Since its inception way back in 1920, the NFL has rarely been in short supply of mediocre quarterbacks. Maybe it’s the steep learning curve jumping from most college systems to the pro level, or maybe there just aren’t enough QBs out there who can compete with the impressive caliber of defenses the NFL employs.
Regardless, when a quarterback is truly awful in today’s hyper-analytical landscape, you can bet they’ll be benched swiftly and unceremoniously. And yet, somehow, the following signal callers were able to start every game of the season despite playing like they were being operated by a 9-year-old Madden noob using a sticky controller.
Incidentally, some of the guys on this list have since become legends of the game, with a number of them either having a bust in Canton or heading that way in the near future. It goes to show that anyone, even the greats, can have an (outrageously) off season.
Because we’re only talking about players who started every game, there was some truly awful quarterbacking we were forced to leave out (Cough, Ryan Leaf.) But fear not, fans of heinous quarterback play, there’s still plenty of shamefulness to sink your teeth into.
15. Jay Cutler – 2009 (Chicago Bears)
While it’s unclear whether or not Mike Glennon will be an upgrade over Cutler in the long run, he’s almost guaranteed to have a better first season than his predecessor did. When Cutler was first traded to Chicago by the Broncos in 2009, he was viewed as the savior of the franchise. Instead, he started breaking the hearts of Bears fans straight out of the gate.
In his initial run in Chicago — unbelievably, the only full season he started there — Smokin’ Jay launched an incredible 26 interceptions, one less than the number of touchdowns he was able to throw. That stat, combined with the lowest passer rating of his career, started conversations about Cutler’s poor on-field decision-making that would loom over his shoulder for the remainder of his tenure with the Bears.
14. Vinny Testaverde – 2000 (New York Jets)
The Jets franchise has long been a black hole of unpromising signal callers and, unfortunately, even one of their best quarterbacks endured a couple of rough seasons at the turn of the millennium.
Despite attempting more passes than any other QB during the 2000 season — which accounts for his respectable 3,700+ aerial yards — Testaverde often looked like a man being asked to do too much by his coaches. He completed just 55 percent of his passes and had 25 of them picked off, while finding the end zone 21 times. But the thing is, Testaverde shouldn’t have been throwing the ball nearly as much as he did. The Jets had a true workhorse running back on the team in Curtis Martin, a 5-time Pro Bowler who finished his career as the 4th leading rusher of all time. So why throw the ball almost 600 times?
Of course, compared to Testaverde’s 1988 season with Tampa Bay — where he threw 35 INTs and just 13 TDs over the span of 15 games — 2000 seems like one long highlight reel. Especially when you factor in “The Monday Night Miracle,” when he brought his team back from a 30-7 deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Dolphins. It’s that game that keeps people from remembering how pedestrian Testaverde was that year.
13. Joey Harrington – 2003 (Detroit Lions)
From a statistical perspective, Joey Harrington’s time with the Lions fits in pretty well with all the other Detroit QBs not named Layne, Landry, or Stafford. He threw more INTs than TDs, constantly looked shaken and terrified to be on the field, and left Detroit with a losing record. Of all quarterbacks who started at least four consecutive seasons for the same team, Joey Harrington is tied with Mark Sanchez for the worst accumulative passer rating. Let that sink in. Think about Sanchez’s tenure with the Jets…then really let that sink in.
He was bad…that is the point. Harrington’s 2003 season sums up that inefficacy pretty well. He wrapped up the year with a 17:22 TD to INT ratio, failed to notch 3,000 yards, and was one of the main reasons his team earned a 5-11 record. Granted, he didn’t have many offensive weapons to lighten his load, but Lions fans still remember Harrington as the main cause of their dismay.
12. Geno Smith – 2013 (New York Jets)
Most analysts fully expected Geno Smith to be taken in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, so it was a bit shocking that the West Virginia star was still available to the QB-needy Jets as the 39th overall pick. It was thought Smith’s mid-season, senior year slump — which exposed a number of flaws in the young QB’s play — accounted for his slide down the draft board. And Smith confirmed the validity of those concerns with an exceptionally rough, ineffective rookie season.
Smith was immediately thrust into the starting role after Mark Sanchez suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason. Carrying the team as a rookie is a tall order for any quarterback, but doing so with a major shortage of offensive weapons made Smith’s job almost impossible. He threw for only a sliver over 3,000 yards, while managing to toss just 12 touchdowns. He had no issues getting completions to the other team, though, walking away from the season with 21 interceptions and an 8-8 record under his belt.
11. Jon Kitna – 2001 (Cincinnati Bengals)
While certainly not famous in the way he’d prefer, Jon Kitna did at least hold one NFL record…for the worst TD to INT ratio in a single season by any starting quarterback in the history of the league: 12 to 22, or 0.55. Not exactly the kind of thing that’s going to land a guy on the front of a Wheaties box. (Or the back of a Wheaties box. Or the side of a Great Value Multi-Grain Flakes box.)
Kitna’s 2001 season with the Bengals wasn’t just lopsided in the TD:INT department, he also struggled mightily to surpass 3,000 yards through the air, despite chucking the ball a hearty 581 times. For reference, that puts him in the all-time Top 50 for single season pass attempts. All of this gave him a 61.1 passer rating at the end of the year. Amazingly, former Detroit Lions assistant head coach Kippy Brown once told reporters that if the Lions had Kitna as their starting QB in 2008, the team wouldn’t have went 0-16 that season. So at least someone had some faith in the guy.
10. Terry Bradshaw – 1972 (Pittsburgh Steelers)
NFL analyst, musical one-hit wonder (seriously), and Hulk Hogan lookalike Terry Bradshaw remains one of the most well-regarded QBs of his era and in the history of the Steelers franchise. But Bradshaw’s legendary status as a gunslinger would take a few years to form, and for much of his earlier career, the horseshoe-hairdoed QB was merely a game manager. And not a great one.
Through 14 games in 1972 — a full season back then — Bradshaw completed just 47.7 percent of his 308 attempts, 12 of which accounted for touchdowns, while another 12 accounted for interceptions. He also failed to crack 2,000 yards for the season. None of that is nearly as bad as his rookie season, though, when he threw 24 INTs to just 6 TDs. Even in a run-heavy era when much less was expected of quarterbacks, Bradshaw’s stats are pretty shoddy. It’s clear the legend benefitted from the total dominance of the Steel Curtain back in those days.
9. Peyton Manning – 1998 (Indianapolis Colts)
A lot of armchair quarterbacks criticized Peyton Manning for the lackluster performances he gave in his final year as a Bronco. In a way, though, it was fitting that he bookended his otherwise sterling career with a rocky note. Because in his rookie season, Peyton Manning certainly didn’t look like the all-time great he’d become.
Taken first off the board in the 1998 draft by the Colts, who had a brutal season the year prior with Jim Harbaugh under center, Manning was expected to be an immediate game-changer. He wasn’t. The Colts repeated their 3-13 record from the year before, and Manning was torn apart by analysts after taking three consecutive clobberings to kick things off. It was so bad people were wondering out loud whether the Colts would’ve been better off choosing Ryan Leaf in the draft.
To be fair to Manning, he did set rookie records in passing yards and TDs, but he also set the record for INTs, leading the league with 28. He started to get it together in the final weeks of the season, but things were iffy in the beginning.
8. Dave Brown – 1996 (New York Giants)
One of the biggest draft busts in the franchise’s history, Dave Brown was sent to the New York Giants as the top overall choice in the 1992 Supplemental Draft. In his first year, Brown was unexpectedly called to action after a string of bad luck — and terrible offensive line play — put the other three QBs in front of him on the bench with injuries. (Seriously, that O-line was so porous an actual refrigerator could sneak by untouched.)
After a couple of decent years as the starter, Brown orchestrated a season-long disaster in 1996. He turned the ball over 26 times (2o INTs, 6 fumbles) despite playing the kind of dink-and-dunk style that’s supposed to limit those errors. Seriously, his longest completion of the season went for 37 yards. So not only was he an ineffective passer, but he was suffocatingly boring to watch, too. That “safety first” mentality might fly if your team ends up in the playoffs, but when they end up 6-10, fans won’t have any of it. Unsurprisingly, Brown lost his starting gig the following year.
7. Bart Starr – 1970 (Green Bay Packers)
And here come the pitchforks. Before going any further, it has to be said that Bart Starr is still remembered as a golden god in Green Bay, and will forever be linked to the winning ways of Titletown along with his coach, the masterful Vince Lombardi. But there’s a reason those two names are usually thought of in conjunction with one another, as the end of Starr’s prominence in the league directly coincided with Lombardi’s departure from the team.
Statistically, Starr actually had one of his worst seasons in 1967 — the same year the Packers won their second consecutive Super Bowl under Lombardi — posting a 17:9 INT to TD ratio. But winning cures everything. That, unfortunately, didn’t happen much in 1970. Without Lombardi calling the plays, Starr posted a 63.9 passer rating, his second lowest of any full season he played. And once again, he tossed a significantly higher number of interceptions than touchdowns, good for a 13:8 ratio and only 1,645 total yards through the air. If the team went to another Super Bowl instead of finishing the year 6-8, those stats might not look so bad in retrospect, but as it stands, Starr was clearly declining in the twilight of his career.
6. Vince Evans – 1981 (Chicago Bears)
Any Bears fans who felt unfulfilled by Jay Cutler these last few years need only look back at their quarterback history and remember the Vince Evans era. In a career that stretched almost 20 years, Evans only started one full season. That should tell you a lot about the caliber of play he maintained.
That one full season was abysmal, even by the more modest standards of the NFL at the time. Evans couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, even if that barn was the size of Soldier Field. He completed a paltry 44.7% of his passes and was intercepted 20 times. Evans was a dink-and-dunk guy through and through, averaging just 5.4 yards per pass, which makes it all the more absurd that he couldn’t complete at least 50% of those throws. When the Bears won that season — which they only did 6 times — it was in spite of Evans, not because of him.
5. Ken Stabler – 1978 (Oakland Raiders)
Ken “The Snake” Stabler has earned his reputation as one of the most clutch QBs of all time, leading the Raiders to nearly three times as many wins as losses over his career, including Super Bowl XI, which the Raiders dominated. But no matter how solid he was for much of his career, it’s impossible to overlook just how lousy his 1978 season was.
Throwing 30 interceptions in one season is a mind-boggling feat. Throwing that many INTs and only coming away with 16 TDs is another level of astonishing, though. Amazingly, Oakland ended up with a winning record that season, thanks in large part to their formidable defense. Even more amazingly, Stabler actually threw two fewer INTs than Fran Tarkenton that year, but the Vikings QB actually managed to put together a decent season in spite of his outrageously high pick rate. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for Stabler.
4. Eli Manning – 2013 (New York Giants)
Eli Manning is perhaps the most perplexing 2x Super Bowl MVP in the history of the NFL. He’s both under-appreciated as the greatest quarterback to ever sling a ball for the Giants and the most overrated QB of his era who only sustained a career on the shoulders of shutdown defenses, depending on who you ask. And somehow, both sides of the argument are right.
The strongest argument for the overrated camp, however, is a brief overview of his agonizing 2013 campaign. The younger Manning spent most of the season building a case against himself as a future Hall of Famer and Giants GOAT. He set career records in all the worst categories: He threw a career high 5 INTs in Week 15, ended the season with a career-high 27 INTs and a career-low 18 TDs, and lost 6 games in a row to open the season, the longest such streak in Giants history since 1976. Plus — and this is unofficial — Eli had the dumbest face of any quarterback to start every game that year.
3. Bobby Douglass – 1972 (Chicago Bears)
Long before there was Steve Young and Michael Vick, there was Bobby Douglass, one of the NFL’s first true dual-threat quarterbacks. Except that he was really still a single-threat QB…just not at the one thing players at that position is supposed to be good at. Douglass could run the ball with the best of them, but he couldn’t hit an open receiver to save his life. Which is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want in a quarterback.
According to his receivers, Douglass had a strong arm. Too strong, apparently, because he constantly overthrew his guys even when there wasn’t a defender in sight. To cement his status as a run-first signal caller, Douglass broke the record for most rushing yards by a QB in his 1972 season. In that same season, he completed just 75 passes and notched around 1,200 yards. To put that into perspective, the record for most pass completions in a season belongs to Drew Brees, who had 471 in 2016.
2. Trent Dilfer – 1995 (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
The term “game manager” gets thrown a lot, especially in today’s NFL, but no one’s more deserving of that title than Trent “I Won A Super Bowl Throwing For 1,500 Yards On The Entire Season” Dilfer. Unlike that bizarre 2000 season with the Ravens, however, Dilfer’s inability to produce even a mediocre stat line over the course of his 13-year career usually resulted in a pretty abysmal season.
None of those seasons were worse than 1995, when Dilfer threw for a grand total of 4 touchdown passes compared to a whopping 18 INTs. For perspective, he had 12 fumbles, which means he coughed up the football 3 times as often as he completed a pass in the end zone. Dilfer failed to break 3,000 yards, naturally, and was lucky he had Errict Rhett in the backfield rushing for 1,200 yards, otherwise the Bucs would have performed even worse than 7-9 on the season.
1. David Carr – 2002 (Houston Texans)
David Carr’s career in the NFL played like a classic disaster movie. And as with all great disaster movies, there some pretty terrifying foreshadowing right out of the gate. Carr was the very first draft pick taken by the Houston Texans. Ever. His draft stock was incredibly high after a phenomenal senior year at Fresno State that saw him throw for almost 5,000 yards and 46 touchdowns, so expectations were high that he could replicate some of that success in the NFL. But carrying a fledgling expansion team on his shoulders with almost no help from his offensive line proved to be too tall a task for the former Bulldog.
Statistically, the 2002 Texans were the worst offense the league had ever seen. Carr was sacked 76 times, a stat that “helped” him set a record for the most fumble recoveries in a single season, picking up 12 of the 20 that he coughed up. With his cage being rattled all season, it’s no wonder he barely passed for over 2,500 yards and gave up 15 INTs to just 9 TDs.