If someone asks you to name the best quarterback never to win a Super Bowl, the answer is clear. Dan Marino was one of the greatest signal-callers in NFL history, but after losing to the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX at age 23, he never made it back to the biggest stage. The Dolphins would be outscored 60-24 in their two remaining conference championship appearances before Marino eventually retired after the 1999 season.
If I were to ask you about the best quarterback never to make it to a Super Bowl, though, the answer might not be quite as obvious. Plenty of passers have sneaked in for at least one championship game, even if guys like Mark Brunell only made it as backups who didn’t take any snaps during the game. The thought was inspired by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who is playing Thursday night, and indeed has made it onto my list.
To create the list of the 10 best quarterbacks never to make it to a Super Bowl, using skill as a measure isn’t enough. Time matters too. A quarterback who is above average for 10 years probably has a better shot of making it to a Super Bowl than a signal-caller who is even better, but lasts for only five seasons.
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My determining factor for candidates was to find the passers who had played well enough over the largest number of seasons to push their teams into the Super Bowl. To be more specific, I looked at quarterbacks who arrived after the merger and the seasons where they were the primary starter for their respective team(s).
To figure out whether a quarterback played well enough to win a Super Bowl, I used Pro Football Reference’s indexed version of adjusted yards per attempt, or AY/A+. AY/A improves on passer rating by weighting touchdowns and interceptions more accurately. AY/A+ then indexes the stat to the league average, so we can compare quarterbacks across eras.
The indexing scale makes it so that a 100 AY/A+ is exactly league average, which seems like a good baseline for me. There are certainly quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls without a 100 AY/A+ — Trent Dilfer posted a 93 AY/A+ with the Ravens in 2000 before being carried by their dominant defense to a Super Bowl victory — but a league-average season is a reasonable baseline for a quarterback holding up his end of the bargain. We’ll rank these quarterbacks, then, by how many times they posted an AY/A+ of 100 or better while they were their team’s primary starter.
As I mentioned, there are several passers who only made it to the Super Bowl as backups, including Brunell, Bernie Kosar and Alex Smith. Danny White won a ring while he was Dallas’ punter, years before he took over as the starting signal-caller. We could include those quarterbacks, but since they actually suited up for the championship (and several of them won rings), it doesn’t seem reasonable to put them in the same grouping as the 10 quarterbacks below.
There are plenty of players who didn’t accrue enough seasons as an above-average passer to make the list. Modern-day stars such as Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer and Matthew Stafford all narrowly came up short, as did veterans such as Steve DeBerg, Trent Green and Bert Jones. The last guy off the top 10, strangely enough, was recently resurfaced Falcons backup Matt Schaub. Schaub posted six above-average seasons as his team’s primary starter at quarterback, and if that doesn’t seem particularly impressive, consider that about half of the quarterbacks who pulled that off made it to at least one Super Bowl.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Blake is the most productive quarterback the Jets have drafted since Joe Namath. While close competition Ken O’Brien spent his entire career with the team, Blake threw just nine passes for Gang Green before making his way to the Bengals. He sneaks onto this list by virtue of a handful of seasons in which he started either exactly 10 (2002) or 11 (1997, 2000) games. I wouldn’t fault you for preferring one of the near-misses I mentioned in the introduction to the East Carolina product.
When you put Blake out there, though, you generally got slightly above-average performance. Blake posted an AY/A+ between 102 and 108 in each of his first seven seasons as his team’s primary starter. The problem is that he didn’t typically get that same sort of support from his defense. Over his eight years as a primary starter, the average rank for Blake’s defenses in points per game was 24th. He even managed to catch the one Ray Lewis-era Ravens defense that was disappointing, when Lewis missed 11 games during the 2002 season.
Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 2000. The one time Blake did link up with an above-average defense was 2000, when he joined the Saints. Blake started 7-4, only to break his foot and miss the remainder of the season. Aaron Brooks took over and led the Saints into the postseason, where they upset the defending champion Rams before losing to the Vikings in the divisional round. This was Blake’s only trip to the playoffs.
One of the most dynamic quarterbacks of his era, Cunningham helped inspire the next generation of quarterbacks. He took a staggering amount of punishment in an era in which quarterbacks — particularly running quarterbacks — didn’t have the same protections those same passers have today. Cunningham posted a scarcely believable 25.6% sack rate in 1986, but his ability to extend plays and outrun the league’s best pass-rushers made him an incredibly valuable weapon.
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A healthy Cunningham was usually enough to push a team to the postseason. He started 12 or more games just seven times in 16 pro seasons, but those teams went a combined 68-35-0, with Cunningham posting a .500 or better record in each of those campaigns. Despite his success, though, he won just one of his five playoff starts with the Eagles. After moving to Minnesota in 1997, he took over for Brad Johnson in December and led a comeback victory over the Giants in the wild-card round, only to lose to the 49ers the following week.
Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 1998. The following season, Cunningham took over as the Vikings’ starter. Buoyed by the addition of first-round pick Randy Moss, Cunningham went 13-1 and led one of the most devastating offenses in league history to the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings led Atlanta 27-20 with 2 minutes, 11 seconds left and were about to seal the game with a 38-yard field goal by Gary Anderson, who had made 122 consecutive kicks over two years. He pushed his attempt wide. The Falcons subsequently tied the score in regulation and won it in overtime.
The presence of Cutler on any top-10 list will invariably get some people angry, but while he became a punchline, he delivered six above-average seasons as a starter by our definition. Unfortunately, two of those seasons came in Denver with defenses that ranked 28th and 30th in points allowed. Cutler had a chance to make the postseason in 2008, only for his defense to allow 289 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a 52-21 blowout loss to the Chargers. Cutler, then 25, made his first and only trip to the Pro Bowl.
Traded to Chicago the following offseason after feuding with new coach Josh McDaniels, Cutler bounced right above and below the league-average mark across seven-plus seasons as the Bears’ starter. Only one of those seasons delivered a playoff run (2010), although the Bears came within a fourth-down Aaron Rodgers conversion of making a second trip in 2013. By default, it was Cutler’s best shot at a title …
Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 2010. After comfortably handling the Beast Quake Seahawks at home, Cutler was one home victory against the Packers away from a trip to the Super Bowl. It didn’t go well. He suffered a knee injury during the first half and struggled, going 6-of-14 for 80 yards with an interception. He tried to gut it out on the opening drive of the second half before spending the rest of the day on the sideline with what would later be diagnosed as a sprained MCL.
Despite teammates such as Brian Urlacher coming to Cutler’s defense, the languid quarterback was inexplicably criticized for standing on the sideline to support his team. A healthy Cutler might have been able to win this game and go to the Super Bowl, which would have changed the entire complexion of his career.
Recruited out of the Canadian Football League, a 29-year-old Garcia started his career by taking over for an injured Steve Young in the final days of the 49ers’ dynasty. Garcia then made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons as a starter with the Niners before beginning the itinerant phase of his career. The 6-foot-1 Garcia started games for four different teams in four seasons, hooking up as the West Coast quarterback du jour for Bill Walsh disciples such as Steve Mariucci (Lions), Andy Reid (Eagles) and Jon Gruden (Buccaneers). He came off the bench to lead a middling Eagles team to the playoffs at age 36 in 2006 and then followed that with a Pro Bowl season for the Bucs the next season.
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Garcia started playoff games in four seasons, with each of his two wins coming against the Giants. He threw for 331 yards and contributed four touchdowns in a 39-38 thriller against the Giants during the 2002 playoffs, although it was overshadowed by the game’s chaotic final play.
Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 2006. The 49ers were blown out by the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs the following week in 2002. Garcia would get his next playoff victory with the Eagles in 2006, beating the Giants 23-20. The Eagles faced the Saints the following week in the divisional round, but after Philly failed to convert on a third-and-1 from the 43-yard line when it was down six points in the fourth quarter, it kicked a field goal and didn’t score again. The Giants finally got their revenge on Garcia by beating his Buccaneers in the wild-card round the following season, which was Garcia’s final playoff appearance.
Originally drafted by the Oilers with the third overall pick to presumably replace Warren Moon, Everett wasn’t able to come to terms on a contract with Houston and was shipped off to the Rams. The Purdue product quickly took over as the starting quarterback and spent eight years in Los Angeles before moving to New Orleans, where he spent three years starting for the Saints.
Everett was generally an above-average quarterback, although he’s probably best remembered now for brawling with TV host Jim Rome in the early days of ESPN2. The problem was that his defenses rarely returned the favor. In Everett’s 10 years as his team’s primary starter, he played with just one above-average defense by scoring average. Six of his 10 seasons as a starter came attached to a defense that ranked in the bottom six in points allowed per game.
Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 1989. Everett started playoff games in three seasons, but after losing the opener in 1986 and 1988, his defense finally showed up in 1989. The Rams won on road trips east against the Eagles and Giants in games in which the defense allowed a total of 20 points. In the NFC Championship Game, though, the defense finally gave out in a 30-3 blowout against the 49ers. Everett didn’t offer much help, as he was 16-of-36 for 141 yards with three interceptions. Despite the 6-foot-5 Everett being only 27, this was his final postseason appearance.
Hart, who posted eight qualifying seasons under our measure, turned around his career with the St. Louis Cardinals after the arrival of legendary coach Don Coryell in 1973. He made four consecutive Pro Bowls from 1974 through 1977 for a team that went a combined 38-18 over that time frame. Despite posting three 10-win seasons in a row in an era in which teams played only 14 games, though, Hart failed to win a single playoff game during his time as a starter. Two legendary defenses — the mid-’70s Vikings and Rams — stopped Hart in his tracks with divisional-round losses.
Closest trip to the Super Bowl: None. Hart’s Cardinals never really came close to Super Bowl contention, even if they were one of the league’s best regular-season teams for several seasons under Coryell. Cutler shows up as one of Hart’s most comparable quarterbacks on Pro Football Reference, and while Hart’s success was more concentrated, that might be a good on-field comparison.
The famously snakebitten Romo spent three full years on the Dallas bench after signing with the team as an undrafted free agent, but after Bill Parcells refused to trade Romo to former Cowboys passing-game coordinator Sean Payton after the latter took over as Saints coach, Romo took over the starting job at age 26 and immediately emerged as one of the league’s best quarterbacks. He posted only one sub-.500 season as the Cowboys’ starter, a six-start campaign in 2010. He was always good and occasionally great before injuries and the emergence of Dak Prescott led to Romo’s retirement in 2017.
Of course, some subset of the Cowboys’ fan base simply couldn’t forgive Romo’s playoff failures. During the 2006 season, Romo — still serving as the team’s holder after starting the season as the backup to Drew Bledsoe — fumbled away the snap on what would have been a winning field goal in a loss to Seattle. The following year, Romo was criticized for taking a bye-week vacation to Mexico with then-girlfriend Jessica Simpson before the 13-3 Cowboys were upset at home by the Giants. Romo won his first playoff game in 2009 by blowing out the Eagles, only to turn the ball over three times in a 34-3 loss to the Vikings the following week.
Closest trip to Super Bowl: 2014. Romo’s final playoff run was likely his best chance at glory. Supported by a devastating running game, he went 12-3 during the regular season. The Cowboys beat the Lions in the wild-card round after the referees controversially reversed a pass interference call on Anthony Hitchens without explanation.
The following week saw the Cowboys dispatched by another controversial call when a fourth-and-2 touchdown catch by Dez Bryant was ruled incomplete on review. The score would have given the Cowboys a 27-26 lead over the Packers with the conversion pending. While Green Bay would have had four minutes to take the lead, a Cowboys victory would have set them up for a rematch against a Seattle team they had beaten at home earlier in the season.
I’m not sure the Cowboys would have made it to the Super Bowl if the referees had ruled Bryant caught the ball, but that replay review was as close as Romo got to glory.
From one color commentator to another! The most recent time the Chargers won a championship was back in 1963, when Tobin Rote took over for second-year quarterback John Hadl and led an 11-3 Chargers team to an AFL championship. While the franchise has gone 55 consecutive seasons without winning another title, it isn’t for a lack of steady quarterback play. In 45 of those 55 years, the Chargers’ passing leader has been one of five players: Hadl, Fouts, Stan Humphries, Philip Rivers or Drew Brees. Fouts is a Hall of Famer, Brees is a lock to get in, Rivers might follow him in one day, and Hadl was a six-time Pro Bowler.
Brees ended up as the most productive of the bunch after leaving the organization, and Rivers has hung on for a longer career. Fouts, however, might be the best quarterback in franchise history. I gave him the Quarterback Championship Belt for his three-year stretch in 1979-81, when he led the NFL in passing yards, passer rating and yards per attempt. He was then robbed of the MVP award during the strike-shortened 1982 season, when the nod instead went to kicker Mark Moseley.
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After 1982, Fouts struggled to stay healthy, with the Chargers fielding a bottom-four defense by scoring average in four consecutive seasons. From 1978 through 1982, though, he was one of the best regular-season quarterbacks in the league. The playoffs were a different story. In 1979, he threw five interceptions in a 17-14 divisional-round loss to the Oilers, then repeated the feat three years later in a 34-13 loss to the Dolphins. In between, Fouts’ Chargers won a memorable epic in the Orange Bowl against the Dolphins, only to leave everything on the field in Miami and get blown out in one of the coldest games in NFL history the following week at Cincinnati.
Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 1980. The closest Fouts ever came to a Super Bowl, then, is his one remaining playoff trip. After throwing for 314 yards and two touchdowns in a comeback win over the Bills, Fouts and the Chargers were four-point favorites in the AFC Championship Game at home against the Raiders. On the third play of the game, the Raiders saw a pass bounce off of one receiver and into the arms of tight end Raymond Chester, who took it to the house for a 65-yard touchdown. Oakland got up 28-7 in the second quarter, and while Fouts was able to lead a comeback to get within one touchdown at 34-27 with 6:43 to go, the Raiders were able to hold the ball for the remainder of the game without needing to punt.
Moon won five professional championships, but none of them were in the NFL; he was part of a dynasty with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL before moving back stateside. As a result, Moon’s NFL career didn’t begin until he was 28, and after an inconsistent start to his career, the Oilers tried to replace him with Everett. Moon only really emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber passer in 1988, by which time he was already 32. In making up for lost time, he proceeded to make the Pro Bowl in seven of the ensuing eight seasons.
Even given that his NFL career started late, few quarterbacks had as many chances to make it to a Super Bowl as Moon, who made it to the playoffs six times as the starting quarterback for the Oilers and added a seventh with the Vikings. For all the opportunities and his playoff success in Canada, though, he never made it as far as a conference championship game. He was on the losing side of one of the most famous games in playoff history, when the Bills came back from a 35-3 halftime deficit to win in overtime 41-38.
Each of Moon’s seven playoff trips came from 1987 to 1994. He posted an 84.9 passer rating during the playoffs, which was right in line with the 84.2 rating he garnered across the regular season over those years. He was let down at times by a defense that allowed an average of 26 points per playoff game, up from an average of 19.7 points per regular-season contest. The run ‘n’ shoot scheme the Oilers ran during Moon’s best years in Houston came in for criticism, but that was just old-school nonsense. His postseason struggles were a combination of poor timing, subpar defense and the occasional bad game.
Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 1993. The best team Moon quarterbacked was this 12-4 Oilers team, which finished fourth in the league in both points scored and points allowed. The Oilers got a first-round bye and then started with a home game against the Chiefs, whom Moon & Co. had beaten 30-0 in Week 2. The big difference, of course, was that Dave Krieg was starting in September and Joe Montana was back in the lineup by the time January rolled around. A 37-year-old Montana threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns, and while Montana was picked off twice, Moon was sacked nine times and responsible for five of Houston’s seven fumbles. The Oilers broke up their team as a result of the league’s new salary cap after the season, with Moon leaving for the Vikings.
There’s no quarterback in modern league history, though, who has delivered more above-average seasons without sneaking into a Super Bowl than the man who will make his 229th career start for the Chargers on Thursday night. Rivers has been good enough to snuff out the idea that the Chargers made a horrific mistake by letting Drew Brees leave for the Saints in free agency after the 2005 season. Brees turned out to be the better quarterback, but the Chargers have been blessed with very good quarterback play from the moment Rivers took over.
In turn, he has been repeatedly let down, only at times by himself. There have been injuries and ill-timed mistakes and breathtakingly bad units elsewhere on the roster. While contemporaries Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have had the breaks go their way during fateful runs in January, Rivers hasn’t been able to catch a break.
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Take the first playoff game he started, which came in the divisional round of the 2006 playoffs at home against the Patriots. The Chargers led 21-13, and with the Patriots facing a fourth-and-5 on the San Diego 41-yard line with 6:25 to go, Tom Brady threw an interception to Marlon McCree. What happened next seemed preordained for New England: McCree fumbled during the return and handed the ball back to the Patriots with a new set of downs.
The Pats subsequently scored a touchdown and converted a 2-pointer to tie the score. After the Chargers went three-and-out, Brady lofted a third-and-10 pass over highly drafted Chargers corner Quentin Jammer to Reche Caldwell for 49 yards, setting up a lead-taking field goal. Rivers got the ball back and drove the Chargers into field goal range, only for Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding to miss a 54-yard attempt that would have sent the game into overtime.
Special-teams misadventures have been a near-constant for the Chargers. Kaeding, who connected on 87% of his regular-season tries for the Chargers, was just 8-of-15 during the playoffs, including an 0-for-3 performance in a 17-14 wild-card loss to the Jets. The 2010 Chargers ranked in the top seven in both offensive and defensive DVOA, only for one of the worst special-teams units in league history to keep San Diego out of the postseason.
Every other quarterback I could find who posted 10 or more above-average seasons as his team’s primary starter in the Super Bowl era made it to at least one title game over the course of his career. Rivers has 12 and is likely to hit 13, having posted just one below-average season as a starter along the way. In what could only be considered a stunning development, poor special teams and goal-line mistakes have repeatedly cost the Chargers this season, as their 4-5 record does not include a single loss by more than seven points.
Rivers is a free agent after the season, but it’s difficult to imagine him playing anywhere else or slipping much. He feels destined to chuck up terrible-looking perfect passes for years to come without ever making it to the Super Bowl.
Closest trip to the Super Bowl: 2007. I wrote about this postseason several times in my Brees alternate history from 2018, so this might be familiar. Everyone remembers that the Giants eventually slayed the beast and upset the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, but along the way, the Patriots slipped. The Chargers should have been able to take advantage, but they were prevented by a bevy of injuries.
They won the AFC West in 2007 with an 11-5 record, and after beating the Titans at home, they traveled to Indy to face a 13-3 Colts team. As 11-point underdogs, the Chargers pulled off a 28-24 upset when Billy Volek sneaked in a 1-yard touchdown with 4:50 to go. Volek was in, of course, because Rivers went down with a knee injury in the third quarter. It would later become clear that Rivers had torn his ACL, which is a season-ending injury for anyone who isn’t Philip Rivers.
Rivers underwent a knee scope during the week and somehow suited up for the following weekend’s game against the Patriots, but he wasn’t the only one who was beaten up. Superstar running back LaDainian Tomlinson suffered a knee injury in the first quarter against the Colts, and while he tried to come back for the Patriots game, he tapped out after three touches and spent the rest of the game on the sideline. Star tight end Antonio Gates, playing through a dislocated toe, had two catches on six targets for 17 yards.
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Presented with a golden opportunity to beat a team whose star players were compromised, the Patriots laid an egg. Brady went 22-of-33 for 209 yards with three interceptions and a passer rating of 66.4. On a windy day, Brady averaged 3.5 adjusted yards per attempt, the second-worst playoff performance of the future Hall of Famer’s career. Randy Moss, perhaps dealing with an ailment of his own, had just one catch for 18 yards.
With an injured Rivers and Tomlinson, though, the Chargers couldn’t take advantage of their opportunities. San Diego went 3-of-12 on third down. It made three trips inside the red zone and kicked three field goals inside the 10-yard line, with Kaeding adding a fourth from 40 yards out. Rivers earned the respect of anyone watching him gut through pain, but he went 19-of-37 for 211 yards with two interceptions.
If Rivers is healthy, do the Chargers win that game? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s certainly plausible. The Chargers would have then been a nightmare matchup for the Giants in the Super Bowl, given that New York struggled mightily against throws to running backs and tight ends. The San Diego defense was also better than New England’s by DVOA.
Not only would Rivers have made it to a Super Bowl, he might very well have won the thing. Instead, unless the Chargers can overcome what the ESPN Football Power Index pegs as 0.1% odds of making it to Miami this postseason, Rivers will spend another year watching the Super Bowl on TV.