SITE NEWS: We are moving all of our site and company news into a single blog for Sports-Reference.com. We'll tag all PFR content, so you can quickly and easily find the content you want.

Also, our existing PFR blog rss feed will be redirected to the new site's feed.

Pro-Football-Reference.com » Sports Reference

For more from Chase and Jason, check out their work at Football Perspective and The Big Lead.

The worst QB of all time?

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 5, 2006

If you ask a group of football fans to name the worst QB in NFL history, you’ll probably hear Ryan Leaf’s name a lot. Leaf once went 1/15 for four yards and two INTs in a game in 1998, and it's hard to argue that many have looked worse than Leaf. But for the amount of time football fans spend arguing over the best QB ever (and I’ll add to that tomorrow), we rarely discuss the worst. So today, we’ll try and get to the bottom of that question.

I want to be clear about a few things at the start. If the Patriots signed Paul Tagliabue tomorrow, and made him a QB, he'd undoubtedly be the worst QB ever. But he'd never throw a pass, so there'd be no proof of how bad he really was. That's going to be the problem for most of the really awful QBs; they simply not didn't stick around long enough to make a difference. So when I say "worst QB of all time", what I really mean is "since 1970, the QB that, according to a straight statistical analysis, most disadvantaged the team(s) he played for throughout his career."

To rank the QBs, I'm going to use adjusted yards per attempt. According to Doug Drinen,

[Adjusted yards per attempt is] defined as (passing yards + 10*(TD passes) - 45*(interceptions thrown)) / (pass attempts). It was devised (and the reasoning behind it explained) in a book called The Hidden Game of Football, by Carroll, Palmer, and Thorn.

The top QBs in AY/A last year were Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning. Adjusted yards per attempt isn't perfect, but if I could only use one statistic -- and this study is one of the few times in life where that hypothetical is a reality -- it's the one I'd choose. But knowing a QB's AY/A isn't enough, because I want to analyze every QB since 1970. Here's a look at the league average AY/A since the AFL/NFL merger.

2005	5.79
2004 6.07
2003 5.57
2002 5.75
2001 5.65
2000 5.68
1999 5.63
1998 5.79
1997 5.71
1996 5.54
1995 5.79
1994 5.74
1993 5.59
1992 5.51
1991 5.69
1990 5.83
1989 5.81
1988 5.54
1987 5.73
1986 5.59
1985 5.58
1984 5.73
1983 5.64
1982 5.47
1981 5.51
1980 5.38
1979 5.20
1978 4.69
1977 4.31
1976 4.86
1975 4.69
1974 4.52
1973 4.59
1972 4.85
1971 4.51
1970 4.81

Ryan Leaf played in an era where passing numbers were more impressive than Jim Plunkett did. So I normalized each QB's stats by subtracting the league average AY/A from each QB's AY/A. There's just one more step: multiply that difference by the number of attempts for each quarterback.

Let's run through one quick example. In 1985, Ken O'Brien averaged 7.742 AY/A on 488 passes. The league average was just 5.578 AY/A, so O'Brien was much better than average and had a large number of attempts. His "Value Added" number was 1056. That number doesn't have any significance, of course, until you rank him against other QBs. O'Brien's 1056 ranks as the thirteenth best season of all time.

But we don't care about the best seasons ever. We care about the worst. So here's the list of the 50 worst seasons of all time. Remember, "worst" is just a proxy for his statistical performance relative to the league average in any given year, and in no way is an indication of the QB's talent relative to the abilities of his teammates. A terrible QB with great teammates would look ok in my system, and a good QB with a very bad supporting cast would likely look below average.

Name		Year	Tm	Att	AY/A	Value Added
Jake Plummer 1999 ari 381 2.94 -1025
Joey Harrington 2003 det 554 3.72 -1024
Jon Kitna 2001 cin 581 4.04 -936
Kerry Collins 1997 car 381 3.38 -886
Chris Weinke 2001 car 540 4.05 -865
Vince Evans 1981 chi 436 3.59 -840
Jack Trudeau 1986 ind 417 3.59 -836
A.J. Feeley 2004 mia 356 3.73 -833
Craig Whelihan 1998 sdg 320 3.21 -826
Mark Malone 1987 pit 336 3.28 -823
Kordell Stewart 1998 pit 458 4.06 -794
Jake Plummer 2002 ari 530 4.25 -794
Vinny Testaverde1988 tam 466 3.85 -789
Ryan Leaf 1998 sdg 245 2.59 -786
Gary Marangi 1976 buf 232 1.50 -781
Joey Harrington 2002 det 429 3.95 -771
Drew Bledsoe 1995 nwe 636 4.59 -766
Steve Deberg 1978 sfo 302 2.19 -756
Kyle Orton 2005 chi 368 3.73 -755
Bobby Hoying 1998 phi 224 2.48 -742
Brett Favre 2005 gnb 607 4.57 -736
Joe Ferguson 1983 buf 508 4.19 -734
Archie Manning 1975 nor 338 2.52 -732
Dan Pastorini 1981 ram 152 0.72 -729
Joe Namath 1976 nyj 230 1.78 -709
Boomer Esiason 1992 cin 278 3.03 -690
Joe Kapp 1970 nwe 219 1.68 -685
Mark Rypien 1993 was 319 3.46 -679
Troy Aikman 1989 dal 293 3.51 -673
Jim Zorn 1976 sea 439 3.36 -660
Terry Bradshaw 1970 pit 218 1.79 -660
Ryan Leaf 2000 sdg 322 3.67 -646
Vince Ferragamo 1985 buf 287 3.35 -639
Joe Ferguson 1984 buf 344 3.91 -626
Kyle Boller 2004 bal 464 4.73 -622
Rusty Hilger 1988 det 306 3.56 -609
Jeff Komlo 1979 det 368 3.57 -599
Randy Hedberg 1977 tam 90 -2.29 -594
Peyton Manning 1998 ind 575 4.76 -593
Mark Malone 1986 pit 425 4.20 -592
Bubby Brister 1995 nyj 170 2.39 -579
Dave Brown 1996 nyg 398 4.10 -574
Chuck Long 1987 det 416 4.35 -574
Jim Plunkett 1972 nwe 355 3.24 -570
Kim McQuilken 1976 atl 121 0.17 -569
Jake Plummer 2000 ari 475 4.49 -567
Dan Pastorini 1973 hou 290 2.64 -565
Alex Smith 2005 sfo 165 2.36 -565
Scott Brunner 1983 nyg 386 4.19 -560
Dennis Shaw 1971 buf 291 2.59 -560

That's not a typo next to Randy Hedberg's name. He actually averaged -2.29 AY/A in 1977, which not surprisingly, was the only year he played. But there's only so much damage you can do with 90 attempts, so he didn't hurt his team as much as Jake Plummer did in 1999.

Plummer and Harrington stand alone as the only two QBs to ever produce a negative value in the thousands. What made them stand out was the large number of attempts, especially for Harrington. To play that badly for that long -- and to avoid the bench -- is apparently unprecedented. Not surprisingly, Harrington and Plummer both had their historic seasons when they were considered young players that their respective franchises could build around, so Arizona and Detroit let their inexperienced QBs learn on the fly. Despite both QBs still being active, neither remains with the team that drafted them.

I promised an answer to the question of who is the worst QB of all time. To do this, we need to add the "value added" number for each QB, for each season of his career. Now we can compare Ryan Leaf's miserable few seasons, to the sustained ineptitude of Dan Pastorini. The results are a bit surprising.


Player Name Value Career Attempts
Rick Mirer -2512 2043
Mike Phipps -2447 1799
Joey Harrington -2374 1802
Dan Pastorini -2272 3055
Mark Malone -2146 1648
Jack Trudeau -1780 1644
Trent Dilfer -1719 2952
Kordell Stewart -1676 2358
Ryan Leaf -1560 655
Steve Walsh -1548 1317
Danny Kanell -1540 956
Scott Brunner -1474 1046
Jon Kitna -1451 2837
Randy Wright -1435 1119
Mike Pagel -1415 1509
Kim McQuilken -1413 272
Gary Huff -1343 788
Billy Joe Tolliver -1314 1707
Bobby Douglass -1307 1030
Kyle Boller -1270 981
Kerry Collins -1226 5082
Dave Brown -1218 1634
Craig Whelihan -1212 557
Richard Todd -1194 2967
Marc Wilson -1117 2081
Todd Blackledge -1114 881
Jake Plummer -1098 4033
Vinny Testaverde -1083 6526
Heath Shuler -1049 593
Jack Thompson -1043 845
Chris Weinke -1039 591
Mike Tomczak -1030 2337
Vince Evans -1029 1390
David Woodley -970 1300
Stan Gelbaugh -970 391
Tim Couch -953 1714
Joe Ferguson -946 4519
Dave Wilson -942 1039
Doug Pederson -940 522
Akili Smith -936 461
Bob Avellini -929 1110
Kelly Stouffer -887 437
Mike McMahon -884 515
Vince Ferragamo -864 1615
Bubby Brister -861 2212
Kent Graham -849 1340
David Klingler -835 718
A.J. Feeley -833 524
Jeff Komlo -830 437
Gary Marangi -817 283

So there you have it. Rick Mirer is the worst QB ever. Once again, remember when I say "worst QB ever" I mean Rick Mirer "accumulated more below average statistical production over the course of his career than any QB since 1970." I'm not surprised to see a former high draft pick at the top of this list, because you need to compile a lot of attempts to really be the worst. And Mirer did just that.

Some of our younger readers might be wondering who Mike Phipps is. You're not alone -- I had never heard of him either. I e-mailed PFR blog reader and Browns fan Ace Davis for some insight on Mike Phipps. Here's what Ace told me.

Well, he was bad, that's for sure. Surely no worse than hundreds of quarterbacks who have come and gone over the years, but he was a special disappointment. Art Modell traded away Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield, a native Ohioan, to Miami for the right to draft Phipps third overall in 1970. So the price was dear, but that's not Phipps' fault. In fact, without Warfield, the Browns were left with a subpar receiving corps at his disposal.

Also, the Phipps era really coincided with the end of the Browns as a dominant NFL franchise, the beginning of their first terrible decade, and the first-ever ascendancy of the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers and their QB, Terry Bradshaw, drafted first overall the same year as Phipps. Still, Phipps did establish himself as a starter, and he flashed enough to lead the Browns to the 1972 playoffs, where -- but for his five interceptions -- they would've toppled the perfect Miami Dolphins. The contrast between Warfield's elegance and Phipps' inconsistency was apparent to all in that game.

He was athletic, a good runner, and a decent guy. He just was a terribly inaccurate passer who melted in the crucible of Cleveland's high expectations. Check out his completion percentage and TD/INT ratios, particularly in '74 and '75, the first time since their founding that the Browns had consecutive losing seasons.

The transition from the pressurized, overrated Phipps to a laid-back, unheralded QB with less physical skill but a go-for-broke playmaking ability was slow to develop, but fruitful nonetheless. Brian Sipe became a fan favorite and league MVP, while the Browns somehow managed to salvage a first-round pick from the Bears in exchange for Phipps. They eventually drafted Ozzie Newsome -- another HOF pass-catcher --as a result.

Tomorrow we'll use this same system to analyze the best QBs ever. I'll let you guys comment on some of the surprising names on this list, such as Trent Dilfer (7th worst ever), Jon Kitna (14th) and Vinny Testaverde (28th). Here are Dilfer's career numbers. Note that even in 2000, when his Ravens won the Super Bowl, Dilfer was below the league average in adjusted yards per attempt.


Year Tm Att AY/A Value Added
1994 tam 82 2.11 -298
1995 tam 415 4.83 -399
1996 tam 482 4.41 -548
1997 tam 386 5.88 66
1998 tam 429 5.28 -222
1999 tam 244 5.06 -141
2000 bal 225 5.01 -151
2001 sea 122 7.41 215
2002 sea 168 5.67 -13
2003 sea 8 -0.50 -49
2004 sea 58 3.59 -144
2005 cle 333 5.68 -36

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 5th, 2006 at 11:01 pm and is filed under Statgeekery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.