There have been over 16,000 NFL games played since the league’s inception on September 17th, 1920. From those, have come some of the greatest American sporting moments ever.
The Immaculate Reception, The Music City Miracle, and The Ice Bowl have become just a handful of legendary moments that have turned mere men into immortals, whose tales will stand the test of time.
But for every of one these iconic moments, comes many less memorable ones. Without these, we could never appreciate true greatness.
And if the Quarterback position is anything to look at, we should know when to appreciate the good times.
Of all the sports I’ve watched in my life, one of the clearest messages I can convey is that the Quarterback is the most difficult and important position in any sport. But this isn’t a groundbreaking discovery, just look at any football game. Look at the performance of both teams QBs; if one’s numbers look good, the result might have also gone their team’s way, too.
While there is no universally agreed perfect statistic to evaluate a Quarterback, passer rating is a good place to start. Using pass attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions, we’re able to rank a QB’s performance from 0 to 158.3. The higher the number is better, obviously.
And like I mentioned before, you’ll get those epic performances that literally become American culture, but with this stat, hitting the floor is actually rarer than hit the ceiling.
There have been 68 different “Imperfect Games” in NFL History, where a QB put up a passer rating of 0. Compare this to the 72 “Perfect Games”, and it proves to be true: it’s harder to be bad than good.
Okay, that’s not true, but let’s look at those 68 terrible performances.
To achieve a rating of 0, the absolute best stat line you can achieve would have to be a 30% completion percentage, three yards per attempt, no touchdowns, and 9.5% interception to attempt percentage. You can see why it’s hard to achieve this; there were 106 different players to make a pass attempt in this past 2018 NFL season, but almost all of these players have experience of playing the position (except with trick plays.)
This isn’t like baseball, where players will get called up from the minors to play in a game or two before getting sent back down; you typically have to be NFL “ready” before making an appearance. This explains why you’ll see less of these dreadful performances compared to perfect ones (kind of.)
This past season, there were three different games where a QB had a score of 158.3 (Goff, Wilson, Roethlisberger) compared to one score of 0, which came from Bills Legend, Nathan Peterman.
But even if you’re a sadist like me, how do you find out who really had the worst performance of those 68 games? 68 isn’t a small number of games to go through either, but because most people aren’t losers like yours truly, they typically won’t waste their time. But I did. From my findings, I believe we can safely find the worst QB performance of all time.
Thanks to the power of Wikipedia, I could create a spreadsheet of every IP (Imperfect Game) ever. From there, I could find the average crap stat line: 3.46 completions, 15.35 passing attempts, 30.62 passing yards, and 2.44 interceptions. Or, if you want a cleaner set of numbers, 3 for 15, with 31 passing yards, and 2 interceptions.
To narrow down this list of 68 performances into a smaller group, I highlighted players who had two or more of the following stats in their IPs: three or less passing completions, over 15 passing attempts, 31 or less passing attempts, and 3 or more interceptions.
Despite my method seeming like it could narrow down the pool, it only took off 12 names, going from 68 to 56.
It was at this point I knew I had screwed myself over by researching this, but I was in too deep to give up now…
After another hour of breaking down numbers, I finally had found three candidates who I believe may have had the worst single-game QB performance in NFL history.
The group may not be who you expected.
For clarification, I’m listing this in chronological order.
Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts 20, vs Cleveland Browns 30, October 20th, 1968
1 for 11, 12 passing yards, 3 interceptions
I’d be willing to bet you $5 that you didn’t expect to see Unitas’ name pop on that list, didn’t you? Well, injuries suck, and for “The Golden Arm”, he was anything but golden due Tennis Elbow that was suffered during the end of the Colts’ preseason.
Unitas would spend much of the season on the bench, recovery from his injuries. This didn’t mean he wouldn’t see the field at points, this included a Week 6 showdown vs the Cleveland Browns. Coming into relief duty for soon to be NFL MVP, Earl Morrall, Unitas got murdered by Cleveland, making no impact on the game.
This was an outlier for the legendary player, but this doesn’t change the fact that Unitas has had one of the worst QB performances ever.
Archie Manning, New Orleans Saints 7, vs Pittsburgh Steelers 28, November 25th, 1974
2 for 10, 9 passing yards, 3 interceptions
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Archie is the father of Peyton and Eli Manning. While Archie himself was a good player, he was nowhere near the quality of a Quarterback as his sons.
But if you know anything about Manning’s NFL career, it was that he was hit, a lot. Featuring on some of the worst Saints teams ever, he was constantly sacked and never really received proper protection from his offensive line.
So let’s do impromptu math: what happens when you put an awful Saints offensive line against Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain”? Absolute annihilation.
To say Manning had a chance of success in this game would silly. For him, he suffered the most with a measly performance.
James Harris, Los Angeles Rams 7, @ Dallas Cowboys 18, September 21st, 1975
1 for 10, 5 passing yards, 3 interceptions
James Harris is a very important player in American sports history for reasons that typically go under the rug: he was the first black quarterback to start a game in professional football history! That’s cool if you ask me.
You know what’s not cool; his performance against the Cowboys to open the Ram’s 1975 campaign.
Dallas’ “Doomsday Defense” came out to play as they shocked the promising looking LA Rams; Harris got nothing this day. What was supposed to a history-making moment became nothing more than forgettable, as Harris got dismantled by a rebuilding Cowboys squad.
Harris would get another shot at Dallas in the NFC Championship game later in the season, where he would once again get pulled early and watch the Rams get smacked, 37-7.
Football, with Quarterbacks in my focus with this comment, is an unfair game.
I don‘t really know which of those three performances is the worst; they all have a fair reason for why it happened.
Honestly, you could go back to any of the 68 names on my original list and make a case for them being there, it’s hard to pick the worst of the worst.
I came into this column hoping to find some awful player I could rip on for 1,000 words, but I believe I gained something else from all of this research. I have spent most of my day writing and looking up old videos, attempting to tell the story of the worst QB performance ever, but I don’t really think I found it.
Statistically, yes, all three men I’ve mentioned had embarrassingly poor performances that should rank with some of the worst ever, but that’s only on the surface.
Perhaps we as fans look at the numbers too much; in these three games, we had an aging Unitas suffering through a brutal arm injury.
We also had a QB who had to suffer through a painfully poor organization that refused to take care of their hometown star.
And finally, James Harris, whose debut was bigger than the game of football, yet was still taken away and never discussed because of a bad outing.
Sports should teach us lessons about life we may otherwise never learn through experience; perhaps mine can be to never judge a book by the cover. If we always judge before getting the context, we might miss out on the bigger picture.
It doesn’t matter who you are, anyone can have a bad day. Whether you’re one of the greatest to ever step foot on the gridiron, a man whose kids are more famous than you, or a player trying to make a change.
I promise this wasn’t supposed to be a “deep-thinker”, but when you bundle yourself in your room and look up football stats all day, maybe this is what I deserved.
You can follow me on Twitter @Steven_Keehner