’ career as he was having another stellar season in 2019 and Brady was floundering at the end of his run in New England. That led me to rank Brees ahead of Brady on my all-time list for the first time, putting Brees at No. 4 and Brady at No. 5. I’m really going to test people’s patience with reading full articles with this one as they’re going to complain on Twitter that I wrote one sentence about Brady below, but the fact is he’s sprinkled throughout this top five and in great detail below.
But my prediction that Brees will probably jinx me and have his worst postseason proved true. The Saints lost to the Vikings in overtime in the wild card round. Last year, Brees looked noticeably weaker at getting the ball down the field, then he suffered multiple fractured ribs (starting at the hands of Brady’s Tampa Bay defense) and a collapsed lung. He was never quite the same when he came back and he had arguably his worst game in a Saints uniform in the playoffs against Tampa Bay, a 30-20 loss in the divisional round that sent him into retirement.
Brees really did not have my back on this one, so after seeing him tap out at 41 and play a huge role in Brady winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, I feel like I can no longer justify ranking him ahead of Brady. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pick a 22-year-old Brees over a 22-year-old Brady to start a fictional team from scratch, but that’s a whole different argument than something like this, which I’ve always based on a mixture of achievement and ability. Hell, the list of quarterbacks I’d take over a 22-year-old Brady would be massive, but again, that’s a different perspective.
I’ll certainly miss Brees in New Orleans. I’ve talked about a quarterback’s A-game multiple times already, and we know that when Brees was playing in the Superdome in prime time, he was absolute money for over a decade. That was him in his element. It’s also not like the Saints spent a ton of draft resources on offense or always had high-priced free agents on that side of the ball. Brees helped so many receivers to ridiculously high catch rates and great receiving metrics with his accuracy. There will almost certainly be more Hall of Fame teammates from the four years that Brees started in San Diego than there will be from his time in New Orleans. I just wish Sean Payton would have cared more about coaching defense and they could have had more success on that side of the ball.
In five seasons with serious Super Bowl aspirations, Brees watched Rex Grossman (2006), Alex Smith (2011), Case Keenum (2017), Jared Goff (2018), and Kirk Cousins (2019) get the most significant win of their careers against his Saints. Otherwise, those quarterbacks were 3-13 as playoff starters. That’s a tough pill to swallow, and that doesn’t even include the “Beastquake” loss to the 7-9 Seahawks in 2010 or his only playoff game with San Diego, an overtime loss to the Jets after Nate Kaeding missed a makeable overtime field goal.
Brees goes down as the king of the lost comeback, or games where he led his team from behind to a lead in the fourth quarter, but the team still lost the game. He did that 19 times, the most in NFL history and more than Brady (nine) and Manning (seven) combined.
With Brees retired, I did want to update these numbers from that 2019 article through 2020. These are their adjusted records in the clutch if every go-ahead FG/XP was successful and every go-ahead drive was held up by the defense. (Note that if a kick would have just tied the game, we’re sticking with that as a loss.)
Revised Career 4QC/GWD Opportunity Records with All Leads Upheld and 100% FGs
Drew Brees: 86-44 (.662) from 57-73 (.438)
Tom Brady: 74-37 (.667) from 63-48 (.568)
Peyton Manning: 70-44 (.614) from 58-56 (.509)
That last head-to-head game won by Tampa now gives Brady the edge in adjusted win rate, but Brees still has by far the largest total of wins and the biggest increase in wins from his actual record (+29).
As for why I still put Brees ahead of Rodgers, it’s because I don’t think Brees had a slump that lasted longer than four games in the 17-year period of 2004-20. He did take longer to shine than Rodgers, who was already good in his first year as a starter, then great in 2009. But once Brees broke out in 2004, I see very few cracks in his game outside of a rough four-game start to 2007 and a few too many multi-pick games in 2010. He definitely didn’t have a 2015-19 run on his resume, and even when the Saints weren’t making the playoffs in those 7-9 seasons, it was because Brees had the worst team support (D/ST) of these top five quarterbacks in his career. Also, yes, he is better with the game on the line than Rodgers and I think he’s performed better in the postseason. The fact that both have only reached one Super Bowl while never meeting in the playoffs is mind blowing to me. It’s not like they were holding each other back. Rodgers still has time to pass Brees for me.
Brees’ place in history figures to be as the best quarterback to never win an MVP, but he deserves better than that. My concern is with the 17-game season, 5,000-yard passing seasons are going to become more common and people are going to overlook just how prolific Brees was in a league with great competition at his position.
3. Tom Brady
Pretty good for a sixth-round pick who only got his start because Drew Bledsoe was injured.
2. Patrick Mahomes
Did you guess it? I may have let it slip a month ago on Twitter.
While I might not be able to bring myself to rank Mahomes second in all of NFL history after 54 starts, I have no doubt that no other quarterback has been this great so soon in their career. It also could be the best 54-game stretch any quarterback has ever had. Definitely the best 53-game streak.
Yes, that 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV has removed Mahomes’ invincibility. It was the first time he lost a game by more than eight points and the first time he did not lead a touchdown drive. But in reviewing the game, I still have a hard time saying he was bad that night given the pass rush and two potential dropped touchdowns. It was a dreadful game for his standards, but his standards are so ridiculously high. If this game or the Atlanta game in Week 16 is what a “bad” Mahomes game looks like, then I guess his bad games are still decent.
But one thing I am certain of is that Mahomes has no discernible weakness in his game. Your basic rebuttal of “just pressure him like the Raiders and Bucs did last year” is not exposing a weakness. All quarterbacks do worse under pressure vs. not pressured. But guess who the best quarterback under pressure has been? Mahomes.
When I reviewed the 2020 offense, I found just how hard it is to stop Mahomes.
“By the numbers, the Chiefs are more likely to score than be stopped with Mahomes this season. In 160 drives with him including the playoffs, the Chiefs have scored 85 times (56 touchdowns and 29 field goals) and did not score 75 times. Even the 75 non-scoring drives include positive offensive results such as three missed field goals and running out the clock on three opponents, including the Buccaneers in Week 12.
The Chiefs just may be their own worst enemy. They missed out on seven extra touchdowns this season just because of dropped passes (four) or penalties that wiped out scores (three). Mahomes has turned the ball over eight times this season via interceptions (six) or lost fumbles (two), but he is more likely to see a drive end because of a dropped pass that would have extended the drive, which happened 11 times to the Chiefs this year. The skill players have also lost six fumbles and the short-yardage offense has been stopped nine times when trying to move the ball without Mahomes.”
I could spend a lot of time sharing crazy Mahomes stats and facts:
I’m sure there will be more to come soon. We’re already getting to the point where the nitpicking on Mahomes will be things like “he’s never had to play a road playoff game” and “he’s never had a great four-quarter performance in a Super Bowl!” While both are true, if that’s the best thing you can come up with after 54 games….
The only real concern about Mahomes at this point would be his health. He’s narrowly avoided a season-ending injury two years in a row with his dislocated kneecap and that scary situation against Cleveland only costing him about a dozen quarters of action combined. Health is always the No. 1 thing for every quarterback. Look at how many careers I wrote about here that were negatively impacted by injuries. So, let’s hope Mahomes is one of the more durable players at his position.
I guess the other thing I would caution is that he’s been all instant peak. The quarterbacks who peaked so high right out the gate had a difficult time ever finding their way back to that level of play. Think Johnny Unitas after 1959, Dan Marino after 1987, and Kurt Warner after 2001.
For as great as Mahomes has been in the last three years, can he keep that pace up for another eight or 12 years? Can he stay this dominant when Travis Kelce is no longer his tight end or Andy Reid is not the head coach? Remember, Aaron Rodgers was at a ridiculous level for six seasons and six games before he fell off in 2015. But when it comes to keeping up a ridiculous prime for over a decade, someone else is still the gold standard, and that is why Mahomes cannot be ranked No. 1 yet.
1. Peyton Manning
Simply put, Peyton Manning is the most valuable player in NFL history. Just in the 10 seasons he was active from 2003 to 2013, he won five MVP awards (most ever) and was named first-team All-Pro seven times (most ever). That is an insane run that we may never see again. Even Mahomes is only 1-for-3 in winning those honors so far.
Honestly, he should have won eight of each, but fatigued voters still loved their running backs (2005, 2006, 2012) instead of true value, and someone so clueless picked Marc Bulger to rob Manning of the All-Pro nod in 2006, still his best season ever in my eyes. I do not say that because it was his only Super Bowl win in Indy. His drive engineering was never better than in 2006, his third-down performance was record breaking (peep the QBR), he was at his physical peak in throwing downfield and moving in the pocket better after that 2005 Pittsburgh loss made him improve that area of his game. He had bigger statistical years (2004, 2013), and he carried weaker teams in 2008-09, but 2006 was the all-around greatest Peyton Manning season. It’s also the last time since 1999 Kurt Warner that the best quarterback in the regular season won the Super Bowl that year.
Pick your proprietary metric – QBR, DVOA, DYAR, EPA, WPA, ANY/A – and he’s going to outshine his peers. He led the most efficient offenses on a per-drive basis of any quarterback, and his units often did great on third down and in the red zone. He had the career records for comebacks and game-winning drives, including a record seven comeback wins in that 2009 season as the team started 14-0. Along with Dan Marino, he was the hardest quarterback to pressure and sack because of how quick he released the ball, making him able to succeed with any offensive line. He was one of the most durable quarterbacks of all time before a Gregg Williams defense got to his neck. Only missed one play due to injury from 1998 to 2010. He got to his final of 539 touchdown passes in fewer games and pass attempts than Brees and Brady did. He broke the touchdown record twice with 49 and 55 touchdown passes. Breaking a significant record like that twice is unheard of and unlikely to ever happen again.
Like having a coach on the field, you will never see another quarterback go to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches and two different teams, becoming the first quarterback to win one with two teams. His Super Bowl teams were among the most imbalanced winners ever as one great offense (2006 Colts) and one great defense (2015 Broncos). Even his other two appearances were two of the biggest one-man show runs to the big game, which does a lot to explain why those were not wins. He always drew the toughest matchup possible in all four of his Super Bowls too.
Mahomes may be raising the standard for a quarterback avoiding bad games, but Manning rarely had cold streaks. When he threw 11 interceptions in a three-game losing streak for the Colts in 2010, it was headline news in the NFL. He shook it off with a four-game winning streak that led the Colts to the playoffs one last time. In the 17 seasons he started, he made the playoffs and won 10+ games 15 times. The only times he didn’t were the seasons where he had the bottom ranked scoring defense in the league and schedules loaded with playoff teams.
He was awful for his first six games as a rookie, but once he settled down and figured out how to play in the NFL, he basically rode that wave until late in 2014 when his body started to fail him. A quad injury exacerbated by the four neck surgeries as he had to adjust his mechanics to account for the lost arm strength. Manning was never physically the same quarterback in Denver as he was in Indy, but his anticipation on throws got even better to compensate. The fact that he could throw 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yard (both records) in 2013 with such limited arm strength is amazing.
In watching the state of defense continue to decline in the NFL since Manning retired, you only wonder what kind of numbers he would put up if he was getting his start now. While the position is moving to athletic playmakers who can run and pass, Manning’s intelligence, preparation, accuracy, and ability to get rid of the ball would make him a great success in any era. He is his own offensive system.
The Lousy Arguments vs. Manning
What I loved about Manning is that he disproved every garbage argument thrown his way in his career.
“He’s only good cause he has Edgerrin James at running back and defenses bite on the play-action and stretch plays.”
Edge left in 2006 and Manning immediately won a Super Bowl. Indy’s running game disappeared in 2007 and he continued to thrive and win MVP awards.
“He’s only good cause he has Tarik Glenn at left tackle.”
Glenn retired after 2006, the Colts put a turnstile named Tony Ugoh in his place, and the 12-win seasons and MVP awards kept coming. Manning could make any offensive line combination work out.
“He’s only good cause he has Marvin Harrison.”
Harrison was also one of the worst playoff receivers in NFL history as I’ve documented before. As soon as he left, Manning won his fourth MVP in 2009, but people love to ignore 88’s contributions to the down years in the playoffs.
If the best wide receiver in NFL history isn’t Jerry Rice, then it’s the guy who was Manning’s No. 1 wide receiver. That’s part Marvin, part Reggie Wayne, and part Demaryius Thomas in Denver. Put those numbers together and they are outstanding, because that’s what a consistently accurate elite passer can do for his receivers. Manning got many guys paid after big seasons, including the likes of Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Julius Thomas, etc.
This also speaks to the weak “he threw to first-round picks” argument, especially since that argument is most beloved by people who worship a sixth-round pick at quarterback and advocate for Julian Edelman to make the Hall of Fame.
The truth is Harrison (1.19), Wayne (1.30), Dallas Clark (1.30), Anthony Gonzalez (1.32), and Demaryius Thomas (1.22) were all chosen 19th or later in the first round, making them more of a crapshoot to succeed. It is a fact that players in the lower portion of the first round have inferior careers, on average, to players at the top of the draft. The only thing keeping those averages closer is Manning’s contributions to helping those players have several of the best careers for players drafted in the bottom half of the first round. But he never played with a surefire receiver like Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, or A.J. Green. He played with a lot of shorter, possession receivers who ran great routes, but did not do much after the catch. The ball was expected to be on time, and it often was as Manning was never a “just throw it up and hope something good happens” passer. His offense was built on precision, timing, and exploiting matchups pre-snap.
“His stats are inflated by the dome.”
Ah, the dome quarterback. This one always pisses me off because it shows no understanding of the game. For one, only a few quarterbacks (Manning, Brees, Ryan, Stafford, maybe Warren Moon back in the day) ever get this label because there aren’t that many domes in the NFL. Also, you must actually be good to get this criticism. No one has ever said “Joey Harrington would suck in Detroit if he wasn’t a dome QB.” No, Joey Harrington would suck on every playing surface known to man because he was a shit quarterback. I could say the same about Sam Bradford, who played for the Rams, Vikings, and Cardinals.
When someone like Brady or Rodgers has great stats in games played indoors, it’s because that’s a small sample of games against a fixed, limited set of opponents who often have bad defenses (Saints, Lions, Vikings, Falcons, etc.). But for someone like Manning or Brees, they played at least half their seasons indoors for extended periods of their careers. They faced all different types of defenses in home games doing that, including elite ones. So, if you’re going to compare indoor stats, compare apples to apples and compare only indoor road games for the quarterbacks who have an indoor home stadium.
Plus, Manning proved it quite well in Denver that he didn’t need an indoor stadium to dominate. He also was one of the best cold weather quarterbacks, but people who act like the only games that matter are two snowy playoff games in New England missed that fact.
With Manning and Brees retired, Ryan aging, and Stafford moving to LA, it will be interesting to see where the future of dome passing stats go. Especially in an AFC that has totally retooled the quarterback position with guys in outdoor stadiums (Mahomes, Allen, Lamar, Baker, Burrow, Tua, Herbert, Lawrence, Z.Wilson, Mac Jones, etc.). Things may not look so hot if Jameis Winston, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Carson Wentz are our new indoor passers.
“Best regular-season QB ever, but he was a playoff choker!”
While he absolutely disproved this on the field, to this day too many people still believe it. I have written about the topic extensively on this blog, on ESPN Insider, and in two parts on FO where I think I really solved it. Manning’s teams blew a record six fourth-quarter leads in the playoffs, and most of them came in the first game of a playoff run, which explains why he had the record for nine one-and-done postseasons. No other quarterback has seen his team blow that many playoff leads. Then when you do it right in the first game, there’s no next week after that. When Manning’s teams got past the first game of the playoffs, they were very good. Ask Rodgers and Brees how hard it is to get to more than one Super Bowl.
But Manning was one of the best playoff performers in NFL history. How else do you explain his first three AFC Championship Game wins that were some of the best games of his career? The way he dominated the Broncos in back-to-back years, beating the Chiefs in Kansas City in a game without any punts.
Yet when he threw the interception to Tracy Porter in Super Bowl 44, people treated it as him doing what he always does in the playoffs. What pattern is that when it’s literally the first time in his playoff career that he turned the ball over in a 4QC/GWD opportunity? Are people pretending that throwing picks when you’re down 34-0, 41-0, and 20-3 in the final minute of the fourth quarter are what lost those games to the 2002 Jets and 2004 Patriots? Manning was 6-6 when he threw zero interceptions in a playoff game, still the most losses in playoff history doing that.
From 1998-2010, Manning’s Colts were 1-5 (.167) in the playoffs when they had zero turnovers. The rest of the NFL was 43-4 (.915). Chew on that one for a minute.
If these articles won’t work, I guess a documentary is the next step for me, but unfortunately, we live in an era where people can be shown video evidence and facts and still not change their beliefs. They see what they want to see. Worse, Manning’s career took place during Tom Brady’s career, and there is no quarterback who gets his worshippers more riled up to defend his honor than the King of Kings himself.
I’ve Been Coming at the King for Two Decades
That’s right, Brady fans. If you think I was only going to leave him at one sentence above, then you clearly don’t know any better. I’m going to go over the whole origin story of why I think he’s the most overrated player ever.
They say first impressions are everything.
I caught my first Tom Brady game on January 19, 2002. All I knew about him was that he was a sixth-round pick who took over after Drew Bledsoe was injured early in the season. I heard he was supposed to be decent, but the Patriots had a bunch of players I never heard of while I saw the likes of Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Charles Woodson on the Raiders. I wasn’t into rooting for either team, but it was a big playoff game and the snow looked cool on our new 27-inch TV.
Late in the game, it looked like the Raiders had wrapped it up, 13-10 with a strip-sack fumble recovery. But there was a review, and from there I learned all about things like Walt Coleman’s pro-Patriots past and this new rule called the Tuck Rule. It no longer exists because it never made any sense, it has been applied liberally and inconsistently, and to this day, that looks like a fumble to me. Game over. But the Patriots kept the ball, Brady completed only one more pass, and Adam Vinatieri was tasked with a super difficult field goal to tie the game. He hit it from 45 yards away and it is still the greatest kick in NFL history if you ask me.
The Patriots won the overtime coin toss, they dinked and dunked down the field, and Vinatieri hit a game-winning field goal, another weak element of the game that had to go years later. I read a recap online after the game that the Patriots got really lucky, which I thought was obvious. Then I saw this snotty quote from Brady about the play that saved his bacon. “You know, he hit me. I wasn’t sure. Yeah, I was throwing the ball. How do you like that? Damn right. Damn right.”
How do I like that? This low-rent Matt Damon looking mug couldn’t even admit he got away with one. I was looking forward to seeing the Steelers face this team since I thought the Raiders would have been a tougher out in the AFC Championship Game.
Of course, Kordell Stewart pulled his usual big-game display with three picks. The special teams got absolutely hosed on a missed penalty that should have negated a touchdown return. And Brady? He dinked and dunked, then he left the game injured in the second quarter and they hung on with Drew Bledsoe finishing the game. Brady led his offense to 29 points in the entire postseason. He started in the Super Bowl against the Rams, a team I was fond of at the time for their high-flying offense. It was supposed to be a rout, which the Super Bowl usually was in those days, but it turned out to be a huge upset. However, if you watch that game now, it’s pretty boring. The Patriots would back the Rams up, they’d get a few first downs, then either stall or turn the ball over and set the Patriots up on short fields.
Brady didn’t even break 70 air yards in that game, and he never converted a third down. He led his offense to 13 points, but that was good enough for the win as Ty Law, who should have been named MVP, had a pick-six. The Rams tied it up, John Madden gave horrible advice on sitting on the ball that teams did not follow even back then, and then I watched Brady throw three dump passes, get away with intentional grounding, make one nice pass to Troy Brown, and before you know it there’s Vinatieri kicking a 48-yard field goal that somehow took seven seconds off the clock to end the game.
Aside from the U2 halftime show, that was not a fun night. It was hard to tell a difference between what Brady did that postseason and what Trent Dilfer did with Baltimore the year before.
The Patriots missed the playoffs in 2002 and started 0-1 in 2003 after letting Lawyer Milloy go before the season. Brady threw four picks in that opener, a 31-0 loss to Buffalo. I used to watch ESPN in the afternoon at the time and they would have talking heads like Sean Salisbury ask if the players hate Bill Belichick as their coach. But soon enough, this team embarked on a record 21-game winning streak that looked like the luckiest damn thing I’d ever seen in football.
They won a game 19-13 in overtime in Miami after Olindo Mare missed two 35-yard field goals in crunch time. At least one was blocked, but he flat out missed the game-winner in overtime. That was Game No. 3 and it proved to be the difference in making a record.
In Game No. 5 in Denver, they took an intentional safety while trailing 24-23 late in the game as Belichick did not want to punt from his own 1. That felt ballsy. Denver gave the ball back in record time, and Brady only had to go 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown. You rarely see the intentional safety work out that well.
Game No. 8 in Indianapolis was the real ball buster and the true beginning of the Manning-Brady, Colts-Patriots rivalry. New England led 31-10 in the third quarter, but Manning turned a couple of Brady picks into touchdowns and quickly tied the game up at 31 in the fourth. Just when you expect a good finish, Bethel Johnson has a 67-yard kick return to give Brady great field position for another touchdown. Johnson also had a 92-yard kick return touchdown to end the first half, which you almost never see in this league.
The Colts were down 38-34 late with the ball. They got a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Edgerrin James ended up getting stuffed three times, including a loss on fourth down. Linebacker Willie McGinest, who ran off the field “injured” on the drive, returned to make that tackle before high-stepping in celebration. There was my introduction to faking an injury in the NFL.
In Game No. 13, the Patriots hosted the Titans in the AFC divisional round. Now I hated the Titans as an old division rival of the Steelers, but I kinda felt myself rooting for them in this one because of how annoying the narrative was on this Patriots team. ESPN was already moving onto the “Brady just wins” crap that would only get worse. Keep in mind this was a season where the Patriots had the No. 1 defense, ranked 16th in points per drive on offense, and Brady was on the fringes of the top 10 in passer rating and YPA behind the legendary Jon Kitna. I mean, I hated Jeff Fisher and his team, but I was fine with seeing them win this one.
It was a freezing cold night, but the offenses started hot before tanking. It was 14-14 in the fourth quarter when Vinatieri once again enhanced his legacy and connected on a 46-yard field goal. Steve McNair had so much time to answer, but pressure did him in, resulting in penalties for grounding and holding. He had to go for it on a 4th-and-12. He threw a pass to Drew Bennett, but Bennett dropped it down the field and the game was over. The Patriots had another playoff win by three points.
January 18, 2004 – This was the day that changed the course of NFL history, how quarterbacks are judged in the mainstream media, and it had a huge impact on me as well.
Peyton Manning was co-MVP with McNair that year, but after winning his first two playoff games in dominant fashion, he was ready to go into New England with a Super Bowl on the line. I was really excited for this one.
I actually watched several Brady games before I watched a full Manning game in the NFL. Sounds shocking, but that’s the truth. I knew his name for years and that his dad played for the Saints in the paper bag over the head days. I knew he was a highly touted player and “the next Dan Marino” and all that. I knew from playing Madden that he was a pain in the ass with the audibles, and in one of my franchise modes, he actually suffered a career-ending injury, the only time I remember seeing one that notable in my game.
But outside of some highlights, I never really saw him play a whole game. That changed in October 2002 when the Steelers hosted the Colts on MNF. Expecting to see something great, the game was a rout. The Steelers were up 21-0 in the second quarter while Manning had a few passes knocked away and Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal. Manning ended up throwing three interceptions and the Colts lost 28-10 in a forgettable game.
But I knew new coach Tony Dungy was a Pittsburgh guy and someone my family wanted to root for. A year later, the Steelers were off to a lousy start and disinteresting me in the season. I watched Manning throw six touchdowns in New Orleans on SNF in a 55-21 win. I hadn’t seen anything like it since Steve Young threw six touchdowns in the Super Bowl against the Chargers, which is my earliest Super Bowl memory. As it turns out, Manning’s six touchdown night in New Orleans was the first one in the NFL since that Young Super Bowl win. Young (and Rice) was my favorite non-Pittsburgh player in the 90s.
I was excited to see this 4-0 Colts team take on the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay the next Monday night. I was not happy that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl the previous year and liked to root against Warren Sapp and company. The pre-game show focused on it being Dungy’s birthday, his return to Tampa, and that he never started 5-0 before. Well, it looked like a bad night with the Bucs up three touchdowns early. Manning threw a pick-six with just over five minutes left and Tampa Bay led 35-14. That’s game over for sure.
I was watching it with my grandma, and we decided to let it finish before calling it a night. I was a senior in high school and usually went to bed late anyway. The Colts got a 90-yard kick return and a short touchdown run on fourth down. No big deal. Then they recovered an onside kick, which I had almost never seen done to that point. It got interesting again after Manning threw a 28-yard touchdown to Harrison on 4th-and-6. The defense got the ball back, and there goes Harrison again for 52 yards. They were really doing this. The Colts scored a touchdown and forced overtime after blocking a 62-yard field goal attempt. Each team touched the ball once. Manning was able to complete three third downs in a row and set up a field goal attempt to win it. The Vanderjagt kick was no good, but a penalty was called on Simeon Rice for leaping. Leaping? What the hell is that? I didn’t even know that was a penalty. Vanderjagt got another chance from 29 and he nearly choked that one away too, but it doinked in for the stunning win.
I went to school the next day and a kid who sat at my lunch table had his Mike Alstott jersey on. He clearly didn’t stay up and watch the end of the game like I did with my grandma. That remains the only game in NFL history where a team down 21 points in the final five minutes won. I was hooked from there. I started following along with the live play-by-play updates on the NFL website during games, running from the living room to the dining room computer to see what the Colts were up to. Seeing every updated Manning to Harrison touchdown was exciting.
CBS cut live to the end of the Colts-Patriots game in Week 13. I was bummed at that ending, but maybe they would meet again. In the playoffs, Manning was about as perfect as any quarterback has ever been through two playoff games. He was 22-of-26 for 377 yards and five touchdowns against Denver. He had another 300-yard game in Kansas City, a 38-31 win where neither team punted. He was on a roll.
Then we get to the 2003 AFC Championship Game in New England. The Patriots had a far better defense than the Colts and it was snowing, so that’s a really bad mixture for a “soft dome team” as the Colts were at the time. The Patriots scored on their opening drive. Manning hit a pass for 32 yards on his first play. But on a third down from the NE 5, Manning got careless and forced a pass into the end zone. Rodney Harrison intercepted it and that ended his perfect postseason run. Manning’s next pass was intercepted by career nemesis Ty Law. The Colts also botched a punt for a safety and Marvin fumbled in the red zone before halftime. The team was a mess and trailed 15-0.
While the Colts eventually got the deficit to 21-14 and had the ball late, Manning’s drive came up empty quickly. The Patriots played the receivers very physically all game long, but it especially looked like they held tight end Marcus Pollard on consecutive plays. Walt “Tuck Rule” Coleman was the referee, there were no flags, and the Patriots took over on downs and added a cheap field goal for a 24-14 final.
The league later admitted that those should have been flags on New England on third and fourth down, and there were several other missed calls in the game as well that favored the Patriots. With similar tactics used by Carolina in Philadelphia that day, the league ended up making a league-wide reinforcement of illegal contact in 2004. That opened up the passing game again as the stats were down in 2003.
As for the game itself, Manning had his worst playoff game ever with four interceptions. Law really got the best of him and even got a pick on a pass Manning was trying to throw away. However, I watched the same game as everyone else and I couldn’t believe how careless Brady was with the ball against a far lesser defense. He tried to match Manning pick for pick, and the only reason the game was still close late is a Brady interception in the red zone. But seriously, just watch this video I made years ago of Brady floating the ball out there to the defense. Even Phil Simms goes on about the Patriots having so much luck and catching breaks that year.
After watching Brady start 5-0 in the playoffs with five pretty damn mediocre games, I was beyond annoyed with the way the media fawned over this team. After he finally had a great game in the Super Bowl against Carolina, it was still one where he threw a red-zone pick, arguably got outplayed by Jake Delhomme, and got a John Kasay kickoff out of bounds to start his game-winning drive at the 40. That hasn’t happened in the last 2:00 of any tied NFL game since.
Then 2004 started on opening night with the Patriots hosting the Colts. Once again, Manning played very well against a far better defense, and it was a tight game late. Down 27-24 after a Brady pick, Manning had his offense with first-and-goal at the 1. Edge got the carry and fumbled with 3:43 left. Are you kidding me? After getting the ball back, Manning hit a 45-yard pass right away. On a third down, McGinest was somehow unblocked and came in for a 12-yard sack. Vanderjagt, one of the biggest choker kickers in NFL history, came out and missed a 48-yard field goal to end the game. Does Vinatieri miss there? I think not.
Two years in a row the Colts finished 12-4 and the Patriots finished 14-2 with the Patriots beating the Colts, then beating them again in snowy New England in January. Yet if Edgerrin James could just score from the 1-yard line in both games, that could be two playoff games in Indy instead. The quarterback with homefield was 5-0 in the Manning-Brady playoff games. And those Edge runs had nothing to do with Manning or Brady, yet they were so critical at that point in the rivalry. Despite Manning winning both MVPs in 2003-04, the Patriots won all four head-to-head meetings and both Super Bowls to lock up dynasty status with three rings in four years.
The talking heads like Salisbury just ate this “Brady just wins” shit up. I knew I could do better analysis than this. Meanwhile, I had started to collect data on quarterbacks in those pre-Pro Football Reference days and kept track of things like points allowed and what they did in one-score games, and nothing was adding up for me. How can the best quarterback in the league be someone with stats barely distinguishable from Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks, and Marc Bulger?
So, I just continued watching games and collecting game logs and even moved on to downloading torrents of games and going through play-by-play data. Learning what I can about this game as guys like Brees and Roethlisberger started to come into the fold as well. I tracked down Manning’s oldest playoff games and I’m watching his receivers drop 7-8 passes against the Titans and Jets. In his first playoff game against the 1999 Titans, Manning watched Jerome Pathon drop a first down on 3rd-and-10, Harrison drop one on 3rd-and-22, and Edge drop one on 4th-and-4. That’s just one quarter of one game the Colts went on to lose 19-16 after Eddie “3.0 YPC” George ran wild. In 2000 against Miami, I watch Pathon drop a touchdown on another third down, and saw how Vanderjagt sent that game-winning attempt into the parking lot that day. He did the same thing against the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Divisional Round.
At least by that weekend in January 2006, Brady had his first playoff loss after starting 10-0. He threw a brutal pick in the end zone that Champ Bailey returned 100 yards, but it didn’t go for a pick-six because athletic tight end Ben Watson tracked him down and tackled him short. To this day, I kind of feel like that ball went through the end zone and it should have gone to New England on one of the dumbest rules in sports, but god damn, New England had enough breaks already.
You just start thinking about these things. Vinatieri makes a 45-yard field goal in the snow after the Tuck Rule while Vanderjagt can’t make a 45-yard field goal indoors against Pittsburgh after Manning caught a rare break with the Jerome Bettis fumble. Vinatieri makes a 46-yard field goal in 4-degree temperatures against Tennessee while Vanderjagt can’t make a 49-yard field goal in Miami weather that he told his coach he could make. All because of four swings of the leg by these two kickers, one quarterback gets to go 6-0 in the playoffs and the other comes out 0-2 those years.
And guys in suits arguing with each other on TV can’t see this stuff for what it is? They have to talk up one player being a better leader or “more clutch” to justify the outcome on the scoreboard that fell in the lap of another player? Fuck that. We can do better.
Fortunately, in 2005-06, the Colts were 3-0 against the Patriots, twice winning in Foxboro to set up an AFC Championship Game in Indy. We all know how that one started and ended, and while I could tell a great story about it, I’ll save that for another time.
The fact is the Colts got over the New England hump and Manning won a Super Bowl that year. But in that same postseason, I watched Brady throw three picks against San Diego and still win a playoff game. I saw him do it again a year later in the AFC Championship Game too. Hell, we just watched him do it in Green Bay this January but forget about recent times for a second. When Manning lost to the Chargers in back-to-back postseasons (2007-08) and his only turnovers were tipped balls off his own receiver’s hands, I was livid again.
After watching Brady flop in Super Bowl 42, self-destruct at home against the 2009 Ravens, and have a shockingly terrible game against the 2010 Jets one month after 45-3, I had seen enough. Not only was Brady not a great playoff quarterback, but Manning was better. Look at where they were through 19 playoff starts through 2010 before Manning left for Denver. It’s even wilder when you consider how the Colts receivers dropped so many more passes (including some tipped picks) and Manning threw more interceptions in garbage time.
Rather than continue writing about each season, I will just show you a graphic I put together of how their careers overlapped when they were competing against each other. Nothing but facts.
Manning and Brady played the same team in the playoffs five times (2007 Chargers, 2009 Ravens, 2010 Jets, 2012 Ravens, and 2014 Colts). Manning played a better game than Brady every time but the last against the Colts. That’s why 2014 is the only season on this chart where I think Brady comes out looking much more favorable than Manning based on the way they both played.
While the rivalry between the teams was one sided at the beginning, I never believed it was like that between the quarterbacks. By the time he retired, Manning was 3-2 in the playoffs and 3-1 in the AFC Championship Game against Brady. He was eliminated in the playoffs as often by Philip Rivers (with an assist from Billy Volek) as he was by Brady.
Manning was actually more detrimental at limiting Brady’s playoff success than vice versa. The NFL needed this rivalry for competitive balance. In the seasons from 2002 to 2015 where both played, Manning’s teams had five No. 1 seeds compared to four for Brady. It was also tied 7-7 as far as which team had a deeper run with each getting an easy win in the year the quarterback missed for injury. I gave Manning the tie-breaker in 2005 since they both lost in the divisional round, but the top-seeded Colts were eliminated on Sunday and lost a closer game to Pittsburgh than the Pats did to Denver.
Once Manning retired after 2015, Brady has admittedly enhanced his playoff legacy, getting to four more Super Bowls and winning three more, including matching Manning’s feat of winning one with a second franchise. A worthy successor in the AFC failed to step up and challenge the Patriots, because we know the Steelers sure as hell weren’t prepared to do it. Andy Reid’s Chiefs were the best option, and you’d expect that now with Mahomes, but we have seen his only two playoff losses come at the hands of Brady-led teams. Dee Ford a centimeter offsides and not getting the ball in OT was one thing two years ago, but 31-9 is a gut punch. Just wait until you see my 2021 season predictions too.
Conclusion (No, Really)
Manning (seven) has as many first-team All-Pro seasons than Brady (three), Rodgers (three), and Brees (one) combined. Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? Of course not. But is it because of his effort and unrivaled consistency that he earned those honors with his individual play? Yes, it was.
Brady (seven) has more Super Bowl rings than Manning (two), Brees (one), and Rodgers (one) combined. Scratch that, he has as many as them since 2014 alone compared to their whole careers (53 seasons). Is that because he’s more talented than all of them combined? No, he’s the least talented of the group. But is it because of his effort and that he’s played that much better than those guys in the regular season and postseason?
No, not at all. It’s because Brady had better team support and is the luckiest quarterback of all time. He’s the LOAT, not the GOAT.
Outside of Brady actually being Faust, it beats me why the football gods have chosen this guy as the one who gets the best coaching, the best defenses, the best starting field position, the best special teams, the most clutch kicking, a poverty division of historic proportions for two decades, and almost any other break he could ask for.
Brees played 20 years and gets one postseason with Tracy Porter saving the day with two picks. Any other year, it was someone making a mockery of his defense. Marcus Williams against Stefon Diggs, anyone? Rodgers has seen the same thing in Green Bay where the defense was only dominant and clutch in the playoffs in that 2010 season. Otherwise, we think of things like Brandon Bostick on the onside kick recovery in Seattle or what Kevin King was doing in January against Tampa Bay. But Rodgers is holding out hope for a second act by his defense in the playoffs. Manning got one in Denver with Von Miller dominating in 2015. Now if only he willed Rahim Moore to pick off Flacco in 2012…
We don’t talk up Alvin Kamara or Aaron Jones for what they do in the playoffs. Instead, they are used against those quarterbacks to say that they have a Pro Bowl back and ignore their weak production or fumbles in the big games. Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount is the clutch running back or “Playoff Lenny” Fournette is a sensation again in Florida. Hell, Julian Edelman caught as many touchdowns (two) in his playoff debut as Marvin Harrison had in 16 playoff games combined. Even though they’ll argue that Edelman should be in the HOF, “Brady has no weapons” somehow remains a thing even though he’s the only one who played with the most stat-inflating wideout (Randy Moss) and tight end (Rob Gronkowski) of the 21st century. And the most clutch kicker (Adam Vinatieri) ever, and the best coach ever (Bill Belichick). But no help.
Mahomes could play 300 games and Super Bowl LV might be the only one he doesn’t score a touchdown in. Brady: best two-way player ever. Hasn’t given up a touchdown in his last two Super Bowls. Held two all-time great offenses to 12 points.
While we talk about Marcus Williams, Kevin King, Rahim Moore, and trigger PTSD in fans of Brees, Rodgers, and Peyton, with Brady we can bring up Ty Law (twice), Rodney Harrison, Malcolm Butler, and Stephon Gilmore, all of whom should have won a Super Bowl MVP for the Patriots. That’s not including Sterling Moore, who helped make Lee Evans drop a game-winning touchdown in the end zone in the 2011 AFC Championship Game for Baltimore. Brady didn’t get a ring out of that one, but he still got to another Super Bowl after one of his defenders saved him again.
The Brady difference is the things that have nothing to do with the quarterback. The things that are out of his control that still benefit him. The textbook definition of luck. He has that in spades.
It’s been an exhausting two decades, hasn’t it? I only thought about doing this a week ago as a project with some one-liners about 100 quarterbacks, and here I am 86 pages into a 43,000-word document. I took a nice five-month break from football this year, but it is cathartic for me to get this out before the season starts.
I’d compare Brady to Tim Duncan, but the thing is Duncan was actually great in the playoffs. There really is no comparison for Brady. If you bring up Michael Jordan, you’re ignoring how dominant and record-setting he was, and how great he was in those Finals MVP runs. The best Brady may have ever played in a full playoff run was in 2017, a year that did not end in a championship. Go figure.
Manning’s career has a lot in common with that of LeBron James, another generational talent we are fortunate to have experienced. They came into their leagues with so much hype and expectations, and somehow, they lived up to it and even exceeded them. Yet because their record in the final round and their ring count aren’t the greatest ever, they still get criticized for that.
I know that no one else would have been able to take the teams they played with and had more success than they did. That is why they are the best players in their respective sport in the 21st century, or at least, that is how I have viewed the last 20 years. That concludes this trip down memory lane.
If this is somehow still on the internet decades from now, and you’ve managed to read it all, I just want to say thank you, and I’m sorry.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
With these next 10 quarterbacks, we are finally getting into some legitimate franchise quarterbacks. Players who were very good for more than just one year. However, we start with a polarizing figure who is coming off a career year.
30. Josh Allen
Technically, Allen is still a one-year wonder until he proves that 2020 is not his only great season. He was awful as a rookie and rode his defense to the playoffs in his second season, only showing some marginal improvement as a passer. But last year, he had an MVP-caliber season. Not a fake one either like 2016 Derek Carr or 2017 Carson Wentz. It was also better than 2015 Andy Dalton, 2015 Cam Newton, 2018 Jared Goff, 2019 Ryan Tannehill, and 2019 Jimmy Garoppolo. You see where I’m going with this, right? This is why he’s at No. 30 and ahead of those guys.
I think the way the Bills let Allen take over games and that he led the offense to at least 20 first downs in every regular season game gives hope that he can repeat this success. He didn’t rely on a strong running game as the Bills barely broke 1,300 yards to support his dual-threat abilities. The defense regressed to mediocre last year and the Bills ranked No. 8 in starting field position, so it was not like the 2015 Panthers or 2017 Eagles feasting on short fields to aid their scoring. The Bills were middle of the road in YAC per completion, so he was not getting that boost a la Goff or Garoppolo.
I’m still very uneasy with the idea that Allen will be an elite quarterback on an annual basis, but going off last year, I have to believe now he has a good shot at it. I just never would have expected this a year ago.
29. Jeff Garcia
This just misses Garcia’s peak breakout year in 2000, but he was still very good for the 49ers in 2001, had an amazing playoff comeback against the Giants in 2002, and he also helped the Eagles (2006) and Buccaneers (2007) to the playoffs. Certainly, a player who enjoyed the West Coast Offense on a competent team as he wasn’t going to elevate the Browns (2004) or Lions (2005) when he was there. I’d rank him a little higher if he did, but Garcia was a good quarterback with accuracy and mobility in the right situations.
28. Trent Green
Green had a rough first season with the Chiefs in 2001 when he threw 24 picks to lead the NFL. But over the next four seasons (2002-05), Kansas City was right up there with the Colts as the most fun offense to watch. They were loaded with one of the best offensive lines, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson in the backfield, and Tony Gonzalez at tight end. The wide receivers were lacking in comparison to what the other top offenses had, but they made it work with Green posting some great numbers. Unfortunately, the defenses were terrible in 2002 and 2004, so they missed the playoffs. They also missed out as a 10-win team in a loaded AFC in 2005. Then in 2003 when the team was 13-3, they opened with their nemesis from Indianapolis, and the Colts prevailed 38-31 in a game that did not feature a single punt.
By 2006, Green suffered a concussion and was never the same. He was outplayed by Damon Huard that year, and I think it’s clear that Huard should have started the wild card game in Indianapolis instead of Green. The Chiefs lost 23-8 with Green having one of the worst statistical games of his career (14-of-24 for 107 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, four sacks). After 2005, he was 4-10 as a starter with 12 TD and 22 INT.
But that four-year period in 2002-05 was special. If you want an amusing stat on the context of where quarterback stats used to be in the NFL, consider this one. Green is the second quarterback in NFL history after Brett Favre (1994-97) to have four straight seasons with a passer rating over 90.0 (min. 450 attempts).
27. Chad Pennington
Odd-numbered year Pennington would not have made my list because he failed to start 30 games in those injury-plagued seasons in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. But even-numbered year Pennington in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008? He was pretty much just as good and sometimes better than early Tom Brady but without Bill Belichick and all those great advantages of a complete team. Can you imagine Brady’s kicker missing two game-winning field goals in the playoffs against a 15-1 team? That denied Pennington his best shot at getting to a Super Bowl by beating Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Brady in the same postseason.
Pennington finished No. 7 in QBR in 2006 and 2008. If the stat went back further, he probably would have finished close to that in 2004 and a good shot at No. 1 in 2002. That was the year he came off the bench to take over for Vinny Testaverde and led the Jets to a division title over Brady’s Patriots and a playoff win over Manning’s Colts. Pennington finished 2002 ranked No. 1 in DVOA, No. 2 in DYAR despite only 12 starts, and he led the NFL in completion percentage, TD%, and passer rating back when a 104.2 rating meant something.
Stylistically, Pennington was never my cup of tea. He was a dink-and-dunk quarterback like Brady, but his efficiency numbers in 2002 were something Brady never could achieve until 2007. But after numerous injuries, it just took more out of Pennington’s already limited arm. By 2008, he was in Miami and helped turn around a Dolphins team from 1-15 to 11-5 and the playoffs. He bombed in the playoffs with four interceptions against a tough Baltimore defense. In 2009, he lost a Monday night game to the Colts after his defense allowed 27 points in just 14:53 time of possession. That would be the last start he finished in the NFL.
Pennington was the closest thing to a formidable quarterback rival the Patriots had to deal with in their division for two decades during their dynasty run.
26. Michael Vick
My line on Vick a decade ago was when has a quarterback ever cost so much to produce so little? The answer to that is now Sam Bradford. At least Vick had some successful seasons, an incredible highlight reel, and I think he is still the most dangerous runner to ever play quarterback. Lamar Jackson runs more than Vick did and is a better passer, which is why he will have more success than Vick, but in terms of pure rushing ability, I’d still take Vick’s legs over anyone.
My first real glimpse of it was in 2002 when he erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh. The game ended in a 34-34 tie, the first tie I ever remember watching in the NFL. Vick had more prolific rushing numbers in 2004 and 2006, but I still think 2002 was his best dual-threat season in Atlanta. He did not develop enough as a passer.
Then we started learning about the silliness of Ron Mexico, his immaturity, and then the disgusting details of his involvement in dogfighting in 2007. I’m not sure his career recovers in today’s climate, but the Eagles and Andy Reid gave him a second shot. He took over for an injured Kevin Kolb in 2010 and had a really fine season that could have even been MVP worthy if he had been a 16-game starter. Reid definitely got more out of him as a passer and I think if you watched a highlight reel of Vick, a lot of the throws would come from that 2010 season. Who can forget the Washington game when he threw for 333 yards, four touchdowns, and rushed for 80 yards and two more touchdowns? That was peak Vick in Philly.
Of course, his shot at glory came in the wild card playoffs and he missed it when he threw a game-ending interception against the Packers. It was inches away from being a touchdown, which could have meant zero rings for Aaron Rodgers to this day. After that stellar season, Vick signed yet another huge contract that I can recall bashing for an article on Cold, Hard Football Facts that is no longer active. Sure enough, the Dream Team faltered, and Vick did not repeat his success. He did not have a horrible season, but it was just not up to the level of the contract he just signed. He did have a poor season in 2012 that led to Reid being fired, and only for a few games did it look like the marriage with Chip Kelly would work. Nick Foles ended up being the star of that 2013 season and Vick’s time as a franchise quarterback was over.
It will be hard to write about the history of the NFL without mentioning Vick. We are seeing quarterbacks enter the league now who probably grew up watching him. But now these great athletes who decide to play quarterback tend to be passers first, rushers second. We have seen this with Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, etc. Even someone like Justin Herbert can move a little. The days of the statuesque pocket passer are numbered. I think Vick has influenced this more than any other quarterback, but his career shortcomings are also a lesson that the ability to pass and leadership are still very important to having a successful career at this position in the NFL.
25. Cam Newton
I feel like there are two dominant ways to cover Cam Newton’s career, and I have never fit in either one of them. One is to praise and prop him up no matter what. Inflate the greatness of his rookie season, give him an MVP he didn’t deserve, blame everything bad on his health and blame the Carolina offensive line for his health, etc. The other is to criticize him for some of the silliest things that have nothing to do with football like his style selection, his “fake smile” as was once used in a scouting report, the font in his social media posts, or if you’re a shitbag from Boston still stuck in the 1990s, you blame rap music for distracting Cam in practice.
For me, there has always been enough on-field issues with Newton to criticize his play on that basis and not worry about the other noise. So, that is what I’ve been doing for a decade on this blog and elsewhere. Newton has destroyed the quarterback record for rushing touchdowns with 70, but I still think with more than half of those coming from inside the 3-yard line and only two longer than 16 yards, it’s a reflection of unique usage rather than remarkable efficiency. Given the health problems he has had in his career, it is hard to argue that it has been the smart way to use him.
But it’s that rushing success that has to carry Cam over since his passing has never been consistent enough. Even when he won MVP in 2015, he finished 11th in QBR because he was only 12th in pass EPA. I will always say I think Carson Palmer deserved that award more that year, but Newton did have the 11-game peak of his career in Weeks 9-20 that season. From the Green Bay game through the NFC Championship Game win, he threw 27 touchdowns to three interceptions and rushed for eight more scores. That is the foundation of an MVP season, but he was nowhere near that level in the first seven games (11 TD, 8 INT, 78.1 PR). And we know how poorly he played in the Super Bowl against Denver’s tough defense. Those two fumbles caused by Von Miller were the difference in the game.
Newton regressed in 2016, bounced back in 2017, and was doing well in 2018 until he lost his last six starts and injury crept up again. He was not doing bad at all in his first three games with the Patriots last year, but once he got COVD, he was a mess. You couldn’t even trust him to throw for 100 yards, which he failed to do in three different starts.
I have not done the work to verify this yet, but it is hard to imagine there is another quarterback in NFL history with a winning record as a starter (75-63-1) who has had a losing record in 70% of his seasons (7-of-10). Newton is for a fact the only one to do it since 2001 (min. 30 starts).
Now, we have the surprise cut in New England last week as he lost his job to rookie Mac Jones. Newton had a chance to be Tom Brady’s successor and coached by Bill Belichick, but he dropped the bag again. That was the last sign I needed that I could not possibly rank him higher than 25th.
You are probably wondering why rank him this high at all? For starters, if I am ranking a player lower than I perceive the average person would, my instinct is to make the write-up more negative and focus on his flaws to justify my lower ranking. Likewise, if I rank a player higher than I perceive the average person would (like Jared Goff), I make it sound positive to justify why I am that high. That feels pretty logical and normal to me.
But without running back through the last 75 names, I can acknowledge that Newton is a unique talent as a runner and passer who has not played with the greatest collection of talent in the league. By the time he got to the Patriots, those shelves looked like a grocery store three months into the zombie apocalypse.
I can say that Cam’s A-game is top 25 worthy on this list. I think on the strength of his rookie season, his MVP/Super Bowl season, and that 2017 playoff season, just those three seasons alone have to put him in the top 40. With those highs on his resume, then it is just a matter of placing him over your hollow stat guys (Cousins/Bulger/Green), your injured/implosion guys (Pennington/Delhomme/Schaub/Cutler), your playoff heroes (Foles/Flacco), or a guy who was blackballed (Kaepernick) and one who took forever to break out (Tannehill). I also put Newton ahead of Vick because I think he’s been able to achieve more as a passer.
Will I have anything more to say about Newton going forward? That’s on him to decide. Either way, I’ll keep it focused to what he does on the field.
24. Matthew Stafford
While Cam Newton got cut by the Patriots, Matthew Stafford fetched a couple first-round picks from the Rams this year. That makes me feel justified in this ranking, though I’ve always kept them pretty close together since 2011 when they both had their breakout year.
Stafford is more my style of a passing quarterback, though he has never put together a truly elite season yet. He has had several very good seasons and taking the Lions to the playoffs three times is no small feat, but my line on him has been that most of the league would have to retire for him to be a top 10 quarterback. Well, we’re getting pretty close with retirements from Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, and Drew Brees in recent years. That’s a bit of a spoiler alert for who is still to come, by the way.
And yes, Stafford is 8-68 (.105) against teams that finish the season with a winning record as I wrote about in detail for the Rams preview. I was the writer who put that stat out many years ago and it became a talking point in the front office in Detroit, and I have to imagine Stafford is personally aware of his record.
So, we’ll see how he does with the Rams and Sean McVay and a roster with a few elite players. But it is a tough division, and he will have to do something he’s never done in 12 years: beat multiple teams with a winning record. Forget the playoffs, if you consider the teams he needs to beat in the regular season just to get a good seed to make that Super Bowl run realistic, we could be talking about six or more wins this year against winning teams. But again, I think he is a talented player who was limited in success by his surroundings in Detroit, so I am excited to see what happens this year.
23. Steve McNair
Some of McNair’s best work came before 2001, but I still have him high because I respected him. Watching him kick the Steelers’ ass almost annually was really frustrating. There was a stretch from 1997-2003 where he was 10-2 against the Steelers. One of those games he just came off the bench at the end and led a game-winning drive with ease. Another was that exciting divisional round playoff game in the 2002 season, a 34-31 overtime win for the Titans.
Given the way we roast Jeff Fisher as the 7-9 coach, McNair deserves a lot of credit for getting to so many big playoff games with him and winning co-MVP in 2003. Granted, I think Peyton Manning should have won that award outright, but I can understand where people were coming from on McNair leading the league in YPA and passer rating that year. I just didn’t like the fact that the Titans won both games he missed and he lost both head-to-head games and the division title to Manning’s Colts. But anyways, he absolutely had a shot to beat the Patriots in the divisional round that year, but Drew Bennett dropped a pass on fourth down. (You know who willed it.)
McNair was also a steady quarterback for a 2006 Baltimore team that just needed him to not screw things up. Well, he kind of did in the playoffs against the Colts and the team lost 15-6. He only started six more games in 2007 before retiring. But retirement was not for long after he was the victim of a murder-suicide on the Fourth of July in 2009. I still often think about McNair on that holiday as the breaking news of that moment was such a shocking, tragic event.
22. Deshaun Watson
Twenty-two, does that number ring a bell? That’s how many women are accusing Watson of sexual assault. If all 22 players on a football field accused Watson of some misconduct, and they each had a detailed story about it that shows some clear patterns of bad behavior, would you say all 22 are lying and fabricated their stories? The only All-22 I want from Watson right now is the truth about these accusations because it sure feels like he has pissed away a potential Hall of Fame career and deserves to go to prison.
Then again, we’re talking about the NFL – not the governor of New York or the host of Jeopardy! or The Jump, so maybe he still has a shot to continue his QB1 career somewhere. For a league that has blackballed Colin Kaepernick over social justice and ended Ray Rice’s career over one video of the worst moment of his life, they remain quiet and gutless over a superstar who may be the Bill Cosby of the NFL. I want to see some leadership and action on this, because letting him play this year with this hanging over the team would be a total farce.
I was definitely a fan of Watson’s, so this is disappointing on many levels. Some of my favorite athletes and directors have gone through scandal before, but never on a scale of this many accusers. While I doubt the full truth is ever going to come out as it rarely does in these cases, I hope we hear his side of the story. A bunch of settlements and sweeping this under the rug like it never happened would be inexcusable, but the cynic in me still sees that as the most likely outcome.
Today in this country we have a very fucked up system of deciding who must go away and who gets to continue their career. What ever happened to the punishment fitting the crime?
21. Dak Prescott
I still believe Dak Prescott had the best rookie quarterback season in NFL history in 2016. He just had the misfortune of running into a hot Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs that year and not getting the ball last. Prescott was off to a good start in his second season before hitting a rough patch when the offense was shorthanded (injured Tyron Smith, suspended Ezekiel Elliott). This alarmingly carried over into 2018 and it’s that 13-game slump that really soured a lot of people on Dak. But not me. If someone was really good for 24 games, then slumped for 13 games, I think you should still trust the larger sample size.
Once the Cowboys got Amari Cooper, who I never thought was that special in Oakland, situated as the No. 1 wideout, Prescott picked things up again. He led the team to a playoff win over the Seahawks, and then in 2019 he started to take control of the offense as a prolific passer. He threw for 4,902 yards, but the team went 0-8 when it failed to score at least 31 points. Last year, Dak was off to an incredible start before breaking his ankle. He was two attempts shy of qualifying his 371.2 passing yards per game average as a new NFL record. He passed for 450 yards in three straight games, another NFL first, but it was more out of necessity with Dallas’ horrific defense and his teammate’s lack of ball security with fumbles.
I think Prescott is easy to root for, he has continued to improve his game, and he has shown he can put the team on his back. He had 15 game-winning drives in his first three seasons but only one since 2019. I look for him to have a huge year in 2021, but I’m not so sure the Dallas defense is ready for it to be a special Super Bowl year.
But Prescott is absolutely a quarterback who can step up and take Dallas there in an NFC that should not have Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers for that much longer.
Coming in Part VI: Two Hall of Famers and a few who could have been in Canton.
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.
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.
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 ranked from No. 86 to No. 72 who may have had one special season in their career.
Now we are getting into more players who may have been multi-season starters, but they were usually just average or decent quarterbacks.
71. Jason Campbell
When it comes to first-round picks, someone has to be that line between a success and a bust. Jason Campbell is a great example of what an average first-round quarterback would look like. On this list of 100 quarterbacks, he ranks 62nd in passer rating (81.6) and 73rd in YPA (6.69). With Washington (2005-09) and Oakland (2010-11), he was never a top 10 quarterback, but he was probably never a bottom 10 quarterback either.
He led the NFL in lowest interception rate in 2008, which is not as impressive as it sounds. He threw a career-high 20 touchdowns in 2009, but Washington finished 4-12 that year. He actually had a winning record (11-7) as Oakland’s starter, but the team still moved forward with a Carson Palmer trade in 2011 after Campbell broke his collarbone. Health was never really on his side. Washington made the playoffs in 2007 after Todd Collins took over for an injured Campbell (knee) in December.
Campbell is on a short list of quarterbacks who had a losing record when he threw multiple touchdown passes in a game. He was 10-13, and I certainly remember when he should have beaten the undefeated 2009 Saints before his kicker missed a chipshot, and the 2013 Patriots when he was with Cleveland was another blown opportunity after the Patriots recovered an onside kick. Campbell was 1-3 when he threw three touchdown passes and those were two of the losses. He made 79 starts but those are really the games that I think about.
70. Brian Griese
Since this is looking back to 2001, it just misses his peak season in 2000 with the Broncos when he threw 19 touchdowns to four picks. He would be a little higher if I included that, but it really was an outlier for him since Griese threw 100 touchdowns to 95 picks in the rest of his career combined. He never stayed healthy enough to finish a 16-game season and never played in the postseason.
69. Byron Leftwich
He had a nice quote in 2012. “I’m not a slow quarterback. I’m just the slowest black quarterback.” Yep, the way I remember Leftwich now is that he was just never as good as David Garrard, his more mobile backup and eventual replacement in Jacksonville. Leftwich had some fun comebacks in those 2004-05 seasons and gave the Colts hell a few times, but he never passed for 3,000 yards or more than 15 touchdowns in a season. He also peaked in 2005 and never recovered as a starter after Garrard took his job.
68. Jay Fiedler
Imagine if the Dolphins could have given Dan Marino the defenses that Fiedler had. He went 25-12 as a starter in 2001-03 and Miami somehow turned that into a single wild card loss, missing the playoffs in the other two years. Fielder needed his share of coddling as a limited passer, but he was 5-10 (.333) as a starter when his teams allowed more than 21 points. That is better than the records I usually post with that stat.
67. Vince Young
If Vince Young had Lamar Jackson’s passing skills, he could have been that kind of quarterback in his day. If Jackson had Young’s killer instinct, then he would be damn near unstoppable. In many ways, Young was a precursor to Tim Tebow. They were highly successful college quarterbacks who were struggling passers in the NFL, but if you managed the game and kept it close for them, they can put a team on their back and pull out the win. The fact that Young had a 99-yard game-winning drive against a Matt Leinart-led team in 2009 is just football poetry. That was definitely the most impressive of Young’s 13 game-winning drives in just 61 games.
Young put on a show in the greatest college football game I’ve ever seen, but I was never really buying him as an NFL player. Again, had he come out now in a league where Jackson has rushed for 1,200 yards, then maybe a team could have used him differently. But as a passer, he was never a big threat. Young got to two Pro Bowls before Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers did. It would be hard to name a quarterback with two Pro Bowls he was less deserving of than Young, who threw for a combined 4,078 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2006 and 2009.
But with Michael Vick in prison for dogfighting, Daunte Culpepper shredding his knee, and Donovan McNabb bulking up in Philly, Young filled that late 2000s void of a dynamic rushing quarterback. While the “Dream Team” (2011 Eagles) is a good representation of how things surrounding Young never lived up to the hype, you cannot say he was a bust. He just helped pave the way for better passers who can run to come along.
66. Mitchell Trubisky
Oof, if you are reading this chronologically, then that Vince Young line is not the segue I would have wanted for this Son of a Mitch. Trubisky is a tough case, but is he really that out of place when we recently had Blake Bortles and Mark Sanchez? This is his tier.
Trubisky made the Pro Bowl in 2018 with a season that seemed like he was on the right path. Was it pretty from a passing accuracy standpoint? Not necessarily, but he had some decent numbers, decent games, and he was a fun scrambler, which really boosted his QBR. He also should have won a playoff game, but we know what Chicago kickers do. He is 29-23 as a starter with two playoff appearances, but last year’s was a gift as a No. 7 seed with an 8-8 record. Trubisky padded his stats on play-action against lousy defenses late in the year before leading the most irrelevant 99-yard touchdown drive in playoff history in a loss to the Saints.
Now he’s in Buffalo, so he has gone from “Mobile Rex Grossman” to “Josh Allen’s Inferior Cousin.” But no matter where he goes, he will always be the guy who was drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes.
65. Kyle Orton
If you combined Trubisky’s legs with Kyle Orton’s neck beard, then we might have a quarterback worth something. Orton had that laughably bad rookie season when Chicago’s defense carried him to 10 wins, but he actually developed into a decent passer and got to showcase that in Denver under Josh McDaniels of all people. Who can forget the 6-0 start in 2009 before the shit hit the fan? But Orton was solid throughout and he even helped the lowly Chiefs beat the 13-0 Packers in 2011. He also beat the 2014 Packers with Buffalo, though that was about the defense that day.
If he had that Buffalo defense in Denver, we would be saying the Broncos clearly won that trade involving Jay Cutler.
64. Josh Freeman
Maybe let this be a lesson for declaring victory too soon on young quarterbacks, because after the 2010 season, it sure looked like Josh Freeman, the third quarterback off the board in the 2009 class after Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, was the best choice. Sanchez had the benefit of a great defense while Stafford was always getting hurt early on in Detroit. Freeman made so many of the improvements you’d like to see in that second season, even leading Tampa Bay to 10-6, a win total the team would not see again for a decade. Freeman finished No. 7 in QBR that year, right between the two Super Bowl quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.
But Freeman regressed in 2011 and by his fourth season, the defense was too ineffective for this to be a winning team. Greg Schiano was also a poor hire as head coach in 2012. By 2013, things soured in the locker room with rumors of Freeman being a coke addict and the week he lost his captainship. The Buccaneers simply cut him. We ended up watching Freeman complete 20-of-53 passes on Monday Night Football with a Vikings team he just joined in a strange game against the Giants. That could have been one of the weirdest final starts to a career, but he ended up starting one late-season game for the Colts in 2015.
Was it a substance abuse problem that ruined his career? Maybe, but we’ll let his career serve as a cautionary tale.
63. Kordell Stewart
The Steelers suffered through three rough, non-playoff years by Stewart before he rebounded in 2001 with a 13-3 season and second AFC Championship Game appearance. It seemed like he finally got on track as a passer, hitting 60% completions and 7.0 YPA for the first time in his career. He was the AFC Offensive Player of the Month in December. He cut his interceptions down to a career-low rate and he even earned an MVP vote.
Then the playoffs came, and it was like 1997 all over again. A so-so performance was covered up by a strong defensive outing against Baltimore. But against the Patriots, Stewart threw three picks at home just like he did against Denver in that title game loss. The Steelers lost 24-17, setting the NFL on a much different path.
In 2002, Stewart struggled for three games before losing his job to Tommy Maddox. That ended his time in Pittsburgh. He had a forgettable stint with the Bears and soon retired. “Slash” brought a lot of excitement to the Steelers in 1997 and 2001, but he was one of the last guys you would ever want to start a playoff game.
62. Drew Bledsoe
Speaking of terrible playoff performers, it’s Drew Bledsoe, everybody. He was the quarterback who just managed the game in that 2001 AFC Championship Game after Tom Brady left injured. Of course, it was Bledsoe’s injury earlier that season that gave way to Brady, a good argument for it being the most consequential player injury in NFL history, if not all of sports.
Bledsoe peaked in the 90s. In this period of 2001-06, he was 35-37 as a starter, had good initial years with Buffalo (2002) and Dallas (2005), but neither resulted in a playoff berth nor ended on good terms. He had that embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh’s backups in Week 17 with the playoffs on the line in his final game in Buffalo. He lost his job to someone named Tony Romo in 2006, and just like that, the rest is history.
People thought Bledsoe could play for more years and challenge some of the passing records since he was such a volume passer, but he had enough and was done after his age-34 season. Let’s just say I was never a fan.
61. Aaron Brooks
There was a time when Brett Favre’s backups in Green Bay went on to be good starters around the league. Ty Detmer was not necessarily good, but he did leave Green Bay for a playoff season with the Eagles. Mark Brunell had good success in Jacksonville, Matt Hasselbeck later had a great run with the Seahawks, but there was also Aaron Brooks, a fourth-round pick in 1999.
Brooks took over late in the season as New Orleans’ starting quarterback. He posted what would be the best efficiency numbers of his career in a small sample size and led the Saints to their first playoff win in franchise history by throwing four touchdowns against the Rams.
Unfortunately, that was the peak for Brooks. Over the next four seasons, he threw for over 3,500 yards and 21-to-27 touchdowns with decent passer ratings for the era. But he had his share of meltdowns and usually threw 15-plus picks too. The Saints were always a game within .500 and never made the playoffs again. Then Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005 and the team was displaced from its home for the season, and Brooks played terribly. He was even worse in Oakland, going 0-8 as a starter in 2006 before retiring.
His backwards pass against the 2004 Chargers will live in infamy.
60. Matt Cassel
The one I call the “High School QB.” It is a wonder that the Patriots ever drafted Cassel in the seventh round in 2005 seeing as how he threw just 33 passes with USC after sitting behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Granted, that explains why he did not play in those years, but it makes you wonder how such a backup ever got on a team’s draft board. He could have easily just been an undrafted free agent.
Come 2008, Cassel got his chance after Tom Brady tore his ACL early in Week 1. The Patriots won with Cassel and started him the rest of the season, his first starts since high school. By season’s end, he led the offense to 400 points, the most first downs in the league, he finished ninth in QBR, and New England won 11 games, which were not enough for the playoffs for only the second time in the wild card era.
My favorite Cassel stat is that he had back-to-back 400-yard passing games that season. Brady had just one 400-yard game in his first 11 seasons combined. Pretty good for a high school system QB.
When Cassel went to Kansas City in 2009, he fell flat on his face in a terrible year. But he did rebound in 2010 and made a Pro Bowl after Todd Haley brought in former Brady coordinator Charlie Weis to call the offense. Then when Weis took a college coaching job late in the season, Cassel faceplanted again and lost 30-7 to the Ravens in his only playoff start. He continued to play his way out of Kansas City before having a mediocre season with the Vikings in 2013.
Not a bad career at all for a seventh-round pick, but definitely a system player. As his career also shows, some systems are better than others.
59. Robert Griffin III
This is a tricky one since I spent much of the 2012 season and offseason writing how Griffin was not the best rookie quarterback that year despite winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. I was much higher on Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson since I thought their success was more impressive and sustainable. However, I must acknowledge that Griffin had one of the better rookie years ever, and he won a division title for a dysfunctional Washington franchise that has been the most joyless, soul-sucking NFL team in the salary cap era.
That team also probably ruined his career. I think he could have had a better career if Mike Shanahan and his staff did not commit coaching malpractice and played him on an injured knee in the playoffs against Seattle, which he re-injured and was clearly ineffective on during the game. Griffin tried again in 2013 and 2014, but he was never the same quarterback as that rookie year.
Again, like with Vince Young, Griffin may have arrived a few years too early before the league has moved towards more RPOs and letting quarterbacks run college-style offenses and use their athleticism to make plays. Maybe Griffin was never going to live up to the draft hype, but I think this is one of those rare cases where you can cite injuries as a rookie as the main cause for a disappointing career.
58. Tyrod Taylor
As a sixth-round pick by the Ravens, Taylor was a Mr. August in the preseason who waited patiently for his shot at a starting job. He took on the task of getting Buffalo back to the playoffs in 2015 and had three solid years there, ultimately reaching the playoffs in that final season despite his coach’s attempt to replace him with Nathan Peterman. That playoff game went poorly, a 10-3 loss against Jacksonville’s tough defense.
Taylor certainly protects the ball well, having never thrown more than six picks in a season. But there were diminishing returns in Buffalo as his QBR decreased each season. The team rightfully moved on with Josh Allen in 2018. Taylor was supposed to be a stopgap for Baker Mayfield in Cleveland and Justin Herbert in Los Angeles, but his stints were short-lived for health reasons, including that ridiculous scene last year when his team doctor punctured his lung with an injection shot before the Week 2 game with the Chiefs.
I honestly believe Taylor could lead a stacked team to a Super Bowl. Before you call me crazy, did you forget that three-year run in the NFC where Nick Foles (Eagles), Jared Goff (Rams), and Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers) got there on stacked teams? Unfortunately, Taylor could now be stepping in to replace this Deshaun Watson mess in Houston, a terribly dysfunctional franchise.
57. Kyler Murray
It is still a bit early for me to know exactly how I feel about Murray in Arizona, so this high placement is probably a hedge on future success. I am encouraged, but I am not feeling overly confident about him being a franchise player.
He just had an impressive dual-threat season, but I still want to see more improvement before I go all in on him.
56. Marcus Mariota
Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? That was the question of the 2015 draft, but all I remember saying is that you really hope a quarterback who threw 105 touchdowns to 14 picks with 9.3 YPA in college turns out great in the pros. Mariota’s very first game in the NFL was against Winston’s Buccaneers too, and he had a perfect passer rating with four touchdowns on 13-of-15 passing, the best start you can ask for.
It would be a lie to say it was all downhill from there, but it never got to the point you wanted to see from the No. 2 pick in the draft. Mariota showed a lot of promise with 26 touchdowns in his second season, but he ended up throwing more picks (15) than touchdowns (13) in his third season. The Titans still made the playoffs as they were stuck on their 9-7 run, and they even beat the Chiefs in what I call the Forward Progress Game where the Titans got multiple favorable whistles. But Mariota was only 30-33 as a starter and lost his job to Ryan Tannehill in 2019, who took the team to new heights.
Starting in 2018, Mariota was turning into a sack machine with a sack rate of 12.0%. He could pad some stats with dink-and-dunk throws, but the offense was just not working out. He was impressive in his lone game with the Raiders last year, coming off the bench for an injured Derek Carr and taking the Chargers to overtime. We likely have not seen the last of Mariota as a starter, but when it comes to who won the 2015 draft, the answer really is neither team.
55. Jameis Winston
I almost had the gall to sandwich Matt Cassel in between Mariota and Winston but decided against it at the last minute. Replacing Drew Brees in New Orleans is a huge opportunity for Winston to show what he’s made of, especially with his LASIK-improved vision in a Sean Payton offense. But right now, we just have his five years with Tampa Bay where he was 28-42 as a starter to go on.
He was certainly a prolific yardage machine there. He is the first QB ever to throw for 450 yards in consecutive games. Throwing 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season is something I did not think I would see in this game. It speaks to the good and the bad of Winston, which has yet to really balance out for a great season by him, but he also does not have what I’d call a poor season on his resume.
Winston’s 7.72 YPA is the ninth highest on this list. There have always been interesting stats to find on him.
I am excited to see what happens this year as Winston could be the wild card of the 2021 season, but I hope this guy eats some more W’s.
54. Mark Brunell
Amusing stat: Mark Brunell had a nine-year streak of seasons where his passer rating ranged from 82.0 to 92.0. No other QB in NFL history had such a streak longer than four seasons (min. 50 attempts). That is some applaudable above-average consistency. Unfortunately, most of that streak came prior to 2001. After that time, Brunell had a couple decent seasons with Jacksonville that did not reach his 90s peak, so the team replaced him with Byron Leftwich.
But in 2005, Santana Moss joined Brunell in Washington and the duo had a very impressive season together, including one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen. That led to the playoffs where Brunell had one of the worst playoff wins I’ve ever seen, and I’ll never forget it since I was sitting in a frozen room in a hoody because the furnace broke that weekend.
Brunell never achieved anything after that 2005 season but doing anything that makes Washington notable is a big plus in my book.
53. Kerry Collins
I stand by the belief that Kerry Collins is the worst 40,000-yard passer in NFL history. But the truth is you still have to be somewhat decent to even play long enough to hit that mark. Collins had some fine moments in his career, and his only 4,000-yard season in 2002 with the Giants should have led to a playoff win in San Francisco before his defense and special teams botched that one.
It still blows my mind that a team with Collins at quarterback and Jeff Fisher as head coach was 10-0 and finished as the No. 1 seed in 2008, but that happened. Collins was also not that bad in the one-and-done playoff loss to a tough Baltimore defense. His skill players lost multiple fumbles.
The standards at the position have changed so much that I do not think Collins would last long in the league if he played today at his level. He also had some immaturity and locker room issues early on that would not fly in today’s social climate. I feel like this ranking is pretty generous, though we are still about 20 quarterbacks away from the tier where I start considering these players to be good and reliable.
52. Teddy Bridgewater
I was definitely Team Teddy in that 2014 draft. I thought he should have been a higher pick and I liked him over Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Derek Carr. The football gods were less supportive. Bridgewater lost his only playoff game to the 2015 Seahawks after Blair Walsh choked on a short field goal, then he suffered a gruesome knee injury prior to the 2016 season.
It is impressive to see him resume his playing career, and he did some good things for the Saints (2019) and Panthers (2020). But it feels like there has always been this ceiling on his game that prevents him from ever taking the next step. He plays way too safe for my liking. Bridgewater has three seasons where he threw at least 400 passes, and he threw 14 or 15 touchdowns in all of them. That’s not enough in this era.
After updating my stats, I am curious to see if this is the year where Teddy falters badly against the spread with Denver seeing as how he has covered over 70% of the time as a starter. You know the drill. That is a signal to bet the other way as the regression is coming. Going to Denver did not work out well for our last quarterback in part III.
51. Case Keenum
If you have followed me religiously on Twitter for years, then you may recall that there was a user in 2016 who I dubbed “White Dude with Dreads” and he was in love with Case Keenum. This was a season where Keenum finished last in QBR, though teammate rookie Jared Goff would have been even worse if he qualified after taking over for Keenum. But this dude would bash Jeff Fisher and everyone with the Rams while praising Keenum for everything. It was all very amusing to me.
Back when I used to actually watch college football on a weekly basis, I liked catching Keenum games with Houston. He was one of those system quarterbacks in the run-and-shoot offense that put up such prolific numbers, but he looked different than a Timmy Chang or Colt Brennan or Graham Harrell. Like you could actually see this guy releasing the ball quickly and having success in the pros. Keenum had six 500-yard games and even threw nine touchdowns in one game before.
He got to stay in Houston after joining the Texans as an undrafted free agent. He even started the back half of the 2013 season after Matt Schaub’s career imploded there. Keenum finished 0-8 as a starter but definitely played winning football in a few of those games. I was happy to see him have some success after getting an opportunity in the NFL. But with the Rams, I was not seeing much to like from Keenum anymore. He threw four picks in London against the Giants, and that started a three-game streak where he failed to lead the team to more than 10 points, which gave way to the Goff era.
Keenum went to Minnesota to back up often-injured starter Sam Bradford. Sure enough, Bradford’s knee was an issue after just one game, thrusting Keenum into the starting job against Pittsburgh in Week 2. The Steelers won that game 26-9 and I was not impressed with Keenum. A few weeks later, Keenum replaced Bradford for good after Sam’s knee made it impossible for him to play. Little did I expect Keenum to go on one of the greatest outlier, one-year-wonder, flash-in-the-pan, call it what you will seasons in NFL history.
The Vikings finished 11-1 in the last dozen regular season games with Keenum completing 69.3% of his passes with a 99.3 passer rating. It was an awful year for quarterbacks getting injured (Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Carson Wentz, etc.), and that certainly helped Keenum in the rankings, but he still finished No. 1 in DVOA and No. 2 in QBR. The White Dude with Dreads had already moved on to politics and fighting the good fight against MAGA, but he had to be ecstatic about this unexpected development.
Then the playoffs happened. The Minneapolis Miracle to Stefon Diggs was a fortunate missed tackle that gave Keenum his first and only playoff win, but that happened. It seemed like the Vikings were destined to host the Super Bowl in their home stadium, but maybe I forgot the history of the Vikings that year. In the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, Keenum threw a pick-six early that changed the complexion of the game and set off a 38-7 rout.
Even the Vikings had to suspect there was some fool’s gold hidden in that 2017 season, so Keenum was not re-signed and went to Denver while Minnesota made a move for Kirk Cousins. Keenum threw for a career-high 3,890 yards in 2018 with the Broncos, but the team finished 6-10. He was also 1-7 as Washington’s starter in 2019. Now he is Baker Mayfield’s backup in Cleveland.
So, now you know my favorite “One-year Wonder/Crazy Unexpected Peak Year” in the 21st century. We are not quite done with the one-year wonders, but I need another break before getting into this top 50. I already managed to go over 11,000 words with the first 50, so this is taking on more of a time commitment than I expected, but I hope you are enjoying these trips down memory lane.
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.
Why stop at 87? I am viewing this list in tiers, and those 14 quarterbacks were the worst of the bunch. Here in part II, I will be looking at more serviceable players who never sustained success but may have had that one special season. The fact that half of this top 100 list is comprised of players who either sucked or were nothing special should serve as a reminder of how difficult it is to find a good quarterback.
86. Gus Frerotte
He peaked with Washington back in 1996, but most people will remember him for headbutting a wall and injuring his neck. Frerotte actually had winning seasons as a starter with the 2005 Dolphins (9-6) and 2008 Vikings (8-3), but he was not good in either of those seasons. For a Randy Moss appreciation stat, consider that Frerotte only started two games with Moss as his receiver in 2003, and he threw five touchdowns to him in those two games.
85. Tarvaris Jackson
Remember when the Vikings tried to replace Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss with Tarvaris Jackson and Troy Williamson? That didn’t quite work as the two connected on one touchdown together. I don’t want to speak ill of the dead here as Jackson unfortunately passed away last year at the age of 36. He was the bridge quarterback between Matt Hasselbeck and Russell Wilson in Seattle, and he won a Super Bowl as Wilson’s backup.
84. Brian Hoyer
The number of times the Patriots have signed, cut, and brought Brian Hoyer back since 2009 is pretty incredible. They just did it again, cutting him before expecting to bring him back prior to Week 1. There was a time in 2013-15 with the Browns and Texans where Hoyer was 15-10 as a starter with 36 TD, 23 INT, 7.3 YPA, and 83.2 passer rating. Not bad for an undrafted QB with poor college stats. He also looked solid for the Bears in 2016, but since that time he is 1-12 as a starter with stats that are not that far off from the line I just posted.
83. Jacoby Brissett
Brissett started 15 games in two different seasons for the Colts due to Andrew Luck’s season-long injury in 2017 and surprise retirement before 2019. He ranked 26th and 21st in QBR in those seasons, but at least he kept the interceptions low and showed he could take fewer sacks under Frank Reich’s offense in 2019. I would not rule out the days of him starting being completely over, but with the way teams draft high picks to play quarterback now, a career backup is the most likely outcome for Jacoby.
82. Sam Bradford
If I was writing this one in true Sam Bradford form, I would require you to pay to read something where even the best parts barely pass for mediocre. I was never on board with Bradford in the NFL. He got praise as a rookie just because he had a high volume of attempts and the team finished 7-9 in one of the worst divisions ever (2010 NFC West won by 7-9 Seattle) a year after going 1-15. Of course, most of the wins were powered by the defense. Bradford regressed in 2011, went through an injury period, had a bump in play in 2012-13, got injured again, then had a misleading stat line in Chip Kelly’s system in Philadelphia before setting an NFL record with a 71.6 completion rate in Minnesota in 2016. But that offense was not good and he still finished with a losing record.
Maybe 2017 would have been the magical year where he finally put it together, but his knee failed him again and Case Keenum stole the spotlight. Bradford joined the Cardinals in 2018 and was abysmal in three starts and cut before the season ended. He still got $15 million guaranteed for that season.
Bradford’s career felt like a Ponzi scheme. Get drafted No. 1 overall, convince people you’re the real deal, then just fleece multiple teams for a decade. Bradford’s rookie contract had a maximum value of $86 million, an absurd amount for someone who had yet to play a down in the NFL. Fortunately, the 2010 draft was the end of that CBA and teams got wiser on rookie deals starting in 2011.
But Bradford was still able to make $130 million in his career. It is practically impossible to name another player who did less and earned more.
81. Shaun Hill
I am still president of the Shaun Hill fan club. #ThatsMyQB.
In all seriousness, Hill was one of the best backups in the league. What made him so interesting to me is the way he outperformed No. 1 overall picks that I never was sold on like Alex Smith and Sam Bradford. He did this while being their teammate too, so you could compare their performance with the same coaches and players around them. He even had a better season with the Lions in 2010 than Matthew Stafford had in his first two injury-plagued seasons.
No team ever really chose Hill to be their intended starter. It was always an injury situation or benching that got him on the field, but for a backup, he was more than solid.
80. Matt Moore
He was no Tony Romo, but as far as undrafted quarterback success stories go, Moore is one of the better ones this century. He had some decent games with the Panthers and Dolphins, even starting a playoff game in place of an injured Ryan Tannehill in the 2016 season. Moore also went 1-1 as a starter for the 2019 Chiefs when Patrick Mahomes dislocated his kneecap. That close win over Minnesota was crucial in keeping the Chiefs in line for the No. 2 seed and a bye, which helped them win a Super Bowl.
Moore averaged 7.13 YPA and a 87.4 passer rating for his career, which makes him the only QB on my list ranked 100 to 64 that broke 7.0 YPA and the second to break 85.0 in passer rating.
79. Derek Anderson
Before he came out as a right-wing meathead on Twitter, Anderson was a one-year wonder in the 2007 season for Cleveland. He really came out of nowhere to throw 29 touchdowns, make the Pro Bowl, and lead the Browns to 10 wins, the team’s best offense and season from 1995-2019.
But I always warned people that his one-year wonder season was closer to a half-season wonder. In the last eight games, Anderson completed 55.6% of his passes with 12 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 6.22 YPA, and a 73.7 passer rating. That’s the kind of stat line that looks painfully familiar to Browns fans as it is not good enough to win in this league. Cleveland scored 30 points just once in those final eight games after doing so three times in the first half of the season when Anderson’s YPA was a strong 8.20.
Predictably, Anderson turned into a pumpkin in 2008, completing 50.2% of his passes with 5.71 YPA and a 66.5 passer rating. His only highlight with the 2010 Cardinals was this “Nothing is funny to me!” meltdown.
78. Tim Couch
While people often defend No. 1 quarterbacks for underperforming, I usually find myself not buying those defenses. I think David Carr and Sam Bradford were just never going to be good in this league. I think Alex Smith needed an incredible amount of time and talent around him before he finally showed he could be adequate under Jim Harbaugh.
But a No. 1 pick labeled a bust who I always defend is Tim Couch. I think the Browns did a horrible job of building a team around him and hiring good coaches. Yet I always pointed out how the Browns were doing better with Couch as their starter than anyone else.
That was through 2012 but given the way the Browns performed prior to Baker Mayfield’s arrival, I am confident it would show the same results that the Browns won more games and got better QB play with Couch. He was sneaky good with the game on the line, leading the Browns to 10 fourth-quarter comebacks and 11 game-winning drives, including four in that 2002 playoff season where Kelly Holcomb got the playoff start. Before Aaron Rodgers became the ultimate Hail Mary QB, Couch won two games with a Hail Mary touchdown against the 1999 Saints and 2002 Jaguars.
People want to talk about the Texans breaking Carr with the sacks, but let’s look at Couch. He took a league-high 56 sacks as a rookie in 1999 and had a horrific sack rate of 12.3%. He cut that down to 4.4% in his second season. In all five of his seasons, his passer rating ranged from 73.1 to 77.6. Not good, not much progress, but at least there was some consistency there. I truly believe with a better team and better health luck that he could have been a decent starter.
77. Josh McCown
Even before he was a Zoom quarterback and the oldest practice squad player ever in 2020, McCown had one of the strangest careers in NFL history. Perhaps his most memorable moment is when he threw a 28-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-25 to knock the 2003 Vikings out of the playoffs in Week 17. That was a thrilling moment, and yet, McCown went on to compile one of the worst records in NFL history in crunch time. He was 6-37 (.140) at 4QC opportunities and 7-40 (.149) at game-winning drive opportunities.
The 2017 season with the Jets is McCown’s most prolific year with 2,926 yards and 18 touchdown passes. Otherwise, he never had more than 13 touchdowns in any year. But the best he ever played was in 2013 with the Bears. He threw 13 touchdowns to one interception for a 109.0 passer rating. He finished that season with a positive DVOA under pressure, which almost never happens as all quarterbacks play worse when pressured.
McCown’s only playoff action came at the age of 40 after Carson Wentz was injured in the 2019 wild card against Seattle. It made him the oldest quarterback to ever make his playoff debut. McCown finished the game despite tearing his hamstring off the bone in the second quarter. He was no doubt a competitor, but he was like the RC Cola version of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Speaking of the Jets…
76. Mark Sanchez
The first quarterback on the list with playoff wins in multiple seasons. But will Sanchez be better remembered for going to two AFC Championship Games or The Butt Fumble? Yeah, I think the answer to that is obvious. It is quite arguably the funniest play in NFL history. And to think Sanchez (94.3) still has a higher career playoff passer rating than Tom Brady (90.4), topped off by his best playoff game coming against one of Brady’s best teams in that 2010 season.
Sanchez had seven game-winning drives in those first two seasons, and a few were really impressive ones in the final minute of the game. He was so erratic, and the run game and defense really carried him at times, but it would still be hard to call him a bust. A disappointment for sure, but much like Brock Osweiler, Sanchez’s existence in this NFL timeline served a few purposes for me that I will always appreciate.
75. Vinny Testaverde
Such a Jets thing to talk about a quarterback with a so-so season who still snuck into the playoffs. Old man Vinny got the Jets there in 2001 after leading five comebacks on the way to a 10-6 finish. They lost in the first round to the Raiders. But that was the end of Testaverde’s success in New York. He started 15 games for the Cowboys in 2004 at the age of 41, which was very unusual at the time. He even started six games at 44 for the Panthers in 2007, the end of his career.
Testaverde (six), Warren Moon (one), and Steve DeBerg (one) are the only quarterbacks to start a game in their age-44 season. None of them were still playing at 45. That would be great if this remained the case…
74. Blake Bortles
On the one hand, Blake Bortles is one of 15 quarterbacks in NFL history who can show their resume has a season with 35 touchdown passes AND that they won a championship or led by double digits in a championship game.
Those things really happened. On the other hand, there is a statistical argument that 2015 Bortles is the worst season with 35 touchdown passes in history as he was a Garbage Time God who led the league in interceptions (18) and sacks (51). As for the 2017 playoff run that nearly gave us a Bortles-Foles Super Bowl, that was Jacksonville taking full advantage of season-ending injuries to Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson in the division. They then took advantage of a Buffalo team that had no business being in the tournament, but silly tie-breaker rules made it happen, and Bortles won that game 10-3. Of course, his crowning moment was that 45-42 win in Pittsburgh in the divisional round, a game I only wish I could blame Dick LeBeau for since it was the most embarrassing thing since Tebow 316.
But after blowing the lead to the Patriots in the championship game, it was all downhill from there for Bortles. He lost his last eight starts for the Jaguars and was already off the team by 2019. He has not started a game since, but with his mobility and experience, I would not rule out that we’ve seen the last of him in this league.
In a better world where #MylesJackWasntDown, Bortles would have been an unlikely Super Bowl starter.
73. Tommy Maddox
What does Maddox have that the other 27 quarterbacks really could not claim since 2001? He had a good individual season that led his team to the playoffs where he continued to play well. He was not carried by the Pittsburgh defense in 2002 because the defense was poor that year. The offense was too to start the season after Kordell Stewart failed to sustain his success. Maddox replaced Stewart and led a comeback win against the rival Browns in a rare year where they were a winning team.
Maddox kept the job, the offense shifted to a quick passing game that was successful, and he overcame an injury scare to return in December. His first game back against expansion Houston is one of the most infamous shitshows in NFL history. Maddox had three turnovers that were returned for touchdowns in the 24-6 loss. Pittsburgh was a 14-point favorite and lost the game at home despite outgaining Houston 422 to 47 in yards. Proof that you can rush a quarterback too early from injury.
But Maddox regained his composure, and he even went into Tampa Bay and finished 17-of-23 for 236 yards and a touchdown in a 17-7 win. That was against one of the best defenses in NFL history and a team that went on to win the Super Bowl. In the playoffs, the Steelers were down 17 points at home to Cleveland before Maddox led one of the all-time great comeback wins. He passed for 367 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-33 win. A week later in Tennessee, the Steelers were again in a high-scoring game and lost 34-31 in overtime after kicker Joe Nedney flopped to draw a running into the kicker penalty. Maddox played admirably in the loss.
A decade after he was a first-round bust, Maddox came out of nowhere that season to finish third in TD%, fourth in YPA, and 13th in pass DVOA. He failed to repeat this success in 2003 as a 6-10 finish led to the Steelers drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Maddox started two games in 2005 as the third-string quarterback and played horrifically in two overtime losses that had so much to do with the team only being a sixth seed on their way to winning a Super Bowl.
But as a Steelers fan, you really have to say thanks to Maddox, who changed the course of football forever in Pittsburgh. Thank you for an entertaining 2002 season that put an end to the Kordell era. Thank you for a subpar 2003 that led to drafting Roethlisberger. Thank you for getting injured – relax, it wasn’t serious – in 2004 and letting Roethlisberger take over early. Thank you for playing like ass in 2005 so that the team had proper motivation as a sixth-seed underdog to win Bill Cowher a Super Bowl.
Thank you, Tommy.
72. Jon Kitna
As a Pittsburgh fan, I probably have more respect for Kitna than the average NFL fan. He was clearly never a great quarterback, but his three biggest moments all arguably came against the Steelers. In 2001, he threw the ball 68 times in a 26-23 overtime win against a Pittsburgh team that finished 13-3. It is the only loss in Bill Cowher’s career where the Steelers led by more than 10 points as Cincinnati trailed 14-0 early.
In 2003, Kitna had his finest season right after the Bengals drafted Carson Palmer No. 1 overall. He was down 20-17 in the final minute in Pittsburgh, but after getting the ball at midfield, he only needed two throws to get in the end zone for a game-winning touchdown. Kitna finished that season with 26 touchdowns and the Bengals finished 8-8, a big deal for a team that had been so bad for so long. This paved the way for the Palmer era. But when Palmer was injured on the first drive against Pittsburgh in the 2005 wild card game, Kitna had to step in. He played well early, and the Bengals twice led by 10 points, but the defense faltered and Cincinnati lost. It was Kitna’s final game with the team.
Kitna had back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons for Detroit, but under Mike Martz’s scheme, he took a beating in the pocket. Detroit finished 7-9 in 2007, the team’s best record since 2000. But Kitna started four games during the 0-16 campaign in 2008. He later had some decent games with the Cowboys in 2010 after Tony Romo was injured. He may have had a better career if he played for franchises that were not so dysfunctional.