What Keeps a Great QB Out of the Playoffs?
by Scott Kacsmar
A decade ago, the 2007 New England Patriots marched through a 16-0 regular season, falling one drive short of a perfect 19-0 season. The only remaining links from that 2007 team are head coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. However, with the 2017 NFL season approaching, there have been predictions that the Patriots are primed for perfection again.
No matter how long it takes for the Patriots to lose a game this season, barring a catastrophic run of injuries, everyone expects this team to make the playoffs. It helps that the Jets are getting 0-16 predictions, the Bills look to be in tanking mode, and the Dolphins had to bring Jay Cutler out of retirement to lead their parade of mediocrity.
Of course, a big part of the NFL's popularity is the dramatic swings in a 17-week regular season. In 2008, who could have predicted that Brady would tear his ACL in the first quarter of Week 1? Who would still have had the confidence that the Patriots would win 11 games with Matt Cassel at quarterback? Finally, who could have imagined that 11-5 wouldn't be good enough to win the AFC East over a Miami team that signed Chad Pennington in August after a 1-15 season in 2007?
2008 happens to be the last time the Patriots missed the playoffs. If they make the playoffs in 2017 as expected, that would be nine consecutive playoff appearances, tying the NFL record set by the 1975-1983 Cowboys and 2002-2010 Colts. One might say to sustain such a run of success, you need a great head coach such as Tom Landry or Belichick, or that you need a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback such as Peyton Manning or Brady. The Patriots have been fortunate to have one of each. Perhaps if they had had Brady in 2008, or if Miami hadn't gotten Pennington, the Patriots would have already smashed the record with 14 consecutive postseasons (and counting).
|Most Consecutive Playoff Appearances in NFL History|
|Rk||Team||Years||Primary QB(s)||Head Coach(es)||Streak|
|1||Cowboys||1975-1983||Roger Staubach, Danny White||Tom Landry||9|
|1||Colts||2002-2010||Peyton Manning||Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell||9|
|3||Steelers||1972-1979||Terry Bradshaw||Chuck Noll||8|
|3||Rams||1973-1980||John Hadl, James Harris,
Pat Haden, Vince Ferragamo
|Chuck Knox, Ray Malavasi||8|
|3||49ers||1983-1990||Joe Montana||Bill Walsh, George Seifert||8|
|3||Patriots||2009-2016||Tom Brady||Bill Belichick||8|
|3||Packers||2009-2016||Aaron Rodgers||Mike McCarthy||8|
|8||Oilers||1987-1993||Warren Moon||Jerry Glanville, Jack Pardee||7|
New England's long-term success being so heavily centered on the duo of Belichick and Brady is in fact unique in NFL history. When Dallas had a record 20 consecutive winning seasons (and 18 playoff appearances) from 1966 to 1985, Landry had Roger Staubach at quarterback for less than half of those games. He also won with Don Meredith, Craig Morton, and Danny White. While not a team himself, Peyton Manning made the playoffs 15 times (an NFL record for a quarterback) in the last 16 seasons he played, and he did it for two franchises and five different head coaches. When San Francisco had an incredible run of success from 1981 to 1998 (17 double-digit win seasons and five Super Bowl wins), the 49ers had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Joe Montana and Steve Young) and three head coaches (Bill Walsh, George Seifert, and Steve Mariucci). The 1965-1980 Raiders had 16 consecutive winning seasons, with Tom Flores the team's starting quarterback at the beginning of that run and the head coach at the end of it in 1980's Super Bowl-winning season. In between, the Raiders also had Hall of Famers in head coach John Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler.
Success and relevancy for a period of 15 to 20 years is ultra-rare in NFL history, but of the few teams that have achieved it, none are more centered around one quarterback and one head coach like the Patriots have been. That consistency has likely helped the Patriots to historic postseason success (25 wins and a 5-2 Super Bowl record since 2001), but postseason success is not what we are interested in looking at today. This is much more about what it takes to consistently make the tournament in the first place. Once there, you never know what will happen, especially in this era.
Reasons for Missing the Playoffs
The Patriots are not the only team in position for history this season. You may have noticed in the table above that the Packers can also tie the NFL record with their ninth consecutive playoff appearance this season. Green Bay last missed the playoffs in 2008, Aaron Rodgers' first season as a starter. Mike McCarthy is the only NFL head coach Rodgers has known during this run, but few (if any) are willing to anoint McCarthy as one of the game's all-time great coaches.
Similar things can be said about Mike Tomlin and the Steelers. Pittsburgh has not had a losing season since posting a 6-10 record in 2003, the year before the team drafted Ben Roethlisberger. How much credit for this success should go to the quarterback, and how much to the coach? This has been a heated topic of discussion on this website in the past, and we're not here to specifically parse that one today. However, there is no doubt that a top quarterback is the best way to consistently compete for the playoffs.
Sure, you might need a Manning or Brady if you are to consistently compete for first-round byes, but in terms of just making the tournament, a very good quarterback will often keep his team in the hunt every year. The other elements of the team will dictate how deep that hunt goes.
So what happened in the seasons when great quarterbacks missed the playoffs? I looked at all of those years, including time spent as a backup, for the 27 quarterbacks in NFL history who started in at least six different postseasons. Why six? I thought that was a good minimum for the top modern quarterbacks. Dan Fouts (four appearances) and Kurt Warner (five) are the only Hall of Fame quarterbacks under that minimum who spent the majority of their careers in the post-1978 era. We'll touch on Fouts later, and Warner's career path is very unique to say the least.
I broke down the playoff misses for these quarterbacks into eight categories, including three injury (INJ) categories split by games missed rather than real-life severity of the injury (i.e., a broken leg in Week 16 is a major injury in real life, but here it's a "minor" injury since the quarterback only missed two games):
- Healthy: The quarterback started (or at least played) in every regular-season game.
- INJ-Minor: Minor injuries that kept the quarterback out for one or two games.
- INJ-Medium: Injuries that kept the quarterback out for three to seven games.
- INJ-Major: Major injuries that caused the quarterback to miss eight-plus games (or the equivalent of half the season).
- Backup: The quarterback was a backup who may have only made a few spot starts here or there that season.
- Not Full Time: Some of these could fall under "Backup" as well, but this is mostly for quarterbacks who had to take over after a starter was lost to injury, or if they were promoted to the starting lineup later in the season. This means they did not start every game that season.
- Benched: A couple of these could also qualify as "Not Full Time," but this is when the quarterback lost his starting job.
- 87 Strike: During the strike in the 1987 season, there were three games in Weeks 4 to 6 played mostly by "replacement" or "scab" players, leaving the likes of Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and Randall Cunningham helpless as they watched their teams struggle. Cunningham was 7-5 as a starter, but the Eagles went 0-3 in replacement games. This also helped the Colts (9-6) win a tight AFC East as they went 2-1 in replacement games, including a 47-6 blowout of the Bills without Kelly (or other relevant players).
The following table is a summary of playoff misses for the 27 quarterbacks studied. If the quarterback played in the postseason, but did not start, that was included as a miss here. The table is sorted by the highest playoff rates (PO%) as a percentage of seasons with a playoff start.
|Starting Quarterbacks with at Least Six Postseasons: Playoff Misses Summary|
|%Misses||(Playoff credit for starts only)||29.4%||11.9%||10.7%||8.5%||20.3%||11.9%||5.6%||1.7%|
These quarterbacks started in the playoffs in 54.7 percent of the seasons they played in the NFL, including injuries and time as a backup. Of the 177 missed postseasons, 29.4 percent were with a healthy quarterback, compared to 31.1 percent with a quarterback who had some degree of injury. That leaves 39.5 percent of the misses to situations where the quarterback was not an every-week starter. Out of the 52 "Healthy" misses, there were 14 winning records, 14 seasons of 8-8, and 24 losing records, including four 7-9 seasons by Drew Brees in New Orleans.
When Great Quarterbacks Missed the Playoffs
The following sections will go through groupings of the aforementioned starting quarterbacks with the most postseason appearances in NFL history, focusing on the seasons they did not start in the playoffs. Otto Graham was the only quarterback to have zero playoff misses in his brief (six-year) NFL career with the Browns, going to six championship games.
Starting Quarterbacks with 10-Plus Postseasons
The following table looks at the playoff misses for the only five quarterbacks to start in at least 10 different postseasons: Peyton Manning (15), Tom Brady (14), Brett Favre (12), Joe Montana (11), and Dan Marino (10).
|Peyton Manning||1998||IND||3-13||3-13||Healthy||Rookie; bottom-ranked scoring defense, 1-9 vs. playoff teams|
|2001||IND||6-10||6-10||Healthy||Bottom-ranked scoring defense, 1-9 vs. playoff teams|
|2011||IND||2-14||DNP||Injured-Major||Missed entire season after four neck surgeries|
|Tom Brady||2000||NE||5-11||0-0||Backup||Rookie backup to Drew Bledsoe (0 GS)|
|2002||NE||9-7||9-7||Healthy||Missed playoffs after tie-breakers (AFC's No. 8 seed)|
|2008||NE||11-5||1-0||Injured-Major||Torn ACL in Q1 of Week 1 (Matt Cassel went 10-5 as starter)|
|Brett Favre||1991||ATL||10-6||0-0||Backup||Rookie backup to Chris Miller (0 GS); team made playoffs|
|1992||GB||9-7||8-5||Not Full Time||Helped team win 9 of last 14 games; missed POs on tie-breaker|
|1999||GB||8-8||8-8||Healthy||Tie-breakers put two 8-8 teams in playoffs, but not GB|
|2000||GB||9-7||9-7||Healthy||Finished one game out of playoffs (all teams 10-6 or better)|
|2005||GB||4-12||4-12||Healthy||Career-high 29 INT; finished as NFC's No. 14 seed|
|2006||GB||8-8||8-8||Healthy||Tie-breakers put 8-8 NYG in; GB left out as NFC's No. 7 seed|
|2008||NYJ||9-7||9-7||Healthy||Started 8-3 before injury-ravaged 1-4 finish; No. 8 seed in AFC|
|2010||MIN||6-10||5-8||Injured-Medium||Body finally gave out; ironman streak ended at age 41|
|Joe Montana||1979||SF||2-14||0-1||Backup||Rookie backup to Steve DeBerg; started one game|
|1980||SF||6-10||2-5||Not Full Time||Didn't start until Week 7; SF 4-7 in games Montana threw a pass|
|1982||SF||3-6||3-6||Healthy||Strike-shortened year; tied for NFL lead in TD passes (17)|
|1991||SF||10-6||DNP||Injured-Major||Missed entire season with elbow injury suffered in preseason|
|1992||SF||14-2||0-0||Injured-Major||Injured/backup to NFL MVP Steve Young (0 GS); team made playoffs|
|Dan Marino||1986||MIA||8-8||8-8||Healthy||Marino threw 44 TD; MIA allowed 25.3 PPG; AFC's No. 9 seed|
|1987||MIA||8-7||7-5||87 Strike||MIA: 1-2 in replacement games during strike, then blew 14-0 lead to IND|
|1988||MIA||6-10||6-10||Healthy||AFC's No. 11 seed; DEF ranked last in DVOA for 2nd year in a row|
|1989||MIA||8-8||8-8||Healthy||One of AFC's four 8-8 teams to miss playoffs; DVOA's worst defense again|
|1991||MIA||8-8||8-8||Healthy||Missed playoffs after Wk 17 loss in OT to Jets (de-facto playoff game)|
|1993||MIA||9-7||4-1||Injured-Major||Ruptured Achilles after strong start|
|1996||MIA||8-8||7-6||Injured-Medium||MIA: 1-2 without Marino; one of AFC's four 8-8 teams to miss playoffs|
The only real formula to keep Manning out of the playoffs was to pair him with a defense that allowed the most points in the NFL, and a schedule that featured 10 games against playoff teams back when the pre-realignment AFC East was tough. The Colts went 1-9 against playoff teams in both 1998 (Manning's rookie year) and 2001, and those defensive failures led to the firing of head coach Jim Mora. In 2011, Manning's attempt to set a record with a 10th straight playoff appearance in Indianapolis never got started. He missed the entire season after undergoing four neck surgeries. The Colts went 2-14 before drafting Andrew Luck, but Manning returned for four more postseasons with the Broncos before retiring.
Brady was of course Drew Bledsoe's backup in New England as a rookie, and took over in early 2001 after Mo Lewis reshaped NFL history by injuring Bledsoe. The aforementioned Chad Pennington has really been the best challenger the rest of the AFC East has had at quarterback to deal with Brady over the years. The Jets edged out the Patriots on a tie-breaker for the AFC East in 2002, the only healthy year when Brady missed the playoffs. His 2008 ACL injury of course ended his season, one that saw Pennington lead the Dolphins to an AFC East title on a tie-breaker over the Patriots. Brady can tie Manning this year with a 15th postseason appearance.
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Some may forget that Brett Favre started his career as Chris Miller's backup in Atlanta, a playoff team in 1991. After getting traded to Green Bay in 1992, Favre came off the bench for an injured Don Majkowski in Week 3, leading the first and one of the most dramatic comeback wins of his career. He started the next 253 games for Green Bay. The 1992 Packers missed the playoffs after falling in Minnesota in Week 17, but Favre always had the Packers contending for the playoffs until the 2005 season. That year he threw a career-high 29 interceptions and Green Bay finished 4-12. Another 8-8 season in 2006 saw the Packers lose out on the final wild-card spot to the 8-8 Giants. Favre had the 2008 Jets riding high at 8-3, but he struggled playing through an arm injury and the Jets finished 9-7, the No. 8 seed in the AFC. While Favre was brilliant for the Vikings at age 40 in 2009, his body finally broke down in 2010 at age 41. He was 5-8 as a starter and his 297-game ironman streak (321 games including playoffs) ended, as did his career.
Joe Montana, a third-round pick in 1979, started out as Steve DeBerg's backup in San Francisco, only taking over late in the 1980 season. The 1982 nine-game strike season was the only time Montana missed the playoffs as a "full-time" starter. Despite Montana tying for the league lead with 17 touchdown passes, the 49ers finished 3-6 due in part to their No. 23 scoring defense, the only time Montana did not have a top-10 scoring defense as a full-time starter in San Francisco. Montana missed almost all of 1991 and 1992 after an elbow injury suffered in the preseason. By that time, Steve Young had taken over and was named NFL MVP in 1992. Montana moved on to Kansas City, where he helped the Chiefs make the playoffs in 1993 and 1994 before retiring.
Dan Marino is noted for not having much of a running game or defense in Miami, and that is reflected well in the years he missed the playoffs. Miami ranked last in defensive DVOA in 1987, 1988, 1989, and 1991. When we add the 1986 DVOA ratings soon, you will see that a different historically bad defense was the only thing keeping Miami from ranking last in defensive DVOA again. In 1986, Miami finished 8-8 despite Marino's 44 touchdown passes. The 1988 season was the only one in Marino's prime where he had a losing record as a starter (6-10). He also took just six sacks against 606 pass attempts that year, so it was a weird season. In 1993, Marino started hot with the Dolphins at 4-1, but suffered the first major injury of his career with a ruptured Achilles. In 1996, the first year with Jimmy Johnson instead of head coach Don Shula, Miami went 1-2 without Marino and missed the playoffs at 8-8.
Starting Quarterbacks with Eight or Nine Postseasons
The following table looks at the quarterbacks with eight or nine postseasons: Ben Roethlisberger (nine), John Elway (nine), Terry Bradshaw (nine), Aaron Rodgers (eight), Jim Kelly (eight), and Roger Staubach (eight).
|Ben Roethlisberger||2006||PIT||8-8||7-8||Injured-Minor||Motorcycle/appendix year. PIT lost in ATL in OT after BR concussion|
|2009||PIT||9-7||9-6||Injured-Minor||PIT lost in KC in OT after BR concussion; lost in BAL w/Dixon at QB|
|2012||PIT||8-8||7-6||Injured-Medium||PIT: 1-2 without BR, then lost the No. 6 seed to CIN in Week 16|
|2013||PIT||8-8||8-8||Healthy||AFC's No. 7 seed for 2nd year in a row; SD needed missed KC FG in Wk 17 to get No. 6 seed|
|John Elway||1983||DEN||9-7||4-6||Not Full Time||Played in playoffs, but was not starter (Steve DeBerg)|
|1985||DEN||11-5||11-5||Healthy||Missed playoffs on tie-breaker at 11-5 (very rare). AFC's No. 6 seed|
|1988||DEN||8-8||8-7||Injured-Minor||0-1 without Elway; AFC's No. 9 seed (Sweep by Seattle was costly)|
|1990||DEN||5-11||5-11||Healthy||AFC's No. 12 seed (DVOA: No. 12 offense, No. 19 defense)|
|1992||DEN||8-8||8-4||Injured-Medium||0-4 without Elway; AFC's No. 8 seed|
|1994||DEN||7-9||7-7||Injured-Minor||0-2 without Elway; AFC's No. 10 seed (0-4 hole too big to dig out of)|
|1995||DEN||8-8||8-8||Healthy||AFC's No. 8 seed (three 9-7 teams made playoffs)|
|Terry Bradshaw||1970||PIT||5-9||3-5||Not Full Time||Terrible rookie season (6 TD, 24 INT, 30.4 PR)|
|1971||PIT||6-8||5-8||Healthy||Played in 14 games w/13 starts; PIT one of four AFC teams w/6-8 record|
|1980||PIT||9-7||9-6||Injured-Minor||AFC's No. 7 seed; 0-1 without Bradshaw (1-pt loss led to CLE winning division)|
|1981||PIT||8-8||8-6||Injured-Minor||AFC's No. 8 seed; 0-3 after Bradshaw broke throwing hand in Wk 14|
|1983||PIT||10-6||1-0||Injured-Major||Elbow limited Bradshaw to one start; PIT made playoffs (Cliff Stoudt QB1)|
|Aaron Rodgers||2005||GB||4-12||0-0||Backup||Rookie backup to Brett Favre (0 GS)|
|2006||GB||8-8||0-0||Backup||Backup to Brett Favre (0 GS)|
|2007||GB||13-3||0-0||Backup||Backup to Brett Favre (0 GS); team made playoffs|
|2008||GB||6-10||6-10||Healthy||1st-time starter; GB blew 6 fourth-quarter leads; NFC's 13th seed|
|Jim Kelly||1986||BUF||4-12||4-12||Healthy||NFL debut: 6th in yards, 5th in TD passes, 8th in passer rating|
|1987||BUF||7-8||6-6||87 Strike||BUF: 1-2 in replacement games during strike (big loss to IND)|
|1994||BUF||7-9||7-7||Injury-Minor||BUF: 0-2 to end season without Kelly (knee). No. 5 seed if 2-0|
|Roger Staubach||1969||DAL||11-2-1||1-0||Backup||Backup to Craig Morton (1 GS); team made playoffs|
|1970||DAL||10-4||2-1||Benched||Benched in third game for Morton, who took over; DAL lost SB|
|1974||DAL||8-6||8-6||Healthy||Best record for non-playoff NFC team; lost 3 games to 10-4 teams|
If Ben Roethlisberger's health and durability were as good as that of the Manning brothers, Brady, Brees, or Philip Rivers, then we would likely be talking about a quarterback who has never missed the postseason in 13 years. In each of the four seasons that the Steelers have missed, one game would have made the difference.
2006: Roethlisberger started very poorly (0-3 with no touchdowns and seven interceptions) in his return from a motorcycle accident and emergency appendectomy. Once he regained his form, he sustained a concussion in Atlanta. The Steelers lost that game in overtime, and he likely returned a week too soon in Oakland the following week, tossing four interceptions in an upset loss. Pittsburgh finished 6-2 to get to 8-8, but the 9-7 Chiefs (a team the Steelers defeated 45-7 in Week 6) snatched the final wild-card spot.
2009: The Steelers lost in overtime after Roethlisberger left with a concussion in Kansas City, and lost in overtime again with a young Dennis Dixon starting against the Ravens. The 9-7 Ravens edged out the 9-7 Steelers for the final wild-card spot. Pittsburgh also allowed Bruce Gradkowski to become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw three go-ahead touchdown passes in the fourth quarter in a loss to another bad Oakland team.
2012: A serious rib injury to Roethlisberger saw the Steelers go 1-2 without him, including an ugly loss in Cleveland with eight turnovers. Roethlisberger did not look sharp upon return, and had one of the worst games of his career in Week 16 against the Bengals. He threw a late interception that set up Cincinnati's game-winning field goal in a 13-10 loss that eliminated the Steelers from the playoffs. Had the Steelers (8-8) won that particular game, they would have edged out the Bengals (10-6) for the No. 6 seed based on a season sweep.
2013: Pittsburgh almost dug out of a 0-4 hole to make the playoffs at 8-8. However, Antonio Brown just stepped out of bounds on the final play against Miami, negating what would have been an all-time classic lateral play to win a game. Pittsburgh still had hope in Week 17 for the No. 6 seed if the Chiefs' backups could beat the Chargers in San Diego. Ryan Succop just needed to make a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left for the win, but he missed, and San Diego won in overtime to clinch the last playoff berth at 9-7. A convicted murderer even tried suing the NFL for missing a penalty on the missed kick that would have given Succop a second chance from 5 yards closer.
John Elway started 10 games as a rookie and played in the postseason, but veteran Steve DeBerg started that wild-card loss to Seattle in 1983. Two years later, the 1985 Broncos became the first team in NFL history to finish 11-5 and miss the playoffs. Only the 2008 Patriots have done so since. Beyond just a playoff spot, a pair of overtime losses to the Raiders (12-4) late in the season really cost the Broncos the No. 1 seed in the AFC that year. In 1992, Elway had statistically his worst non-rookie season as a starter, but the Broncos were 8-4 with him and 0-4 without him. That likely would have been another playoff season with a healthy Elway.
Terry Bradshaw had an infamous start to his career with one of the worst rookie quarterback seasons ever (six touchdowns to 24 interceptions). But after leading the Steelers to eight postseasons and four Super Bowl wins, Bradshaw really wasn't the problem for the Steelers not sustaining that success into the 1980s. Bradshaw missed one game in 1980, but it was a game where Pittsburgh blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead to the Browns (11-5), the eventual winners of the AFC Central. Pittsburgh finished 9-7. In 1981, Pittsburgh was sitting pretty at 8-5, but Bradshaw broke his throwing hand against the Raiders in Week 14. The Steelers lost that game, and then lost their final two games without Bradshaw to miss the playoffs at 8-8. In 1983, an elbow injury kept Bradshaw out of all but one game. The team still made the playoffs with Cliff Stoudt, but lost to the Raiders.
Aaron Rodgers was Brett Favre's backup for three years before taking over in 2008. He had a very respectable first year as a starter, but that Green Bay team blew six fourth-quarter leads to finish 6-10 in what was a very deep NFC that year -- so deep that the Packers actually finished as the No. 13 seed, but it has been nothing but playoffs ever since for Rodgers in Green Bay.
In Buffalo, head coach Marv Levy took over 10 games into the shaky start of the Jim Kelly era in 1986. Once the Bills started building up talent around the quarterback, the team made four straight Super Bowls from 1990 to 1993. The hope for a fourth trip in 1994 died out after Kelly was lost for the season with a knee injury. Backup Frank Reich went 0-2 as a starter, eliminating the Bills from the playoffs. Kelly started in the playoffs eight times in his 11-year career.
Much like Kelly, who started in the USFL, Roger Staubach got a late start to his career thanks to service in the Navy. He still started in the playoffs eight times in 11 years as well. Tom Landry liked to play musical chairs with Staubach and Craig Morton early in his career, but Staubach finally won the job for good in 1971, leading Dallas to its first Super Bowl win. The only time Staubach really missed the playoffs was 1974. Dallas finished 8-6 with three losses to NFC teams that finished 10-4. All four NFC playoff teams were 10-4 that year, so a win in any of those three games would have given Dallas a playoff berth instead of that team. To be fair, 1974 was the only year as a starter where Staubach threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (11), so it was technically his worst season all around.
Starting Quarterbacks with Seven Postseasons
|Bob Griese||1967||MIA||4-10||3-7||Not Full Time||Rookie; not a full-time starter yet and missed two games|
|1968||MIA||5-8-1||5-7-1||Injured-Minor||Injured before final game of the season|
|1969||MIA||3-10-1||2-6-1||Injured-Medium||Season-ending injury in Week 9|
|1975||MIA||10-4||7-3||Injured-Medium||Broken toe ended season in Week 10|
|1976||MIA||6-8||5-8||Injured-Minor||Missed one start due to injury; AFC's No. 8 seed|
|1977||MIA||10-4||10-4||Healthy||Lost division on tie-breaker to 10-4 Colts|
|1980||MIA||8-8||1-2||Injured-Major||Lost starting job, regained it, then career-ending shoulder injury|
|Warren Moon||1984||HOU||3-13||3-13||Healthy||First year starting in the NFL|
|1985||HOU||5-11||4-10||Injured-Minor||Hip pointer in Wk 11 after 3 passes; missed next two games|
|1986||HOU||5-11||5-10||Injured-Minor||Missed Wk 14 game (loss)|
|1990||HOU||9-7||8-7||Injured-Minor||Dislocated thumb in Wk 16; HOU lost in AFC-WC (C.Carlson)|
|1995||MIN||8-8||8-8||Healthy||NFC's No. 8 seed after losing final two games of season|
|1996||MIN||9-7||4-4||Injured-Major||Broken collarbone ended Moon's season; MIN lost in NFC-WC (B.Johnson)|
|1997||SEA||8-8||7-7||Not Full Time||Moon replaced inj. starter John Friesz in Wk 1; SEA was AFC's No. 8 seed|
|1998||SEA||8-8||4-6||Benched||Benched for Jon Kitna (3-2) after Wk 12|
|1999||KC||9-7||0-0||Backup||Backup to Elvis Grbac (0 GS) at age 43|
|2000||KC||7-9||0-1||Backup||Backup to Elvis Grbac (1 GS) at age 44|
|Steve Young||1985||TB||2-14||1-4||Not Full Time||Backup to Steve DeBerg; started last five games|
|1986||TB||2-14||2-12||Not Full Time||Took over for Steve DeBerg after Week 2|
|1987||SF||13-2||2-1||Backup||Backup to Joe Montana (3 GS); team made playoffs|
|1988||SF||10-6||2-1||Backup||Backup to Joe Montana (3 GS); team won Super Bowl|
|1989||SF||14-2||3-0||Backup||Backup to Joe Montana (3 GS); team won Super Bowl|
|1990||SF||14-2||0-1||Backup||Backup to Joe Montana (1 GS); team made playoffs|
|1991||SF||10-6||5-5||Injured-Medium||Knee injury kept Young out of 6 starts; demoted to backup before S.Bono inj.|
|1999||SF||4-12||2-1||Injured-Major||Concussion ended career in Week 3|
|Troy Aikman||1989||DAL||1-15||0-11||Injured-Medium||Missed 5 games due to broken finger|
|1990||DAL||7-9||7-8||Injured-Minor||Finished 0-2 after Aikman shoulder injury during Wk 16 (NFC's 7th seed)|
|1991||DAL||11-5||7-5||Injured-Medium||DAL made playoffs after Aikman's knee strain kept him out 4 games|
|1997||DAL||6-10||6-10||Healthy||Five-game losing streak to end season after 6-5 start (NFC's No. 11 seed)|
|2000||DAL||5-11||4-7||Injured-Medium||Missed time from three injuries, including multiple concussions|
|Donovan McNabb||1999||PHI||5-11||2-4||Not Full Time||Rookie backup to Doug Pederson; didn't start until Week 10|
|2005||PHI||6-10||4-5||Injured-Medium||Finished on IR (groin); Eagles 2-5 without McNabb|
|2006||PHI||10-6||5-5||Injured-Medium||Torn ACL in Week 11; Eagles made playoffs behind Jeff Garcia|
|2007||PHI||8-8||8-6||Injured-Minor||0-2 without McNabb; NFC's No. 8 seed|
|2010||WAS||6-10||5-8||Benched||Benched for Rex Grossman (1-2) for final three games|
|2011||MIN||3-13||1-5||Benched||Benched for Christian Ponder (2-8); released on 12/1|
Bob Griese had some early struggles on a Miami franchise that was just getting started in the AFL. Things didn't take off until Don Shula was hired as head coach in 1970. Griese had his share of injuries in non-playoff seasons, but his only healthy miss was 1977. Griese was actually the NFL's first-team All-Pro quarterback that season, but this blown 28-10 lead to Bert Jones' Colts in Week 4 really came back to bite the 10-4 Dolphins in the tie-breakers for the AFC East division title. A shoulder injury in 1980 ended Griese's career for good.
Warren Moon's transition from the CFL to the NFL was a slow one with a bad Houston team, but they soon made seven straight postseasons. Moon was unable to participate in the 1990 playoffs, in arguably his finest pro season, after dislocating his thumb in Week 16. With the Vikings in 1995, Moon had another standout season, but the team lost its final two games to finish 8-8, the No. 8 seed in the NFC. With Seattle, Moon was a Pro Bowl quarterback at age 41 in 1997 despite starting the season as John Friesz' backup. Moon was eventually benched for Jon Kitna in 1998, and finished his career as a backup in Kansas City in 1999 and 2000.
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Steve Young took the usual route of a Hall of Fame quarterback in the 1980s: he took the starting job away from Steve DeBerg. However, with such a dysfunctional franchise in Tampa Bay, Young only went 3-16 as a starter before he was off to back up Joe Montana in San Francisco. Young got his chance to start in 1991, and while he posted excellent efficiency numbers, the 49ers were 5-5 in his starts, including four losses where they scored no more than 14 points. Essentially, a loss on a memorable Hail Mary to the Falcons (who finished 10-6) really is the main culprit in the standings that year. Young was injured in that game, and even remained on the bench when he got healthy for Steve Bono, who was 5-1 as a starter before his own injury. Still, a playoff miss at 10-6 is rare. Young didn't miss the playoffs again until 1999 when his career ended after another concussion suffered in Week 3.
Troy Aikman was pretty deserving of the "injury prone" label, especially early in his career. In 1990, Dallas was on pace to make the playoffs, but lost its last two games after Aikman suffered a shoulder injury in Week 16. In 1991, Dallas made the playoffs after going 4-0 without Aikman, who served as a backup to Steve Beuerlein in the playoffs that year. A five-game losing streak to end the 1997 season at 6-10 is the only time Aikman missed the playoffs as a healthy, full-time starter. By 2000, multiple concussions had taken their toll on his body, and he retired after the season.
Donovan McNabb began his career as Doug Pederson's backup in 1999, but started six games late in the season. He actually never missed the playoffs as a healthy starter, but he was injured three years in a row from 2005 to 2007. After getting traded from Philadelphia to Washington in 2010, McNabb's career ended in embarrassment by being benched for Rex Grossman, and benched again in Minnesota for rookie Christian Ponder in 2011.
Starting Quarterbacks with Six Postseasons
The following table looks at the 10 quarterbacks who started in six postseasons: Bart Starr, Jack Kemp, Craig Morton, Ken Stabler, Dave Krieg, Randall Cunningham, Matt Hasselbeck, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and Joe Flacco.
|Bart Starr||1956||GB||4-8||0-1||Backup||Rookie backup to Tobin Rote (1 GS)|
|1957||GB||3-9||3-8||Healthy||Starr played in all 12 games|
|1958||GB||1-10-1||0-6-1||Not Full Time||Starr in and out of the starting lineup|
|1959||GB||7-5||4-1||Not Full Time||Starr replaced an injured Lamar McHan for last 5 games|
|1963||GB||11-2-1||8-1-1||Injured-Medium||CHI (11-1-2) won West over GB (11-2-1); Starr missed 2nd CHI game|
|1964||GB||8-5-1||8-5-1||Healthy||BAL won West w/12-2 record (swept GB)|
|1968||GB||6-7-1||4-5||Injured-Medium||GB 2-2-1 in games Starr did not start|
|1969||GB||8-6||4-5||Injured-Medium||GB 4-1 in games Starr did not start|
|1970||GB||6-8||6-7||Healthy||Starr played in all 14 games|
|1971||GB||4-8-2||1-2-1||Injured-Major||Did not appear until Wk 11 (off-season arm surgery)|
|Jack Kemp||1957||PIT||6-6||0-0||Backup||Backup to Earl Morrall (0 GS)|
|1962||BUF||7-6-1||2-1||Injured-Major||Claimed off waivers in September; broken finger limited action|
|1967||BUF||4-10||3-8||Healthy||Kemp played in every game, but only started 11|
|1969||BUF||4-10||4-7||Healthy||Kemp played in every game, but again only started 11|
|Craig Morton||1965||DAL||7-7||0-1||Backup||Backup to Don Meredith (1 GS)|
|1966||DAL||10-3-1||0-0||Backup||Backup to Don Meredith and Jerry Rhome (0 GS); DAL made playoffs|
|1967||DAL||9-5||2-1||Backup||Backup to Don Meredith (3 GS); DAL made playoffs|
|1968||DAL||12-2||1-0||Backup||Backup to Don Meredith (1 GS); DAL made playoffs|
|1971||DAL||11-3||1-3||Benched||Eventually lost starting job to Roger Staubach; DAL won Super Bowl|
|1973||DAL||10-4||0-0||Backup||Backup to Roger Staubach (0 GS); DAL made playoffs|
|1974||NYG||2-12||1-6||Not Full Time||Traded from DAL to NYG six games into season|
|1975||NYG||5-9||5-9||Healthy||First full year w/NYG|
|1976||NYG||3-11||2-10||Injured-Minor||NYG 1-1 without Morton|
|1980||DEN||8-8||4-5||Not Full Time||Lost starting job to Matt Robinson, but regained it|
|1981||DEN||10-6||10-5||Injured-Minor||DEN 0-1 without Morton; lost AFC West on tie-breaker to SD|
|1982||DEN||2-7||1-2||Benched||Demoted to QB3 after team's third game|
|Ken Stabler||1970||OAK||8-4-2||0-0||Backup||Backup to Daryle Lamonica (0 GS) in first NFL season; OAK made playoffs|
|1971||OAK||8-4-2||1-0||Backup||Backup to Daryle Lamonica (1 GS); best record for non-PO team in 1971|
|1972||OAK||10-3-1||0-1||Backup||Backup to Daryle Lamonica (1 GS); OAK made playoffs|
|1978||OAK||9-7||9-7||Healthy||Late 3-game losing streak dropped OAK to No. 6 seed in AFC|
|1979||OAK||9-7||9-7||Healthy||OAK was one of four 9-7 AFC teams to miss playoffs|
|1981||HOU||7-9||5-7||Not Full Time||After flirting w/retirement, Stabler in and out of lineup|
|1982||NO||4-5||4-4||Injured-Minor||NO 0-1 without Stabler; missed playoffs on tie-breaker in strike year|
|1983||NO||8-8||7-7||Injured-Minor||Missed playoffs after blown 4Q lead vs. Rams in Wk 16 finale|
|1984||NO||7-9||0-0||Backup||Backup to Richard Todd (0 GS) at age 39|
|Dave Krieg||1980||SEA||4-12||0-0||Backup||Backup to Jim Zorn (0 GS); third-string QB|
|1981||SEA||6-10||2-1||Backup||Backup to Jim Zorn; only started last 3 games of season|
|1982||SEA||4-5||0-2||Injured-Major||Started season, but thumb injury kept Krieg out until finale|
|1985||SEA||8-8||8-8||Healthy||One of two 8-8 AFC teams to miss playoffs|
|1986||SEA||10-6||10-4||Injured-Minor||SEA 0-2 in games Krieg didn't start (benched); missed POs on tie-breaker|
|1989||SEA||7-9||7-7||Injured-Minor||SEA 0-2 in games Krieg didn't start|
|1990||SEA||9-7||9-7||Healthy||Missed playoffs on tie-breaker with HOU|
|1991||SEA||7-9||4-5||Injured-Medium||Krieg missed 6 games with broken thumb|
|1993||KC||11-5||3-2||Backup||Backup to Joe Montana (5 GS); KC lost AFC-CG|
|1995||ARI||4-12||4-12||Healthy||Led NFL w/21 INT|
|1996||CHI||7-9||6-6||Not Full Time||Started the final 12 games for injured starter Erik Kramer|
|1997||TEN||8-8||0-0||Backup||Backup to Steve McNair (0 GS) at age 39|
|1998||TEN||8-8||0-0||Backup||Backup to Steve McNair (0 GS) at age 40|
|Randall Cunningham||1985||PHI||7-9||1-3||Not Full Time||Replaced starter Ron Jaworski, but lost starting role as rookie|
|1986||PHI||5-10-1||1-3-1||Not Full Time||Did not start until the 11th game|
|1987||PHI||7-8||7-5||87 Strike||PHI 0-3 during replacement games|
|1991||PHI||10-6||1-0||Injured-Major||Torn ACL in Wk 1|
|1993||PHI||8-8||4-0||Injured-Major||Broke left leg in Wk 4; PHI finished 4-8 without Cunningham|
|1994||PHI||7-9||7-7||Benched||Benched for Bubby Brister (0-2) after 5-game losing streak|
|1995||PHI||10-6||1-3||Benched||Benched for Rodney Peete (9-3) after 1-3 start; PHI made playoffs|
|1999||MIN||10-6||2-4||Benched||Benched for Jeff George (8-2) after 2-4 start; MIN made playoffs|
|2000||DAL||5-11||1-2||Backup||Backup to Troy Aikman (3 GS)|
|2001||BAL||10-6||2-0||Backup||Backup to Elvis Grbac (2 GS); BAL made playoffs|
|Matt Hasselbeck||1999||GB||8-8||0-0||Backup||Backup to Brett Favre (0 GS)|
|2000||GB||9-7||0-0||Backup||Backup to Brett Favre (0 GS)|
|2001||SEA||9-7||5-7||Injured-Medium||SEA went 4-0 w/Trent Dilfer starting when Hasselbeck was injured|
|2002||SEA||7-9||5-5||Not Full Time||Lost starting job to Dilfer, but regained it after Dilfer injury; NFC's #9 seed|
|2009||SEA||5-11||5-9||Injured-Medium||SEA 0-2 without Hasselbeck; NFC's No. 12 seed|
|2011||TEN||9-7||9-7||Healthy||AFC's No. 7 seed|
|2012||TEN||6-10||2-3||Not Full Time||Started 5 games while Jake Locker was injured before returning to QB2|
|2013||IND||11-5||0-0||Backup||Backup to Andrew Luck (0 GS); IND made playoffs|
|2014||IND||11-5||0-0||Backup||Backup to Andrew Luck (0 GS); IND made playoffs|
|2015||IND||8-8||5-3||Not Full Time||Started half the season with Andrew Luck injured; AFC's No. 9 seed|
|Drew Brees||2001||SD||5-11||0-0||Backup||Rookie backup to Doug Flutie (0 GS)|
|2002||SD||8-8||8-8||Healthy||AFC's No. 11 seed after 8-4 start, finished 0-4|
|2003||SD||4-12||2-9||Benched||Benched for 5 games for Doug Flutie (2-3)|
|2005||SD||9-7||9-7||Healthy||AFC's No. 9 seed; Brees seriously injured in Wk 17 finale|
|2007||NO||7-9||7-9||Healthy||NFC's No. 13 seed after 0-4 start dug deep|
|2008||NO||8-8||8-8||Healthy||NFC's No. 11 seed|
|2012||NO||7-9||7-9||Healthy||NFC's No. 12 seed|
|2014||NO||7-9||7-9||Healthy||NFC's No. 9 seed; lost division by half a game to CAR|
|2015||NO||7-9||7-8||Injured-Minor||NFC's No. 11 seed (would have been No. 7 if NO had won in CAR without Brees at QB)|
|2016||NO||7-9||7-9||Healthy||NFC's No. 11 seed|
|Eli Manning||2004||NYG||6-10||1-6||Not Full Time||Rookie backup to Kurt Warner for first 9 games (5-4 start)|
|2009||NYG||8-8||8-8||Healthy||NFC's No. 10 seed|
|2010||NYG||10-6||10-6||Healthy||NFC's No. 7 seed (lost tie-breaker to SB champion Packers)|
|2012||NYG||9-7||9-7||Healthy||NFC's No. 8 seed|
|2013||NYG||7-9||7-9||Healthy||NFC's No. 10 seed|
|2014||NYG||6-10||6-10||Healthy||NFC's No. 11 seed|
|2015||NYG||6-10||6-10||Healthy||NFC's No. 12 seed|
|Joe Flacco||2013||BAL||8-8||8-8||Healthy||Career-high 22 INT; AFC's No. 8 seed|
|2015||BAL||5-11||3-7||Injured-Medium||Torn ACL in Week 11 (2-4 without Flacco)|
|2016||BAL||8-8||8-8||Healthy||AFC's No. 9 seed after losing division title to PIT in Wk 16 loss|
We won't go through all 10 quarterbacks here, but there are certainly interesting things that have happened with Drew Brees and Eli Manning. My interest in this subject started weeks ago when I noted that Brees has the most seasons (seven) in NFL history by a quarterback with 16 starts and no playoffs.
Most QB seasons in NFL history w/16 starts, no playoffs
Drew Brees - 7
Drew Bledsoe - 6
Eli Manning - 6
Philip Rivers - 6
Favre/Everett - 5
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) August 12, 2017
Brees really deserves his own in-depth review someday, but it is unbelievable that a passer of his caliber was no higher than his conference's No. 9 seed seven times since 2005. This comes despite only missing one career game due to injury. Obviously, only having one top-10 defense in points allowed per drive has been a huge problem for Brees, especially with the Saints. Manning has been in a similar situation where his regular-season defenses have not been very good, and he had the most-injured rosters in the NFL from 2013 to 2015.
Randall Cunningham is also an interesting case just because of how often he was benched. He wasn't supposed to be the starter as a rookie in 1985, but briefly took over the job before giving it back to Ron Jaworski. The 1994 Eagles started 7-2, but a five-game losing streak led to Rich Kotite benching Cunningham for Bubby Brister. The Eagles lost two more games with Brister, finishing 7-9. After a 1-3 start in 1995, Cunningham was again benched for Rodney Peete, but the Eagles rebounded to make the playoffs. With the Vikings in 1999, a bad start led to Cunningham being benched for Jeff George, who led the team to the playoffs. Cunningham was also the only player studied to have two major injuries that were actually different injuries (Joe Montana's elbow in 1991 lingered into 1992). Cunningham tore his ACL in Week 1 of the 1991 season, and then broke his leg in Week 4 of the 1993 season. With all that drama and "what if?" potential, it is no surprise that Cunningham has not received much Hall of Fame consideration.
Honorable Mentions with Fewer than Six Postseasons
It should be mentioned that there aren't many great quarterbacks in NFL history who last long enough to start for a decade or more. So we are not really neglecting many great players who had fewer than six postseasons. Many of those best examples can be explained by playing in a pre-1978 league where passing was not as widespread and playoff spots were very limited. For instance, Johnny Unitas only started in five postseasons, but he never played when the wild-card round existed. The same can be said of the five playoff appearances for Hall of Famers Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Len Dawson, and Fran Tarkenton.
There were three names I wanted to give an honorable mention to as three of the very best quarterbacks to never play in a Super Bowl: Dan Fouts (four postseasons), Tony Romo (four), and Philip Rivers (five).
Fouts had a great eight-year run from 1978 to 1985 where he made the playoffs four times. His biggest problems were health and having a poor defense. The only season where Fouts started 14-plus games and missed the playoffs was 1978, when he was 9-5 as a starter. James Harris went 0-2 in Fouts' place, throwing seven interceptions in those losses. Otherwise, Fouts likely would have been looking at a five-year playoff run before his injuries and a horrific defense caught up with the Chargers in 1983.
Romo and Rivers became starters in 2006. Rivers made the playoffs four years in a row, but has only been there once since 2010. You can also argue that he peaked individually last decade, but it is amazing how often the Chargers have lost games they looked poised to win. In the last two years, the Chargers have nine wins and 11 blown fourth-quarter leads. We also know that the Mike McCoy tenure was slammed with injuries, but never to the quarterback as Rivers has never missed a start since 2006.
Romo was not as fortunate with durability. He broke his collarbone in 2010 after six games, and essentially missed 2015 and 2016 with more injuries. But in the other eight seasons from 2006 to 2014, Romo led the Cowboys to four postseasons and four Week 17 games where a win would have put Dallas in the tournament. The Cowboys went 0-4 in those games, though Romo was unable to play in the 2013 finale against Philadelphia due to a back injury. Still, Romo kept some flawed Dallas teams relevant for the better part of a decade, which is all you can ask of a franchise quarterback.
Conclusion: Looking Forward
I should point out that this was not done as a celebration of "quarterback wins." Rather, we wanted to get some insight on why quarterbacks didn't "win enough" in certain years of their career. The fact is almost any great quarterback in NFL history will win more regular-season games than he loses over the course of his career. Try naming a great quarterback with a losing record. Sonny Jurgensen (69-71-7) is one rare example, but he may have just needed an actual overtime system to get above .500.
The evolution of the NFL has certainly helped modern quarterbacks in consistently making the playoffs. The widespread use of the passing game has made this a quarterback's league, and really highlights the differences between the haves (Patriots and Packers) and the have-nots (Jets and Rams).
Rule changes and structure of the schedule have also helped a lot. There hasn't been a work stoppage since 1987. The wild-card round did not exist until 1978, and the 12-team playoff format started in 1990. Don't you think Johnny Unitas would have liked that when his 1967 Colts missed the playoffs despite going 11-1-2? The expansion to four divisions per conference in 2002 has also helped some lesser teams get playoff berths, such as the 2010 Seahawks (7-9). Overtime was introduced in the regular season in 1974, and modified in 2012, and will feature a 10-minute quarter starting in 2017. Without modified overtime, the 2014 Panthers would have lost 37-34 to the Bengals on the first possession of overtime. Instead, the game continued and ended in a 37-37 tie, helping Cam Newton's Panthers (7-8-1) edge out Drew Brees' Saints (7-9) for the division title that year.
Even something like the two-point conversion, introduced in 1994, helps with making comebacks more probable. The 1989 Bengals (8-8), which featured the No. 2 offense in one of Boomer Esiason's best years, had a win-or-go-home season finale in Minnesota. When Esiason threw a touchdown pass down 22-14 to start the fourth quarter, he had no chance for a two-point conversion option to tie the game. Minnesota added a touchdown, and a 29-21 lead with just over four minutes left felt insurmountable back in 1989. Today, that game would still have been up for grabs.
Modern medicine and rules to limit big hits have also helped quarterbacks stay healthy and available. Matthew Stafford needs to start the first four games of 2017 to have the 11th streak in NFL history of at least 100 consecutive starts by a quarterback. All but two of those streaks were by players who have played this decade.
We mentioned the success of Rodgers and Roethlisberger, but Russell Wilson has made the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. Despite their lesser efficiency, Joe Flacco (2008-2012) and Andy Dalton (2011-2015; injured in 2015) have done that in recent years as well. Any quarterback capable of consistent efficiency and durability has a great shot in this era to rack up postseason appearances. This could be even truer if the league expands to 14 playoff teams, but hopefully things will stay consistent.
As long as there is a shortage of top-end quarterback talent, the cream will rise to the top of the standings. When it doesn't, you can usually count on the obstruction being the quarterback's health, a one-game result that didn't go the team's way, or a major team flaw (likely on defense).
Still, it is really for the best that the top 12 quarterbacks don't make the playoffs every year, or else the NFL would be too predictable. We need to see that defensive balance in the postseason. We accept that unexpected things will happen that make us constantly reshape our projections of the future. We crave the drama, because without it, this would all be quite boring.