Passing First Downs: Career Rankings

Yesterday I detailed the best and worst QB seasons as measured by first down percentage. Today’s post will reveal how these signal callers stack up over the course of their careers.


I chose to exclude any QB who totaled at least 100 dropbacks in any season prior to 1991, because incomplete data can often be worse than no data at all. From there, I’m including QB’s who took a significant numbers of snaps in at least two seasons (a  judgment call). This gives us a sample of 156 quarterback careers to examine.

First off, I consider any season with fewer than 100 dropbacks to be junk data – too small of a sample to tell us anything meaningful, especially since backup QB’s often play under atypical circumstances. Thus, career numbers in this study will differ slightly from official NFL totals. I had a tough time deciding whether to rank careers by 1D/Avg or 1D/Rep, and ultimately chose neither (although both are displayed in the table). The goal here is to estimate how fundamentally a good a QB is at picking up first downs, and relying on counting stats places undue emphasis on playing time.

My solution is to estimate “true” first down ability (yes I love that word) by adding 1,000 dropbacks of replacement level play to each player’s career total. This provides a nice balance between volume and efficiency, and prevents Sage Rosenfels from looking like one of the greatest QB’s in recent memory.  To aid in cross-season comparison, I adjusted each season to an average baseline of 31%, which is roughly the average across the entire time period. Adjusted 1D% represents the QB’s career first down percentage after being scaled to the 31% mean baseline.

#QuarterbackDpbk1D/Avg1D/RepRelativeAdj1D%True1D%Pa1D
1Peyton Manning9683628.8919.96.5%37.5%36.6%3654
2Kurt Warner4248200.9327.14.7%35.7%34.2%1516
3Philip Rivers6245253.2443.44.1%35.1%34.1%2258
4Drew Brees9087338.5608.83.7%34.7%34.0%3230
5Tom Brady8627322.1578.03.7%34.7%34.0%3054
6Ben Roethlisberger6388236.1428.03.7%34.7%33.8%2280
7Tony Romo4580183.1320.64.0%35.0%33.7%1649
8Trent Green3920150.3266.63.8%34.8%33.4%1352
9Matt Ryan5319167.7329.83.2%34.2%33.2%1881
10Brett Favre10689267.1587.92.5%33.5%33.0%3557
11Matt Schaub3180114.3209.93.6%34.6%33.0%1130
12Carson Palmer6358164.0356.02.6%33.6%32.8%2194
13Chad Pennington243292.9165.43.8%34.8%32.8%850
14Aaron Rodgers4930115.4261.32.3%33.3%32.4%1703
15Steve McNair4712105.7245.02.2%33.2%32.3%1543
16Daunte Culpepper349775.4181.82.2%33.2%32.0%1153
17Rich Gannon392269.9188.31.8%32.8%31.8%1255
18Jeff Garcia385753.4169.71.4%32.4%31.5%1237
19Mark Brunell486351.7199.41.1%32.1%31.4%1535
20Matthew Stafford452751.1185.61.1%32.1%31.4%1515
21Jameis Winston116436.071.03.1%34.1%31.3%415
22Marc Bulger342539.6143.91.2%32.2%31.3%1107
23Kirk Cousins157034.181.62.2%33.2%31.2%545
24Scott Mitchell233833.0102.91.4%32.4%31.1%749
25Russell Wilson248633.5106.91.3%32.3%31.1%841
26Brian Griese295131.4121.01.1%32.1%31.1%936
27Matt Hasselbeck560132.2201.60.6%31.6%31.1%1790
28Gus Frerotte302724.5115.00.8%31.8%30.9%955
29Jay Cutler479317.6163.00.4%31.4%30.8%1555
30Drew Bledsoe711312.2227.60.2%31.2%30.8%2186
31Brad Johnson440318.7149.70.4%31.4%30.8%1356
32Erik Kramer231920.190.40.9%31.9%30.7%727
33David Garrard231720.890.40.9%31.9%30.7%753
34Elvis Grbac252020.695.80.8%31.8%30.7%782
35Jon Kitna467613.2154.30.3%31.3%30.7%1451
36Brian Hoyer116222.356.91.9%32.9%30.6%401
37Kerry Collins6417-2.5192.50.0%31.0%30.6%1969
38Eli Manning7153-7.3207.4-0.1%30.9%30.5%2280
39Jay Fiedler181117.070.60.9%31.9%30.5%568
40Andrew Luck280711.395.40.4%31.4%30.5%923
41Cam Newton315011.0104.00.3%31.3%30.5%1032
42Jake Plummer4634-6.9134.4-0.1%30.9%30.4%1405
43Jake Delhomme28877.092.40.2%31.2%30.4%907
44Sage Rosenfels42920.633.54.8%35.8%30.3%157
45Jeff Hostetler23706.978.20.3%31.3%30.3%733
46Damon Huard87213.940.11.6%32.6%30.1%285
47Tommy Maddox109412.444.91.1%32.1%30.1%344
48Vince Young13488.849.90.7%31.7%30.1%436
49Andy Dalton3242-10.887.5-0.3%30.7%30.1%1040
50Marcus Mariota88212.738.81.4%32.4%30.1%300
51Aaron Brooks3198-13.183.1-0.4%30.6%30.0%968
52Ty Detmer8547.633.30.9%31.9%29.8%267
53Steve Bono1508-2.143.7-0.1%30.9%29.7%463
54Jason Campbell2611-14.962.7-0.6%30.4%29.7%814
55Donovan McNabb5784-60.3115.7-1.0%30.0%29.7%1736
56Ryan Tannehill2850-20.465.6-0.7%30.3%29.7%904
57Joe Flacco5033-55.095.6-1.1%29.9%29.6%1566
58Neil O'Donnell3307-35.462.8-1.1%29.9%29.5%971
59Michael Vick3444-42.862.0-1.2%29.8%29.4%1041
60Matt Moore8030.924.90.1%31.1%29.4%258
61Ryan Fitzpatrick4100-53.269.7-1.3%29.7%29.4%1265
62John Friesz1303-8.331.3-0.6%30.4%29.4%391
63Kelly Holcomb6812.322.50.3%31.3%29.3%210
64Byron Leftwich1529-12.533.6-0.8%30.2%29.3%461
65Jeff Blake3429-44.358.3-1.3%29.7%29.3%1001
66Trent Dilfer3274-45.152.4-1.4%29.6%29.2%956
67Mark Sanchez2425-32.741.2-1.3%29.7%29.2%748
68Kyle Orton2734-38.643.7-1.4%29.6%29.2%832
69Robert Griffin III1333-13.326.7-1.0%30.0%29.1%418
70Kordell Stewart2487-36.039.8-1.4%29.6%29.1%713
71Derek Anderson1609-22.225.7-1.4%29.6%29.0%490
72Rex Grossman1376-19.622.0-1.4%29.6%28.9%417
73Sean Salisbury571-2.714.3-0.5%30.5%28.9%171
74Josh Freeman2131-35.827.7-1.7%29.3%28.9%648
75Shaun King622-4.514.3-0.7%30.3%28.9%183
76Glenn Foley3320.610.60.2%31.2%28.8%101
77Shane Matthews852-10.914.5-1.3%29.7%28.8%246
78Matt Leinart514-3.911.3-0.8%30.2%28.7%157
79Christian Ponder1102-18.115.4-1.6%29.4%28.7%337
80Chad Henne1997-37.122.0-1.9%29.1%28.7%601
81Case Keenum746-9.412.7-1.3%29.7%28.7%552
82Teddy Bridgewater932-13.714.0-1.5%29.5%28.7%290
83Shaun Hill1164-20.215.1-1.7%29.3%28.7%352
84Sam Bradford3029-63.927.3-2.1%28.9%28.7%914
85Colin Kaepernick1858-36.618.6-2.0%29.0%28.7%567
86Tim Rattay699-10.510.5-1.5%29.5%28.6%207
87Tyrod Taylor894-15.211.6-1.7%29.3%28.6%276
88Brandon Weeden989-17.811.9-1.8%29.2%28.6%301
89Chris Simms452-4.98.6-1.1%29.9%28.6%135
90Cody Carlson389-3.58.2-0.9%30.1%28.6%115
91Matt Cassel2650-59.321.2-2.2%28.8%28.6%786
92Alex Van Pelt449-5.58.1-1.2%29.8%28.6%130
93Hugh Millen839-14.710.1-1.8%29.2%28.5%241
94Alex Smith4462-105.526.8-2.4%28.6%28.5%1326
95Charlie Batch1473-32.811.8-2.2%28.8%28.5%411
96Austin Davis418-5.96.7-1.4%29.6%28.5%131
97Colt McCoy885-18.38.0-2.1%28.9%28.4%267
98Ray Lucas455-7.55.9-1.7%29.3%28.4%129
99Dan Orlovsky476-8.45.7-1.8%29.2%28.4%143
100Jim Miller917-20.47.3-2.2%28.8%28.4%257
101Dave Brown1719-42.110.3-2.4%28.6%28.4%486
102Rob Johnson845-19.06.8-2.2%28.8%28.4%237
103Drew Stanton376-6.54.9-1.7%29.3%28.4%116
104Josh McCown2218-55.411.1-2.5%28.5%28.3%651
105Craig Erickson1023-24.46.1-2.4%28.6%28.3%289
106Kevin Kolb697-16.24.9-2.3%28.7%28.3%208
107Nick Foles1301-33.06.5-2.5%28.5%28.3%388
108Kellen Clemens640-14.74.5-2.3%28.7%28.3%190
109Blake Bortles1846-49.75.5-2.7%28.3%28.2%553
110Billy Joe Hobert450-11.12.3-2.5%28.5%28.2%124
111Trent Edwards996-27.03.0-2.7%28.3%28.1%289
112Patrick Ramsey907-24.52.7-2.7%28.3%28.1%254
113Geno Smith881-24.02.6-2.7%28.3%28.1%261
114Chris Redman478-12.71.4-2.7%28.3%28.1%137
115Derek Carr1803-54.00.0-3.0%28.0%28.0%535
116Tarvaris Jackson968-28.90.0-3.0%28.0%28.0%281
117Seneca Wallace760-25.3-2.3-3.3%27.7%27.9%215
118David Carr2468-80.1-4.9-3.2%27.8%27.9%684
119Todd Collins652-22.2-2.6-3.4%27.6%27.8%176
120Brock Osweiler835-28.4-3.3-3.4%27.6%27.8%244
121Tony Banks2556-83.9-7.7-3.3%27.7%27.8%687
122Anthony Wright585-23.8-6.4-4.1%26.9%27.6%155
123Eric Zeier508-21.8-6.6-4.3%26.7%27.6%133
124Mike Glennon675-27.5-7.4-4.1%26.9%27.6%190
125Danny Wuerffel354-16.7-6.0-4.7%26.3%27.6%90
126Kent Graham1338-50.2-10.7-3.8%27.2%27.5%353
127Heath Shuler639-26.8-7.7-4.2%26.8%27.5%169
128AJ Feeley753-30.9-8.3-4.1%26.9%27.5%206
129Bobby Hoying512-22.6-7.2-4.4%26.6%27.5%131
130Jake Locker698-30.0-9.1-4.3%26.7%27.5%196
131Kyle Boller1548-61.5-15.5-4.0%27.0%27.4%423
132Charlie Frye622-29.1-10.6-4.7%26.3%27.3%164
133JP Losman1038-44.5-13.5-4.3%26.7%27.3%280
134Rick Mirer2221-91.5-24.4-4.1%26.9%27.2%588
135Zach Mettenberger376-21.6-10.5-5.8%25.2%27.2%101
136Tim Couch1880-80.6-24.4-4.3%26.7%27.2%487
137EJ Manuel471-26.6-12.7-5.7%25.3%27.1%125
138Mike McMahon521-29.5-14.1-5.7%25.3%27.1%130
139Stan Gelbaugh417-26.3-13.8-6.3%24.7%27.0%100
140Charlie Whitehurst307-22.0-12.9-7.2%23.8%27.0%78
141Craig Whelihan593-34.0-16.0-5.7%25.3%27.0%144
142Joey Harrington2662-116.0-37.3-4.4%26.6%27.0%709
143Bruce Gradkowski681-41.1-20.4-6.0%25.0%26.8%173
144Cade McNown560-36.2-19.6-6.5%24.5%26.7%132
145Chris Weinke672-41.5-21.5-6.2%24.8%26.7%163
146John Skelton649-42.0-22.7-6.5%24.5%26.6%167
147Doug Pederson474-36.1-21.8-7.6%23.4%26.5%106
148Brady Quinn493-36.8-22.2-7.5%23.5%26.5%121
149JaMarcus Russell678-45.1-25.1-6.7%24.3%26.5%169
150Danny Kanell863-54.5-28.5-6.3%24.7%26.5%205
151Ryan Leaf720-48.6-27.4-6.8%24.2%26.4%169
152Chad Hutchinson468-38.6-24.3-8.2%22.8%26.3%106
153David Klingler754-58.3-35.4-7.7%23.3%26.0%172
154Jimmy Clausen464-43.5-29.7-9.4%21.6%26.0%105
155Blaine Gabbert1329-91.6-51.8-6.9%24.1%25.8%338
156Akili Smith475-49.9-35.6-10.5%20.5%25.6%93
The Best

Given that he dominated the season rankings, it’s not surprising that Peyton Manning also tops the career list. However, the magnitude of his supremacy is downright loony. By 1D/Avg, the chasm between Manning and second place is larger than the gap between second and eighteenth. Put another way, Manning produced nearly twice as many first down above average as any other QB in this sample. Unreal. Needless to say, his True 1D% is also in another time zone.

One first down for each kid.

You may be surprised to see Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers ahead of Brady and Brees (and way ahead of Rodgers), but a dig into the numbers reveals that it isn’t so crazy. While nobody in their right mind believes Warner and Rivers are better overall quarterbacks than their three legendary peers, these two QB’s have been just as efficient in moving the ball down the field. Their NY/A numbers are quite comparable, so it follows that their 1D% would be just as stout. The only think holding Kurt and Philip back from immortality are turnovers (Warner) and lack of team success (Rivers).

Tony Romo and Matt Ryan crack the top ten, and they’re unique for sporting an above average 1D% in every season of their careers. Despite his reputation as a reckless gunslinger, Tony Romo retires as one of the most consistent quarterbacks of the modern era. Even in his “down” years he was still pretty good.

The Worst
My Piano is my only friend.

Nobody in the last 25 years has failed to move the chains as miserably as Akili Smith. Over 475 dropbacks Smith registered a -10.5% Relative, the only QB in this study in negative double figures. Nipping at his heels are the immortal gang of Blaine Gabbert, Jimmy Clausen, and David Klinger. If you sort by 1D/Avg, Joey Harrington is by far the worst at a staggering -116. He kept getting chances despite playing consistently below replacement level, although on a per play basis Harrington was merely terrible as opposed to historically pathetic like Akili and friends.

Why do you hate me, Donovan?

The QB who sticks out for being lower than expected is Donovan McNabb. He only ranks 55th here, below a number of players who are traditionally thought of as inferior. His Relative % is actually below average, a result very unbecoming of a borderline Hall-of-Famer. There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that outside of 2004, McNabb played with mostly poor receivers. He also gained a significant number of first downs with his legs (which aren’t counted here), especially in his early years. Those are both legitimate explanations. However, in my opinion McNabb is still a bit overrated. Statistically, his best trait by far was his INT%, and if you’ve read any of my prior work, you know I put very little stock in avoiding interceptions. He had scattershot accuracy for much of his career, highlighted by worm burners that landed several feet short of their intended target. There are few QB’s in history who generate a wider spectrum of opinions than Donovan McNabb.

At this point he probably seems like me perpetual whipping boy, but Derek Carr looks awful by this measure of performance. His career 1D% is precisely replacement level, and this is over 1,803 dropbacks. Even if we give him a pass for his rookie season on a terrible Raiders squad, his two subsequent campaigns have been quite underwhelming. Carr was worth -12.1 first downs in 2015, and exactly league average in his alleged breakout year of 2016. I have nothing against the man, but his numbers don’t match the hype. Somewhat shockingly, Derek’s True 1D% is only 0.1% higher than his brother’s, and most people consider David far inferior to his younger sibling. It’s still to early in Derek’s career to draw any sweeping conclusions, but I’m skeptical.


If this two part series teaches you anything, let it be the value of first downs for evaluating quarterbacks. In a world where we have formulas composed of 10,000 lines of code, this simple measurement does a hell of a job.

  • Wolverine

    I hate Harrington for being merely terrible instead of all-time godawful. I still fantasize about a counterfactual alternative timeline where the Lions gave up on Harrington after 2003 and drafted Roethlisberger in ’04 or Rodgers in ’05. Yes, I am a masochist.

    • Adam

      Yep, it’s actually better for a highly drafted QB to be an absolute dumpster fire rather than merely bad. In the former case, the GM will usually recognize his mistake quickly (think Ryan Leaf) and cut bait after a couple of years. But the Harrington types are just barely serviceable enough to justify their presence on the roster, and the fleeting hope that they’ll finally “make the leap.” A lot of it has to do with the fragile egos of front office people and not wanting to admit they drafted the wrong guy. This can set a franchise back at least five years and alienate the fanbase in the process. I think we’re seeing a Harrington situation right now in Jacksonville; it’s pretty obvious that Blake Bortles sucks and will likely never improve, but he shows just enough flashes that management has continued to prop him up as the franchise QB.