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.