Franchise quarterback is the most elusive and essential need in all of pro football. NFL teams are desperate to find one, willing to part with valuable draft capital or invest millions in the hopes of adding this critical piece to the roster. But too often in their pursuit of a top-tier passer, organizations mistake adequate for exceptional, fooling themselves into thinking a middle-of-the-road passer is worthy of being the face of the franchise.
So what is a franchise quarterback, and which teams have had the best run of them? To answer these two questions, we established four simple criteria and applied them to every quarterback since the common-era draft began in 1967, when the AFL and NFL first began drafting together. To qualify, a player must have 48 starts with one team and meet two of the following three requirements:
1) Winning regular-season record.
2) Minimum passer rating of 75.0.
3) At least one Pro Bowl selection.
None of these provisions alone paint a perfect picture, but together they help to illustrate sustained production at an above-average level. And at the core of what all fans crave from their quarterback is someone who consistently keeps the team competitive and provides a realistic shot at the playoffs. Everything else is gravy.
For every franchise passer teams get right, there are countless others they miss on entirely. That's why we've also identified each organization's biggest QB misstep. Perspective is important, and we should always remember just how bad things can get when dependable quarterback play disappears.
Because we only considered a player's performance from 1967 onward, some notable passers, such as Bart Starr and Don Meredith, aren't included, while others, like Johnny Unitas, only have post-'66 production factored into their franchise QB eligibility.
I'm sure you'll agree with all of the choices below, so I don't expect any disparaging tweets. Next up: AFC West.
Who qualifies for the Broncos?
-- Peyton Manning (2012-15): 57 starts | 45-12 | 3 Pro Bowls | 101.7 passer rating | 1 MVP | 1 SB ring
-- Jake Plummer (2003-06): 54 starts | 39-15 | 1 Pro Bowl | 84.3 passer rating
-- Brian Griese (1998-2002): 51 starts | 26-24 | 1 Pro Bowl | 84.1 passer rating
-- John Elway (1983-1998): 231 starts | 148-82-1 | 9 Pro Bowls | 79.9 passer rating | 1 MVP | 2 SB rings
-- Craig Morton (1977-1982): 64 starts | 41-23 | 0 Pro Bowls | 79.1 passer rating
THE Franchise QB: John Elway
Peyton orchestrated one of the greatest QB seasons of all time, earned his fifth MVP, appeared in two Super Bowls (winning one) and won 45 (!) games in just four seasons with Denver, but Elway remains the clear choice here. The Broncos legend guided the franchise to five Super Bowl appearances, taking home two Lombardis, and logged just two losing seasons as a starter in 16 years of service in the orange and blue. When NFL decision-makers go searching for a franchise quarterback, they're looking for someone who consistently gives the team an opportunity to win, who shows longevity and loyalty to an organization and who gives the fan base hope that every year could end with hardware. No. 7 set a standard of excellence at the position for the franchise that future generations of Broncos signal-callers have simply been unable to live up to (Manning being the short-lived exception). A testament to Elway the player; problematic for Elway the GM.
Biggest QB misstep: Paxton Lynch
If I were active on Twitter, I'm sure I'd be getting some blowback for going with Lynch over Tim Tebow or Jay Cutler or even Tommy Maddox. But those critics would all be wrong. Tebow, while not a very good pro quarterback, is tied for second with Jake Plummer for the most Broncos playoff wins in the past 20 years. Cutler was OK for the Broncos for three seasons before they traded him to the Bears, where he was OK for another eight years. And Maddox, while representing a wasted first-round pick, didn't stunt the franchise's fortunes too much. Lynch, on the other hand, has become the symbol of Denver's struggles at quarterback since Manning retired. The Broncos can't feel too good that they traded up for Lynch in 2016, sending the 31st overall selection and a third-rounder to the Seahawks for the 26th overall pick, only to cut him two-and-a-half years later and watch him sign in Seattle as a free agent.
Longest QB drought: 2015-present
I know 1967-1977 is a longer stretch of time, and I admit I'm a victim of recency bias, but the post-Peyton-era drought feels longer. Denver has repeatedly botched attempts to fill Manning's void via the draft and free agency during this span. Case in point: Four different Broncos quarterbacks have started at least four games since 2016: Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum and Lynch. There's a strong possibility that list includes two additional names by the end of the 2019 season, as Denver doubled down on the position this offseason, trading for Joe Flacco and drafting Drew Lock in the second round. Elway's spot atop the Broncos' QB hierarchy is secure.
Kansas City Chiefs
Who qualifies for the Chiefs?
-- Alex Smith (2013-17): 76 starts | 50-26 | 3 Pro Bowls | 94.8 passer rating
-- Trent Green (2001-06): 88 starts | 48-40 | 2 Pro Bowls | 87.3 passer rating
-- Steve DeBerg (1988-1991): 52 starts | 31-20-1 | 0 Pro Bowls | 81.8 passer rating
-- Bill Kenney (1980-88): 77 starts | 34-43 | 1 Pro Bowl | 77.0 passer rating
-- Len Dawson (1967-1975): 90 starts | 53-33-4 | 4 Pro Bowls | 78.6 passer rating | 1 SB ring
THE Franchise QB: Len Dawson
Dawson's best seasons with the franchise came before the common-draft era, when he led the AFL in touchdown passes four times and earned two first-team All-Pro honors. And while his numbers dipped significantly from '67 onward, the Hall of Famer will forever be remembered in the annals of Chiefs history as the quarterback who won the franchise's only Super Bowl title to date. Alex Smith's win percentage is superior to Dawson's (.658 vs. .589) during the eligible years of this exercise, as are nearly all of his stats (even factoring in the different eras). But a quick scoreboard check shows Dawson: 1, all other Chiefs QBs: 0.
Biggest QB misstep: Todd Blackledge
The 1983 draft made fools out of most of the league. And if you've been following along in this series, you've surely noticed that it serves as the point of origin for a number of franchises' biggest QB blunders. Blackledge, the second of six quarterbacks taken in the first round back in '83, entered that draft fresh off winning the national championship and the Davey O'Brien Award (given to college football's top QB), so it's not as if he was some unheralded prospect. That said, he's the biggest draft disappointment in Chiefs history. Two passers taken later in the first round (Jim Kelly, No. 14 and Dan Marino, No. 27) went on to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio (ironically, Blackledge's birthplace), while 10 of the 21 picks that followed the former Nittany Lion made at least one Pro Bowl. Blackledge never earned an invite to pro football's all-star game, though he did tie for the league lead in pick-sixes in Year 2. He never started more than eight games in any one of his five seasons in Kansas City, struggling to win the QB1 job outright from Bill Kenney -- a subpar signal-caller himself -- who qualified above by the letter of the law (but not the spirit).
Longest QB drought: 2007-2012
Longtime Chiefs fan and NFL.com programming guru Matt Joye says he's already comfortable anointing Patrick Mahomes the greatest QB in team history. Even I, the president of the Alex Smith Fan Club, can recognize the leap the Chiefs' offense took with Mahomes running the show. Barring injury, there's every reason to believe Mahomes will take the top spot (ring or no ring) when he hits the 48-start minimum. But just so Chiefs fans keep proper perspective, let's list some of the QBs who donned the team's iconic red and white unis near the beginning of the decade: Tyler Thigpen, Brodie Croyle, Tyler Palko and Brady Quinn.
NOTE: I know 1992 to 2001 technically constitutes a longer period of time, but that stretch is incredibly deceiving. I'm not knocking the franchise for riding Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Dave Krieg, Rich Gannon and Elvis Grbac to five playoff appearances in six years.
Los Angeles Chargers
Who qualifies for the Chargers?
-- Philip Rivers (2004-present): 208 starts | 118-90 | 8 Pro Bowls | 95.6 passer rating
-- Drew Brees (2001-05): 58 starts | 30-28 | 1 Pro Bowl | 84.9 passer rating
-- Stan Humphries (1992-97): 76 starts | 47-29 | 0 Pro Bowls | 77.1 passer rating
-- Dan Fouts (1973-1987): 171 starts | 86-84-1 | 6 Pro Bowls | 80.2 passer rating
THE Franchise QB: Philip Rivers
Fouts was one of the most prolific passers the NFL had ever seen during his prime, leading the league in passing four years in a row under the stewardship of head coach Don Coryell. The Fouts-Coryell combo made four straight playoff appearances, including two conference championship games, and had the No. 1-ranked offense three times during that span. The Chargers seemed to score at will, and Fouts was a huge reason why. But the Hall of Famer's pro success was so heavily dependent on a single coach and a single offensive philosophy. In the six seasons before Coryell's arrival in San Diego, Fouts never once topped 3,000 passing yards. Then, Coryell showed up full of piss and vinegar after his fallout from the Cardinals, and Fouts ripped off three consecutive 4,000-yard campaigns (it likely would've been four, if not for the strike-shortened '82 season).
Rivers, on the other hand, has consistently been a top-10 passer since taking over the Chargers' QB1 role in 2006 -- despite playing for four different head coaches. He owns every major franchise passing record by a landslide and hasn't missed a game in 13 seasons. For those keeping score at home, that's 208 straight regular-season starts. Although he doesn't have the rings to show for it, he's been more consistent and productive than his 2004 draft classmates, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. He just rarely had the complementary defenses these two other passers enjoyed. And unlike Fouts, the 37-year-old Rivers has actually gotten better with age, seeing his adjusted yards per attempt, passer rating and completion percentage all improve in each of the past three seasons. So while Fouts was undoubtedly a true franchise quarterback for the organization, Rivers deserves the Chargers' QB throne and, eventually, a bust in Canton.
Biggest QB misstep: Ryan Leaf
Woof. I'm not sure what new insights I can bring to the Ryan Leaf-draft-bust conversation that haven't already been shared 1,000 times before. The former No. 2 overall pick went 4-14 over three years in San Diego, though he only actually played two seasons because a shoulder injury wiped out his sophomore campaign. Rather than get into the whole Leaf vs. Peyton Manning dynamic here, I thought I'd offer up two truly unsavory stats: Over the past 25 years, no quarterback drafted in Round 1 who has at least 300 career attempts (there have been 61) has a lower adjusted-yards-per-throw mark (3.55) or passer rating (50.0) than Leaf.
Longest QB drought: 1997-2001
The pre-Fouts era might be longer on paper, but those years included quality QB play from John Hadl, who made four Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro from 1968 to 1973. Unfortunately, Hadl's post-'66 record (36-37-5) and passer rating (68.2) disqualify him from franchise status in this exercise. But when you look at the signal-callers tasked with leading the organization in the late '90s, you understand how five seasons can feel like a lifetime. Humphries' 1997 season (and pro career) ended after just eight games due to injury, requiring the Chargers to rely on Jim Everett and Craig Whelihan to close out the campaign (they went 1-7, throwing a combined 7 TD passes and 14 picks). The franchise turned to four former Chicago Bears -- Erik Kramer, Moses Moreno, Jim Harbaugh and Doug Flutie -- to help fill the gaping void created by Leaf's ineptitude and injury. How much actual assistance they provided is debatable, as the Chargers went 5-11, 8-8, 1-15 and 5-11 in the four seasons preceding Brees' succession to QB1.
Who qualifies for the Raiders?
-- Derek Carr (2014-present): 78 starts, | 32-46 | 3 Pro Bowls | 88.8 passer rating
-- Rich Gannon (1999-2004): 74 starts | 45-29 | 4 Pro Bowls | 91.2 passer rating | 1 MVP
-- Jeff Hostetler (1993-96): 55 starts | 33-22 | 1 Pro Bowl | 82.1 passer rating
-- Jim Plunkett (1979-1986): 57 starts | 38-19 | 0 Pro Bowls | 75.7 passer rating | 2 SB rings
-- Ken Stabler (1970-79): 96 starts | 69-26-1 | 4 Pro Bowls | 80.2 passer rating | 1 MVP | 1 SB ring
-- Daryle Lamonica (1967-1974): 84 starts | 62-16-6 | 4 Pro Bowls | 75.8 passer rating
THE Franchise QB: Ken Stabler
The Raiders have more franchise quarterbacks by our criteria than any other team in the NFL. For much of the common-draft era, the team transferred power from passer to passer with little interruption. From 1967 to 1983, the Silver and Black played in four Super Bowls (winning three) with three different starting quarterbacks. Although Plunkett brought two of those titles home for the Raiders (to Stabler's one), Stabler gets the nod here because of his longevity, consistent production and higher individual ceiling. Plunkett can point to his extra ring and Super Bowl MVP award -- and he'd be right to do so -- but Stabler beats him on Pro Bowls (4-0), MVPs (1-0) and first-team All-Pros (1-0). Plus, "Snake" is a top-five football nickname.
Biggest QB misstep: JaMarcus Russell
For a franchise with so many storied signal-callers in its history, it's rather fitting that the Raiders also own one of the most infamous QB mistakes of all time. Of the 23 quarterbacks selected first overall since 1970, Russell, whom this franchise took No. 1 in 2007, ranks last in adjusted yards per attempt, passer rating, yards per game and career TD passes -- yep, even behind 2018 first overall pick Baker Mayfield. (Mayfield is one solid game away from overtaking him in passing yards, too.) My colleague Elliot Harrison rightfully listed Russell last among every first overall pick of the common era. This pick hurts so much because of how badly Oakland struggled in the years leading up to this selection and then for the half-decade after. It hurts even worse when you consider who the Raiderscould've had in that draft: Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch and Darrelle Revis, to name several. On the bright side, Raiders fans, your team could've taken Brady Quinn No. 1 instead. So there's that.
Longest QB drought: 2003-2014
After leading Oakland to the Super Bowl in 2002, injuries limited Gannon to just 10 more games over the next two years, thus explaining why the dry spell starts in '03. The cast of characters that followed feels like a who's who of career cast-offs: Daunte Culpepper, Josh McCown, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye, Kyle Boller, Jason Campbell, Matt Flynn, et al. So all you Derek Carr haters out there, take a deep breath. He was an MVP candidate two-and-a-half years ago and has been banged up since. Let's let 2019 play out before we cast away the first Raiders quarterback to post a winning season in 13 years.