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What I Learned – Top 10 Cleveland Browns Quarterbacks of All Time

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Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield prepares to make a pass against the Patriots, 2019. Mayfield hopes to one day be considered among the best Browns quarterbacks of all time.© Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY SportsWho Are the 10 Greatest Browns Quarterbacks of All Time?Over the course of Browns history, 59 quarterbacks have started a game. While more than half of those players have appeared since 1999, there were a number of productive players who appeared in earlier years, as well. In fact, the only quarterback in team history to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for contributions made to the Browns was also their first—Otto Graham. Graham will certainly appear on this list, as well as a handful of others who led Cleveland to the playoffs and/or picked up individual honors.When the Browns franchise was born in 1946, Graham was the strongest player on the team. In those early years, their prolific passing offense helped Cleveland win five straight championships. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, their quarterback talent dipped by comparison, but not so much that the Browns didn’t make the postseason a few times (including a championship win in 1964).There was a resurgence in the ’80s, with strong quarterbacks nearly sending the Browns to the Super Bowl several times. But since the Browns returned as an expansion franchise in 1999, there has been a revolving door of quarterbacks, many of whom were mediocre at best. Current starter Baker Mayfield is the 30th quarterback to start a game for Cleveland since ’99, but he’s also provided the greatest hope for the team in three decades.Selection CriteriaLegacy Honors (Hall of Fame, Ring of Honor, retired number, etc.)
Single-Season Honors (MVP, All-Pro, Pro Bowl, league leader, etc.)
On-Field Success (winning percentage, winning seasons, playoff appearances, etc.)
Longevity (years with Browns, percentage of career with Browns, etc.)
Only games played with the Browns are factored into this list, so while Hall of Famer Len Dawson is a prime candidate for a list about the Chiefs, his nine-game, 108-yard career numbers in Cleveland won’t make the cut here.Following this list, I’ve also included a few honorable mentions, quarterback trivia and franchise records.10. Derek AndersonYears With the Browns: 2006–09
Regular-Season Record: 16–18
Pro Bowl: 2007
In 2007, it appeared the Browns’ quarterback woes had finally been resolved. Derek Anderson had a breakout season and led the Browns to a 10–6 record, which was their first winning season since 2002. That success, however, did not continue. Between a season-ending injury in 2008 and a subpar season in 2009, Anderson struggled on the field and ultimately moved on to the Cardinals. Despite the later struggles, Anderson made 2007 a season to remember for Browns fans.The Browns claimed Anderson off waivers in 2005, but he wouldn’t see the field until the following season. Then, after a preseason split between himself, incumbent starter Charlie Frye and first-round draft pick Brady Quinn, Anderson was named the backup for the 2007 season. His role quickly changed, though, after Frye was benched in the first half of the season opener, leaving Anderson an opportunity to seize the starter’s spot. Frye was traded two days later, and Anderson threw five touchdowns in Week 2 to kick off the best season he would ever have.Just a few hours after hitting the free-agent market the following season, Anderson signed a three-year contract with the Browns. This was a surprise move, given that the Browns had traded up in the draft to select Quinn. Over the next two seasons, Anderson and Quinn would both see plenty of action, but neither proved to be a long-term solution. Anderson closed out his Browns career by completing 587 of 1,109 passes for 7,083 yards, 46 touchdowns and 45 interceptions.Derek Anderson’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDInt9. Mike PhippsYears With the Browns: 1970–76
Regular-Season Record: 24-25-2
Playoff Appearances: 1971–72
Playoff Record: 0–3
During his college career at Purdue, experts said Mike Phipps had all the tools necessary to be an NFL quarterback. But ultimately, he was drafted as a backup. Just before the 1970 NFL Draft, the Browns made a shocking trade; they sent future Hall of Famer Paul Warfield to the Dolphins in exchange for the No. 3 selection in the draft. They then used that pick on Phipps to secure a solid backup for the injury-prone Bill Nelsen, who had started for the Browns since early in the 1968 season.Phipps eventually became a serviceable starting quarterback for the Browns and almost led them to a 1972 playoff win, but he never reached the superstar status expected of such a high draft pick. After starting two games in his first two seasons, Phipps became the permanent starter in 1972, leading the team into the playoffs against the undefeated Dolphins. Cleveland held the lead in the fourth quarter after Phipps threw a touchdown pass, but Miami scored again for a 20–14 victory. Phipps was intercepted five times during that game and displayed a lack of control for the rest of his Browns career.Interceptions plagued Phipps, who threw 56 of them from 1973 to ’75. Then, in the season-opening game of the 1976 season, Phipps suffered a separated shoulder, giving Brian Sipe the starter’s job. In 1977, Phipps was traded to the Bears for first- and fourth-round draft selections in the 1978 NFL Draft, and the Browns used that extra first-round pick on Hall of Famer tight end Ozzie Newsome. Altogether with the Browns, Phipps completed 633 of 1,317 passes for 7,700 yards, 40 touchdowns and 81 interceptions.Mike Phipps’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDInt8. Vinny TestaverdeYears With the Browns: 1993–95
Regular-Season Record: 16–15
Playoff Appearances: 1994
Playoff Record: 1–1
Despite having the talent to start, Vinny Testaverde was brought to the Browns in 1993 to be the backup to incumbent starter Bernie Kosar. Having both quarterbacks protected the Browns in the event of injury, but Testaverde played well enough to wrangle the job from Kosar in the middle of the season.Testaverde was injured shortly thereafter, but his status as starter was further cemented a few weeks later when the Browns made the shocking decision to release Kosar, who had started for Cleveland since 1985. Once recovered, Testaverde started the final four games of the season, and he led the league with 13.8 yards per completion over 10 games, which included six starts.Testaverde made good on his promotion in 1994, leading the Browns back to the postseason after a four-year drought. He beat the Patriots in the first round, but the Browns were ousted by their arch-rival, the Steelers, in the divisional round.Cleveland struggled in 1995, and after that season Testaverde and the rest of the team were relocated to Baltimore, where they took a new name—the Ravens. (The Browns name, history and colors stayed behind in Cleveland, where they remained dormant until Al Lerner purchased the franchise in 1998.) Throughout his time with the Browns, Testaverde completed 578 of 998 passes for 7,255 yards, 47 touchdowns and 37 interceptions.Vinny Testaverde’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDInt7. Tim CouchYears With the Browns: 1999–2003
Regular-Season Record: 22–37
Tim Couch was the No. 1 draft pick in a class loaded with quarterbacking talent, but because he went to a first-year expansion team, his supporting cast wasn’t the strongest. Some wondered what Couch’s big arm could have done had he been drafted by a more established team. But the University of Kentucky renaissance man provided the Browns room to grow into a playoff appearance. Injuries, however, took their toll, and in spite of his efforts to sign with another team, Couch faded into obscurity after his rookie contract expired. And while he couldn’t turn Cleveland into a winner like he did at Kentucky, he still finished his career with respectable numbers and one unusual NFL record.Couch never appeared in the postseason, but he helped his team get there in 2002. Needing a win in Week 17 to make the playoffs, Couch was injured during the first half against the Falcons, but reserve Kelly Holcomb finished the job, sending the Browns to the postseason. The injury also prevented Couch from playing in a first-round playoff loss to the Steelers the next week, and it essentially defined Couch’s career. He had just one 16-game season (2001), and among his shortened campaigns were 2000 (7 games) and 2003 (10 games)—which was his final season.Take away those injuries and add a better surrounding cast, however, and Couch likely would have been a steady hand. It’s doubtful he would have reached the heights expected of a No. 1 draft choice, but with 11 game-winning drives in his career, Couch knew how to play when it mattered most.In 1999, he snagged his first win with a Hail Mary pass as time expired against the Saints, and he did so again against the Jaguars in 2002. This made him the only quarterback to ever win two games with passes of 50 or more yards when no time remained on the game clock. Couch is Cleveland’s No. 2 in career completion percentage among quarterbacks with at least 750 attempts. He completed 1,025 of 1,714 passes (59.8%) for 11,131 yards, 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions.Tim Couch’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDInt6. Milt PlumYears With the Browns: 1957–61
Regular-Season Record: 33-16-2
Playoff Appearances: 1957–58
Playoff Record: 0–2
Pro Bowl: 1960–61
Milt Plum was one of the most accurate quarterbacks to ever play for the Browns. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Plum’s strategically placed passes were the perfect complement to the standout running game led by Jim Brown. In his five seasons, Plum had a nearly 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he led the league in completion percentage each year from 1959 to ’61.Plum split his rookie season with Tommy O’Connell, but over the next four years he started all but two regular-season games. He helped the Browns achieve a winning record each of those seasons, but Cleveland only made the playoffs once. Ironically, Plum threw two interceptions in a 10–0 postseason loss to the Giants in 1958. The same happened a year before when he came off the bench in a 59–14 playoff loss to the Lions.Plum was sent to the Lions in a three-for-three trade on March 29, 1962. Included in the deal was quarterback Jim Ninowski, a former Browns player who threatened to quit football rather than play for them again. But Ninowski caved and returned to Cleveland, ending Plum’s career on the shores of Lake Erie. All told, during Plum’s career with the Browns, he completed 627 of 1,083 passes for 8,914 yards, 66 touchdowns and 39 interceptions.Milt Plum’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDInt5. Bill NelsenYears With the Browns: 1968–72
Regular-Season Record: 34-16-1
Playoff Appearances: 1968, ’69, ’71
Playoff Record: 2–3
Pro Bowl: 1969
It was as if the Browns and Bill Nelsen needed each other. The oft-injured quarterback hadn’t found much success prior to joining the Browns, but once he arrived on the lakefront he immediately propelled Cleveland into the postseason. Nelsen was a draft pick of the Steelers, but he was unable to establish himself there. He came to Cleveland in a trade and replaced Frank Ryan as starter three games into his tenure.Nelsen led the Browns into the playoffs from there. Despite having defeated the powerhouse Colts in his third start during the regular season, he couldn’t get past them again in the conference championship game. He returned the Browns to the conference title game a year later but was stopped short by the Vikings.Nelsen struggled with injuries over the next two seasons, and after losing his starting spot a week into the 1972 season, he called it a career. For the Browns, Nelsen completed 689 of 1,314 passes for 9,725 yards, 71 touchdowns and 71 interceptions. In five postseason games, he completed 68 of 132 attempts for 839 yards, 3 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.Bill Nelsen’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDInt4. Brian SipeYears With the Browns: 1974–83
Regular-Season Record: 57–55
Playoff Appearances: 1980
Playoff Record: 0–1
Pro Bowl: 1980
First-Team All-Pro: 1980
Major Awards: NFL MVP (1980)
The Browns made the postseason just twice in the 1970s—quite a disappointment after 17 appearances in their first 24 seasons—but they hoped to have a resurgence going into the ’80s. A big reason for their hope was tied to Brian Sipe, a prolific passer and the NFL’s MVP for the 1980 season. In that season, he threw the still-standing Cleveland single-season records of 4,132 yards on 337 completions and 30 touchdowns.Sipe had appeared in games as far back as 1974, but he didn’t snag the starting job for a full season until 1978. By 1979, he was becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the league. His play-style inspired the team’s nickname of the “Kardiac Kids” because he engineered 11 game-winning drives from 1979–80.The Browns made the playoffs in 1980, returning to the postseason for the first time since 1972, but that appearance would result in heartbreak. Down by two points with less than a minute left, Sipe’s attempt at a game-winning touchdown was intercepted by the Raiders in a play infamously known as “Red Right 88.”Sipe posted big numbers again in 1981, but the Browns struggled to a 5-11 record. His 3,876 passing yards remain second in team history for a single season, and his 567 passing attempts are a team record.He was replaced as the starter toward the end of the strike-shortened 1982 season. In 1983, his final year in Cleveland, he almost got the team back into the playoffs. In his career, Sipe completed 1,944 of 3,439 passes for 23,713 yards (all team records), 154 touchdowns and 149 interceptions.Brian Sipe’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDInt3. Frank RyanYears With the Browns: 1962–68
Regular-Season Record: 52-22-2
Playoff Appearances: 1964–65, 1967–68
Playoff Record: 1–3
Pro Bowl: 1964–66
Frank Ryan is the last Browns quarterback to win an NFL championship—which was in 1964. He joined the Browns in a trade with the Rams in 1962, and he became the starter in the middle of the season when incumbent Jim Ninowski broke his collarbone. Ryan maintained a firm grasp on that spot through 1967, becoming the best quarterback Cleveland had seen since Hall of Famer Otto Graham.Ryan was at his best in 1964, topping the league with 25 touchdown passes and leading his team to a brilliant upset in the playoffs. In the final game of the regular season against the Giants, he led the offensive barrage that earned them a spot in the NFL championship game with a 52-20 victory. There, he connected with Gary Collins for three second-half touchdowns in a memorable 27-0 upset of the Colts. A year later, Ryan again led the Browns to the title game—but this time, the Packers came away with the victory.Fullback Jim Brown retired after the 1965 season, but Leroy Kelly picked up where he left off, helping Ryan to a record-setting season the following year. Ryan passed for 29 touchdowns and a career high 2,974 yards in ‘66, which were both team records at the time. That, however, was not enough to get the Browns into the playoffs.In his final season as starter in 1967, Ryan was hampered by injuries but got the Browns back to the postseason, though the team lost to the Cowboys. He only started three games in 1968 and was released prior to the 1969 season. In total, Ryan completed 907 of 1,755 passes for 13,361 yards, 134 touchdowns and 88 interceptions. During the postseason, he completed 35 of 72 attempts for 534 yards, 6 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.Frank Ryan’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDIntFormer quarterback Bernie Kosar during halftime of a game between the Browns and the Jets, 2016. Kosar is remembered as one of the best Browns quarterbacks of all time.© Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports2. Bernie KosarYears With the Browns: 1985–93
Regular-Season Record: 53-51-1
Playoff Appearances: 1985–87, ’89
Playoff Record: 3–4
Pro Bowl: 1987
In Cleveland, if you mention “Bernie,” Browns fans will know who you’re talking about. Bernie Kosar was the last Browns quarterback to make multiple postseason appearances, and he was a standout for Cleveland for almost a decade. He led multiple playoff runs in the late 1980s that almost got the Browns into the Super Bowl.After graduating early from the University of Miami, Kosar entered the NFL’s supplemental draft and signed five one-year contracts with the Browns, worth about $6 million in total. The Ohio native was thrown into action as a rookie after starter Gary Danielson suffered an injury, and he was able to do enough to get Cleveland into the postseason.The next season, Kosar became the full-time starter and had a fantastic season, achieving what would remain career highs in almost every major passing category except touchdowns. In the playoffs, Kosar threw for a then-record 489 yards in a first-round win, but lost to the Broncos in the AFC title game a week later. Kosar’s Browns met the Broncos for the AFC title again in 1987 and 1989, with Denver prevailing both times.Injuries began to take their toll on Kosar, who played just one full season in the 1990s. Kosar’s career in Cleveland came to an abrupt end on Nov. 8, 1993, with management citing his diminishing skill set as the reason for his release. Both owner Art Modell and coach Bill Belichick called the decision one of the toughest they had to make because Kosar was such a fan favorite, and Belichick took serious heat for it. Kosar’s release was the most controversial decision the Browns had made since 1963 when Modell fired Paul Brown, the team’s namesake and first head coach. Kosar, however, found work immediately, signing within days to become a backup for the Cowboys.In his Browns career, Kosar completed 1,853 of 3,150 passes for 21,904 yards, 116 touchdowns and 81 interceptions. His per-game average of 202.8 passing yards is a team record among quarterbacks who played in more than 50 games. In seven playoff games, Kosar completed 146 of 260 attempts for 1,860 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.Bernie Kosar’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDInt1. Otto GrahamYears With the Browns: 1946–55
Regular-Season Record: 57-13-1 (NFL only)
Playoff Appearances: 1946–55
Playoff Record: 10–3
Pro Bowl: 1950–54
First-Team All-Pro: 1947–49, 1951, 1953–55
Major Awards: AAFC MVP 1947–48, NFL MVP 1951, ’53, ’55
Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1965), NFL 1950s All-Decade Team, Browns Ring of Honor, No. 14 retired
The only quarterback in Browns history to make the Hall of Fame based on his contributions to Cleveland is Otto Graham.Graham’s career began in 1946 when the Browns were founded and played in the All-American Football Conference. In his first four years, Graham helped the Browns win four straight championships and post a 47-4-3 regular-season record.The AAFC dissolved after the 1949 season, and because of their dominance, the Browns were selected to join the NFL. Even against what was considered superior competition, Graham showed why he was among the best of his era, leading the Browns to the postseason each of the next six seasons and winning three more titles.During his AAFC years, Graham led the league in passing yardage from 1947 to ’49, and he finished as the league’s all-time leading passer with 10,085 yards. He also threw 86 touchdowns passes, just behind Frankie Albert’s record 88.As the 1950s dawned, he continued to be a league star, leading the Browns to a 10–2 record in 1950 and throwing for four touchdowns on the way to winning the NFL championship game. Cleveland would lose each of the next three NFL championship games, despite outstanding regular-season numbers from Graham.In 1954, Graham spurred the Browns to overcome losing two of the first three games of the season, giving Cleveland another spot in the NFL title game. The Browns met the Lions, and Graham threw for three touchdowns and rushed for three more during a 56–10 victory.In spite of this strong performance, Graham announced he would retire after the season, but that didn’t last long. Lured out of retirement by an offer to become the league’s highest-paid player, Graham returned in 1955. In the league title game, he accounted for four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) in a 38–14 win over the Rams.In his 10-year career, Graham completed 1,464 of his 2,626 passes for 23,584 yards, 174 touchdowns and 135 interceptions. He added another 44 rushing touchdowns. Graham played in 12 postseason games, finishing 159 of 300 attempts for 2,101 yards, 14 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. On the ground, he scored six rushing touchdowns.Otto Graham’s Statistics With the BrownsYearGGSRecordCompAttComp%YdsTDIntBrowns quarterback Baker Mayfield celebrates a touchdown against the Seahawks, 2019. Though only in his second season, Mayfield has already seen success.© Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY SportsHonorable MentionsWith so many standout quarterbacks in Browns history, several players were inevitably edged out of the top 10. The following players, listed alphabetically, left an indelible mark on the team but didn’t quite make the cut.Baker Mayfield (2018–present)As the first selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, Baker Mayfield immediately made his mark. He threw for a rookie record 27 touchdowns in 13 starts, helping the Browns finish 7-8-1. In 2019, he was expected to have a breakout season, but turmoil surrounded the Browns throughout the season. He ended up finishing the season with 3,827 yards and 22 touchdowns, but he became the first Cleveland quarterback to start every game in a season since 2001. Mayfield also is the first quarterback since 2009 to throw 1,000 career passes for the team.Paul McDonald (1980–85)Paul McDonald was primarily a backup to Brian Sipe, but he got a chance to shine in the strike-shortened 1982 season when he took over for Sipe and made an appearance in the playoffs. In McDonald’s only year as the full-time starter in 1984, the Browns went 5-11, but he threw for 3,472 yards.Tommy O’Connell (1956–57)Tommy O’Connell was one of three passers in 1956 who hoped to follow Otto Graham as starter for the Browns. Though O’Connell didn’t stay in Cleveland for long, he was the best of the three. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1957, the same year he helped lead the Browns back to the NFL championship game, though that was his final game in Cleveland.Top Five DebateOtto Graham was a bona fide choice for the No. 1 spot as the only Hall of Famer on the list and due to his unmatched postseason track record. The rest of the top five, however, could be up for debate.I personally selected Kosar as the No. 2 quarterback in Cleveland history because of his longevity with the team as well as his accomplishments (most notably the three appearances in the AFC championship game).Many might argue that Sipe should be considered the second-best Browns quarterback—but to me, Sipe was more of an accumulator in terms of statistics who had just three standout seasons (1979, ’80 and ’83). That type of athlete has value, but what makes a player like Kosar stand out is that he had more influence over the team’s success over a shorter period of time.I slipped Ryan in between Kosar and Sipe because he was such a winner. After the retirement of fullback Jim Brown—who is usually mentioned in the debate about the greatest football player of all time—Ryan helped carry the torch for Cleveland after 1965, keeping the Browns relevant when they could have faded into obscurity.Former Browns quarterback Josh McCown fires a pass, 2016. On Oct. 11, 2015, McCown passed for 457 yards against the Ravens to set a franchise record for a single regular-season game.© Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY SportsBrowns Quarterback Trivia, FAQs and RecordsHow many starting quarterbacks have the Browns had?Since their founding, the franchise has used 59 starting quarterbacks.How many quarterbacks has Cleveland had, total?Overall, the team has rolled out more than 70 players at the position.How many starting quarterbacks have the Browns had since 1999?Baker Mayfield became the 30th starting quarterback for the Browns since they returned as an expansion franchise in 1999. Cleveland has averaged more than 1.4 starters per season in those 21 years. The biggest setback came in 2008 when there were four starters.Who was the first starting quarterback in Browns history?In 1946, Cliff Lewis became the first starting quarterback for the team. He started the first three games of the season before giving way to Hall of Famer Otto Graham. Lewis remained the backup quarterback for several seasons.Who is the current starting quarterback for the Browns?Baker Mayfield is the current starting quarterback. He has been the team’s starter since his rookie season in 2018. Mayfield’s backup is Case Keenum, who Cleveland signed in March 2020.How many quarterbacks have the Browns drafted since 1999?The team has drafted 11 quarterbacks since 1999, including five who were selected in the first round.1999: Tim Couch (No. 1)
2000: Spergon Wynn (No. 183)
2004: Luke McCown (No. 106)
2005: Charlie Frye (No. 67)
2007: Brady Quinn (No. 22)
2010: Colt McCoy (No. 85)
2012: Brandon Weeden (No. 22)
2014: Johnny Manziel (No. 22)
2016: Cody Kessler (No. 93)
2017: DeShone Kizer (No. 52)
2018: Baker Mayfield (No. 1)
Browns Quarterback RecordsCareer Yards: 23,713, Brian Sipe (1974–83)
Single-Season Yards: 4,132, Sipe (’80)
Single-Game Regular-Season Yards: 457, Josh McCown (Oct. 11, 2015)
Career Touchdowns: 154, Sipe (1974–83)*
Single-Season Touchdowns: 30, Sipe (’80)
Single-Game Touchdowns: 5, 5 players tied (Last was Derek Anderson, Sept. 16, 2007)
Career Completion Percentage: 61.47%, Baker Mayfield (2018–present)
Single-Season Completion Percentage: 64.73%, Otto Graham (1953)
Single-Game Completion Percentage: 91.3, Vinny Testaverde (Dec. 26, 1993)
*Otto Graham combined for 174 touchdowns in the AAFC and NFL


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