How Would YOU Rank the Best QBs in Oregon History?

Joshua Whitted Editorials 61 Comments

Marcus Mariota is obviously the best Oregon Ducks quarterback of all time. He’s the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner, he put together an unmatched stat line over three seasons, and he delivered some of the most iconic performances in team history.

But how do the rest of the Oregon quarterbacks stack up in comparison to the GOAT? Ducks Wire recently took a shot at ranking the nine best quarterbacks in Oregon history, and its list opens the door for plenty of discussion.

There’s never a “right” or “wrong” way to rank players in lists like these; that’s part of the fun. However, as subjective as this power ranking is, there are certainly players who have strong arguments to be ranked either higher or lower based on their resumes and bodies of work.

Kevin Cline

Mariota is the undisputed best quarterback in Oregon history.

The most glaring omission from Ducks Wire’s ranking is Darron Thomas. All the two-year starter did during his time in Eugene was lead the Ducks to a 23-3 record (he was inactive for one of Oregon’s victories in 2011), account for more than 70 touchdowns, and lead Oregon to its first Rose Bowl win since 1917. Thomas piloted one of the greatest offenses in the history of the sport, and although he wasn’t the most notable superstar on the field, he certainly was a big part of the unit’s success. Norm Van Brocklin and Norv Turner are NFL legends (and Van Brocklin was no slouch in college, either), but Thomas had more individual and team success than both of them in college. Shouldn’t he be on the list, and quite frankly, rank highly on it?

Additionally, a case can be made for Dennis Dixon to be ranked as high as No. 2, or as low as No. 6, depending on one’s criteria. On the one hand, Dixon’s best season in 2007 was so exceptional that he very well might have won the Heisman Trophy had he not gotten injured late in the year. That singular season was arguably more impressive than any of Joey Harrington’s or Justin Herbert’s. But factoring in longevity and body of work, it’s hard to justify ranking Dixon ahead of Herbert, Harrington, or even Dan Fouts and Akili Smith. So, is he in the right spot at No. 4?

What is your reaction to this ranking of Oregon quarterbacks? What criteria would you use to create a list of your own, and how would your rankings be different?

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Amazing Moments Photography

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Terrific QB Article….

My friend over at Duck Sports Authority, Dale Newton, wrote a superb article with much more information about Anthony Brown than most of us have already read. I highly recommend it, as the doubters about Brown might be impressed with the new information contained in the article. It is well written and wonderfully researched!

Santa Rosa Duck

Thank you Charles for the excellent article on Anthony Brown. Best thing I have read about our DUCKS for months (except your articles of course). Dale Newton is a super guy and I always enjoyed “The Duck Stops Here”.

Thank you Charles for the link to a very interesting article. His improvement over his playing time to date is very good and argues that he has additional upside.

2020 with 23 pass attempts? I think Alan Turing would opine that this is insufficient data? [No one was treated worse by his government than was Alan Turing. A non-combatant war hero who was thrown into the rubbish bin post-victory.]

Anthony will get a fresh start after the historically COVID-crazy 2020 season. Working with Moorhead and many the practice rep with his teammates should lead to significant improvement.

The author correctly noted that sans Dillon, a better RB than the Ducks have on the roster, he has never been surrounded by a group of quality athletes like his teammates at Oregon. Accordingly, perhaps he deserves a pass on never having started against and winning vs a top 25 team.

As to keeping your wits when playing in front of a huge crowd cheering against you? Columbus will be one heck of a test. He will come into the game with far more starting experience than the QB who starts for Ohio State.

Man, I wish this game was kicking off at 4:30 Pacific instead of 9 AM.

Best of luck to you AB and please stay healthy.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

And Brown did not take the easy way in his studies as he has graduated in economics? Whew!

KUDOS Anthony.

Was anyone else on board baffled by Statistics?

Love the analysis by Mr. Newton. I particularly like his take on kids who have gone to all the camps and had all the coaching. This also permeates our kicking game. We need players who have been in clutch situations when one touch is so critical. What we need is kids who have played the games, made the decisions and problem solved situations without an adult dictating every move. I have seen this too many times in modern athlete development.

Shough melted in these situations, and our highly touted kickers have too, in the past.

What was also telling was his take on Browns development and age. The program is in good hands with Brown. The only player who will upset this dynamic is the outlier kid who just has it at an early age. We may have one on the bench, but may not see it until next season.

Many fans don’t like soccer, but there is a story about Messi, and his development which may be prescient. The coaches, at the time of his early development, saw something in his play where they said just let him keep playing, and making mistakes. The kid has potential to be one of the greats if we give him experience. Do we have that kid?

DanLduck

Great article. Txs for sharing.

CaptainTrips

What does “best” mean? Are we using a player’s professional career to evaluate who is best? Their college career prior to or after Oregon? Or just their time with the Ducks?

Here’s my approach:

A. I’m using only their time at Oregon to evaluate who is “best,” with no minimum games played requirement.
B. I’m only ranking players I watched enough to form a solid opinion. Unfortunately, that eliminates a lot of the phenomenal old timers who are rightly featured in other comments and the article in question.
C. My ranking is based on individual performance/abilities/talent/vision/x-factor, rather than team success (though it’s obviously difficult to separate the two).

Side note: as you’ll see, I like quarterbacks who can throw an accurate deep ball, and that preference hurts the ranking of some of our greats, which it should, IMO.

All right, here’s my top seven, with explanation following:

  1. Vernon Adams, Jr.
  2. Joey Harrington
  3. Marcus Mariota
  4. Dennis Dixon
  5. Jeremiah Masoli
  6. Darron Thomas
  7. Justin Herbert

Now, I’ll address what I anticipate to be the most controversial of my choices here, namely: the positions of Adams, Mariota, and Herbert.

Vernon Adams, Jr. is my number one and it’s not really close. When healthy, he never lost a game for us, and he won several that I wouldn’t trust anyone else on this list to win. He carried the entire 2015 team on his back and kept Mark Helfrich employed for a year longer than he would have otherwise. Scott Frost probably has Adams to thank for making him look like a serviceable offensive mind by constantly bailing out the offense that year. Just watch the 2016 Alamo Bowl to see the unstoppable Oregon Ducks with Adams vs. the pathetic Oregon Ducks without him (of course, we can’t blame Frost for that game since he’d already left for Central Florida). I don’t think any other player on this list could shoulder the fortunes of the team like Adams did several times that season (see also, the Arizona State game).

That’s to say nothing of his (1) elite deep-ball arm talent, (2) remarkable vision (even matched against much taller quarterbacks), (3) wizard-level pocket mobility, and (4) unmatched ability to improvise. The first three traits would land him in the top three of this list, but his improvisation is what creates the gap between Adams and the rest of the field (see again, the Arizona State game or his Civil War performance). Others on this list showed flashes of improvisation, Mariota’s left-handed flip against Michigan State comes to mind, but none did it as regularly as Adams did. There has never been another Oregon quarterback who could improvise like Adams, and I dare say he is in rarefied company in all of college football.

Marcus Mariota and Justin Herbert were both plagued by their inability to stretch the field. Neither were consistently accurate on deep throws. And Herbert especially suffered from poor offensive coaching. But so did Adams, and Herbert failed to transcend his coaching the way Adams did on nearly every play.

The death knell for Herbert is really that I can’t think of a single game where I would have rather had him than any of the other quarterbacks on this list. For his entire career, he put in a performance that I likened to a poor-man’s Colin Kaepernick. In other words, good power and mediocre accuracy on short to medium throws, but flat trajectory with almost no touch. And a maddening inability to throw an accurate deep pass. Herbert even compares unfavorably to Kaepernick when it comes to athleticism. Darron Thomas and Dennis Dixon had similar styles, but both were superior vertical passers. It remains to be seen what he does during the rest of his pro career (and I’m pretty high on his pro career), but in his time at Oregon, Herbert was just serviceable enough to make this list.

Mariota is a tougher case, but had similar problems. He never mastered the deep ball (even after turning pro), and struggled to throw touch passes consistently, but he was probably the best possible iteration of an accurate and athletic technician. It was his statistics that won him the Heisman, which makes sense because East-Coast folks seem to never catch our games. But had they watched more of him, the judges may have struggled to reconcile his otherworldly statistics with his on-field abilities. Mariota had the benefit of the Chip Kelly offense when it was still a novelty and he ran it to perfection, but he added very little beyond what the offense was designed to do. While he only lost five times at Oregon, you really saw his limitations in those games. If the game plan failed and the coaches didn’t make the correct adjustments, Mariota was helpless to bail them out, which was something Adams did on a regular basis.

Anyway, happy to discuss.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Captain…you are new here, and considering your superb writing skills and thought process–I would sure love to see you post often. Welcome!

I so agree about Vernon Adams, as his ASU miracle was there for Herbert to duplicate–but he could not. So much of what you have written has reasoning I cannot disagree with, but makes me wince. Really good read, and wonderful ponder-points for us to consider.

Great stuff–thanks.

CaptainTrips

Thank you for the warm welcome!

Duck Phan Phil

Hey Josh, great PP (Ponder Point).

Here’s my PP: where’s the Fouts love? NFL Hall of Famer, 15 yr NFL career, led the NFL in passing yards four straight years, six time pro bowler, NFL offensive POY 1982. Granted he wasn’t quite all that in college, but if you adopt the standard of NFL success, he’s the clear #1 on this list.

DanLduck

Best in college. Pro career should not reflect on best at Oregon. Case in point, Capt. Comeback, Joey H. was thrilling to watch in college.
at Detroit, not so much.

Duckdude

Fouts, Van Brocklin, Mariota, Herbert, Harrington, Shaw, Akili Smith, Bob Berry.

J Duck

Marcus Mariota
Joey Harrington
Justin Herbert
Dennis Dixon
Darrin Thomas
Chris Miller
Dan Fouts
Vernon Adams
Akili Smith
Bill Musgrave
Norm Van Brocklin

SeattleDuck

Unrelated topic but HUGE news for men’s basketball:

Dior Johnson, nation’s No. 3 overall prospect and No. 1 point guard, commits to Oregon Ducks

247Sports five-star point guard Dior Johnson, the nation’s No. 3 overall prospect and No. 1 point guard in the class of 2022, is a special talent.

Compared to NBA stars Kyrie Irving and De’Aaron Fox, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound floor general, out of Centennial High School (Corona, California), is viewed as a sure-fire NBA lottery pick and a potential budding superstar.

Coach Altman and coach Crutchfield are killing it!

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

So he would be coming to Oregon in fall of 2022, just as a ton of guards at Oregon depart. This is just amazing…some great information right here.

And thanks Seattle, and to ALL that bring in other news as it is always welcome.

Haywarduck

This could also be a good indicator on how Oregon will be able to play the Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) situation playing out now with the NCAA. Maybe Oregon’s connection to Nike is going to be an even bigger boon for recruiting.

Can you imagine having Nike as an asset to leverage your NIL as a student athlete. Did you do the math on that one JTT?

Ducked

That’s a huge get for Oregon. Surprised he passed up a $1.2 mil contract to play for a year in Australia, and equally surprised that USC and UCLA weren’t in his top four, especially considering how strong they both finished last season.

Johnson is expected to be a one and done and the Ducks haven’t fared particularly well going that route. Their best players seem to be the guys who stick around for a while. Louis King was solid, but he needed to stay for at least another year, or two, before testing the NBA waters.

Dillon Brooks and Payton Pritchard were wise to pursue lengthy college careers and it has paid off very well for them.

Troy Brown was a Duck for a year, and with the Bulls this year he only played 13 minutes a game and shot under 40 percent. For a 15th overall pick those are pedestrian numbers. And Bol Bol only made it through a partial first year before an injury took him out. He looks woefully unprepared for the physicality of the NBA ….. and how many minutes can he expect playing behind Jokic?

I would love to see Johnson thrive under Altman……and decide to stay a little longer.

What a ridiculous notion.

Jon Joseph

Spot on take. But even for 1 season how do you turn down this kind of talent?

My guess? Coming soon will be the lawsuit against the NFL’s rule that a player has to have 3 season’s in college before turning pro.

Drake

College QB’s come and go. A few leave lasting impressions. With the cast of players that we currently have, what past Oregon QB’s would you want starting?

I suppose you start with the guy that has a building named after him, and go from there. But, supporting teammates are a huge component that determines the success of any team. Mariota, Harrington, Herbert, etc…who gets the starting nod in that QB room.

We have had many great QB’s over the years. I really try not to say one is significantly better than the others, just because of what teammates each had to work with. Chris Miller is one of my favorites…he could scramble for his life and still get the ball out accurately.

Darren Perkins

Gotta have Miller and Musgrave on the list as they were the building blocks during the Rich Brooks 80’s era in which the Ducks went from considering joining the WAC to reaching the Rose Bowl.

Jon Joseph

If I am not mistaken, and I probably am, I believe I watched Musgrave play, while attending the game in person, in the Shoe against Ohio State decades ago? It was the year the Ryder Cup was played at Muirfield in Dublin, Ohio, with the Europeans winning on US soil.

The Ducks lost but put up a great fight in Columbus.

Darren Perkins

Yup, 1987 his second ever start after beating Colorado the week before. Ohio State was ranked #5 at the time, but finished 6-4-1 to end the tenure of Earle Bruce. Who of course beat us in the 1990 Freedom Bowl with Colorado State in Musgrave’s final game. Ouch. And I was there.

I was at the Freedom Bowl as well–you had to go because you never knew (at that time) when you might qualify for a bowl again at Oregon. (What a frustrating ending!)

Yup, that was really the pinnacle of Oregon football after the Rose bowl in the 50’s. No more Musgrave! We were doomed. Odds were we weren’t going to have a good qb after his departure. At least not in the same way we had a great qb after Miller left.

And don’t tell anybody, but my dad also scored tix to the Rose Bowl that year, so I watched the Fuskies kill Iowa. But of course I was wearing my bright green Duck shirt!

Jon Joseph

Thanks Darren.

UtahDuck

I am not old enough to remember much past the late 90’s so here is my list starting ~1998 onward.

  1. Mariota
  2. Harrington
  3. Herbert
  4. Smith
  5. Adams
  6. Dixon
  7. Thomas
  8. Masoli
  9. Clemens
  10. Shough

Did not rank Fife and Feeley. I don’t really remember them very well to rank them.

Off all our starting QB’s Adams is probably the one I wish I could have seen more on the field he really carried that 2015 in the post Mariota Era and he was probably the most exciting QB I’ve ever seen at oregon but at 10 games he played less than every qb except shough.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

I completely agree.

Vernon Adams would have taken us to the Championship IMHO had he not been injured by a former teammate on a cheap shot. He could see windows to throw to that few QBs ever could, and it is just another example of how injury robbed the player and Oregon of a truly great season.

Adams Great Escape.jpg

The overthrow at Michigan State haunts to this day.

Jon Joseph

Clemons and Adams are great adds. But Shough?

UtahDuck

My list was of all the QB’s that started the majority of their season.(that I could remember hence Fife and Feeley not on the list). If I could distinguish I’d put shough about 12 lines below the rest.

Jon Joseph

Makes sense UD.

Mudslide

I’m old enough to have attended some of the games of all those qb’s. (Yikes!) The list is ubiquitous and not rank-able for me. They all were great in some way that intrigued me….the bombs from Van Brocklin, the speed of MM and DD, the rockets from JH, the field smarts of Turner, the elusiveness of DT, the bravado of Joey H, etc.

Unfortunately, whenever I think about the Duck’s qbs, I come upon a clear but agonizing memory of the play that took down Dixon.

If I had to chose but one who delighted me the most (as opposed to the “best”), it would have to be Dan Fouts. He was a great college and pro player (with my favorite Chargers!), a field general with record breaking performances, and was a great ambassador for the Ducks and the sport in general.

‘Twas a great list to ponder and terrific seeing plays from each of them in my mind’s eye. I think I’ll go to YT today and stroll down qb memory lane! :-)

Jon Joseph

Van Brocklin. Me thinks the stadium and facilities have ‘slightly’ improved since The Dutchman played in Eugene?

Mudslide

Most games were played on Multnomah Field …comment image

PAC teams hated Hayward…with good cause. Yep, a little bit improved since then. :-)

Jon Joseph

Great + thank you.

ptdduck

Fun article, Joshua. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to the question. My list doesn’t proceed the Rich Brook’s era and it’s not based on NFL productivity.

1-Marcus (Heisman, the goat)
2-Harrington (25-3, 3 bowl wins)
3-Herbert (Rose Bowl, elite talent)
4-Musgrave (put Oregon on the right path)
5-A Smith (elite talent on a bad team)
6-Thomas (a winner)

Missed the cut:
Dixon, Clemens, C Miller, D O’Neill

ptdduck

*precede

Haywarduck

Bill Musgrave, way underrated, much like Brooks. What he did as a qb and as a Duck has been lost on too many Duck Fans.

4 year starter and took the team from oblivion to a bowl team. 3 year team captain, academic All-American. He also played hurt, had huge wins, and the team was never out of a game when Musgrave was on the field. The magic of Musgrave had to be seen to be believed.

If you think Marcus is the best, Marcus is the only one who put up better numbers than Musgrave.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Amen, as said below–we do not begin the path that Oregon has been on without Musgrave.

Now I just with that he (at Cal as OC) and his nephew (at OSU as a TE) would not beat us!

DanLduck

Musgrave had a great career as backup and clipboard holder at SF 49’s too. Behind two if NFL’s greats.
Now he’s Cal’s OC.
We gotta woop them this year!

Jon Joseph

CAL coaching staff; Eugene South?

Billsie

I would have to replace Norval Turner with Bill Musgrave. Neither had a lot of talent surrounding them, but those Norval Turner years were painful. Musgrave made the most of his opportunity. I would also rank Reggie Ogburn ahead of Turner.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

I completely agree, as Musgrave turned the fortunes around at Oregon and he may have had the softest arm ever, for a starting Oregon QB.

And Billsie, I see you are new and I hope you share your opinions with us often. Welcome!

Man, some great coaches have come out of Oregon. Turner, John McKay, John Robinson + I know I am missing a few, at least.

Haywarduck

Casanova, Robinson and McKay were at Oregon at the same time. SC took McKay and then McKay took Robinson, Oregon made sc football. There was another great coach, won the super bowl, hall of fame, on that team anyone, anyone?

Jon Joseph

Stymied. Who was it?

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Jerry Frei‘s staff had John Robinson, Norm Chapman, Bruce Snyder, (Played and coached at Oregon and went on eventually to ASU) and George Seifert.

A great article about coaching staffs at Oregon right here

Jerry Frei Staff with Bruce Snyder_Oregon Library Special Collection.jpg

Thanks Charles. Great stuff!

Haywarduck

John Madden, came to Oregon with Robinson. Didn’t stay too long, but was a Duck.

criticalduck

Dixon at the helm of Kelly’s first D-1 OC job was a great time. That UA game was SO devastating! Dixon would have been Oregon’s first Heisman. I agree with the rankings. I still ponder what would have happened had Kelly stayed?

Jon Joseph

How about the game at Michigan where the Wolverines D couldn’t find the ball, let alone Dennis.

Amazing that the MI team that season lost to App St and the Ducks and ended the season by beating UF and Tim Tebow in the bowl game.

Jon Joseph

Thanks Joshua.

Marcus, Fouts, Van Brocklin are this old guy’s top 3. Herbert, if his light wasn’t hidden under a bushel by his coaches, would likely be higher on my list.

Jon Joseph

Loved this: ‘The Supreme Court didn’t just shut out the NCAA, it ran up the score.’ Andy Staples, The Athletic

criticalduck

The NCAA was posterized by SCOTUS ala Jordan on the rest of the NBA…

Jon Joseph

I wonder? What are Oregon’s share of the legal fees wasted by the NCAA during the last decade?

The NCAA is now reduced to 2 basic functions: eligibility and enforcement.

Eligibility – Because of racism on the UGA campus, Justin Fields does not have to sit out a year. His sister attends UGA on an athletic scholarship.

Meanwhile another transfer from UGA, Jacob Eason, has to sit for a year before starting for UW.

This type of inconsistent ruling is why we know have the ‘1 free transfer’ rule.

Enforcement – 2 decades of academic fraud at UNC, no problem. Why? Because everyone and not just athletes, were cheating.

Oregon, paying a runner to help with recruiting. The shame!

We all know this practice isn’t rampant in CFB and CBB, right? Ducks dinged by NCAA in record time.

Funny how this happens to Pac-12 teams that threaten the CFB hegemony of the southeast.

It is more than time for P5/G5 basketball and football to lose the loser NCAA. Why help contribute to an extra layer of dysfunctional ‘management?’

BTW, on July 1, players in Bama + Florida among other states, can receive NIL benefits.

I wonder how long the 5 star DL guy from Georgia who recently ‘committed’ to USC will stay ‘committed?’

I’m pretty sure that Billy Bob’s Bar-B-Q in Tuscaloosa, will want this recruit to front for its all you can eat pork and beef ribs?

DanLduck

Same with JT

Jon Joseph

Will Billy Bob, or equivalent, be invited to JT’s final visit? Or perhaps, dinner at Billy Bob’s?