When it comes to performances in the NFL, the best ones, the memorable ones, the so called top 10 series’ kind are often the ones being found all over the sports internet world. The quarterback position is frequently associated with those stories and top 10 best quarterbacks achievements is a hot topic among readers.
However, I’ve decided to take a different approach. Who has been on the opposite side of the spectrum? Who are the quarterbacks that consistently performed the worst in the playoffs?
I used a few criteria to define the worse playoff quarterbacks. They are as follows:
a) Confined to the Super Bowl Era – If you are wondering where Y.A. Tittle is on the list, this restriction is the reason why he is not there. I’ve decided to go with just quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era.
b) No Rings – To qualify for the list a quarterback had to be ringless. That is why players like Peyton Manning, Steve Young, and Brett Favre are not on the list. Even though they had mixed success in the playoffs, and are criticized for some pretty bad playoff games, they still all won a ring.
c) At least five playoff starts – I didn’t want to go with guys that played just one bad game. This list has guys that repeatedly were bad in the playoffs with multiple playoff teams; players that were consistently good enough in the regular season to win at least 10 games, but not good enough to take their team to the next level.
d) Stats vs. Wins and Losses – I’ve tried to use a mix of the two. If a quarterback had a lot of good stats, it meant to me that he wasn’t as much to blame for the playoff defeats as another one that was putting up bad numbers. I also tried to look at the number of playoff wins the quarterback had and the surrounding talent on those teams. The more surrounding talent, the more unacceptable the playoff failure became. There is no way to be 100 percent scientific with that, but I tried my best to balance the two elements.
Here is my list of the 10 biggest playoffs underachievers in NFL history. Playoffs record in (parenthesis).
10) Donovan McNabb (9-6) – 322 completions, 540 attempts, 3,522 yards, 23 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, and a 80.8 QB rating – There are a couple of reasons why he makes my list. Even though he has a nice winning playoff percentage compared to some other guys on the list, he is also 1-4 in NFC Championship Games and 0-1 in the Super Bowl.
In the regular season, he is known for not throwing many picks. His one interception every 47.8 regular season pass attempts is one of the best in NFL history. In the postseason, he throws a pick every 33.7 attempts. He played big in the 2004 NFC Championship and had 357 yards passing in the Super Bowl loss, which was only a 24-21 defeat. He also had 100 yards passing and three picks in the 2003 NFC Championship Game and three picks in the Super Bowl. In the regular season he sports an 85.9 QB rating that drops to 80.6 in the playoffs. He has had too much success to be near the top of the disappointing list, but a 1-4 NFC Championship record and no rings is enough for him to belong in the top 10.
9) Jim Kelly (9-8) – 322 completions, 545 attempts, 3,863 yards, 21 touchdowns, 28 interceptions, and a 72.3 QB rating - With the exception of the 1990 season, Kelly just played at a low level time after time in the playoffs. In the two games against Miami and Oakland, he combined to go 36-for-52 with 639 yards, five touchdowns, two picks, and a QB rating of 127.00. That means that in the other 15 playoffs games he combined to throw 16 touchdowns, 26 picks, and post a 66.5 QB rating. Other than those two games, he only posted one playoff game with over a 100.00 QB rating.
In the 1991 AFC Championship Game, they won 10-7 despite Kelly going 13 for 25 with 117 yards, zero touchdowns, two picks, and a 31.6 QB rating. In 1992, they advanced to the Super Bowl in large part due to two Frank Reich wins over Houston and Pittsburgh. Against Houston, it was Reich who came back from down 35-3 to win the largest playoff comeback in NFL history. Kelly helped them win the AFC Championship, but played awful in their Super Bowl loss to Dallas.
Kelly was a big part of the fearful Buffalo attack in the 1990s, but the key to their offense was running back Thurman Thomas, who registered six 100-yard rushing games in the playoffs. Kelly played well in spots, but played three horrible Super Bowls. He threw an interception every 19.5 attempts in the postseason, which is horrendous. He threw at least one pick in 14 of his 17 playoffs starts. As a result, Kelly is tied with Brett Favre for the most playoff interceptions in Super Bowl history with 28. Favre started five more playoff games and threw a pick only once every 25.8 times. Kelly is easily one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in NFL history.
The worst case was Super Bowl XXVII, when the Bills offense turned the ball over nine times. Buffalo is a tough place to play in January but more often than not he was not playing his best ball in the postseason. His inability to play good games, his weakness in turning the ball over in big spots, combined with a defense that was not able to stop smash mouth NFC East offenses were big reasons why the Bills were not able to get over the hump and win a Super Bowl with their very talented teams in the early 1990s. I would have him higher based on his poor numbers, but at the end of the day, he was the starting quarterback on the only team in NFL history to go to four consecutive Super Bowls.. Kelly deserves that credit.
8) Warren Moon (3-7) – 259 completions, 403 attempts, 2,870 yards, 17 touchdowns, 14 interceptionss, and an 84.9 QB rating - I give him a little bit of a pass for the Houston Oilers’ struggles. Warren Moon wasn’t playing defense on the team that gave up a 35-3 lead. He didn’t give up two fourth down conversions in the game 1991 Divisional Playoff game against Denver. Repeatedly Moon would play well in the playoffs, and time and time again, the defense would let him down. Moon’s playoff rating of 84.9 is actually better than his 80.9 regular season rating, but he was also known for disappearing in the second half of playoff games. The Oilers led the Broncos 21-6 in the second quarter of the 1991 Divisional Round before losing to Denver 26-24. They also had a sozeable 35-3 lead against the Buffalo Bills before losing 41-38 in overtime. True, the defense gave up those points, but he wasn’t leading scoring drives either. That offensive inability to convert first downs kept the defense on the field and was partially responsible for those collapses. Moon played in the “run and shoot offense,” which was great for jumping out to big leads. It was not so good at holding them in the fourth quarter. It made for a lot of heartbreak in the playoffs.
7) Billy Kilmer (2-5) – 92 completions, 178 attempts, 1,060 yards, 8 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and a 68.6 QB rating - Kilmer consistently played well in the regular season. In fact, from 1971 to 1976, the Washington Redskins were 45-19-1 and made the playoffs in 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1976, but once they got there, they were quickly disposed. The only playoff trip in which they won at least one game was in 1972 when they advanced to the Super Bowl only to lose to the Miami Dolphins 14-7. The Redskins offense didn’t score a single point that game. Kilmer had zero touchdown passes and three interceptions in that game. Other than his two playoff wins, his best QB rating was a 71.4.
During the regular season, from 1971 to 1976, he had a yards per attempt that was consistently between 7.1 and 7.3. In the playoffs, his yards per attempt were an anemic 6.0 playing in an era where teams didn’t use West Coast offenses to move the ball on short passes. While it should be pointed out that he played in the Dead Ball Era, his numbers were still not very impressive in the postseason. He consistently underperformed in the playoffs costing the Redskins many early playoffs exits.
6) Randall Cunningham (3-6) – 181 completions, 339 attempts, 2,265 yards, 12 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a 76.4 QB rating - He could just never get it going in the playoffs early in his career, as the Eagles lost his first three playoff games. Randall Cunningham had zero touchdowns and five interceptions in those three losses. In all, the Eagles went 1-4 with him as the starting quarterback in postseason play.
He redeemed himself later in his career with the Minnesota Vikings. In the 1997 playoffs, he led the Vikings to a win over the New York Giants and had three touchdown passes in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. In 1998, he had 34 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions as the starter in the regular season, five touchdowns and one pick in the playoffs, but the Vikings’ special teams and defense could not come through against Atlanta as the Falcons prevailed 30-27 in OT. He never saw another playoff game as a starting quarterback.
The Eagles had terrific defenses in the late 80s and early 90s, but their offense died once the playoffs started. Cunningham was never blessed with great skill position talent in Philadelphia and, as a result, the team struggled when it got to the playoffs. On the other hand, Cunningham was a dangerous playmaker that struck fear into opposing defenses…in the regular season. He just never seemed to be able to generate that same excitement in the playoffs. The Eagles only scored 25 total points in his first three playoffs starts. Had Cunningham been able to raise his level of play in the postseason, the Eagles may have been able to advance further in the playoffs and compete with their very dangerous defense.
5) Dave Krieg (3-6) – 127 completions, 252 attempts, 1,674 yards, 10 touchdowns, 8 interceptionss, and a 71.8 QB rating - Dave Krieg had a 98-77 record as a NFL starter. He played on Seattle Seahawks teams that featured Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent and three-time Pro Bowl running back Curt Warner. Krieg made the playoffs six times in his career as a starter. When the playoffs arrived, there was a lot more failure than success. His best postseason run was in 1983 when the Seahawks advanced to the AFC title game. Krieg had his best playoff game that year against Denver, going 12-for-13 for 200 yards with three touchdowns and no picks. He also led the Seahawks to an upset win over Miami, before losing in the AFC title game to eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland. The following year he would lead the Hawks to a wildcard win over Oakland, before losing to AFC Super Bowl representative, Miami. From that point on his playoff record as a starter was 0-5. The Seahawks, Chiefs, and Lions averaged 11.0 points per game in those five losses scoring only 20 points one time. His highest rating in those losses was 87.1.
Krieg never seemed to be able to align himself with a coach that had good playoff success. His coach in Seattle was Chuck Knox who was 7-11 in the playoffs in his 22-year coaching career. He left for Kansas City and played for Marty Schottenheimer who had a 5-13 playoff record in his 21-year coaching career. In Detroit, it was Wayne Fontes, who was just 1-4 in the playoffs in his nine-year coaching career. That’s a combined 13- 29 for his head coaches, for a .309 playoff winning percentage. But, had Kreig played better in the playoffs, maybe those coaches would have won a few extra playoff games. He certainly didn’t do himself any favors with his poor postseason play.
4) Dan Marino (8-10) – 385 completions, 687 attempts, 4,510 yards, 32 touchdowns, 24 interceptions, and a 77.1 QB rating – Dan Marino just never really looked comfortable playing on the big stage. In the regular season, he set every major passing record in NFL history, (those records stood until Brett Favre broke the majority of them in 2007) but in the playoffs, Dan Marino was a below average QB. He only played in three conference championships in his legendary career, and the Miami Dolphins went 1-2 in those games. In his only Super Bowl appearance he had the misfortune of running into the 17-1 San Francisco 49ers led by Joe Montana, losing 38-16 in a game where Marino had one touchdown, two picks, and a 66.9 QB rating.
Marino actually was not that bad of a postseason quarterback early in his career. In his first 12 playoffs games, he was 6-6. He was 258-for-454 for 3,178 yard with 26 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and a QB rating of 84.9. After 1995, he was a 34 to 38-year old QB that just didn’t possess the same skill set he enjoyed earlier in his career. In four of his last six playoff games he had a rating under 70.00, which caused the Dolphins to go 0-4 in those games that included a lopsided 38-3 loss to Denver. The Dolphins actually suffered a greater lopsided loss the following year losing 62-7 to Jacksonville.
Marino also had some pretty good playoff games early in his career. He had four touchdowns to just one pick and a 135.4 QB rating in the 1984 AFC Championship Game. He had two touchdowns and zero picks in a 17-16 win over Kansas City in the 1990 Wildcard Round in which he led a drive for a game winning field goal. He also had three touchdowns and zero picks in 31-0 win over San Diego in the 1992 Divisional Round.
Too often his teams just came up short in the playoffs.like in the 1985 AFC Championship Game where they lost to New England Patriots 30-14 at home,in which Marino had two picks and a 54.9 rating Also in the 1992 AFC Championship Game, Marino had one touchdown, two picks, and a 56.5 QB rating in a 29-10 loss at Buffalo.
Ten of his 18 playoffs games saw Marino throw two or more picks and the Dolphins went 1-9 in those games.(Compare that to the 7-1 record they posted when he threw only one pick or less per game). Some of that was poor defensive teams that gave up huge leads in those games early that forced Marino to take chances trying to comeback in games. However, there is no debating that Marino was not the same quarterback in the postseason that he was in the regular season. Had he valued the ball better, the Dolphins might have won a few more playoffs games and may have been able to break through and win a Super Bowl.
3) Dan Fouts (3-4) – 159 completions, 286 attempts, 2,125 yards, 12 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, and a 70.0 QB rating – Granted, Dan Fouts had the misfortune of playing on some pretty average teams in terms of defense, but never really shined in the playoffs either. He had two games where he threw five interceptions and threw an interception in six of his seven playoffs appearances. The San Diego Chargers played in two conference championship games in which Fouts was just 37-for-73 with 521 yards passing, three touchdowns, four picks, and a 64.9 QB rating.
Fouts had some hard luck in the playoffs. His warm weather San Diego team was caught unprepared in the Freezer Bowl in Cincinnati. The game time temperature was minus-9 at kickoff with a wind chill of minus-59. That certainly didn’t help his march to the Super Bowl in the 1981 season, but Fouts also created some of his own misfortune. The 1979 Chargers were 12-4 and finished second in the NFL in points allowed. They only lost their divisional round game 17-14, but Fouts had five interceptions. They lost the 1980 AFC Championship to Oakland at home. That close final score was 34-27, but Fouts got off to a slow start in that game that combined with his defenses’ likewise slow start saw the team down 28-7 in the second quarter already.
I don’t put Fouts at the very top of the list because, for the most part, he played on teams with bad running games and bad defenses, but the Chargers had good teams while Fouts was there and he never seemed to apply the epic numbers he had in the regular season in the postseason. Therefore, part of the Chargers playoffs’ struggles has to be attributed to his poor play.
2) Fran Tarkenton (6-5) – 149 completions, 292 attempts, 1,803 yards, 11 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, and a 58.6 QB rating - Fran Tarkenton played on some good Minnesota Vikings teams: His front-four was known as the “Purple People Eaters,” Carl Eller and Allen Page are Hall of Fame defensive lineman, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen were solid on the front-four as well. Paul Krause was a Hall of Fame safety, and Jeff Simeon was a four-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker. On offense, Chuck Foreman was a very formidable running back who made the Pro Bowl five times and scored 51 touchdowns from 1974 to 1976. John Gilliam was a four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, and Mick Tingeloff was a stellar center on their offensive line. The talent was certainly there for the Vikings to win a Super Bowl, yet once the Super Bowl appearances came, Tarkenton looked lost.
In three Super Bowl losses the Hall of Fame QB went 46-for-89 with 489 yards, one touchdown pass, six picks, and a QB rating of 43.7. In 1973, the defense ranked second in the NFL and gave up 24 points in the Super Bowl to the Dolphins while scoring only seven points. In 1974, the defense only gave up 16 points in the 16-6 loss to the Steelers, (two of those points surrendered were on a Tarkenton’s safety) and accounted for the only six Viking points of the game. In 1976, neither side of the ball showed up in a 32-14 loss to the Raiders. Oakland was up 19-0 before the Vikings scored in the third quarter, and built a 32-7 lead before the Vikings scored a meaningless touchdown with Tarkenton out of the game.
Tarkenton played with top five defenses in 1973, 1974, and 1976, but just was never able to play well in the Super Bowl and really wasn’t spectacular at any point in the playoffs, in which his highest rating game was a 91.7. He had a QB rating less than 70.0 in eight of his 11 playoffs starts, and failed to throw a single touchdown in four of those 11 starts. While it’s true that the Vikings had the misfortune of having to play Dallas, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Oakland, it’s also true that they had the necessary talent to beat those teams. Note that they also had some tough luck in the playoffs, such as the Hail Mary pass from Rodger Staubach to Drew Pearson.
Even though he went to three Super Bowls, I put him this high for two reasons:
a) He doesn’t have the excuse that he played with poor defenses or poor running games. The Vikings had both in place and he still came up short.
b) His numbers are just awful for the playoffs. Even compared to other guys that played in the “Dead Ball Era”, he was a turnover machine that just didn’t make any plays. He was the glaring weakness on those teams once the playoffs started.
1) Craig Morton (5-5) – 87 completions, 219 attempts, 1,188 yards, 9 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and a 42.9 QB rating. – Morton meets all my criterias: he has a poor postseason record as well as the worst numbers of any quarterback on the list. There just isn’t much good to say about his postseason numbers. He had a 34.1 QB rating in the Super Bowl V loss to the Baltimore Colts in which he had just one touchdown, three picks, and 127 yards passing. His other Super Bowl performance saw him go 4-for-15 with 39 yards passing, zero touchdowns, four picks, and a 0.0 QB rating in what currently is the worst performance in Super Bowl history.
He had five playoff starts where his rating was lower than 35.0. He was 0-2 in the Super Bowl. Even his playoffs wins were shaky at best. Take a 5-0 win over Detroit in the 1970 division round where he was 4-for -18 with just 38 yards, zero touchdowns, one pick, and a 16.4 QB rating. He also had a 30-28 win over San Francisco in which Rodger Staubach relieved him in the fourth quarter to lead Dallas back from a 28-13 fourth quarter deficit. Morton had a 29.2 QB rating in that game. Dallas would go on to win two Super Bowls once Morton was replaced by future Hall of Famer Rodger Staubach. The talent was in place in Dallas, but always managed to play his worst when the games mattered the most. To me he is the worst playoff quarterback in the Super Bowl era.