60. Tony Romo (2003- , Cowboys)
When you get past the playoff chokes, botched snaps, irritating fawning from ESPN, and the fact that he plays for a team with enough front-running fans to populate Wyoming to its borders, Tony Romo has proven to be a fine quarterback. With the help of tutors like Sean Payton and Jason Garrett, Romo made many teams regret letting a player of his caliber go undrafted in 2003.
The fact that Romo didn’t throw a pass until October 2006 is especially astounding when you see that he’s never had a completion percentage below 61 percent and that his touchdown/interception ratio is the desire of fantasy football connoisseurs. He’d be much higher on this list if not for the albatross he wears, symbolic of his poor playoff record and fourth-quarter inconsistencies.
If stats translated to success, Dan Marino and Warren Moon would have more rings than just their wedding bands and Tony Romo would be far higher on this list. He’s a talented superstar who just hasn’t put it together when the chips are down and it matters most.
59. Bernie Kosar (1985-96, Browns, Cowboys, Dolphins)
Some players have rough exits from the world of the NFL, but Kosar had a controversial entry in 1985. Hatching a plan to bypass the actual draft, Kosar found his way into the Supplemental Draft, where he could be chosen by his favorite team, the Cleveland Browns. The questionable move left teams like Minnesota and Houston steaming and the NFL soon after made Kosar’s scheme illegal.
Regardless, Kosar’s time in Cleveland went swimmingly, if you can get past 3 AFC Title game losses to Denver, against another quarterback who spat on the draft process in John Elway. Through the ups and downs of leading Cleveland, Kosar posted four 3000+ yard seasons and a Pro Bowl appearance in 1987, before Bill Belichick discarded him in the middle of the 1993 season.
Kosar would eventually get his ring in Dallas, holding the clipboard for Troy Aikman, but he couldn’t get the job done while leading his hometown squad. Perhaps it’s a fitting penance for a gifted quarterback that bucked the system in favor of getting what he wanted.
58. Sonny Jurgensen (1957-74, Eagles, Redskins)
Jurgensen only started in 27 games during the post-merger era and 122 prior. His heyday with the Eagles and Redskins had largely faded by the time 1970 rolled around and none of his statistics are particularly impressive during those final five seasons. How does Sonny Jurgensen make this list, let alone crack the top sixty quarterbacks?
Jurgensen gets love here because, despite coming off the bench in his final four seasons, he managed to go 11-2 on the road to age 40. The cagey veteran had a completion percentage of well over 60 percent, unheard of in the “dead ball era” prior to 1978. In the four games he started at age 40, Jurgensen was good for 1185 yards, 4 touchdowns, and an amazing rating of 94.5.
So why did Jurgensen ride the pine for much of his twilight years? Injuries had begun to set in and coach George Allen had more faith in the safer approach of Billy Kilmer (who we’ll cover on here eventually). But to the end, Sonny Jurgensen managed to defy age with grit and grace.
57. Steve Bartkowski (1975-86, Falcons, Rams)
Anyone who’s seen an old photo of Bartkowski surely marvels at his wild mane of hair. He looked like a cross between Fabio and “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. But perhaps those lavish locks were a boon to Steve Bartkowski, much in the manner of Samson. In the early 1980s, Bartkowski managed to achieve statistical excellence to go with some Atlanta playoff runs.
In 1980-81, Bartkowski, along with Dan Fouts, became the second/third quarterbacks to post back-to-back 30 touchdown seasons, after YA Tittle. In 1980, Bartkowski led the Falcons to a 12-4 record and the NFC West crown. However, in that time frame, Atlanta’s defense fluctuated in quality, and Bartkowski’s high-octane efforts were often executed in vain.
Despite having a Swiss cheese offensive line and a defense that couldn’t keep up with his scoring output, Bartkowski remained loyal to the city of Atlanta, even after his one year stint with Los Angeles, and “Bart” is currently a member of the Falcons Board of Directors.
56. Steve DeBerg (1977-98, 49ers, Broncos, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Dolphins, Falcons)
DeBerg played for five different teams in his first seventeen years in the league, never spending more than four consecutive years in one place. Yet he’s been a puzzle piece to many notable moments. He’s also one of the toughest quarterbacks in the history of the game, playing with broken hands and mangled facial features, while inspiring many later QBs with his play-action precision.
DeBerg spent the prime of his career trying to make do on some lousy San Francisco, Denver and Tampa Bay teams. When the teams made changes, he found himself replaced by the likes of Joe Montana, John Elway, and Vinny Testaverde. When he made it to a winner in 1990, Kansas City, DeBerg threw 23 TDs and just 4 INTs in a full season. Those 4 picks were in 444 throws, an NFL record.
DeBerg made a comeback in 1998 at age 44, backing up Chris Chandler in Atlanta, and become the oldest player to start a game. When the Falcons made it to the Super Bowl, DeBerg, at 45 years and 12 days, was the oldest player ever on a Super Bowl roster.
55. Vinny Testaverde (1987-2007, Buccaneers, Browns/Ravens, Jets, Cowboys, Patriots, Panthers)
It seems appropriate to have Vinny platooning with DeBerg, seeing as they’re the NFL’s resident cyborgs. The first pick of the 1987 NFL Draft didn’t have the success that John Elway, Peyton Manning or Eli Manning garnered, but Testaverde’s standing as his generation’s ‘iron man’ has made him a memorable figure, with some legitimate achievements to boot.
Testaverde had 13 or more touchdowns in 13 of his 21 seasons, and he cleared the 3000 yard plateau six times (going over 4000 once in 1996, one of his two Pro Bowl seasons). His closest brush with championship glory came in the 1998 season when, at age 35, he led the Jets to a 10-0 edge in the AFC Title game, before John Elway, in his final game at Mile High, led the comeback.
By the time Testaverde reached his end, he’d thrown 275 touchdown passes over a staggering 233 games played. The second-to-last player to catch one of his touchdowns was Panthers tight end Dante Rosario, who is more than 20 years younger than him; an NFL record for such an age gap.
54. Jake Plummer (1997-2006, Cardinals, Broncos)
“Jake the Snake” didn’t plant opponents with the wrestling hold known as the “DDT”. But his high-velocity passing game and knack for fourth quarter comebacks were like the poisonous insecticide for opposing secondaries. Despite his ability to frustrate the opposition, Plummer’s career was marked with difficult lows, one of which led to his early retirement.
In 1998, Plummer captained the Cardinals’ first playoff victory in 51 years by beating the fading Dallas Cowboys in Arlington. Otherwise, his stay in Arizona was marred with inefficiency by himself, but mostly others. In 2003, Plummer jumped to the Broncos and made the playoffs in his first three years, with a huge upswing in his stats. Losing the AFC Title game in 2005, however, proved costly.
Plummer’s loss to Pittsburgh, in Denver, was full of turnovers and Denver traded up in the 2006 Draft to get Jay Cutler. The acrimony led to Plummer being traded to Tampa Bay a year later where he promptly retired, without playing a single game, at age 32.
53. Jim Harbaugh (1987-2001, Bears, Colts, Ravens, Chargers, Panthers)
Harbaugh shouldn’t have to lie about his pursuit of Peyton Manning; Manning will appear much higher on this list than the unranked Alex Smith, after all. But today isn't for discussing Jim Harbaugh’s snafus as the 49ers head coach, but rather his contributions as a quarterback himself, namely as “Captain Comeback” in Indianapolis and the first good successor to the Jim McMahon era in Chicago.
McMahon’s biggest success came with the Colts, where in 1995 he fell just short of taking the team to its first Super Bowl in nearly a quarter century. Sharing starting duties that season, Harbaugh won seven games and four of them came down to his clutch leadership. Wins over the Jets, Dolphins, 49ers, and, in the season finale on Harbaugh’s 32nd
birthday, the Patriots, clinched Indy a Wild Card.
Harbaugh is a workaholic who spent the last eight years of his career recruiting players for Western Kentucky University as an unpaid offensive consultant under his father. His mastery of the game on all levels has made him a viable coach and an admirable football mind.
52. Michael Vick (2001- , Falcons, Eagles)
If Randall Cunningham was a mid-size, then Michael Vick’s certainly the compact equivalent. As the all-time leader among quarterbacks in rushing yards, Vick brings unpredictability to the game, especially after the pass rush fails to get the sack. In Philadelphia, Vick developed into a better pocket passer, making him a double threat when he’s healthy and on his game.
Despite being a little more one-dimensional in his Dan Reeves years, Vick was the architect of two impressive playoff victories. In 2002, Vick led the Falcons to a crushing win over Brett Favre in Green Bay at a sub-freezing Lambeau Field. Two years later, the Falcons put up 327 yards on the ground in utter obliteration of the Rams, advancing to the NFC Championship game.
After a two-year prison sentence for his part in a dog-fighting ring, Vick showed up in Philadelphia. He was to be the “wildcat” option, but an injury to Kevin Kolb led to his becoming the full-time starter. Once universally hated, Vick’s rededication and humility have earned him back some lost respect.
51. Jeff Hostetler (1984-98, Giants, Raiders, Redskins)
Steve Young will get credited as the NFL’s all-time best understudy, warming the bench while Joe Montana played out his legendary career. Hostetler would have to rank high on that list, as New York panicked in December of 1990, when starting quarterback Phil Simms broke his foot en route to a Giants playoff room. What would the G-Men do with their leader done for?
Hostetler had only started two games in the previous six-plus seasons, but he won the final two to bring the Giants to 13-3. He then led them past Chicago and favored San Francisco en route to Super Bowl XXV, where New York narrowly beat Buffalo to win their second World Title. He’d start most of the next two seasons as Simms waned, with average results, however.
Hostetler cemented his status as a true starter after four years with the Raiders, chucking 69 touchdowns and over 11,000 yards in silver and black. In other words, “Hoss” didn’t too bad for a guy who wasn’t trusted as a starter until he was almost 30 years old.
50. Neil O’Donnell (1990-2003, Steelers, Jets, Bengals, Titans)
There are two sides to the Neil O’Donnell coin. On the side most commonly viewed, he’s the quarterback who allowed Pittsburgh’s perfect Super Bowl record to die in early 1996, thanks to a pair of interceptions chucked to forgotten corner Larry Brown. To those a little more in the know, O’Donnell is surprisingly one of the most efficient quarterbacks to play the game.
O’Donnell, in 3,229 pass attempts, has thrown only 68 interceptions, a pick every 47.5 attempts. The other player with a lower percentage is Aaron Rodgers, who has played but four full seasons at press time. Despite the impressive efficiency, O’Donnell’s Achilles heel has been struggles with completion percentage early in his career, which dampen his stats a tad.
In a nice end to his career, O’Donnell came out of retirement for one day in 2003, as Steve McNair and Billy Volek of the Titans were injured. The 37-year-old went 18 for 27 with two scores and 232 yards over a diminishing defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
49. Brian Sipe (1972-83, Browns)
Brett Favre doesn’t have exclusive ownership of the “gunslinger” label. Long before him were the likes of Daryle Lamonica (mentioned in part II) and Brian Sipe, whose frenzied passing game helped rejuvenate a dozing Browns team under coach Sam Rutigliano in the late 70s and early 80s. Sipe’s free-spirited approach to the game wouldn’t peak until near his retirement.
Sipe only had a defense that ranked in the top half of the league once, and that was 1980 (12th
out of 26 teams, so barely). Sipe was hence able to tone down the urgency of his passing that season, throwing an All-Pro worthy 30 TDs and over 4000 yards. Routinely throwing 400 or 500 yards a season didn’t seem to bother Sipe, who was never conservative with his approach.
Sipe’s NFL career ended, thanks to a viable alternative in the form of another league. After the 1983 season, where he threw 26 TDs, Sipe jumped to the USFL’s New Jersey Generals, owned by pelt-headed media mogul Donald Trump. Sipe would retire after the league folded.
48. Mark Rypien (1986-2001, Redskins, Browns, Rams, Eagles, Colts)
Rypien is one of two non-American-born players (and the only quarterback) to have won the Super Bowl MVP award; the other being Seoul-man Hines Ward. Although his name is rarely brought up in discussions of good quarterbacks, Rypien’s time with the Washington Redskins produced enough wins and statistics for him to earn his way into the conversation.
Rypien’s six years with the ‘Skins yielded two Pro Bowl appearances, a healthy winning record of 45-27 as a starter, 101 touchdowns, and an 80.2 rating. Oh, and his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXVI, which was aided by Jim Kelly playing one of his worst games ever for Buffalo. Much of Rypien’s success hinged on his keen accuracy timing on deep throws.
Although injuries and general decline hit Rypien by 1993, his output before then made him as deadly a passer as could be found in the league. He also produced quarterback offspring in his lovely daughter Angela, who stars in the suggestive Lingerie Football League.
47. Carson Palmer (2003- , Bengals, Raiders)
Who could blame Carson Palmer? He did his part with flying colors for eight seasons, hampered by such detriments as Hard Knocks, Chad, Marvin Lewis’ continued futility, Chad, the signing of TO, Chad, many teammates getting arrested, a lack of a defense, Chad, as well as Chad. Can you really blame Palmer for wanting to fly the coop in Cincinnati and get a fresh start elsewhere?
Other than an injury-plagued 0-4 start in 2008, Palmer was a model of consistency with the Bengals since his first snap in 2004. How else do you explain 167 touchdowns, an 86.3 rating, a 62.7 completion percentage…and a sub-.500 record? The Bengals did more to add distractions and keep re-signing the same coach than they did to compliment Palmer’s exceptional efforts.
Heading into his tenth season, his second with Oakland, Palmer’s free of an out-of-touch owner (Mike Brown, and even the late Al Davis), and has a host of young receivers to get further acquainted with this summer. Carson Palmer has a focused team; he just needs to regain his form.
46. Len Dawson (1957-75, Steelers, Browns, Chiefs)
Dawson’s sweetest victory song was the same as the AFL’s funeral dirge. At Super Bowl IV, Kansas City proved that the AFL was just as strong as the NFL when he led Kansas City to victory over the favored Minnesota Vikings. Shortly thereafter, the two leagues merged as one, and Dawson would have to wager his six-time AFL All-Star resume against the NFL’s best full time.
All things considered, Dawson thrived in the NFL, even if the numbers don’t exactly indicate as such. At age 35 when the leagues combined, Dawson would go 28-24-4 over his final six seasons, adding 55 more touchdowns while mixing it up with tougher competition. One can surmise that a Len Dawson ten years younger would have packed more wallop against the Dolphins and Steelers.
By the time Dawson went out the door at age 40, he’d solidified a Hall of Fame career, adding one NFL Pro Bowl season to the achievements. Who knows how different history would have been had the Steelers held on to Dawson over fifty years ago when they’d had him.
45. Daunte Culpepper (1999-2009, Vikings, Dolphins, Raiders, Lions)
It’s rather sad that this girthier Cam Newton prototype could barely stay healthy after age 27. Then again, perhaps the punishment he took plowing into defenders on the scramble while taking sacks, can serve as a cautionary tale to “Super Cam.” After all, discretion is the better part of valor and a fuller career for Culpepper would have fast-tracked him to Canton.
Through his first six seasons, which included an NFC Title game appearance and a 4700 yard season, Culpepper threw 129 touchdowns and just 74 picks for nearly 20,000 yards. Three of those seasons were complete, one was fourteen games. Add to that 28 rushing touchdowns and you see why Culpepper did the obnoxious rolling-forearm dance as often as he did.
However, Culpepper would start just 27 games over his final five seasons, playing for a total of four teams. He even has the indignity of having played for the 0-16 Lions in 2008, contributing five of the losses. What a brilliant beginning for a great player and what a disappointing remainder.
44. Philip Rivers (2004- , Chargers)
I have a theory that if Philip Rivers wasn’t the loving religious man that I hear he is, he’d have paid somebody to ‘take care’ of AJ Smith a long time ago. The GM who let Ladainian Tomlinson go outright (without, you know, trading for picks), as well as other running backs and top defensive stars, is likely the one thing that has cast clouds over Rivers’ tremendous career.
Never has Rivers thrown less than 21 touchdowns since taking over as the starter in 2006. In his last four seasons, Rivers has cleared 4000 yards. He hasn’t missed a start since 2006 and he had a rating of 101 or better from 2008 through 2010. Rivers valiantly led San Diego into battle with the undefeated Patriots in the 2007 AFC Title game and hung in there until the end.
If it wasn’t for fantasy football, and the players who make sure he’s gone before the end of the third or fourth round, Philip Rivers would have the most disproportionate balance of quarterback output against team success/management of any QB in recent history.
43. Neil Lomax (1981-88, Cardinals)
Name some quarterbacks who’ve won the passing title over the years. Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Brett Favre will certainly come to mind. But in 1987, a season mutated by replacement players during the temporary NFLPA strike, it was Neil Lomax who put up 3387 yards over 12 games to claim that throne and it’s not surprising when one views his body of work.
When Marino set the passing yards record in 1984, Lomax finished second with an eye-catching 4614 yards. As the full time starter over his last seven seasons for St. Louis/Phoenix, Lomax often had to make up for a defense that was almost always in the bottom fourth of the league in points allowed. Despite 136 TD passes and an 82.7 rating, Lomax only led the team to one playoff appearance.
A bad hip forced Lomax into retirement early. In his final year at age 29, he still managed to throw 3400 yards and 20 scores over fourteen games. They say one man does not make a team and Lomax’s relatively Herculean efforts can certainly vouch for that statement.
42. Danny White (1976-88, Cowboys)
He bridged the gap between Staubach and Aikman and he did so under some unusual circumstances. Danny White served as Dallas’ punter for four seasons while also serving as Staubach’s co-pilot and then for several seasons after taking the starting job. Once ingrained as Tom Landry’s signal-caller, White proved to be just as effective with his arm as he was with his legs.
Cowboys fans will recall that Sunday in January 1981 when White led the ‘Boys back from down 24-10 against the Falcons to win 30-27. Keep in mind, White punted four times in that game as well. A year later, White and Dallas fell to Montana and Clark’s “Catch” in San Francisco and Danny White would never come close to a Super Bowl again.
White managed to throw 130 touchdown passes from 1980 to 1985, while maintaining a healthy sixty percent in completions. White would leave the game when Tom Landry did, just as new owner Jerry Jones was coming in to change the Cowboys culture forever.
41. Trent Green (1993-2008, Chargers, Redskins, Rams, Chiefs, Dolphins)
Dick Vermeil never forgets those who helped him make it in life and I’m sure he sends a Christmas card every year to Trent Green’s left ACL. After Green had torn the ligament in the 1999 preseason after a brutal hit by Rodney Harrison, Vermeil inserted the unknown Kurt Warner in at quarterback and all it yielded was a Super Bowl title. But Green, he was more than an injury footnote.
Green got a fresh start in Kansas City in 2001, where he flourished over the next six seasons with 118 touchdowns, over 21,000 yards, an 87.3 rating, and two playoff appearances. Despite leading KC into the postseason in 2006, his final season with the team was marred by a severe concussion on opening day and being booed by the fans during the playoff loss to the Colts.
Green was a very efficient quarterback when he was actually entrusted as the starter, which didn’t happen until he was 27 years old. In fact, had the Chargers kept him as a backup to Stan Humphries in the mid-90s, maybe they wouldn’t have needed to draft Ryan Leaf?