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

If you missed the beginning of my series on the top 100 NFL quarterbacks of the 21st century, there is a recap with links below, and here is where the list stands from No. 100 to No. 11:

Including the playoffs, there are 100 NFL quarterbacks who have started at least 30 games in the last 20 seasons (2001-20). In part I, I began to rank these quarterbacks from No. 100 to No. 87, looking at the worst of the bunch. In part II, I looked at some more serviceable players who may have had one special season in their career. In part III, the players included more multi-year starters who still may have only had that one peak year as well as some younger players still developing. In part IV, I had an especially difficult time with slotting quarterbacks I have criticized for years, but who definitely had a peak year. In part V, we got into some MVP winners and a few quarterbacks I have struggled to root for over the years. In part VI, we had a few Hall of Famers and some players who may have gotten there had it not been for injuries.

Part I (#100-87)

Part II (#86-72)

Part III (#71-51)

Part IV (#50-31)

Part V (#30-21)

Part VI (#20-11)

10. Philip Rivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Matt Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

8. Tony Romo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Russell Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Ben Roethlisberger

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

So, why does he not get more respect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card

To sum up the NFL’s first “Super Wild Card Weekend” in one word: exhausting.

This has been a long weekend with six games to research, preview, bet, watch, tweet, analyze, and write about. Just think how incredible it could be if we get some games with more exciting finishes, fewer horrific challenges, and the AFC coaches find their balls before sending out the punt teams. Maybe we won’t have to see Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears (or 8-9 Bears) next year as well.

For six playoff games decided by 3-12 points, we had exactly zero lead changes in the second half. The closest we came was Baltimore breaking a 10-10 tie early in the third quarter to take the lead for good. When the game is tied, there technically is no lead, so it’s not a true lead change in the way that we usually look at it.

The first game of the postseason, Colts-Bills, was really the best one this weekend as far as quality of play and drama. However, I want to work my way backwards through these games, because you know I have plenty to say about that 48-37 abomination the Steelers left on the field Sunday night.

In fact, I have so much to say about everything that I grossly underestimated how long it would take to finish this recap in one night. So I will post the five games now and save a separate link for Browns-Steelers to be posted by Monday evening.

Next year I’ll remember to get some thoughts down on Saturday’s games on Saturday night.

Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:

Bears at Saints: Seventh Seed Slime

Don’t be shocked, but the Bears sucked on offense to make this the most unwatchable game of the weekend, and that was despite Nickelodeon’s valiant effort to try a different kind of NFL broadcast. The animated slime cannons that fired during the game’s few touchdowns were cool, but I would have rather seen the Bears covered in buckets of slime every time they failed to convert a third down, which was nine times out of 10. Meanwhile, the Saints were 11-of-17 on third down.

Before Jimmy Graham caught a pointless, one-handed touchdown on the final snap of the game, Chicago could only manage a field goal on a 6-yard drive that started after Sean Payton’s latest erotic Taysom Hill fixation backfired with a turnover, the only giveaway in the game.

CBS’ Jim Nantz tried to say that Mitchell Trubisky is a different quarterback now, and the numbers prove it. I like to think I proved with numbers coming into the game that he was not different, and his “rebirth” was the result of feasting on play-action, a better running game with David Montgomery, and taking advantage of YAC plays and four of the league’s five worst defenses this season.

On Sunday, Trubisky had no help from the running game as Montgomery was held to 31 yards against one of the better defenses this season. He did not get much help from the receivers either. Javon Wims dropped a 40-yard touchdown in the end zone on a trick play that should have worked to perfection.

That drive ended with Trubisky casually running out of bounds two yards shy of the marker on fourth-and-4. It was that kind of day for the Bears. They never seriously threatened again. While I would point out that Trubisky’s touchdown pass, caught with one hand by Graham as time expired, was the most garbage of garbage-time touchdowns in the playoffs, I won’t knock him too hard for it since Wims absolutely screwed him out of a 40-yard score that could have made this one interesting.

My other memorable part of this game was Drew Brees getting up close and personal with the beautiful, new cameras they are using in these games after he did a late quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal that was only a touchdown in the eyes of Jim Nantz.

It looked short in live action to me, and on replay it was obvious that Brees pulled the ball back too quickly and short of the plane, but Nantz was weirdly adamant about a touchdown there. The call was reversed, Brees didn’t score, I lost out on a $230 win on a Same Game Parlay for that reason, then Graham scored.

It sounds like Nantz must have lost out on way more.

The Saints will have to be sharper than this to beat Tampa Bay for a third time next week. On the bright side, Michael Thomas finally had a real productive game (73 yards and his first touchdown) with Brees this season, and they seem to have come out of the game healthy. It was just weird in a game where the Saints finally had their skill guys healthy, it was Deonte Harris leading the team with seven grabs for 83 yards. But he looked good and the Saints should have had three straight touchdown drives in the second half after controlling the ball for nearly 39 minutes in the game.

Just tell Brees to do his best Philip Rivers impersonation and don’t pull out early next time when he does his sneak.

Ravens at Titans: Running Quarterbacks Matter More than Running Backs

These former division rivals seem to genuinely hate one another now after playing three games in the last calendar year. I think that is a good thing for the NFL and would be all for a rubber match next postseason since they (as of now) do not meet in the 2021 regular season.

While the Titans ended Baltimore’s Super Bowl hopes a year ago, the Ravens extracted some payback with a low-scoring 20-13 win. It is especially surprising when you remember that the Titans were up 10-0 after the first quarter, taking advantage of a Lamar Jackson interception, his sixth turnover in nine quarters of playoff action.

Are the Titans also his kryptonite? Could he go 0-3 against the Titans, 0-3 against the Chiefs, and 0-3 in the playoffs? Baltimore had not won a game when trailing by double digits since September 18, 2016, the longest active streak in the NFL.

Of course, 10-point comebacks are easier to come by when you only allow 13 points in the game. After all, teams that fail to score at least 14 points lose 93% of the time in postseason history. You must be someone like the 2018 Patriots to win a big game doing that. Ryan Tannehill, surely you jest if you think I believe you pulled the rabbit’s foot out of Tom Brady’s ass last January.

But while the Titans were on their way to a season-low 13 points, let’s go back to the play that changed everything. Things were not looking good again for Lamar, who finished the game by taking five sacks against the league’s worst pass rush this year. However, with one play Jackson reminded us of what makes him one of the most unique quarterbacks in NFL history. Facing a third-and-9 late in the second quarter, Jackson dropped back to almost his own 40 before stepping up, avoiding a sack, running through the defense, and outracing everyone to the end zone for officially a 48-yard touchdown, the second-longest touchdown run by a quarterback in postseason history.

That is one of the greatest quarterback runs of all time. The Ravens added another touchdown to start the third quarter, then it was just a matter of hanging on against the team that had been a league-best 6-1 at game-winning drive opportunities this season. But the offense was not having its usual day on Sunday. Derrick Henry is the eighth running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, but when you exclude the Super Bowl winning season Terrell Davis had for Denver in 1998, those other 2,000-yard backs are 0-5 in the playoffs while O.J. Simpson (1973 Bills) and Chris Johnson (2009 Titans) didn’t even qualify for the tournament.

Henry may have had the worst playoff game yet for a 2,000-yard back. He finished with 18 carries for 40 yards. His longest rush was 8 yards. Henry had zero first downs rushing. He failed on a third-and-1 run late in the game that Ryan Tannehill had to convert with the quarterback sneak to keep the game alive.

While A.J. Brown had a big opening drive with a touchdown, he was quiet the rest of the game. Not as quiet as Corey Davis, who finished without a catch on two targets and was out of the game late with an injury. Tight end Jonnu Smith only had 9 yards. The Titans only had three plays that gained more than 14 yards.

After Justin Tucker missed only his second postseason field goal from 52 yards with 12:11 left, the Titans had a golden opportunity, trailing in a 17-13 game. That is when Henry broke his 8-yard run, but then Tannehill threw two incompletions. You would think head coach Mike Vrabel would go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Baltimore 40 with 10:06 left. This is the same coach who said a year ago that he would cut his dick off to win a Super Bowl, and this guy already has rings as a player, so that ring must mean everything to him if he’d rather have another than his penis.

And then like a coward, Vrabel punted. Since 1994, or as far back as the data goes on Stathead, no other team has punted in the fourth quarter of a playoff game while trailing with 1-3 yards to go from inside the opponent 40.

If you stretch it back to the opponent 45, then you do get one hit, and it was a game that Vrabel won as a player with the Patriots. Against the 2006 Chargers, the Patriots were down 14-13 and Bill Belichick punted on 4th-and-2 at the San Diego 41 with 13:19 left. The Chargers scored a touchdown, then probably could have put the game away, but fumbled Tom Brady’s interception back to him (on fourth down no less).

Not that Vrabel was even thinking of that game he won as a player, but no one in their right mind could think to replicate that type of luck. The Titans should have gone for it for sure. That was arguably the worst coaching decision this weekend.

The Ravens responded with a 51-yard field goal as Tucker redeemed himself, but I have to say the offensive pass interference penalty that wiped out a big fourth-down conversion by Baltimore’s offense was a very weak pick play call on Willie Snead. More egregious plays happen all the time and don’t draw a flag. That felt like the NFL trying to keep this close for the finish.

Tannehill had 4:13 to tie the game with a touchdown, but the Titans pissed around with the run and wasted the two-minute warning just to move 16 yards. So this was not looking promising, then it turned disastrous as Tannehill’s receiver, Kalif Raymond, fell on the play after some contact and Marcus Peters intercepted the ball. The Ravens picked up a really dumb taunting penalty, but Jackson bailed them out with a 33-yard run that allowed him to finish with 136 rushing yards. Of Baltimore’s four longest plays, three of them were Jackson rushes for 23+ yards. He is just so difficult to defend, and now he has a playoff win to get off the snide.

Plenty of time this week to talk about Ravens-Bills, but it should be one of the best games this postseason. This was a gut-check win for the Ravens after a poor start. It was good to see the defense shut down a top-scoring offense, but the Titans are so structured to do things in a specific way that if Henry isn’t going well, then it becomes easier to stop the play-action game and the big plays to Brown and Davis. Buffalo attacks much differently, but again, we can get to that later this week. For now, the Ravens can take comfort in the playoff win and getting back to that familiar role of road underdog that has suited the team so well in the John Harbaugh era.

As for the Titans, given the bleak injury history of high workload backs and the lack of passing production that Tannehill has shown in four playoff starts, we may be marking the 2019-20 Titans as a fun, two-year wonder who blew double-digit leads in the playoffs to the Chiefs and Ravens.

Then we will promptly punt on this team’s 2021 prospects, but at least we’ll still have our dicks.

Buccaneers at Football Team: My MAGA Beats Your MAGA

Well, not the worst thing to happen in D.C. this week, but the Washington Football Team lost in the wild card round for the fourth time since 2007. It was a respectable 31-23 effort by Ron Rivera’s team given the quarterback situation and talent mismatch with Tampa Bay.

Taylor Heinicke had to start for Alex Smith (calf) and provided the offense with a quarterback who could actually move and make things happen. It was one of the more unlikely 300-yard passing games you’ll ever see from a guy making his first start of the season, but Heinicke gave his team a chance on a night where the running game was MIA (16 carries for 36 yards). However, you did see some of the flaws in this roster and their lack of a consistent passing attack this year as the receivers had some letdowns with drops.

Heinicke has likely secured himself a job for years in this league with this performance. I’m sure it also helps that he’ll proudly stand for the anthem and never kneel since he is reportedly a MAGA douchebag of bigger proportions than the team’s defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio.

Speaking of MAGA douchebags, Uncle Jack was back doing something he does so well: make Tom Brady look amazing by getting no pressure or covering his receivers. Here’s a tweet from over seven years ago to show that I’m not just saying this after Saturday night:

Still no answers, I see. However, it took Brady 42 playoff games to do something that had been done 114 times before Saturday: throw multiple touchdown passes of 20 yards in a playoff game.

I don’t know if it was the clueless Del Rio defense, Antonio Brown being wide open, or that he’s playing a 7-9 team with his four former 1,300-yard receivers, but Brady was in a groove and hitting deep balls on Saturday night. Only some drops prevented Tampa Bay from doing even more damage to Del Rio’s overmatched defense.

Brady’s average touchdown pass in the playoffs is now 12.2 yards, which ties him with Kerry Collins for the lowest among all passers with 10 touchdown passes in the playoffs. It’s always been a weird disparity to see how his average touchdown shrinks so much from the regular season unlike virtually all other quarterbacks, but we’ll see if he’s got any more long ones in him this postseason. He faces the Saints next, a team that has swept him this regular season, including that dominant 38-3 game last time out.

Oh, and the refs totally botched a catch-and-fumble out of bounds for Washington by calling incomplete when it should have set up a shorter third down before the sack that created 4th-and-21, which basically sealed the game. But you know, He willed it. I am frankly just surprised Brady didn’t will a Bears victory so he could get the Rams in Tampa on Sunday instead of going to the team that has made him look the worst this year.

The Jets (2) still have more wins against teams with winning records this year than the Buccaneers (1).

Rams at Seahawks: First Name Russell, Last Name Ozymandias

The date was September 15, 2013. The Seahawks were hosting the 49ers on Sunday Night Football in what would be a preview of that year’s fantastic NFC Championship Game. This first meeting was anything but fantastic. Lightning delayed it in the first quarter for an hour, which was perfect since AMC was airing the premiere of the “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad, which is in my view the finest episode of any TV series.

After experiencing that emotional rollercoaster, I went back to the game, a 29-3 win by Seattle on a night where neither Russell Wilson nor Colin Kaepernick could move the ball via passing. In fact, it’s the last game in the NFL where both teams completed fewer than 50% of their passes, failed to net 170 passing yards, and took multiple sacks.

At least it was the last NFL game to do that before the Rams and Seahawks did it on Saturday in the wild card, a 30-20 win by the Rams that was as lifeless as any performance in the Pete Carroll-Wilson era.

I bring up that 2013 game not only for the statistical comparison, but also for the fact that it is the Ozymandias Night Game, and Wilson and Carroll just might be the embodiment of that poem: building a once great empire with a legacy that was inevitably going to decay and slide into oblivion.

Back in the day, the Seahawks could play a terrible offensive game and still find a way to win, sometime by huge margins even. As time wore on and the talent faded, the team found wins harder to come by. The margins kept getting smaller. Since 2018, Seattle has won 24 games by no more than eight points, five more than any other team in the league.

Even this year the Seahawks were 9-2 in close games. Seattle completely flipped the script on the scoreboard in the second half of this season. Their games had 204 fewer combined points in the final eight games compared to the first eight, the biggest dip in a 16-game season in NFL history.

If I told Seattle fans in early November that they would play the Rams at home in the wild card, the game would have 50 points, and the Rams’ starting quarterback was knocked out early with an injury, they would probably expect a nice win to come from that.

They would never expect it meant a 30-20 loss where the offense was a bigger letdown than the defense and it was Jared Goff coming off the bench with a surgically repaired thumb to replace John Wolford.

They would never expect Wilson to throw maybe the worst pick-six of his career in the first half. The third quarter that seemed to last ages saw stop after stop. By the fourth quarter, any glimmer of hope for a Seattle comeback ended when a fumbled punt return set up the Rams on a short field for another touchdown and a 30-13 lead.

Wilson took five sacks, which is nothing new for him against the Rams, but only completing 11-of-27 passes for 174 yards certainly puts this in a bottom tier of games in his career.

The Seahawks are done quickly after a 12-4 season that never felt complete. When the offense was great, the defense was terrible. When the defense played well against soft competition, the offense was an issue, especially in that ugly upset loss to the Giants.

But Saturday was rock bottom for this offense this season. It was the culmination of a season on decline offensively with “Let Russ Cook” serving up the Fyre Fest cheese sandwich for the final meal.

Wilson’s success rate was 7-for-25 (28%) leading into the drive where he got the ball back down 30-13 with 4:40 left. This was not a matter of going pass-happy against a tough defensive front or calling too many runs on early downs. This was all-around poor execution, too many penalties, and just no sense of direction for what this offense wants to do after spending the last half of the season barely scraping by.

Earlier this season, I warned that the numbers could be misleading because of the pandemic and the way defenses were behind the offenses. Even for a veteran like Wilson, the best start of his career had to be taken with some caution.

I just never thought things would get as low as they did on Saturday, with Wilson only managing a 10-point deficit with the ball in the fourth quarter. Once upon a time, this team had a 98-game streak of keeping things within one score or better.

I have always favorably compared Wilson’s career path to Ben Roethlisberger’s for the way they both came in as very successful rookies on run-heavy teams with great defenses. Both never got proper credit (or any MVP votes) for their passing efficiency, backyard football plays, deep ball accuracy, and ability to pull off game-winning drives and overcome bad offensive lines. Like Ben, Wilson started throwing with more volume and proved he can still be very efficient and a winner without an elite scoring defense. We’ll see if Wilson also drastically changes his playing style in his thirties to get rid of the ball faster and take fewer sacks and hits like Ben did in 2012.

But if we’re being honest, they also share this in common: they both won the Super Bowl in their second season and that early success has done some shielding for the criticism that should come with their other postseason efforts.

Roethlisberger, despite picking up that second ring in 2008, has thrown 28 interceptions in 22 playoff games and just lost his fifth home playoff game. Wilson was 5-0 at home in the playoffs before Saturday’s loss, but we know he threw four interceptions against the Packers in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, likely a loss had it not been for an onside kick recovery. Wilson also got a win in Minnesota in 2015 by a 10-9 final after Blair Walsh missed a short field goal. And while the pick-six on Saturday was bad, we know that Wilson threw the costliest interception in NFL history at the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX. If there wasn’t such a “why did they even throw?” sentiment to that moment, and if Wilson hadn’t won the Super Bowl a year earlier, the criticism he’d get for that play would be far harsher than it is.

Since winning a playoff game where he threw four interceptions, Wilson has won three more playoff games in which his opponents scored 9, 6, and 9 points. Like Pittsburgh, Seattle has had high expectations for the playoffs the last decade, and the few wins they do have recently are not going to impress anyone. Losing to the COVID Browns and a Rams team that had an injured quarterback and even lost Aaron Donald to injury in the game is going to stand out to people more than those wins ever will.

When you rank the top 25 quarterbacks of all time, I think Roethlisberger and Wilson belong there despite the shorter career for Wilson. But when these bad moments in the playoffs seem to happen more frequently than you’d like to see, you can understand why Roethlisberger and Wilson are never going to rank as favorably as the Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers (and soon Mahomes) of the league that they share the spotlight with.

Instead of joining Brees, Brady, and Rodgers in next week’s NFC divisional round, Wilson must look ahead to his age-33 season, putting behind a 2020 where he had his best start ever, but also his most disappointing finish.

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Colts at Bills: The More Colts-Esque Team Won

I said this game was a bit of a role reversal with the Colts needing to run the ball well and play great defense while the Bills had the pass-happy offense (led by wide receivers) and franchise quarterback in Josh Allen.

I just did not expect it to play out so on brand. This was an impressive win by the Bills, who had to overcome some adversity with terrible field position. In the first half, all five Buffalo possessions started inside their 15. I have not seen anything like that since the infamous Mike Scifres punt game that pinned the Colts deep repeatedly in the 2008 AFC Wild Card. That was in San Diego and Philip Rivers was also the beneficiary of that effort.

Rivers did not get the win this time, but he was not the problem in a game with zero turnovers. Head coach Frank Reich had some really questionable calls, and the team was 2-for-5 in the red zone. He ran outside on a third down when he should have brought in Jacoby Brissett for a quarterback sneak. He then went for a 4th-and-4 where I think he should have kicked the field goal. He made one of the worst challenges I’ve ever seen on a down by contact ruling that had no shot of winning, and that lost timeout hurt the Colts in the second half.

Buffalo was fortunate in this one. The Colts also had one drive in the third quarter that lasted nearly eight minutes and ended with a missed 37-yard field goal (doink). Buffalo’s league-best third down offense was only 2/9 on that money down. Josh Allen played very well but was fortunate to recover a fumble on his final drive that could have been disastrous for the Bills. The Bills had 10 handoffs for 42 yards and lost Zack Moss to an injury. It was very much on Allen to deliver and he did with 324 passing yards, 54 rushing yards, and three total touchdowns against a solid defense that made the Bills earn every yard.

There were many “game of inches” plays in this one, and they usually favored the Bills. Despite Buffalo leading 24-10 in the fourth quarter, the Colts fought back impressively. The running game was not exactly dominant, but in the fourth quarter the Colts had runs of 29, 20, and 33 yards. Two of those were even by Hines instead of rookie Jonathan Taylor. Those plays really helped those drives get down the field quickly and aided the 300-yard passing game for Rivers, who also had a few drops his receivers would like back.

While the officials were doing a very good job on the close calls, they almost made a horrific error in the final minute when a Zach Pascal fumble on fourth-and-ballgame was somehow not immediately stopped for a review. Bills coach Sean McDermott had to get a last-second timeout to get New York to finally review the most important play in the game. It looked clear and obvious to me that the Bills waited for Pascal to get back to his feet before punching the ball out and recovering it, which would have meant game over. The replay review let the play stand and the Colts had a first down at midfield.

From there, Rivers couldn’t find open receivers and was throwing passes away, leaving time only for a Hail Mary. Isn’t this where Jacoby Brissett comes into the game?  He’s done it before. Reich even pulled Andrew Luck before to do this in 2018. He can surely pull Rivers, who doesn’t have the arm anymore to get that ball deep enough in Buffalo. But Rivers stayed in for the Hail Mary, the pass was well short of the end zone and incomplete to end the game.

The Bills escaped this one, 27-24, and major props to kicker Tyler Bass for his 54-yard field goal with 8:08 left that proved to be the difference maker.

Colts fans know all too well about the playoffs and clutch (or anti-clutch) kicking, terrible field position, a one-dimensional offense that puts everything on the QB and things aren’t going well on third downs, etc. Like I said, the Bills survived a gut-check early here, and now they’ll get a tougher opponent form Baltimore.

But it was good to see a pass-happy team in Buffalo come through for the team’s first playoff win since the 1995 season. The NFL (AFC in particular) has needed new blood and seeing the Browns and Bills win their first playoff games since 1994-95 is accomplishing that.

NFL QB Injury History

While starting running backs and some gifted pass catchers are dropping like flies to begin the 2020 NFL season, the most important position, quarterback, has been exceptionally healthy so far.

In fact, we’ve gone through training camp, the absence of a preseason, and now Week 1 without any noteworthy injuries to any of the league’s 32 starting quarterbacks. That’s an improvement from previous years like 2019 when Nick Foles was knocked out in Week 1, giving Gardner Minshew a quick intro to the job. In 2018, Foles started the season for Philadelphia while Carson Wentz wasn’t ready yet. In 2017, Andrew Luck never got ready and missed the entire season for Indianapolis. In 2016, Teddy Bridgewater’s gruesome knee injury suffered in practice ended his season before Week 1.

Hopefully this won’t be a jinx, but I updated the injury history data I’ve had on starters and even dug deep to include Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has only missed five starts to injury in his career. Below is the history for all 32 current starters, even including Joe Burrow who just made his NFL debut and plays his second game tomorrow. These are only injuries so any starts missed for playoff rest or getting demoted won’t show up here. Missed playoff games are also included.

Since these tables are large, the 32 players will be presented in three parts. The first table includes the eight unfortunate passers who have suffered at least two different injuries and have missed 10 or more games from them:

Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton have had a long injury history, but both avoided the real long-term absence until 2019 when they both missed the final 14 games. Both are back now and had good Week 1 returns on teams that I picked to win double-digit games and make the playoffs this year. Matthew Stafford also missed half of 2019 after not suffering any injuries since his first two seasons in the league when he was feared to be injury prone.

Our second group includes quarterbacks who had multiple injuries, but only missed 3-6 starts from them.

Fitzpatrick was a trip to research, because he’s been benched or demoted after keeping the seat warm more times in his career than he’s been injured. Drew Brees and Matt Ryan have been pretty close to injury free in long careers, but both had a slip up in 2019.

The last group is technically a combination of two groups: seven quarterbacks who suffered just one injury and 10 quarterbacks who have yet to miss a start to injury.

The latter 10 skew very young, but Philip Rivers (236) and Russell Wilson (144) have had incredible consecutive start streaks, and Dak Prescott and Jared Goff have both been very healthy since 2016. Let’s also not discount the fact that Kirk Cousins has yet to miss a start for an injury. He took Week 17 off for playoff rest last year.

As for the one-off injuries, it already happened to Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins last year as rookies. Tom Brady (2008) and Deshaun Watson (2017) had the more serious ACL tears, but otherwise have been rock solid in durability. The Drew Lock thumb injury last year was one of the few debatable ones. He injured his thumb in the preseason, but he wasn’t intended to start Week 1 with the Broncos bringing in Joe Flacco for considerable money. So his game count starts when Flacco’s season ended from injury and the team had to start Brandon Allen for three games before Lock made his debut and started the final five games.

Speaking of one-off freak injuries, Patrick Mahomes was very fortunate that his dislocated kneecap on a quarterback sneak only cost him two full starts in 2019, or otherwise that historic Super Bowl run may have never happened. Yep, it always comes back to Mahomes somehow.

Stay healthy in 2020, signal callers.

The Top 64 Quarterbacks in NFL History (2015 Edition) – Part I

This definitely won’t be short. However, I’m not wasting any time in showing you my updated list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

top64QB15

This is not created with a formula. I put everything I’ve learned and experienced from over a decade of research into creating this ranking. The only things I do not factor in are college career and time spent in other professional leagues like the AAFC, USFL, CFL, XFL, Arena, etc. So you’re still just a one-year wonder to me, Tommy Maddox.

Some players moved around from the 2014 edition, posted last August. So why is this going to be written in two parts on my blog? I figured some people won’t want to scroll through the epic length of Manning vs. Brady to read about the other players. For those who want to see the irrational debate rationalized, I promise Part II is worth the wait.

This might actually be the first time I have formally written about my list of the 64 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. It was a personal project I started six years ago in an effort to figure out where Ben Roethlisberger stood historically after his fifth season (2008). Such rankings are subjective of course, but sports wouldn’t be the same without this stuff. Even if “that’s your opinion!” means you can’t objectively prove Roethlisberger is a better QB than Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart, Mark Malone and Bubby Brister, you damn sure can make a convincing argument why he is better.

Just look at my list. Once you get past 30 or so, you’re looking at guys who maybe had six quality seasons, or a phenomenal four-year run like Rich Gannon (1999-2002) in Oakland. There aren’t many quarterbacks who sustained greatness over a long period of time in the NFL’s 95-year history. A total of 221 players have thrown at least 1,000 passes in the regular season in NFL history. Unless you mostly played before 1932 (Benny Friedman), are the latest hot rookie/sophomore (Teddy Bridgewater), or your name is Greg Cook or Cecil Isbell, you’re not even relevant from an all-time perspective. A thousand passes is about two seasons these days for a starter. Even the Browns let Derek Anderson throw 992 passes in 2007-09.

My method was to move up the list of all-time attempts, picking out which quarterbacks Roethlisberger was clearly better than, and grouping those he still has to surpass. A few years later I did something very similar to gauge where Joe Flacco stood after his fifth season (2012) led to the destruction of the QB salary market. Since then I’ve had a more concrete list and have updated it annually before the new season. The following explains some of my thought process, especially for the active players.

Five Actives in the Top 15 OF ALL TIME!?!?

I know some people are wondering how I could possibly think five of the 15 greatest QBs in NFL history are playing right now. Well, from 1991-94 we had Montana, Marino, Favre, Young and Elway active. That’s five of my top eight, so there*. Throw in Aikman, Kelly and Moon, and that’s eight of my top 28. It clearly can be done, and I think this has been a golden age of passing that’s not likely to be matched any time soon.

*Counter (because I know how to argue with myself): But Scott, were those five guys worthy of the top eight in 1991-94? This is a fair point. I don’t think Favre and Young were thru 1994, though both were well on their way. I think you could definitely have ranked Montana, Marino and Elway that high by then. My list thru 1994 would look something like Montana, Unitas, Marino, Staubach, Baugh, Tarkenton, Graham, Elway (ahead of Starr and Bradshaw). So yeah, three in the top eight with Young coming off his 6 TDs in the Super Bowl/2nd MVP award and Favre just getting ready for a 3-MVP run. This is legit.

Are the modern rules and modern medicine making it easier to sustain QB success in the NFL? I hesitate to say yes to that, because look at how many quarterbacks can’t sustain their success. Robert Griffin III had his one good year, but has been a disaster ever since. Josh Freeman (2010) can kind of relate, and I hate to see the path Colin Kaepernick is starting to head down after such early promise. Matt Schaub crumbled in 2013 after Richard Sherman picked off his confidence. Carson Palmer has fallen apart a few times, literally and figuratively. Michael Vick was never consistent and managed to have his best years four years apart (2002, 2006 and 2010). Jay Cutler and Cam Newton still can’t hit a 90.0 passer rating season in an era where it’s become common to do so. Matthew Stafford’s pretty much in the same tier, starring as the volume-heavy Drew Bledsoe of his era. Highly drafted quarterbacks are still flopping hard too (see: JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, etc.). Are rookie QBs overall more successful now? Sure, but they’re also getting more opportunities as of 2008. Try telling Blake Bortles and Derek Carr this is an easy game.

QBHOFCB

Where are all the great quarterbacks coming into the NFL since 2006? We’ve seen dips before, but this is starting to get alarming. Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson look like the best options, and I obviously think highly of Flacco and Ryan’s seven-year starts, but that’s about it since 2006. Save us, Tannehill, Bridgewater, Mariota and Winston. We need to start having some insurance that this next era when these HOF passers are retired will still be good.

(B)rees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger

We have clearly been spoiled from watching the highest level of sustained QB play in NFL history. We’ve known about “1812” for so long now, but the consistency of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger is also special. Brees broke out in 2004, the rookie season breakout for Ben. Rodgers didn’t get to start until 2008, but I think he just locked up his spot in Canton after his second MVP season in 2014. No, it wasn’t as good as his 2011, but it was another monster year of dominant efficiency and it moved him up from 26th to 14th for me. Roethlisberger is the first great QB I can say I’ve been able to watch every game of his career live. You could definitely make the claim 2014 was his finest season yet. He’ll always be the first quarterback to have multiple 500-yard passing games, and the first to have back-to-back games with six touchdown passes. All of those games were against teams that made the playoffs.

The reasons I keep Brees ahead at 13th are that I think this 11-year run he’s been on (zero starts missed due to injury) is incredible, and he has quite arguably been better in the playoffs than the other two. He just needs to get there with more consistency, though he’s gotten the short end of the stick defensively when it comes to that top five active group. Brees was still great in 2014, but he had some bad decisions at important times. I don’t think he’s done yet by any means, though I question how much higher I could rank him on this list. He might be fifth in his era when it’s all said and done. That’s really not an insult either. This group is simply special.

Some might even put Rodgers higher than 14th, but I think that’s pretty generous for someone who has been a starter for seven years, including a debut season that was more solid than spectacular (2008) and a half-season due to injury (2013). Rodgers’ stats look off the charts right now, but that’s also the benefit of having 100 percent peak performance in this era of great stats. When you look at advanced metrics, especially ones that include sacks, Rodgers is much closer to his peers. Rodgers has led the league in Total QBR one time (2011) and in passing DVOA two times (2011 and 2014).

Any mainstream criticism of Rodgers is almost nonexistent, but I expect that to change if he continues to not shine in January as has been the case since he won a Super Bowl in 2010. His struggles against the other NFC champions in that time have been troublesome, but the good news is the Giants and 49ers don’t look to be contenders any time soon. Seattle is the defense he has to figure out. And yes, I still think he struggles more than the other top quarterbacks when it comes to comebacks or having to win in different styles. If he doesn’t start a game well, I just don’t expect him to pull it together late. Winning ugly is not on the menu yet. He needs to come out with his ‘A’ game, and his ‘A’ game is pretty much as good as any quarterback’s that’s ever played in the NFL. When he’s on, he’s unstoppable. But when he’s off like in Buffalo and Detroit last year or against Seattle, he doesn’t impress.

But if these other guys ever retire soon and the young quarterbacks don’t pan out, Rodgers could enjoy a nice run at various league-leads and awards if his only real competition is Luck. Going forward, I worry a little about Rodgers’ durability, because he still takes some really bad sacks. It’s hard to believe this is already going to be his age-32 season. Health is about the only thing that could stop him from cracking the top 10 soon. If his next seven years are in line with the last seven, I expect to see Rodgers in my top five one day.

apvotes

The elite MVP seasons of Rodgers are what put him over Ben, who hasn’t had years like that yet. Amazingly, Roethlisberger has never received an All-Pro vote in his career. He’s also only had three seasons where he’s started all 16 games. The main problem is his best seasons (2007, 2009 and 2014) are years where a lot of quarterbacks were standouts, so it’s understandable why he didn’t get a vote. But considering Luck and Brady got AP votes last year, you could definitely argue Ben deserved one in 2014.

Roethlisberger is having an unusual career path. He had personal and team success immediately, but he’s been statistically better in the second half of his career when he’s had to pick up more of the slack. However, he hasn’t had much playoff success since the night he led that epic drive to beat Arizona in Super Bowl 43. This year the Steelers seem to be fielding their worst defense yet around Ben, which feels like an 8-8 season in the making. Basically, the Steelers are turning into the Saints, which is good for Ben’s fantasy numbers, but terrible for his playoff success. He definitely doesn’t need to get to another Super Bowl, but how is this thing going to end? Is he going through a rough team patch like 1992-95 Elway, only to get a better team around him at the end? Is he going to fade away like Aikman in Dallas, unable to keep the team consistently in the playoffs after their talent core declined? Is he going to have an abrupt ending after taking a shot so big he can’t recover from it?

I’ll end this section by explaining some of the decision to move Rodgers and Roethlisberger past the players previously ranked 14-25. Since most of us can agree Rodgers has had the more dominant career, we’ll just look at this from Ben’s standpoint.

Roethlisberger is entering his 12th year as a starter, which already puts him on a short list of QBs in NFL history. Jim Kelly played 11 NFL seasons. Are you really going to tell me Roethlisberger’s play in the regular season and postseason hasn’t exceeded Kelly’s? It’s not a huge difference, which is why there are only five players between them, but Roethlisberger has put together a better resume with more to come. Kurt Warner played 12 seasons, and we know only six of them really count for his HOF push. He had higher highs than Ben, but good lord did he have many lower lows.

Quarterback is a position where you need to be the full-time starter to have value for your team. This is why I don’t put much stock at all in partial seasons where a guy throws like 150 passes and wins some games off the bench, or makes four decent starts, or has a good seven-game stretch before a season-ending injury. Screw that. True value is found by suiting up every week year after year. Ben’s missed 17 games in his career for various reasons, but he’s found a way to start at least 12 games in every season. That’s important. If he does it in 2015, he’ll be the 10th QB with a dozen starts in at least a dozen different seasons. I factored this into a lot of my decisions here, as a guy like Len Dawson played 19 seasons, but you can basically chop off the first five and the last three, leaving 11 years (1962-1972). Do I think that stretch, largely done in the AFL, is more impressive than Roethlisberger’s 11 years? I don’t anymore, so I moved him past Dawson this year.

Similarly, I downplay Sid Luckman vs. Ben due to his peak coming in WWII seasons, and I don’t see any value in his final two seasons (1949-50). I downplay Norm Van Brocklin’s career for spending time in his prime in a two-QB system with Bob Waterfield and facing some suspect competition. For Y.A. Tittle, I really respect his 1961-63 seasons with the Giants, but he’s another guy with a ton of seasons you have to throw away due to the AAFC, injuries or him just being terrible (1964 swansong). He had about seven or eight really solid years overall, which again I think Roethlisberger has exceeded. So I moved him ahead of those guys.

When the worst thing you can point to in Roethlisberger’s career is his 2006 season, that’s very telling of the quality of his career. Yes, he threw 23 picks, but he still finished 10th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA. He dealt with a motorcycle accident, an emergency appendectomy and a concussion after he was getting back to form. If that’s the low point of your 11-year career, then you’re probably having a hell of a career. A lot of guys sink lower than that.

Which finally leads me to putting Ben (and Rodgers) ahead of Dan Fouts, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr. Let’s get Fouts of the way quickly. He was great for eight years (1978-1985) in a record-setting passing offense, which I really respect. That’s why he’s 19th. His other seven seasons and his lack of playoff success — started and ended with 5-INT games — are why he isn’t higher. That’s a good chunk of negative that you can’t just ignore, though I admittedly don’t do a good enough job of punishing for the bad years.

Speaking of bad years, Aikman, Bradshaw and Starr had several and it’s only fitting to talk about this trio together. In fact, Starr was almost worthless without Vince Lombardi as his head coach. Bradshaw is lucky Joe Gilliam was ineffective in 1974, because he may have lost his starting job for good after an (extended) awful start to his career. Aikman was one of the worst QBs in the NFL his first two years, and his finale (2000) was on that level. Yet all three were the quarterbacks of dynasties, the best teams in their decades with great players on both sides of the ball and fantastic coaching. They all won at least three titles and had some great efficiency stats in those playoff wins. These quarterbacks had some nice regular-season numbers at times, but the volume wasn’t there to match their peers. Unitas was better than Starr. Staubach was better than Bradshaw. Young and Favre were better than Aikman if we’re just talking 1990’s NFC. But #RINGZ.

When asked to carry flawed teams, these quarterbacks weren’t capable of getting the job done. When their team’s talent wasn’t up to the level of all-time great, they couldn’t get them into the playoffs with any consistency. Now I won’t slam these guys as much as I would a caretaker like Bob Griese — they’re still in my top 18 — but they just had easier jobs in their primes. Throwing the ball 30 or 40 times wasn’t the plan, let alone a necessity.

I think Roethlisberger would have more than two rings if he had the Steel Curtain defense instead of Dick LeBeau’s “My Defense Works for 75% of the Game Against 75% of the NFL” shtick. But just to start any game with an average team, I’m taking Roethlisberger over Bradshaw, Starr and Aikman. That trio was only effective for about 8-9 years each. Roethlisberger has already surpassed that.

But without a strong finish, I think Ben is going to be stuck at 15 until someone moves ahead of him, or if his play really declines. His career has essentially peaked from an all-time perspective, but as long as the story is still being written, there’s always a chance of changing your legacy. I just don’t think the Steelers are going to build another balanced team in time for him to do so.

Change of Heart: Tarkenton over Graham

The only other change in my top 30 was swapping Fran Tarkenton for Otto Graham. Given what I value in QBs, this should have been the case years ago. Career length is a big factor. Tarkenton was essentially a starting QB for 18 NFL seasons compared to just six for Graham. Remember, I don’t care about the AAFC. What’s amazing is how Tarkenton was such a model of consistency despite his chaotic, scrambling style — he had one below-average passing efficiency season (1962) in 18 years according to Pro-Football-Reference’s advanced tables that adjust for era. Despite all his running around, he was very durable and never had more than eight fumbles in a season. While he never had the stunning peak of a Tittle or Jurgensen, Tarkenton ranks as high as anyone when it comes to the number of quality QB seasons in the NFL. He was a star for nearly two decades, and he retired as the all-time leader in wins, passing yards and touchdown passes. In fact, he’s held the passing yardage record longer than any player in NFL history.

PYDREC

Tarkenton amassed those numbers without throwing more than 25 touchdowns to any player. John Gilliam was his top guy. Tarkenton excelled under multiple coaches and for multiple teams (Giants and Vikings). He might have been the first great one-man show at quarterback, but unfortunately those guys don’t win rings. With or without Tarkenton, Bud Grant’s Vikings great defense (“Purple People Eaters”) was routinely run over in big games. In his 1975 MVP season, Tarkenton lost at home in the playoffs to Dallas thanks to a 50-yard Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson (push off?) in the final minute. It remains the only game-winning Hail Mary in NFL playoff history and it came at the expense of one of the game’s finest players.

When it comes to Otto Graham, the first thing people like to mention is he led the Browns to 10 championship games in his 10 seasons. It’s as if Graham was the only player in the AAFC, and he’s certainly the only player people ever choose to recognize the stats and accomplishments of from the AAFC. I just want to point out Graham won just as many NFL Championship Games (3) as he lost. Some of the losses were absolutely brutal too. We weren’t that far off from having Bobby Layne and the Lions as the dynasty of that time.

The truth is Graham was a great player on the league’s most loaded team (7-9 HOFers every year), with a great defense and a true innovator (Paul Brown) as his head coach. Players in such situations don’t get full credit from me, because their job was easier. I still think enough of Graham to rank him 12th, and he was the best quarterback of that era (1950-55). He also wasn’t just some caretaker as he won two passing yardage titles. When you rank first in NFL history in passing yards per attempt (8.63), albeit in six seasons, you’re going to earn my respect. I just wish we would stop padding the AAFC stuff onto his legacy, because that league was not up to par with the NFL, which actually drafted Graham in 1944 (Lions). He didn’t play then because of World War II.

Graham is a player I expect to keep dropping as some of the players in my previous section continue to have long, successful careers in a more competitive era.

Eli Manning: Why?

Every year I post this list one of the main responses is why is Eli Manning so high? It bothers me too, because he should be about 10 spots lower with the other New York guys and right there with Romo and Rivers. I just haven’t had the heart to move him since first putting him 29th after the 2012 season. He was a joke in 2013 and played much better last year, but the fact is the Giants have missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Eli and the Giants are like leap year: they strike every four years in February. 2008, 2012, and uh-oh, 2016 is next. It would only be fitting for the Giants to start with a bang (JPP), end with a bang (third title…Odell Beckham Jr. one-handed catch to beat New England of course) and for Eli to become the highest-paid player in NFL history.

At least that scenario would help keep my sanity about ranking him this high. Eli really is frustrating because you see the moments of older brother-like brilliance, but then you see the plays that would make Archie shake his head. Eli’s always been very good in 4QC/GWD situations, and I still think he engineered the greatest drive in NFL history with everything at stake in Super Bowl 42. The fact that he starts every single game cannot be undervalued either. It’s not easy to have 10 straight 3,000-yard passing seasons in the NFL. Only six other quarterbacks have had more such years. I think Eli’s 2011 season was one of the finest jobs of a QB carrying his team that we’ve seen, and even then it was a 9-7 year that barely resulted in a division title. Eli just doesn’t have the same efficiency as his peers, though his offenses do well at scoring and he doesn’t take many sacks.

If Eli’s playoff record remains intact at 8-3, then that’s very disappointing for the Giants, because that means they continued to miss the playoffs. You can’t go one-and-done or throw game-ending interceptions in January if you keep failing enough from September through December. That’s probably the single most frustrating thing about Eli. His regular-season defenses haven’t been good, so he gets credit for dealing with that. But in the playoffs, those defenses were outstanding, never allowing more than 23 points in any game and shutting down some of the best offenses in NFL history. And yet the QB still gets the most credit there. I want to see some more playoff losses, Eli. Preferably wins, but just get in the damn tournament. Increase that sample size. Give us some insurance you didn’t just have two one-month hot streaks four years apart. I’m going to drop him next year if 2015 doesn’t go well. Promise.

Ken Stabler for the HOF?

As I predicted this summer, the passing of Ken Stabler has led to him getting another look from the Hall of Fame as 2016’s senior nominee. Unfortunately he won’t be able to enjoy it if he gets in (good chance), but that’s how these things work sometimes. I believe enough time has passed to where a discussion on the merits of Stabler’s HOF case wouldn’t sound insensitive.

Stabler is one of four QBs (Charlie Conerly, Ken Anderson and Kurt Warner) to be a HOF finalist without getting voted in. We know there was some media vitriol going back to his playing days going on behind the scenes to keep Stabler out, so with new voters, that’s not likely to remain an issue. Personally, I can accept Stabler getting into the HOF. I’d sooner back Ken Anderson, but Stabler wouldn’t be a bad choice.

The argument for Stabler is simple: you’ve let George Blanda and Joe Namath in already. You can see I put Stabler ahead of both. Those guys had their peak years in the AFL. Stabler’s best years all came in the 1970’s NFL, the toughest modern decade of passing. He played against a lot of legendary defenses and teams, and definitely had the “Fame” part down with big plays in games with names. He was a very good postseason performer, winning a Super Bowl in 1976. He was also league MVP in 1974 and at least the second-best QB in 1976 (AP second-team All-Pro). Not many QBs can claim those accolades in NFL history. Stabler’s peak really lasted seven seasons (1973-79), but as we have looked at here, that’s still very good from a historical standpoint.

One problem for The Snake is that he threw a lot of interceptions, even for his era. In fact, here are some damning facts:

  • Most games with 4+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (14)
  • Most games with 5+ interceptions since 1970 merger (including playoffs): Ken Stabler (5)

Stabler is also tied for the third-most games with at least three interceptions (29). Stabler somehow threw 20-30 interceptions in each season from 1977-1980, but still had a winning record each season. It was a different game then, but Stabler still threw too many picks. But again, that didn’t stop voters from keeping Namath and Blanda out. Stabler’s last few years with the Oilers and Saints don’t do him any favors. It’s all about the Oakland run, and that was strong enough in my book to crack the top 30. That also looks to be enough for the standards of the HOF. If you haven’t figured it out, the players in yellow in the list are in the HOF (red are active).

Marginal Moves You Probably Don’t Care About

I moved Phil Simms down four spots to 38 after becoming more impressed with the Giants’ defense and less impressed with his individual contributions.

I moved John Brodie up three spots to 32 after seeing he was one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack. Not quite Marino or Peyton level, but right up there. Part of his ascension was also at the cost of moving Bob Griese down a notch. Why did I do that? Well…

The Same Guy, But One’s Slower: Tony Romo and Philip Rivers

I’ve compared Rivers and Romo a few times over the years as equivalents in each conference. They’re basically the Dan Fouts and Warren Moon of this era: the best quarterbacks to not reach a Super Bowl. It’s a shame because this is the era of the Super Bowl quarterback. A record eight active QBs have a Super Bowl ring. Rivers and Romo have some of the highest passer ratings and YPA averages in NFL history, but haven’t enjoyed much January success for various reasons.

I had these guys 53rd and 54th last year. Romo just had probably the best year of his career, and probably deserved to be MVP if he didn’t get hurt against the Redskins on MNF. He moves ahead of Rivers, who had a MVP-like start, but faded fast after a probable rib injury hampered his play.

Both of these guys became relevant in the 2006 season as first-time starters. Here’s how I stack them up.

  • 2006: Rivers gets the edge for being the full-year starter (1-0)
  • 2007: Big edge to Romo (1-1)
  • 2008: Big edge to Rivers (2-1)
  • 2009: Romo good, but Rivers arguably at his best (3-1)
  • 2010: Not enthralled with this Rivers season, but Romo had broken collarbone (4-1)
  • 2011: Big edge to Romo (4-2)
  • 2012: Big edge to Romo (4-3)
  • 2013: Both did great things, but slight edge to Rivers (5-3)
  • 2014: Big edge to Romo (5-4)

Rivers wins the total seasons, 5-4, but Romo had more decisively better years. I also can’t help but side with Romo in the difference of styles. Romo can improvise under pressure, while Rivers can waddle towards the sideline and throw the ball away. Either way they are close, and you’d be fooling yourself to think otherwise.

These guys have been at it for nine years, and have mostly been consistent in that time. In fact, Romo has hit these bare minimums in a record nine straight seasons: 61.3% completions, 7.2 YPA and 90.5 passer rating.

These guys have winning records. They’ve led teams to No. 1 seeds and multiple 12-win seasons. They’ve had more playoff heartbreak than success, but at least they have won some games. More than Y.A. Tittle and Sonny Jurgensen for starters — that’d be none for those guys. And nine seasons as annual top 5-10 quarterbacks is really damn good. That’s why I ended up moving them past the guys with six good years or a smaller number of great years.

Yes, neither has won an MVP award like Steve McNair, Rich Gannon, Boomer Esiason, Bert Jones and Joe Theismann did, but just remember the competition from that elite group. This is the hardest era to win an award like that in. You really think Theismann, who was good for six years, is a better QB than these two? Give these guys Joe Gibbs and the Hogs instead of Norv Turner and Jason Garrett and see what happens. You want to talk about playoff failures? Boomer Esiason never threw for more than 150 yards in his five playoff starts. McNair, may he rest in peace, was a dreadful postseason QB who can thank the Music City Miracle for not leaving him with a 2-5 career playoff record. Bert Jones never won a playoff game either, was a hit machine and couldn’t stay healthy. Rivers has never missed a start in his career and even played on a torn ACL.

I think Romo and Rivers can crack the top 30 with strong finishes. As you can see, there’s just not much separating these players at this part of the table. A Super Bowl for either is likely a ticket to Canton as well.

More Shit You Really Don’t Care About

I dropped Don Meredith six spots to 58 after acknowledging he’s another QB with just about six relevant years.

I dropped Dave Krieg five spots after realizing some of his best seasons were small samples due to injury or being a backup. It’s kind of amazing he made the Pro Bowl despite playing 9 games in 1988, and it’s baffling why he made it at all in 1989. That was a poor year for the AFC though.

I got Matt Hasselbeck ahead of Bernie Kosar now, because I think his run of relevance (2002-07) is underappreciated. I don’t really blame Kosar for not getting to a Super Bowl (bad Cleveland luck), but I blame him for only having about six or seven relevant seasons.

Ryan vs. Flacco (Again)

Seriously, the Joe Flacco vs. Matt Ryan debates are quite heated — or elite as fvck depending whom you ask — on the internet. I guess I’m adding to it by simply ranking Ryan one spot ahead, the same as I did last year, but these two deserve to be very close. Advanced metrics will tell you Ryan is considerably better in his career, but 2014 was a different story. Flacco was 8th in DYAR; Ryan was 7th. Flacco was 8th in DVOA; Ryan was 9th. Flacco was 10th in QBR; Ryan was 7th. Hmm, that last one seemed to change more with the new QBR system, which surprises me since it’s supposed to devalue YAC. You saw those Antone Smith touchdowns last year, right? Then again, what do you do with the Steve Smith fluky touchdown against Carolina?

Either way, they were very close last year, which was arguably Flacco’s best regular season. Of course what happens here is Flacco has the edge in the playoffs, including getting there all but one time in his seven seasons. Ryan has had strong numbers the last two years, but Atlanta is just 10-22 and couldn’t win a pathetic division last year. Advantage: Flacco.

But I really wish something major would happen to create some separation between these two. Until it does, I’m going to continue ranking them side by side. I just hope other people can appreciate the seven-year starts they’ve had to their careers. Appreciate them even more when you consider the lack of quality signal callers joining the NFL since 2006 as detailed above.

Whither Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson?

Why didn’t I include Luck and Wilson? Well, they’ve only played three seasons. Despite the lack of great all-time quarterbacks, three seasons, no matter how impressive they are as a start, are a tiny sample to get into the top 64. However, I quickly threw together some names to branch out of the top 64 and I feel like it’s very possible Luck and Wilson could join this list after 2015. I also think it’s just as possible that at least one takes an unexpected step back this year. We’ll see what happens. And really, I just kept adding to this list Saturday night, and didn’t spend anywhere near as much time on it as I’ve spent on the top 64. I can tell you Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill and even Andy Dalton are a big 2015 away from showing up in the top 130. Yes, even Dalton, which just goes to show how little you have to do to be considered an all-time quarterback.

Part II Preview

Why did Tom Brady stay put at No. 5 after his fourth Super Bowl, and why is Peyton Manning still on top? That’s what I’ll tackle in Part II, along with taking down the thin margin of what makes success in the postseason possible.

If you want an advanced copy of the tl;dr version of Part II, here it is:

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