NFL quarterbacks’ careers are often defined by how they perform on the big stage.
If a player doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring, he is generally thought of as a notch below the all-time greats. Tom Brady, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning probably aren’t thought of the same way if they didn’t win titles.
But the list of quarterbacks who never won a Super Bowl is an impressive bunch. There are MVPs, Pro Bowlers and All-Pros galore, along with a handful of Pro Football Hall of Famers.
Here’s a look at the best quarterbacks to never win a Super Bowl:
Career accolades: 61,361 passing yards, 420 touchdowns, nine-time Pro Bowler, three-time First-Team All-Pro, 1984 MVP, Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2005 (first ballot)
Marino is without a doubt the greatest quarterback to never win a title. He was close early in his career, losing to the San Francisco 49ers in 1984 during his second season. Marino and the Dolphins never returned to the big game, though, as he retired following the 1999 season with an 8-10 playoff record.
In an era where rules weren’t adjusted to protect and favor quarterbacks, Marino still thrived. He surpassed 4,000 passing yards six times in his career and threw for a then-record 5,084 yards in his 1984 MVP season. Of the top 25 passing yardage seasons in NFL history, Marino’s 1984 campaign is the only one to happen in the 20th century. Winning just one Super Bowl would’ve catapulted Marino into a category with Montana, Manning and John Elway (just below Brady).
Career accolades: 47,003 passing yards, 342 passing touchdowns, 32 rushing touchdowns, nine-time Pro Bowler, 1975 First-Team All-Pro, 1975 MVP, Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 1986
Tarkenton was one of the original gunslinging quarterbacks before the passing game took over the league. He held some major passing records when he retired in 1978 (yards, touchdowns, interceptions). The records have obviously fallen, but Tarkenton’s impact shouldn’t be lost.
The 1961 third-rounder’s first stint with the Vikings didn’t go too well as Minnesota went 27-46-4 in his first six seasons. After making four Pro Bowls in his five seasons with the Giants, Tarkenton returned to the Vikings and cemented his legacy. Over the final seven seasons of his career, Tarkenton won an MVP, made three Pro Bowls and won three NFC Championships before losing each time in the Super Bowl. The Purple People Eaters defense gets all the shine, but Tarkenton had a huge part in the success of those teams.
Career accolades: 49,325 passing yards, 291 passing touchdowns, nine-time Pro Bowler, 1990 Second-Team All-Pro, 1990 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2006 (first ballot, first African-American QB inducted)
Moon’s greatness was buried during the 1980s and 90s because of the dynasties he was surrounded by. John Elway and Jim Kelly took most of the AFC titles while the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Football Team, New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers stole most of the Super Bowls. Moon led the Houston Oilers to the postseason in seven straight years from 1987 to 1993, but had just a 3-6 record (missed one game due to injury). The Oilers never made it to the conference championship game with Moon.
On the field, Moon was electric. He threw for nearly 50,000 yards and led the league in passing yards twice. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Moon won five consecutive Grey Cups (Canadian Football League championship) from 1978 to 1982 before entering the NFL. He didn’t play a snap of NFL football until he was 28 and retired in 2001 at the age of 44 after stints with the Vikings, Seahawks and Chiefs.
Career accolades: 43,040 passing yards, 254 touchdowns, six-time Pro Bowler, two-time First-Team All-Pro, 1982 MVP, Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 1993 (first ballot)
We’ve become so accustomed to hearing Fouts call games on TV that a lot of younger fans probably don’t realize how good of a quarterback he was. Fouts played 15 seasons -- all with the Chargers -- and his passing numbers were impressive. Like Tarkenton, Fouts played in an era where passing wasn’t the focus of most offenses. Still, he led the league in passing yards per game six times in his career.
The knock on Fouts is that his team never really had great success. The then-San Diego Chargers only made the postseason four times in Fouts’ career, never advancing past the AFC Championship Game. Fouts orchestrated AFC title game runs in 1980 and 1981 before falling to the Raiders and Bengals, respectively.
Career accolades: 35,467 passing yards, 237 touchdowns, five-time Pro Bowler, 1991 First-Team All-Pro, Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2002
One of the greatest “what ifs” in NFL history is the 1990s Buffalo Bills. The Bills made four straight Super Bowls from 1990 to 1993 with Kelly under center. If you read the headline to this article, you know what happens next. Buffalo lost four straight Super Bowls -- the first by one point on a missed 47-yard field goal at the buzzer and the final three all by double digits.
Kelly would likely be among the game’s all-time greats if he won any of those titles. He didn’t quite have the numbers of his peers, but he was a consistent, solid player for years. The Bills popularized the K-Gun no-huddle offense with Kelly running the show. Kelly played just 11 seasons in the NFL, all with the Bills, after two seasons in the USFL.
Career accolades: 29,979 passing yards, 207 passing touchdowns, 35 rushing touchdowns, four-time Pro Bowler, 1992 First-Team All-Pro, two-time Second-Team All-Pro
If you go to an Eagles game in 2021, you’re likely to see at least a few Kelly Green jersey’s with Cunningham’s name on the back. He played for Philadelphia from 1985 to 1995, but his career was derailed in 1991 when he suffered a torn ACL. Cunningham was one of the league’s first great dual-threat quarterbacks and his numbers after the injury showed he clearly lost a step.
After retiring for the 1996 season, he returned in 1997 with the Vikings and had a career year in 1998 with Randy Moss and Cris Carter. The 15-1 Vikings lost the NFC Championship Game after their previously perfect kicker Gary Anderson missed a field goal that would’ve put the game out of reach. That season will go down as Cunningham’s greatest missed opportunity.
Career accolades: 63,440 passing yards, 421 touchdowns, eight-time Pro Bowler, 2013 Comeback Player of the Year
Rivers’ passing numbers surpass anyone else on this list, but that’ll be the case with every younger player. He was never among the best quarterbacks in the league during his era, though he was probably always a top 10 quarterback throughout his career. Durability was perhaps Rivers’ best trait, as he started a remarkable 240 consecutive games from 2006 to his retirement in 2020.
The Chargers had a ton of talent throughout Rivers’ career, they just could never get past Brady’s Patriots, Manning’s Colts or Roethlisberger’s Steelers. In 2007, the Chargers went into Foxboro and narrowly lost to the 16-0 Patriots while Rivers played on a torn ACL. He’ll go down as one of the toughest players of his era, but just a notch below the all-time greats.
Career accolades: 22,464 passing yards, 133 passing touchdowns, 6,109 rushing yards, 36 rushing touchdowns, four-time Pro Bowler, 2010 Comeback Player of the Year
Vick goes down as the greatest athlete at his position in NFL history. Before his federal chargers and subsequent jail time, Vick starred for the Atlanta Falcons. The Madden 04 cover athlete rushed for 3,859 yards (7.3 yards per carry) and 21 touchdowns over his first six seasons. He was unstoppable in the open field and had a cannon for an arm.
Team success always evaded Vick -- he started just five playoff games in 13 seasons, winning twice. His best chance at a Super Bowl came in 2004, when the Falcons lost to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. It’s fair to wonder how high Vick’s career could’ve soared if it wasn’t for his self-inflicted mistakes.
Career accolades: 31,304 passing yards, 174 passing touchdowns, 37 rushing touchdowns, three-time Pro Bowler, 2003 Second-Team All-Pro, 2003 MVP
McNair was quite literally inches away forcing overtime in Super Bowl XXXIV against the Rams when Kevin Dyson was tackled at the goal line as time expired. The Titans never got back to that stage with McNair despite some really solid chances. In 10 career playoff games, McNair went 5-5 with six touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
McNair fell victim, like Rivers, to being in a conference full of all-time greats. His playoff losses came to the 1999 Rams, 2000 Ravens, 2003 Patriots, 2006 Colts and 2002 Raiders. All five of those groups made it to the Super Bowl, with the former four winning it.
Career accolades: 55,767 passing yards, 347 touchdowns, four-time Pro Bowler, 2016 First-Team All-Pro, 2016 MVP
Ryan came closer to winning a Super Bowl than anyone else on this list. The Falcons led 28-3 late in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI as they looked to cap off a magical season. Ryan won league MVP, tossing 38 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards. Atlanta rolled through the NFC playoffs, winning both games by double figures as Ryan threw seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Then Tom Brady happened.
Ryan hasn’t been able to replicate that 2016 season, but he’s had a really strong career since being drafted third overall in 2008. He’s already surpassed plenty of Hall of Famers in passing yards and touchdowns -- a Super Bowl in the final stages of his career would be a cherry on top.
Career accolades: 31,698 passing yards, 190 passing touchdowns, 5,398 rushing yards, 70 rushing touchdowns (QB record), three-time Pro Bowler, 2015 First-Team All-Pro, 2015 MVP
Newton rivals Vick as the most dynamic rushing quarterback ever. His 70 career rushing touchdowns are by far the most by a quarterback, 27 more than second-place Steve Young. SuperCam has been a much more reliable passer than Vick ever was, though, topping 3,100 yards in eight seasons (Vick did so once). Newton reached the peak of his powers during his 2015 MVP season.
In seven career playoff games (three wins), Newton has 12 total touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s performed admirably on the big stage, but his lasting image might be from Super Bowl 50 when he didn’t dive on the field for a fumble. The Broncos’ all-time defense stymied him all game and the Panthers’ 15-1 regular season ended in disappointment. Now with the New England Patriots, Newton still has a chance to get that elusive title.
Career accolades: 37,920 passing yards, 247 touchdowns, four-time Pro Bowler, 1988 First-Team All-Pro, 1988 MVP
Esiason is another quarterback-turned-broadcaster who nearly won a Super Bowl under center. The Begnals made the Big Game in 1988 before falling to the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII. Cincinnati’s four-point loss was the closest any team came to defeating Joe Montana in the title game, as it took a 14-3 San Francisco run in the fourth quarter to secure the 20-16 victory.
Esiason, who is one of only three left-handed quarterbacks to play in a Super Bowl, played nine seasons in Cincinnati to begin his career before being traded to the Jets in 1993. He made the Pro Bowl in his first season in New York, but his final four seasons (two with the Jets, one with the Cardinals, one back with the Bengals) were largely underwhelming.