40. Craig Morton (1965-82, Cowboys, Giants, Broncos)
Stat-wise, Morton’s not going to hope favorable to Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman in Dallas, nor would he come anywhere close to John Elway in the Mile High City. Morton could be kindly described as erratic, but that didn’t stop Tom Landry from having faith in the California alum. What Morton lacked in football’s equivalent of sabometrics, he made up for in will to win.
Six times in his career, Morton has played a role in leading playoff expeditions, with Dallas in 1970, and Denver in 1977 (where he went 12-2). Never one to take chances throwing excessively, Morton only threw 207 times in the Dallas Super Bowl run, and 254 in 14 games through his Broncos AFC Title reign, indicating that hubris never got in the way of leading a winning charge.
With some questionable stats, Morton was once considered Staubach’s equal by Landry, and the fedora’d coach would, at least early on, swap them out for one another before going with Staubach permanently. Nonetheless, how’s that for a legendary show of faith?
39. Ken O’Brien (1983-93, Jets, Packers, Eagles)
In his eleven year career, O’Brien had an unfortunate expectation that was continuous in its nature. Not only did the New York Jets select him over future Hall of Famer Dan Marino (which ESPN confidently declared a “draft blunder”), but O’Brien’s fellow first-round class included other to-be-enshrined greats in John Elway and Jim Kelly. How could O’Brien even measure up?
Although we know today that Ken O’Brien didn’t quite reach the heights of his 1983 peer group, he had as good a career as a quarterback could hope, without tasting Super Bowl grandeur. O’Brien turned heads in his sophomore year, throwing for almost 3900 yards and 25 touchdowns, while posting the highest rating in the entire league, a Pro Bowl-worthy 96.2.
For his career, O’Brien went over 3000 yards three more times, and retired at age 33, having posted an 80.2 lifetime rating. Don’t feel too bad for Ken O’Brien; at least he’s number 39. That’s more than you could say for Todd Blackledge, taken 17 picks higher in 1983, and isn’t even ranked.
38. Matt Hasselbeck (1998- , Packers, Seahawks, Titans)
Patience is a virtue, and Hasselbeck can relate to that adage. The brother-in-law of the only attractive woman on The View spent three years doing what a number of players had to do for two decades: sit patiently behind Brett Favre. From there, it was off to Seattle, where Hasselbeck wrested the starting job from Trent Dilfer, and began to forge his own respectable career.
Hasselbeck threw over 3000 yards in just ten starts in 2002, and that was enough for Mike Holmgren to have faith in him going forward. From 2003-10, Hasselbeck would clear 3000 yards six times in those eight years, while the other two seasons were shortened by injury. He also led Seattle to their only Super Bowl appearance in 2005, a game which infuriates their fans to this day.
At age 37, Hasselbeck is still putting up solid performances for Tennessee, and serving as a mentor for the up-and-coming Jake Locker. It speaks to Matt Hasselbeck’s resilience and consistency that he’s considered the front runner for a starting job against a man 13 years his junior.
37. Jeff Garcia (1999- , 49ers, Browns, Lions, Eagles, Buccaneers, Texans)
Quick, name the only quarterback to play in the CFL, NFL, UFL, and marry a Playboy playmate. The undrafted Garcia spent four years in the Great White North, and then made his NFL debut at age 29, taking over for the disoriented and battered Steve Young. It took Garcia a little bit of time to lead San Francisco back to winning ways, but patience paid off soon enough.
With Terrell Owens, and temporary Jerry Rice, to air it out to, Garcia put up 30+ touchdowns in back to back seasons, and led two playoff charges for the 49ers, which included the controversial comeback win over the Giants in 2002. In Philadelphia in 2006, Garcia took over for an injured Donovan McNabb, and nearly led the Eagles to the NFC Title game after finishing the regular season 5-1.
Garcia has yet to officially retire, most recently seeing action at age 40 for the UFL’s Omaha Nighthawks, and as an unused backup for Houston last season. Jeff Garcia hasn’t thrown a pass in the NFL since 2008, but the man with the 2-to-1 TD to INT ratio is a phone call away.
36. Billy Kilmer (1961-78, 49ers, Saints, Redskins)
Remember all those old-timers in previous entries that got the short shrift from their pre-merger seasons being axed? Kilmer gets the better end of the deal, because with the 49ers and Saints (1961-70), he was no better than Joey Harrington or Akili Smith. While his early failures may have had to do with a leg injury sustained in a near-fatal car accident, he’d eventually recover.
When Sonny Jurgensen went down with a shoulder injury in 1971, Kilmer made a case for himself to be the starter, with the quarterback controversy splitting the fan base. Coach George Allen ultimately gave Kilmer his loyalty, and was rewarded with five playoff runs and a trip to Super Bowl VII, where the Redskins ultimately fell to the undefeated Dolphins, 14-7.
Kilmer’s stats with the Redskins aren’t eye-popping, but the quarterback won two-thirds of the games he started in DC, and he threw 103 touchdown passes in 78 regular season games. Kilmer remained a proud Redskin until he was replaced by the rising star of Joe Theismann in 1978.
35. Steve McNair (1995-2007, Oilers/Titans, Ravens)
“Air McNair” is, unfortunately, the only quarterback on this list as of now that has passed on, but his contributions to the world of football are fondly remembered. Along with Eddie George, McNair was one of the first true play makers on Bud Adams’ team when it moved to the Volunteer State in 1997. Two years later, McNair would lead the franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance.
Despite falling ‘one yard short’ to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, McNair would remain the face of the franchise for several more productive seasons. He would lead the Titans into the playoffs three more times in 2000, 2002, and 2003, the latter year which he co-win league MVP with Peyton Manning. That season, he threw 24 TDs, over 3200 yards, and held a rating of 100.4
After ending his career with two seasons in Baltimore (one in which they went 13-3), McNair was murdered in 2009 by a woman who had been his mistress. Despite his disturbing end, McNair will be remembered as one of the most dangerous and versatile quarterbacks of his era.
34. Ron Jaworski (1973-89, Rams, Eagles, Dolphins, Chiefs)
Despite going 3-0 as a starter for Los Angeles in limited action, not even counting a playoff win in 1975, “The Polish Rifle” couldn’t beat Pat Haden for the starting job in 1976. The following spring, the Eagles would trade tight end Charlie Young for Jaworski, where he and the finest team Philly had fielded in a decade and a half would jump start the fortunes of a suffering franchise.
The kind of man who would take a hit and keep getting up (“Jaws” played 116 straight games at one point), Jaworski developed a strong rapport with stars Wilbert Montgomery and Harold Carmichael en route to four straight playoff seasons, and a trip to Super Bowl XV. Jaworski remained the go-to guy in Philadelphia until Buddy Ryan platooned/replaced him with Randall Cunningham in 1986.
For a city like Philadelphia that is known for angrily berating those who couldn’t win the big one, and then chasing them out of town, Jaworski remains a beloved figure there, whose warmth, friendliness and knowledge of the game are always evident in any setting.
33. Jim Plunkett (1971-86, Patriots, 49ers, Raiders)
The ultimate dilemma in ranking these players: what happens when you come across a player who, statistically, was nothing special, but managed to win two Super Bowls as a starter? Plunkett is the ideal case study for that scenario; a mere mortal who struggled mightily in New England and San Francisco before destiny paired him with Tom Flores in 1979.
Plunkett rode the pine in 1978 in John Madden’s final year, but when Dan Pastorini injured his leg in 1980, the stars aligned for Plunkett and the Raider Nation. The fledging journeyman went 9-2 the rest of the way that season, leading the wild card Raiders into Super Bowl XV, beating the favored Eagles. Three years later, Plunkett would get his second ring, utterly destroying the Redskins.
So yes, he has 164 touchdowns against 198 picks in his career, and his stat line would make Peyton Manning wretch violently. But Plunkett didn’t let the math and science of the game stop him reaching the mountain’s peak twice, and isn’t that what’s most important?
32. Brad Johnson (1992-2008, Vikings, Redskins, Buccaneers, Cowboys)
It’s always good to see somebody on this list that is an affront to the supposed ‘genius’ of Daniel Snyder. Johnson led Washington into the playoffs in 1999, his first Pro Bowl season. One year later, after a 6-3 start, Snyder, supposedly, made the call to bench Johnson for the miserly Jeff George, who went 1-4. Johnson was released after the season, but it was for his own good.
The veteran quickly signed on with Tampa Bay in 2001, and one year later would make good on the signing by throwing 22 touchdowns vs. 6 interceptions, good for over 3000 yards, on the way to leading Tampa Bay’s evisceration of Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII. That same year, Washington went 7-9 behind Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, and Danny Wuerrfel.
Johnson posted a career winning record of 72-53, won a Super Bowl, threw 166 touchdowns, and has a rating of 82.5. He’s rarely mentioned among the best in the game’s history, due to his quiet journeyman status, but for the sake of twisting the knife in Snyder’s back, let’s carry a flag for the guy.
31. Dave Krieg (1980-98, Seahawks, Chiefs, Lions, Cardinals, Bears, Oilers)
It’s funny how things in football work out. In 1983, when Seahawks quarterback Jim Zorn was benched in midseason, Krieg, his back-up of three and a half years from a now-defunct private college in Wisconsin, took the starting job and refused to let go. By the time Krieg retired after 1998, the 30 year old Zorn that he replaced was now 45, and back in Seattle as an assistant.
In nine years as Seattle’s undisputed starter, he led to team to five playoff berths, including the AFC Title game in 1983, two months after taking over for Zorn. He threw 195 of his career 261 touchdowns in Space City, certainly aided by future Hall of Famer Steve Largent. When Krieg faltered, hints of replacing him (with the likes of Gale Gilbert and Kelly Stouffer) only reignited his fire.
Though younger fans remember Krieg better after he’d reverted to his original role as a backup, albeit an aged one, he led the Seahawks through perhaps their best era. He was also the last consistent year-to-year quarterback Seattle would have for a full decade, when Matt Hasselbeck came in.
30. Drew Bledsoe (1993-2006, Patriots, Bills, Cowboys)
When you get past Tom Brady shoving him aside and saying, “Fine, I’ll win it if you won’t”, as well as the fact that Bledsoe may have been wearing concrete shoes during the latter portion of his career, the No. 1 pick in 1993 was a fine player in New England. Although he wasn’t at the wheel when the Patriot dynasty began, he proved his mettle in other ways.
At the height of his Pro Bowl career in the 1990's, Bledsoe was good for 3500-4000 yards a season, peaking with 4555 in his sophomore year. His biggest hang-up was a lousy completion percentage for much of that run, which may have been spurred by 3 straight years of 600+ passes. He did lead New England to a Super Bowl, however, losing to Green Bay in the 1996 season.
As far as the Patriots’ first title, yes, Brady’s emergence should get most of the credit for it. But in the AFC Title game, Bledsoe was called off the bench when “Tom Terrific” was nursing a leg injury. Bledsoe threw the game’s only touchdown pass, and aided the trip into New Orleans.
29. Mark Brunell (1993- , Packers, Jaguars, Redskins, Saints, Jets)
The phrase “portrait of efficiency” doesn’t exactly inspire headlines, sneaker sales, and an exciting public image. As such, the Jacksonville Jaguars have been ghosts to ESPN and the sports media, due to the city’s low standing on the sports totem pole. In his best years in Jacksonville and a diminished Washington, Mark Brunell was that portrait of efficiency, even if you hadn’t noticed.
Throughout Tom Coughlin’s run as Jaguars’ coach, Brunell was his man, winning 63 games over his first eight seasons, including four playoff runs and two AFC Title game losses. Brunell put up and 85.4 passer rating, despite a shaky offensive line (two years, he led the league in being sacked). On top of that, Brunell also made three Pro Bowls, and is unquestionably the best QB in franchise history.
After Redskins quarterback Patrick Ramsey got knocked out on opening day 2005 by Lance Briggs, the aging and forgotten Brunell led the team to a 10-6 record and a road playoff win in Tampa. As Drew Brees’ backup in 2009, Brunell got a Super Bowl ring to add to his legacy.
28. Rich Gannon (1987-2004, Vikings, Redskins, Chiefs, Raiders)
First twelve years of Rich Gannon’s career: 66 touchdowns, 54 interceptions, playing for three different teams. Last six years of Gannon’s career after Jon Gruden got a hold of him: 114 touchdowns, 50 interceptions, and a 91.2 efficiency rating. And to think, Gannon’s glory years were all achieved from age 34 onward, indicating that sometimes it’s just a matter of fitting in.
Only with the Vikings in the early 1990's was Gannon entrusted in a starting role prior to his Raiders run, and numbers weren’t awful (19-16 record, although high in interceptions). When you compare his output with the Raiders, when he made three Pro Bowls and led Oakland into Super Bowl XXXVII, it makes you wonder how many other quarterbacks washed out without a legit shot.
If you multiply the numbers from Gannon’s final six years by three, he’s a Hall of Famer, and likely in the top ten of this collection. As it is, his best work was saved for the final years, when his marriage to the West Coast offense turned him into a conducive passing machine.
27. Ken Stabler (1968-84, Raiders, Oilers, Saints)
The NFL’s original “Snake” slithered his way into Oakland’s starting lineup in 1973; a position he would hold for seven successful and iconic seasons. The crowning achievement of Stabler’s helming of the Raiders would no doubt be the team’s dominant victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl XI, but his legend as the face of a rowdy bunch offers many more facets.
Stabler’s lone championship may never have came to be if not for a comeback effort against New England in the Divisional round. Down 21-10, Stabler led two drives that turned the game; the final of which he ran in for the score, winning 24-21. And speaking of steal, let’s not forget that Stabler kicked off the infamous “Holy Roller” play against the Chargers in 1978.
Runs through Houston and New Orleans were less kind to Stabler’s stat sheet, but numbers weren’t his game. Ken Stabler was a winner first, and he’d win the game by any means necessary. He lacked a strong arm and solid knees, but we all know that a “Snake” doesn’t need either.
26. Donovan McNabb (1999- , Eagles, Redskins, Vikings)
When McNabb’s rise to prominence began in Philadelphia in 2000, Eagles fans were taken back to the late 1980's, when scrambling hero Randall Cunningham captivated their minds alongside a stifling, crushing defense. McNabb accounted for almost all of the Eagles offense in their first playoff year under Andy Reid, and there was plenty more left for an encore.
In McNabb’s eleven years in Philadelphia, he led the team to seven playoff berths, four division titles, five trips into the NFC Title game, and one Super Bowl appearance. Despite the fact that McNabb lost four of those five Title games, his consistency in getting them there, keeping them in the NFL’s upper tier over and over, has to count for something. He won far more than he lost.
Through all of the controversy and ‘chokes’, McNabb owns 234 touchdown passes, 29 rushing touchdowns, over 37,000 passing yards, and one of the lowest touchdown-to-INT ratios of all time. Say what you want about McNabb, but he was far better than he sometimes gets credit for.
25. Boomer Esiason (1984-97, Bengals, Jets, Cardinals)
Even though Boomer was the Sammy Hagar to Monday Night Football’s Van Halen, he’s one of the better modern examples of a young quarterback replacing an established veteran rather seamlessly and without much awkwardness. Incoming coach Sam Wyche chose Esiason in the second round of the draft to represent Cincinnati’s future, and he became the ‘present’ very quickly.
Once Ken Anderson abdicated the throne to Esiason for the 1985 season, the man born Norman Julius Esiason was an instant sensation. Outside of a muddled and confusing ‘strike year’ in 1987, Esiason thrived as team leader, leading them to playoff runs in 1988 and 1989 (the former nearly harnessed a Super Bowl Title), before a general team decline led to his exit in 1993.
After solid success in New York, followed by a down year in Arizona, Esiason returned to the Bengals in 1997 for his final year. Starting the final five games over a struggling Jeff Blake, Boomer went 4-1, throwing thirteen touchdowns; his last play was a 77-yard touchdown pass.
24. Aaron Rodgers (2005- , Packers)
There’ll be funny feelings about this one going both ways. On the one hand, in just four years of being a starter, he’s won a Super Bowl and has made stat geeks collectively hail him as the Messiah. On the other hand, he could be a bum on the level of JaMarcus Russell for the next ten seasons, partially invalidating this ranking. So really, what’s one to do for Aaron Rodgers?
After Brett Favre faked retirement twice and dragged out the summer of 2008, Packers fans couldn’t wait to see Rodgers (damn good for an improving team in 08-09) supersede their media-hogging ex-hero. They got their wish in 2010, when Favre floundered in Minnesota, while Rodgers led a late-season Wild Card charge through Super Bowl XLV, where the Packers upended Pittsburgh.
His 2011 stat line of 45 touchdowns, a mere 6 picks, 4643 yards, and a record rating of 122.5 should quell some arguments as to why he’s higher than 76 other quarterbacks. Then again, there will be some who think Aaron Rodgers should be higher than quite a few more.
23. Randall Cunningham (1985-2001, Eagles, Vikings, Cowboys, Ravens)
Oh, if Buddy Ryan had just given Cunningham better offensive weapons. Man, if Gary Anderson hadn’t missed that field goal in early 1999. Randall Cunningham, “The Ultimate Weapon”, would have disproportionate shoulders from all the rings he’d be wearing on one hand. Ask any Eagles fan who saw Randall; they’ll say McNabb was good, but Randall? He was on another planet.
What does it say when Cunningham led the Eagles in rushing from 1987-90, only clearing 700 yards once? In three of those years, he passed for over 3400 yards as well, making him, well, pretty much the entire offense. In Minnesota in 1998, he flourished with a cast of Robert Smith, Cris Carter, and Randy Moss before an overtime loss to Atlanta in the NFC Title game dashed championship hopes.
Even without the rings, Cunningham is a fringe Hall of Fame candidate, hindered by injuries over his last ten seasons holding him to seven games or less in seven of those years. When Randall Cunningham was healthy, however, he was capable of powering an offense almost by himself.
22. Eli Manning (2004- , Giants)
You’d have thought that if Eli had two rings, Peyton would have at least three, maybe four, wouldn’t you? We got so used to Peyton being the ‘superior’ brother that when Eli began leading the Giants on the road through Green Bay and San Francisco, it finally dawned on the world that Eli might, through forces not yet explained, surpass his brother as the family’s most decorated champion.
The lone knock on Eli is his turnover output; twice he’s led the league (more passer-friendly than ever in his era) in interceptions, and has only thrown less than 16 a year in 3 of his 8 seasons. But to hell with the stats: he won two Super Bowls, right? He ended the Patriots bid for perfection under the black cloud of Spygate. He facilitated David Tyree’s helmet catch, the greatest catch ever.
With more sound statistics, Eli makes the top fifteen with ease. It’s the minor things that keep Eli Manning, as of right now, out of the top twenty, another of which is time. With only seven full seasons under his belt, there’s still plenty of room for him to climb.
21. Ben Roethlisberger (2004- , Steelers)
Geez, why does nobody talk about the quarterback class of 2004? Between Big Ben, Eli, and Philip Rivers (who has the numbers without the gold), they’d make a good trio to take on 1983’s Elway, Kelly, and Marino in a six man tag. But Roethlisberger shines on his own; a two time Super Bowl winner whose unteachable instincts allowed him to resurrect Pittsburgh’s winning ways.
Over eight seasons, Roethlisberger has started 113 regular season games, winning 80 of them. In that framework, he’s thrown 165 touchdowns, against just 100 picks. Roethlisberger’s fraternally oafish demeanor makes it hard for some to believe that he’s highly efficient, but he has the 92.1 rating to prove it. He’s also a go-to guy more often than not when you need a game winning drive.
Perhaps most impressive is how Roethlisberger, in just his second season, led Pittsburgh through four road games to win their first Super Bowl in 26 years. At 23 years of age, Ben Roethlisberger was the youngest player to ever win the big one, and he’s certainly far from a one hit wonder.