National Championship Quarterbacks in the NFL

Jameis Winston: the people’s champion.

In this year’s NFL draft, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was drafted first overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Only four years ago, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton was drafted first overall to the Carolina Panthers. What do these two men have in common?

That’s right, they both led their college teams to a national championship. Newton has thus far proved to be a very good young quarterback, often thriving in spite of his surrounding offensive talent. Winston, for his part, looks to have the makings of a franchise cornerstone.

However, despite the obvious talent these two young men possess, I have long been suspicious of national championship winning quarterbacks. College football is not like the NFL in many ways, one of the most notable of which is parity. Good NFL teams are rewarded with inferior draft picks; good college teams are rewarded with better exposure and, consequently, better talent infusion.

What this means for title winning college passers is that they often lead incredibly talent-rich teams to the promised land.1 Because of this, it can be incredibly difficult to know how these quarterbacks can perform in a league where every team is relatively equal in talent.2

What past national championship winning quarterbacks have done in the NFL is largely irrelevant to what subsequent quarterbacks will do, but I thought it would be interesting to see just how title-winning passers have fared in the big league.

Modern National Championship Quarterbacks

The table below lists every national championship winning quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger and some information to highlight their performance.3 Read thus: In 1970, Ohio State quarterback Rex Kern was picked 260th overall by the Baltimore Colts. He did not attempt a pass in the NFL, so he did not qualify for ANY/A+ ratings, and he had a career AV of 0.

YearNational ChampionPrimary QBPickTMPass AttANY/A+Career AV
1970Ohio State Rex Kern260BAC00
1970Nebraska Jerry Tagge11GNB281838
1970Texas Eddie Phillips95LARM00
1971Nebraska Jerry Tagge11GNB281838
1972Southern California Mike Rae205LARD249799
1973Alabama Gary RutledgeUD
1973Notre Dame Tom ClementsUDKC120
1974Southern California Pat Haden176LARM136310436
1974Oklahoma Steve DavisUD
1975Oklahoma Steve DavisUD
1976Pittsburgh Matt Cavanaugh50NE5799916
1977Notre Dame Joe Montana82SF5391121164
1978Southern California Paul McDonald109CLE7679115
1978Alabama Jeff Rutledge246LARM526878
1979Alabama Steadman ShealyUD
1980Georgia Buck BelueUD
1981Clemson Homer JordanUD
1982Penn State Todd Blackledge7KC8818313
1983MiamiBernie Kosar1CLE336510580
1984Brigham Young Robbie Bosco72GNB00
1985Oklahoma Jamelle HoliewayUD
1986Penn State John ShafferUD
1987MiamiSteve Walsh1DAL13179422
1988Notre Dame Tony RiceUD
1989MiamiCraig Erickson131TB109210222
1990Colorado Darian Hagan242SF00
1990Georgia Tech Shawn JonesUD
1991MiamiGino Torretta192MIN160
1991Washington Billy Joe Hobert58LARD527897
1992Alabama Jay Barker160GNB00
1993Florida State Charlie WardUD
1994Nebraska Brook BerringerUD
1995Nebraska Tommie FrazierUD
1996Florida Danny Wuerffel99NOR350696
1997Nebraska Scott Frost67NYJ05
1997Michigan Brian Griese91DEN279610161
1998Tennessee Tee Martin163PIT160
1999Florida State Chris Weinke106CAR709808
2000Oklahoma Josh Heupel177MIA00
2001MiamiKen Dorsey241SF408701
2002Ohio State Craig Krenzel148CHI127631
2003Southern California Matt Leinart10ARI6419112
2003Louisiana State Matt Mauck225DEN271
2004Southern California Matt Leinart10ARI6419112
2005Texas Vince Young3TEN13049436
2006Florida Chris LeakUD
2007Louisiana State Matt Flynn209GNB357918
2008Florida Tim Tebow25DEN3619212
2009Alabama Greg McElroy208NYJ311
2010Auburn Cam Newton1CAR192310163
2011Alabama A.J. McCarron164CIN00
2012Alabama A.J. McCarron164CIN00
2013Florida State Jameis Winston1TB

This table is a bit uglier than my normal tables, but the only way I could maintain the sort feature was to just leave a bunch of spaces blank rather than write “N/A.”

Fourteen quarterbacks went undrafted and never made it on to an NFL roster. Nine more were drafted but never threw an NFL pass. Eight more threw fewer than 300 career passes.4

That leaves us with nineteen quarterbacks who have combined to win twenty college national championships and four Super Bowls (as starters). Let’s take a brief look at them in reverse order of career pass attempts.

Danny Wuerffel won a title with Florida in 1996 before being drafted 99th overall by the Saints in 1997. He played in 25 career games, starting 10 of them. In six seasons, he attempted 350 passes. He finished his career with an ANY/A+ of 69 (for the uninitiated, that’s really bad) and a career AV of 6.5

Matt Flynn was the trigger man on LSU’s 2007 national championship team. With quarterback of the future Aaron Rodgers already on the roster, the Packers waited until the 209th pick to draft Flynn in 2008. He played sparingly behind the future Hall of Famer, but he performed well in his only two starts (notably, the 480 yard, 6 touchdown performance against Detroit that made him a very rich man). He scored a large contract with Seattle, lost the training camp battle to rookie Russell Wilson, flunked out of Oakland, and found his way back to the friendly confines of Lambeau Field.

A real winner and Peyton Manning.

Tim Tebow‘s story is popular enough that I needn’t retell it here. His career to date has seen him attempt 361 regular season passes with an ANY/A+ of 92 and a career AV of 12. Consider this me going on record saying he is overrated by his fans but probably underrated by everyone else.

The 2001 Miami Hurricanes led Ken Dorsey to the national championship. This team featured Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, and Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow, Jr., Bryant McKinnie, Vince Wilfork, Jonathan Vilma, Phillip Buchanan, Ed Reed, and Antrel Rolle. They went undefeated and played in only one competitive game the entire season. When Dorsey made it to the 49ers and no longer played for a team whose backups could beat their opponents’ starters, he didn’t have much success. He finished his career with 408 attempts, a 70 ANY/A+, and a career AV of 1.

Jeff Rutledge won the 1978 title with Alabama and was subsequently drafted 246th overall by the Rams. He actually had a very long career, spending his thirteen pro years between the Rams, Giants, and Washington. Despite his longevity, he only started ten games and attempted 526 passes. He did earn a Super Bowl as Mark Rypien‘s backup for the dominant 1991 Skins, and he replaced Stan Humphries to lead a masterful comeback the prior year, but the rest of his professional career was mostly forgettable.6

Billy Joe Hobert and the Washington Huskies were co-champions, along with the Hurricanes, in 1991. The Raiders selected him 58th overall in the 1993 draft, and he served as the team’s third option at quarterback. He didn’t attempt a pass until his third season, when starter Jeff Hostetler and backup Vince Evans both went down. He ended his career with 527 attempts split between the Raiders, Bills, and Saints. He retired with the Colts as Peyton Manning‘s backup, but he never threw a pass for Indy.

Matt Cavanaugh and the Pitt Panthers won the college title in 1976. Cavanaugh played one more solid season before being drafted 50th overall to New England in 1978. During his baker’s dozen with the Pats, 49ers, Eagles, and Giants, he started only 19 games – none of which came during the last five seasons of his career (he only attempted 21 passes in this timeframe). If its any consolation, he did pick up a ring in San Fran and another in New York.

Admiring Kurtis Eugene Warner.

Matt Leinart is the most recent two-time national champion to actually attempt a pass in the NFL.7 After winning back-to-back titles on a stacked USC team, Leinart was drafted 10th overall to lead the Cardinals out of obscurity. After briefly starting ahead of Kurt Warner (for some reason), Leinart took his rightful spot on the bench. He has since bounced around the AFC and, ultimately, out of the league entirely. Despite getting far more chances, he actually trails the oft-maligned Tebow in career ANY/A+.

Chris Weinke and his Florida State Seminoles took home the national title in 1999, and he was later selected 106th overall to the Panthers in 2001. He started 15 games as a rookie, winning one and posting sub par stats. After losing his starting gig after his rookie season, he went on to start only five more games in his career. In limited action, he showed few signs of erasing the stains of his first season.

In 1978, Paul McDonald and the Trojans sort-of won the championship. Alabama ended the season ranked first by the AP, FWAA, and NFF, while USC took the UPI vote. That’s good enough for this study. McDonald would go on to be drafted 109th by the Browns in 1980. He started 21 games in his seven-year tenure, including the full 1984 season. His 3472 yards were respectable for his era, but his low completion, touchdown, and interception rates did him in.

Todd Blackledge was a well-regarded quarterback coming off the 1982 season in which he led Penn State to a championship.  The Chiefs drafted him 7th overall in 1983, and the team gave him 881 attempts to prove he wasn’t even an average player. He famously happens to be the last quarterback drafted by the Chiefs to actually win a game for them (Brodie Croyle started ten games, but he lost all of them).

Craig Erickson won the 1989 national title with Miami. He was drafted 131st to the Eagles in 1991 and 86th to the Bucs in 1992. Unlike the infamous Bo Jackson debacle, Tampa actually saw playing time out of this draft pick. Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work out so well. He spent three lackluster seasons in Tampa before having a cup of coffee in Indy and, ultimately, fading away for two years in Miami.

Vince Young thrilled the television audience when he led the Longhorns to an upset over the favored Trojans for the 2005 title. He made such an impression that he was drafted 3rd overall in the 2006 draft, seven spots higher than his USC adversary. After beginning his career with a 30-17 record and a rookie of the year award (and a couple of Pro Bowls to boot), Young’s injuries and fractious relationship with management accelerated his release from the team. He started three ugly games the the Eagles in 2011 and hasn’t played a snap since.

Steve Walsh won the 1987 title with Miami under coach Jimmy Johnson. Two years later, despite having drafted Troy Aikman first overall, Johnson took Walsh first overall in the supplemental draft. Walsh never proved to be an NFL caliber starter, but he did play a role in building the Dallas dynasty when the Cowboys traded him to the Saints for a potpourri of picks that would yield dominant tackle Erik Williams.8

Pat Haden will be the last USC Trojan quarterback you read about in this article. He helped the Trojans take the college crown in 19749 before spending a year playing in the World Football League and studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He returned to Los Angeles to play his entire six-year career with the Rams. Haden finished his NFL tenure with a respectable 35-19-1 record in 55 starts, as well a 2-3 post season record.

Why does this man not do toothpaste commercials?

Cam Newton  won the Heisman and led Auburn to the 2010 college title before going first in the 2011 draft. He took the league by storm, setting passing volume records for rookie quarterbacks and the single season rushing touchdown record for any quarterback.10 He has only been in the league for four years, and he is just 26 years old, so it would be irresponsible to say the story of his career is already written. Hampered by both erratic accuracy that undermines his physical gifts and a front office that is seemingly ambivalent about acquiring offensive weapons, Newton has not yet reached his ceiling as a pro.

Brian Griese helped Michigan win the 1997 national title and went on to go 91st overall to the Broncos in 1998. He won a Super Bowl ring as a backup to John Elway and Bubby Brister, making him the only quarterback to win a college title and a Super Bowl in consecutive years11 Although he played well early in his career, his poor ball security and suboptimal arm strength resulted in him being basically a turnover-prone Chad Pennington. He spent his up-and-down eleven year career on four different teams, managing to pick up 83 starts along the way.

It’s a testament to just how little success national championship quarterbacks have had in the NFL that Bernie Kosar has had the second best career in modern history (Cam Newton will surely pass him, and soon). Kosar is the best of many quarterbacks to win a championship with the Hurricanes, which isn’t saying much. The Ohio native began his career after a controversial decision to forego the regular draft and enter the supplemental draft (so he could play for his hometown Browns). He spent nine years in Cleveland as a solid starter before Bill Belichick cut him halfway through the 1993 season. Kosar picked up a Super Bowl ring as Troy Aikman‘s backup that same year before ending his run with three nondescript seasons with the Dolphins. All told, he earned 108 starts in 13 seasons, and he finished with a commendable 106 ANY/A+.

A great regular season quarterback.
A great regular season quarterback.

Joe Montana won the college title with Notre Dame in 1977 and was a steal for Bill Walsh  at pick 82 in 1979. Remember earlier when I said the quarterbacks combined to win four Super Bowls? That was technically true. Montana and the powerhouse 49ers won four NFL titles between 1981 and 1989. As the trigger man for one of the most innovative offenses the league has ever known, Montana finished his career ranked second in completion rate and passer rating, and third in ANY/A. Lost on many current fans is that he was one of the greatest regular season performers of all time and would have made the Hall of Fame even without a hand full of rings. Joe Cool is undeniably the greatest professional quarterback ever to win a national championship at the college level, but the fact of the matter is that his competition is lacking.

  1. Jameis Winston, for example, played for a team that saw more players drafted in a three year span than any other team in college history.
  2. For highly drafted quarterbacks, their teams are often quite terrible from top to bottom. Quality management and ownership can improve a QB’s surrounding talent, as it did for Peyton Manning. Systemic inferiority and mismanagement can leave even a great young QB drowning in a quagmire of dysfunction, as it may have for Vinny Testaverde or Archie Manning.
  3.  Keep in mind that Tom Brady, Mark Brunell, and Troy Aikman all played for national championship teams as well. However, they are excluded from the list because they were not the primary starters for their respective teams. Also note that, because this study is limited to the post-merger era, Joe Namath doesn’t count either. He is, however, the only non-Joe Montana quarterback ever to win a championship in both college and the NFL.
  4. This group of 31 passers includes recent Alabama Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron. They are still active, but I haven’t talked to many people who seriously believe they’ll move into the 300+ attempts list.
  5. For reference, Geno Smith gained 6 AV in the 2014 season alone.
  6. As forgettable as thirteen career in the NFL can be, that is.
  7. A.J. McCarron will supplant him when he attempts his first pass as a pro.
  8. This is where we use outcome bias to call Johnson a genius.
  9. Technically, Oklahoma took the AP poll, but USC took the FWAA, NFF, and UPI polls.
  10. With 33 rushing touchdowns through his first four years, Newton is on pace to shatter Steve Young‘s record of 43 rushing scores by an NFL quarterback.
  11. Tony Dorsett did this too, and he was actually a starter. He also won the Heisman and NFL rookie of the year award in those seasons. He’s not a QB, so he doesn’t count for the exercise, but it’s fun trivia nonetheless.