It’s a universally accepted notion that you aren’t going anywhere in the NFL without a quarterback. You’re not getting to the playoffs with a bad one and you’re not making it to the Super Bowl with any quarterback short of greatness. While it’s been shown that you don’t need the elite quarterback to win a Super Bowl, (see Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson and Eli Manning) you do need your quarterback to be playing at a high level when it counts the most.
If a team is great enough, they can overcome some shortcomings at the most important position, be it through a dominant running game or a suffocating defense. The Bears didn’t win the Super Bowl because of Jim McMahon, the Ravens didn’t win because of Trent Dilfer and the Buccaneers didn’t win theirs because of Brad Johnson. One common trait though, was those quarterbacks didn’t harm their team along the way. They were careful with the football and made the big plays when they had to.
Some teams haven’t been so lucky, as there have been plenty of teams throughout NFL history that were littered with talent across the board but couldn’t overcome their weakness at quarterback. Usually it was because of untimely turnovers, but it could also be that they just didn’t get the big play when they needed it. Even if your defense is dominant and your running game is controlling the clock, there comes those 13-13 games where you need that big throw to get you over the hump.
The teams you’ll see on this list didn’t need an elite quarterback to win the Super Bowl, but the fact they didn’t have someone solid under center prevented them from doing so. Here are 15 NFL teams that could have won the Super Bowl, but were held back by terrible play at quarterback. So to be clear, we’re only talking about that particular year, meaning the team could have had a QB who had success in his career, but was ineffective that particular season.
15. 2003 Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins teams of the early 2000s were always competitive, thanks to perennial Pro Bowlers like Zach Thomas, Patrick Surtain and Jason Taylor, but they were constantly let down at quarterback. Jay Fielder had some good seasons under center, but it was clear the Fins were missing Dan Marino. This was most illustrated in the 2003 season, when the team finished 10-6 despite Fiedler’s abysmal season, in which he threw just 11 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Despite their 10 wins, Miami missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker with Denver. The team could have offset the New England dynasty with some good play at quarterback, as the ’03 Dolphins scored just 13 points in two games against New England, yet only gave up 31.
14. 2006 Kansas City Chiefs
Were the 2006 Chiefs held back by mediocre quarterback play or carried by spectacular play at tailback? Who knows, but it seemed the team could never be a threat on offense unless Larry Johnson was having a dominant day. Trent Green was well past his prime by this point and put up a mediocre season, struggling to stay healthy. Damon Huard had an amazing run of 11 touchdowns to one interception in eight game, but this team relied on the backfield. This was Tony Gonzalez’s best shot at something special in KC, but the team quickly bowed out in the playoffs to the Colts.
The Colts stacked the box against Larry Johnson and their passing game didn’t have an answer.
13. 1996 Carolina Panthers
It’s amazing that I would even put a team that was only in its second year of existence on this list, but the fact is, the 1996 Panthers had a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl. The Cowboys’ dominance was over and had they gotten by Green Bay, it’s not crazy to think they could have beaten the Patriots in that year’s Super Bowl, one of the weaker finalists in the game’s history. Kerry Collins started most of the season at quarterback, but only managed 14 touchdowns to nine interceptions. While the defense allowed over 200 rushing yards in the NFC Championship, Collins’ 55.6 rating didn’t help.
12. 2011 San Francisco 49ers
While the 2011 season saw many great moments from Alex Smith, including a heroic performance in the divisional round against the Saints, it was the 49ers defense and a dominant running game that saw them dramatically improve under Jim Harbaugh. The Niners were the no.2 seed in the NFC and hosted the NFC Championship game against the Giants. The Giants were coming off an upset over the Packers and while San Fran’s defense made the Giants ineffective for most of the day, Smith couldn’t generate any offense, unable to convert on third down for three quarters of the game.
11. 2010 Chicago Bears
The 2010 Chicago Bears had a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl. The Packers had been ravaged by injuries throughout the year, while Minnesota was a mess, and the Lions were, well the Lions. That opened the door for the Bears to win the NFC North and earn a first round bye. The Packers knocked off the top seeded Falcons, giving the Bears a chance to host the NFC Championship. An injury forced Cutler out of a close game, forcing Caleb Hanie to play hero for Chicago. He could not and the Bears missed a huge opportunity. They have not made the playoffs since.
10. 1969 Baltimore Colts
Coming off an upset loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III, the Colts were expected to rebound and contend for the Super Bowl again in the 1969 season. Instead the Colts experienced one of the first so-called Super Bowl hangovers, going 8-5-1. Perhaps the biggest dropoff was at quarterback. Johnny Unitas had an abysmal season by his standards, throwing 12 interceptions to 20 touchdowns.
Earl Morrall, who had led the Colts to the Super Bowl the previous year, threw just five touchdowns to seven interceptions and completed just 46.5% of his passes when relieving an often injured Unitas.
9. 2008 Carolina Panthers
Jake Delhomme often struggled to stay healthy and was often accused as riding the coattails of a superb defense in Carolina and an offense more defendant on the running game. Delhomme seemed to be proving some doubters wrong in 2008, leading the Panthers to a 12-4 record and a first round bye. Still, the offense was led by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart more than Delhomme’s arm. It all unraveled in the playoffs, as Delhomme had perhaps the worst playoff game a QB has ever had, throwing five interceptions and losing a fumble in a divisional round loss to Arizona.
8. 2008 Tennessee Titans
This could have been the story for many Titans teams in the post McNair/George era, but 2008 was the year the Titans had a team balanced enough to win the Super Bowl. They had a great one-two combo in Lendale White and Chris Johnson, a powerful o-line and a defense led by Albert Haynesworth… in a contract year, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bullock, Michael Griffin and Cortland Finnegan. Everything clicked that year, with the team starting 10-0 on the backs of that defense, but when the playoffs came around, Kerry Collins, in place of a benched Vince Young, couldn’t make the plays needed. The team turned the ball over four times, with Collins coming up short on big plays.
7. 2009-10 New York Jets
People loved telling themselves that Mark Sanchez was going to be the next Joe Namath, dubbing him the Sanchize right out of college. The hype grew when the Jets reached the AFC Championship in back-to-back seasons, Sanchez’s first two in the NFL. Anybody watching those teams though, knew the Jets were there because of the best CB tandem in football in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, as well as a dominant running game. Teams had also yet to figure Rex Ryan out. Sanchez’s career trajectory proves those Jets teams won in spite of Sanchez, not because of him.
6. 2005 Jacksonville Jaguars
It was the same old story for many of Jack Del Rio’s Jacksonville Jaguars teams. They consistently had a solid defense and Fred Taylor moving the chains, but they were never able to land themselves an upper echelon QB and it constantly held them back. It seemed to be a different story in 2005, as the team finished 12-4, just a couple behind the 14-2 Colts. Leftwich didn’t have to be spectacular, only throwing 15 touchdowns, but he limited himself to five interceptions. Unfortunately, the Jags ran into Tom Brady in the playoffs and there was a no way a Byron Leftwich led team was beating Brady’s Patriots. You wonder what the Jags could have done with an upgrade at QB.
5. 2008 Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens won the Super Bowl a few years ago just in time, as many felt that was the very end of their championship window. The reason it was, is because the team’s identity was their defense, led by Ed Reed, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, among others. The 2008 Ravens had John Harbaugh as a rookie head coach and Joe Flacco as a rookie. The Ravens rode their defense to the AFC Championship and while Flacco gained valuable experience that year, it was clear the Ravens could have went all the way with better play at quarterback.
4. 1969 New York Jets
Many people now look back at Joe Namath’s career and say he was overrated because of his Super Bowl guarantee, combined with the market he played in. The numbers over the years don’t back him up though. The 1969 Jets managed to build a 10-4 record off their Super Bowl win, but Namath’s stats were unimpressive, throwing nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns. The Jets made the playoffs, but were ousted by the Chiefs, as Namath posted terrible numbers of 14-of-40, for 169 yards and three interceptions. Despite those abysmal numbers, the Cheifs only prevailed by a score of 13-6, telling you that better play from their QB could have seen the Jets repeat as Super Bowl champions.
3. 1970 Dallas Cowboys
It was a little too early for Roger Staubach to be ready to take the reins in Dallas, creating a QB controversy with Craig Morton. Morton’s stats that season were 1,819 yards and 15 touchdowns, with only 7 interceptions (these were great numbers in 1970). Staubach had only thrown two touchdowns to eight interceptions when called in relief. All of Morton’s work was undone in Super Bowl V, also known as the “Blunder Bowl.” Morton threw three interceptions in the game, thus negating the seven turnovers from the Colts. The Cowboys would lose 16-13 despite a dominant performance by their defense.
2. 2001 Baltimore Ravens
All the Ravens teams of the early 2000s needed was a caretaker at quarterback, somebody who wouldn’t cost them games while their defense was dominating. The Ravens replaced Trent Dilfer with Elvis Grbac following their Super Bowl XXXV win and the move backfired. While the team finished 10-6, Grbac threw 18 interceptions. His play proved to be the Ravens undoing in the playoffs, as Grbac threw three interceptions and went 18-of-37 for 153 yards in a divisional round loss to the Steelers.
1. 2006 Chicago Bears
The 2006 Bears had the franchise’s best season other than their 18-1 season of 1985, but despite their dominant defense, solid running game and electrifying rookie named Devin Hester, skeptics were just waiting for Rex Grossman to cost his team. Turns out, they had to wait until the Super Bowl. Grossman was inconsistent throughout the season, with many labeling his performances simply as “Good Rex” or “Bad Rex”.
In the team’s Super Bowl loss to the Colts, Grossman threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and was very ineffective on a day his team needed him to move the ball. Grossman’s shortcomings eventually persuaded the team to pursue a trade for Jay Cutler.
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