Every NFL Team's Best Franchise Quarterbacks in History
Recently I wrote about the quarterbacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers and noted that Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger were probably the only true franchise QBs to ever play in Pittsburgh. That leads me to wonder, of all 32 NFL teams, who was (or is) each club’s “franchise” quarterback?
Working alphabetically, here are the men I believe were the best quarterbacks for every team in the league.
The Cards are one of the NFL’s oldest teams having begun play in 1920 calling Chicago home. Then they moved to St. Louis and finally Arizona. While Kyle Murray is the incumbent, his career has a long way to go before it's over. Jim Hart played many seasons with the Cardinals (1967-1981) but his numbers don’t warrant being named a true franchise QB. Later came Neil Lomax, Jake Plummer, and Kurt Warner for a few seasons. Murray could very well be called the team's best quarterback ever but until he’s done in the NFL that can’t be said. If I had to name one player that was the closest to being Arizona’s franchise player, it would have to be Jake Plummer, who put in five years with the team.
As an expansion team in 1966, Randy Johnson was the Falcons' very first quarterback. Steve Bartkowski came along in 1965 and was a very good quarterback who played over 10 seasons with the “Dirty Birds.” But it’s obvious who the franchise guy for the Atlanta Falcons was. Matt Ryan.
Without considering that the Ravens used to be the Browns, the old Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1996. Vinny Testaverde was the starting quarterback and between his time and Joe Flacco’s tenure, there were a handful of players that manned the position. But it would be Flacco as the club’s franchise quarterback choice, that is until Lamar Jackson’s playing days are done and we see what he has accomplished.
One name…Jim Kelly. Enough said. Politician Jack Kemp put in a few years behind center and then Joe Ferguson played many years in Buffalo but between the two Jim Kelly who led the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances is head and shoulders above anyone else that played in Buffalo. Josh Allen is setting a new standard but his career is far from over.
Only in existence since 1995, the Panthers began with Kerry Collins, then Steve Beuerlein before having Jake Delhomme take over. When Delhomme was done Cam Newton was the man and proved to be a franchise-like QB.
The Bears are one of those teams that have had no luck in finding their next great quarterback. As one of the oldest teams in the NFL, Chicago has spent decades looking for a player that makes fans forget who Sid Luckman was. It has yet to happen. Luckman’s last year on the team was 1949 and since that time the Bears have seen Bob Avellini, Jim McMahon, Mike Tomczak, Jim Harbaugh, Rex Grossman, Jay Cutler, and Mitch Trubisky come and go. None of them have had the success that Luckman had. Perhaps Justin Fields will.
Ken Anderson & Boomer Esiason
The Bengals have two players who stand out when talking quarterback. Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason. Both were outstanding signal callers and both had some very successful seasons leading their respective offenses. Then there were a few experimental QBs that didn’t pan out like Akili Smith, Jeff Blake, and Jon Kitna. Carson Palmer would come next and he was a decent quarterback who then gave way to Andy Dalton. Dalton was behind center for nine seasons but could not buy a playoff victory. Now we have Joe Burrow who in just his second season was an integral part of the Bengals AFC championship team and he has a very bright future ahead.
With the Browns, we have a team that has simply been unable to find a franchise quarterback for way too long. Their franchise began in 1946 with Otto Graham the very first signal caller and he was a smashing success as Cleveland reached the league title game every single season of Graham’s career. Since that time there have been 58 players who played quarterback at one point in their careers for the Cleveland Browns. This year they thought they hit the jackpot with Deshaun Watson but he won’t even be available for the first eight games due to a league suspension for negative off-the-field conduct.
“Roger the Dodger.” Mention “America’s Team” and that is the first quarterback that will come to mind for most fans. But the Cowboys have had several great quarterbacks that can be considered franchise-type players. Don Meredith was a very good QB. So was Craig Morton. Danny White held his own. Then there is Troy Aikman an outstanding player. After Aikman’s retirement though, several players got their shot and Tony Romo was the incumbent for several seasons but he earned the reputation as a playoff choker. Now it is Dak Prescott’s time but this season due to an injury backup Cooper Rush is pressing him for the starting role.
One of the greatest quarterbacks ever is head and shoulders above his predecessors and anyone who came after. That would be John Elway, winner of two Super Bowls. With a franchise that began play in 1960, until Elway came along in 1983, the biggest name behind center in Denver was Craig Morton. Elway had a long career finally retiring in 1999 as Brian Griese was the heir apparent. But Griese was nowhere near in the same neighborhood as Elway and neither was Jake Plummer who came nest. Jay Cutler got a short stint, as did Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, and then Peyton Manning came in to finish his career out west. But Manning was far past his prime but still lasted four seasons in Denver. Since that time, a permanent replacement has been hard to find until this season with Russell Wilson coming in obviously to finish his career just as Manning had done before him.
The Detroit Lions had early success in their franchise history and in the 1950s were one of the league’s better teams. But throughout the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and 2000’s there were many seasons they were downright awful including a winless 0-16 season in 2008. Their most famous and probably best quarterback was the colorful and controversial Bobby Layne. But in 1958 the Lions were coming off a championship season and made the ill-fated decision to trade Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Layne’s reaction to the trade was “the Lions will not win for another 50 years” in more words or less. This remark is rumored to be a hoax and was never said but regardless if the comment was never published by any news outlet, those words would haunt Detroit just as they had been quoted. Detroit over the next 50 years had the sixth lowest winning percentage of any team in the league. The Lions meanwhile have been through a ton of quarterbacks since that time and the man that came to Detroit in that infamous trade was Earl Morrall who never found success with Detroit. Eventually, they would draft Matthew Stafford who was an outstanding quarterback on a bad team and when he finally escaped to the Rams last season, Los Angeles won the Super Bowl.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers have had three great quarterbacks two who would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and another still playing that will get there one day. It starts with Bart Starr and then Brett Favre coming on board after being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 1993 who gave the keys after leaving the Pack to incumbent Aaron Rodgers.
One of the NFL’s newer franchises (2002), the Texans drafted David Carr as their first quarterback. Carr was talented but took a beating during his days in Houston. He was finally released in 2007 and Matt Schaub was brought in. Schaub was a decent QB but not what you might call a franchise player. Brock Osweiler was a failed experiment and other players came and went like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, and Tom Savage. Deshaun Watson is probably the most talented quarterback the Texans ever had but his story is well known and he is now in Cleveland waiting to play after he serves his suspension.
Just as the Packers have had three quarterbacks that rise above the rest so do the Colts. It starts with Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning’s reign, and then Andrew Luck who retired prematurely. Carson Wentz was given a shot last season and failed and after just one year, the Colts have turned to veteran Matt Ryan who is in the twilight of his career. Jim Harbaugh had a few seasons behind center and might be remembered by some Steelers fans for a playoff matchup with Pittsburgh that saw the Steelers’ defense beat up Harbaugh in a Pittsburgh victory. Jeff George took snaps for a few seasons but he was a loose cannon behind center.
It didn’t take long for the Jacksonville Jaguars to find success when they entered the league in 1995. In their inaugural season, the Jags finished 4-12 but the highlight of that season had to be that one of the four victories was over the Pittsburgh Steelers defeating them 20-16 after losing four of the first five games to open the season. The Steelers would end up 11-5 and get to the Super Bowl only to lose to the Dallas Cowboys. The Jaguars began their franchise history with a franchise-type quarterback in Mark Brunell who might be their best quarterback ever. But the last few seasons have been complete downers for the Jags becoming one of the NFL’s worst teams. Following Brunell, Jacksonville tried to find their next great quarterback going through the likes of Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, Blaine Gabbert, Blake Bortles, Gardner Minshew, and now one of the most hyped QBs in a long time Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence is in just his second season but if he lives to the billing he will be the Jaguars’ best quarterback ever.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Patrick Mahomes has set the NFL on fire since being drafted by the Chiefs in 2017. He already might be the team’s greatest quarterback ever. Len Dawson would be in that argument but in between Dawson and Mahomes were some solid quarterbacks but none that were Hall of Fame worthy. They included Elvis Grback, Trent Green, and Alex Smith. We can mention Joe Montana but he was at the end his career after winning multiple Super Bowls in San Francisco.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett
Talk about a team that is always on the move and that would be the Raiders. They started in Oakland, moved to Los Angeles, and then back to Oakland before ending up in their current location, Las Vegas. Looking back at the history of the Raiders, they’ve had some fantastic quarterbacks. It began with Daryle Lamonica who handed over the controls to Ken “The Snake” Stabler. Jim Plunkett came next and then began a drop-off in talent at the position with players like Mar Wilson, Jay Schroeder, Jeff Hostetler, Jeff George, Rich Gannon, and Kerry Collins trying to establish themselves as franchise players. Along the way, there were busts most notably JaMarcus Russell. Russell is considered by many to be the biggest first-round bust in league history. Carson Palmer came next for the Raiders and for one season a combination of Terrelle Pryor, Matt McGloin, and Matt Flynn before incumbent Derek Carr came along. Carr has been holding down the fort for nine seasons now but he has not put out numbers that place him in the same neighborhood as Lamonica, Stabler, and Plunkett.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
When you think about the “Bolts” Philip Rivers immediately comes to mind. Rivers will probably end up in the Hall of Fame but without a Super Bowl title. Who was better? Rivers or Dan Fouts? Fouts led an aerial attack for the then San Diego Chargers that put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Another hall of famer Johnny Unitas closed out his career in San Diego but he was far past his prime. Drew Brees put in a short stint with the Chargers before going to New Orleans and putting a cap on his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career. The Chargers like the Raiders also had a massive first-round bust when they chose Ryan Leaf. But as for their all-time franchise quarterbacks that are reserved for Rivers and Fouts.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
The Rams have had a storied history while having played in St. Louis and L.A. The team entered the league in 19487 with the great Bob Waterfield as the first quarterback behind center. Norm Van Brocklin brought his greatness next. Van Brocklin was at the controls for only four seasons from 1954 through 1957 playing only a part of 1956. Roman Gabriel came along in 1962 and became the full-time starter from 1966 until 1972. From that time until this season there have been a handful of quarterbacks ranging from Jim Everett to Kurt Warner, including Marc Bulger, Sam Bradford, Jared Goff, and the current signal caller, Matthew Stafford. With last season’s Super Bowl victory, Stafford joins Kurt Warner as a Rams’ league champion QB. Vince Ferragamo got Los Angeles there in 1980 only to lose to the dynasty Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bob Griese & Dan Marino
The Miami Dolphins are an easy team to talk about when the conversation is regarding franchise QBs. That’s because there are only two. Bob Griese and Dan Marino. The difference between the two is that Griese owns Super Bowl rings while Marino has none. Marino’s team did get to the Super Bowl once but lost. There have been a lot of players to take the position for Miami but none come close to matching the talents of the aforementioned. As Tua Tagovalioa is in the early stages of his career he will have to engineer lots of wins and a Super Bowl appearance to rival Griese and Marino.
While the Vikings reached the Super Bowl four times and lost each one of those Fran Tarkenton would have to go down as not just the Vikings' best quarterback ever but one of their greatest players in the team’s history. Tommy Kramer played multiple seasons in Minnesota and along the way Warren Moon spent some time behind center closing out a Hall of Fame career. Daunte Culpepper was an exciting quarterback that put up some good numbers, and Brett Favre angered many Packers fans by moving to the Vikings for several seasons but was unable to be a part of any championship team in that time frame. Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, and Case Keenum never panned out and now the position belongs to Kirk Cousins who isn’t exactly wowing anyone.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
With six Super Bowl rings on his hands while quarterbacking the New England Patriots, if not for an injury to Drew Bledsoe Brady may have had to play the waiting game until Bill Belichick decided it was time for a change. Considered by most to be the GOAT, a conversation about Patriots’ quarterbacks would be secondary to Brady. We saw the likes of Steve Grogan, Babe Parilli, Doug Flutie, and now Mac Jones.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The Manning family of football is easily the most prolific father-and-son combination of quarterbacks in the history of pro football. It began with Archie Manning quarterbacking the New Orleans Saints in the 1970s but unlike his two famous sons Peyton and Eli, Archie manning never had the opportunity to play behind a good team. Perennial losers were the Saints to the point that fans started putting brown paper bags over their heads and calling themselves the “Aints.” It wasn’t until Drew Brees came along that the Saints finally had a superstar leading the offense.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Conerly, Tittle, Tarkenton, Simms, Manning
As one of the original teams in the NFL, the Giants have had many players as their starting quarterback. Several stand out as the team’s best quarterbacks of all time. Most are household names. The great ones were Charlie Conerly, Y.I. Tittle (one of the toughest quarterbacks ever), Frank Tarkenton for a time, Phil Simms, and of course one of the Manning trio, Eli. Now Daniel Jones is trying to establish himself as the next great quarterback for New York but thus far in his career, he has not wowed anyone.
NEW YORK JETS
Across town (well at least when the New York teams both played within the confines of the Big Apple) we have the other team with much less history but with one of the most controversial quarterbacks ever. That would be Joe Namath, the Green and White’s best quarterback ever best known for predicting a Super Bowl victory in 1969 over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. No other Jets quarterback can be mentioned in the same breath as “Broadway Joe” but while Chad Pennington had some success along came Mark Sanchez who will, unfortunately, be remembered forever for his infamous “Butt fumble.” Sam Darnold was supposed to be the next great Jets quarterback but never reached the level. Now it’s on Zach Wilson to establish himself but is only in his second season.
Another old franchise is the Philadelphia Eagles. A team that once combined forces with the cross-state Pittsburgh Steelers during World War II to become the “Steagles” has featured some great quarterbacks. The first that comes to mind for me is Randall Cunningham. Cunningham was pure entertainment to watch on the field. Very unpredictable, Cunningham was also productive. He only ran the show for six seasons but he was a dangerous QB in all those. But “Jaws” whose real name is Ron Jaworski might be the best all-around signal caller in Eagles’ history. Donovan McNabb might rival the two previously mentioned players but McNabb’s arrival to Philadelphia did not start well. I was at the NFL draft when the Eagles made him their #1 pick in 1999 and the Eagles fans in attendance at Madison Square Garden greeted McNabb to the team with a rousing round of boos. They probably regret that after the career he had in Philly. The Eagles had some other well-known names playing the position in their history that includes Davey O’Brien (the best quarterback in college football every year is awarded a trophy in his name), Norm Van Brocklin, Norm Snead, Sonny Jurgensen, Roman Gabriel, Rodney Peete, Michael Vick, Carson Wentz, and the current key holder, Jalen Hurts.
Terry Bradshaw & Ben Roethlisberger
Now we have my team. A franchise I’ve been following since 1972. I’ve been fortunate enough to see every Steelers Super Bowl appearance and victory. Along the way, I also was able to watch the two greatest quarterbacks in Pittsburgh history, Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger. Aside from those two, we did have the days of Bubby Brister, Mark Malone, Kordell Stewart, Neil O’Donnell, and Tommy Maddox all of who had their share of successes. But for the Steelers, as franchise quarterbacks go, that honor belongs to only #12 and #7. Because of the drafting of Bradshaw, Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty never got a chance to start for the Steelers except in cases where the “Blonde Bomber” could not play.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
This is an easy one. Joe Montana all day. Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Montana wears four Super Bowl rings and had the luxury of throwing to the greatest wide receiver ever, Jerry Rice. The Niners did see T.Y. Tittle on the field for them as well as John Brodie and of course, Steve Young who was a great quarterback in his own right. Jeff Garcia did well in San Francisco, as did Alex Smith. Of course, everyone knows the story of Colin Kaepernick who is still trying to work his way back into the NFL. Trey Lance was named the starter this season and big things were expected of him until he suffered a season-ending injury and so the job fell to former starter Jimmy Garappolo.
Russell Wilson was Seattle’s best quarterback ever perhaps rivaled by Jim Zorn and Dave Krieg but now Wilson is in Denver to close out his career leaving behind a solid legacy. It would be interesting to get the take of a ‘Hawks fan on who their greatest QB ever is and I’d bet that it would be either Zorn or Wilson. Wilson has a Super Bowl victory while Matt Hasselbeck got his team there as well only to lose to the Steelers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Trent Dilfer & Brad Johnson
The Bucs dismally began their franchise history. They lost every game in 1976. Then they began the 1977 season by losing the first 12 games before finally winning the final two games of that season beating the Saints and then the Cardinals. In their first full two seasons through 28 games, the Bucs were shut out 11 times. The interesting thing about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is that several players that wore their uniform ended up with much better success elsewhere. Doug Williams ended up in Washington where he won a Super Bowl with the Redskins. Trent Dilfer did the same with the Baltimore Ravens. Steve Young was a backup to Steve DeBerg and finished in San Francisco where he won Super Bowl titles. Now there is Tom Brady who strangely enough won a record 7th Super Bowl in his very first season with the Buccaneers. Brad Johnson was another starter with a Super Bowl ring. Jameis Winston who is now in New Orleans currently holds the team record for passing yards.
The Titans used to be the Houston Oilers. So in looking back at both teams, the then Oilers began play in 1960 and it started with the “old man” George Blanda. Blanda was not just a quarterback but became a great kicker. Dan Pastorini was a fine quarterback and Ken Stabler played a few seasons in Houston. Hall of Famer Warren Moon had some of his best years as an Oiler. Two years after being drafted, Steve McNair moved along with the Oilers to Tennessee where they became the Titans. McNair as many know was murdered following his career but on the field, he was one of the Titans' best players ever. Vince Young came out as a promising prospect but never reached his full potential. Marcus Mariota was in that same mindset of many but he too never got to where the Titans’ coaching staff expected him to be. Now it’s Ryan Tannehill’s tenure and this season he is on a bit of a hot seat as the Titans are not off to the start they had hoped for.
We’ve reached our final team in the NFL and what used to be the Washington Redskins and now known as the Commanders have a very storied history. The then Redskins had one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the league in “Slingin” Sammy Baugh. Eddie LeBaron was great as well. Sonny Jurgensen was a colorful character that was not your prototype quarterback. Billy Kilmer came along after Jurgensen and he too was quite the character and a bit of a loose cannon. The chain of great quarterbacks continued after Kilmer with the arrival of Joe Theismann. While he had a fantastic career many fans will remember Theismann for the gruesome broken leg that he suffered at the hands of Lawrence Taylor on national television that had an extreme cringe factor. Mark Rypien won a Super Bowl with the ‘Skins but after that, Washington has been up and down with QBs. Gus Frerotte held the role for a while and he too had an incident that will be remembered by many as after scoring a touchdown in one game he decided to head butt the end zone wall not realizing how hard the surface was and suffered a neck injury. Mark Brunell came in from Jacksonville but was a the tail end of his career. Kirk Cousins had some time in Washington and other attempts at becoming Washington’s franchise quarterback were met with disappointment by Jason Campbell, Rex Grossman, and Robert Griffin III.