Top 20 Kansas City Chiefs Quarterbacks of All Time (Part 1)

Contemplating the Kansas City Chiefs‘ quarterback legacy proves to be a fascinating exercise. Currently, among all NFL teams, the Chiefs stand unparalleled in their quarterback situation. Barring unforeseen catastrophes, this stability appears poised to endure for a substantial period, shaping an entire generation’s perception of quarterback supremacy while watching the Chiefs—a truly awe-inspiring sight!

 

Yet, this era of success contrasts sharply with the sentiments of long-standing Chiefs enthusiasts. They intimately understand the inverse emotions. They’ve witnessed a series of veteran quarterbacks struggling to achieve anything beyond mediocre results, occasionally sparking playoff hopes amidst prolonged periods of forgettable team history.

Before Andy Reid assumed the head coaching role a decade ago, the Chiefs were entrenched in a despondent phase, arguably their most disheartening stretch. This era was marked by a dismal two-win season in 2012, the premature dismissal of Todd Haley as head coach, a lack of accountability within GM Scott Pioli’s tenure, and the tragic murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher. When fans resort to aerial messages advocating for change, it signifies a nadir has been reached.

Given the broad spectrum of quarterbacks in recent team history, we’ve embarked on an entertaining exercise this offseason: ranking every Chiefs quarterback since 1990—mainly because the era before that fades into obscurity. Let’s kick off by highlighting the best, both because it’s a familiar territory and it feels fitting to start with the positive aspects first.

1. Patrick Mahomes (2017 to present)

There can’t be any question as to who tops this list, and that’s because Patrick Mahomes would top every list for every NFL team except the New England Patriots. Ever since Mahomes entered the league in 2017, but especially after he took over the starting quarterback role in 2018, he’s been absolutely unstoppable—an instant legend who is breaking waves of new records every year.

It’s very likely that we’re all watching the greatest quarterback who will ever play in a Chiefs uniform, no matter how much longer the NFL perseveres as a sport or K.C. exists as a franchise. That makes this era—one filled with Most Valuable Player Awards, Super Bowl appearances, and winning 4 of every 5 games—a golden one for the Chiefs Kingdom.

2. Alex Smith (2013-2017)

Let’s make one thing clear: In the aftermath of the Alex Smith trade to Washington (a very savvy move by a new GM in Brett Veach, by the way), there should have been much more pomp and circumstance around the five seasons he spent as the Chiefs starting quarterback. Instead, any appreciation for Smith was quickly drowned out by the overwhelming popularity and deafening emergence of the game’s best QB (see above).

Here’s what normally happens: a very good or even great quarterback retires, is traded, or moves on in some way, and there’s a solid period of time in which fans contemplate his contributions while the franchise somehow celebrates him. How many years after Joe Montana’s short stint did we all spend writing love letters to the guy, even years and decades later? A very good quarterback is hard to find, and they’re remembered fondly, like a camp crush who will forever have some of your heart.

Smith deserved such a stretch because he pulled the Chiefs out of one. One season after the Belcher disaster and the single worst season in franchise history, Smith had Kansas City back in the playoffs with the sort of play under center not seen since Montana. He won 50 of 76 starts, threw 102 touchdowns, and rushed for 10 more (while only throwing 33 picks). He also had the Chiefs positioned for their current run of greatness by mastering the AFC West and bringing stability and success to Arrowhead once again.

3. Joe Montana (1993-94)

During the early ‘90s, the Chiefs were basically the Indianapolis Colts of the last few seasons, a talented team content to wring out whatever a veteran quarterback had left to work with in his career. Just like the Colts have gone through the likes of Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, and Philip Rivers to lead the offense in recent years, the Chiefs spent the first few seasons of the nineties rolling with the likes of Dave Krieg, Steve Bono, and Steve DeBerg.

If you look at the results, it’s hard to argue with the results for Marty Schottenheimer and his staff during that stretch, especially when the Chiefs were able to trade for Joe Montana in 1993.

The masterstroke move for Montana made the Chiefs a true national presence for the first time in decades—and maybe the only time before Patrick Mahomes arrived. Montana’s presence was the reason they would play in primetime, carry Super Bowl aspirations, and woo fellow players like Marcus Allen to middle America.

The “Montana Years” were only two in number, but they were great in stature. He went 17-8 as a starter and carried the Chiefs as far as the conference championship in ‘93. He won massive primetime matchups and made Kansas City realize what cheering for a real contender could feel like.

4. Trent Green (2001-06)

Chiefs fans owe at least an indirect thanks to Rodney Harrison for one of the better offensive eras in recent team history. Without his preseason hit on Trent Green back in 1999, he’s definitely not the starting quarterback for the Chiefs two years later.

Green began his career as a backup quarterback for the Chargers and Redskins before taking a short leap to the CFL from 1993 to 1997. It wasn’t until 1998 that he took over the starting role for Norv Turner’s offense in the nation’s capital and put up 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Washington offered him a four-year deal to stick around, but he left in free agency for the St. Louis Rams, who offered more money.

Then came the hit. Harrison took out Green’s knee, and he was lost for the year. A backup named Kurt Warner was tasked with stepping in, and that was that.

The Chiefs traded their first-round pick at No. 12 overall in the 2001 NFL Draft for Green, and he went on to carry the team through some impressive seasons in the early aughts. Green threw 118 touchdowns in parts of six seasons with K.C., won 48 games, went to two Pro Bowls, and took the team to the postseason on two occasions.

Green still calls Kansas City home to this very day and speaks glowingly of the city, the fan base, and the franchise.

 

5. Elvis Grbac (1997-2000)

If this list is going to generate any controversy at all, this might be a point of contention. That’s because Elvis Grbac and Rich Gannon go hand-in-hand here, and some revisionist history is likely going to have some readers frustrated at seeing Grbac so high in the rankings.

For the sake of review, Grbac was a new face on the scene for the Chiefs in ‘97 brought in to compete with Rich Gannon to be the starting quarterback following Steve Bono’s departure. Grbac won the battle and had the Chiefs at a 7-2 record before a collarbone injury cost him six games. In that span, Gannon led the Chiefs to a 5-1 record while looking better with each passing week.

When Grbac came back, there was a choice to be made, but Marty Schottenheimer went back to Grbac—not only for that season but in the bigger scheme. Gannon was let go and allowed to sign with the Oakland Raiders, with whom he went on to deliver a Super Bowl appearance in 2002, when he also won the NFL’s MVP award.

Still, Grbac was a solid quarterback for multiple seasons in K.C., and he even went to a Pro Bowl in his final season (2000), in which he threw 28 touchdowns—at the time, the second-highest total in franchise history. Maybe there was a better choice to make, but Grbac proved to be a good option as well, even if the achievements weren’t there.

6. Steve DeBerg (1988-91)

It’s actually quite amazing that Steve DeBerg is remembered for anything positive at all in Kansas City.

For any NFL fans who remember him outside of K.C., DeBerg was a mediocre quarterback stuck on miserable teams. He went 1-10 as a starter in his first season and 2-13 in his second. Outside of Kansas City, DeBerg’s teams went 22-66 (yes, 22 wins and 66 losses), and yet he found employment again and again.

Somehow the tide turned for DeBerg in his four seasons with the Chiefs. His previous high in wins in any season was 5 with the Buccaneers in ‘84, but he eclipsed that total and then doubled it twice while in K.C. His record with the Chiefs was 31-20, and a guy who never sniffed a single Pro Bowl was voted No. 6 overall in the MVP race. He even took the Chiefs to the postseason in two of those four years and landed a Wild Card win over the Raiders in ‘91.

7. Steve Bono (1994-96)

If you’re reading through a history of Chiefs quarterbacks like this and notice several mentions of the San Francisco 49ers, you’re onto something. For a long stretch, the Chiefs’ front office has been enamored with any signal caller who has ever played for or had any association with the Niners—and it even worked out once, twice, or four times.

Take Steve Bono, for instance. The Chiefs traded for him to back up Joe Montana in ’94, and after Montana was injured (and ultimately called it quits), Bono was able to keep the good times rolling in K.C. with a stellar 13-win season in 1995. Bono went to his only Pro Bowl that season for the AFC. He also went 8-5 as a starter in 1996. Once again, however, his only postseason appearance featured a single miserable performance that continued the organization’s woes in the playoffs.

The fact that Bono has been at No. 7 for the Chiefs over such a long stretch of time speaks to just how bad this list will get before we’re done. (Sorry, Steve.)

8. Kyle Orton (2011)

Let me beat you to the question: How can Kyle Orton rank this high in Chiefs QB history when he was only under center for three games and on the roster for a month? Is this an error? A misprint? An entry to make sure that someone is actually reading all of this?

Kyle Orton’s tenure was short but oh, so sweet, and if you have to ask about the serious nature of this, then you’re showing your age. Because it wasn’t that long ago, and if you were there, you’d remember well the feeling of having someone like Orton under center.

Remember this: the Chiefs were somehow competing for an AFC West title in a miserable offensive year in 2011. The wheels were coming off of the Todd Haley-Scott Pioli regime, but the Chiefs were a stubborn team with real talent on defense, and they wouldn’t go away quietly. A man named Tyler Palko was starting real games for the Chiefs despite being one of the worst QBs in league history to ever earn that many starts, and the Chiefs Kingdom was desperate to see someone—anyone?!—play quarterback instead of Palko (who was in for an injured Matt Cassel).

Forget how Orton performed with the Bears, Broncos, or anyone else after his stint with the Chiefs. What matters is that K.C. claimed Orton off waivers and inserted him as the starter for the final three games of the season. In his first game, the 13-0 Packers came to town and lost their first game! It was the most thrilling moment for Chiefs fans in years. From there, Orton would lose a close game to the Raiders but topple the Broncos to end the season.

K.C. wouldn’t make the postseason, but they won two of their last three and looked far more legitimate with at least someone with a fair level of talent at quarterback, showing what could be if the powers-that-be would only go shopping. Orton was a minor blip in the franchise’s overall timeline, but it was a breath of fresh air in a season of misery.

 

9. Rich Gannon (1996-98)

Speaking of Gannon, for those who want to criticize the Chiefs for allowing him to get away to the Raiders, it’s important to remember the context. No one should have seen Gannon’s late-career development coming at all.

Gannon came to Kansas City as a 30-year-old veteran fresh off missing a full season with a shoulder injury. Before that, Gannon had an uninspired three-year run as a starter with the Vikings, and no team was ready to hand him a starting role of any kind. The fact that he could compete with Grbac was about the best scenario he was going to get.

Even in K.C., he backed up Steve Bono for two seasons before competing against Grbac for the starting role, and if he was such a lock, K.C. would have known it before anyone else in that span. Suffice it to say, his ascendance with the Raiders is a minor miracle and a wonderful story (for Raider Nation, at least). For the Chiefs, however, he was fine with a stretch of very good, and that lands him here on our countdown.

10. Matt Cassel (2009-2012)

No one could have known at the time that when Bernard Pollard took out Tom Brady in the Chiefs vs. Patriots game that opened the 2008 season, Kansas City Chiefs fans would get a closer look at the man who would soon be their starting quarterback for the next four years. Matt Cassel took over for Brady in that single game and went on to surprise the entire NFL by maintaining the Patriots’ winning ways in relief of Brady with a 10-5 record and 21 touchdown passes.

The following spring, the Chiefs proved able to land a big fish when they hired Scott Pioli. It’s important to pause here and at least emphasize as much as we can that Pioli was the exec du jour in the NFL. He was the right hand of Bill Belichick in a league desperate to mimic New England, and yet it also felt like he didn’t want to leave Foxborough. There is no modern example, but newer Chiefs fans should know that it was a huge deal for Clark Hunt to get Scott Pioli to move to Kansas City.

In his first move as GM, Pioli traded his second-round pick at No. 34 overall for Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel. He also traded away Tyler Thigpen, Cassel’s primary competitor, and the Cassel era was set to begin.

Unfortunately, we all know how this story ends. When an organization removes transparency and accountability, horrible events usually follow and it wasn’t long before the Chiefs could not longer contain the dumpster fire the franchise became in Pioli’s years. It even got so bad that some fans appeared to cheer a hand injury to Cassel in his fourth and final season in K.C.

Cassel did go to one Pro Bowl and a one-and-done postseason appearance in which he completed 9 of 18 passes and threw 3 interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens. Cassel had a tough road in K.C. handed to him, but he also didn’t help himself too much.

 

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