NFL History: Top 10 QBs to Never Win a Championship
For every Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady, there are a select few elite signal callers who failed to reach the pinnacle of pro football success: winning a championship.
Despite their efforts, the cruel hand of fate conspired to send the following 10 quarterbacks to Gridiron Valhalla. Several of the following were able to climb up the mountain, only to crater with a championship within their grasp.
From September to December, the field generals on our list racked up impressive accolades only to fall short in the cold air and intense environment of January. While this list was unable to achieve championship status, seven of them eventually received busts at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Without further ado...
10. Ken Anderson, Bengals (1971-86)
Credentials: A deadly accurate passer, Anderson led the league in completion percentage three times while also topping the NFL in QB rating four times.
Misfortune: Playing in the AFC Central in the 1970s, which meant playing second fiddle to the Steelers. Cincinnati reached the playoffs just twice from 1971-80, losing in the division round both times.
Close, but not quite: Anderson had a career year in 1981 (3,754 yards, 29 touchdowns) while guiding the Bengals to their first AFC title. While he put up good numbers against the 49ers (25 completions, 300 yards, two TD passes and one rushing), his two interceptions and a remarkable goal-line stand by San Francisco led to Cincinnati's 26-21 loss in Super Bowl XVI.
9. John Brodie, 49ers (1957-73)
Credentials: Led the league in passing yards three times during a career that saw Brodie throw for 31,548 yards and 214 touchdowns. He twice passed for over 3,000 yards, a remarkable feat considering the league still played 14 games and defenders did everything but leave a breath mint on the table against opposing receivers.
Misfortune: Tom Landry. The Niners captured three straight NFC West crowns from 1970-72, but each time had their boarding pass to the Super Bowl revoked by Landry's Dallas Cowboys.
Oh, so close: Brodie missed part of the 1972 season with injuries, but replaced Steve Spurrier and started the divisional playoff game against the Cowboys. Leading 28-13 late in the third quarter, it appeared the 49ers had a date set against the Redskins for the NFC title, but Roger Staubach came off the bench to pace Dallas to 17 unanswered points to snatch victory away from San Francisco. It would be nine seasons before the Niners reached the postseason, where—fittingly enough—the franchise reached its first Super Bowl by dispelling the Cowboys jinx in the NFC title game.
8. Donovan McNabb, Eagles/Redskins (1999-Present)
Credentials: The owner of almost every significant passing record in Eagles history, McNabb was the focal point in the franchise's rise from late 90s slag to becoming one of the league's premier teams over the past decade. He threw for nearly 33,000 yards and 216 touchdowns during a roller coaster 11-year stint in the City of Brotherly Love.
Misfortune: A 1-4 record in the NFC title game that is a millstone upon the neck of McNabb. The failure of coach Andy Reid to give his field general above average offensive weapons throughout much of his career has to be mentioned as well.
Oh, so close: McNabb threw for 349 yards and a pair of scores against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX, but also tossed three interceptions. More frustrating for Eagles fans is the fact that McNabb—regarded as one of the best running QBs ever—attempted just one rush against a New England defense that was not prepared to handle his ability to create havoc in the open field.
7. Y.A. Tittle, Colts/49ers/Giants (1948-64)
Credentials: Considered buried after being released by the 49ers following the 1960 season, Tittle's arrival to the Big Apple resulted in three straight NFL championship appearances for the Giants during a period in which Big Blue played for the world title six times between 1956 and 1963. Tittle also became the first quarterback to record consecutive seasons of at least 30 touchdown passes (1962-63) in an impressive second act that helped him reach the Hall of Fame in 1971.
Misfortune: Running into NFL deities. The Giants managed just seven points in consecutive losses to Vince Lombardi's Packers in title setbacks in 1961-62; he gamely played through a knee injury in the '63 championship game against the George Halas-led Bears, but threw five interceptions in a 14-10 loss.
Oh, so close: The Giants scored first against the Bears in the '63 title game, but Tittle was virtually useless after injuring his knee. New York's defense held Chicago to just 222 yards, but Tittle was just 11 of 29 for 147 yards. Bears QB Billy Wade scored both touchdowns for Chicago, short scoring runs that were the result of interceptions tossed by Tittle.
6. Warren Moon, Oilers/Vikings/Seahawks/Chiefs (1984-2000)
Credentials: Moon captured four consecutive Grey Cups with the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos (1979-82) before arriving to the States to embark on a career that saw him throw for 49,325 yards and 291 touchdowns, which included four seasons of at least 4,200 yards. Most of all, Moon helped shatter the image of the inability of African-American QBs succeeding under center.
Misfortune: Cruel, unabated heartbreak. Moon took the Oilers to seven straight playoff appearances (1987-93), but each run crashed well short of the AFC title game, let alone the Super Bowl.
Oh, so close: January 3, 1993. The Oilers led the Bills 35-3. You know the rest...
5. Sonny Jurgensen, Eagles/Redskins (1957-74)
Credentials: Regarded as one of the most pure passers in NFL history, Jurgensen threw for 32,255 yards and 255 touchdowns in a remarkable career that led to his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1983. Jurgensen paced the league in yardage five times, including a career-best 3,747 yard effort in 1967.
Misfortune: Lack of quality defenders around him. Jurgensen could light up a scoreboard, but Redskins opponents were just as prolific against them. Only three times did he lead his team to a winning record during his time as the undisputed starter (1961-70).
Oh, so close: Jurgensen led the Redskins to a 3-0 start in 1972, but torn his Achilles early in the following game against the Giants. Billy Kilmer took the reins and led George Allen's "Over the Hill Gang" to the NFC championship before falling to the Dolphins in Super Bowl VII as Miami completed their perfect season.
4. Fran Tarkenton, Vikings/Giants (1961-78)
Credentials: Inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1986, Tarkenton's scrambling ability and tenacious spirit helped offset his lack of size. He retired as the NFL's career leader in passing yards and touchdowns while winning 124 regular season games.
Misfortune: Facing three of the decade's most powerful franchises in the Super Bowl. The Vikings were no match for either the Dolphins (VIII), Steelers (IX) and Raiders (XI), losing all three games by a combined 72-27 margin.
Oh, so close: The 1975 Vikings finished 12-2 as Tarkenton threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 25 touchdown passes en route to being named NFL Player of the Year. A possible third straight Super Bowl appeared within reach as Minnesota led Dallas late in the NFC Divisional playoffs before Roger Staubach's "Hail Mary" found the arms of WR Drew Pearson for the game-winning strike in a 17-14 contest.
Tarkenton was dealt another body blow later that afternoon when he learned that his father passed away while watching his son.
3. Jim Kelly, Bills (1986-1996)
Credentials: Originally drafted by the Bills in the earth-moving first round of the 1983 draft, Kelly spent the next two seasons with the USFL's Houston Gamblers, anchoring one of the most prolific offenses in pro football history. He finally arrived in Buffalo when the USFL folded in 1986, where his intense style and cannon arm helped the franchise change course. The only QB to lead his team to four straight Super Bowls, Kelly threw for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns in an 11-year run that culminated with his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
Misfortune: That they couldn't play the Super Bowl in December. Getting to the championship game was tough, but in three of Buffalo's four Super Sunday flops, the team looked gassed and uninspired, putting up little resistance against the Redskins and twice against the Cowboys.
Oh, so close: Wide Right. Had Scott Norwood hooked his 47-yard field goal attempt about 12 feet to the left, the Bills win Super Bowl XXV, assuring Kelly's omission from this list. A win may have given the Bills an added boost in the other three Super Bowls, as the taste of victory could have changed the outcome.
2. Dan Fouts, Chargers (1973-87)
Credentials: One of the game's ultimate gunslingers, Fouts was the perfect driver to handle coach Don Coryell's explosive passing attack, which riddled NFL secondaries from 1978-85. Fouts became the first QB to record three straight 4,000-yard seasons (1979-81) while throwing to future Hall of Famers Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. The second player to have consecutive seasons of at least 30 touchdown strikes, Fouts may have become the first to reach the 5,000-yard barrier had the 1982 season not been derailed by a strike that wiped out eight weeks. His 43,040 yards and 254 touchdowns helped him reach the Hall of Fame in 1993.
Misfortune: As destructive as Fouts and "Air Coryell" were to opposing defenses, San Diego's defenders were just as devastating to the club's chances. The Chargers finished in the top five in scoring from 1979-82, but the defense—which finished second in '79—fell to 18th, 28th and 22nd the following three seasons, putting too much pressure on Fouts to play "can you top this?" every Sunday.
Oh, so close: The 1980-82 Chargers were more explosive offensively, but the '79 team presented Fouts with his best chance to reach the Super Bowl. San Diego finished 12-4, including a 35-7 rout of defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh, which would have forced the Steelers to travel to the West Coast for the AFC title game. Facing a Houston team without starting QB Dan Pastorini and All-Pro RB Earl Campbell, a date against Pittsburgh looked like a sure thing, but Oilers DB Vernon Perry recorded four of Fouts' five interceptions in a 17-14 win that sent Houston to the Steel City and San Diego sitting at home.
1. Dan Marino, Dolphins (1983-99)
Credentials: Marino rewrote the NFL record book, becoming the first player to throw for over 5,000 yards in a single season while eclipsing the 4,000-yard barrier five other times. A nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Marino became the face of the of Dolphins franchise in a 17-year career that saw him finish with 61,361 yards, 420 touchdowns and 4,967 completions—marks that were later surpassed by Brett Favre in a career that concluded with a Hall of Fame induction in 2005.
Misfortune: Like Fouts, Marino spent much of his career without a quality defense around him. He also lacked a strong running game, as he was surrounded by the likes of Sammie Smith, Bernie Parmalee, Terry Kirby and Karim Abdul-Jabbar in the backfield. Only once did Marino have the experience of a 1,000-yard runner (Abdul-Jabbar, 1996) in the backfield with him in a non-Pro Bowl setting,
Oh, so close: When Marino and the Dolphins took on Joe Montana and the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX, it was thought the meeting would be the first of several between the young field generals, which made the Dolphins' 38-16 loss a slight less painful. While Montana would return (and win) two more Super Bowls, it would mark Marino's only appearance on the big stage.
Miami reached the AFC title game twice more in Marino's career, but lost both at home (New England, 1985; Buffalo, 1992).