Best QBs in History: 31-39

I've been studying NFL history my whole life. It's a journey that began the first time I watched my dad's copy of NFL's Greatest Hits on VHS, accelerating when I read Total Football II, and continuing when I began sportswriting over a decade ago.

Something I've never done is to publish my list of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. I'm finally stepping into the ring, but because I've done so much research over the years, I'm presenting my choices as a series of articles, highlighting about 10 players per list, and counting down to number one. We already covered pre-Modern Era QBs, nos. 49-101, and last week, 40-48.

This week, I'm profiling the players who rank about 30-40 on my list. The players are ranked in order, but please don't read too much into that: I consider this a group of quarterbacks, all roughly the same level. If you're furious that #34 is higher than #37, you have my blessing to flip them.

39. Steve McNair
Houston/Tennessee Oilers/Titans, 1995-2005; Baltimore Ravens, 2006-07
31,304 yards, 174 TD, 119 INT, 82.8 rating

Mark Brunell, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia, and Steve McNair all played in the late '90s and early '00s, with low INT rates and excellent running. They're easy to compare. The stats below include sacks:


McNair has the lowest passer rating, but the most net yards (33,327) and the most total touchdowns (211). He and Brunell had the most good seasons, he and Gannon were named NFL MVP, and McNair stands alone as a playmaking scrambler. Only five players in NFL history have 30,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards: John Elway, Donovan McNabb, Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young, and Steve McNair. As a dual-threat QB, McNair was one of the finest ever to play. His 64 rushing yards in Super Bowl XXXIV is the record for quarterbacks.

Unfortunately, McNair struggled with injuries in the second half of his career. Gannon and Garcia didn't get to start regularly in their mid-20s, and that doesn't apply to McNair, but he missed games in several of his best seasons, and unlike the other three, retired when he was relatively young (34) and still an effective player. Brunell and Garcia both played until they were 41, while Gannon retired at 38. In a longer, healthier career, McNair might have been a Hall of Famer. His success was critical in reducing league-wide prejudice against black quarterbacks.

McNair was born on Valentine's Day, 1973, and died on the Fourth of July.

38. Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004-14
39,057 yards, 251 TD, 131 INT, 93.9 rating

Ben Roethlisberger was the first quarterback in 34 years to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. He broke the rookie record for passer rating (98.1) and went 13-0 as a starter in the regular season, leading Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.

Stylistically, Roethlisberger is distinguished by his pocket play. He is very tough to bring down, breaking tackles and extending plays, and he has outstanding pump fakes. However, he's also reluctant to throw the ball away, and takes by far the most sacks in the NFL. Most of those aren't blocking breakdowns, they're just a consequence of Roethlisberger's style. Despite the sacks, Big Ben does not fumble often, and he converts a huge number of first downs, 35.8% for his career. That figure includes sack data.

Of course, Roethlisberger is also hailed for the team's success during his tenure. He's 106-52 (.671) as a starter, and Pittsburgh has qualified for the playoffs in seven of his 11 seasons. The Steelers have reached three Super Bowls with Ben at the helm, winning two of them. Although Roethlisberger did not play particularly well in those three Super Bowls (combined 69.9 passer rating), he has been an effective postseason QB. While Roethlisberger has always been an above-average quarterback, he's only made three Pro Bowls. A couple more would significantly boost his Hall of Fame credentials. He led the NFL in passing yards in 2014, the first time he's led the league in a major passing category.

37. Roman Gabriel
Los Angeles Rams, 1962-72; Philadelphia Eagles, 1973-77
29,444 yards, 201 TD, 149 INT, 74.3 rating

Roman Gabriel was a top draft pick (1st overall AFL, 2nd NFL), but spent his first several seasons as a backup and part-time player before flourishing under George Allen. In 1965, the Rams went 4-10, their eighth consecutive losing season. When Allen arrived in '66, he installed Gabriel as the full-time starter, and the team doubled its win total to 8-6. Gabriel started every game during Allen's tenure, going 49-17-4 (.729). In 1967, L.A. led the NFL in scoring. In '69, Gabriel was NFL MVP. In the early '70s, the team regressed under coach Tommy Prothro, and in 1973 Gabriel was traded to Philadelphia. He passed for 3,219 yards, the highest post-merger total by any player in a 14-game season. But Gabriel wasn't just bombing away on every down: he ranked 5th in the NFL in passer rating (86.0). The Eagles were terrible, but they did improve from 2-11-1 to 5-8-1, and Gabriel tied for the NFL lead in passing touchdowns — despite that to obtain him, the team had traded away league-leading receiver Harold Jackson.

Gabriel was a four-time Pro Bowler, NFL MVP in 1969, and Comeback Player of the Year in 1973. He led the NFL in passing yards once and passing TDs twice. He also scored 30 rushing touchdowns, one of only 16 QBs with 30+ rushing TDs. Many of the others, like Jack Kemp and Kordell Stewart, were nowhere near the passer Gabriel was. Gabriel produced a lot of points, and he did so while avoiding interceptions. His 3.3% INT rate was the lowest of his era, ahead of Hall of Famers like Roger Staubach (3.7%) and Fran Tarkenton (4.1%). Gabriel was born in 1940; career TD/INT +/- for QBs born between 1935-45:

1. Fran Tarkenton, +76
2. Len Dawson, +56
3. Roman Gabriel, +52
4. Roger Staubach, +44
5. Daryle Lamonica, +26

No one else is in positive figures, and Dawson was +36 in the early (pre-Super Bowl) AFL, so his stats could be taken with a grain of salt.

36. John Hadl
San Diego Chargers, 1962-72; Los Angeles Rams, 1973-74; Green Bay Packers, 1974-75; Houston Oilers, 1976-77
33,503 yards, 244 TD, 268 INT, 67.4 rating

Roman Gabriel and John Hadl were exact contemporaries. They were born less than six months apart, and both played from 1962-77. They were even traded for each other, more or less, in 1973. Over the years, I've gone back and forth on which was the better player. If you made me choose, I'd pick Hadl.

They're surprisingly hard to compare, since Hadl played in the AFL and Gabriel in the NFL. What's more, Hadl was on the quintessential AFL team: Sid Gillman's San Diego Chargers, featuring Lance Alworth at wide receiver. With Hadl having so many advantages — easier league, the best offensive coach of the era, the best receiver of the era — and Gabriel having a higher passer rating, how is there even a question about the better player? It's got to be Gabriel, right?

There are some things Hadl did better. His average yardage (6.3) was much higher than Gabriel's (5.5), his TD% was higher, and he had many fewer fumbles. Hadl led the AFL in passing yards twice, and the NFL a third time. He also led both leagues in passing TDs, once each. He made a lot more positive plays than Gabriel, and he had more good seasons. Hadl's raw numbers are way ahead — 4,000 yards, about 30 TDs — and the INT gap is partially negated by a significant fumble difference in Hadl's favor. During their good seasons, Hadl was the more effective player. He made six all-star games (4 AFL, 2 Pro Bowls) to Gabriel's four, and they were first-team all-pro once each.

35. Boomer Esiason
Cincinnati Bengals, 1984-92, 1997; New York Jets, 1993-95; Arizona Cardinals, 1996
37,920 yards, 247 TD, 184 INT, 81.1 rating

Boomer Esiason has basically the same stats as Jim Kelly. And whereas Kelly was surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates and a Hall of Fame coach, Esiason played on teams where he was the best player. Although his best years came with Bill Walsh disciple Sam Wyche, Esiason was primarily a vertical passer. His completion percentage was lower than the best QBs of the era, but he made big plays downfield, with the second-highest yards per completion, behind only Jay Schroeder — and Boomer did everything else much better than Schroeder. Esiason's interception rate was high, but many of those were downfield bombs where an interception is almost the same as a punt.

Esiason is also distinguished by a strong peak: other than Dan Marino, he was the most consistent, productive QB of the late '80s. The top eight passers from 1985-89:


The chart above includes sacks, sack yards, and rushing TDs. Esiason is first or second in yards, touchdowns, TD/INT differential, passer rating, and net yards per attempt. He was a four-time Pro Bowler, at a time when the AFC was stacked with talent. Esiason was NFL MVP in 1988; that year, he ranked 1st in TD/INT +/-, passer rating, and yards per attempt. The Bengals went 12-4 and reached Super Bowl XXIII, losing the lead with only :34 remaining.

Esiason was up-and-down late in his career, which is why he's never generated much Hall of Fame support. But he played at HOF level in his prime, and did sustain a 14-year career. He was a very smart player, a master of play-action and the first QB to regularly run a no-huddle offense with any success. He was also a dangerous downfield passer and a good athlete.

Esiason is one of two players in this group (31-39) who have passed for 522 yards in a game, the fourth-highest total in NFL history. The other is Roethlisberger, the only player in league history with two 500-yard passing games. In 1996, Esiason passed for 522 yards in a 37-34 overtime win in Washington. Down 27-13 in the fourth quarter, on the road, the Cardinals scored 21 points to force overtime, with the last two TDs coming on Esiason passes.

A few years ago, I heard Terry Bradshaw say on FOX that Ken Stabler was the only great left-handed quarterback. Steve Young works for ESPN and Boomer Esiason works for CBS. Esiason holds the records for most pass completions, yards, and touchdowns by a left-handed QB.

34. Tony Romo
Dallas Cowboys, 2003-14
33,270 yards, 242 TD, 110 INT, 97.6 rating

For reasons I've never understood, there are people who really despise Tony Romo. Just last year, someone insisted to me that Romo was soft. This is a quarterback who, in 2011, led a game-winning comeback with a broken rib and a punctured lung. In 2013, he threw a season-saving, last-minute, game-winning touchdown pass — on the road against a major rival — while playing with a season-ending back injury. In 2014, he played through two transverse process fractures in his back, and he was acclaimed as the greatest clutch QB of the season. It's time to stop blaming him for bobbling the K-ball in the 2006-07 playoffs.

Romo is a four-time Pro Bowler, and he holds most major franchise passing records, including yards, TDs, and rating. He's one of only eight players with twice as many TDs as INTs: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Romo, Philip Rivers, Steve Young, and Donovan McNabb. Romo is especially notable for his efficiency generating yardage. His 7.10 net average is 5th all-time, and 3rd within the Super Bowl era, behind only Manning and Rodgers. Romo has had a passer rating over 90 every season of his career, including a league-leading 113.2 in 2014.

33. Philip Rivers
San Diego Chargers, 2004-14
36,655 yards, 252 TD, 122 INT, 95.7 rating

Last year, I wrote at length about the top QBs of the 2004 NFL Draft class: Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger. Rivers, despite his ugly mechanics, is the best pure passer in the group. He's among the best in the league at the back-shoulder throw, finding that small area where the receiver can catch the ball but his defender can't. His first down percentage (36.8%) is the second-best of this era, behind only Peyton Manning (and fractions ahead of Tom Brady). Rivers took over for Drew Brees without a noticeable drop in the team's production.

Rivers is a 5-time Pro Bowler, and he was an MVP candidate in '08 and '09. He has six 4,000-yard passing seasons, four 30-TD seasons, and four full seasons with a passer rating over 100. Rivers is ninth all-time in TD/INT +/-, and like Romo, he's thrown twice as many TDs as INTs. Rivers is a intense competitor, and an exceptional downfield passer, one of the greatest big-play QBs in an era of historic quarterback play. With a couple more Pro Bowl-quality seasons, Rivers would become a strong Hall of Fame candidate.

32. Kurt Warner
St. Louis Rams, 1999-2003; New York Giants, 2004; Arizona Cardinals, 2005-09
32,334 yards, 208 TD, 128 INT, 93.7 rating

The argument about Kurt Warner's Hall of Fame case is easy to understand: he was a great quarterback, but only for a few seasons.

Warner only played four seasons as a regular starter: 1999, 2001, 2008, and 2009 were the only years he started 12 or more games. He was benched by every team he played for: the Rams (for Marc Bulger), Giants (for Eli Manning), and Cardinals (for both Josh McCown and Matt Leinart). I lived in St. Louis when he was replaced by Bulger, and saw it up close: Warner's benching was a necessity. For a few years in the middle of his career, he was basically unplayable. Warner got benched or seriously injured for five seasons in a row, and his return to excellence was shocking.

The counter-argument is this: when Warner was good, he was very, very good. In Warner's four healthy seasons, he made three Super Bowls and won two MVP Awards. In 1999, he threw for the most TDs by anyone to that point in history except Dan Marino, and in 2001, he threw for the most yards except Marino.

Warner was surrounded by exceptional teammates: he threw to Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and Marshall Faulk in St. Louis, then Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in Arizona. You could argue that anyone would be successful with such a strong supporting cast. Warner probably didn't deserve his MVP awards, both of which could have gone to Faulk, and he made too many negative plays: lots of sacks, lots of fumbles, lots of interceptions.

However, Warner compensated for his mistakes with game-breaking big plays. He was an unusually accurate passer, who always seemed to hit his receivers in stride, facilitating yards after the catch. He was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV, powered by his game-winning 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce. He holds the three highest passing yardage totals in Super Bowl history, including 414 in Super Bowl XXXIV. In a wild card playoff game with Arizona, he threw more TDs than incompletions. Warner's +17 TD/INT differential in the postseason is third-best in NFL history, behind only Tom Brady and Joe Montana. It's worth remembering, though, that Warner threw two critical interceptions in Super Bowl XXXVI, and his two best performances came in wild card games (770 yds, 10 TD, 1 INT).

I don't really care whether Warner makes the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I'm certain he will — and if I had a vote, I'd vote for him. But he's a borderline case with obvious weaknesses. He was a below-average quarterback for as long as he was a good one, and even at his best he made a lot of mistakes.

31. Doug Flutie
Chicago Bears, 1986-87; New England Patriots, 1987-89, 2005; Buffalo Bills, 1998-2000; San Diego Chargers, 2001-04
14,715 yards, 86 TD, 68 INT, 76.3 rating

This is probably my most controversial inclusion in the top 40. Based exclusively on his NFL career, Flutie might be among the top 100 QBs of the Modern Era, but he might not. It's my belief that Flutie was a great quarterback from 1991-97, even though he wasn't playing in the NFL during those years.

Flutie was a great NFL QB in 1998 ... when he was 36 years old. Is it a stretch to believe that Flutie was just as good in his early 30s — when he won six Most Outstanding Player awards and three Grey Cup MVPs in the CFL — as he was at age 36? I don't think it's a stretch at all; indeed, it seems obvious.

I absolutely do not suggest taking CFL stats at face value, but Flutie's combined professional numbers give him 58,179 passing yards and 369 TDs, with an 87.7 rating, plus over 6,000 rushing yards and 80 TDs. Flutie rushed for 600 yards and 8 TDs a year in the Canadian Football League. We know that his running skills translated to the NFL. In 1999, at age 37, Flutie led all NFL quarterbacks in rushing (476 yds, 5.4 avg). He's the oldest player to rush for 100 yards in the NFL, the oldest to rush for multiple TDs, and the second-oldest (behind Marcus Allen) to rush for at least 400 yards.

Flutie played the beginning and end of his career in the NFL (and USFL), but his prime years (age 28-35) were spent in Canada. It's not just unfair to exclude a player's prime when assessing his career, it's ridiculous. I believe Flutie was at least as good from 1991-97 as he was with the Bills in '98 and '99. That would give him something like seven Pro Bowl-quality seasons, which is a Hall of Fame standard. Let's also acknowledge that you need a certain skill level to sustain a 21-year professional career. Flutie retired at age 43. Brett Favre, Warren Moon, Vinny Testaverde, and Flutie are the only players with a 1,000-yard passing season after age 40. Flutie and Moon are the only ones who also had a passer rating over 80, and Flutie is alone in rushing for 168 yards with 2 TDs and a 5.1 average.

My old friend Dave Martin felt that Flutie was still overrated because of the Hail Mary against Miami. I'm an NFL guy, and I don't judge players by a single game. I don't care that there was this one time in college when Flutie was involved in a magical play. Or, I mean, I do care, but not in a way that affects my evaluation of Flutie. He's rated here because he was an outstanding QB in the '90s, not because of a college game in 1984.

Flutie's talent for evading pressure, ability as a runner downfield, and big-play instincts give him an edge over almost any QB in history. And it's not just running that sets Flutie apart; he holds the professional football record of 6,619 passing yards in a single season. If there is a Heaven, it's a place where I get to see what Flutie would have done in the mid-90s, if an NFL team had used him the way the Bills did in '98.

* * *

Three weeks ago, we examined the best pre-Modern Era quarterbacks: Sammy Baugh, Dutch Clark, Ed Danowski, Paddy Driscoll, Benny Friedman, Arnie Herber, Cecil Isbell, Sid Luckman, Bernie Masterson, Ace Parker, and Bob Waterfield.

We began the Modern Era by listing the QBs who rank 49-101, with in-depth profiles on Mark Brunell, Trent Green, Phil Simms, and Vinny Testaverde.

In last week's article, we examined spots 40-48: Charlie Conerly, Jim Everett, Rich Gannon, Jeff Garcia, Jim Hart, Bert Jones, Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler, and Joe Theismann.

Next week, we'll profile the QBs ranked 21-30.

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