Fitzpatrick left Washington’s 20-16 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers with a hip injury after attempting six passes and was placed on injured reserve with a chance to return later this season. Backup Taylor Heinicke was named the starter for Thursday’s game against the visiting New York Giants (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network), a situation that is emblematic of the franchise’s quest for a long-term answer at the position.
It’s a 29-year search that has featured bad timing, worse luck and questionable decisions.
Rypien, who led the team to victory in Super Bowl XXVI after the 1991 season, started 26 games over the next two years but never rekindled his winning magic. Washington has since used first-round draft picks on five quarterbacks (Heath Shuler, Patrick Ramsey, Jason Campbell, Robert Griffin III and Dwayne Haskins), acquired three who started in Super Bowls for other teams (Jeff Hostetler, Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman), and watched two others (Brad Johnson and Rich Gannon) do so after leaving the team. It also had a transformative quarterback (Griffin) who starred as a rookie, got hurt and was gone from the franchise three years later.
As Washington closes on the 30th anniversary of its last Super Bowl win, ESPN set out to rank the 30 quarterbacks who started for the franchise between Rypien and Fitzpatrick, to provide context about the search for a leader that has touched four decades.
As a reporter who has covered 28 of the 30 players on this list — and after interviewing nearly two dozen people, including former Washington coaches and teammates — arriving at an irrefutable ranking for me was challenging. Several of these quarterbacks barely touched the field with Washington, while others faced obstacles such as coaching staffs that didn’t want them, schemes that didn’t fit their talents or injuries.
We enlisted the help of ESPN Analytics to apply a sense of order. That ranking (explained below) isn’t perfect, but it does highlight the volatility of Washington’s quest.
No quarterback since Rypien has made more than 60 starts for this franchise. Only two — Kirk Cousins and Jason Campbell — topped 50 starts, and 12 made five or fewer. Heck, receiver Terry McLaurin has played 30 games in Washington and caught passes from seven quarterbacks.
During Washington’s search, its NFC East rivals have enjoyed long stretches of stability at the position. The Dallas Cowboys have had three quarterbacks (Troy Aikman, Tony Romo and Dak Prescott) start at least 70 games; Eli Manning started 234 for the New York Giants; and from 2000 to 2012, the Philadelphia Eagles had Donovan McNabb (10 seasons) and Michael Vick (three seasons) combine for 172 starts over that span.
The turnover has hurt the quality of QB play for Washington, which has had two postseason wins since Rypien’s last full season in 1992. Nobody knew the frustration better than right tackle Jon Jansen, who played with 10 starting quarterbacks from 1999 to 2008.
“[When there’s] constant change at quarterback,” Jansen said, “you don’t ever get a chance to develop a rhythm and develop the relationship you need on the field.”
Here is our analytics-based ranking, presented in order from the back of the pack at No. 30 to the best at No. 1. Included are thoughts from ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. on the five QBs who were first-round draft picks by Washington.
Note: ESPN Analytics ranked the QBs according to a combination of regular-season passing efficiency (yards per attempt), weighted 75%, and total passing yards, weighted 25%. Players with few appearances (fewer than 1,000 passing yards) were ranked below those with more significant appearances and sorted solely by total passing yards. To account for the changing nature of the NFL’s passing game, yardage and efficiency were adjusted according to the years in which they occurred.
* Games and record totals include playoff appearances with Washington.
30. Mark Sanchez (2018)
Games: 2 | Record: 0-1 | TDs: 0 | INTs: 3 | Pass yards: 138
Within two weeks of signing, he became the starter after Colt McCoy was injured. Sanchez’s lone start was disastrous: He completed 6 of 14 passes for 38 yards and two interceptions. He was benched for the second half and never played in the NFL again.
Keim’s take: I would have slotted him at No. 28 but acknowledge that his one half was one of the worst in recent memory.
Chris Mortensen reports that the Washington Football Team is committing to Taylor Heinicke at QB while Ryan Fitzpatrick is on IR.
Games: 3 | Record: 0-1 | TDs: 2 | INTs: 0 | Pass yards: 259
On Dec. 7, he was a student at Old Dominion taking math classes. A day later he signed with Washington, and a month later he started a playoff game against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Heinicke entered the 2021 season as Fitzpatrick’s backup, with a multiyear contract and strong fan support. He has an opportunity to climb this list, starting Thursday.
Keim’s take: There’s no doubt he belongs higher, but this is indicative of how few snaps he has taken in Washington.
28. Cary Conklin (1990-93)
Games: 5 | Record: 0-2 | TDs: 5 | INTs: 3 | Pass yards: 512
Conklin, a fourth-round draft pick in 1990, appeared in seven NFL games, including two with the San Francisco 49ers. His lone starts occurred during Washington’s 1993 season, when it finished 4-12.
Keim’s take: I’m fine with him here.
Games: 4 | Record: 1-2 | TDs: 3 | INTs: 4 | Pass yards: 590
Because of multiple injuries, Johnson made his first start 11 days after signing in December 2018. Said former coach Jay Gruden: “We knew he could run. He wasn’t the greatest passer, but he had a skill the other guys didn’t have. [Mark] Sanchez had more experience but couldn’t move.”
Johnson learned his Washington teammates by playing the Madden video game after signing.
Keim’s take: Too low for me; I would have put him at No. 21.
Games: 4 | Record: 1-3 | TDs: 4 | INTs: 1 | Pass yards: 610
In his four starts, he posted a Total QBR of 70 or better three times. Washington had only one other quarterback (Alex Smith) post a 70 rating or better in 2020. A broken ankle ended Allen’s season.
Keim’s take: He was better than a few players ahead of him, which is why I would have ranked him No. 19.
25. Rich Gannon (1993)
Games: 8 | Record: 1-3 | TDs: 3 | INTs: 7 | Pass yards: 704
Gannon wasn’t healthy in Washington.
“I told him, ‘I could sit flat-footed and throw the ball farther than you,'” said former running back Brian Mitchell, who played quarterback in college. “When he played here, he did not have the same arm he did when he was in Oakland. It was nowhere close.”
Here’s why: Gannon needed shoulder surgery and missed all of 1994. From 1999 to 2002, he led the Raiders to a Super Bowl, was named NFL MVP once, earned All-Pro twice and threw 105 touchdowns to 44 interceptions.
Keim’s take: Close; I would have ranked him No. 24, so there’s agreement on his lack of effectiveness with Washington.
Mina Kimes explains why despite DE Chase Young’s success, Washington should probably have drafted QB Justin Herbert.
24. Danny Wuerffel (2002)
Games: 7 | Record: 2-2 | TDs: 3 | INTs: 6 | Pass yards: 719
The beginning of the end for coach Steve Spurrier in Washington occurred when the front office, against his strong wishes, cut Wuerffel before the 2003 season. Spurrier was shown statistics the night before cuts to convince him it was the right move. Wuerffel never played again.
Keim’s take: He just didn’t have the arm to play in the NFL.
23. John Beck (2011)
Games: 4 | Record: 0-3 | TDs: 2 | INTs: 4 | Pass yards: 858
Former coach Mike Shanahan once said he would stand on a table to advocate for Beck. Players would not. During the 2011 lockout, Beck organized workouts.
Said former Washington tight end Chris Cooley: “What I remember is he called everyone and said, ‘This is John Beck, your starting quarterback.’ We all called each other and said, ‘Is he the starting QB or just saying that?’ I didn’t hate the confidence.”
But it didn’t translate to games. His last two starts were disasters: He was sacked 10 times in a shutout loss against the Buffalo Bills because he wouldn’t throw the ball.
“He panicked,” Cooley said.
The next week he dumped the ball off to running back Roy Helu 14 times and averaged 5.4 yards per pass attempt. In those games, Beck posted Total QBRs of 11.3 and 25.8, respectively.
“He thought he was going to be the guy,” former receiver Santana Moss said. “He sucked ass; I won’t lie to you. I broke my hand and didn’t play the [final two] games with him. Nothing better could have happened to me, because I didn’t have to play with this guy. … You talk all this stuff in the offseason and lay this egg.”
Beck never played again but has transformed himself into a quarterback teacher, training players for the NFL.
Keim’s take: I would have ranked him No. 30 based on the eye test and also with input from a number of ex-players.
22. Jeff Hostetler (1997)
Games: 6 | Record: 2-1 | TDs: 5 | INTs: 10 | Pass yards: 899
The former Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants finished his 12-year career by starting the last three games of 1997. His lone defeat was a crushing four-interception, 30-10 loss to the Giants in Week 16.
Keim’s take: This is the right area for him.
21. Shane Matthews (2002)
Games: 8 | Record: 3-4 | TDs: 11 | INTs: 6 | Pass yards: 1,251
One week after scoring 14 points in a win, Spurrier was determined to prove the value of his passing game. In a return to Florida for Spurrier and Matthews, facing the Jacksonville Jaguars‘ No. 21-ranked run defense and No. 13 pass defense, Matthews threw 50 passes and Washington lost by 19. In seven starts, he completed under half of his throws four times.
Keim’s take: Like Hostetler, Matthews is ranked where he needs to be.
20. Tim Hasselbeck (2003-04)
Games: 7 | Record: 1-4 | TDs: 5 | INTs: 7 | Pass yards: 1,012
He recorded the only 0.0 passer rating in franchise history, completing 6 of 26 passes for 56 yards with four interceptions in a 27-0 loss to Dallas. But that was sandwiched between games in which he had ratings of 128 and 116.9.
Keim’s take: That 0.0 game stands out, which is why some pegged him last. For me, he would be ranked No. 29.
Games: 16 | Record: 3-10 | TDs: 12 | INTs: 14 | Pass yards: 2,804
Washington had him rated as a third-round draft pick in 2019, but multiple sources said higher-ups made them give Haskins a first-round grade and the team drafted him No. 15 overall. It was a bad marriage: Washington’s staff needed to win, but Haskins needed time to mature.
His game didn’t improve, and his maturity level was an issue for two coaching staffs and the front office. He missed one victory formation snap because he was taking a picture with a fan; he didn’t study the way the coaches wanted; he was fined multiple times in 2020 for violating COVID-19 protocols, stripped of his captaincy and eventually cut.
Keim’s take: I would have slotted him at No. 25, but some of that ranking stems from the disappointing way he approached being an NFL quarterback.
Kiper’s take on Haskins (2019 first-round draft pick, No. 15 overall): He’s a pocket guy, big strong-armed guy. It made sense: local guy sliding down. He fell in their lap. It’s like Mac Jones falling in New England’s lap or Aaron Rodgers falling into Green Bay’s lap. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
I don’t think you can look back and say it was a horrible pick. In hindsight, yeah, but not when it was made. There were always questions with Dwayne: Are you going to be the first one in the building, the last one out? How much does he love the game? Does he study the game? What kind of leader is he? How do his teammates feel about him?
18. Alex Smith (2018-20)
Games: 18 | Record: 11-5 | TDs: 16 | INTs: 13 | Pass yards: 3,762
The key stat: During his time in Washington, the team was 6-27 when he didn’t start. Washington was 6-3 when he suffered his broken fibula and tibia in 2018, then lost 18 of the next 22 games.
Smith’s improbable return in 2020 helped deliver an NFC East title as the team went 5-1 in games he started (and 2-8 when he didn’t).
Keim’s take: I would have ranked him in the top five. He and Mark Brunell were similar, so this is way too low for Smith.
17. Heath Shuler (1994-96)
Games: 19 | Record: 4-9 | TDs: 13 | INTs: 19 | Pass yards: 2,403
Washington selected him at No. 3 in 1994 instead of Trent Dilfer (No. 6 overall) because of his mobility, even though it had Dilfer rated higher. Shuler’s new teammates were not impressed.
Said Mitchell: “We played a game in Kansas City [in 1995], and we called a waggle pass. He called it the wrong way, and it got f—ed up in the backfield. I was asked by a coach why I didn’t help him out, and I said, ‘If you want to pay me quarterback money, I’ll call plays and play quarterback.'”
After the 1996 season, the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints called about a trade. The Packers were coached by Mike Holmgren, and Washington’s front office told Shuler it would be a better fit: He could learn and rebuild his game. Shuler wanted to play immediately and chose the Saints and coach Mike Ditka. He started nine games, suffered a serious foot injury and never played again.
Keim’s take: I would have ranked him No. 15, but this ranking by ESPN Analytics probably better reflects his performance. However, he should never be ahead of Smith.
Kiper’s take on Shuler (1994 first-round draft pick, No. 3 overall): Second-guessing the Heath pick? You can’t do it now. I got it wrong. I had no problem with Washington taking him at that point. If I was the Colts [at No. 5], I would have taken Trent Dilfer. Trent turned out to be a lot better than Heath, but I don’t think you can question that pick.
Games: 10 | Record: 1-7 | TDs: 11 | INTs: 5 | Pass yards: 1,707
He ended up starting in 2019 because McCoy was hurt and Haskins wasn’t ready. He’s a quality NFL backup with 75 career touchdown passes to 47 interceptions.
Keim’s take: No problem with this ranking of Keenum.
15. Tony Banks (2001)
Games: 15 | Record: 8-6 | TDs: 10 | INTs: 10 | Pass yards: 2,386
He became the surprise starter when Jeff George was waived after two games in 2001. Banks helped turn an 0-5 start into an 8-8 finish under coach Marty Schottenheimer. He played three more seasons with the Houston Texans, starting three games.
Keim’s take: Like Allen, he was better than several players ranked above him here, which is why I would have ranked him ninth.
14. Jeff George (2000-01)
Games: 8 | Record: 1-6 | TDs: 7 | INTs: 9 | Pass yards: 1,557
Washington signed George despite a stellar 1999 season by Brad Johnson. George’s name had come up the previous offseason, but one source said it was a unanimous “no.” The only change in 2000 was the new owner, Dan Snyder; George was signed. In 2000, coach Norv Turner resisted pressure to play George until Johnson was hurt.
Keim’s take: I would have slotted him about No. 20 because he just wasn’t good with Washington.
13. Rex Grossman (2010-12)
Games: 17 | Record: 6-10 | TDs: 23 | INTs: 24 | Pass yards: 4,035
After being benched in 2011, Grossman tried to limit risky throws. But he said he told himself, in essence, this is just who I am, so the “gutsy” throws returned.
“I really enjoyed Rex, but he could keep both teams in the game,” Mike Shanahan said. “He could win a game; he also could lose a game.”
Keim’s take: Anywhere from No. 10 to No. 13 is good for Grossman.
12. Mark Brunell (2004-06)*
Games: 37 | Record: 16-19 | TDs: 38 | INTs: 20 | Pass yards: 6,033
Washington traded a third-round pick for the 33-year-old Brunell in coach Joe Gibbs’ first season back. Brunell wasn’t flashy, but in 2005 he helped lead the team to a playoff berth — and its last postseason win. A highlight: two touchdown passes in the final four minutes to Moss in a 14-13 Monday night win in Dallas.
“I liked Mark Brunell,” Moss said. “He had that veteran sense; he knew how to win.”
Keim’s take: No. I would have ranked him at least No. 6, and I could be persuaded into putting him one or two spots higher. Strong leader, overcame an inefficient scheme.
11. John Friesz (1994)
Games: 16 | Record: 1-3 | TDs: 10 | INTs: 9 | Pass yards: 1,266
He served as the bridge QB to Shuler and Frerotte. It took four games to cross that bridge, and Friesz never started again in Washington, though he did play six more NFL seasons.
Keim’s take: No. 11 is a little high for Friesz, but only by perhaps three spots. He liked to push it down the field and averaged 7.0 yards per pass attempt.
10. Trent Green (1995-98)
Games: 16 | Record: 6-8 | TDs: 23 | INTs: 11 | Pass yards: 3,441
Green, cut in the CFL in 1994, finally got his chance in 1998 and won six of his last nine starts. But he was a free agent and, because Washington’s franchise was for sale, the trustees would not let the team give signing bonuses.
Finally, on the eve of free agency, Washington received permission to make an offer. Too late; Green had already agreed to a deal with St. Louis.
“Trent was better than any f—ing quarterback we had here,” said Mitchell, who played with Washington from 1990 to 1999. “He might have been the best quarterback we’ve had in this franchise as far as overall ability since Mark Rypien.”
Keim’s take: I would have moved him five spots higher and would be OK with him anywhere in the top eight, but he shouldn’t be behind the five quarterbacks immediately ahead of him on this list. Never.
9. Todd Collins (2006-09)*
Games: 9 | Record: 3-1 | TDs: 5 | INTs: 0 | Pass yards: 1,032
After safety Sean Taylor died in 2007, Washington won its last four games — including all of Collins’ starts in place of the injured Jason Campbell. Collins had not started a game in 10 years, throwing 27 passes during that span, but was well-versed in coordinator Al Saunders’ system after spending five years with him in Kansas City.
Keim’s take: I would have pushed him a few spots lower, but you can’t understate the impact he had during that late stretch run.
8. Patrick Ramsey (2002-05)
Games: 33 | Record: 10-14 | TDs: 34 | INTs: 29 | Pass yards: 5,649
Washington traded back twice in the first round and drafted Ramsey with the No. 32 pick in 2002 despite Spurrier saying he had never met with him. At the time, one source said the coaching staff and front office did not tell Snyder the QB they were targeting, fearing he would leak it to the media.
In his first two starts, blitzed often, Ramsey was sacked 13 times and hit countless others as the offense rarely used max protection.
“Those quarterbacks were done a disservice,” Jansen said.
Keim’s take: He should not be in the top 10, but somewhere around No. 12 makes sense.
Kiper’s take on Ramsey (2002 first-round draft pick, No. 32 overall): His biggest issue was he didn’t have mobility. He was like a 4.99, 5.0-flat guy [in the 40-yard dash]. He was a decent athlete, but that puts a lot of pressure on the [offensive] line. … Tough, smart kid, and in the right system, I thought he could flourish.”
Games: 12 | Record: 1-6 | TDs: 8 | INTs: 7 | Pass yards: 1,679
Injuries always derailed McCoy’s opportunities. He had the job at the end of 2014 before injuring his neck. He got another chance after Smith’s injury in 2018 but broke his right leg in his second start, leading to multiple issues and still impacting him in 2019, when he started just one game.
Keim’s take: McCoy is a smart player but was hurt too often and didn’t win when he played, so No. 7 is way too high. He belongs somewhere in the middle at best, and others would argue lower.
6. Donovan McNabb (2010)
Games: 13 | Record: 5-8 | TDs: 14 | INTs: 15 | Pass yards: 3,377
The coaches wanted Marc Bulger but ended up with McNabb after an Easter Sunday trade in 2010. It did not work out. McNabb was removed late in one game — for conditioning — and was benched for the final three games. McNabb’s agent, Fletcher Smith, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan engaged in a public spat. Perhaps the low point: On Nov. 15, Washington gave McNabb a mostly hollow five-year extension worth nearly $80 million. There was a news conference before a Monday night game against his old team, the Eagles. That night, Eagles QB Michael Vick threw four touchdown passes and rushed for two more in a 59-28 win.
Keim’s take: I would have ranked him No. 11, but I get it: McNabb averaged 7.2 yards per attempt, which was better than Brunell (6.3) and Smith (6.5) in Washington.
5. Jason Campbell (2005-09)
Games: 52 | Record: 20-32 | TDs: 55 | INTs: 38 | Pass yards: 10,860
He was drafted No. 25 in 2005, one pick after Aaron Rodgers, to throw deep balls on play-action passes under Gibbs. They liked Campbell more than Rodgers, but a year later Gibbs hired Saunders, who did not run the same system. In Washington, Campbell played for two head coaches and three offensive coordinators after having four offensive coordinators at Auburn.
Keim’s take: Too high; he’s more in the No. 8-9 range. Others were more effective — namely Brunell and Smith — but few were hurt more than Campbell by the constant changing of coaches and coordinators.
Kiper’s take on Campbell (2005 first-round draft pick, No. 25 overall): I had Campbell with the same grade as my [players ranked from No. 42 to No. 52]. Having Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown [at running back] aided his cause [at Auburn]. He [was] big, athletic. But my concern was he put it all together for just one season, with the vital improvement being seen in his touchdown-to-interception ratio (20 TDs, 7 INTs in his final college season). That’s why to me he was viewed as a borderline first- to third-round choice. That’s why my thing was, go up and get Rodgers. He was my seventh-best player. [But] Rodgers in Washington might have been a bust. He sat three full years behind Brett Favre [in Green Bay], and they reconstructed his delivery.
4. Gus Frerotte (1994-98)
Games: 52 | Record: 19-26-1 | TDs: 48 | INTs: 44 | Pass yards: 9,769
Washington had a middle-rounds grade on Frerotte, so it gladly drafted him in the seventh round in 1994 — after taking Shuler in the first. Frerotte made the Pro Bowl in 1996, albeit with 12 TD passes and 11 interceptions, and played 15 NFL seasons. He’s best remembered for head-butting the wall at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium after scoring in a 1997 game against the Giants that finished 7-7.
“I never get upset about it. Obviously if I could redo it I would, but I did it,” Frerotte said of the head-butt. “Like I tell my kids, I’ll be on ESPN forever.”
Keim’s take: I would have slotted him seventh, but spots No. 4 to No. 7 were difficult to rank because each offered something of value. Others on the list had more impact on winning games.
Games: 38 | Record: 14-22 | TDs: 40 | INTs: 23 | Pass yards: 8,097
The rookie season for the No. 2 pick in 2012 was magical: 20 touchdown passes, 3,200 passing yards, 815 rushing yards and only five interceptions. With Griffin, the zone-read became a popular play. He said he was happy to run the ball and dismissed the idea that he wanted to be only a drop-back passer after injuring his knee late in his rookie season, but Mike Shanahan says now, “If Robert would have embraced the type of quarterback he was, I thought he could do so many things other quarterbacks couldn’t do.”
Said Griffin: “Some defensive coordinators said that college stuff won’t work, but we made it work — and not just a little bit; we made it a staple of what we did. That showed coaches around the league you can do this with athletic quarterbacks.”
Keim’s take: It is hard to top the impact of his rookie season, which is why I would have slotted him in this same spot. Based on his next three years, he would be far lower on the list.
Kiper’s take on Griffin (2012 first-round draft pick, No. 2 overall): Some people liked RG III better than [No. 1 overall pick in 2012] Andrew Luck. [Longtime NFL coach] Tony Dungy went on record as liking RG III better. I gave Luck a 9.8 grade; I gave RG III a 9.4 grade. Nobody could argue with [Washington] taking RG III in that draft. Early on, he looked like he was going to be phenomenal. … That injury was a big thing. As a rookie he looked like he was going to be better than Luck.
2. Brad Johnson (1999-2000)*
Games: 30 | Record: 18-11 | TDs: 35 | INTs: 28 | Pass yards: 6,510
After Washington couldn’t re-sign Green, it traded for Johnson, who threw for 4,005 yards and 24 touchdowns and was the NFL’s fifth-ranked passer on the NFL’s second-ranked offense in 1999. Washington won the NFC East, but Snyder signed George in the offseason.
That was the beginning of the end for Johnson, who knew, after multiple meetings with Snyder, that his days were numbered. Schottenheimer asked him to stay because Johnson was a good fit, but the damage was done. Johnson went to the Buccaneers, leading them to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season.
“[Washington] was one place I would have wanted to stay,” said Johnson, who played for four teams, including two stints with the Minnesota Vikings. “I always told my wife and my close friends that I wish it would have worked out in Washington.”
Said Mitchell: “I would say Dan [Snyder] regrets that move, letting Brad leave, more than anything in the world. Brad was a real quarterback. He wasn’t sexy, but he was intellectual.”
Keim’s take: He would be tops on my list. The biggest issue was that he played only two years and was hurt for one of them.
Games: 64 | Record: 26-31-1 | TDs: 99 | INTs: 55 | Pass yards: 16,206
Coaches always liked Cousins’ ability and knowledge, and in 2015 it became obvious he should start. That season he threw for 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
“[Before] if something bad happened he’d hang his head, but once he started having confidence, that’s when he flourished,” Gruden said.
But to keep Cousins, Washington needed to use the franchise tag in consecutive years. Once the team applied the first one, Cousins’ side knew he would never sign a long-term deal because his price would be too high. The sides never came close to a deal.
Keim’s take: I understand why the analytics put him this high, but I would rank him second. If you had to win one game and were choosing between Cousins and Brad Johnson, I would take the latter.
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