(Edit: This post can also be found on my football-themed blog.)
In today’s NFL, the quarterback is undeniably the most important position on a team. If the quarterback doesn’t perform well, it throws off the functioning of just about every other offensive position. Not to mention their inadequacy puts more pressure on the defense to perform at a higher level just so the team doesn’t fall behind. As the years go by and the passing attack of each team grows more and more vital, a quarterback’s worth has skyrocketed to levels of almost mythical proportions. This past year saw Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, and Nick Foles almost as detriments to their team’s success, despite a good core around them, whether offensively or defensively. This got me wondering: has there been anything worse than these three this year?
This list will take a look throughout NFL history for the quarterbacks that, for lack of a harsher word, “underwhelmed” when given the chance to perform. Of course, this list would be painfully hard to sort out if I were to look at quarterbacks with only one or two abysmal starts in their career. Therefore, I added a stipulation that a quarterback must have started at least six games in a single season to be eligible to compete for this list. There are a few people that definitely would have made it had it not been for this stipulation, but alas, they probably don’t care to re-live it.
10. Vinny Testaverde – 1988
• W-L record: 5-10
• 47.6% completion rate; 3,240 passing yards
• 13 touchdown passes; 35 interceptions
• Total QBR: 48.8
Some would argue that Testaverde’s sophomore season wasn’t all that bad. He had three decent games that season against Indianapolis, New England, and Detroit, and otherwise kept his team within a score’s reach of leading the game. But there’s one factor about this season that made me want to put Vinny on this list out of sheer astonishment: number of interceptions.
35 interceptions in 15 games. That’s just insane. Even more so when you consider the era. This was 1988. This was well past when teams started passing the ball more. This was after Dan Fouts. This was after Terry Bradshaw. This was during the era where Joe Montana and Boomer Esiason were taking the league by storm with their innovative passing offenses. To throw 35 interceptions this close to the turn of the new millennium is worthy of being put on a list like this. It’s the second-most interceptions thrown in a single season (George Blanda owns the record with 42 in 1962) and no one has even thrown more than 29 in a season since then.
9. Bob Lee – 1974
• W-L record: 2-6
• 45.3% completion rate; 852 passing yards
• 3 touchdown passes; 14 interceptions
• Total QBR: 32.4
Now the list becomes really fun.
Meet Bob Lee. Fans of this era may remember him as the longtime back-up quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. In 1973, he signed with the Atlanta Falcons and led them to an 8-2 record as a starter. Up to that point, he was 13-3 as a starter for both the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings. Things were looking good for Atlanta leading up to the 1974 season. Until it actually happened.
In the first game of the 1974 NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys, Lee was 4 of 22 passing for 28 yards and an interception. They lost 0-24. It was only a sign of what was to come. The team put up two wins against New York (Giants) and Chicago in consecutive weeks, with Lee playing moderately well, to put their overall record with him as a starter at 2-2, but it all went downhill from there. With four more starts and another game participated in, the team went 0-5, with Lee only throwing a touchdown pass in one of those games, while accumulating 5 interceptions. They would finally bench him after a week 10 loss to Baltimore in favor of back-up Pat Sullivan, who didn’t perform much better.
Looking at his numbers on their own paints an ugly picture. Even for 1974, only 3 touchdown passes in almost nine games is unacceptable. His rock-bottom QBR might be the most telling part of his whole season. Absolutely nothing went right.
8. John Skelton – 2012
• W-L record: 1-5
• 54.2% completion rate; 1,132 passing yards
• 2 passing touchdowns; 9 interceptions
• Total QBR: 55.4
What a funny season it was for Arizona in 2012. They started the season 4-0 and even defeated the mighty New England Patriots in week two. They finished the season 5-11. Mr. Skelton was their starting quarterback for six of those games.
John Skelton lifted a struggling Cardinals team in 2011 in relief of starter Kevin Kolb by leading them to a 5-2 record. Going into the 2012 season, Skelton and Kolb had a quarterback controversy all throughout the preseason, with head coach Ken Whisenhunt finally picking Skelton as the starter just before the regular season debut. In his debut, Skelton won the game against Seattle, but had a mediocre game. Even worse, he sustained an injury during the game that kept him out of action until week six. And by week six, the Cardinals’ season was all but falling apart.
Skelton did not throw a touchdown pass until week seven in a losing effort against Minnesota, in what many would agree was his only good game of that season. Otherwise, it was like he wasn’t there at all. John’s placement on this list isn’t for how badly he played on a consistent basis—though he did anyway—but more for how little his assistance paid off. In his six starts, the most his offense put up in points was in his first game against Seattle, where they scored 20 points. However, Kevin Kolb threw a touchdown pass in that game after Skelton was injured, so one could argue that John only put up 13 in that game. Otherwise, his offense put up 19 points or fewer, with his offense failing to reach more than 14 points in three of those starts.
His season ended in week 13 when he threw four interceptions in a rematch against Seattle; he was benched for rookie Ryan Lindley. In roughly six full games on the season, John Skelton only managed to throw two touchdown passes. Two touchdown passes in six games… in 2012. In as pass-happy a league as the NFL is now, that’s just embarrassing. It’s not surprising to know he flamed out in the NFL soon after.
7. Mike Taliaferro – 1968
• W-L record: 3-4
• 38.1% completion rate; 889 passing yards
• 4 passing touchdowns; 15 interceptions
• Total QBR: 26.9
The most amazing thing about Taliaferro’s worst season is that he won three games.
To some degree, Taliaferro may not deserve to be listed after Skelton or Lee, but there’s something special about the lowest total QBR in a single season I’ve ever seen. 26.9. Even for 1968, a monkey could do better. Even more ironically, Taliaferro would follow the worst season of his career with his best. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1969.
Similar to Lee’s situation, Taliaferro was a back-up for the New York Jets before signing with the Boston Patriots to become their starter. Unlike Lee, his first season with his new team wasn’t nearly as successful. The Patriots won their first game against Buffalo, but flip-flopped from there. Taliaferro would go on to have good games against Denver and his second round with Buffalo, but those were squished in-between games where he would throw 3, 4, and 5 interceptions in a single game. It’s not hard to imagine why his QBR was so low when he’s throwing so many errant balls. He was benched after his 5 interception performance against his old team.
Taliaferro’s season may not stack up with how consistently bad those before him were, but when he was at a low, he was far further down than anyone could imagine. It’s hard not to put him at least this high with that QBR of his for that season. 26.9. I still can’t believe it can even reach that low.
6. Alex Smith – 2005
• W-L record: 2-5
• 50.9% completion rate; 875 passing yards
• 1 passing touchdown; 11 interceptions
• Total QBR: 40.8
The only person on this list still on an NFL roster—and starting, for that matter— is Alex Smith, the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.As with any first overall pick, Smith was expected to perform well almost immediately. He did not.
Keep in mind: this is 2005. Once again, far past the times when the focus of an offense is running the ball. The quarterback is essential and his malfunction could lead to a lot of disaster. Such is the case with Alex Smith, who was thrust into the starting role in week five. It didn’t do the offense any favors, as Smith was a turnover machine. He threw five interceptions in his first two games as a starter. He was benched until he was forced back into action in week twelve, and would finish out the season as the starter.
In his second phase of starting, Smith played marginally better, but still turned the ball over multiple times a game. He would not throw his first touchdown pass until the last game of the season, against the Houston Texans, in an ultimately pointless game for both teams.
To his credit, Alex Smith’s last two games of the season were by no means bad. He completed 12 of 16 passes for 131 yards against St. Louis and his performance against the aforementioned Texans wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately, his bad far outweighs the impact of his good in this case. Much like a combination of Skelton and Taliaferro, he was consistently bad and gave his team little chance to win, while his lowest lows were gravely so. His 40.8 QBR, for 2005 standards, is almost as bad as Taliaferro’s 26.9. His 1 touchdown pass in 9 participated games is the proverbial cherry on top of an otherwise nightmare season.
5. Joe Namath – 1976
• W-L record: 1-7
• 49.6% completion rate; 1,090 passing yards
• 4 passing touchdowns; 16 interceptions
• Total QBR: 39.9
There’s chatter among new-age NFL fans about the legitimacy of Joe Namath’s “greatness.” Ask anyone who watched him play during his era and they’ll tell you how amazing he was. Except maybe Colts fans. So, was he great or not? One thing’s for sure: he was not very great in 1976.
What’s intriguing about this year is that his numbers are interestingly deceptive. You compare them to the statistics that have been shown from guys earlier on in the list and they’re favorable by comparison. Once I reviewed his games individually for that season, placing him this high on the list was a no-brainer. How’s this for inefficiency: in six of his eight starts, Namath failed to put up more than 7 points. That’s astounding. Sure, you can’t blame all of this on him, but he didn’t help by throwing his first touchdown pass in week five.
Namath played so poorly that the team benched him after a two interception performance in a 0-20 loss against Baltimore. Here’s where things become interesting. Three weeks later, New York blows out Tampa Bay 34-0. Namath played during the latter half of that game, and played better than he did the entire season, going 7 for 12 for 94 yards and a touchdown. The next week, New England blows them out, leading to Namath coming in and taking charge… by throwing 5 interceptions. He was benched yet again and wouldn’t start again until the final game of the season, where he would throw 4 more interceptions in a 3-42 loss against Cincinnati. He started poorly and crashed to the finish.
Taking this into account, for the games Joe Namath actually started, he went 88 of 174 for 814 passing yards with 2 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. This was through eight games. Ouch.
4. JaMarcus Russell – 2009
• W-L record: 2-7
• 48.8% completion rate; 1,287 passing yards
• 3 touchdown passes; 11 interceptions
• Total QBR: 50.0
JaMarcus Russell is considered by many to be the biggest Draft bust of all time. He was selected first overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2007 and faced a mine field’s worth of behavioral problems and struggled with limiting his weight all throughout his career. All of these things eventually contributed to his downfall and outright release from Oakland, which was made possible by his 2009 season.
It began with a lackluster, but not excruciatingly terrible, outing in a loss against San Diego, where he would throw a touchdown pass and 2 picks. From that point, he would not throw another touchdown pass until week six. In between that, he threw another 2 picks and completed less than 40% of his passes in two games. His win over Philadelphia in week six would be the last touchdown pass he throws as a starter, as he went on to throw 3 more interceptions in 3 more games. He was finally benched for his inadequacy after going 8 of 23 for 64 yards in a loss against Kansas City. He finished the season with another touchdown pass and 2 more interceptions as a relief player.
Another thing to note is that through his 9 starts, Russell threw for 1,064 yards. Had that trend continued, he wouldn’t even reach 2,000 passing yards on the season. This is 2009. That is as bad a statistic as I’ve ever seen from someone who’s started over half of the season in the modern era. Not to mention the 2 touchdown passes and 9 interceptions. He’s not guilty of throwing a lot of picks, but he’s guilty of not doing hardly anything to get the offense going. Almost like an advanced type of John Skelton, JaMarcus Russell failed to amass 14 points in all but 2 of his starts. For Joe Namath in 1976, that’s bad. For JaMarcus Russell in 2009, that’s humiliating.
3. Marty Domres – 1974
• W-L record: 1-5
• 50.3% completion rate; 803 passing yards
• 0 passing touchdowns; 12 interceptions
• Total QBR: 33.2
You read that right: 0 touchdown passes.
Starting six games during the 1974 NFL season, Domres threw exactly 0 touchdown passes. He ran for two touchdowns, but he threw for exactly 0. The team knew he wasn’t worthy either, as they benched him twice throughout the season for back-up Bert Jones. Domres was so inadequate that they simply didn’t rely on him to throw it that often. He only had 136 attempts through the air in 6 starts. That’s between 22-23 attempts per game.
Amazingly enough, the one start he made where his team won was against none other than Bob Lee’s Atlanta Falcons. Even then, he went 4 of 11 for 74 yards and an interception. He ran for a touchdown, though. Otherwise, he had individual games where he threw 2, 3, and 4 interceptions. He didn’t throw an interception in only 1 of his starts. 11 interceptions and 0 passing touchdowns in 6 starts.
One could argue that for 1974, his statistics aren’t exactly worthy of being this high on the list for a 6 game stretch. But for me, it’s really an accumulation of his worth to the offense. With 0 passing touchdowns, 2 rushing touchdowns, and 720 passing yards in 6 games, he isn’t much of an asset on the practice squad as opposed to a starting offense.
2. Matt Robinson – 1980
• W-L record: 4-3
• 48.1% completion rate; 942 passing yards
• 2 passing touchdowns; 12 interceptions
• Total QBR: 39.7
Another batch of statistics that are misleading. Matt Robinson was absolutely a detriment to his team. He was so much of a detriment that it’s amazing he managed to have a winning record as a starter! Matt Robinson’s production, as the season rolled on, slowed to that of a purr. It’s not that he played any better or worse, the team just put the reins on him.
In his first game as a starter, he went 18 of 41 for 178 yards and 2 interceptions. The team lost to Philadelphia 6-27. In his next game, he went 10 of 20 for 198 yards and ran for 2 touchdowns. His team won against Dallas 41-20. Notice something here? When the game falls behind, he falters. When he’s got a huge lead, he lets his defense do its job and settles down. It happens all throughout the season. In his next start, the team lost to San Diego 13-30. Robinson threw 4 interceptions in that game. From that point on, the team put a leash on Robinson’s control of the offense. In his next three starts, he had a combined 37 pass attempts for 183 yards… with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions. He won two of those starts by a combined 6 points. Amazing how once he starts doing less, the team starts winning more.
Despite winning his sixth start, the team benched Robinson in favor of Craig Morton. It wouldn’t be until the final game of the season that he would start again. Even so, with a 7-8 record, going up against a 4-11 Seattle team, the results didn’t matter. They let him loose and he played okay in the sense that he didn’t turn it over. He also went 9 of 23 for 99 yards and a touchdown in the air and on the ground. A nice way to end the season, but it does little for his season overall. When he was expected to perform, he didn’t. He had his hand held for a majority of the season and he struggled without it. That’s why he’s this high on the list. Not because he had horrible stats, though that helps, but because they could have the same record with just about anyone. Even an aging and broken down Craig Morton.
1. Ryan Leaf – 1998
• W-L record: 3-6
• 45.3% completion rate; 1,289 passing yards
• 2 passing touchdowns; 15 interceptions
• Total QBR: 39.0
Some say JaMarcus Russell is the biggest Draft bust of all time. I say that honor belongs to Ryan Leaf, and his rookie campaign is the ultimate evidence to back up that claim.
It started off alright. His first two starts netted him a 2-0 record and he performed okay enough for a rookie. But his first start against Kansas City proved to be the point of no return. He went 1 of 15 for 4 yards and 2 interceptions as the team lost 7-23. The scene in the locker room afterwards was not pretty.
His performance on the field would not improve either. In the next 6 starts, he had a completion rate of over 50% once, threw for over 200 yards once, and passed for 1 touchdown and 9 interceptions. The year is 1998. Peyton Manning is about to terrorize the league for over a decade with his passing attack. To not be able to throw for more than 2 touchdowns in 9 starts is pathetic. Leaf was benched after week nine and came in one more time during the season as a relief player, where he threw 2 more interceptions to finish off the season. I’m not sure his 39.0 QBR has been matched since.
Leaf’s time in the NFL flamed out soon after and the Chargers suffered for their second overall pick greatly. I’m not sure anything could match his first game against Kansas City as an indicator of poor quality. They gave him a whole other season to improve upon himself and he didn’t. Though, frankly, after his 1998 season, I’m not sure how you could give him another chance, especially after his off-the-field antics and attitude. He may not have had otherwordly numbers, but his influence was enough to have me put him #1 on this list. He performed badly, he behaved badly. He was essentially the entire package of bad. He paid for it dearly, as his life after the NFL wasn’t too clean, either.