Top 10 Left-Handed Quarterbacks

In the history of major league professional football — the NFL, AFL, AAFC, and USFL — there are 13 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 500 passes left-handed. That's not very many: last season alone, 13 quarterbacks threw at least 500 passes right-handed. There are fewer than a dozen left-handed QBs who had real careers in a major professional football league.

There are several reasons that lefty QBs are rare, but the most significant reason is the same reason that there aren't any left-handed catchers in major league baseball: if you've got a great arm and you're left-handed, you become a pitcher. There are other reasons, too, but none as important as that one. The Milwaukee Brewers organization was interested in signing Boomer Esiason on the basis of what was essentially a prank. He showed up at their training camp in 1988 because he knew somebody, and scouts saw a 6'4" fireballer with a cannon for a left arm.

Some teams don't want to deal with a left-handed passer. Left-handed passes spin differently, and receivers have to adjust to that. That can make teams especially reluctant to employ a left-handed backup, and most QBs begin their careers as backups. Right tackles, not left tackles, protect the blind side of left-handed passers, and teams have to account for that. Coaches may prefer not to work with a left-handed passer, since the mechanics are different, or even out of some bias.

The point is, there has never been an abundance of left-handed QBs in the NFL, and a list of the best ones gets pretty raggedy towards the end. Nonetheless, it's an interesting question and I haven't seen it addressed well anywhere else. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about quarterbacks recently — I'm updating my series on the best QBs of all time beginning next week — but here's a mini preview: the best lefty quarterbacks in history.

1. Steve Young
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1985-86; San Francisco 49ers, 1987-99
33,124 yards, 232 TD, 107 INT, 96.8 rating

Jon Steven Young began his career with the USFL's L.A. Express, then spent two dismal seasons with the Tampa Bay Bucs, followed by four years backing up Joe Montana. He ascended to the 49ers' full-time starting role in 1991, but that leaves only eight seasons, before injuries forced his retirement in 1999. During those eight seasons, however, Young played about as well as any quarterback in history. From 1991-98, Young made seven Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams, led the NFL in passer rating six times and passing TDs four times, was first-team All-Pro three straight years and NFL MVP twice, and had the greatest performance of any quarterback in Super Bowl history.

Young is the greatest pass/run dual-threat in the history of American football. No one has more passing yards and more rushing yards than Young, and no one has more pass TDs and more rush TDs. In Young's eight seasons starting for the 49ers, he had a passer rating over 100 six times, and everyone else in the league combined had a passer rating over 100 four times. Young rushed for 2,865 yards and 33 TDs in those eight seasons. No other QB rushed for 2,000 yards or 20 TDs in that time frame. Young was the most accurate passer of his generation, an electric runner, and one of the most dominant quarterbacks of all time.

2. 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

As indicated by the story at the top, Boomer Esiason was a great athlete. He was tall, with a good frame, and he ranked among the top four rushing QBs three times. But it was Boomer's rifle of a left arm, and his intelligence, that made him one of the best QBs in football in the late 1980s.

Boomer was a gunslinger, a downfield bomber. His completion percentage was never great and he threw some interceptions, but he generated big plays. Esiason finished his career with 247 pass TDs and 184 INTs. That +63 mark is better than most of his contemporaries, including Jim Kelly (+62), Warren Moon (+58), and Troy Aikman (+24). Esiason made four Pro Bowls in a loaded AFC, and he 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 holds the records for most pass completions, yards, and touchdowns by a left-handed QB.

3. Ken Stabler
Oakland Raiders, 1970-79; Houston Oilers, 1980-81; New Orleans Saints, 1982-84
27,938 yards, 194 TD, 222 INT, 75.3 rating

Kenny Stabler was the most accurate passer of the 1970s. He led all QBs of the decade in completion percentage (59.9), yards per attempt (7.69) and net yards per attempt (6.51), and TD% (6.0). He threw too many interceptions, but you'll live with that for all the positive plays he created.

Stabler was NFL MVP in 1974, and in 1976, he led the Raiders to a 13-1 record and their first Super Bowl victory. But the Raiders were a great team without Stabler, too. From 1967-72, with Daryle Lamonica at QB, the Raiders went 63-15-6 (.786), made the playoffs five times in six seasons, won an AFL Championship, and played in Super Bowl II. From 1980-86, with Jim Plunkett at QB, the Raiders went 69-36 (.657), made the playoffs five times in seven seasons, and won two Super Bowls, with Plunkett as MVP of Super Bowl XV. In between, with Stabler as the primary QB, the Raiders went 74-27-1 (.730), made the playoffs five times in seven seasons, and won Super Bowl XI, with Fred Biletnikoff as MVP.

Stabler was good when the Raiders were good, but he wasn't obviously superior to Lamonica or Plunkett. He was surrounded by Hall of Fame talent, he only had five good seasons, he was useless after leaving Oakland, and he had notoriously bad habits, including ignoring game plans. He was a great talent, but lacking consistency and longevity.

4. Mark Brunell
Green Bay Packers, 1993-94; Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995-2003; Washington, 2004-07; New Orleans Saints, 2008-09; New York Jets, 2010-11
32,072 yards, 184 TD, 108 INT, 84.0 rating

Mark Brunell started in the NFL for 11 seasons, and he had a 19-year career, continuing to play as late as age 41. In his prime, Brunell was a dual-threat QB, an efficient passer and a good runner. He is the only quarterback in the Super Bowl era to lead the NFL in passing yards and lead all QBs in rushing the same season (1996). He passed for over 3,000 yards six times and rushed for over 200 yards seven times.

Brunell is the first player on this list to lead two different teams (Jacksonville and Washington) to the playoffs. Young, Esiason, and Stabler all started for multiple teams, but Michael Vick and Brunell are unique among lefty QBs in taking more than one team to the postseason. Brunell was also the top backup on the Saints when they won Super Bowl XLIV.

Mark Brunell was a really good quarterback. There is a substantial gap between the top four and the rest of this list.

5. Frankie Albert
San Francisco 49ers, 1946-52
10,795 yards, 115 TD, 98 INT, 73.5 rating

Frankie Albert has the second-highest touchdown percentage in history, 7.4%. He played mostly in the AAFC, and he had a short career, but he was a playmaker whose reputation outshone his stats. He was the second-best QB in the league, behind Otto Graham, and he received All-Pro recognition in each of his first four seasons, 1946-49. He played in the Pro Bowl in 1950.

Albert was not only left-handed, he was short, between 5-8 and 5-10 depending on your source. But he was a good athlete and a productive scrambler, and he was very smart. Albert was regarded as a good play-caller, and he is credited with inventing the bootleg.

6. Jim Zorn
Seattle Seahawks, 1976-84; Green Bay Packers, 1985; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1987
21,115 yards, 111 TD, 141 INT, 67.3 rating

The Seahawks were an expansion team in 1976, short on talent. They went 2-12, then 5-9, then 9-7 in 1978 and '79. They didn't have much, but they had Jim Zorn and Steve Largent. Zorn was All-Pro in 1978 (2nd-team AP, 1st-team NEA), even with 15 TD versus 20 INT, because he was playing without a lot of support and he did some good things with his legs. The next year, he passed for more yards, more TDs, and fewer interceptions, plus he cut his sack rate in half.

He was pretty good the next two years, and then he was basically done. His career as an effective player was brief, but he's tough to evaluate spending his athletic prime on an expansion team, and he was a great QB for a couple seasons.

7. Michael Vick
Atlanta Falcons, 2001-06; Philadelphia Eagles, 2009-13; New York Jets, 2014; Pittsburgh Steelers, 2015
22,093 yards, 131 TD, 87 INT, 80.4 rating

Albert, Zorn, and Vick are really close. If you want to flip the order and put Vick 5th, that's reasonable. He was an incredible athlete, with a rocket launcher for a left arm, and he was a superior runner. He took both Atlanta and Philadelphia to the playoffs, and he made four Pro Bowls.

He was not an accurate passer. In 11 seasons with at least 100 pass attempts, he completed 60% only once. His first down percentage hovered around 30%. His touchdown percentage was low, he took too many sacks, and he fumbled a lot. But he was a dynamic talent, the greatest running quarterback of all time. From 2002-11, Vick rushed for at least 550 yards six times, including 902 in 2004 and 1,026 in 2006. During those years, only three other QBs rushed for 550 yards once, none of them for 700.

8. Scott Mitchell
Miami Dolphins, 1991-93; Detroit Lions, 1994-98; Baltimore Ravens, 1999; Cincinnati Bengals, 2000-01
15,692 yards, 95 TD, 81 INT, 75.3 rating

People are too hard on Scott Mitchell. Expectations were high after he filled in ably for Dan Marino in 1993, and he only had one really good season after that (1995, when he ranked 2nd in the NFL in passing yards and TD/INT differential). He threw enough passes to qualify for the passing title five times. In two of those seasons, his passer rating was above average. Twice, it was below average. In 1997, it was exactly average, 79.6.

He wasn't fast, but he was an effective short-yardage runner, and he didn't take a lot of sacks. He only started for 4½ seasons, but he was essentially an adequate QB during that time.

9. Bobby Douglass
Chicago Bears, 1969-75; San Diego Chargers, 1975; New Orleans Saints, 1976-77; Green Bay Packers, 1978
6,493 yards, 36 TD, 64 INT, 48.5 rating

Bobby Douglass was the Tim Tebow of the early '70s. He was not an NFL-level passer, with a passer rating 20 points below league average. But he was the greatest running QB of his generation. In 1972, he rushed for 968 yards and 8 TDs. Two other years, he rushed for over 400 yards, in 14-game seasons. Douglass retired with 2,654 rushing yards, 13th all-time among QBs. He rushed for more yardage than Daunte Culpepper or Roger Staubach, almost twice as much as Vince Young.

Douglass was not a good quarterback, but he was also somewhat limited by the players around him. Every one of his teams had a losing record until his final season, when he ran 17 plays for the 8-7-1 Packers.

10. Tim Tebow
Denver Broncos, 2010-11; New York Jets, 2012
2,422 yards, 17 TD, 9 INT, 75.3 rating

I warned you at the beginning that this list would be raggedy by the end. Tebow lasted for three seasons and started only 16 games. Like Douglass, his accuracy was terrible. That was sometimes a blessing, since it kept his INT% low: his passes were so far off-target, defenders couldn't reach them, either.

He was a great rusher, though, and he played well at the end of some close games. In 2011, the Broncos ranked in the bottom 10 in both points and yards, and got outscored 390-309, but finished 8-8 and won the AFC West on a tiebreaker. Tebow had his best game in the Wild Card playoff, and Denver advanced to face the Patriots. They lost 45-10: when Tom Brady threw his 6th passing touchdown, Tebow had 3 pass completions. At one point in the fourth quarter, Tebow had 6 completions and 5 sacks. He was a gimmicky backup for the Jets in 2012, and never appeared in a regular season game after that.

11-15... Sherdrick Bonner, an Arena Football League Hall of Famer; Matt Leinart, whose promising rookie season got derailed by the resurgence of Kurt Warner; Paul McDonald, who had 5,000 passing yards for the Browns in the 1980s; Allie Sherman, a backup for the Eagles in the '40s, who went 57-51-4 as coach of the Giants in the 1960s; Chris Simms, who started 10 games for the 2005 NFC South champion Buccaneers.

The left-handed QBs with at least 500 major league pass attempts are: Steve Young, Boomer Esiason, Ken Stabler, Mark Brunell, Frankie Albert, Jim Zorn, Michael Vick, Scott Mitchell, Bobby Douglass, Matt Leinart, Paul McDonald, Chris Simms, and Cade McNown, a first-round washout for the Bears.

In the 70 years of pro football's modern era, there have been four really good left-handed quarterbacks, including two Hall of Famers. There were another four who showed flashes of greatness, and about half a dozen more who started for a year or two. The rest were short-term backups or immediate busts.

Comments and Conversation

August 13, 2019

Steve :

Greg Cook was better than half the guy you have listed there

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