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NFL's Quarterback Revolving Door

While watching the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football October 28, the broadcast team mentioned the number of quarterbacks that have gotten under center for the Dolphins since Dan Marino was the man calling the signals for the final time in the 1999 season.

The number of QBs was something like 21 and raised the question as to how many other teams have experienced this “revolving door” of signal-callers in that same time frame? For the Pittsburgh Steelers, they haven’t had a permanent quarterback change since 2004 when Ben Roethlisberger was the tabbed starter and only when he has been injured did someone else step into his shoes.

That’s 15 years of the same quarterback and Pittsburgh joins teams like New England, Atlanta Falcons, the New York Giants, Los Angeles Chargers, and Green Bay Packers who have had mainstays under center for a very long time. Up in Massachusetts, Tom Brady has won six Super Bowl titles and along the way has been the Patriots quarterback since 2000 four years more than Big Ben Roethlisberger. In Atlanta, it’s been Matt Ryan leading the way since 2008.

The 2004 quarterback class may be one of the best simply because it gave the NFL Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Eli Manning, resulting in four Super Bowl triumphs among the three. Rivers has been the Chargers quarterback since 2006 having to wait two years after being drafted behind Drew Brees who left for the New Orleans Saints. Brees has been calling the shots down in New Orleans since that time. Eli Manning did not start as a rookie either not getting the job until 2005 when he supplanted Kurt Warner.

Aaron Rodgers is another who had to sit and wait behind a tenured quarterback with Brett Favre standing in his way, but Rodgers finally got his shot when the Packers released Favre and Rodgers has been the man since that time, 2008 to be exact. But what about the other teams that haven’t had a “franchise” quarterback in place for a very long time?

The Cleveland Browns come to mind immediately. When Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore and renamed the team “Ravens” the city of Cleveland went without a pro football team for three years until a new team was built in 1999. Tim Couch was the first starting quarterback for the “new” Browns but from the Couch to the current starter Baker Mayfield, it certainly has been a revolving door in Cleveland at a very ridiculous pace.

The men who ended up leading the team in passing from 2000 until last season is a laundry list of names:

  • Kelly Holcomb
  • Jeff Garcia
  • Trent Dilfer
  • Charlie Frye
  • Derek Anderson
  • Brady Quinn
  • Colt McCoy
  • Brandon Weeden
  • Jason Campbell
  • Brian Hoyer
  • Josh McCown
  • Cody Kessler
  • DeShone Kizer

An unlucky 13 QBs in 18 seasons and this year Baker Mayfield is not having what one might call a stellar season thus far. Then there is the team spoken about above during Monday Night Football. The Miami Dolphins once had one of the greatest quarterbacks ever in Dan Marino. He’s in the Hall of Fame but without a championship ring. After retiring in 1999, Miami has only finished first in their division twice (2000 and 2008). In both those seasons, they lost a wild card game and a divisional playoff game.

Since 2008, when they were wild card losers, the Dolphins have returned to the postseason just once in 2016 when they finished 10-6 and second in the division only to lose in the first round of the wild card playoffs. In the 19 seasons since Marino hung up the cleats, leading Miami in passing was:

  • Jay Fiedler
  • A.J. Feeley
  • Gus Frerotte
  • Joey Harrington
  • Cle Lemon
  • Chad Pennington
  • Chad Henne
  • Matt Moore
  • Ray Tannehill
  • Jay Cutler

This season there has been switching back and forth between a veteran of eight different teams, Ryan Fitzpatrick and newcomer and youngster Josh Rosen. It appears that franchise quarterbacks just don’t come along that often anymore. There are plenty of young gunslingers around the NFL this season but only time will tell if they become another Brady, Rodgers, Manning, Rivers, or Roethlisberger.

The Oakland Raiders were once a proud franchise but have moved from Oakland to Los Angeles back to Oakland and now back in L.A. again only to be in the stages of moving to Las Vegas. The late owner Al Davis would probably never have allowed his team to take the course it has since he passed away. The Silver and Black have also experienced the quarterback rotation problem in trying to find a signal-caller that can lead the team to consistently winning seasons.

Back in 1999, Rich Gannon was the starting quarterback and he held the position for multiple years until 2003 when in the following season, Kerry Collins took over albeit for just two years. Then the rotation began:

  • Andrew Walter
  • Daunte Culpepper
  • JaMarcus Russell (who I might add is considered by many as the NFL’s biggest #1 draft bust ever)
  • Jason Campbell
  • Carson Palmer
  • Terrelle Pryor

Now it has been Derek Carr since 2014 and since that time only once did Carr get the Raiders to the postseason where they lost a wild card game in 2016. Not that long ago there were still some great quarterbacks in the game…John Elway, Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Steve Young just to name a few. They left behind storied legacies but a few of them also left their respective teams in a quarterback quandary.

The great Elway now an executive with the team he established a career with, retired in 1998. Elway went out much like Jerome Bettis having won the Super Bowl and then calling it quits. But for the Denver Broncos, filling those great shoes has been next to impossible. Brian Griese was nowhere near the talent level of Elway when he took over. He gave way to Jake Plummer who turned the reigns over to Jay Cutler. By the time Cutler was done in 2008 the job became Kyle Orton’s.
Then came the one year wonder of Tim Tebow until in 2012 Peyton Manning came to Denver to show the world his career was NOT over despite the neck injuries he had been experiencing. The result was four playoff appearances in the four seasons Manning was the signal-caller that included two Super Bowl appearances and one Lombardi Trophy.

But since Manning finally retired in 2015, lining up behind center has been Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum, and now Joe Flacco. But also taking snaps has been Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler. Of all the quarterbacks named thus far, in some cases that do not include other players that stepped in from time to time to start a game.

Mentioned above were Montana and Young and their situation was much like what Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre had going on in Green Bay. Waiting his time behind Montana was Steve Young and he like his predecessor would lead the Niners to the promised land and a Lombardi Trophy.

When Steve Young was done in 1998, it was Jeff Garcia’s turn and he held on for five seasons before the carousel of quarterbacks began:

  • Tim Rattay
  • Alex Smith
  • Trent Dilfer
  • Shaun Hill
  • Colin Kaepernick
  • Blaine Gabbert
  • Nick Mullens
  • Joey Garoppolo

One of the oldest franchises in the National Football League is the Chicago Bears. Having fielded one of the greatest single-season teams in history in 1985 when “Da Bears” won the Super Bowl, Jim McMahon was the quarterback of that team and since he left the team, Chicago’s quarterback position has been a mess. The list of leading passers for the Bears since 1989:

  • Mike Tomczak
  • Jim Harbaugh
  • Steve Walsh
  • Erik Kramer
  • Dave Krieg
  • Shane Matthews
  • Cade McNown
  • Jim Miller
  • Kordell Stewart
  • Chad Hutchinson
  • Kyle Orton
  • Rex Grossman
  • Brian Griese
  • Jay Cutler
  • Matt Barkley
  • Mitch Trubisky

Another storied franchise is the Minnesota Vikings who with Fran Tarkenton in the 1970s went to three Super Bowls losing them all. But Tarkenton is one of the all-time greats and he left some pretty big shoes behind when retiring. Taking snaps after Tark and up until this season were:

  • Tommy Kramer
  • Steve Dils
  • Wade Wilson
  • Rich Gannon
  • Jim McMahon
  • Warren Moon
  • Brad Johnson
  • Randall Cunningham
  • Jeff George
  • Daunte Culpepper
  • Brad Johnson
  • Tarvaris Jackson
  • Gus Frerotte
  • Brett Favre
  • Christian Ponder
  • Matt Cassell
  • Teddy Bridgewater
  • Sam Bradford
  • Case Keenum
  • Kirk Cousins

The Vikings' list may very well be the longest in the last 40 years but since 2000 and beginning with Culpepper, there have been 10 different men leading the team in passing at season’s end. Now in 2019, most teams have their starters solidly in place but in some NFL cities, there has been turmoil at quarterback.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, they lost Ben Roethlisberger for the remainder of the season early on, the first time for Big Ben to miss an entire season due to injury. Second-year man Mason Rudolph relieved him only to be injured himself and missing a game and a half. But Rudolph has been sharp and just might be the next in line to start another era of Steelers quarterbacks that have not had that many since Terry Bradshaw retired. It’s only been Cliff Stoudt (for just 1983), Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, Tommy Maddox, and Roethlisberger.

But around the league injuries have given way to rookies and green quarterbacks and in some cases QBs that were drafted high and beginning to cement their legacies:

  • Gardner Minshew, Jaguars (replacing the injured Nick Foles)
  • Lamar Jackson, Ravens (took the job from Joe Flacco)
  • Jacoby Brissett (replaced the retired Andrew Luck)
  • Deshaun Watson (making good things happen in Houston)
  • Patrick Mahomes (injured but returning and seeking another incredible statistical season)
  • Kyler Murray, Cardinals (the league’s overall #1 draft pick in 2019 showing much potential but has a long way to go)
  • Daniel Jones, Giants (forced Eli Manning to the bench)
  • Sam Darnold, Jets (unfortunate circumstance of playing for a bad team)

To put things in a better perspective of how committed the Pittsburgh Steelers are to their personnel, consider that Ben Roethlisberger has been the starter for the last 15 years and since 1969, the Steelers have hired just three coaches. That’s three hires in 50 years! The next stage of the franchise quarterback may very well be in the shoes of Mason Rudolph but Roethlisberger has indicated he is coming back in 2020 for yet another season.


About the author

Harv Aronson

Harv Aronson was born and raised in Pittsburgh but now lives in Florida with his beautiful wife Melissa.

Harv currently writes for Abstract Sports, the Sports History Network, Yinzer Crazy website, and the magazine Gridiron Greats. Harv wrote the published book "Pro Football's Most Passionate Fans" and as a professional writer has had articles published in an array of sports publications.

Harv loves all sports but football and baseball are at the top of his interest. His passion is for sports history. You can visit Harv's website at and you can reach him at [email protected]

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