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.
Can 19-0 happen? Sure, but unexpected outcomes, such as Friday night's season-ending torn ACL for Julian Edelman, can always throw a team off course.
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
The following table looks at the five quarterbacks who started in seven postseasons: Bob Griese, Warren Moon, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, and Donovan McNabb.
|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.
50 comments, Last at 03 Sep 2017, 11:41am
#1 by Will Allen // Aug 28, 2017 - 5:47pm
Mickey Loomis has been one of the worst GMs in the NFL, a fact masked by the medical people for the Dolphins being unwilling to clear Drew Brees for a contract.
Tony Romo was surrounded by crap until Jerell's son Stephen started wielding some influence.
#2 by johonny // Aug 28, 2017 - 6:10pm
The problem being, if your team doesn't have a great QB and one team in the division does, and that team knows how to build a defense then it basically kills any interest in the season. I guess Tom Brady might get hurt again, but rooting for injuries sucks. The NFL its dull, it just is these days for far too many fans of poorly QB'd teams.
#3 by lokiwi // Aug 28, 2017 - 8:15pm
Just because the other teams in the AFC East have proven incompetent doesn't meant it's hopeless to share a division with a great QB on a well built team. The Bears and Vikings have both had there share of success in the Favre/Rodgers eras, as well as the Bengals and Ravens during Roethlisberger. And the only one of those teams to field a "great" QB were the 2009 Vikings. There are plenty of other ways to build teams.
#4 by Scott Kacsmar // Aug 28, 2017 - 9:15pm
If you did a post-merger study of division strength by cycles, focusing on who the QB/HC were, I can't imagine there's anything quite like this AFC East circa 2002-2016. The Patriots have had such a massive advantage over MIA/BUF/NYJ thanks to Brady and Belichick. Pretty sad that over that long period of time, the best the AFC East came up with was Chad Pennington (as far as QBs) and Rex Ryan (for HCs).
#5 by lokiwi // Aug 28, 2017 - 9:38pm
I follow you on twitter so I more or less stole that take right out of your feed. It agrees with my memory of how the divisions have gone, but it helps that you've actually put some number out to back it up.
#6 by Will Allen // Aug 28, 2017 - 11:08pm
What Belichik has done, that a lot of coaches/gms, with great qbs over an extended period, have not succeeded at, is avoid ever having bad o-line play, thus nver squandering the qb play by instigating a blood bath. It helped that Belichick lucked into having one of the all time great o-line coaches already there, but at least Darth Hoodie didn't screw it up by bringing somebody else in
#7 by Vincent Verhei // Aug 29, 2017 - 12:50am
From 1981 to 1990, Joe Montana shared a division with:
Coaches: Leeman Bennett, Dan Henning, Marion Campbell, one year of Jerry Glanville
Leading passers: S.Bartkowski, C.Miller, D.Archer
Coaches: Ray Malavasi, John Robinson
Leading passers: J.Everett, V.Ferragamo, D.Brock
Coaches: Bum Phillips, Jim Mora
Leading passers: B.Hebert, D.Wilson, K.Stabler
I guess that's a little better than what the AFC East has done against Brady/Belichick, but not much.
#8 by Scott Kacsmar // Aug 29, 2017 - 1:18am
An amusing thing I noticed about Jim Everett recently is that he led the NFL in touchdown passes in 1988 (31) and 1989 (29) and didn't make the Pro Bowl either season. Can't imagine that happening to anyone today, especially with how many got invites. Then Everett got one in 1990 despite an all-around inferior season, but because guys like Montana and Simms were hurt.
#10 by dmstorm22 // Aug 29, 2017 - 8:57am
Some of those Rams teams were fairly good, right?
It is a good point, though. We laud them for being in the NFC at a time of such extreme conference strength, but that was mostly concentrated in other divisions.
With the Patriots, at least they also had to go up against a really tough AFC in the 1st half of their dynasty (Colts/Steelers/Chargers), but this 2nd half (let's call it 2010 onwards), it has been far more spotty.
I really think the Patriots capitalized on weak AFCs in 2011, 2014 and 2016 (though they probably beat even a good AFC in 2014 and 2016).
#17 by johonny // Aug 29, 2017 - 11:47am
The Saints had pretty good defenses and running game under Mora, and the Rams likewise did under Robinson. The 80s were different in that running games and defense felt like they mattered more than today because the passing rules were different. The thing about the Pats: Had the Jets anyone remotely better than Sanchez then the Jets likely win at least one division title. So there is a little bit of luck involved in their streak. It's no surprise the 3 times Brady lost the division he lost to the only two decent QBs in the AFC east over that time period. I think I posted this early this year. If you have a top 10 QB your odds are like 80 percent to make the playoffs these days. (thanks Drew Brees for keeping it that low). Without a great QB you can still make the play offs and even win a Super Bowl, but great QBs give teams more opportunities in the play offs year in and year out. If your team doesn't have one, it's likely going to be a long year. We all know that.
#9 by RobotBoy // Aug 29, 2017 - 5:38am
These two sentences puzzled me greatly: '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.'
Then I realized that the first was missing second negating adverb: ''It should be mentioned that there aren't many great quarterbacks in NFL history who DON'T last long enough to start for a decade or more.'
Fascinating analysis, as always. I guess the lesson here is that QB's are important and Matthew Stafford is cheap at 27 million.
#11 by Aaron Brooks G… // Aug 29, 2017 - 9:13am
What does it take for sustained success?
Usually a long run of incompetence from the other teams.
The 2009-2016 AFC East is the worst collection of teams other than NWE. Not a one of them is over .500, or ranked higher than 20th in win percentage.
The 2002-2010 AFC South was almost as bad, with only Tennessee keeping their head above water.
Which makes the 1975-1983 Cowboys really impressive, because Washington was also a juggernaut. For comparison, replace the Bills with the Seahawks, or the 2002-2010 Texans with the 2002-2010 Chargers for an idea of what having the 1975-1983 Redskins in your division would be like.
Suddenly those teams don't get six free wins.
#14 by nat // Aug 29, 2017 - 9:57am
Sure, bro. Nice story.
Because a 0.775 (or 0.744) record won't get you into the playoffs, but a 0.773 (or 0.757) record gives you sustained success.
Hey, don't let reality get in the way of your sweet fantasies.
#18 by Aaron Brooks G… // Aug 29, 2017 - 11:56am
What was the common theme in QB's missing playoffs? A lot of 9-7 and 10-6 seasons that missed the playoffs because of bad tie-breaker luck. How do you avoid that -- win your division. That's much easier when the best any other team is going to do is 8-8 or 9-7, as opposed to 10-6 or 11-5.
Indy and New England did it with a sea of 8-8 teams in second place. The Cowboys did it with a 10-6 team sharing their division.
I figured that was pretty easy to figure out, bro.
#19 by dmstorm22 // Aug 29, 2017 - 12:51pm
Record of 2nd place team in the AFC South 2002-2010:
2002: 10-6 (IND)
2003: 12-4 (TEN)
2004: 9-7 (JAX)
2005: 12-4 (JAX)
2006: 8-8 (JAX & TEN)
2007: 11-5 (JAX)
2008: 12-4 (IND)
2009: 9-7 (HOU)
2010: 8-8 (JAX)
So only twice was the 2nd place team 8-8. Two other times the 2nd place team was IND themselves.
Your point is only slightly more valid with NE from 2009-2016:
2009: 9-7 (NYJ)
2010: 11-5 (NYJ)
2011: 8-8 (NYJ)
2012: 7-9 (MIA)
2013: 8-8 (NYJ & MIA)
2014: 9-7 (BUF)
2015: 10-6 (NYJ)
2016: 10-6 (MIA)
#20 by nat // Aug 29, 2017 - 2:18pm
Looking at the rest of the divisions, the AFC East mix for 2nd place (since 2009) is pretty typical -- at the median for 7,8,9,10, and 12 wins; and having one 11 win second place team instead of the median 2. That's about as close to typical as you could get, since getting median in all the win counts would add up to one too many seasons.
But, of course, it's not what the second place team wins that matters here. It's whether the division champion had few enough wins that the competition would normally matter. Historically, 12 wins gets you into the playoffs every time. Most divisions have a winner with 11 or fewer wins at least half the time (since 2009), meaning the division winner was at some risk of missing the playoffs instead.
Two stronger divisions, the AFC West and NFC South, had such an "at risk" winner only twice each since 2009, with 8 and 10 wins or 7 and 11 wins respectively. The AFC East had one such "at risk" winner: The Patriots won the division with 10 wins in 2009. In the other years they took the division with 12 or more wins, making the AFC East the division whose winners needed the least help to win.
So, we need to turn the usual whiny meme on it's head. The Patriots never needed (or had) a weak division for their sustained success. They had a typical division, and, frankly, it couldn't have mattered less to their success.
#21 by dmstorm22 // Aug 29, 2017 - 2:37pm
Sure, and this is a point in favor of the AFC South, which on the whole has been a bad division.
If we limit it to Manning's time in the division (2002-2010), three times 12-4 wasn't good enough to win the division ('03 TEN, '05 JAX, '08 IND). In that same time span, there was only one other 12-win team that didn't win their division, the 2010 Ravens.
Also, isn't the point that the Patriots had an easier time getting to those 12 wins (or the Manning Colts) because of how bad the divisions were? I disagree the divisions were all that bad, but if you had a division with three teams that went 4-12 each year, getting to 12 wins is easier than if the other three teams were all 8-8.
#24 by nat // Aug 29, 2017 - 5:09pm
Yes, about the Manning-era AFC South division. Winning the division was not always a sure thing, as there was often a strong contender. Not the cakewalk year after year that some people would claim, I agree.
But "no" on your other idea. The Patriots get essentially zero boast from their division: their record within and outside the division is almost the same. The Manning-era Colts did get a small boast from divisional games compared to their non-divisional ones. If I recall, it would amount to something like two games from 2002-2010. A slight advantage, or maybe just noise.
People who argue that the Patriots or the Manning-era Colts padded their win totals by beating up their weak divisions are just being jealous, misguided hater-fans. Those two teams beat up everybody everywhere, and got no special advantage from their own divisions.
#25 by dmstorm22 // Aug 29, 2017 - 5:26pm
I agree that the idea that the Patriots and Colts have just beat up on lousy divisions is really misguided, specifically in that 2002-2010 peak NE/IND era.
My point was about the idea in general, not just NE. Having a bad division could, in theory, elevate a team's win record consistently. A good way to look at it is record in division vs. out.
#35 by nat // Aug 30, 2017 - 9:17am
Yup. You could ride a weak division to the playoffs. Consider all the division winners with 7, 8, or 9 wins.
I wasn't dismissing your general point, just its application to the Patriots and the Colts.
Here's one more look at non-divisional records, this time looking by season 2009-2016, the period when the AFC East supposedly was weak. (Not by your claim, but by the post that started this thread.)
How many times did teams in each division go at least 5-5 in their non-divisional games? That would tell us that they played well enough to at least deserve a shot at the playoffs if they had a winning divisional record. At any rate, none of these teams would be considered pushovers or automatic wins to mark on the calendar.
Div. Competitive Teams
NFCE 17 (of 32)
Sure, you might say, but that's just because teams like the Patriots skew their division. If you take out the team with the best non-divisional record from each division, how do the also-rans do? That would really tell you which division was the pushover.
Div. Competitive Also-Rans
NFCE 13 (of 24)
And there you have it: the AFC East and the NFC North are the divisions (since 2009) with the most competitive teams. The AFC South and the NFC South and West are the divisions with the most potential pushovers.
#36 by nat // Aug 30, 2017 - 9:54am
One additional note, as an olive branch to the "weak AFC East" crowd:
The interesting thing about the AFC East 2009-2016 is that while it fielded the most competitive teams (5-5 or better outside the division) it did that with a boatload of teams that were exactly 5-5. For that reason, I'd give the edge to the NFC North as toughest division to win, despite having the same number of "pushover" teams.
Both divisions have the same number of "Auto" wins. But the AFC East gave you a few more "Ought-To" wins.
On the other hand, no AFC East team did worse than 3-7 outside the division. No other division can make that claim. It's a division that (from 2009 to perhaps until this year) never fielded the kind of team that even average teams see as an "Auto" win on the calendar.
#37 by dmstorm22 // Aug 30, 2017 - 10:04am
Thanks for the work on this, interesting to see the results. I would not have expected the AFC East to hold up that well - expected it more in the middle of the pack. Certainly not the worst division.
I think a lot of misconceptions of the AFC East comes with:
a.) How generally good New England is skewing how we perceive the other three (same thing happened with the AFCS when Manning was in IND)
b.) How much turnover at QB and Coach the other teams have had
In that timeframe, very rarely has an AFC East team been truly dreadful. The Bills had one 4-12 season (2010), and the Jets a 4-12 (2014). There's just been a bunch of 6-10 through 9-7 type seasons put up by MIA, NYJ, BUF. Not once has an AFC East team been worse than 4-12 - though this arbitrary cutoff does start right after Miami's 1-15.
But the amount of turnover at coach and QB has been drastic in this timeframe, with few coaches lasting more than 3 years and same with QB. Also helps that the best non-NE team in this timeframe was coached by Rex Ryan and QBed by Mark Sanchez and over time that combination became a punchline rather than something to hold up as a reasonably successful run.
#42 by nat // Aug 31, 2017 - 2:35pm
A similar analysis has the AFC East as the toughest and the NFC West as the easiest division to win from 2002-10. Man, oh, man! The NFC West had 11 seasons out of 36 go 2-8 or worse outside the division. Phew!
The AFC South was pretty much in the middle of the league during that period. So the Colts remain off the hook about riding an easy division to extra wins.
#50 by dmstorm22 // Sep 03, 2017 - 11:41am
The AFC South is interesting in that period as they had consistently very good wild card teams, but also years with major stratification between the best and worst teams. My favorite was in 2005, when IND went 14-2 and Jacksonville went 12-4 (probably the least remembered 12-4 team ever), while TEN and HOU mirrored those at 4-12 and 2-14.
#22 by Aaron Brooks G… // Aug 29, 2017 - 2:53pm
I'll throw the Cowboys into the mix:
1975: 10-4 (DAL)
1976: 10-4 (DAL & StL (Cardinals))
1977: 9-5 (DC)
1978: 9-7 (PHI)
1979: 11-5 (PHI)
1980: 12-4 (DAL)
1981: 10-6 (PHI)
1982: 6-3 (DAL) - strike
1983: 12-4 (DAL)
2nd place was usually about an 11-5 team. Dallas *was* the second-place team five of these times.
#26 by Scott Kacsmar // Aug 29, 2017 - 6:03pm
I wouldn't call all 27 QBs above great (not a Kemp fan), but I would definitely question the five you posted here. However, I think those five all show that great QB play will often lead to winning records, and average-to-poor QB play will lead to a losing record.
Joe Namath was 56-44-4 thru 1974. His last 3 years were statistically terrible and he went 6-19, or what you might expect from a QB who threw 22 TD, 49 INT and completed 48.4% of his passes.
Vinny Testaverde was 24-48 in Tampa Bay, and always below average statistically. When he was at his best (1993-2003), he went 58-58-1.
Boomer Esiason was 51-42 thru 1990, the last time the Bengals won a playoff game. But that team soon fell apart, his stats dropped in a big way, and he was 29-51 as a starter in 1991-97. It should be noted that his two best seasons in that stretch (1993 and 1997), he went 12-9.
Kerry Collins is in the running for that "worst QB who was allowed to play as much as he did" award. But it should be noted in that the only 3 seasons where he broke 100 in PFR's Rate+ index, his record was 31-13.
Jim Everett was a bit of a Hollow Stat Man, but in his two best seasons (1988-89), he did go 21-11. Also had some Brees-esque (for the era) years for New Orleans in 1994-95 in 7-9 seasons with lousy defenses.
#27 by Scott Kacsmar // Aug 29, 2017 - 7:07pm
I picked out Jurgensen on a whim without looking at anyone else, but he really is the best example. And again, really could have used overtime in his day.
I looked at QBs since 1960 with 1500+ passes and a 105+ Rate+ on PFR (100 is average). Only 14 guys were under .500 as starters.
Player W L T Pct.
Daunte Culpepper 41 59 0 0.410
Ken O'Brien 50 59 1 0.459
Boomer Esiason 80 93 0 0.462
Greg Landry 44 51 3 0.464
Steve Bartkowski 59 68 0 0.465
Gary Danielson 28 31 1 0.475
Neil Lomax 47 52 2 0.475
Kirk Cousins 19 21 1 0.476
Tom Flores 31 33 4 0.485
Sonny Jurgensen* 66 70 7 0.486
Bert Jones 47 49 0 0.490
John Brodie 69 72 8 0.490
Bernie Kosar 53 54 1 0.495
Trent Green 56 57 0 0.496
For many of these players, it was a bad season early or late in their career that just put them under .500. So when they weren't good yet or weren't good anymore. Ex. Trent Green went 0-6 after he left KC. Bert Jones (47-49) was 1-4 as a lousy rookie, 1-3 in a forgettable final season with the Rams in 1982.
Only four of these QBs were more than 4 game results under .500:
Steve Bartkowski (59-68) needed five of his losses to be wins to go 64-63, but he was terrible for the first three seasons of his career, going 8-15 with 20 TD, 37 INT.
I already talked about Boomer.
Ken O'Brien (50-59-1) went 1-4 in his debut season (1984) and 1-6 in his last two years, which make up his three worst seasons statistically.
Daunte Culpepper (41-59), we know how up and down he was. Even in his best seasons (2000, 2003-04), he didn't have much defensive help and deserved better than a 26-20 record. But he was too turnover prone in 2001-02 (10-17), and washed up after that knee injury (3-17 in 2006-2009).
#28 by Will Allen // Aug 29, 2017 - 7:43pm
Culpepper in 2000 was carried by the rest of the offensive talent. He was legitimately good in '03 and '04, but even then the singular talent of Randy Moss was what carried that offense, and a very underrated o-line. In '04 in particular, if you watch the games, Culpepper could stand back there FOREVER, and very often did, which is why he was sacked so often on the way to 49 td passes.
#34 by Aaron Brooks G… // Aug 30, 2017 - 8:54am
The challenge was "find a great QB with a losing record."
Namath is in the Hall. He put up huge era-adjusted seasons from 1966-1969, and 1972. He's the AFL All-1960s 1st team QB. He's a great QB. He has a losing record.
Yeah, you can cherry pick good record stretches in there. I can cherry-pick good record stretches for Matt Cassell and Rex Grossman, too. Sexy Rexy is the only Bears QB to win more than 11 games in a season. Does that let him off the hook? The Sanchize had a 15-5 stretch. Alex Smith has a 41-20 stretch. Trent Dilfer had an 18-4 stretch, spread over three teams!
Jurgenson, Namath, and Fouts had a lot in common -- QBs asked to carry bad teams, who ended up with ~.500 records as a result.
The other kind of QB in the 1960s was the game-manager for a dynasty type, like Dawson, Bradshaw, and Griese.
Staubach and Tarkenton were sort of in the middle. Maybe Unitas, too. They could be both prolific and winners, but often not at the same time.
#39 by Scott Kacsmar // Aug 30, 2017 - 3:14pm
You don't actually believe picking a season or two for Cassel/Grossman/Dilfer is the same as using the whole career minus a season or two for Green/Kosar/Jones do you?
Namath's greatness is often debated (don't think he'd make my top 40 now), but if you include his 2-1 playoff record, he's 64-64-4. Given the state of his body and the way he played his last three seasons to drag down his stats and record, I think the explanation for the record speaks for itself.
Most of the really great QBs don't have those multiple down years or a long decay period. When the end was coming, it happened quickly, like with Young and Marino in 1999, Aikman in 2000, and Peyton in 2015. It's also unusual for an actual great to need an extended period to prove they can play in this league. Moon (12-33 in 1984-86) and Fouts (5-20-1 in 1973-75) needed a fourth season to finally start to show they were viable NFL starters.
Carson Palmer (89-84-1) is another QB who is just one rotten "Old Man Year" away from finishing under .500, but I'd have a hard time considering his career great too. When he was at his best (2005 and 2015), his teams were 24-8. If he played like that more often we'd have him in the list above with 6+ playoff appearances, and he'd have serious HOF consideration.
#43 by LionInAZ // Aug 31, 2017 - 11:19pm
I don't believe Namath's claim to the HOF rests on his QBWINZ or his passing stats. It rests on challenging the ultra-conservative NFL and demonstrating that the AFL was not a joke. If the Jets had lost SB III, the AFL might have folded within a few years.
#44 by Bright Blue Shorts // Sep 01, 2017 - 2:28am
Indeed. In the 60s, 70s and some years beyond there wasn't wall-to-wall highlights or TV. NFL Films hardly existed. No Youtube, streamed games etc, etc. Even twenty years ago you got most of your info about games from the newspaper report.
How players were judged for the Hall of FAME was on reputation, getting a massive contract to play in the AFL, being the first to break 4,000 yds, guarantee a SB by an upstart league, being a party guy, wearing pantihose in a TV ad etc, etc. Like I say it began as the Hall of FAME. Times were a lot less complicated back then.
#49 by dmstorm22 // Sep 03, 2017 - 11:39am
This may be true, but let's not forget the Chiefs pulled off a pretty big upset the next year over Minnesota as well. Maybe it was just that the world underrated the AFL, and the Lombardi Packers were that good in 1966-67.
I definitely think Namath is a HOF because of SB III, his play at Alabama, and the general sense of his persona rather than his play.
Even in big wins for the AFL, Namath's way outstrips the Super Bowl win by Dawson, who was, at least by stats, easily the best AFL QB.
#29 by johonny // Aug 29, 2017 - 8:28pm
Stupid question. Is there a Marino Drew Brees effect? Where bad defensive teams with high level of QB play stay bad defensive teams because their great QB wins them too many games to get the top ten draft picks they clearly need?
#30 by Scott Kacsmar // Aug 29, 2017 - 8:40pm
That sounds like an offseason project. The question is really what is the talent composition of a good defense and how do you build one? Let's say "good" is top 10 for at least a three-year span. Are top 10 draft picks really the way to go about that? The 2013 Seahawks only had three guys drafted in the top 80: Earl Thomas (14th), Bruce Irvin (15th) and Bobby Wagner (47th). Their success was built largely on finding some 5th-round gems like Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett weren't high draft picks either. But that's just one recent example. The Ravens certainly needed first-round picks to build that core of Ray Lewis (26th), Terrell Suggs (10th), Ed Reed (24th), and Haloti Ngata (12th). Still, only one top 10 pick there, and two late-round picks that a playoff team could grab in that range.
One-dimensional coaching deserves a lot of blame here I think. Not sure why Don Shula fell apart defensively, but Sean Payton is really the modern-day Don Coryell, except Tracy Porter had his back (twice) in one postseason.
#31 by Damon // Aug 29, 2017 - 11:04pm
"One-dimensional coaching deserves a lot of blame here I think."
Is it really the coaches that are the blame or is it the organizations that simply don't do a good job evaluating defensive talent in the draft/free agency? Case in point, from 1998-2004 the Vikings drafted 34 defensive players (14 in top 80), but only one made a Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro team in that 7 year span: Kevin Williams 2004 (9th overall pick in 2003).
Those blunders in the draft really showed up in 2000, 2003 and 2004 when the Vikings had top 6 offenses, but couldn't get to a Super Bowl in a fairly weak NFC because they ranked dead last in defensive DVOA twice ('00 and '04).
#32 by Will Allen // Aug 29, 2017 - 11:58pm
The scary thing is that they had to "settle" for Kevin Williams, borderline HOFer, when their preferred pick wasn't turned in before the clock expired, and the Chiefs beat them to the privilege of grabbing Ryan Sims, who was just a guy.
(Edit) Good grief, I forgot that they were so disorganized at the end of the McCombs era that they didn't get their first pick turned in on time two years in a row. In 2002 they wanted to pick Sims, but the Chiefs grabbed him when the Vikings couldn't beat the clock, so they picked Bryant Mckinnie, a decent, if very frustrating pick. The next year, TWO teams jumped the line on them, grabbing Byron Leftwich and Jordan Gross, before the Vikings grabbed Williams.
#40 by BJR // Aug 30, 2017 - 3:20pm
Just looked back at that draft. Jacksonville took Leftwich, then the next three players off the board were Jordan Gross, Kevin Williams and Terrell Sugs. Brutal. That franchise really has turned reaching for QBs into a science.
#38 by johonny // Aug 30, 2017 - 12:43pm
Of course an 8-8 team drafts later each round. It's certainly better to draft early each round if you can spot talent. This does sound about right, though, when Marino era Miami finally escaped their defensive hole it was on the backs of Mark Brown, Jeff Cross, John Offerdahl...Troy Vincent was thier best player, though, and a high pick. Most of their high defensive picks stunk, but their later picks started to pay off. Clear the Pats understand how to find players, although, they clearly had a talent drought after their early 2000s defense aged and it took a while to rebuild. In theory the reverse order of the draft is suppose to help cause parity in the NFL. Does it? It's a big question as I've always assumed it does.
#41 by Bright Blue Shorts // Aug 31, 2017 - 2:16pm
Wasn't the draft originally created to avoid the big, rich clubs e.g. Chicago, New York from buying up all the college talent?
So then the question was what's the fairest way to allocate that talent. Answer - give the worst team, first choice. If they happen to make bad picks, they've surely only got themselves to blame.
That said, there was a period between 1993-2010 where having the salary cap, but no rookie wagescale, worked against the teams drafting at the top. God knows how much money the Raiders burned on players like Robert Gallery, Michael Huff, Darren McFadden, Jamarcus Russell, Darius Heyward-Bey during their run of ineptitude.
#45 by Jerry // Sep 01, 2017 - 3:24am
I think it was originally instituted to keep player costs down by making it impossible for teams to bid against each other. I'm sure owners were happy to point to ways that helped competitive balance, but those were just side effects.