For years now, quarterbacks have owned the NFL. The game opened up and made franchise signal callers the cash cow every team hopes to acquire. Defenders have never had it harder in terms of contact and pass interference. Running backs shred defenses through committee more often now than as a single, unstoppable force.
The air is king instead. Rule changes and scheme alterations have resulted in an explosion of yardage and passing touchdowns while current players continue their decimation of all-time passing records. Seven of the top ten quarterbacks with the most touchdowns in NFL history are either current players or retired in the 2010’s. Aaron Rodgers is only three passing touchdowns away from making that eight.
Still, tossing 30 touchdowns is and should be considered an impressive feat. Following the 11-player explosion last season, only five quarterbacks exceeded the number this year. That is not to say that recent throwers are the only one to light up the scoreboard. The great Johnny Unitas became the first to throw for over 30 touchdowns (32) in 1959. Y.A. Tittle set an NFL record 36 touchdowns in 1963, which wasn’t touched until Dan Marino shattered it with 48 during the 1984 season.
The question remains, whom among the 30+ club is the worst? It’s not a simple answer. The 30-touchdown mark has been eclipsed 110 times in league history. The selection pool grows smaller when you consider that 45 quarterbacks have accounted for those 110 statistical achievements. Essentially, this is your disclaimer. You will be angry at several inclusions. Feel free to comment with why another 30+ clubber deserves the distinction instead.
15 Jim Everett
Jim Everett is a casualty of the competition in the 30+ club. Drafted with the third pick out of Purdue in 1986, Everett entered the peak of his career in 1988, compiling 3,964 yards, 31 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. His Los Angeles Rams, however, were one and done in the playoffs. Everett increased his passing yardage to over 4,000 the following year but fell just short of a second consecutive 30-touchdown season (29). Despite throwing for 203 career touchdowns and 34,837 yards, Everett is perhaps best remembered for what transpired in the 1989 NFC Championship Game. In a 30-3 losing effort against the San Francisco 49ers, Everett was so battered by previous blitzes that he dropped to the ground on a play before defenders actually reached him. The play became known as the “Phantom Sack.” Years later, the ever-unlikable Jim Rome continually referred to Jim as Chris Everett (a reference to the female tennis player, Chris Evert) during an interview. Jim tossed the table between them aside and threw Rome to the ground. It’s likely the most applauded throw of Everett’s career.
14 Babe Parilli
Babe Parilli played in the AFL and NFL for fifteen seasons as a member of the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, and most notably, the Boston Patriots. Parilli quarterbacked the Patriots from 1961 to 1967. He had his finest year in 1963 when he threw for 3,465 yards and 31 touchdowns. He was one of seven quarterbacks to have a 30-touchdown season during the 1960s. Remarkably, not a single player in the 1970’s reached the mark. Despite Parilli’s skill behind center, he loses out to greats from his era like Sonny Jurgensen, Len Dawson and Daryle Lamonica. Parilli was named to three AFL All-Star Games and won a Super Bowl as a backup on the New York Jets. He retired at age 40 with 178 touchdowns, 220 interceptions, and 22,681 passing yards.
13 Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer is the lone bright light within the recent wasteland of USC quarterbacks who failed to transition to the NFL. He went to Cincinnati number one overall in 2003. Palmer achieved his first of two 30-touchdown seasons in 2005 on the way to giving the Bengals their first winning season since 1990. Tragedy struck in the playoffs when he tore his ACL, MCL and damaged his meniscus in a potentially career threatening injury. Palmer battled back and regained form, but lost patience with the Bengals and threatened to retire. The standoff resulted in two lost years with Oakland before Palmer enjoyed a late-career resurgence with the Arizona Cardinals. Mirroring his Cincinatti days, Palmer’s second 30-touchdown season came in his third year with the team. Palmer’s currently 14th all-time with 285 career touchdowns. Why is he on the list? He’s untrustworthy in big games. Palmer is the only starter left from his draft class, but take a look at the relevant first round picks in the next two: Manning, Rivers, Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Smith. Who do you possibly choose Palmer over with the game on the line? Are you thinking Alex Smith? Too bad. He doesn’t count – he’s never thrown 30 in a season. The other four have. Three own rings. Rivers is a sadistically competitive warrior. Palmer gets the list.
12 Steve Bartkowski
Steve Bartkowski is a member of the Atlanta Falcons Ring of Honor, has his number 10 retired by the organization, and was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1975. He’s also one of the worst to reach 30 touchdowns in a season. Bartkowski did so twice, throwing 31 touchdowns in 1980 and 30 in 1981. He earned a Pro Bowl nomination for both seasons. Coincidentally, these were the only two seasons Bartkowski managed to play 16 games. Apart from his two 30-touchdown seasons, he only enjoyed one other 20+ season, which came during an impressive 22-touchdown, 5-interception 1983 campaign. His inability to make starts and his lackluster playoff resume relegate him to this list. His career 55.9% completion percentage dropped to 47.7% during his combined 1-3 playoff record. He threw five postseason touchdowns to eight interceptions.
11 Brian Sipe
Browns fans would legitimately kill for Brian Sipe to be their quarterback again. He’s their all time leader in passing yards with 23,713 and second in touchdowns with 154. The Browns begging someone to throw the ball for them doesn’t exactly speak volumes, however. Tim Couch is number five on their all-time passing yards list. Tim Couch. Nevertheless, Sipe was a great quarterback and a terrific story from 1974-1983. He went from 13th round pick to the 1980 MVP with 4,132 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, but it wouldn’t be a Browns story without an unhappy ending. In the 1980 Divisional playoff game against the Raiders, Sipe’s Browns trailed 14-12 with a minute left in the game. They had the ball deep in Raiders territory. Cleveland wanted to continue going for the touchdown due to the difficulty of kicking in freezing temperatures. Coach Sam Rutigliano called the infamous pass play now known as Red Right 88 and told Sipe, “If nobody’s open, throw the ball into Lake Erie.” Perhaps Sipe misheard, because he threw the ball to Oakland’s Mike Davis. The Browns never again made it to the postseason during Sipe’s tenure.
10 Daunte Culpepper
Daunte Culpepper threw for 3,937 yards, 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in his second year in the NFL. The Vikings looked set for a decade of possible NFC North dominance following 2000’s 11-5 campaign. It didn’t pan out. Culpepper struggled for two seasons before regaining a groove in 2003 and eventually leading them back to the playoffs in 2004 with 4,717 yards, 39 touchdowns and 11 picks. His abysmal 2-5 start to 2005, which included 12 interceptions, got worse after he suffered an injury to his ACL, PCL and MCL. The fallen star suited up for Detroit, Oakland and Miami from 2006 to 2009. He didn’t throw more than 5 touchdowns in any of those seasons. Some may believe Culpepper shouldn’t be on this list due to an injury-shortened career. I counter with a Matt Schaub comparison. It’s a nearly identical performance.
Culpepper: 3,199 attempts, 149 touchdowns, 106 interceptions and 24,153 yards.
Schaub: 3,274 attempts, 133 touchdowns, 90 interceptions and 24,867 yards.
9 Vinny Testaverde
Vinny Testaverde played for seven different teams over the course of 21 seasons. He wasn’t necessarily a great or even an exciting quarterback, but Vinny held down a job in the NFL for two decades. That alone is commendable. He entered the league while the first Bush sat in the White House and retired a year before Barack Obama was elected. Testaverde joined the 30+ club as a Baltimore Raven with 33 touchdowns in his tenth year. It took much less time to earn a more notorious 30+ membership. While he only managed 13 touchdowns his second season, Testaverde threw 35 interceptions. That is the second most in history, and he’s the only quarterback to throw 30 or more interceptions after the 1980 season. When he retired, Testaverde had the same number of 20+ interception seasons as he did 20+ touchdown seasons – four.
8 Jeff Garcia
Jeff Garcia was the everyman quarterback. Supposedly too small to play the position effectively, he was forced to prove himself in the CFL. Garcia earned a backup gig to Steve Young after five years with the Calgary Stampeders. When Young retired in 2000, Garcia won the 49ers starting job and proved doubters wrong with 4,278 yards, 31 touchdowns and and 10 interceptions. He returned in 2001 with a firm grasp on the starting job. The confidence led to a second 30-touchdown season in a row and a 12-4 record. When Garcia’s performance dropped in the next two seasons and his relationship with Terrell Owens soured, the team decided to let Garcia go. He spent time with Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay before joining the Omaha Nighthawks in 2010. He retired with 161 touchdowns, 83 interceptions, and 25,537 passing yards. Not bad for an undersized quarterback assigned the task of following Montana and Young.
7 Lynn Dickey
After starting sporadically for the Houston Oilers during the first four years of his career, Lynn Dickey joined the Green Bay Packers in 1977 as part of a trade for John Hadl. Dickey broke his leg nine games into the season and did not play again until 1979. Although his one and only trip to the playoffs came in 1982, Dickey performed best in 1983 and 1984. His previous career highs were 3,529 yards and 17 touchdowns before he lit up the league in 1983 for 4,458 yards and 32 touchdowns. The passing yardage mark stood as a Packers season record until Aaron Rodgers broke it in 2011. He threw for 25 touchdowns the following year before dropping down to 15 in his final season. Dickey helmed Green Bay during an era of futility. Despite his successes, Dickey often shot himself in the foot with mistakes. He retired with 141 touchdowns but 179 interceptions.
6 Steve Beuerlein
Steve Beuerlein split his first four years in the league between the Los Angeles Raiders and Dallas Cowboys. He then squabbled with Cardinals’ coach Buddy Ryan, who called Beuerlein, “one of the worst quarterbacks he had ever seen” and exposed him to the expansion draft. Beuerlein joined the expansion Jaguars and became the organization’s first ever starter, but he soon lost the job to Mark Brunell. The whirlwind adventure continued as Beuerlein become Kerry Collins’ backup in Carolina. Collins bizarrely gave up on the team during the 1998 season and essentially benched himself. The journeyman took over with average play and his head coach Dom Capers was fired, but he won the starting job again during the team’s 1999 training camp. Although the team barely kept its head above water at 8-8, Beuerlein excelled. He led the league with 4,436 passing yards and threw 36 touchdowns. Sadly, it proved to be a one hit wonder. He lasted another year in Carolina before spending his last three as a Denver backup. Beuerlein’s next highest total for touchdowns in a season was 19. He retired with 147 touchdowns, 112 interceptions and 24,046 yards. If you’d like to compare him to Culpepper as well, Beuerlein had 3,328 career pass attempts.
5 Andy Dalton
Andy Dalton already has 142 passing touchdowns in six years as a starter. Assuming he keeps up that pace for another six years, Dalton would have 284 touchdown passes and be 16 short of tying John Elway by age 35. This is the pass-oriented NFL we live in. He’s also currently outpacing his fellow draft class member, Cam Newton, albeit just 142 to 136. Newton has the weapon of mobility and has led his team to a Super Bowl birth. The reason Andy Dalton, who threw 33 touchdowns in 2013, appears on this list is because he’s unlikely to do so. In fact, now that the Cubs did the impossible and won the World Series, it’s time to popularize new “nevers.” Andy Dalton will never appear in a Super Bowl. That’s not exactly a bold proclamation. Cincinatti hasn’t won a playoff game since January 1991, and Andy Dalton has one touchdown to six picks in four postseason games. He maxes out as a mid tier NFL quarterback. He plays at a level that avoids the need for a replacement but falls short of championship caliber. With Dalton, the Bengals are stuck in NFL limbo.
4 Scott Mitchell
Scott Mitchell began his career as a backup to Dan Marino in Miami. The fourth round pick from Utah spent three years with the Dolphins before landing a starting job with the Detroit Lions. He struggled in his first year as a starter and eventually broke his hand during the team’s week nine game. Mitchell rebounded for his best year as a pro the following season. He set Detroit records with 4,338 yards passing and 32 touchdowns, both of which would later be broken by Matthew Stafford. Detroit went to the playoffs but lost its first game due to four-interception performance by Mitchell. Although he remained the starter through the 1998 season and again made it to the playoffs in 1997, Mitchell’s career is largely forgetful. He retired in 2001 with 95 touchdowns and 81 interceptions. His breakthrough season accounted for over a third of his total touchdowns.
3 Vince Ferragamo
Vince Ferragamo enjoyed a strange career. A member of the 30+ club, he only threw 76 touchdowns in his career. As a rookie with the Los Angeles Rams, he became the first quarterback to start a Super Bowl the same season as his first career start. The Rams sat at 5-5 after losing their quarterback, Pat Haden, to a broken right pinkie. Ferragamo stepped in with his strong arm and guided Los Angeles to the playoffs. He orchestrated two unexpected road defeats against the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers before facing the dreaded Steelers in Super Bowl XIV. The team actually held a 19-17 fourth quarter lead before falling to the eventual champions. Ferragamo had a 30-touchdown, 19-interception performance as a starter the next year. He then joined the CFL for a season before returning to LA. Ferragamo put up 22 touchdown passes in 1983, but he broke his hand three games into the 1984 season, his last with the Rams. He spent a year each with Buffalo and Green Bay before retiring.
2 Blake Bortles
The Jaguars became the sleeper playoff pick over the 2016 offseason. The team had finally found a franchise quarterback. Blake Bortles set single-season franchise records for passing yards (4,428), touchdowns (35) and completions (355). Jacksonville supposedly won the draft and signed key components to build a ferocious defense. Then, the 2016 season actually took place. The Jaguars went 3-13 and played long stretches of uninspired football. Bortles broke his own completions record, but didn’t come close to the other two marks. He regressed to the point of causing a fracture within the fan base. He’s either a budding superstar who took a step backward or a bum devoid of mechanics. The future remains to be seen, but Bortles began an alarming trend of padding stats against prevent defenses in the 4th quarter. With his real team already far behind, only fantasy players benefited.
1 Ryan Fitzpatrick
Only one man could save Bortles from the number one spot. When Geno Smith missed the beginning of the 2015 season after a teammate sucker punched him, it seemed to be a classic Jets story. Remarkably, they suddenly started winning with journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. He put up the best numbers of his career (3,905 yards, 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions), and the team just barely missed the playoffs at 10-6. Fitzpatrick strong-armed the New York into a $12 million contract before proceeding to lay an egg for the entire 2016 season. His low point came during a six-interception game against Kansas City. In case you were wondering, it takes a massive display of ineptitude to throw to the wrong jersey that many times. Tyrod Taylor, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott and Tom Brady all threw six or less the entire season. The sad thing is that no one should be surprised. There’s literally a drawn chart you can google known as The Fitzpatrick Cycle: Fitzpatrick gets signed as a backup, the starter gets hurt, he plays well, gets paid and then bombs. Lather, rinse, repeat. He’s done it to six different teams. Who will be next?