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Fran Tarkenton, Warren Moon, and Career Turnarounds

Getting 62 wins is much easier the second time around

Getting 62 wins is much easier the second time around

A couple of days ago, I looked at the quarterbacks with the best records before ultimately finishing their careers with losing records. Today, the reverse, and we start with Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, who has a fascinating career split.

Tarkenton went 124-109-6 in his 18-year career with the Vikings and Giants. His first 62 wins took him a long time; at age 32, he was 62-86-4 after a week 6 loss to the Bears in 1972. At 24 games under .500 and with a career 0.421 winning percentage, Tarkenton was a five-time Pro Bowler with little to show for it and zero career playoff appearances.

But for the rest of his career, he won another 62 games, and he did so much quicker, going 62-23-2. That’s 41 games over .500 and a 0.724 winning percentage. That’s extremely impressive, of course, enough to make Tarkenton have a career 0.531 winning percentage. And, among quarterbacks who finished their career at .500 or better, Tarkenton is the only quarterback to ever be 24 games below .500 at any point in his career.

Although one could argue that Warren Moon had an even more remarkable career turnaround. I’ve written before about the terrible Oilers franchise that Moon joined in the mid-’80s. After 43 games, Moon had a 10-33 record. While it took Tarkenton 152 games to get to 24 games below .500, Moon was one shy of that mark in over 100 fewer games! At that point, the odds of Moon — then 30 years old — finishing his career with a winning record would have been seen as astronomically low. Yet he did just that, going 92-68 over the remainder of his career.

The table below shows all quarterbacks1 who finished with a 0.500 or better career record but at one point in their career were more than five games below 0.500. Let’s use Jake Plummer as an example. For his career, he went 69-67, for a 0.507 career winning percentage. That means, at his worst, he was 22 games below 0.500, thanks to a 30-52 record (0.366) winning percentage). For the rest of his career, though, he went 39-15, for a 0.722 winning percentage for the remainder of his career. In his case, these splits can be used in a non-arbitrary way, too: they represent Plummer’s career records with the Cardinals (30-52) and Broncos (39-15).

QuarterbackCar WCar LCar TCar Win%Best +/-RecWin %ROC RecROC Win %
Fran Tarkenton12410960.531-2462-86-40.42162-23-20.724
Warren Moon10210100.502-2310-330.23392-680.575
Jake Plummer696700.507-2230-520.36639-150.722
Dan Fouts868410.506-2114-35-10.29072-490.595
Jim Plunkett727200.500-2029-490.37243-230.652
Billy Kilmer615210.539-1811-290.27550-23-10.682
Troy Aikman947100.570-153-180.14391-530.632
Steve Young944900.657-143-170.15091-320.740
Carson Palmer837600.522-1457-710.44526-50.839
Bart Starr945760.618-133-16-10.17591-41-50.682
Alex Smith685210.566-1318-310.36750-21-10.701
Jeff Garcia585800.500-124-160.20054-420.563
Bob Griese925630.619-1110-21-20.33382-35-10.699
Trent Dilfer585500.513-118-190.29650-360.581
Peyton Manning1867900.702-105-150.250181-640.739
Cam Newton453210.583-109-190.32136-13-10.730
Babe Parilli494670.515-105-150.25044-31-70.579
Jim Kelly1015900.631-94-130.23597-460.678
Bill Nelsen403130.561-97-16-20.32033-15-10.684
Drew Brees1249200.574-811-190.367113-730.608
John Hadl827690.518-81-90.10081-67-90.545
Don Meredith483340.588-89-17-20.35739-16-20.702
Matt Schaub474500.511-84-120.25043-330.566
Jay Cutler676700.500-722-290.43145-380.542
Phil Simms956400.597-711-180.37984-460.646
Y.A. Tittle785250.596-71-80.11177-44-50.631
Mark Brunell787300.517-77-140.33371-590.546
Rodney Peete454200.517-715-220.40530-200.600
Eli Manning978600.530-60-60.00097-800.548
Steve Grogan756000.556-61-70.12574-530.583
Drew Bledsoe989500.508-61-70.12597-880.524
Brian Griese453800.542-64-100.28641-280.594
Brian Sipe575500.509-62-80.20055-470.539
Gary Cuozzo211900.525-64-100.28617-90.654

A trio of Hall of Fame quarterbacks were stuck on three wins for a very long time. Both Bart Starr and Steve Young had just 3 wins after his first 20 games, while Troy Aikman was stuck on three after 21 games. And it gets even weirder: each quarterback won exactly 91 more games the rest of their career, with Young losing only 32 more games, Starr losing 41, and Aikman 53. I had never noticed before that all three of them won exactly 94 games in their careers, so you might be able to win some bar bets with that one.

Finally, let’s give Carson Palmer some credit. After a week 7 loss to Seattle during Palmer’s first year with the Cardinals, his career record at that point was 57-71, and he had losing records with each of the Cardinals, Raiders, and Bengals. But since then, he has gone 26-5, and had an MVP-caliber season last year. Albeit one that ended very, very badly.

  1. Well, this includes all quarterback starts starting in 1950. []
  • Quinton

    This list is surprisingly short to me. I would have thought there would have been more guys who had rough first years as starters but then settled in to be winning quarterbacks

  • sacramento gold miners

    Fran Tarkenton’s early record was going to suffer with the expansion Vikings, this was before free agency, and bonus draft choices. Later, as a New York Giant, he beat the Vikings in the 1969 season opener. The Vikings went on to win the NFL championship that season.