Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Best QBs Not to Win a Championship
All month, I've been writing about Super Bowl quarterbacks. It started off with Super Bowl XLVIII, but so much of the narrative after that game was about the losing QB, Peyton Manning, and his legacy going forward. That inspired a look at the best quarterbacks to lose multiple Super Bowls, then I turned around and highlighted the best performances by Super Bowl-winning QBs. We're wrapping it up by going in the other direction: the best quarterbacks without a championship. I only looked at the major pro leagues (NFL, AFL, AAFC), so this list actually includes players who did win championships in other organizations.
We often judge QBs by whether or not their team won championships, but everyone recognizes that sometimes great players don't reach the highest level of team success. So, who's at the top of the list?
1. Dan Marino
Miami Dolphins, 1983-99
61,361 yards, 420 TD, 252 INT, 86.4 rating
When Dan Marino retired, he held the career records for pass attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns, all of them by a huge margin. He also held dozens of records for things like 300-yard passing games and 4,000-yard seasons, plus significant single-season records for passing yards (5,084) and TDs (48).
It isn't just that Marino set the records; he put them far out of reach, and they stood for decades. No one came within 200 yards of Marino's single-season record for 24 years. When Drew Brees finally broke it more than a quarter-century later (2011), he threw almost 100 more passes than Marino. The TD record was even more impressive: when Marino threw 48 TDs, he broke the existing record ... of 36. Two years later, he threw 44. No other QB passed for 40 TDs in a season until Kurt Warner in 1999, and the record didn't fall until 2004 (Peyton Manning).
The career marks, since broken by Brett Favre, were equally unthinkable. Marino retired with nearly 10,000 more yards than 2nd-place John Elway (51,475) and nearly 25% more TDs than Fran Tarkenton (342). Marino made nine Pro Bowls and six Associated Press All-Pro Teams, including three straight years First-Team All-Pro (1984-86).
Marino's 1984 season, when he set the yardage and TD records (as well as completions), might be the best season in NFL history, by any player at any position. The Dolphins went 14-2, and Marino won NFL MVP ahead of Eric Dickerson (who rushed for 2,105 yards). He threw 3 TDs in a playoff win over the Seahawks and Defensive Player of the Year Kenny Easley, then 421 yards and 4 TDs in a 45-28 AFC Championship victory over the Steelers. The Dolphins lost Super Bowl XIX, but everyone in football knew that Marino, just 23, would win multiple Super Bowls. When Marino nearly matched his 1984 stats two years later, the AP voters named Lawrence Taylor MVP, because they couldn't just give it to Marino every year, and everyone knew that he'd win it again.
It didn't work out that way. The Dolphins, dynastic in the '70s and early '80s, failed to restock their roster when stars like Dwight Stephenson and Doug Betters retired. Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, now 30 years into his coaching career, finally lost his edge. Marino led Miami to 10 playoff appearances, but never back to the Super Bowl.
Close Call: Marino's best season was also Miami's, as the '84 Dolphins went 14-2 and won their playoff games by about 20 points each. But the team didn't match up well against Joe Montana and the 15-1 San Francisco 49ers, and lost Super Bowl XIX.
An upset loss to New England in the playoffs the next season was equally heart-breaking, with Miami the only team to beat the famous '85 Bears.
Winning Pedigree: Marino led the University of Pittsburgh to three Bowl wins. He retired with the 2nd-most wins as starting quarterback in pro football history, leading the Dolphins to 10 playoff appearances, five AFC East titles, three AFC Championship Games, and a Super Bowl.
You Might Not Know: Marino is the best passer in history at avoiding sacks. Famously slow, he had great pocket awareness and an incredibly quick release. His 3.13% sack percentage is slightly worse than Peyton Manning's 3.10%, but Marino played in an era when QBs took more sacks. Drew Brees (3.83%) is somewhat close to Manning, but none of Marino's contemporaries are anywhere near his mark. Brett Favre (4.9%) took over 50% more sacks per attempt, but his number is better than Troy Aikman (5.2), Dan Fouts (5.4), Joe Montana (5.5), Warren Moon (6.29), Jim Kelly (6.33), John Elway (6.6), Steve Young (7.9), et al. Phil Simms (9.3) and Randall Cunningham (10.1) actually took three times as many sacks as Marino.
2. Fran Tarkenton
Minnesota Vikings, 1961-66, 1972-78, New York Giants, 1967-71
47,003 yards, 342 TD, 266 INT, 80.4 rating
Like Marino two decades later, Fran Tarkenton re-wrote the record books. He took down every record set by Johnny Unitas, and retired with the career marks for yardage and TDs. In addition to his passing records, Tarkenton was also the most renowned scrambler in pro football. He rushed for 300 yards seven times, the most by any quarterback until Michael Vick upped the record in 2013. There are a handful of passers with more yards than Tarkenton, and a few QBs with more rushing yardage, but no one is ahead of him in both categories, and only John Elway is even close. Likewise with touchdowns.
What most distinguished Tarkenton, and what allowed him to drive his career stats so high, was remarkable year-to-year consistency at an elite level. He simply never had a bad year. For the better part of 18 seasons, Tarkenton was one of the best players in football at his position. He played heroically with the expansion Vikings, leading them to a winning record sooner (8-5-1 in 1964) than Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys, who had debuted a year earlier. In his first game in 1961, Tarkenton passed for 4 TDs and ran for a 5th. But it was with the New York Giants that Tarkenton had his prime years.
The Giants were a joke in the mid-60s. They went 2-10-2 in 1964, fluked up to 7-7 the next year, then bottomed out at 1-12-1 in '66, a game and a half behind the expansion Falcons. In desperation, they traded for Tarkenton, sending the Vikings two 1st-round draft picks and two 2nd-rounders. Teams normally regret that kind of trade — Minnesota's acquisition of Herschel Walker is most famous, and Washington's trade for RG3 is a more recent example — but the Giants improved immediately. Tarkenton set career-highs for passing yards and TDs, the Giants scored 106 points more than the previous year (an improvement of over 40%), and New York went 7-7, the first of four straight second-place finishes. Even though the Giants never made the playoffs, Tarkenton regards these as the best seasons of his career.
After five years with the Giants, another blockbuster trade returned Tarkenton to Minnesota, now coached by Hall of Famer Bud Grant and backed up by a brilliant defense featuring three Hall of Famers. The Vikings won the NFC Central in each of his last six seasons, including three NFC titles — and three Super Bowl losses. Over his long career, Tarkenton made nine Pro Bowls and won the 1975 NFL MVP Award.
I realize younger fans may not know much about Tarkenton. Pro Football Reference lists the most comparable players as John Elway, Dan Marino, John Unitas, Brett Favre, and Joe Montana.
Close Call: This is sort of unorthodox, but I'm going with 1975. None of Tarkenton's three Super Bowl losses were close games, and he threw more interceptions than TDs in all three. But 1975 was probably Minnesota's best season during Tarkenton's tenure. The team went 12-2, both losses on the road by single-digits, and outscored opponents 377-180 — scoring more than twice as many points as they allowed. In their first playoff game, the Vikings led Dallas 14-10 in the fourth quarter. With :30 left in the game, Roger Staubach threw a pass we now call "The Hail Mary," and Minnesota lost.
Winning Pedigree: Six straight NFC Central titles and three NFC Championships. The Giants were never going to make the playoffs during Tarkenton's years, but in 1970, he was credited with five game-winning drives, tied for the most ever in a 14-game season.
You Might Not Know: I wrote earlier that Tarkenton never had a bad year, and of course that's not entirely true — but it's pretty close. Other than 1977, when he was injured, Tarkenton ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in completions every season from 1961-78, seventeen years. That includes three years leading the league and 11 seasons in the top five. He ranked in the top 10 in passing TDs 16 times, and that doesn't include an average of 2 rushing TDs per season. He was top-10 in passer rating 16 times. Passing yards per game — and again, this doesn't credit his rushing — 17 years in a row, with 12 in the top five. His record of consistent excellence is unmatched through history, except maybe by Marino. Peyton Manning has only played 15 seasons, but his career is shaping up the same way.
3. Sonny Jurgensen
Philadelphia Eagles, 1957-63, Washington, 1964-74
32,224 yards, 255 TD, 189 INT, 82.6 rating
Vince Lombardi coached Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr, and together they won five NFL Championships. Lombardi coached against Johnny Unitas every year. Yet it was of Jurgensen that Lombardi said, "He may be the best the league has ever seen. He is the best I have seen."
People were in awe of Sonny Jurgensen. Until about 2000, it was common to hear Jurgensen described as the best pure passer in history. In fact, in the literature of the sport, that is the phrase you find, over and over again: "best pure passer." No one really talks about "best pure passer" any more, and if they did, I suppose most people would look for someone more recent, maybe Manning or Marino. But the brilliance of Jurgensen's arm is easier to document than the intelligence of Bob Griese or the leadership of Bart Starr. His quick release was legendary, and that's something we've forgotten, too. Don Shula, discussing his own HOF QB, said, "Only Sonny Jurgensen and Joe Namath have been able to get rid of the ball as quickly as Marino." You might still hear about Namath's quick release sometimes, but probably not Sonny's. Without question, he is the most underrated quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jurgensen led the NFL in passing yards five times, twice setting the single-season record. He led in touchdowns twice, and his career passer rating (82.62) is the highest of his generation, fractions ahead of Len Dawson (82.58), but comfortably in front of Starr (80.5), Tarkenton (80.4), Unitas (78.2), Griese (77.1), Namath (65.5), and George Blanda (60.6). But the numbers undersell Jurgensen, because he never got to face his own defense. In 1967, Jurgensen led the NFL in completions, yards, TDs, and passer rating. But Washington's defense ranked 15th in the 16-team NFL (behind the expansion Saints), and the team went 5-6-3.
Jurgensen's stats are exceptional for his era, and contemporary opinion shows him very highly regarded. Players, coaches, and sportswriters worshipped him. The only mark against Jurgensen is the rings. I doubt many fans would expect Jurgensen to rank this high, but he's a comfortable third, and I would suggest that anyone who feels he should rate lower is under-informed.
Close Call: Sorry, Washington fans. In 1961, Jurgensen's first year as starter, he led the NFL in completions, yards, and TDs (he ranked 2nd in passer rating), and the Eagles went 10-4. The Giants went 10-3-1, and Philadelphia missed appearing in the NFL Championship by half a game.
Winning Pedigree: Jurgensen played mostly on terrible teams, and unlike Marino or Tarkenton, is effectively immune to any serious charge of choking, simply because he never had an opportunity. Never in his career did Jurgensen start a playoff game.
You Might Not Know: NFL Films did a 15-minute feature, which is available free online, Did You Ever See Sonny Play? Watching even a few clips, you see immediately why people thought so highly of Jurgensen's arm.
4. Dan Fouts
San Diego Chargers, 1973-87
43,040 yards, 254 TD, 242 INT, 80.2 rating
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the San Diego Chargers re-wrote the record books. They called it Air Coryell, after legendary offensive coach Don Coryell, but the man who made it happen on the field was Dan Fouts. From 1979-82, he led the NFL in passing yards every year and made four Pro Bowls, with two seasons First-Team All-Pro and Offensive Player of the Year in 1982.
Altogether, Fouts made six Pro Bowls and four Associated Press All-Pro teams. He set the single-season record for passing yards in 1980, then broke it a year later, and was on pace to break it again during the 1982 strike season. He had everything you want from a quarterback: he was big and strong, and very smart. This is still obvious, today, 30 years after his playing career, in his job as an announcer. Fouts looks like an ex-football player, and he's one of the better analysts in his profession.
People used to complain that the Charger offense scored too quickly, that the defense would have been fine if it wasn't so tired from always having to go back on the field after another touchdown. But San Diego made the playoffs only four times in Fouts' career: 1979-82, the four seasons Fouts led the NFL in passing. In 1980, the Chargers won the AFC West, but lost to the division rival Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Fouts threw two touchdowns to Charlie Joiner, but the Chargers lost, 34-27. You're not going to win many games when you give up 34 points, but maybe it was Fouts' fault for scoring too quickly.
San Diego's playoff experience the next season is legendary. The league even documented it for the Missing Rings series. Fouts threw three TDs in an epic overtime win against Miami, after which the Chargers traveled to Cincinnati for the Freezer Bowl, the coldest game in NFL history, with a reported wind chill of -59°. The Bengals won, and advanced to Super Bowl XVI.
Close Call: The Chargers reached back-to-back AFC Championship Games in 1980 and '81, see above.
Winning Pedigree: Fouts' prime was also San Diego's. His best years were the team's best years. Comparing Fouts to Joe Montana and Ken Anderson in 1982, Bill Walsh said, "Fouts is the most perceptive of the three, the most resourceful, the most dynamic and he had the most leadership."
You Might Not Know: Fouts was the first player with back-to-back 4,000-yard passing seasons.
5. Y.A. Tittle
Baltimore Colts, 1948-50, San Francisco 49ers, 1951-60, New York Giants, 1961-64
33,070 yards, 242 TD, 248 INT, 74.3 rating
I agonized over who to rank fourth: Fouts or Tittle? Tittle or Fouts? I went back and forth half a dozen times. The argument for Tittle is longevity and consistency. He was a top quarterback in the 1940s, and he was still a top quarterback in the 1960s. For nearly the entirety of his long career, Tittle was a top-10 QB. That's not as impressive in a 12-team league as it was for Fran Tarkenton in a 26-team league, but it's a record that none of his contemporaries can match. Otto Graham and Norm Van Brocklin retired early, while Bobby Layne and John Unitas lost effectiveness near the end of their careers.
Tittle, in contrast, was most successful at the end of his career, leading the Giants to three straight NFL Championship Games. All three were ugly losses. It is a curiosity that quarterbacks draw a worse reputation from losing in the postseason than from not reaching it at all. Losing in the regular season is seldom held against the player, but losses in the playoffs indicate some lack of character. Tittle himself noted, "The football writers began to say that Tittle could not win the big games—I guess by that they meant the championship games. I have won some very big games—and I have lost some, too."
Anyway, Tittle was brilliant in New York. The most important All-Pro teams in the early '60s were the United Press and Associated Press. UP named him NFL MVP in '62, and AP named him NFL MVP in '63. He was a consensus All-Pro both years.
Called the Bald Eagle (he was follically challenged), Tittle was also the head of the Million Dollar Backfield in San Francisco: Tittle, Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, and John Henry Johnson, all Hall of Famers. Those teams also featured wide receiver Billy Wilson (who should be in the Hall of Fame), and in New York, Tittle played with Del Shofner and Frank Gifford. After he retired, Tittle and Tex Maule wrote two phenomenal articles for Sports Illustrated in 1965.
Close Call: 1961-63. Tittle was the Jim Kelly of the early '60s, making three straight championship appearances and losing each one. He didn't play particularly well in any of them, but the heart-breaker was probably 1962. Swirling winds and an icy field in the title game took away the deep pass to Shofner, and New York's only points came on a blocked punt, as the Packers won 16-7.
Winning Pedigree: Tittle's years in San Francisco are comparable to Jurgensen's tenure in Washington: good offense, defense that couldn't get them into the postseason. But Tittle was a leader in New York, and no one doubted that he was the driving force behind the Giants' three straight Eastern Conference championships.
You Might Not Know: Yelberton Abraham.
6. Warren Moon
Houston Oilers, 1984-93, Minnesota Vikings, 1994-96, Seattle Seahawks, 1997-98, Kansas City Chiefs, 1999-2000
49,325 yards, 291 TD, 233 INT, 80.9 rating
The numbers above only show Moon's NFL statistics. Moon, of course, did win championships — five straight — with the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos, for whom he played six years. Black quarterbacks were still regarded with skepticism in the late '70s, and Moon was not drafted. His accomplishments in the NFL are all the more remarkable when you consider that he didn't get to play until he was almost 28, spending several years of his prime in Canada.
Moon's career stats are comparable to John Elway's ... if you only consider his years in the NFL. His combined CFL/NFL stats show 70,553 yards, 435 TD, 310 INT, and an 84.2 passer rating. He made nine Pro Bowls, and probably would have been First-Team All-Pro in 1990, except that he and Randall Cunningham split the black vote. Compared to Joe Montana (who got the First-Team nod), Moon was ahead in completions, completion percentage, yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns, TD percentage, fewer interceptions, INT percentage, TD/INT differential, passer rating, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total yards, and total touchdowns — leading by a wide margin (700 total yards, +10 td/int) in some cases.
Moon is most famous for his decade with the Houston Oilers, especially the run 'n shoot years with Drew Hill, Ernest Givins, and Haywood Jeffires in the early '90s. But Moon also made his mark in Minnesota. He passed for back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons — we'll come back to that in a moment — made two Pro Bowls, and facilitated Cris Carter's single-season receptions record. He got hurt in '96, then went to Seattle and made the Pro Bowl there, too. In February 1998, at age 41, Moon was named Pro Bowl MVP. The AFC trailed 24-14 when Moon entered the game and led a 29-24 comeback victory.
So about those back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons ... until Peyton Manning, that had only been done by three players: Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, and Warren Moon — twice each. Moon passed for over 4,600 yards with the Oilers in both 1990 and '91, then over 4,200 in his first two seasons with the Vikings. Through 2013, Moon and Manning are the only players with back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons for different teams.
Close Call: In a wild card playoff game following the 1992 season, Moon threw four TDs and the Oilers led Buffalo 35-3. You probably know how that ended up...
Winning Pedigree: From 1987-93, the Oilers made seven straight playoff appearances. Moon is really the one player on this list whom no one could deny was a winner. He won five Grey Cups and he was MVP of the 1978 Rose Bowl.
You Might Not Know: Moon is the only player in both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was also the first undrafted quarterback elected to Canton.
7. Donovan McNabb
Philadelphia Eagles, 1999-2009, Washington, 2010, Minnesota Vikings, 2011
37,276 yards, 234 TD, 117 INT, 85.6 rating
In 2009, I noted that only seven QBs in NFL history had thrown 100 more TDs than interceptions: Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Donovan McNabb. That's obviously incredibly select company for McNabb, probably the six best quarterbacks of the last 35 years. There are now 11 QBs in the +100 Club, the new additions being Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, and Tony Romo. Still, pretty impressive. But McNabb's not just +100, he threw twice as many TDs as picks. How many QBs have done that (min. 4,000 att)? Six: Brady, Brees, Manning, McNabb, Rivers, and Young.
McNabb's 2.2% interception percentage is among the very lowest in history. His 85.6 passer rating is also very good: among players with as many pass attempts as McNabb, only Brady, Brees, Manning, Marino, and Montana are higher. And none of these players, except Steve Young, could run like McNabb. He is one of only five players with 30,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards, joining John Elway, Steve McNair, Fran Tarkenton, and Young.
We've started with numbers here, but the numbers are not a fair way to evaluate Donovan McNabb, because he never really had a first-class receiver. He had one season with Terrell Owens, and apart from that never played with a Pro Bowl receiver or an elite tight end. There's no Jerry Rice here, no Marvin Harrison or Isaac Bruce. The one full season he played with Owens, McNabb's statistics exploded. He had two years with DeSean Jackson at the tail end of his career, and statistically, they were two of his best seasons. It seems reasonable to guess that if McNabb had a few years with a Sterling Sharpe or a Randy Moss, his numbers would be even more impressive.
Furthermore, McNabb's two best seasons (2002 and 2006) were both cut short by injuries. He was an MVP candidate both years. No, the numbers don't do him justice. McNabb has some of the best passing statistics in history, was one of the best running quarterbacks in history, made five straight Pro Bowls before injuries became a problem, took his team to five conference championship games, and did all this with a sub-par supporting cast. I know some people don't think of McNabb as a quarterback of historic stature, but when you look at his career objectively, I think it's hard to deny.
Close Call: The Eagles had a real chance in Super Bowl XXXIX, but they failed to capitalize on opportunities in the first half and lost 24-21, to a very good New England Patriots team.
Winning Pedigree: Philadelphia made the playoffs in eight of McNabb's 10 seasons as starter. He led the Eagles to five NFC Championship Games, including four in a row from 2001-04. The only other QBs to start in five conference championship games: Terry Bradshaw, Tom Brady, John Elway, Brett Favre, Jim Kelly, Joe Montana, Ken Stabler, Roger Staubach. That's seven Hall of Famers (assuming Brady and Favre), plus Stabler and McNabb.
You Might Not Know: McNabb finished second in MVP voting in 2000, behind only Marshall Faulk.
8. Jim Kelly
Buffalo Bills, 1986-96
35,467 yards, 237 TD, 175 INT, 84.4 rating
Kelly and Tarkenton are the only players to overlap in this piece and my column on the best quarterbacks to lose multiple Super Bowls. Kelly actually lost the most NFL Championships of any starting quarterback in history, and he is most famous for Buffalo's four-year run of AFC titles and Super Bowl annihilations.
Like fellow HOF QB Steve Young, Kelly began his pro career in the USFL, playing two seasons with the Houston Gamblers. Kelly passed for 83 TDs, which is impressive even in 18-game seasons, and he started immediately for the Bills when the rival league collapsed. Kelly's 3,593 passing yards in 1986 set an NFL rookie record, but his best seasons came in the early '90s, when the Bills adapted a hurry-up offense from the Bengals team that had knocked them out of the playoffs in '88.
Unlike McNabb, Kelly benefitted from a strong supporting cast, especially on offense. The Super Bowl-era Bills have produced six HOFers: Kelly, head coach Marv Levy, RB Thurman Thomas, both starting WRs (Andre Reed and James Lofton), and defensive end Bruce Smith. Buffalo also had a strong offensive line, especially center Kent Hull. I know some readers will think I'm crazy for ranking McNabb ahead of Kelly, but if you think the Bills make any Super Bowls with Kelly throwing to Todd Pinkston and handing off to Duce Staley, you're the one who's crazy.
Close Call: Super Bowl XXV, Wide Right. Maybe the most gut-wrenching loss in Super Bowl history, with the favored Bills losing when their last-minute field goal attempt sailed wide right, sealing a 20-19 loss.
Winning Pedigree: The thing about losing all those Super Bowls is that you have to get to them first. Buffalo made the playoffs in eight of Kelly's 11 seasons, and he went 9-7 as a starter in the postseason, 9-3 if you're only looking at the AFC playoffs.
You Might Not Know: Kelly was a successful quarterback at the University of Miami, but he was also recruited by Joe Paterno at Penn State ... as a linebacker.
9. Ken Anderson
Cincinnati Bengals, 1971-86
32,838 yards, 197 TD, 160 INT, 81.9 rating
Ken Anderson led the NFL in passing yards and completions twice each. He led in yards per attempt once, completion percentage three times, and passer rating four times. He made four Pro Bowls and was NFL MVP in 1981. He rushed for over 2,000 yards, with a 5.6 average and 20 TDs. In the MVP season, Anderson led all NFL QBs in rushing.
Anderson had lots of good seasons, but his legacy rests most upon that '81 season. Passing for almost three times as many TDs (29) as INTs (10), Anderson registered a league-best 98.4 passer rating, and he rushed for over 300 yards, with a 7.0 average. The Bengals went 12-4, the best record in the AFC. Anderson threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Cris Collinsworth for Cincinnati's first playoff win in franchise history. The next week, facing 35-mile-an-hour winds in the Freezer Bowl, Anderson passed for two more TDs, leading the Bengals to Super Bowl XVI, where he faced his old coach, Bill Walsh.
As an assistant in Cincinnati, Walsh scouted and recruited Anderson to the Bengals. Leading up to the conference championship games, Walsh told reporters, "Anderson is the best pure forward passer the game has seen for many years." The 49ers won the Super Bowl, 26-21. Anderson passed for 300 yards and 2 TDs, rushing for a third, but he also threw 2 interceptions.
Anderson fell off the Hall of Fame ballot recently, but he's an oft-cited snub, especially among statheads. In 1974, he led the NFL in completions, yards, and passer rating. His numbers were even better the next year, when he again led in yards and passer rating. In the strike-shortened 1982 season, Anderson broke Sammy Baugh's 37-year-old single-season record for completion percentage, completing 70.6% of his passes. Anderson's record stood until 2009, when Drew Brees finally broke it.
Close Call: Definitely the 1981 season and Super Bowl XVI.
Winning Pedigree: Anderson led the Bengals to their first-ever playoff victory, but we already covered that.
You Might Not Know: Until Andy Dalton, Anderson was the only Bengal quarterback to reach the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. That's more than 40 years of team history.
10. Randall Cunningham
Philadelphia Eagles, 1985-95, Minnesota Vikings, 1997-99, Dallas Cowboys, 2000, Baltimore Ravens, 2001
29,979 yards, 207 TD, 134 INT, 81.5 rating
I've only shown passing stats above, which means we're leaving out a really important part of Cunningham's game: 4,928 rushing yards, 6.4 yards per rush, 35 rushing TDs. Six times Cunningham led all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yardage, including 1990, when he rushed for 942 yards and five TDs with an 8.0 average.
Like Donovan McNabb, Cunningham spent most of his career surrounded by mediocre offensive talent. When he finally got to play with a great supporting cast in Minnesota, a 35-year-old Cunningham led the NFL in passer rating (106.0), making his fourth Pro Bowl and third All-Pro team. It's terrifying to think what he might have produced with receivers like Randy Moss and Cris Carter when he was in his prime.
Cunningham has very impressive stats. Even without including rushes, he's +73 in TD/INT differential, better than contemporaries like Boomer Esiason (+63), Jim Kelly (+62), Warren Moon (+58), and Troy Aikman (+24), and basically the same as John Elway (+74). Cunningham passed for 3,000 yards five times, and rushed for 500 yards six times. Those numbers begin to communicate the excitement of watching Cunningham, but only just. He was the most explosive player in the league, "The Ultimate Weapon," as a Sports Illustrated cover labeled him. The dual threat he presented overwhelmed defenses, and on his best days, he seemed unstoppable.
Cunningham had trouble staying healthy, with only eight seasons in which he played at least half his team's games. But he was incredible to watch and he posted good statistics in the absence of even an average receiving corps. I'm surprised he hasn't been a stronger Hall of Fame candidate, never advancing even to the semi-finalist stage.
Close Call: The 1998 Vikings went 15-1 and lost the NFC Championship Game in overtime. A kicker who hadn't missed all season botched a 38-yard field goal, and head coach Dennis Green opted to have his record-setting offense run out the last 49 seconds rather than try to get into scoring range before overtime.
Winning Pedigree: Competing in a stacked NFC East that included three different Super Bowl winners, the Eagles won double-digit games every year from 1988-92.
You Might Not Know: Cunningham was a two-time All-America punter at UNLV.
Doug Flutie, Boomer Esiason, and a quartet of contemporary QBs I always group together: John Brodie, Roman Gabriel, John Hadl, and Daryle Lamonica. Flutie, of course, did win several Grey Cups in the CFL. Lamonica won an AFL title with the Raiders in 1967, but they went on to lose Super Bowl II, so we don't really count that.
Philip Rivers and Tony Romo might eventually factor into a list like this, but neither one is there yet, and they're both playing at a high level, so the future is open. It's much too early to speculate on players like Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.