Joe Burrow and the All-Time Playoff Heroes
NFL Divisional - Joe Burrow set the Cincinnati Bengals franchise record with his fourth postseason victory as their starting quarterback last Sunday night.
That's right: 26-year-old Burrow, at the end of his third NFL season, practically a cigar-chomping infant by the standards of the Bengals' five-plus-decade history, is the franchise's winningest postseason quarterback. And it's not like the Bengals haven't had some fine quarterbacks. Here's their all-time postseason win-loss records:
Cincinnati Bengals (9-15 franchise postseason record)
- Joe Burrow: 4-1
- Boomer Esiason: 3-2
- Ken Anderson: 2-4
- Andy Dalton: 0-4
- Carson Palmer: 0-2
- Virgil Carter: 0-1
- AJ McCarron: 0-1
Wins are not a quarterback stat. But a quarterback's all-time playoff record can make useful shorthand for summarizing his accomplishments. Andy Dalton's 0-4 playoff record says it all, doesn't it? No one can seriously claim he was a "bad" quarterback, but that record undercuts any theoretical arguments about greatness.
Ken Anderson's 2-4 record says as much about his Pro Football Hall of Fame bona fides as all of the black-ink rate stats on his Pro Football Reference page, maybe more. I provisionally endorse Anderson as a seniors candidate, but it's worth noting how quickly Burrow breezed past him, even accounting for the increases in the number of playoff teams and games over the decades.
Playoff win-loss records for quarterbacks also freeze moments in time, like AJ McCarron's playoff start in relief of Dalton against the Steelers in the 2015 playoffs. Playoff games are often turning points for a franchise. That should have been one for the Bengals, but they talked themselves into three more years of Marvin Lewis and Dalton. All's well that ends well, since Dalton gave way to Burrow.
When I first heard about Burrow breaking the Bengals record, I assumed that four playoff victories would not break the top six or seven on the all-time lists of more successful franchises. Sure, there were no playoff games (only championships) for many decades, and only one or two rounds of playoffs for a long time after that. And there are extenuating circumstances like first-round byes that cut into the playoff win totals of Tom Brady types. But every franchise that didn't double as a punchline for half its history has bunches of quarterbacks who managed to lead them to four-plus career postseason victories. Right?
We're just covering the eight remaining playoff teams in this little feature, but that gives us a wide span of franchise histories to choose from. And it turns out the Burrow would be rapidly climbing the charts for even the most storied franchises in pro football history.
Buffalo Bills (18-19 franchise postseason record)
- Jim Kelly: 9-8
- Josh Allen: 4-3
- Jack Kemp: 2-2
- Frank Reich: 2-0
- Joe Ferguson: 1-3
- Tyrod Taylor: 0-1
- Doug Flutie: 0-1
- Rob Johnson: 0-1
Josh Allen is safely the second-best quarterback in Bills history; few would argue at this moment that he should rank higher than Kelly or lower than anyone else. Joe Ferguson still ranks ahead of Allen in yards and touchdowns by virtue of playing in Buffalo forever, but … please.
If Allen joins Jack Kemp as the only Bills quarterbacks to ever lead the franchise to a league championship, it would push him past Jim Kelly for many (but not all) fans. There is also a chance that Allen ends up 0-4 in Super Bowls as part of this generation's Greatest Team to Never Win. That's terrifying to contemplate, especially since the BillsMafia would go Snowmobile Mad Max as a result, what with already being halfway there.
At any rate, postseason win-loss records shouldn't be used to settle any arguments about all-time franchise greatness, unless one guy is 8-2 and the other is 0-3 or something.
Rob Johnson's start in place of Doug Flutie in the 1998 playoffs—and by extension the Music City Miracle—is preserved forever here, as is Frank Reich's historic comeback against Warren Moon and the Houston Oilers in 1993. Reich went on to coach another of the all-time great playoff long relievers. We'll get to him momentarily.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-7 franchise postseason record)
- Mark Brunell: 4-4
- Blake Bortles: 2-1
- Trevor Lawrence: 1-0
- David Garrard: 1-1
- Byron Leftwich: 0-1
Lawrence is probably already the second-best quarterback in Jaguars history. Byron Leftwich and David Garrard were game-managing system guys, Blake Bortles a goofball.
Mark Brunell was a system-plus guy at his peak, on the border between "win with" and "win because of," with a supporting cast featuring Tony Boselli, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell, and Fred Taylor. From a traits standpoint, Lawrence blows him away. By the time Lawrence signs his Standard Rich and Famous Contract in two years, there should be no question who the greatest quarterback in Jaguars history was.
Kansas City Chiefs/Dallas Texans (17-21 franchise postseason record)
- Patrick Mahomes: 8-3
- Len Dawson: 5-3
- Joe Montana: 2-2
- Steve DeBerg: 1-2
- Alex Smith: 1-4
- Trent Green: 0-2
- Elvis Grbac: 0-1
- Matt Cassel: 0-1
- Steve Bono: 0-1
- Todd Blackledge: 0-1
- Dave Krieg: 0-1
Patrick Mahomes is the greatest quarterback in Chiefs history and would be a likely Pro Football Hall of Famer if he retired on President's Day.
Len Dawson remains the Chiefs' all-time passing yardage and touchdowns leader, a remarkable feat for a 1960s quarterback holding off a modern mega-star. Mahomes will pass him in yardage next year and touchdowns sometime in the next two years. Dawson also played with one of the greatest defenses in pro football history: the Chiefs won two playoff games and Super Bowl IV by a combined 53-20 score in the 1969 season. There is probably no one under age 60 who believes Dawson was better than Mahomes in any measurable way. Still: a unique legacy.
The Chiefs' long-standing obsession with other teams' aging veterans is on full display on the list above. Steve DeBerg, Elvis Grbac, and Steve Bono all merged with Joe Montana to form one huge 49ers 1990s Cosplay Gundam in my mind, and I forgot that Dave Krieg and Rich Gannon were wedged in there. It was the best of times, the worst of times, the Marty Schottenheimer-est of times, and it often ended with a 10-7 or 14-10 playoff loss.
Dallas Cowboys (36-29 franchise postseason record)
- Roger Staubach: 11-6
- Troy Aikman: 11-4
- Danny White: 5-5
- Craig Morton: 3-2
- Tony Romo: 2-4
- Dak Prescott: 2-3
- Don Meredith: 1-3
- Steve Beuerlein: 1-1
- Quincy Carter: 0-1
Danny White's 5-5 record as a playoff starter may be the most bugnuts nugget I came across while compiling these lists.
White was the Cowboys quarterback of my preteens. He began his career as a punter and Roger Staubach's backup, took over in his fifth season in 1980 after Staubach retired, and led the Cowboys to a 62-30 record through 1988, holding onto his punting duties for much of that span.
White led the Cowboys to three NFC Championship Game losses. I remember it all, and yet I don't remember it. He was a proto-Romo, in that his playoff losses were used as evidence of how far America's Team had fallen (all the way to, like, fourth place). Yet at the same time, it was hard to hate a moonlighting punter (actually an accomplished triple-threat quarterback from Arizona State) throwing 29 touchdown passes in a season. White would be a legend for other franchises but is more of a footnote for the Cowboys.
Dak Prescott is ready to nose past Tony Romo; doing so would help flip the script on the "Cowboys as choke artists" storyline, which they came by honestly in Romo's time. A Super Bowl win would tie Prescott with White. That's ambitious, but Prescott is on pace to join the Staubach-Troy Aikman pantheon in a few years, a velvet rope that Romo could never slip past. A few performances like Monday night's should do the trick.
Interlude: Some QB Winz Guys
In the name of supplying readers with some grist for their mills, here are some not-so-great quarterbacks with noteworthy postseason records:
- Trent Dilfer: 5-1
- Mark Rypien: 5-2
- Jake Delhomme: 5-3
- Mark Sanchez: 4-2
- Neil O'Donnell: 3-4
- Mike Tomczak: 3-2
- David Woodley: 3-2
Those are the quarterbacks who leap to mind as "ideal circumstances" or lightning-in-a-bottle guys who helmed teams with outstanding defenses and/or supporting casts. We will get to a few others in a moment.
A Trent Dilfer can indeed ride his defense to a Super Bowl victory. But it's very rare for an "ordinary" quarterback to crack five career postseason victories. That number may climb to six now that the playoffs have expanded, but a quarterback who leads seven or eight victories has reached a different level historically. At that level, brushing off his accomplishments by criticizing "QB WINZ" thinking becomes pedantic, as does ignoring a dearth of postseason success (in historical comparisons, as opposed to "should Team X sign Derek Carr?" discussions) for a longtime starter.
Philadelphia Eagles (23-24 franchise postseason record)
- Donovan McNabb: 9-7
- Nick Foles: 4-2
- Ron Jaworski: 3-4
- Tommy Thompson: 3-1
- Randall Cunningham: 1-4
- Rodney Peete: 1-1
- Jeff Garcia: 1-1
- Norm Van Brocklin: 1-0
- Carson Wentz: 0-1
- Michael Vick: 0-1
- Jalen Hurts: 0-1
- Ty Detmer: 0-1
The list above contains my hopes, dreams, memories, vicarious triumphs, heartbreaks, coming-of-age moments, and formative experiences, from the Fog Bowl to the Philly Special and so much more.
Nick Foles won more Eagles playoff games than Ron Jaworski, a stark reminder that what felt like an epoch of greatness in my childhood was just a blip in NFL history. Jaguars fans of a certain age might feel the same way about the Mark Brunell era. Somewhere, there are probably Jets fans who grew up during the Rex Ryan/Mark Sanchez playoff runs who lionize the achievements of that team. (Those fans will at least get a Darrelle Revis Pro Football Hall of Fame speech for their efforts.) So much fan experience is locked away in every 3-4 or 4-4 playoff record: a would-be dynasty, a mini-era, hope, fear, anguish, elation.
McNabb's 16 playoff starts and nine victories make a useful litmus test for modern-quarterback Hall of Fame arguments. McNabb has been eligible for seven years but has never been more than a nominee, nor does he really deserve to be anything more than perhaps a semifinalist. Yet 16 playoff starts summarize his impact and excellence succinctly. Matt Ryan is 5-6 in the postseason, Matthew Stafford 4-3, with careers that have drifted into an era when it is even easier to reach the playoffs. Even Philip Rivers was just 5-7. Barring unexpected late-career comebacks, miss me forever with your Hall of Fame arguments based on 21st century bulk yards or vibes when a quarterback who played a whole season's worth of postseason games cannot even sniff the final 25.
New York Giants (25-25 franchise postseason record)
- Eli Manning: 8-4
- Phil Simms: 6-4
- Jeff Hostetler: 3-0
- Ed Danowski: 2-2
- Kerry Collins: 2-2
- Don Heinrich: 2-1
- Scott Brunner: 1-1
- Daniel Jones: 1-0
- Y.A. Tittle: 0-3
- Charlie Conerly: 0-2
- Tuffy Leemans: 0-2
- Frank Filchock: 0-1
- Danny Kanell: 0-1
- Irv Comp: 0-1
- Harry Newman: 0-1
Speaking of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Eli Apocalypse is imminent, as he will be eligible for nomination next year. Feel free to debate in the comment thread; I won't have anything new to say beyond this column until he reaches the semifinalist stage, which I think he will.
The Giants list is a total mess because:
- Jeff Hostetler had a proto-Folesian Super Bowl run, siphoning off some of the Bill Parcells-era wins from Phil Simms.
- Charlie Conerly and Don Heinrich platooned in the 1950s, with Heinrich often playing the first quarter to "probe the defense for weaknesses" before Conerly, the superior passer, took over. Heinrich started the 1956 NFL Championship Game before giving way to Conerly, who threw two touchdown passes. It didn't make much sense at the time, either.
- The players in italics were A-formation tailbacks of the 1930s and 1940s. Assigning them wins and losses in "playoff games" (the NFL Championship Game) is much sillier than doing so for modern quarterbacks, which is already B-tier silliness.
But hey, if Jones leads the Giants to victory over the Eagles he moves into a fourth-place tie on the all-time Giants playoff wins list for a quarterback, ahead of Tittle, who's a Hall of Famer, and Conerly, who became the freakin' Marlboro Man.
San Francisco 49ers (36-23 franchise postseason record)
- Joe Montana: 14-5
- Steve Young: 8-6
- Jimmy Garoppolo: 4-2
- Colin Kaepernick: 4-2
- John Brodie: 2-3
- Jeff Garcia: 1-2
- Frankie Albert: 1-1
- Alex Smith: 1-1
- Brock Purdy: 1-0
- Y.A. Tittle: 0-1
Jimmy Garoppolo and Colin Kaepernick will probably be forever locked together with a 4-2 49ers playoff record: such fearful symmetry, like the universe mocking or cursing us, history grinding the past into an undifferentiated paste. Never forget that they are tied for third on the all-time playoff victory list of one of the NFL's most storied franchises; the rest shall remain unstated.
Only nine quarterbacks in history have led the 49ers to victory in the playoffs, and Brock Purdy is one of them! A win on Sunday pushes Purdy past Jeff Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowler, and ties him with John Brodie, once a frequent flyer on the Hall of Fame argument circuit.
Which brings us back to Joe Burrow, and how amazing four playoff victories are after three seasons, even in the era of 14 playoff teams. Only 16 quarterbacks in the histories of our eight remaining teams led their franchises to four or more playoff victories. Burrow is one win away from passing Stafford and tying Rivers and Ryan, all of whom played their full careers in the era of three pre-Super Bowl rounds.
Burrow is on a path to historic greatness. So is Allen. Mahomes is already there. Prescott is trying to pull his franchise back onto the path. Hurts may be starting his journey. Heck, maybe Jones and Purdy are, too.
Not all of them will make it. But they all did something fans may remember for decades, as well as something that most of their peers never get a chance to do.