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Alex Smith And The Biggest Career Turnarounds

Smith, Harbaugh, and Kaepernick in San Francisco

On Saturday, I wrote that Alex Smith had turned his career around in a remarkable fashion. In his first 44 starts, he lost 28 times.  And after a win on Sunday, Smith has lost just 28 times in his last 95 starts! That made me wonder: which quarterbacks have turned their careers around in a similar fashion?

To measure this, I calculated each quarterback’s actual career winning percentage from 1950 through 2016 along with their adjusted winning percentage.  What was the adjustment for? Well each start gets weighted more heavily than the last one.  So for a quarterback with 100 starts, his last start gets a weight of 100, his second-to-last start gets a weight of 99, his third-to-last start a weight of 98, and so on.  His second start gets a weight of two, and his first start gets a weight of just one.  In other words, this is heavily skewed towards starts that come later in a quarterback’s career.

By this measure, Smith’s adjusted career winning percentage (including his three starts this year) is 0.669, which is 0.075 higher than his actual winning percentage of 0.594.  That’s pretty significant, but it’s not the largest disparity. That title goes to Billy Kilmer, who had a terrible record with the Saints but a very good with the Redskins.  He had an actual career winning percentage of just 0.539, but weighted for games that came later, it was 0.632, an increase of  0.092.

The 179 quarterbacks who started at least 50 games (from 1950 to 2016) are listed below. Smith ranks as the 5th biggest “late bloomer” on the list.

RkPlayerStartsWinsWin%Adj Win%Diff
1Billy Kilmer11461.50.5390.6320.092
2Earl Morrall10264.50.6320.7190.087
3Don Meredith83490.5900.6770.087
4Steve DeBerg14053.50.3820.4630.081
5Fran Tarkenton2391270.5310.6080.077
6Alex Smith113982.50.5940.6690.075
7Steve Young143940.6570.7330.075
8Jake Plummer136690.5070.5820.075
9Tom Flores68330.4850.5590.074
10Tony Banks78350.4490.5170.068
11Tim Couch59220.3730.4370.064
12Bill Nelsen7441.50.5610.6230.062
13Jim Plunkett144720.5000.5610.061
14Dan Pastorini117560.4790.5350.057
15Bill Munson6629.50.4470.5020.055
16Cam Newton9251.50.5600.6150.055
17Peyton Manning2651860.7020.7560.055
18Gus Frerotte9345.50.4890.5430.053
19Tobin Rote116500.4310.4840.053
20Bob Berry5221.50.4130.4650.052
21Bubby Brister75370.4930.5450.052
22Lynn Dickey11146.50.4190.4660.047
23Joe Montana1641170.7130.7530.040
24Jim Zorn106440.4150.4530.038
25Phil Simms159950.5970.6340.037
26Warren Moon2031020.5020.5390.037
27Joe Theismann124770.6210.6570.036
28Chris Miller92340.3700.4050.036
29Matthew Stafford109510.4680.5030.035
30Jim Kelly1601010.6310.6640.032
31Richard Todd10848.50.4490.4800.031
32Rodney Peete87450.5170.5470.030
33Bob Griese15193.50.6190.6490.030
34Y.A. Tittle13380.50.6050.6330.028
35Jeff George124460.3710.3990.028
36Sam Bradford7832.50.4170.4440.028
37Ryan Fitzpatrick11646.50.4010.4280.027
38Brian Griese83450.5420.5690.027
39Jeff Garcia116580.5000.5270.027
40Matt Schaub92470.5110.5370.026
41Dan Fouts17186.50.5060.5300.024
42Billy Wade85410.4820.5050.023
43Randall Cunningham13582.50.6110.6340.023
44Sonny Jurgensen14772.50.4930.5150.022
45Trent Dilfer113580.5130.5350.022
46Lamar McHan70250.3570.3780.021
47Aaron Rodgers135900.6670.6870.020
48Norm Snead15955.50.3490.3690.020
49Vinny Testaverde21490.50.4230.4430.020
50Mike Pagel5417.50.3240.3420.018
51Rich Gannon132760.5760.5930.018
52Carson Palmer17489.50.5140.5320.017
53Tommy Kramer110540.4910.5080.017
54Frank Ryan8758.50.6720.6880.016
55Joey Harrington76260.3420.3580.016
56Terry Bradshaw1581070.6770.6920.015
57John Brodie158780.4940.5080.014
58Ryan Tannehill77370.4810.4950.014
59John Elway231148.50.6430.6540.011
60Tom Brady2351830.7790.7890.010
61Trent Green113560.4960.5050.009
62Babe Parilli10152.50.5200.5290.009
63David Carr79230.2910.2980.007
64Johnny Unitas1851200.6490.6540.005
65Troy Aikman165940.5700.5750.005
66Mike Phipps71390.5490.5540.004
67Charlie Conerly8957.50.6460.6500.004
68Jim McMahon97670.6910.6940.003
69Bart Starr157970.6180.6200.002
70Drew Brees2321310.5650.564-0.001
71Chris Chandler152670.4410.440-0.001
72Cotton Davidson5319.50.3680.365-0.003
73Bobby Douglass5316.50.3110.307-0.004
74Don Majkowski5726.50.4650.459-0.006
75Kordell Stewart82480.5850.579-0.006
76Jake Delhomme96560.5830.576-0.007
77Brian Sipe112570.5090.502-0.007
78Steve McNair153910.5950.587-0.007
79Jeff Blake100390.3900.382-0.008
80Drew Bledsoe193980.5080.498-0.010
81Tony Romo127780.6140.604-0.010
82Otto Graham7157.50.8100.799-0.011
83Roger Staubach114850.7460.734-0.012
84Vince Young50310.6200.608-0.012
85Russell Wilson8056.50.7060.694-0.012
86Andy Dalton93570.6130.600-0.013
87Steve Bartkowski127590.4650.451-0.014
88Craig Morton14481.50.5660.552-0.014
89Matt Hasselbeck160850.5310.516-0.015
90Eli Manning1991080.5430.527-0.015
91Brett Favre2981860.6240.608-0.016
92Chad Pennington81440.5430.527-0.016
93Dave Brown60260.4330.417-0.016
94David Woodley5334.50.6510.635-0.016
95Steve Beuerlein102470.4610.444-0.016
96Byron Leftwich50240.4800.463-0.017
97Jason Campbell79320.4050.388-0.017
98Bobby Layne132820.6210.604-0.017
99Charley Johnson124630.5080.490-0.018
100Doug Williams8138.50.4750.458-0.018
101Len Dawson159980.6160.599-0.018
102Charlie Batch55250.4550.436-0.018
103Jeff Hostetler83510.6140.595-0.020
104Scott Mitchell71320.4510.431-0.020
105Ben Roethlisberger1831230.6720.653-0.020
106Jay Cutler139680.4890.468-0.021
107Ken Anderson172910.5290.507-0.022
108Mark Malone53230.4340.411-0.023
109Neil O'Donnell100550.5500.526-0.024
110Archie Manning13936.50.2630.238-0.024
111Neil Lomax101480.4750.451-0.025
112Frank Tripucka5217.50.3370.311-0.026
113Tony Eason51280.5490.523-0.026
114Dan Marino2401470.6130.587-0.026
115David Garrard76390.5130.487-0.026
116Gary Danielson6028.50.4750.447-0.028
117John Hadl16686.50.5210.493-0.028
118Steve Grogan135750.5560.527-0.029
119Rick Mirer68240.3530.323-0.030
120Elvis Grbac70400.5710.541-0.031
121Andrew Luck70430.6140.581-0.033
122Dave Krieg175980.5600.526-0.034
123Norm Van Brocklin101630.6240.588-0.035
124Mark Brunell151780.5170.480-0.037
125Donovan McNabb16198.50.6120.575-0.037
126Joe Ferguson171790.4620.425-0.037
127Josh Freeman61250.4100.371-0.039
128Stan Humphries81500.6170.577-0.040
129Brad Johnson125720.5760.535-0.041
130Jim Hart18089.50.4970.456-0.041
131Jon Kitna124500.4030.361-0.042
132Ed Brown9655.50.5780.536-0.042
133Matt Ryan142850.5990.556-0.042
134Kerry Collins180810.4500.408-0.042
135Eddie LeBaron8529.50.3470.305-0.043
136Boomer Esiason173800.4620.419-0.043
137George Blanda10453.50.5140.471-0.043
138Joe Flacco138830.6010.558-0.043
139Matt Cassel80360.4500.406-0.044
140Erik Kramer67310.4630.418-0.044
141Jim Everett153640.4180.372-0.046
142Ken O'Brien11050.50.4590.413-0.046
143Michael Vick11361.50.5440.498-0.047
144Bobby Hebert100560.5600.513-0.047
145Ron Jaworski14373.50.5140.467-0.047
146Joe Namath129640.4960.448-0.049
147Bert Jones96470.4900.441-0.049
148Kurt Warner116670.5780.527-0.050
149Mark Sanchez72370.5140.463-0.051
150Jim Harbaugh140660.4710.420-0.051
151Jay Schroeder99610.6160.565-0.051
152Wade Wilson69360.5220.469-0.053
153Bob Avellini50230.4600.405-0.055
154Mark Rypien78470.6030.547-0.055
155Danny White92620.6740.619-0.055
156Kyle Orton82420.5120.457-0.056
157Roman Gabriel15789.50.5700.513-0.058
158Daryle Lamonica88690.7840.726-0.058
159Bill Kenney77340.4420.383-0.059
160Eric Hipple57280.4910.430-0.061
161Ken Stabler14696.50.6610.594-0.067
162Mike Tomczak73420.5750.508-0.067
163Jay Fiedler60370.6170.548-0.069
164Bernie Kosar10853.50.4950.425-0.070
165Doug Flutie66380.5760.505-0.071
166Greg Landry9845.50.4640.393-0.071
167Josh McCown60180.3000.228-0.072
168Aaron Brooks90380.4220.350-0.072
169Jack Kemp10566.50.6330.561-0.073
170Philip Rivers176970.5510.472-0.079
171Milt Plum103590.5730.492-0.081
172Daunte Culpepper100410.4100.328-0.082
173Chad Henne53180.3400.255-0.085
174Marc Wilson60320.5330.446-0.087
175Pat Haden5535.50.6450.556-0.090
176Vince Ferragamo53270.5090.398-0.111
177Mike Livingston7531.50.4200.305-0.115
178Colin Kaepernick58280.4830.352-0.130
179Marc Bulger95410.4320.289-0.142

The man who replaced Smith in San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick, ranks 2nd from the bottom ahead of only Marc Bulger. The former Rams star began his career with a 28-11 record, 17 games over .500, but went 13-43 — 30 games under 5.00 — the rest of his career.

  1. Includes 3-0 starts in 2017. All other player stats are through 2016. []
  • Interesting to see Tim Couch so high on the list. Probably a product for how poorly he started (4-17 in his first 2 seasons). I’ve always thought that Cleveland gave up on him rather quickly. He bailed the Browns out late a bunch and made the 2001 and 2002 Browns some of the most exciting teams to watch. He got hurt in Week 17 before the 2002 playoffs, Kelly Holcomb played well in relief, and then for reasons I don’t remember, the Browns go with Holcomb as the starter in 2003. It seemed to destroy Couch’s confidence. I don’t think he could’ve been great, but he certainly looked like he was turning the corner when they yanked the rug out from underneath him.

    • Richie

      A lot of surprises (to me). Also, Tony Banks and Peyton Manning. I’m surprised with Manning, because aside from his rookie year, he pretty much always won 10+ games. I guess that 6-10 record in his fourth season really weighed him down.

      • With Manning too, he was only 0.500 after 4 years because of his 3-13 debut season and that 6-10 season you mentioned. After 2003, he only won fewer than 12 games one time. When you won as often as Peyton did, 10-6 is a bad season comparatively.

        • Yeah, that makes sense. Plus his record never fell off at all, even when his ANY/A did.

      • Funny thing about Manning is he averaged 11.2 wins per 16 starts, but he beat that winning percentage each of his last four years!

        As for Banks, yeah I am surprised too. I didn’t catch him on this post last week, but:


        He won just under 1/3 of his games with the Rams, but won 3/5 of his games with all other teams. I would have lost that bar bet: Banks had a winning record in each of his last four seasons, with three different teams.

        • Richie

          A little bit of that for Banks was going 5-3 on that crazy 2000 Ravens team that was winning when the team wasn’t scoring touchdowns. It was his worst ANY/A (4.17) year of his career.

          Looking at those games in 2000 for him:
          – Beat Pittsburgh 16-0
          – Beat Jacksonville 39-36, throwing 5 TD’s! Hard to believe Baltimore gave up 36 points that year. FP here Jimmy Smith had 291 receiving yards and 3 TD!
          – Lost to Miami 19-6. (I didn’t realize the Dolphins had ever beaten the Ravens. sigh..)
          – Beat Cincinnati 37-0, Banks threw 2 TDs.
          – Beat Cleveland 12-0 on 4 field goals. Banks had a 54.7 passer rating.
          – Beat Jacksonville 15-10 in the rematch. Baltimore kicked 5 field goals.

          Then they lost to Washington and Tennessee without scoring a TD in either game.

    • Richie

      I don’t really remember how Couch’s career ended. Suddenly he just wasn’t around any more. It’s weird to see that he apparently never got a second contract. He played 5 years in Cleveland, then done. He only played about 8 games in 2003, and statistically it was either his best or second-best season. Interesting that he didn’t get another chance after that. Yesterday Chase was pointing out how high pedigree guys get more opportunity to prove themselves. Maybe Couch just decided on his own that he didn’t want to play any more?

      • If I recall, he Browns had a really messy divorce for some reason. He actually signed with the Packers in the 2004 preseason on a one-year deal to be Favre’s backup and (shockingly) potentially replace Favre someday. But he was horrible in the preseason and his reputation as being a “problem” in Cleveland made him really unpopular with Packers fans for some reason. I was at a preseason game were he got booed off the field for being bad in the 3rd quarter of a preseason game. It was surreal. He was cut in the final round of cuts and the Packers kept Doug Pederson instead. I’m not sure what his issue in Cleveland was. Why so much bickering when they had just gone to the playoffs?

      • I think he also was hurt pretty badly. I don’t think his shoulder ever recovered. I don’t know how much of that was due to the Browns medical staff, bad luck, bad timing, or just Couch.

    • Yeah, Couch was 4-18 through 22 starts, then 18-19 the rest of his career! That’s not too bad. I agree that Holcomb played a part, and then was great in the playoff game against the Steelers, starting the controversy. It had, at the time, a bit of a Flutie/Rob Johnson element to it, with the highly paid/pedigreed guy vs. the guy nobody believed in. At least, that’s how I remember it.

    • Mark Growcott

      Couch certainly had a roller coaster like ride in 2002 experiencing the highs and lows. I don’t know if Couch was injured going into the 2002 season or not but despite Couch going 7-9 the previous season, an unproven Holcomb became the starter for the opening 2 games and then Couch took over after that and as we know went 8-6 leading the Browns to the Playoffs. In the Week 5 game that season against the Ravens he got concussed and was booed and jeered by the home town crowd as he left the field and then unfortunately in the final game against the Falcons broke his leg ending his season.
      Holcomb played well in that Playoff loss to the Steelers and as a result became the starter the following season but he never secured the position and the 2 split starts throughout the 2003 season and then Couch was cut.

      Holcomb was never that good and it did seem that the Browns were prepared to go with anyone at QB as long as he was not named Couch. A season later Holcomb was gone anyway and the Browns put their faith in Jeff Garcia at QB which was none too successful either.

      Bruce Arians was one who held Couch in high regard and if not for his banged up shoulder may have extended his career.

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  • Of the 179 QBs, Colin Kaepernick ends up being second worst, all-time, with his differential between winning pct and adjusted winning pct. As it is, his winning pct was an anemic 0.432.

    Is it any wonder why Kaepernick is an NFL washout? Who would hire him after his stupidity?