What makes a quarterback great? There are so many things: Statistical accomplishments. Winning—in the regular season and the postseason. Leadership, both on and off the field. The strength of the receiving corps. Intelligence.
This is my attempt to rank the 32 best quarterbacks in the National Football League—right now. Not in 2005. Not for what they did over their career. This is about right now. The NFL, probably more than any other sport, is a "What have you done for me lately?" type of league.
Quarterbacks with a "+" next to their name are on the rise. Guys like Tyler Thigpen, who played much better than most people realized with a pretty pathetic offense around him, will have a "+." There are also those guys with a "-." These are the guys with something to prove to me. The 33-year-old quarterbacks coming off multiple injuries. Can they still bring the heat? Are they still in the NFL because of their successful past or because of their actual talent?
So, this list won't include all 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Buffalo doesn't have a quarterback on this list. Neither does Detroit (shocking, isn't it?). However, some teams have two quarterbacks. New England has two quarterbacks, as does Seattle.
Right from the very start to the very end, this list is debatable. Very debatable. But here you go.
32. JaMarcus Russell, Oakland Raiders
Is the former No. 1 draft pick a flop? No, not yet. Not even close. But Russell hasn't been living up to the expectations people had of him. He threw for 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions during the 2008 season, ranking 26th in the NFL with a 77.1 passer rating. He also fumbled 12 times and failed to help the Raiders improve on a now-NFL record six straight seasons with 11 losses.
31. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens +
Diet Pepsi's winner for NFL Rookie of the Year, Flacco can best be defined as a "caretaker" quarterback. He plays the game and usually makes the necessary big play or two for the defense to win the game. He led the Ravens into the postseason with an 11-5 record and became the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games.
Flacco completed 60 percent of his passes and threw for almost 3,000 yards during the season. However, he also threw just 14 touchdown passes, fumbled 12 times, and ranked near the bottom of the league in passer rating. He also played extremely poorly in the postseason, completing 44 percent of his passes with a 50.8 quarterback rating.
30. Jake Delhomme, Carolina Panthers -
Delhomme had an up-and-down season in 2008. All things considered, he gets a passing grade for leading the Panthers to a 12-4 record and their first playoff appearance since 2005. He threw 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions and ranked 18th in the NFL in passer rating. He led the NFL with 13.4 yards per completion. However, he self-destructed in the postseason, throwing five interceptions and losing a fumble in a home loss to the eventual NFC-champion Arizona Cardinals.
29. Marc Bulger, St. Louis Rams -
Bulger's last two seasons have been garbage. Total garbage. In 27 starts, he has exactly four wins. He has thrown for 22 touchdowns and 28 interceptions with a passer rating of 70.8. Bulger was a top eight or top-10 quarterback just a few seasons ago, but has done absolutely nothing since 2006.
28. Kerry Collins, Tennessee Titans
Kerry Collins made the Pro Bowl. I still think he's a below-average quarterback. He led the Titans to a 13-3 record and home-field advantage in the postseason before—as many people expected of him—struggling against the mighty Baltimore Ravens in the divisional playoffs. Collins threw for only 12 touchdowns and averaged just 160 passing yards per game. He did rank fifth in the NFL in lowest interception percentage and he set a record with a 12-year gap between a player's first and second Pro Bowl appearances.
27. Kyle Orton, Chicago Bears
Well, he's better than Rex Grossman. Then again, so am I. Orton did almost lead the Bears into the playoffs, despite ranking 25th in the NFL with a 79.6 passer rating. He tossed 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 15 games of play. Orton is a decent quarterback, but could use a playmaker to expose his talent. What's the difference between him and a guy like Joe Flacco or Kerry Collins? Nothing, really.
26. Shaun Hill, San Francisco 49ers +
Hill is a productive quarterback with a bright future. He won five of eight games in 2008—including the final two in the fourth quarter—and is the first 49ers quarterback since Steve Young with a winning record. Hill threw 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions, with an 87.2 passer rating. He has a bright future for the 49ers, although he will already be 29 years old next season.
25. Tarvaris Jackson, Minnesota Vikings +
Jackson played well in limited action, throwing for nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. He led the Vikings to the postseason before throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown in a home loss to the Eagles. With a 95.4 passer rating, Jackson will be the Vikings' starter next season.
24. David Garrard, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars did nothing in 2008, but Garrard actually had a decent season. He ranked in the top 10 in the league in completions (335), attempts (535), and yards (3,620). A lot of his troubles came from an offensive line that allowed Garrard to be sacked for the most lost yards (288) of any quarterback in the NFL. Despite a career-high 13 interceptions, Garrard ranks as the second-least intercepted quarterback in NFL history (tied with Donovan McNabb) and looks to rebound from a disappointing season.
23. Derek Anderson, Cleveland Browns
Derek Anderson lost out to Charlie Frye for the starting job before the start of the 2007 season thanks to a coin toss—yes, a coin toss. After Frye was ineffective in the first quarter of Week 1, Anderson took over. He proceeded to throw for 29 touchdowns and 3,787 yards. He led the Browns to a 10-6 record, just missing the playoffs.
However, he was largely ineffective throughout the 2008 season, throwing for five touchdowns and eight interceptions in limited action. He will have to compete with Brady Quinn for the starting job in the 2009 season.
22. Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks -
Just a few years ago, Hasselbeck was the best quarterback in the NFC. Maybe even in 2007. Now his future in football is in jeopardy. He was injured throughout most of the 2008 season, and threw for just five touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His passer rating (57.8) was worse than the NFL average for completion percentage.
However, he not only suffered from a bulging disk in his back that started during the preseason, but he also hurt his knee in the season opener, and even suffered minor brain damage after a helmet-to-helmet hit against the Arizona Cardinals. Hasselbeck may never play in the NFL again.
21. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans +
Schaub played much better than many people realized in the 2008 season. Despite playing in only 11 games, he tossed 15 touchdowns and threw for 3,043 yards. He ranked second in yards per passing attempt (8.0) and seventh in passer rating (92.7). He also completed 66 percent of his passes while helping the Houston Texans post back-to-back non-losing seasons for the first time in team history.
20. Tyler Thigpen, Kansas City Chiefs +
Everything considered, Thigpen played well for the Chiefs in 2008. Originally a third-string quarterback, Thigpen was unexpectedly thrust into action following injuries to Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle. Thigpen tossed 18 touchdowns against only 12 interceptions. He threw for over 2,600 yards, although his quarterback rating was only 76.0. Thigpen set a single-season franchise record for quarterbacks with 386 rushing yards (6.2 yards per carry, three touchdowns) and will be the starting quarterback for the Chiefs next season.
19. Jeff Garcia, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Garcia is one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the NFL. Despite being 38 years old, he completes his passes, doesn't throw interceptions, and even makes plays with his feet. The Buccaneers almost made the postseason, until a late-season record-setting collapse. Garcia tossed 12 touchdowns and had only six interceptions, ranking fourth in the NFL in lowest-interception percentage. Garcia ranked ninth in passer rating (90.2) and completion percentage (64.2). He came within one win (or tie) of leading his third team to the postseason.
18. Jason Campbell, Washington Redskins +
I bet you didn't know that Jason Campbell is the least intercepted quarterback in the history of the NFL. He doesn't have enough attempts to officially qualify, but Campbell is intercepted just one out of every 50 pass attempts. His 1.2 percent interception percentage led the NFL in 2008 and is the fourth-lowest total of all time.
However, 13 touchdown passes in over 500 attempts is ridiculous, and is the reason his quarterback rating (84.8) ranked only 19th in the NFL. Campbell is a slightly above-average quarterback, and easily could have quarterbacked teams like the Ravens or the Titans into the postseason.
17. Seneca Wallace, Seattle Seahawks +
Wallace did a pretty good job replacing Matt Hasselbeck for 10 games in 2008. He threw for 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His 1.2 percent interception percentage led the NFL and ranks as the fourth best single-season total in NFL history. Wallace ranked seventh in passing touchdown percentage (4.5 percent) and set a team record with a 90-yard touchdown pass against the Philadelphia Eagles.
16. Matt Cassel, New England Patriots +
Cassel emerged from the shadow of the greatest quarterback since Joe Montana to lead New England to an 11-5 record and a second-place finish in the highly competitive AFC East. Cassel played behind a hideous offensive line and still ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in completions (327), attempts (516), yards (3,693), touchdowns (21), and passer rating (89.4). He threw just 11 interceptions and helped the Patriots finish as the greatest non-playoff team in NFL history.
15. Brett Favre, New York Jets -
Many moons ago, Brett Favre was the best quarterback in the NFL. He collected three consecutive MVP awards and led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory in 1996. Now, his time has passed. Favre had a decent season, completing almost 66 percent of his passes for 3,472 yards and 22 touchdowns. But his passer rating ranked 21st in the NFL. He led the NFL with 22 interceptions. He fumbled 10 times and he failed to lead the Jets into the postseason after starting the season with an 8-3 record.
14. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons +
Statistically, Matt Ryan didn't blow anybody away in 2008. But in terms of winning, Ryan's season was a huge success. He started all 16 games and led the Falcons to an 11-5 finish, their first playoff berth since the Michael Vick era. Ryan earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after tossing 16 touchdowns and throwing for 3,440 yards. Ryan ranked second in the NFL in yards per completion (13.0) and fourth in yards per pass attempt (7.9). Next year, Ryan looks to lead the Falcons to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in team history.
13. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers +
I don't understand why people say Rodgers' season was a disappointment. Yes, he failed to lead the Packers to a fourth-quarter comeback. But what did he do? He emerged from the shadow of one of the greatest passers in NFL history to throw for 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, while also rushing for four scores. Despite a poor offensive line, Rodgers ranked in the top 10 in just about every passing category and his 93.8 passer rating topped all first-year starters. Green Bay fans should be excited for his very promising future.
12. Chad Pennington, Miami Dolphins
Pennington's performance for the 2008 Miami Dolphins was nothing short of spectacular. He led the Dolphins to an 11-5 record, a 10-win improvement over the previous season. In the process, he picked up his second Comeback Player of the Year award in three seasons. The all-time leader in completion percentage topped the league with a 67.4 percent mark and was the third least-intercepted quarterback in the league (1.5 percent) before self-destructing in the postseason (four interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens).
11. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
I still think Romo is the biggest choker in NFL history. But there's no denying that he's a good quarterback. He threw for 26 touchdown passes and almost 3,500 yards, despite missing three games with a broken pinkie finger. He ranked eighth in the NFL in passer rating (91.4).
However, there's also no denying that Romo should be playing much better with talent like Marion Barber, Terrell Owens, Jason Witten, and Roy Williams. He needs to cut down on his interceptions (one per game is too many) and fumbles (13, the second-most in the NFL). He needs to be a leader, both on and off the field. And he needs to win a playoff game.
10. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals
Palmer had a throw-away 2008 season, but is still one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. He threw for over 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in both the 2006 and 2007 seasons, although he did lead the NFL in interceptions in 2007. In limited action in the '08 season, he threw for three touchdowns and four interceptions, but should rebound in the 2009 season.
9. Eli Manning, New York Giants
Eli silenced critics for a long time with his brilliant performance in the 2007 postseason. Good thing, because his Giants lost their first playoff game at home to the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Eagles. Eli turned in easily the best season of his career, throwing for 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, with an 86.4 passer rating. He cut down on his fumbles (four) and led the Giants to 12 wins in the regular season. However, he struggled without Plaxico Burress and played poorly in the postseason (zero touchdowns, two interceptions).
8. Jay Cutler, Denver Broncos +
Cutler is one of the more promising young quarterbacks in the National Football League. He almost led the Broncos into the postseason in his third year in the NFL, until the team suffered a historic late-season collapse. Cutler earned his first selection to the Pro Bowl after ranking second in attempts (616), third in completions (384) and yards (4,526), seventh in touchdowns (25), and 10th in yards per pass attempt (7.3).
Cutler benefited greatly from a strong offensive line that allowed him to be sacked the seventh-fewest times in NFL history (1.7 percent of his pass attempts), but much of this can also be contributed to Cutler's quick release. Cutler is erratic though, as his 18 interceptions were the second-most in the NFL.
7. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Roethlisberger erased any worries about a disappointing 2008 season with a stellar postseason performance. In the regular season, he threw just 17 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. He led the NFL with 14 fumbles and ranked 24th in the NFL with an 80.1 passer rating. The Steelers finished with a 12-4 record despite Roethlisberger's troubles.
In the postseason, Big Ben came alive, tossing three touchdowns and one interception. His 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with under a minute remaining capped off an incredible two-minute drive in which Roethlisberger established himself as one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the NFL.
6. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles
Yes, he didn't know that an NFL game could have ties. He got benched in the middle of the season. And 'he' lost in the NFC championship game for the fourth time. He also threw for 23 touchdowns, set a franchise-record with 3,916 yards passing, and set career highs in completions and attempts.
He ranks first in NFL history (among quarterbacks with 1,500 attempts) in lowest interception percentage. Donovan led the Eagles to two road playoff wins and posted a combined 148.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter of his three playoff games (19-of-26, 293 yards, 3 touchdowns).
5. Kurt Warner, Arizona Cardinals
Before the season started, Kurt Warner's chances for the Hall of Fame were iffy. Now he's almost a lock. The 37-year-old took the Arizona Cardinals somewhere they had never been before—the Super Bowl.
Warner led the Cardinals to their first division title in 32 seasons, throwing for 30 touchdowns and over 4,500 yards, while setting career highs in completions and attempts. He ranked third in the NFL with a 96.9 passer rating. In the postseason, Warner threw for 11 touchdowns and three interceptions, including 377 yards in the Super Bowl—the second highest total in one Super Bowl.
4. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
Rivers hasn't missed a game in his three seasons as the starting quarterback, leading the Chargers to a 33-15 record. He has a less-than-impressive postseason record (3-3), but is the only active quarterback to lead his team into the postseason in every season as a starter (minimum three seasons). In the 2008 season, he led the NFL in touchdown passes (34), passer rating (105.5) and yards per attempt (8.4). He led the Chargers from a 4-8 record to a division title and an overtime playoff win in the wild card round.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Until the end of the season, Brees was considered a candidate for Most Valuable Player, despite playing for a last-place team. Brees threw for the second most yards in one season in NFL history (5,069) and was selected to his third Pro Bowl.
The NFL's Offensive Player of the Year led the league in completions (413), attempts (635), yards (5,069), touchdowns (34), and net yards per pass attempt (7.68). Brees also ranked fourth in the NFL in passer rating (96.2) despite throwing to mediocre guys like Lance Moore, Billy Miller, Devery Henderson, and an injured Marques Colston.
2. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
For the third time in 11 seasons, Manning was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player, leading the Colts on a nine-game winning streak after a 3-4 start. He threw for 27 touchdown passes and topped 4,000 yards passing for a record ninth time.
However, for the sixth time in nine tries, Manning failed to lead the Colts to a victory in a postseason game. Manning is "only" 32, though, and will likely one day break all of Brett Favre's career passing records (except for interceptions).
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Brady is still ranked as the NFL's top quarterback even though he missed virtually the entire 2008 season due to a torn ACL. Brady led the New England Patriots to Super Bowl victories following the 2001, 2003, and 2004 seasons.
In 2007, he led New England to the first 16-0 season in NFL history, while throwing for an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes in the regular season. He suffered a season-ending injury in the first week of the season and is expected to return to the Patriots by the beginning of the 2009 season.